The question of French involvement in the American War of Independence frequently becomes entangled in much larger issues that often obscure the reasons France became involved in the first place and what the consequences were for subsequent French history. Overly simple assumptions are commonly asserted about eighteenth-century French foreign policy and Franco-British animosity, on the one hand, and excessively large, often indemonstrable, historical claims are frequently made on the other. Both are too easily accepted by scholars and students, with the result, among other things, that the question of French naval strategy during the war is poorly handled, treated only obliquely as an adjunct to British strategy, and frequently so misunderstood that only a caricature remains. Historians often view France’s chief strategical problem as defined by the nation’s role as “a classical hybrid power,” torn between its Continental aims and its overseas ambitions.2 By accepting the permanent existence and reality of this geopolitical model, they are drawn to conclude that even during the American War of Independence – when for once, in Paul Kennedy’s phrases, the French “resisted the temptation to attack Hanover or to bully the Dutch,” “fought only overseas” and “concentrated their resources upon a naval and colonial war” – they failed to conquer, and managed only to humiliate, their British foe.3 In these analyses, French war aims are never identified, except to say that somehow France failed to achieve defeat of the enemy, as opposed to conquest. Whatever the aims were, however, France in some way was unable to achieve them, accepting the discomfiture of the enemy as a sort of half-measure.4 This is a summary of fairly common views concerning the role of France during the American War of Independence. A second issue involves conclusions generally held about the connection between France’s involvement in the American war and, a few years later, the French Revolution: first, that France was chiefly responsible for the independence of the United States of America; and second, that the war’s burdens led directly to the collapse of the monarchy and the advent of the Revolution.5 The latter can be found even in distinguished and specialized works. The diplomatic historian Jonathan Dull, for example, claims to show how the war “raised dangers from within the monarchy far greater than those which threatened it from without,” but nowhere, however, does he demonstrate that the war brought

about the monarchy’s downfall or even that it led to any internal destabilization of the regime.6 In view of the ubiquity of such a flawed geopolitical model, and also having in mind the propensity of many (especially political economists) to ignore the roles in history of the particular and the idiosyncratic, and to play down the factors of character and circumstance, we should guard against misleading generalizations and reductionism. In the case of France’s involvement in the War of Independence, although France did not in fact threaten the Electorate of Hanover, whose ruler was also the King of England, or any other part of Germany and, far from bullying the Dutch, struggled hard (for very good reasons) to ensure their neutrality, it did not fight only overseas. Further, though this was in fact a naval war and the French were able to apply their resources accordingly, it was never solely a colonial war (as Kennedy would have it), and they were not free to concentrate their naval forces in the American theater. Indeed, it was precisely because France had to retain so much of its naval strength in Europe that its strategy frequently appeared hesitant and ambiguous. Finally, France did not just “settle for” the humiliation of Great Britain in lieu of better goals; in fact, its leaders never intended anything else. Indeed, they explicitly rejected any other plan. The study of French naval strategy may well be an excellent introduction to certain larger issues, for it reveals that although French naval strategy may have appeared uncertain, ambiguous and hesitant, that imprecision is due in part to the character and conduct of senior French naval commanders. One sees, however, that it was also a reflection of the internal weakness of the French political economy and the challenges and difficulties facing French political leaders as those men took the momentous decisions that led France to intervene in the rebellion of the British American colonies and join the latter’s struggle for independence. In the end, at Yorktown in October 1781, the French navy forced the surrender of the only large British field army remaining on American soil. Whether this achievement should be seen as the major cause of the independence of the United States, let alone as having anything to do with the French Revolution, is debatable. To study French naval strategy, then, is to deal rather with the events and campaigns of the war. French strategy in the American war was a product of men whose character and perceptions of the world must be considered in order to understand their strategies, ambiguities and hesitations. Several recent studies of their careers also provide a more complete understanding than heretofore of French foreign and domestic policies that influenced strategy. Chief among the persona is Louis XVI himself, whose recent biographers have seen in him less the dullard of their predecessors than a ruler who was thoughtful, informed and devoted, if neither strong-willed nor determined.7Three of his ministers have also been subjects of new revisionist studies which are especially pertinent. The first is Jacques Necker, whose place or position in French history has been completely altered during the past 30 years. Louis XVI made him director general of finances in 1776, after the only real opponent of the war, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot,

resigned from the Royal Council. A Protestant, commoner and foreigner, Necker was responsible for a conscious policy decision to finance the war through borrowing rather than raising taxes. Historian Robert Harris has shown convincingly that Necker’s conduct throughout the war was a model of fiscal restraint, financial responsibility and prudent management.8