Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence and Interests

Perhaps yesterday’s idealist post should be balanced by a bit of realism. After all, American independence could not have been secured without a healthy respect for the role of power in promoting Jefferson’s aspirations. A few people back in England might have been moved by the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, but most probably shared the view of Samuel Johnson, who in 1775 had written, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

At the same time the Second Continental Congress commissioned Jefferson and four colleagues to draft a declaration of independence, it set about the practical work of seeking an alliance that would make it possible to achieve independence. Fortunately, French and American interests coincided–not because the French monarchy was interested in promoting liberté, fraternité, and egalité but because France and England were, of course, bitter rivals.

The following excerpts from a memorandum of the French Foreign Ministry clearly articulate France’s interest in the American struggle for independence. The memorandum is dated January 13, 1778. Approximately three weeks later, France signed a treaty of alliance with the United States.

The advantages which will result [from American independence] are innumerable; we shall humiliate our natural enemy, a perfidious enemy who never knows how to respect either treaties or the right of nations; we shall divert to our profit one of the principal sources of her opulence; we shall shake her power, and reduce her to her real value; we shall extend our commerce, our shipping, our fisheries; we shall ensure the possession of our islands, and finally, we shall re-establish our reputation, and shall resume amongst the Powers of Europe the place which belongs to us. There would be no end if we wished to detail all these points; it is sufficient to indicate them in order to make their importance felt.

. . .

The independence of the Colonies is so important a matter for France, that no other should weaken it, and France must do her utmost to establish it, even if it should cost her some sacrifices; I mean that France must undertake the war for the maintenance of American independence, even if that war should be in other respect disadvantageous. In order to be convinced of this truth, it is only necessary to picture to ourselves what England will be, when she no longer has America.

[Source: Norman A. Graebner, ed., Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 27-30.]