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Jean Jules Jusserand (1855–1932). With Americans of Past and Present Days. 1916.


III. Washington and the French

SOME more years elapse, and when the curtain rises again on scenes of war, momentous changes have occurred. To the last hour the former officer of the colonial wars, now a man of forty-two, was still expressing the wish “that the dispute had been left to posterity to determine: but the crisis has arrived when we must assert our rights or submit to every imposition that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” It was hard for him to reconcile himself to the fact that the English were really to be the enemy; he long tried to believe that the quarrel was not with England and her King, but only with the ministry and their troops, which he calls the “ministerials.” Writing on the 31st of May, 1775, from Philadelphia, where he was attending the second Continental Congress, to G. W. Fairfax in England, he gave him an account of the clash between the “provincials” of Massachusetts and “the ministerial troops: for we do not, nor can we yet prevail upon ourselves to call them the King’s troops.”

The war was to be, in his eyes, a fratricidal one: “Unhappy it is, though, to reflect that a brother’s sword has been sheathed in a brother’s breast, and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?”

Two weeks later the signer of this letter was appointed, on the proposition of John Adams, of Massachusetts, commander-in-chief of a new body of troops just entering history, and called the “Continental Army.” Braddock’s former aide was to become the leader of a yet unborn nation, in an eight-year conflict with all-powerful Britain, mistress of the coasts, mistress of the seas.

What that conflict was, and what the results have been, all the world knows. There were sad days and bright days; there were Valley Forge and Saratoga. “No man, I believe,” Washington wrote concerning his own fate, “had a greater choice of difficulties.”

The French had ceased by then to inspire Washington with disdain or animosity; he was beginning to render them better justice, but his heart was far as yet from being won. French volunteers had early begun to flock to the American army, some of them as much an encumbrance as a help. “They seem to be genteel, sensible men,” wrote Washington to Congress, in October, 1776, “and I have no doubt of their making good officers as soon as they can learn so much of our language as to make themselves well understood.” One of them, the commander-in-chief learned, was a young enthusiast who had left wife and child to serve the American cause as a volunteer, and without pay, like George Washington himself. He had crossed the ocean, escaping the British cruisers, on a boat called La Victorie, he being called Lafayette. One more encumbrance, audibly muttered the general, who wrote to Benjamin Harrison: “What the designs of Congress respecting this gentleman were, and what line of conduct I am to pursue to comply with their design and his expectation, I know no more than the child unborn, and beg to be instructed.”

“Give me a chance,” pleaded Lafayette, still in Philadelphia; “I do not want to be an honorary soldier.” He came to camp, and it was a case of friendship at first, or at least second, sight, which would need the pen of a Plutarch to be told. In August, Washington had been wondering what to do with the newcomer. On the 1st of November he wrote to Congress: “… Besides, he is sensible, discreet in his manner, has made great proficiency in our language, and from the disposition he discovered in the battle of Brandy-wine possesses a large share of bravery and military ardor.”

Then it was that Washington had a chance to learn what those men really were who had lodged so many bullets in his coat on the occasion of Braddock’s defeat; not at once, but by degrees he came to consider that one peculiar trait in those former enemies made them worthy of his friendship: their aptitude for disinterested enthusiasm for a cherished idea.

Not at once; early prejudices and associations had left on him too deep an imprint to be easily removed. He resisted longer than old Franklin, and with a stiffer pen than that of the Philadelphia sage he would note down his persisting suspicions and his reluctance to admit the possibility of generous motives inspiring the French nation’s policy. “I have from the first,” he wrote, in 1777, to his brother, John, “been among those few who never built much upon a French war. I never did and still do think they never meant more than to give us a kind of underhand assistance; that is, to supply us with arms, etc., for our money and trade. This may, indeed, if Great Britain has spirit and strength to resent it, bring on a war; but the declaration of it on either side must, I am convinced, come from the last-mentioned Power.” It was not, however, to be so.

Even after France alone had recognized the new nation, and she had actually begun war on England, Washington remained unbending, his heart would not melt. “Hatred of England,” he wrote, “may carry some into an excess of confidence in France.… I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favorable sentiments of our new ally, and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree. But it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest, and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.”

After the Declaration of Independence, envoys had been sent to Europe intrusted with the mission of securing the alliance, not especially of France, but of all nations who might be touched by the fate of the struggling colonists and inclined to help them in their fight for liberty. Some of the envoys were not even admitted to the capitals of the countries assigned to their efforts; others received only good words.

Sent to Prussia, Arthur Lee, who had been previously refused admittance to Madrid, could reach the capital (June 4, 1777), but not the King. “There is no name,” Lee wrote appealingly to the monarch, “so highly respected among us as that of your Majesty. Hence there is no King the declaration of whose friendship would inspire our own people with so much courage.” But the King would not be persuaded; he refused all help in “artillery, arms, and money,” though, Lee wrote to the committee of foreign affairs, “I was well informed he had a considerable sum in his treasury.” Frederick would not relent, giving as a reason that, if he agreed, the result would be much “inconvenience” for himself. He even refused to receive Lee, whom he, however, allowed to see his army: a mechanism without peer, the American envoy wrote to Washington, but only a mechanism:

“The Prussian army, which amounts to 220,000 horse and foot, are disciplined by force of hourly exercise and caning to move with a rapidity and order so as to certainly exceed any troops in Europe.” They practise each day: “Every man is filed off singly, and passes in review before different officers, who beat his limbs into the position they think proper, so that the man appears to be purely a machine in the hand of a workman.”

The furthest Frederick consented to go was to cause Lee to be assured, when he left Prussia the following month (July, 1777), that he would always receive with pleasure the news of any English reverse.

To the American appeal France alone answered, Adsum: for what motives, has been shown above, love of liberty rather than hatred of England being the chief reason, and the rebellious colonies being popular in France not so much because they wanted to throw off an English yoke as because they wanted to throw off a yoke.

Up to the time when Rochambeau arrived Washington had seen during the war more or less numerous specimens of the French race, but only isolated specimens. He had heard of what they were doing as soldiers and sailors, without himself seeing them in action. As gentlemen and soldiers he held them, at that date, to be fit representatives of a nation “old in war, very strict in military etiquette, and apt to take fire where others scarcely seem warmed.” He noticed, however, after Savannah, that with all that warmth they could, when put to the test, prove steady, level-headed, and careful of their words: “While,” he said to General Lincoln, “I regret the misfortune, I feel a very sensible pleasure in contemplating the gallant behavior of the officers and men of the French and American army; and it adds not a little to my consolation to learn that, instead of the mutual reproaches which often follow the failure of enterprises depending upon the co-operation of troops of different nations, their confidence in and esteem of each other is increased.”

Concerning the French as sailors Washington did not conceal, however, to his intimate friends his misgivings. He early felt that the issue of the whole war and the independence of his country might depend on an at least momentary domination of the sea, but felt great doubt as to the possibility of this goal being reached. “In all probability,” he thought, “the advantage will be on the side of the English. And then what would become of America? We ought not to deceive ourselves.… It is an axiom that the nation which has the most extensive commerce will always have the most powerful marine.… It is true, France in a manner created a fleet in a very short space, and this may mislead us in the judgment we form of her naval abilities.… We should consider what was done by France as a violent and unnatural effort of the government, which for want of sufficient foundation cannot continue to operate proportionable effects.” Moreover, though “the ability of her present financier (Necker) has done wonders,” France is not a rich country.

When Rochambeau came with his 5,000 troops, on Ternay’s fleet, which carried numerous naval officers and sailors besides, Washington took, so to say, personal contact with France herself, and was no longer dependent upon his reading of hostile books, his souvenirs of the colonial wars, or his impression from acquaintanceship with separate individuals. The portraits in the Spectator could less and less be considered as portraits. Washington found himself among men of steady mind and courteous manners, noteworthy not only for their fighting qualities, but their sense of duty, their patience and endurance, their desire to do well. As for the troops, they observed, as is well known, so strict a discipline that the inhabitants, who expected nothing of the sort, rather the reverse, were astonished and delighted.

Little by little Washington’s heart was won. We did not, in that war, conquer any land for ourselves, but we conquered Washington. For some time more he remained only officially ours; the praise bestowed by him on his allies and their country found place in his letters to themselves, or in his reports to Congress, which were, in fact, public documents. At last the day came when, writing only for himself, in a journal not meant to be seen by anybody, he inscribed those three words: “our generous allies.” That day, May 1, 1781, Washington’s heart was really won.

From that moment what Washington wrote concerning the French, were it addressed to themselves or to Congress, can be taken at its face value, and very pleasant reading it is to this day for the compatriots of those officers and soldiers who had the great man for their commander-in-chief—such statements as this one, for example, sent to Congress seven days before the Yorktown capitulation: “I cannot but acknowledge the infinite obligations I am under to his Excellency, the Count de Rochambeau, the Marquis de Saint-Simon, commanding the troops from the West Indies, the other general officers, and indeed the officers of every denomination in the French army, for the assistance which they afford me. The experience of many of those gentlemen in the business before us is of the utmost advantage in the present operation.… The greatest harmony prevails between the two armies. They seem actuated by one spirit, that of supporting the honor of the allied armies.” When, in the course of the following year, the two armies which have never met since, were about to part, their leader thus summed up his impressions: “It may, I believe, with much truth be said that a greater harmony between two armies never subsisted than that which has prevailed between the French and Americans since the first junction of them last year.”

By the beginning of 1783 peace and American independence had been practically secured. Washington is found duly solemnizing the anniversary of the French alliance which had rendered those events possible. “I intended,” he says to General Greene, “to have wrote you a long letter on sundry matters, but Major Burnet popped in unexpectedly at a time when I was preparing for the celebration of the day, and was just going to a review of the troops, previous to the feu de joie.” The orders issued by him on the occasion read thus: “The commander-in-chief, who wishes on the return of this auspicious day to diffuse the feelings of gratitude and pleasure as extensively as possible, is pleased to grant a full and free pardon to all military prisoners now in confinement.”

The orderly book used by Washington is still in existence, and from it we learn that the parole given for the day was “America and France,” and the countersigns, “United,” “Forever.”