There was little confidence in America’s capacity for war with Great Britain. The thirteen states were militarily insignificant, their populations small and their economies too underdeveloped to engage in a prolonged conflict with a global superpower like England. There was no tradition of standing armies in America, only untrained and poorly-armed local militias. Since mercantilist laws had required America to purchase most of its manufactured goods and weaponry from Britain, these supplies ceased after the outbreak of war. America’s chiefly agrarian economy had little capacity for making war supplies like muskets, cannon, cannonballs, gunpowder and so forth; these things would have to be stolen from the British in raids or purchased from abroad. Chief among the problems facing the revolutionaries was the lack of a navy. Whereas the Royal Navy was vast and ruled the seas, the Americans could muster barely a couple of dozen insignificant gun-ships (Congress authorised the construction of thirteen frigates but only eight of these actually made it to sea – and all were either sunk, captured or destroyed to prevent capture). The Americans, therefore, had no effective means of preventing their ports and harbours from being blockaded or cannonaded.
Obtaining support from abroad was to be essential if the Americans were to overcome these obstacles and triumph in the Revolutionary War. This was quickly realised by the delegates of the second Continental Congress, who had passed the Declaration of Independence for the benefit of potential allies as much as for their own people. Congress sent emissaries from America to all corners of Europe, seeking political, material and preferably military support in their struggle for freedom. Often it sent its best men: Benjamin Franklin in France, John Jay in Spain and John Adams in Holland were the best-known of these first American diplomats. Congress also looked for help from more unlikely sources, such as a futile attempt to obtain help from Russia (Francis Dana, unable to speak Russian, lingered in St Petersburg for two years, largely ignored and achieving almost nothing). The American delegates spent numerous months in their respective countries, seeking recognition of American independence, proposing commercial treaties and lobbying for military supplies and involvement. Their task was often difficult as they were compelled to deal with monarchs, even though the rhetoric of the American Revolution was critical of the very concept of monarchy. And many European rulers did not think American success was likely or even possible, with or without their support.
A historian’s view:
“[For European nations] the prime objective in relations with the rebellious colonies and with the young United States was to use them to redress the balance of power in Europe. Hence the first objective of French diplomacy was to guarantee independence. A second prime objective of French diplomacy was to hitch America to the French wagon.”
It was not until 1777 and beyond, when America’s fortunes in the war began to improve, that foreign leaders began to seriously contemplate involving themselves. The critical alliance with France finally came in 1778, largely the work of Benjamin Franklin, who had become enormously popular in Paris and Versailles. A scientific genius in the guise of a plain-spoken commoner, Franklin’s image appeared in artwork, on coins, watches and brooches. It became fashionable to invite him to balls and parties, and his rough charm even won the approval of the stuffy queen, Marie-Antoinette. He forged a friendship with Comte de Vergennes, and together they were able to convince the king that the interests of both nations would be advanced if the British were removed from America. In early 1778, Louis XVI signed treaties of alliance and commerce, creating a flood of French supplies – both men and material – for the continental cause. The 29-ship French navy and thousands of French troops arrived in America in 1780, at a point where the British appetite for prolonging the war was diminishing. Spain and Holland also joined the fight against Britain, although their material contribution to the war was significantly smaller. These alliances, sealed through the charisma and determined diplomacy of men like Franklin, Jay and Adams, transformed the Revolutionary War from an isolated colonial conflict into a world war.