The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was the impetus for an interesting Twitter exchange between Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior US Senator from Texas. Chaplin was not happy about Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and used the 140 characters allotted to her on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction. On June 1, 2017, she wrote, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Cruz, appalled by the suggestion that the “international community” created the United States, fired back: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Later in the day, the Texas Senator continued on the offensive: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was “created by int’s community. No—USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.” As might be expected, most academic historians rushed to defend Chaplin, while conservative websites viewed the exchange as another battle in their war against so-called liberal élites.
We should not make too much of this short Twitter exchange. Both Chaplin and Cruz used the social media platform to marshal historical evidence in support of their own political preferences. But the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up, and the reaction to it, does tell us a lot about how Americans understand and misunderstand, use and abuse, the past. Chaplin’s attempt to connect the Treaty of Paris to the Paris Climate Agreement was a stretch. On the other hand, her insistence that the United States was not forged in a vacuum is a point worth making. Cruz’s tweets reflect an older version of the American Revolution that serves the cause of American exceptionalism. Scholars sometimes describe this historiography of exceptionalism as “Whig history.” Cruz’s understanding of the nation’s founding—one that celebrates the “blood of the patriots” and “We the People”—ignores the fact that the colonies were part of a larger transatlantic world that influenced the course and success of their Revolution. Cruz’s brand of Whig history offers a usable past perfectly suited for today’s “America First” foreign policy and the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding globalization. It is also wrong.
For those who want to explore these questions further, a good place to start is Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. Readers of Ferreiro’s fast-moving history of the American Revolution will encounter many familiar characters. Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson make regular appearances in the narrative. But the real heroes in Ferreiro’s book are the so-called “Brothers at Arms,” French and Spanish politicians, diplomats, and military officers whose support made American independence possible.
“Americans today,” Ferreiro says, “celebrate the July Fourth holiday under somewhat false pretences.” Yes, the colonial-wide support of Boston in the wake of the Coercive Acts (1774) was a factor in pushing British Americans toward independence. So was the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. So were the ideas of the founding fathers and the activism of ordinary colonists who destroyed the homes of tax collectors, tarred and feathered loyalists, and burned tea. Yet, as Ferreiro shows us, the men sitting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress also realized that a declaration of independence was their only real chance of securing the foreign aid necessary to defeat the mighty British army and navy. As Virginian Richard Henry Lee put it in June 1776, “It’s not by choice then, but necessity that calls for independence, as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained.”
Ferreiro argues convincingly that the French and Spanish were preparing for the American Revolutionary War well before the British colonies could have ever imagined it. Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763), British patriotism in the colonies was high. The British had driven the French out of North America and in doing so calmed the fears of all liberty-loving Protestants on the continent. The French began plotting their revenge before the ink on the Treaty of Paris (1763) was dry. (The Bourbon strategy of revanche was less about destroying the British nation and more about restoring the balance of power in Europe.) They sent spies to America to study how the British colonists were responding to the series of revenue-raising taxes (Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Duties, etc.) levied upon them by Parliament. The intelligence gathered from these efforts convinced the French and their Spanish allies that an American revolution resulting in independence was a distinct possibility. Should such a revolution occur, it would provide these European powers with an ideal opportunity for payback.
As the hostilities between Great Britain and its American colonies intensified in the middle of the 1770s, the French and Spanish monitored the situation closely and secretly provided support to the patriots through the sale of weapons. At the start of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army lacked guns and gunpowder (Ferreiro estimates that in some of the war’s early battles it was common for four soldiers to share one weapon). Lacking the vital necessities of war, members of the Continental Congress turned to France for help. Diego de Gardoqui, a Spanish merchant who would later become his country’s minister to the United States, smuggled muskets and bayonets into New England shortly after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, known throughout Western Europe as the writer and producer of the popular play The Barber of Seville, worked closely with the French government to ship guns to American troops in exchange for tobacco. In order to prevent the English from tracing these shipments back to Versailles, Beaumarchais posed as a merchant and funneled the exchanges through a fake firm called Roderigue Hortalzes. Ferreiro also tells the story of Julien-Alexandre Archard de Bonvouloir et Loyaute, a disabled and disfigured young French militia volunteer. France sent Bonvouloir to Philadelphia to assure the patriots that Louis XVI was willing to support the American Revolution with ammunition, money, and arms. In November 1775, he conducted several clandestine meetings with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay on the second floor of Carpenter’s Hall. The three agreed that the men of the Second Continental Congress would send their future requests for aid to France using invisible ink.
Ferreiro also challenges common misconceptions about the 1778 alliance that officially brought the French into the American Revolutionary War. He does not discount the role played by American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane in securing this alliance. Nor does he downplay the importance of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga for convincing French foreign minister Charles Gravier de Vergennes that Washington’s army was worth the investment. But Ferreiro casts an interpretive eye beyond North America. In doing so, he uncovers an American Revolutionary War that does not fit neatly into the Whig narrative many of us learned in school. The real reason for the French alliance with the United States had little to do with Franklin’s coonskin cap or the exploits of Benedict Arnold in upstate New York. Ferreiro makes a compelling case that Vergennes had his eye on the ongoing war between Spain (France’s ally) and Portugal over a boundary dispute between what are today Uruguay and Argentina. Vergennes was impressed by the American victory at Saratoga, but he still believed, after watching the British army crush Washington’s forces at Long Island (August 1776) and Brandywine (September 1777), that the colonists had no chance of winning the war, and thus securing their independence, without the support of France. If Vergennes could keep the British occupied in North America by aiding the patriot cause, it was likely that the British would not enter the South American war on the side of Portugal and thus would not disrupt the balance of power in Europe.
Brothers in Arms is a real treat for those with an appetite for military history. Ferreiro provides fresh takes on the traditional narrative of French participation in the American Revolutionary War and, by rescuing the Spanish participation in the War from the historical dustbin, offers some new stories that do not usually find their way into our collective memory about the conflict. We learn about the difficulties that Washington and his staff had in integrating French officers, to many of whom Deane had promised commissions, into the Continental Army. The Marquis de Lafayette appears as a young disciple of Washington and a military man in search of glory, but he often takes a backseat, as he should, to other prominent French and Spanish officers. (Much of Lafayette’s place in American memory was solidified by his tour of the United States in 1824 and 1825 and John G. Pershing’s famous 1917 line, “Lafayette we are here,” uttered at Lafayette’s grave as the American general arrived in France to command the American Expeditionary Force in World War I). Ferreiro places a lot of interpretive weight on the role that Spanish naval commander Bernard de Galvez played in driving the British out of the West Florida capital of Pensacola in May 1781. Galvez’s victory kept the Caribbean waters free of British vessels, allowing French admiral Francois Joseph Paul De Grasse plenty of time to help Washington and General Jean Baptiste de Vimeur de Rochambeau trap British general Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown several months later.
As a military and diplomatic history that situates the American Revolution in a global context, Brothers at Arms succeeds beyond expectations. Readers interested in learning more about the religious and political differences between France, Spain, and the British colonists, however, will need to look elsewhere. Ferreiro does not fully explain how Protestant revolutionaries were able to lay aside their virulent anti-Catholicism in order to embrace the French alliance. He mentions the American opponents of the alliance (John Adams was the most prominent) but does not fully develop the reasons for their opposition, and he seldom discusses the real differences between the patriots and the French in terms of political philosophy, and how so many Americans were able to put aside their fear of French tyranny for the sake of the cause. Ferreiro describes the sense of fear and panic the people of Newport, Rhode Island experienced when Rochambeau’s army arrived in the New England town in July 1780 (the residents of Newport closed their shops and hid in their houses, prompting one French officer to write, “the local people . . . would have preferred to see at that moment their enemies rather than their allies”), but he misses an opportunity to explain the possible religious and political motivation behind this cool reception. He is more comfortable explaining the French alliance from the perspective of Vergennes, who understood it largely in geopolitical terms. If Vergennes worried that an alliance with the American revolutionaries might have long-term negative effects on the French monarch, his thoughts do not get extensive coverage.
In closing, let us return to Joyce Chaplin and Ted Cruz. 140 characters can never capture the complexity of the human experience as it unfolds through time. Having said that, one of Ferreiro’s closing sentences is worth repeating in light of this recent Twitter debate: “Instead of a myth of heroic self-sufficiency, the real story is that the American nation was born as the centerpiece of an international coalition, which together worked to defeat a common adversary.” Point to Chaplin.