Neither the emotionally charged rupture nor its rapid resolution surprised longtime observers of French-U.S. relations. As NPR reminded listeners in September, “France is America’s oldest ally.” That is true. Certainly the United States might not have won independence from Britain without French support. Yet the relationship has been marked by friction from the start.
Having cut his teeth fighting against the French in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), George Washington was wary of the Frenchmen who flocked to his side in the early days of the American Revolution. Writing from Morristown, N.J., to Maj. Gen. William Heath on July 27, 1777, Washington complained of “the difficulty of giving employment to so great a number of strangers, unacquainted with our genius, language and customs.” He added, “The inconvenience is very much increased by the immoderate expectations, which, almost every one of them, I have seen, entertains, and which make it impossible to satisfy them.” Translation: Washington was facing a surfeit of French officers who, before any formal agreement between France and the United States, had crossed the Atlantic expecting to be welcomed with open arms.
Finding themselves instead rebuffed by the Army and maligned by the populace, many soon made the return trip to France bearing tales of American ingratitude.
One Frenchman did succeed in winning Washington’s trust: the Marquis de Lafayette, whose enthusiasm and dedication made him an indispensable liaison between France and the United States throughout the War of Independence. When the two first met, at Philadelphia’s City Tavern on July 31, 1777, Washington was perplexed that Congress had awarded the rank of major general to a 19-year-old with no battlefield experience. “What line of conduct I am to pursue. … I know no more than the child unborn,” Washington wrote. But Lafayette proved his mettle. He was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine, suffered through the bitter winter at Valley Forge and, aided by Oneida allies, led a successful retreat at Barren Hill. Washington confessed to New York Rep. Gouverneur Morris that “I do most devoutly wish that we had not a single Foreigner among us, except the Marquis de la Fayette, who acts upon very different principles than those which govern the rest.”
Yet, even Lafayette could not prevent miscommunication and nationalistic pride from scuttling the first attempted joint French-American military action. When French Adm. Charles Hector d’Estaing reached American waters on July 5, 1778, he brought with him 12 ships of the line, four frigates and an uncommon certainty that his skills were superior to those of his newfound partners. By August, d’Estaing was tussling with Maj. Gen. John Sullivan over who should lead and who should follow in a planned land-and-sea campaign against the British at Newport.
They ultimately agreed that Sullivan’s ground troops and d’Estaing’s ships would attack simultaneously. But Sullivan, learning that the British were abandoning their positions, sent his men forward before notifying d’Estaing. Seeing his own opportunity, d’Estaing sailed from the harbor to engage directly with a British fleet, leaving the Americans with little naval defense. A sudden storm sowed further confusion, stymying Sullivan’s advance and battering the French ships, which d’Estaing directed to Boston for repairs. D’Estaing and Sullivan remained estranged for weeks, as both sides drew upon national stereotypes to accuse the other of cowardice, ingratitude and worse.
Writing to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress, Sullivan complained that d’Estaing’s departure had “revived all those ancient prejudices against the faith and sincerity” of the French. Sullivan was equally direct with d’Estaing himself, opining that “the honor of the French nation must be injured by their fleet abandoning their allies upon an island, in the midst of an expedition.”
Lafayette took umbrage on behalf of his countrymen. He wrote to Washington that Sullivan and others, “forgetting any national obligation” toward the French, “turned mad at their departure, and wishing them all the evils in the world did treat them as a generous one would be ashamed to treat the most inveterate enemies.” Lafayette was more pointed in his letter to d’Estaing, describing American generals as “people who explain away their own stupidities by blaming them on the [French] fleet.”
It took all of Washington’s diplomatic skills to salvage the nascent alliance. Leaning heavily on personal relationships, he soothed injured feelings and reminded French and Americans alike that their shared goal of defeating the British was more important than the differences that separated them. By the end of August, the spirit of collaboration had prevailed, and careful French-American coordination would lead to victory in the Revolutionary War.
This amity, though, was short-lived. The presidency of John Adams was marked by such animosity between France and the United States that the period witnessed a “Quasi-War.” Impoverished and isolated by years of internal and external conflict, and stung by the 1795 signing of the Jay Treaty restoring friendly relations between the United States and Great Britain, France began seizing American merchant ships. Americans were so concerned for the vessels’ safety that Congress established the Department of the Navy on April 30, 1798, to protect them. Hoping to improve relations, Adams sent emissaries to France but, in a fiasco that became known as the XYZ Affair, they felt insulted by French demands for bribes and promptly returned home. Hostilities persisted until 1800.
Such episodes of French-American misalliance are not relegated to the distant past: In 2003, some members of Congress were so angered by France’s opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that congressional cafeterias banished the word “French” from their menus. In their view, U.S. soldiers had come to France’s rescue in two world wars; surely France should support the United States after the attacks of 2001. For a time, “Freedom Fries” and “Freedom Toast” were sold on Capitol Hill.
Now that France’s ambassador is back in his diplomatic residence in D.C., perhaps he will find comfort in the portrait of Lafayette that hangs on the wall of a ground floor reception area, watching silently over a Franco-American relationship that remains just as close, and just as vexed, as it has always been.