It the outbreak of the American Revolution, England and France had been waging almost uninterrupted war with each ot her for nearly a century. From King William's War in 1689 through the Seven Years' War that wrapped up in 1763, it was a century of bloodletting and territorial trading that played out like a colossal game of Risk. It was little surprise that the French saw the nascent American insurgency, which came to a boil in 1775, as a new front in their battle for world dominance with London.
In the end, French assistance was perhaps the single greatest factor in the colonists' victory. Not only did France provide desperately needed financing and supplies, but its naval power proved crucial as the conflict between Britain and the Colonies spread to include skirmishes in the Caribbean and off the coast of Brittany and fights for islands in the Mediterranean and around the Indian Ocean. But the alliance was tenuous and difficult to manage. The cautious French could often be counted on to fight only when it suited them, while the Americans proved to be fickle friends. Even as America was celebrating its hard-won independence, France began to realize its victory was a pyrrhic one, as the war with England plunged the country into debt and, later, its own revolution.
The roots of the American Revolution lay in the Seven Years' War, when England was forced to raise taxes to pay off war debts. Raising more tax money from distant colonies was a reasonable solution, achieved by levying various duties on tea and other staples of commerce. Most New England merchants didn't take too kindly to the idea, and they were some of the first to rebel. When the war began, the colonists found themselves with an ill-equipped army and a nearly empty treasury. Enter the French, who provided assistance to the Colonies in the form of military advisers, ammunition, and coin to keep the fledgling government afloat. Fearing a British response, however, the French funneled their aid through a front company called Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie.
Benjamin Franklin, the new nation's emissary in Paris, helped cultivate French public opinion. He became a fixture at court and often wore a rustic beaver-pelt hat to emphasize the rugged individualism of Americans, which the French so admired. Ideas of freedom and equality were an easy sell among the general population and a portion of the nobility in post-Enlightenment France, and they became a rallying cry that attracted the likes of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, later the architect of the District of Columbia, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who became one of George Washington's most trusted field commanders.
Reluctant allies. Despite Franklin's popular appeal, getting France to publicly support the American cause took some time. It wasn't until 1778 that Paris openly backed the war effort with its Navy, followed by ground troops a year later. Other allies proved tougher for the Founding Fathers to enlist, but Spain and Holland eventually aided the Revolution, taking up arms and providing substantial loans to keep the government running.
On the battlefield, France was an inconsistent ally. Their first forays into combat in Rhode Island and Georgia were decidedly unimpressive. But by the Battle of Yorktown, the allies were far better aligned. French ships and French and American soldiers combined to win a decisive contest that ended the war. "The French were at first reluctant to get in the middle of a family battle between England and her colonies only to have the family make up and leave the French out," says Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA. "Yet that's exactly what happened."
France had hoped that Britain would be crippled and that securing exclusive trade relations with the Colonies would help pay for the war. But the new nation double-crossed its ally, signing a separate peace treaty and resuming trade with London shortly after hostilities ended. "Without a doubt, they had accomplished something just short of miraculous by winning a war against a superior adversary, securing the support of a historic enemy, and then running roughshod over the interests of both in the treaty that ended the war," writes historian Ted Widmer in his forthcoming book, The Ark of Liberties. "But it was a curiously nonidealistic way to advance America's famous idealism." Moreover, France paid for the expensive naval campaign through loans rather than through increased taxation, causing a serious economic crisis when the bills came due. It was this crisis, and the monarchy's clumsy attempts to deal with it, that helped trigger the French Revolution.
Corrected on 7/15/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed a tax on stamps as a cause for colonial anger with the British government. Britain used stamps, or embossed marks, to represent taxes paid on goods.