On this day in 1776, the Continental Congress elects Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee as agents of the diplomatic commission that will be sent to secure a formal alliance and negotiate a treaty between the United States and France.
Franklin, Deane and Lee were given formal instructions by the members of the Continental Congress as to what concessions they would be authorized to make in negotiating the treaty. First and foremost, they were instructed to tell the king of France, that if a treaty were signed, the United States would never form an allegiance with Great Britain and, if war between France and Great Britain were ever declared, the United States would defend France.
Covert French aid began filtering into the colonies soon after the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Silas Deane, the Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, left for France on a secret mission on March 3, 1776. The Committee of Congress for Secret Correspondence, consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Dickinson, John Hay and Robert Morris, instructed Deane to meet with French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count de Vergennes, to stress America’s need for military stores and assure the French that the colonies were moving toward “total separation” from Great Britain.
Deane managed to negotiate for unofficial assistance from France in the form of ships containing military supplies and recruited the Marquis de Lafayette to share his military expertise with the Continental Army’s officer corps. However, it was not until the arrival of the suave Benjamin Franklin and the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777 that the French became convinced that it was worth backing the Americans in a formal treaty.
On February 6, 1778, the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and Alliance were signed; they were ratified by the Continental Congress in May 1778. One month later, war between Britain and France formally began when a British squadron fired on two French ships. During the American Revolution, French naval fleets proved critical in the defeat of the British, which was assured at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781.