Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee present themselves to France’s King Louis XVI as official representatives of the United States on this day in 1778. Louis XVI was skeptical of the fledgling republic, but his dislike of the British eventually overcame these concerns and France officially recognized the United States in February 1778.
Some of the great ironies of the American Revolution lay in the relationship between the new United States and the French. In 1774, when Parliament decided to offer religious toleration and judicial autonomy to French-speaking Catholics in Quebec, North American colonists expressed horror at the notion of empowered French Catholics on their borders. In 1778, though, Franklin, Deane and Lee, all proponents of democratic government, were delighted at the prospect that the French Catholic monarchy, ruling by divine right, would come to their aid in a war against British parliamentary rule.
As for the French, they had recently been dealt a humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War by the British and stripped them of their own North American empire but still, they were loathe to declare war on Britain as an official American ally. King Louis XVI permitted secret aid to the American cause beginning in May 1776. The two most powerful men at court finally decided to make their support public in 1778 for opposing reasons. Louis XVI, who had previously refused to commit himself to a potentially losing cause, only decided to back the Patriots when they proved themselves capable of ultimate victory with a win at Saratoga in October 1777. By contrast, the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, had decided that the French should enter the war one month earlier, after the fall of Philadelphia to British control in September 1777 frightened him into thinking that the Patriots would give up without overt French aid.