How the French won the American Revolution

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, in for Marco Werman, and you're tuned to The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston.

It's July 4th, so of course we're going to spend the next part of the show talking about France. When you think about America's struggle for independence, you probably don't think about the French, but there might not have been a United States independent of Great Britain were it not for the French.

We're going to talk now about one Frenchman who was critical in that effort, and here to help us is Francois Furstenberg, historian at Johns-Hopkins University. He's author of the book, "When the United States Spoke French," which comes out later this month.

So Francois, who is this guy, Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles?

Francois Furstenberg: Well, he was the descendent of one of France's noblest families. They had been serving the King of France for century. The family traditionally had been soldiers and served in the army.

And Noailles was Lafayette's brother-in-law, I mean, the Noailles who we're concerned with.

Hills: How critical was his role in the American Revolution?

Furstenberg: Well, he played an important role, and he led the Siege of Savannah in 1779. He returned to France shortly thereafter, and then he sailed over with a Count de Rochambeau, who led the French forces in North America in 1780.

And they made their way to Yorktown. And Yorktown, which ended the Revolution in North America - it continued for a few more years in other places - but the war ended in Yorktown, thanks essentially to the French forces.

I mean, it was the French navy that blocked the Chesapeake that prevented the British navy from supplying Yorktown. I mean, it was French military engineers that largely lead the siege of the fort at Yorktown, which lead to British defeat, the almost inevitable British defeat at that point.

Hills: And didn't George Washington entrust Noailles with the details of the surrender?

Furstenberg: Well, it was Noailles. Noailles represented the French government at Yorktown, and there's a famous scene where the British commander of Yorktown tries to surrender his arms to the French, and it would have been to Noailles, therefore.

And Noailles refused, and therefore the kind of humiliating gesture where the British commander was forced to surrender his arms to the Americans, to Washington.

Hills: So this guy, Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, he's a kind of well-bred, educated member of French nobility. Knows all the movers and shakers, big in the French revolution. So he ends up in Philadelphia. Why did he end up there?

Furstenberg: Well, after the Revolution, he went back to France, and he was among the leaders of the French Revolution. But over the next couple of years, as the French Revolution became more radical, he was more or less chased out of France. He fled.

And so he came to the United States in 1793, and he settled in Philadelphia, which was the capital of the United States at the time. This was before Washington DC had been built. And he settled in Philadelphia, where he was joined by waves of French refugees.

Hills: And what's the significance of his presence and time in Philadelphia?

Furstenberg: When we think about these French characters who were living in Philadelphia at the time, we have a really, I think, a different portrait of the early republic. This is a time when the United States was deeply enmeshed in trans-Atlantic commerce, trans-Atlantic politics and diplomacy.

We see a capital city that's populated not just by people like Washington, and Hamilton, and Jefferson, but by thousands of Frenchmen who are fleeing war and violence across the Atlantic world, and who are taking refuge in the United States.

They're bringing new goods, new commerce into the capital, and they're really making the United States capital into a much more cosmopolitan city than we tend to think about.

Hills: What kind of things were they bring to Philly that weren't there, before they got there?

Furstenberg: Well, after the American Revolution, American trade had been in large part re-oriented into the French imperial networks. So there were things like wine is coming in, mustards are coming in, silk. France dominated the luxury trades, really, so all kinds of very refined goods.

And when these Frenchmen come in from France, I mean, Noailles had been Marie Antoinette's dance partner. He was one of the most famous dancers in the court of Versailles.

And so people like him. They give dance lessons to Philadelphia's elite, they give French language lessons to Philadelphians. They bring in all kinds of goods and services that hadn't been...

One of--a hairdresser who had trained with Marie Antoinette's hairdresser came to Philadelphia, and hawked her goods and services.

A French dentist, actually a French dentist, made George Washington's false teeth.

Hills: Really?

Furstenberg: Yeah. So you know, one thinks about the Philadelphian, I think, in a slightly different way.

Hills: One thinks about the American government's, and Americans' attitudes toward France, in a very different way, too.

Furstenberg: That's right.

Hills: It's not as like we've been sort of buddies for many years now.

Furstenberg: I was thinking about this a lot during the run-up to the Iraq war, when there was all this anti-French sentiment in the United States, and Americans were saying that France was so ungrateful for American intervention in World War II, which of course liberated France from Germany.

But, I mean, from a longer perspective, of course it's France that the United States owes, in a sense, France a debt of gratitude for liberating it from the British empire.

And this was something that was remembered. I mean, if we forget it today, it was certainly not forgotten in the 19th century. People looked towards France as the first American ally.

Lafayette was remembered overwhelmingly in the 19th century. He was venerated, almost on par with George Washington as his sort of adopted son.

And when America intervened in World War I, when America sent troops to Europe in World War I, they thought of themselves as repaying Lafayette's debt. So this is a long memory that Americans have, that they've only sort of recently, I think, forgotten.

Hills: Historian Francois Furstenberg is the author of the upcoming book, "When the United States Spoke French." Happy Fourth of July.

Furstenberg: Thank you very much, you too.