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Washington's relationship with the French evolved over the course of an action-packed lifetime.

By Robert Middlekauff


Washington first encountered the French across a battlefield on the American frontier, and emerged with his honor smeared. Just a few decades later, he displayed at Mount Vernon the key to the Bastille—the legendary Paris prison whose overthrow marked the beginning of the French Revolution—a gift from his protégé, the Marquis de Lafayette. Between the two events emerged a multifaceted relationship of respect and mutual admiration.

George Washington in Continental Army uniform. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon, c. 1780. MVLA.
George Washington in Continental Army uniform. Painting by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon, c. 1780. MVLA.

There is little evidence that General Washington, just back in residence at Mount Vernon in 1784, pondered the ironies that filled his life. But, had he been given to reflecting on its twists and turns, he might have summoned up thoughts of how an old enemy—the French military, many of whom were members of the nobility—had changed dramatically in his estimation during the 30 years since first encountered on the opposite side of the battlefield. Now, in his retirement, Washington found his post clogged with letters from the most socially elevated of these Frenchmen. Many of these letters sang with praise and teemed with admiration of his brilliant achievements in the revolution. He had won victory against all odds, and everyone knew that he had done so with an army of no great strength bereft of weapons, food, clothing, and, often, even of soldiers.

A desire to praise a great man did not furnish the only motive for the writing of all these letters, and, even when it had, still another purpose intruded: the writers wanted something. The “something “was Washington’s assistance in gaining membership into the Society of the Cincinnati, an order of American and French officers who had fought in the Revolutionary War. For the French officers who sought admission, the driving force was honor and fame, and recognition of their efforts in a cause Washington had called “glorious.” The two purposes, honor and fame, were not at odds, for the hope of becoming a member of the Society owed much to a desire to be recognized as a friend of General Washington, who was, as virtually all agreed, the most distinguished man of the age.

George Washington Receiving French Generals at Mount Vernon. Unknown author. (National Archives)
George Washington Receiving French Generals at Mount Vernon. Unknown author. (National Archives)

Yet Washington had appeared as anything but admirable to the French when they first encountered him in the mid-18th century, just before the beginning of the French and Indian War. In 1754, the French, after a skirmish in the woods of western Pennsylvania, began denouncing George Washington, then a lieutenant colonel who commanded the Virginia Regiment, as an assassin whose command killed the Comte de Jumonville, a nobleman of high renown. The “assassination,” they insisted, occurred in an encounter during which Jumonville had attempted to warn Washington out of French territory, only to be cut down before he could explain his intentions. The French claimed that attack, made by British colonial militia and Indians, was entirely unprovoked, but Washington told a different story.

The brief struggle, his account said, occurred when the French were on the move in the woods to attack his Virginia troops—not to negotiate on peaceful terms. Jumonville’s death had come at the hands of Tanaghrisson, a Seneca leader, or another in his band, and was unintended by Washington, who sought to eject the French from an area claimed by the British. The affair, however, did reveal that Washington had, temporarily at least, lost control of his command and, without much thought, allowed an encounter with the French to become a scene of violence.

Read the 1754 Journal of Major George Washington

These uncertain events were further muddied by the next encounter at Great Meadows in July, when Washington, leading several hundred men in defense of Fort Necessity, was forced to surrender in rain and darkness. The paper the French commander thrust into Washington’s hands was wet, its ink spreading into something indistinguishable under weak candlelight. Written in French, a language Washington could not read, it included the admission that Washington was responsible for the June “assassination” of Jumonville, an admission of guilt that he had not intended to make and did not feel. Washington later rejected the wording that described him as an assassin, saying in his rebuttal that he was “willfully, or ignorantly, deceived by our interpreter in regard to the word assassination.” Washington seems to have believed that the translator, Dutchman Jacob Van Braam, was simply incompetent rather than disloyal—he had been in Virginia only for a year, and Washington had not known him well.

The affair stung Washington, whose honor was at stake and evoked his declaration that he would deny the charge to his dying moment. He was bruised by the smear, but soon developed other reasons for disliking—even hating—the French in the war that followed. During his years as the commander of the Virginia Regiment, Washington came to see the French as a formidable adversary experienced in war and with significant military strength.

French and Indian War: A Timeline

Washington the Soldier -- Battle of Monongahela, July 9, 1755. Claude Regnier, after Junius Brutus Stearns, 1854. (Library of Congress)
Washington the Soldier -- Battle of Monongahela, July 9, 1755. Claude Regnier, after Junius Brutus Stearns, 1854. (Library of Congress)

"Washington came to see the French as a formidable adversary experienced in war and with significant military strength."

Yet when he left the Virginia Regiment in 1758 for the life of a full-time planter at Mount Vernon, Washington nourished no deep hostility toward the French, though he was not fond of them. His dislike of the enemy he had fought in the Northwest focused on the Indians he had encountered there. Led by the French and tied to them for support in several forms, the Indians did most of the fighting in the war in Washington’s experience. Their notion of combat differed greatly from that of European-led armies and, like many whites of the time, Washington was horrified by attacks on villages and settlers.

When the crisis with Britain began in the 1760s, after the French and Indian War, Washington did not imagine that it would grow to become a world war. Nor did he in its earliest days think of how it might shape relations with France. The 13 colonies had no conventional, or legal, relations with the French state in any case, though some trade was carried on. Washington knew of commercial relations with France, primarily in Virginia-grown tobacco that was shipped in a roundabout way through Britain, where American shippers paid duties before sending it across the channel. The only other large-scale trade with France was carried on through bribes paid to royal customs officials in America in return for their turning a blind eye to illegal molasses imported from the French West Indies.

Thus, the establishment of connections with France after the Revolutionary War faced a history of limited and illegal relations. Religious differences and long-standing prejudice against Catholicism provided an even greater obstacle. The horror felt in Protestant hearts at the prospect of joining forces with Catholics had largely ended by the time of the Revolution, but, in a New England still full of dread, it was alive. Parliament unintentionally nourished this Protestant bias with its 1774 Quebec Act, which offered official toleration to Catholics in Quebec and to their clergy.

The George Washington who assumed command of the Continental Army in 1775 was not the young colonel who had led the Virginia Regiment in 1754. He had learned much in the earlier war—about military operations and about organizing, training, and leading men in battle. He had come to understand men—not just soldiers—and he had developed an ability to read them, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their motives and desires. In the Revolution, he led from experience and instinct, and, despite his protestations to the contrary, he was up to the job. He grew into an even more thoughtful and wise man as the leader of the Continental Army, with a talent for analyzing whatever he faced and a sense of when to act and when to wait—an ability that would serve him well in dealing with the French.

"He led from experience and instinct, and, despite his protestations to the contrary, he was up to the job."

Even though they were famous, ancient enemies of the British, the French were a suspect ally, and Washington still retained a measure of the old impression of them as sponsors of Indian attacks that had decimated the Virginia frontier in the previous war. It was unsurprising that Washington felt no affection for the French volunteers who appeared in his camp even before their country officially joined the war against Britain. Many had military backgrounds—often service in the French army—but others were untrained men presumably eager to make a military reputation abroad and parlay it into an appointment upon their return to France. Such ambitions did not recommend them to Washington or his American officers. He was not inclined to ease the way of those he called “military fortune hunters,” unless they had technical experience, especially as engineers.

Some came with letters from Silas Deane, the American commissioner in Paris; others had stopped by Congress and charmed the delegates, who recommended them for commissions. Some had received appointments or commissions from Congress before they arrived at Washington’s headquarters. The most notorious of this sort was Philippe du Coudray, appointed commander of the Continental Army’s artillery by Deane. He similarly impressed Congress, which made him a major general with seniority that raised him in rank over several American generals, including Henry Knox, the existing head of the artillery. Knox and his American colleagues failed to find anything just in such an appointment and challenged it vigorously. Not only did du Coudray appear full of himself, he arrived accompanied with a cadre of some 20 commissioned officers, all expecting to be rapturously greeted by the callow Americans. Knox and his colleagues requested redress from Congress and threatened to resign. Just before the affair elicited Americans’ resignations, du Coudray, a poor judge of men and horses, “rode into the Ferry Boat and out at the other end into the River, and was drowned,” as John Adams described it. There was no mourning of his death among the American officers, but no exultation either. Adams, then a delegate in Congress, called the ride “strange,” and noted that this ending, “with du Coudray’s burial in the Yard of a Romish chappell, will save us much Altercation.” Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who had come to America at about the same time, was less restrained in commenting on du Coudray’s death as “peut-etre un heureux accident”—perhaps a happy accident.

Steel engraving portrait of Gen. Henry Knox, 1862. Courtesy of Wikicommons.
Steel engraving portrait of Gen. Henry Knox, 1862. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

By the next year, with foreign volunteers, most from France, arriving in droves, Washington may at times have wished for more such serendipity. If he had any doubts about the foreigners, the protests against them from American officers forced him to recognize that their volunteering had hidden costs. Issues of rank had already aroused jealousy among the Americans, and the appointment of the French gave further examples of what were considered inequities in army practice. As resentments arose among the American officers, morale suffered, and the possibility of looming resignations rose dramatically. Washington complained to Congress, and at certain moments yielded to bad temper. Henry Laurens, a South Carolinian and second president of the Second Continental Congress, did his best to offer sympathy and to soothe the General’s spirit. Washington’s own good sense asserted itself, but not before he wrote Gouverneur Morris, a New York delegate in Congress and a friend, 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.”

Washington had forgotten that Lafayette had also made extravagant claims for military rank when he first arrived in 1777. Lafayette was only 19 years old at the time, a naïve boy whose innocence stood out. He worshipped Washington, and it was not long before he broke down Washington’s doubts to become a favorite. Moreover, his social standing in elite French circles seemed to suggest that he might serve to open and maintain lines of communication with French commanders.

Washington & Lafayette

In 1779, with France formally entering the war, such communication became vital. The first important attempt to coordinate the efforts of American and French forces revealed Lafayette’s importance as this “link,” as Admiral Charles Henri d’Estaing put it. The occasion was a projected attack on British forces in Newport, Rhode Island, where they had established a naval base.

With a French fleet from Toulon under d’Estaing in American waters, the opportunity for a joint effort with the French navy looked attractive to Washington. He had hoped that the French might join in an attack on New York City, a much more important target, but before planning could begin, d’Estaing concluded that his ships drew too much water to cross the bar into New York harbor. Newport, although much less vital to either side, then assumed importance.

But the joint attack failed, and in the middle of a storm that brought high winds and rain, d’Estaing sailed to Boston. D’Estaing’s departure from Rhode Island and the battle infuriated General John Sullivan, the American commander there, who, with his general officers, wrote d’Estaing in terms that could only offend.

General John Sullivan's troops advancing on the British at Newport, Rhode Island,1779. Library of Congress.
General John Sullivan's troops advancing on the British at Newport, Rhode Island,1779. Library of Congress.

Having the French withdrawal characterized as “derogatory to the Honor of France” and “destructive in the highest Degree to the Welfare of the United States of America” understandably wounded d’Estaing. His response suggested that the American critics included “some individuals who tho good pilots and worthy men in other respects have no idea of what a squadron is—however successfully they may have acquitted themselves in conducting small barks.”

There was more literary lip curling in this response, but d’Estaing made it clear that Washington was exempt from such appraisals, reassurance that meant, as far as the French were concerned, that the alliance was in the hands of responsible leaders, however simple-minded their followers were.

Washington followed a different tack. He immediately but gently cautioned Sullivan against further extravagance. The French, he wrote, were a “people old in war, very strict in military etiquette, and apt to take fire when others scarcely seem warmed.” What was required in dealing with the French was “cordiality” and “harmony.” Sullivan could be stubborn in holding his own opinions, but he pulled back after hearing from his chief. Washington could not be certain that he had fully protected the alliance, and while he was reassuring the French of his high regard he also enlisted others, among them Lafayette, to allay any doubts about the solidity of American friendship.

Read Washington's Letter to General Sullivan

The French had good reasons for their careful policy in the war in American waters. There was the history of defeat in the previous war, defeat that had weakened their navy and lost them Canada. The commanders of the troops and ships they sent out in 1778 arrived with instructions to proceed with caution. These orders rested on the knowledge of the losses in the earlier war and an awareness that the British forces in America were stronger on land and at sea. D’Estaing may have possessed naval superiority when he sailed into American waters, but the arrival of a British squadron under Admiral Thomas Graves soon overshadowed his fleet. One other set of facts contributed to French policy and action—the need to maintain military and naval forces in the West Indies. The islands exerted a pull on the French effort on the American continent from the beginning of the war.

Washington soon understood how the French shaped their policy, and though he remained a forceful advocate of American interest, he conducted his relations without destroying their confidence in his leadership. In fact, even after the Rhode Island calamity, French leaders admired him.

Washington & Lafayette, commemorative medal, 20th century (Tom Mulvaney)
Washington & Lafayette, commemorative medal, 20th century (Tom Mulvaney)

In the year following the Rhode Island affair, Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, a distinguished general, arrived in Rhode Island with more than 5,000 soldiers and a small fleet led by Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay, an experienced admiral. These two adhered to the usual French policy of caution, but in 1781, Rochambeau agreed to join Washington in the campaign to strike Cornwallis in Virginia. This campaign, which led to the Battle of Yorktown, proved to be a complicated effort that called upon all of Washington’s insightful diplomacy. The effort against Cornwallis in Virginia required the participation of the French fleet commanded by Admiral François-Joseph Paul de Grasse, a man of ability but also of self-regarding temperament. De Grasse sailed his ships from the West Indies into the Chesapeake Bay at a crucial point in September, held off the British fleet under Graves, and followed Washington’s advice “to block up Lord Cornwallis in York River.” He also proved admirably accommodating when Washington requested him to transport troops and supplies. His fleet, it was clear, made the capture of Cornwallis possible.

Explore this Medal

But at critical moments in this Franco-American effort, de Grasse seemed about ready to take his ships out of the attack. He was more than mindful of his responsibilities in the West Indies, and he alarmed Washington with his threat to pull out of Virginia waters to look after the French islands. Washington faced this possibility several times and usually resorted to reminders to de Grasse of his importance and his greatness—exaggerated praise that the French admiral thrived on. When reason and flattery seemed incapable of preventing de Grasse’s departure, Washington resorted to a powerful appeal that combined history, strategy, and honor. The occasion for this appeal was deGrasse’s decision, conveyed to Washington by a letter written on September 23, reporting that because the British squadron in New York had been reinforced, the French fleet would leave the Chesapeake for the maneuvering room of the open sea. Only two ships would be left in the York River. Panic lurking under the surface of this letter seemed to indicate that the careful strategy that had guided the combined operations no longer had relevance.

Washington’s response, given without anger, was steeped in history and prophesy, holding that de Grasse’s departure from the Chesapeake “would be not only the disgrace and loss of renouncing an enterprise,” but might lead to the disbanding of the army. Staying the course, in contrast, might end the war. There was much more in the argument, including his suggestion—a powerful belief in reality—that if the “present opportunity should be missed, no future day can restore us a similar occasion for striking a decisive blow...[and] an honorable peace will be more remote than ever.”

Washington chose Lafayette to deliver this letter, giving its arguments even more power. DeGrasse recovered his nerve and two days later wrote Washington that he would remain in place. Once more Washington offered reassurance by praising his colleague; de Grasse’s decision, he wrote, “proves a great Mind knows how to make personal Sacrifices to secure important general Good.”

"Surrender of Lord Cornwallis," John Trumbull. (Architect of the Capitol)
"Surrender of Lord Cornwallis," John Trumbull. (Architect of the Capitol)

Whether de Grasse deserved such praise can be questioned, but the importance of the French to the American Revolution should not be. Given their earlier relations with the 13 colonies, their later attitudes (and policies) seem surprising. So, also, does their regard for George Washington. Once an “assassin” hated by the French, he ended his Revolutionary War career with the French at his side, calling him a hero. Ironies abound in history, but not many point to a conclusion as grand as that which came to the Americans and French in the American Revolution.

About the Author

Robert Middlekauff was a distinguished historian who wrote what is considered one of the best one-volume histories of the American Revolution, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. He was also author of Washington's Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader, finalist for the 2016 George Washington Prize.