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Chapter 61:

Turgot and Vergennes.

March—April, 1776.

for a whole year the problem of granting aid to
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the American insurgents had under all its aspects been debated in the cabinet of the king of France, and had not yet found its solution. Louis the Sixteenth was a bigot to the principle of regal power; but George the Third wanted, in his eyes, the seal of legitimacy: his sense of right, which prompted him to keep good faith with the English, was confused by assertions that the British ministry was capable of breaking the existing peace without a warning, if it could thus win the favor of the people, or votes in parliament: he disliked to help rebels; but these rebels were colonists, and his kingdom could recover its share in the commerce of the world only by crushing the old colonial system, from which France had been shut out. He had heard and had read very much on the subject, but without arriving at a conclusion. His ministers were irreconcilably divided. Vergennes promoted [330] the emancipation of America with resoluteness
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and prudence, remaining always master of himself, and always mindful that he was a subordinate in the cabinet of which he was in truth the stay and the guide. As minister of foreign affairs, he employed French diplomacy to bring in a steady current of opinion and statements that would supersede the necessity of his advice, which was given so tardily and so calmly, that it seemed to flow not from himself but from his attachment to monarchy and to France. The quiet and steady influence of his department slowly and imperceptibly overcame the scruples of the young and inexperienced prince, whose instincts were dull, and whose reflective powers could not grasp the question. Sartine, the minister of the marine, and St. Germain, the new secretary of war, who had been called from retirement and poverty to reform the abuses in the French army, sustained the system of Vergennes. On the other side, Maurepas, the head of the cabinet, was for peace, though his frivolity and desire to please left his opinions to the control of circumstances. Peace was the wish of Malesherbes, who had the firmness of sincerity, yet was a man of meditation and study rather than of action; but Turgot, who excelled them all in administrative ability, and was the ablest minister of finance that ever served a Bourbon, was immovable in his opposition to a war with Britain.

The faithful report from Bonvouloir, the French agent at Philadelphia, reached Vergennes in the very first days of March; and furnished him an occasion for bringing before the king with unusual solemnity these ‘considerations:’ [331]

The position of England towards its colonies in

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North America, and the possible and probable consequences of the contest, whatever its issue may be, have beyond a doubt every claim to the most serious attention of France and Spain. Whether they should desire the subjection or the independence of the English colonies, is problematical; on either hypothesis they are menaced with danger, which human forecast can perhaps neither prevent nor turn aside.

If the continuation of the civil war may be regarded as infinitely advantageous to the two crowns, inasmuch as it will exhaust the victors and the vanquished, there is, on the other hand, room to fear, first, that the English ministry, feeling the insufficiency of its means, may stretch out the hand of conciliation; or, secondly, that the king of England, after conquering English America, may use it as an instrument to subjugate European England; or, thirdly, that the English ministry, beaten on the continent of America, may seek indemnity at the expense of France and Spain, to efface their shame and to conciliate the insurgents by offering them the commerce and supply of the isles; or, fourthly, that the colonists, on attaining independence, may become conquerors from necessity, and by forcing their excess of produce upon Spanish America, destroy the ties which bind our colonies to their metropolis.

These different suppositions can almost equally conduct to war with France and Spain; on the first, because England will be tempted, by the large force she has prepared, to make the too easy conquests, of which the West Indies offer the opportunity; on the second, because the enslavement of the metropolis [332] can be effected only by flattering the national

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hatred and jealousy; on the third, through the necessity of the ministry to divert the rage of the English people by a useful and brilliant acquisition, which would be the prize of victory, or the compensation for defeat, or the pledge of reconciliation.

The state of the colonies of the two nations is such, that, with the exception of Havana, perhaps no one is in a condition to resist the smallest part of the forces which England now sends to America. The physical possibility of the conquest is, therefore, too evident: as to the moral probability of an invasion, which would be unprovoked and contrary to public faith and to treaties, we should abuse ourselves strangely by believing the English susceptible of being held back by such motives. Experience has but too well proved, that they regard as just and honorable whatever is advantageous to their own nation or destructive to their rivals. Their statesmen never calculate the actual amount of ill which France does them, but the amount of ill which she may one day be able to do them. The opposition seem to have embraced the same general maxims; and the ministry may seize the only way of extricating themselves from their embarrassment by giving up the reins to Chatham, who, with Shelburne, Sandwich, Richmond, and Weymouth, may come to terms with the Americans, and employ the enormous mass of forces put in activity, to rectify the conditions of the last treaty of peace, against which they have ever passionately protested. Englishmen of all parties are persuaded that a popular war against France or an invasion of Mexico would terminate, or at least allay, their domestic dissensions, [333] as well as furnish resources for the extin-

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guishment of their national debt.

In the midst of so many perils, the strong love of peace, which is the preference of the king and the king of Spain, seems to prescribe the most measured course. If the dispositions of these two princes were for war, if they were disposed to follow the impulse of their interests and perhaps of the justice of their cause, which is the cause of humanity, so often outraged by England, if their military and financial means were in a state of development proportionate to their substantial power, it would, without doubt, be necessary to say to them, that Providence has marked out this moment for the humiliation of England, that it has struck her with the blindness which is the surest precursor of destruction, and that it is time to avenge upon her, the evils which since the commencement of the century she has inflicted on those who have had the misfortune to be her neighbors or her rivals. It would then be necessary not to neglect any of the means suited to render the next campaign as animated as possible and procure advantages to the Americans; and the degree of passion and exhaustion would determine the moment to strike the decisive blows, which would make England step back into the rank of secondary powers, ravish from her the empire which she claims in the four quarters of the world, and deliver the universe from a greedy tyrant who is bent on absorbing all power and all wealth. But this is not the point of view chosen by the two monarchs; and their part appears under actual circumstances to limit itself, with one exception, to a circumspect but active foresight. [334]

Care must be taken to avoid being compromised,

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and not to provoke the ills which it is wished to prevent; yet we must not flatter ourselves, that the most absolute and the most rigorous inaction will guarantee us from suspicion. The continuance of the war for at least one year is desirable for the two crowns. To that end the British ministry must be maintained in the persuasion that France and Spain are pacific, so that it may not fear to embark in an active and costly campaign; whilst on the other hand the courage of the Americans might be kept up by secret favors and vague hopes, which would prevent an accommodation, and assist to develop ideas of independence. The evils which the British will make them suffer, will imbitter their minds; their passions will be more and more inflamed by the war; and should the mother country be victorious, she would for a long time need all her strength to keep down their spirit; so that she would never dare to expose herself to their efforts for the recovery of their liberty in connection with a foreign enemy.

If all these considerations are judged to be as true and as well grounded as they are probable, we ought to continue with dexterity to tranquillize the English ministry as to the intentions of France and Spain. It will also be proper for the two monarchies to extend to the insurgents secret aid in military stores and money, without seeking any return for it beyond the political object of the moment; but it would not comport with the dignity or interest of the king to treat with the insurgents, till the liberty of English America shall have acquired consistency.

It is at all times useful and proper, in this moment [335] of public danger it is indispensable, to raise the

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effective force of the two monarchies to the height of their real power; for of all conjectures which circumstances authorize, the least probable is, that peace can be preserved, whatever may be the issue of the present war between England and her colonies.

Such are the principal points of view which this important problem admits of, and which have been simply indicated to the wisdom and penetration of the king and of his council.

This discussion of America was simultaneous with the passionate opposition of the aristocracy of France to the reforms of Turgot. The parliament of Paris had just refused to register the royal edicts which he had wisely prepared for the relief of the peasants and the mechanics of the kingdom. ‘Ah,’ said the king, as he heard of its contumacy, ‘I see plainly there is no one but Turgot and I, who love the people;’ and the registration of the decrees was carried through only by the extreme exercise of his prerogative against a remonstrance of the aristocracy, who to the last resisted the measures of justice to the laboring classes, as ‘confounding the nobility and the clergy with the rest of the people.’

The king directed Vergennes to communicate his memorial on the colonies to Turgot, whose written opinion upon it was required. Vergennes obeyed, recommending to his colleague secrecy and celerity, for Spain was anxiously waiting the determination of the court of France. Turgot took more than three weeks for deliberation, allowed full course to his ideas, and on the sixth of April gave the king this

advice: [336]

Whatever may or ought to be the wish of the

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two crowns, nothing can arrest the course of events which sooner or later will certainly bring about the absolute independence of the English colonies, and, as an inevitable consequence, effect a total revolution in the relations of Europe and America. Of all the suppositions that can be made on the event of this war, the reduction of these colonies by England presents to the two crowns the perspective of the most lasting quiet. The Anglo-American enthusiasts for liberty may be overwhelmed by force, but their will can never be broken. If their country is laid waste, they may disperse themselves among the boundless backwoods, inaccessible to a European army, and from the depths of their retreats be always ready to trouble the English establishments on their coasts; while England would lose all the advantages that she has thus far derived from America in peace and war. If it is reduced without a universal devastation, the courage of the colonists will be like a spring which remains bent only so long as an undiminished pressure weighs it down. If my view is just, if the complete success of the English ministry would be the most fortunate result for France and Spain, it follows that the project of that ministry is the most extravagant that could be conceived; and that very few persons will doubt.

Should the English government, after painful and costly efforts, fail in its hostile plans against the colonies, it will hardly be disposed at once to multiply its enemies, and form enterprises for compensation at the expense of France and Spain, when it will [337] have lost the point of support which could alone have

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made success probable.

The present war will probably end in the absolute independence of the colonies, and that event will certainly be the epoch of the greatest revolution in the commerce and politics not of England only but of , all Europe. From the prudent conduct, the courage, and intelligence of the Americans, we may augur that they will take care, above all things, to give a solid form to their government, and as a consequence they will love peace and seek to preserve it.

The rising republic will have no need of conquests to find a market for its products; it will have only to open its harbors to all nations. Sooner or later, with good will or from necessity, all European nations who have colonies will be obliged to leave them an entire liberty of trade, to regard them no more as subject provinces, but as friendly states, distinct and separate, even if protected. This the independence of the English colonies will inevitably hasten. Then the illusion which has lulled our politicians for two centuries, will be dispelled; it will be seen that power founded on monopoly is precarious and frail, and that the restrictive system was useless and chimerical at the very time when it dazzled the most.

When the English themselves shall recognise the independence of their colonies, every mother country will be forced in like manner to exchange its dominion over its colonies for bonds of friendship and fraternity. If this is an evil, there is no way of preventing it, and no course to be taken but resignation to the absolute necessity. The powers which [338] shall obstinately resist, will none the less see their

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colonies escape from them, to become their enemies instead of their allies.

The yearly cost of colonies in peace, the enormous expenditures for their defence in war, lead to the conclusion that it is more advantageous for us to grant them entire independence, without waiting for the moment when events will compel us to give them up. This view would not long since have been scorned as a paradox and rejected with indignation. At present we may be the less revolted at it, and perhaps it may not be without utility to prepare consolation for inevitable events. Wise and happy will be that nation which shall first know how to bend to the new circumstances, and consent to see in its colonies allies and not subjects. When the total separation of America shall have healed the European nations of the jealousy of commerce, there will exist among men one great cause of war the less, and it is very difficult not to desire an event which is to accomplish this good for the human race. In our colonies we shall save many millions, and if we acquire the liberty of commerce and navigation with all the northern continent, we shall be amply compensated.

The position of Spain with regard to its American possessions will be more embarrassing. Unhappily she has less facility than any other power to quit the route that she has followed for two centuries, and conform to a new order of things. Thus far she has directed her policy to maintaining the multiplied prohibitions with which she has embarrassed her commerce. She has made no preparations to substitute for empire over her American provinces a fraternal [339] connection founded on the identity of origin,

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language, and manners, without the opposition of interests; to offer them liberty as a gift instead of yielding it to force. Nothing is more worthy of the wisdom of the king of Spain and his council than from this present time to fix their attention on the possibility of this forced separation, and on the measures to be taken to prepare for it.

It is a very delicate question to know, if we can underhand help the Americans to ammunition or money. There is no difficulty in shutting our eyes on their purchases in our ports; our merchants are free to sell to any who will buy of them; we do not distinguish the colonists from the English themselves; but to aid the Americans with money would excite in the English just complaints.

The idea of sending troops and squadrons into our colonies for their security against invasion, must be rejected as ruinous, insufficient, and dangerous. We ought to limit ourselves to measures of caution, less expensive, and less approaching to a state of hostility; to precipitate nothing unless the conduct of England shall give us reason to believe that she really thinks of attacking us.

In combining all circumstances, it may certainly be believed that the English ministry does not desire war, and our preparations ought to tend only to the maintenance of peace. Peace is the choice of the king of France and the king of Spain. Every plan of aggression ought to be rejected, first of all from moral reasons. To these are to be added the reasons of interest, drawn from the situation of the two powers. Spain has not in its magazines the requirements [340] for arming ships of war, and cannot in time of need

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assemble a due number of sailors, nor count on the ability and experience of its naval officers. Her finances are not involved, but they could not suffice for years of extraordinary efforts.

As for us, the king knows the situation of his finances; he knows that in spite of economies and ameliorations already made since the beginning of his reign, the expenditure exceeds the receipts by twenty millions; the deficit can be made good only by an increase of taxes, a partial bankruptcy, or frugality. The king from the first has rejected the method of bankruptcy, and that of an increase of taxes in time of peace; but frugality is possible, and requires nothing but a firm will. While the king found his finances involved, he found his army and navy in a state of weakness that was scarcely to have been imagined, For a necessary war resources could be found; but war ought to be shunned as the greatest of misfortunes, since it would render impossible, perhaps for ever, a reform, absolutely necessary to the prosperity of the state and the solace of the people.

Turgot had been one of the first to foretell and to desire the independence of the colonies, as the means of regenerating the world; his virtues made him worthy to have been the fellow laborer of Washington; but as a minister of France, with the superior sagacity of integrity in its combination with genius, he looked at passing events through the clear light, free from refraction or distortion.

The public mind in France applied itself to improving the condition of the common people; Chastellux, in his work on public felicity, which was just [341] then circulating in Paris, with the motto NEVER

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despair, represented as ‘the unique end of all government and the universal aim of all philosophy, the greatest happiness of the greatest number;’ Turgot, by his earnest purpose to restrain profligate expenditure and lighten the grievous burdens of the laboring classes, seemed called forth by Providence to prop the falling throne and hold back the nobility from the fathomless chaos towards which they were drifting. Yet he could look nowhere for support but to the king, who was unenlightened, with no fixed principle. and, therefore, naturally inclined to distrust. Malesherbes, in despair, resolved to retire. Maurepas, who professed, like Turgot, a preference for peace, could not conceive the greatness of his soul, and beheld in him a dangerous rival, whose activity and vigor exposed his own insignificance to public shame. The keeper of the seals, a worthless man, given up to intemperance, greedy of the public money, which, without a change in the head of the treasury, he could not get either by gift or by embezzlement, nursed this jealousy; and setting himself up as the champion of the aristocracy, he prompted Maurepas to say to the king that Turgot was an enemy to religion and the royal authority, disposed to annihilate the privileges of the nobility and to overturn the state.

Sartine had always supported the American policy of Vergennes, and had repeatedly laid before the king his views on the importance and utility of the French colonies, and on the condition of India. ‘If the navy of France,’ said he, ‘were at this moment able to act, France never had a fairer opportunity to avenge the unceasing insults of the English. I beseech your majesty [342] to consider that England by its most cherished

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interests, its national character, its form of government, and its position, is and always will be the true, the unique, and the eternal enemy of France, Sire, with England no calculation is admissible but that of her interests and her caprices; that is, of the harm that she can do us. In 1755, at a time of perfect peace, the English attacked your ships, proving that they hold nothing sacred. We have every reason to fear, that whatever may be the issue of their war with the insurgents, they will take advantage of their armament to fall upon your colonies or ports. Your minister would be chargeable with guilt, if he did not represent to your majesty the necessity of adopting the most efficacious measures, to parry the bad faith of your natural enemies.’

These suggestions were received with a passive acquiescence; the king neither comprehended nor heeded Turgot's advice, which was put aside by Vergennes as speculative and irrelevant. The correspondence with Madrid continued; Grimaldi, the Genoese adventurer, who still was minister for foreign affairs, complained of England for the aid it had rendered the enemies of Spain in Morocco, in Algeria, and near the Philippine Isles, approved of sending aid clandestinely to the English colonies, and in an autograph letter, despatched without the knowledge even of the ambassadors of the two courts, promised to bear a part of the expense, provided the supplies could be sent from French ports in such a manner that the participation of the catholic king could be disavowed. When, on Friday the twenty sixth of April, the French ministry held a conference with the [343] Spanish ambassador, to consider the dangers that me-

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naced the two kingdoms and the necessity of preparing for war, neither Turgot nor Malesherbes was present. Vergennes was left to pursue his own policy without obstruction, and he followed the precedent set by England during the troubles in Corsica. After a
year's hesitation and resistance, the king of France, early in May, informed the king of Spain that he had resolved, under the name of a commercial house, to advance a million of French livres, about two hundred thousand dollars, towards the supply of the wants of the Americans; the Catholic king, after a few weeks' delay, using the utmost art to conceal his act, assigning a false reason at his own treasury for demanding the money, and admitting no man in Spain into the secret of its destination except Grimaldi, remitted to Paris a draft for a million more as his contribution. Beaumarchais, who was trusted in the American business and in eighteen months had made eight voyages to London, had been very fretful, as if the scheme which he had importunately urged upon the king had been censured and rejected. ‘I sat long in the pit,’ so Vergennes defended himself, ‘before I took a part on the stage; I have known men of all classes and of every temper of mind; in general, they all railed and found fault; and yet I have seen them in their turn commit the errors which they had so freely condemned; for an active or a passive principle, call it as you will, brings men always towards a common centre. Do not think advice rejected, because it is not eagerly adopted; all slumber is not a lethargy.’ The French court resolved to increase its [344] subsidy, which was to encourage the insurgents to
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persevere; and in early summer, Beaumarchais announced to Arthur Lee, at his chambers in the Temple, that he was authorized to promise the Americans assistance to the amount of two hundred thousand louis d'ors, nearly one million of dollars.

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