Your RDA of Irony

Taking Liberties With the American Revolution: Part III

London society loved John Burgoyne for his looks and wit; America was to love him for losing an entire British army at Saratoga, N.Y. Burgoyne had with him 30 carts of luggage, a wine cellar, someone else’s wife, and what was left of 9,000 men. The general had simply intended to march his army from Canada to Albany, N.Y., but he had chosen an itinerary through forests, swamps and 20,000 American troops. Burgoyne’s surrender was an unprecedented triumph for the revolutionaries; heretofore, they had claimed successful retreats as victories.

To the British government, Saratoga was a painful revelation: The Americans were actually trying to win. Confronted by an unpleasantly surprised Parliament, the Crown was in a dilemma: Either it had to admit how terrible the British army was, or it had to lie how good the Americans were. Considering that the army’s honor and the Tories’ majority were at stake, the British government preferred the more tactful choice. The colonists were conveniently portrayed as a nation of buckskinned killers, each and every one a marksman who, taking aim from behind a tree in Connecticut, could shoot Samuel Johnson off London Bridge. Of course, in order to sustain the story of American prowess, the British government had to end the war before the Americans could lose it.

With an urgent magnanimity, Britain offered the colonies home rule, representation in Parliament, and unconditional pardons for everyone. The Americans, however, were wary about winning. Any reconciliation with Britain was unacceptable to some colonists; militants preferred war to victory, while idealists thought they were fighting a revolution rather than a rebellion. A more pragmatic reluctance prevailed among the members of the Continental Congress. The British concessions were embarrassingly generous, but autonomy was not quite the same as independence. For instance, as a British dominion, America would not have the right to attack Canada if the urge occurred. Nevertheless, the Continental Congress was tempted to accept Britain’s terms; it just waited to see if France would make a better offer.

By no coincidence, carte blanche is a French term. Being unaccustomed to winning wars, the French hated to see the American Revolution end so soon. France was willing to offer the colonists any encouragement, moral and financial, to keep the Americans fighting and the British losing. The Americans’ idea of encouragement, however, was diplomatic recognition, a military alliance, unlimited and unconditional subsidies, and France’s declaration of war against Britain. America’s Ambassador in Paris had to entice a reluctant France into a treaty, but Benjamin Franklin was no amateur at seductions. He simply applied the same techniques to diplomacy.

To overcome France’s doubts about a treaty, Franklin pretended to be even more reluctant; it was a strategy of shameless evasion and manipulation known as “playing hard to get.” The ambassador seemed to show far more interest in decolletages than in whatever the French government had to offer. America’s reconciliation with Britain was inevitable, Franklin repeatedly told the French, and there was nothing France could do to stop it. Of course, the French felt compelled to try.

Money and supplies were offered on the most charitable terms, but Franklin remained diplomatically chaste. The American rebuff was almost an insult; it made the French doubt their charm. Their further propositions met with rejections. Frustration made France increasingly generous and undignified; a world power ended up begging a slapdash confederation of colonies for an alliance. By 1778, the French had offered all that Franklin could have hoped, so he coyly consented to a treaty. France granted diplomatic recognition to whatever the colonies wanted to call themselves. Furthermore, the French agreed to finance and fight for American independence; in return, the Americans would let them. America’s Revolution was now France’s war.

From the French perspective, the Americans’ most urgent need was a sense of fashion. The French thought that an attractive uniform did wonders for the soldier’s morale. (The British thought flogging did the same.) Unfortunately, given the Continental army’s preoccupation with starving, no provision had been made for tailoring. The Congress, in an attempt at color-coordination, urged soldiers to wear something brown; but a government that depended upon its troops’ charity was in no position to enforce a dress code. The French, however, took war and clothing too seriously to let the Americans dress themselves. France furnished the Continental army with dark blue ensembles; the uniforms were not as fetching as the French army’s powder blue and white wardrobe, but at least the French would not be embarrassed to be seen on the same battlefield as their allies. The problem was getting the two allies on the same battlefield.

France’s idea of fighting for American independence was to attack British colonies in the Caribbean, besiege Gibraltar, and stimulate uprisings in India. If the French had no plans to fight in America, neither did the Americans. The Continental army intended to avoid losing the war until the French won it. This was a prudent strategy since the Americans were better at retreating than the British were at attacking. The British, however, had no intention of attacking. With the West Indies and the real Indies at stake, Britain’s resources had to be diverted to defending more profitable colonies than America. Thousands of His Majesty’s troops were transferred to the Caribbean; Pennsylvania was abandoned in order to garrison St. Kitts. The English strategy, as usual, was to sink French fleets and seize French colonies; the British army had to avoid losing the war until the British navy won it. Both the Continental army and His Majesty’s army were now on the defensive. In America, it was a very platonic war. From 1778 to 1781, most of the fighting was between local militias, with the Tories and the Revolutionaries taking turns scalping each other.

If Britain was content to leave the Continental army in peace, France was not. The embattled French expected their American allies to take a less restful approach to the war. France even felt obliged to send troops to America, if only to prod the colonists into battle. To accomplish this, however, the French army first had to overcome the French navy: Specifically, an admiral who was unfamiliar with water. Count Charles D’Estaing was, in fact, an army officer, although the outstanding feature of his military career was the number of times he had been captured by the British. Nevertheless, a man of his aristocratic lineage had to be given a command and, at least, in the French navy he would be under no obligation to win.

In 1778, D’Estaing’s fleet set sail for Rhode Island and went to the West Indies. The following year, he landed a French army in Georgia. Taking command of the troops, D’Estaing distinguished himself at the battle of Savannah by doing everything necessary for the British to win. This time, however, he was careful not to be captured. Hearing a rumor that the British were sending reinforcements, D’Estaing and his force re-embarked for the Caribbean. Thus ended France’s first attempt to inspire the Americans to arms. For his role in losing Georgia to the British, D’Estaing was discreetly reassigned as naval attache to Spain, where, presumably, incompetence went unnoticed. (In 1793, D’Estaing was to culminate his career by appearing as a defense witness in the trial of Marie Antoinette; he managed to get himself guillotined, too.)

To be continued…

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    Jesus, Eugene, that’s not a history lesson. That’s a FILM TREATMENT!!!!

    Quit casting your pearls before us swine and get busy on the screenplay!

    Hell, there are several movie trailer lines in this piece alone!

  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    P.S. The British audience will love it, the French audience will love it and the American right-wing will denounce it so thoroughly you’ll be guaranteed an Oscar on your maiden trip down the carpet. I see Nick Nolte as Franklin and Ralph Fienes as Burgoyne. That Harry Potter kid as William Pitt the Younger. Maybe Clive Owen as George III.

    Whaddya think?

  3. Richard Greb says:

    And think of the book, either before the movie or afterward. Find an illustrator with the right sensibilities and away it goes.

  4. First, let’s sell the treatment and then I will work on the script.

    Clive Owen is too attractive to be George III. Parliament did not hire the Hanoverians for their good looks. Prince Albert was better looking than Victoria. Queen Alexandra–the wife of Edward VII– provided some good-looking Danish genes to the royal family. Unfortunately, some recessive genes ganged up on Princess Anne: she looks appallingly like George I.

    As for proper casting of George III, we would want a portly bumbler in his 30s. Think of a dumber and Gentile Jack Black.

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