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Louis XVI, Vergennes and the American Independence

Louis XVI, Vergennes et l’Indépendance américaine
John Hardman


This paper concentrates mainly on why France entered the American War. Louis XVI later claimed that his ministers took advantage of his youth to involve him in a war which led to the French Revolution. In fact from his accession aged nineteen, Louis, the precocious pupil of the great diplomatist Abbé Jean-Ignace de La Ville, knew precisely what he was doing. His youth as Dauphin had been dominated by the catastrophic French defeats in the Seven Years’ War. La Ville had published on the American origins of that war. Louis was possessed by a fatal attraction for England and the sea. He had a Catullan love/hate relationship with England—teaching himself the language, mastering the complexities of the political system (better than those of his own), but nevertheless seeking a naval rearmament that had no peaceful rationale. His initial and correct response to the American War was to let England and its colonies slug it out to “leur destruction mutuelle”. We will examine why he changed his mind and Vergennes’s role in this.

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1To understand why France intervened in the War of American Independence we must go back to Louis XVI’s dark and difficult childhood. Darkened by his repressive parents and their early death, it was made even gloomier by the disastrous French defeats in the Seven Years’ War, notably at Rossbach where the French Army suffered its worst defeat since Agincourt. Its navy was trounced in all quarters of the globe. At the Treaty of Paris in 1763 France lost Canada, some West Indian sugar islands and – much more important – its leading role in India, a region whose gross domestic product exceeded that of France and England combined. France also lost its diplomatic prestige: now, in modern boxing parlance, the country was “punching below its weight”.

  • 1 La Ville 1755–57.

2Louis felt all this as a precocious student of international relations. His tutor from 1771 till 15 April 1774 had been Abbé Jean-Ignace de La Ville, of the Académie Française, and premier commis of the foreign office, which he ran during the ministerial interregnum of 24 December 1770 to 6 June 1771. We don’t know Louis’s syllabus but it is surely significant that La Ville’s most noted published work, Mémoires des commissaires du roi et de ceux de Sa Majesté britannique, sur les possessions et les droits respectifs des deux couronnes en Amérique, concerned the boundary disputes over their possessions in North America, which had led to war between France and England in 1754.1 Before the negotiations had been completed, England had launched a surprise attack on the French Newfoundland fishing fleet that years later still rankled. La Ville did not live to see his protégé in action: a month before Louis XVI’s accession on 10 May 1774, he died during a banquet to celebrate his elevation to the episcopate. But he would have been proud of him: from the outset of his reign, aged nineteen, Louis’s correspondence with his foreign secretary, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, shows a complete mastery of his brief, a sureness of touch and penetrating insights.

  • 2 Moreau 1898–1901, vol. 1, p. 321.
  • 3 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, pp. 190–91.
  • 4 Louis XVI to Vergennes, 4 February 1778, in Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 256. See Louis XV 1866 (...)

3As Dauphin, Louis had received not only technical instruction in diplomacy from La Ville, who was also Vergennes’s mentor, but instruction in international morality from Jacob-Nicolas Moreau, who in 1773 published with the imprimatur of the foreign office a summation of his work, Leçons de morale, de politique [foreign policy] et de droit public, puisées dans l’histoire de notre monarchie. Ou nouveau plan d’étude de l’histoire de France rédigé par les ordres & d’après les vues de feu Monseigneur le Dauphin pour l’instruction des princes ses enfants.2 And in a policy statement at the start of his reign, Louis told Vergennes that “honnêté et retenue doit être notre marche”.3 By “honnêté” he meant observance of international treaties. By “retenue” he meant restraint in annexing territory. And it is significant that Louis made few territorial demands during the American War, which mystified his Spanish ally. Louis contrasted his own “retenue” with the crude annexationism of his brother-in-law the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. As he told Vergennes “nous avons une alliance qui nous unit de bien près avec l’Autriche, mais elle ne nous oblige pas d’entrer dans leurs vues d’ambition et d’injustice.”4 By “entering into” such Austrian schemes, France had in 1763 lost her first empire.

  • 5 Louis XVI and Vergennes, p. 90.
  • 6 Cited in Petitfils 2005, p. 62.

4The Peace of Paris left what Vergennes called a “tache” on France’s reputation. But how to remove it? Again we must turn to Louis’s adolescence. Two aspects of his education merit our consideration. They may be conflated by saying that Louis had a fatal attraction to England and the Sea. The sea! Louis only saw it once, in August 1786 when he visited the construction of a vast man-made harbour at Cherbourg to facilitate, if need be, an invasion of England. The celebratory gun fire could be heard at Portsmouth. Yet Louis loved England, taught himself its language against parental opposition, translated Horace Walpole’s book on Richard III, subscribed to the Spectator, surely the only French ruler to have done so, and read the debates in both Houses of Parliament in extenso – Vergennes, his foreign secretary who worked a twelve-hour day, only had time to skim through them.5 Louis consequently had a far better grasp of the English political situation than anyone in the Cabinet. Louis’s hero was Captain Cook, whose career inspired him to send La Pérouse on his equally ill-fated voyage of discovery. A by no means friendly witness said of Louis aged 15 : “la marine est l’étude favorite et l’on possède à cet égard toutes les connaissances qui peuvent s’acquérir sans la pratique.”6

5Without Louis’s diplomatic and naval skills and his obsession with England it is hard to see how France would have been willing or able to challenge England’s mastery of the seas – a mastery which had lasted since the battle of La Hogue in 1692, and after Louis’s death would endure for another century and a half. At Louis’s accession in 1774 France had only one battleship at sea – the rest were laid up because of the cost of debarnacling them after a year at sea. Louis was determined to rearm, to create almost from scratch a navy which would rival England’s.

6But there were obstacles to overcome. First finance. The finance minister, Joseph-Marie Terray, by forcibly reducing the rate of interest paid on royal debt and reducing tax evasion had prolonged the life of the regime by a generation. But his successor, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, had warned Louis XVI that if France went to war, the chance to reform the monarchy would be postponed for ten years, perhaps forever. And even if the country could afford to rearm, would England permit it? Might England not launch a pre-emptive war to stop it in its tracks – a surprise attack as in 1755? Jean-Frédéric Phélipeaux, Count of Maurepas, Louis’s chief minister certainly believed so. Here Louis’s knowledge of the English political scene gave him an important insight. England was engaged in trying to suppress the rebellion of its North American colonies: the Boston Tea Party occurred on 16 December 1773 (five months before Louis’s accession), after which George III declared the colonists rebels to his crown. And Louis realized that the government of Lord North was well-disposed to France and would indeed brook any challenge from it short of formally intervening on the colonists’ side.

  • 7 Louis XVI and Vergennes, p. 227; Véri 1928–30, vol. 2, p. 42.

7At this stage Louis did not want to enter the war, but he did want to keep it going. Since England seemed to be winning, the colonists had to be helped by clandestine means. On 2 May 1776 Louis formally authorized Vergennes to subsidize the colonists, secretly employing the agency of the playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. A key witness claims that the king had approached Beaumarchais, “sans consulter ses ministres (ou s’il les consulta, ceux-ci s’en défendent à present)”.7 As we will see buck-passing occurred at all stages of the “American affair”.

  • 8 Quoted in Padover 1939, p. 109.

8The subsidy, a million livres, was trivial – less than Marie-Antoinette had spent on balls the previous year – but Louis also facilitated the “laundering” of a further million from Spain and, more important, allowed the Americans to trade in French ports and purchase arms and munitions. The secret soon got out. Lord Stormont, the English ambassador, protested to Vergennes: “In the history of the world there is no example of aid given to the rebels of a country one professes to be friendly with.” When Vergennes blustered: “We cannot stop smugglers.” Stormont retorted : “Do smugglers go in fleets, Sir?”8 Yet England would not have declared war over this.

9Vergennes was brazen, Louis ashamed about the duplicity which accorded badly with the “ethical foreign policy” he had outlined at his accession. When France and England finally went to war in 1778 Vergennes issued a manifesto which proclaimed that Louis had “remained a tranquil spectator” in the dispute between England and its colonies, avoiding “the slightest suspicion” of “entering into correspondences of any sort with the insurgents”.

10Louis would have preferred to avoid all references to America in the French manifesto: since ‘‘it is perfectly obvious that we have not been neutral … we must concentrate on the serious harm to public safety in allowing England to adopt the haughty tone it adopts with all the maritime and Continental Powers. We must show that England has abused its power by searching neutral vessels trading with the colonists.” Louis did not just feel honest guilt about helping the colonists; he was indifferent towards American Independence. His concern was ending England’s maritime dominance, which he saw as a tyranny of the seas. However, Louis wrote these comments for himself and the French manifesto went out uncorrected.

11Although using Beaumarchais to supply the colonists with armaments was probably Louis’s idea, the king did not intend at this stage to enter the war. The locus classicus for Louis’s stance is his fine analysis of the news that an English army under General Howe had occupied Long Island, evacuated by George Washington during the night of 28–29 August 1776, and was set to walk into New York unopposed:

  • 9 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 86.

L’avantage n’est pas considérable en lui-même, et cela ne servira qu’à les engager de plus en plus dans la guerre, et plus ils feront la guerre, plus ils se détruiront eux-mêmes. Quand même ils viendront à bout de reprendre, ils n’en seraient que plus affaiblis, trouvant les colonies ruinées et ayant usé leurs forces contre elles. Un autre bien qui résultera de l’avantage qu’ils viennent d’avoir, est la consistance que cela donnera au ministère actuel dont nous avons lieu d'être contents, non seulement par l’amitié qu’il nous a témoignée, mais aussi par l’acharnement et l’entêtement qu’il met à cette guerre qui, de façon ou d’autre, ne peut que leur être nuisible. Toutes ces raisons combinées ensemble font que je crois que nous n’aurons pas la guerre, du moins de quelque temps. Mais cela n’empêchera pas, comme vous l’observez fort bien, qu’on continue les travaux de la marine ; quand ils ne serviraient qu’à la remonter réellement et à donner une idée de nos forces qu’on n’avait pas, cela serait un très grand bien.9

  • 10 Scott 1990, pp. 250–51.
  • 11 Louis XVI to Vergennes, 20 November 1775; Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 213.

12Louis realized that the friendly North administration had swallowed French rearmament, which had now passed from being a provocation to being a deterrent. By now England would have been happy to end the naval arms race with France and actually proposed this in March 1777.10 Not only would England and her colonists work for their “mutual destruction”, but the political position of the North administration would be strengthened. Vergennes thought it was about to collapse through lack of morale; Louis’s correct analysis was: ‘‘La majorité du ministère est très considérable et il donnera la loi tant qu’elle durera.”11

  • 12 Corwin 1915–16, p. 37.

13So why, and this is the big conundrum, why having made this lucid and correct analysis, did Louis not stick to it instead of entering the war some eighteen months later? In 1791 he claimed that his ministers had taken advantage of his youth and that intervention had led to the Revolution, but in 1778 he was twenty-four years old and already an experienced diplomat. Vergennes argued at length that win or lose England would use its troops stationed in the American hemisphere to seize French and Spanish colonies in reprisal for aiding the colonists and that France should enter the war whilst an American alliance was available. There has long been scholarly dispute about whether Vergennes actually believed this argument or merely used it to try to bamboozle the king into entering the war. Spain greeted Vergennes’s line “with conspicuous levity”12 and there is little evidence that Louis himself fell for it.

  • 13 “after this, therefore because of this”.

14The common sense answer to the conundrum is Saratoga. On 4 December 1777 news reached Versailles that a British army of five thousand men had capitulated to American irregulars at Saratoga Springs on 17 October 1777; and this convinced the French government that the Americans (who had previously suffered a series of defeats) were a serious fighting force. Why not jump on their bandwagon? The very next day after the arrival of the news, French and American representatives started treaty negotiations. Post hoc, propter hoc13? Possibly. But there are other interpretations. And in any case, would it not have been logical to support England rather than the colonists in order to perpetuate the war?

  • 14 Dull 1975, general argument.

15Jonathan Dull argues that Saratoga just happened to coincide with the point when French rearmament was complete.14 That is to say in 1778, with fifty-two capital ships and with the element of surprise, France would have near parity with and possibly local superiority over England. For France could recruit quickly from a system of naval reserves (classes), whereas England had to wait for returning merchantmen to crew all the ships in the Royal Navy. Vergennes hoped to capitalize on these factors to knock England out of the war in one campaign. If there had to be a further campaign, France’s Bourbon ally Spain, with its forty ships, would be needed to sustain parity with England.

  • 15 For this reason Turgot thought armed manoeuvres were even worse than war. On 11 January 1777 Maurep (...)
  • 16 Naval expenditure in 1776 was some 47 million livres and in 1777, the last year of peace, 59 millio (...)

16It is a sad fact that rearmament, an arms-race, except a nuclear one, carries its own logic towards war. Louis had thought he could have his cake and eat it: he could indulge in naval rearmament without the risk of war. He could bring off this usually impossible feat of gastronomic legerdemain because Lord North, the British prime minister, was prepared to suffer any humiliation to prevent France’s direct intervention in the war. But Maurepas, who as an ex-naval minister had been as keen as the king to build up the navy, was beginning to think that since France was spending so much on rearmament it might as well go to war, which would justify additional taxation.15 In fact Maurepas was wrong: there was a big financial difference between rearmament and war if only because of the destruction of ships in battle.16

  • 17 See the anguished correspondence between Vergennes and Montmorin, the French ambassador to Spain, M (...)

17In 1777 Maurepas, Vergennes and Sartine, the brilliant naval minister, were keen to enter the war. Montbarrey, the army minister was selflessly against. Louis was dragging his feet – because he was indecisive and because his analysis that France should allow England and its colonies to work for their mutual destruction still held good. But given Spanish reluctance these ministers did not want to take responsibility for the gamble of a one-campaign war, though this could have paid off. In 1778 a combined forces attack similar to that which was pulled off at Yorktown failed through bad timing. Both strategies relied on perfect timing and France was either lucky in 1781 or unlucky in 1778. If France had been lucky in 1778 the royal debt would have been 500,000 livres less and the Ancien Régime might have soldiered on; if it had been unlucky in 1781 it could have collapsed at any time.17

18As the regime entered stormy waters there was a lot of buck-passing in government. Maurepas tried to force the king to take responsibility for the decision to enter war without Spain as Vergennes reminded him in 1780 when the war was going badly:

Cette question [of treating with the American delegates] fut cependant très longuement discutée et approfondie dans différents mémoires qui furent mis alors sous les yeux de Votre Majesté ; elle les examina par elle-même ; elle les fit discuter par ceux de ses ministres qu’elle trouva bon de faire appeler à cette importante délibération et elle est priée très humblement de se rappeler que lorsqu’il fut question de prononcer si l’on traiterait avec les Américains, M. le comte de Maurepas, provoqué par Votre Majesté de lui faire connaître son avis, s’en excusa et lui représenta que la matière ayant été soigneusement pesée et discutée dans les mémoires et les délibérations, c’était à la sagesse de Votre Majesté de prononcer et que ses ministres ne pouvaient plus qu’attendre ses ordres pour les exécuter.

C’est à la suite de ses ordres que j’ai entamé la négociation avec les députés de l’Amérique et conclu, en février 1778, deux traités.

19However Louis insisted that all the negotiations should be conditional on Spanish agreement. So far from agreeing, Charles III refused even to recognize American Independence because of the example it would set the Spanish colonies: even when in 1779 Spain finally entered the war against England, after the Treaty of Aranjuez signed on 12 April 1779, Spain merely recognized that such independence was a French war aim!

  • 18 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 258.
  • 19 Dull 1975, p. 92.
  • 20 Véri 1774-1780, vol. 2, p. 94.

20But something happened early in 1778 to incline Louis towards entering the American War. In letters to Vergennes of 7 and 8 January Louis makes it clear that he has made the decision to enter the war whatever the Spanish response,18 even though such refusal would have given him a let out. This squares with Dull’s conclusion that “serious negotiations [with the American commissioners] began only on 8 January”.19 My guess is that Louis’s letters were prompted by the intelligence which reached Versailles on 6 January 1778 that the Elector of Bavaria had died without an immediate heir. Louis knew what would happen next. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II would claim the territory as a lapsed imperial fief. Frederick the Great of Prussia would try to stop him and Joseph’s sister Marie-Antoinette would be enlisted to persuade Louis to support his Austrian ally. Louis’s diplomatic apprenticeship had been grounded on the disasters stemming from the one-sided Austrian alliance. Now the danger was intensified by a finally pregnant Austrian fifth-columnist in the royal marriage bed. It would be easier to resist Joseph’s request for support if he was already fully engaged in an overseas war; that might just tip the balance. On 12 April Maurepas’s confidant, the Abbé de Véri noted: “je soupçonne notre ministère (sans avoir cherché à m’en éclairer) d’avoir accéléré ses projets contre l’Angleterre pour qu’une guerre entamée servît d’excuse au refus de se mêler de celle d'Allemagne.”20

  • 21 AAE, CP, Espagne, vol. 589, f. 124.

21Some support for this view is lent by an underlined passage in Louis’s letter of 19 June 1778 to Charles III : “Je suis d’autant plus libre de m’occuper entièrement de cette affaire [war with England] que j’ai pris le parti, que Votre Majesté approuvera sûrement, de ne me mêler que par de bons offices de la querelle qui s’est élevée en Allemagne”; and especially by a passage in Vergennes’s covering letter to Montmorin: “Ni M. de Maurepas ni moi sommes disposés à changer d’opinion, mais la résolution [to keep out of the Bavarian affair] que le roi annonce au roi son oncle est un engagement solennel.”21

22Marie-Antoinette exploited her long-delayed first pregnancy to put pressure on Louis. Even the queen’s accoucheur weighed in, telling Louis how dangerous it would be to quarrel with a pregnant woman. “I hear you,” Louis replied, “but the queen must not ask me for what I cannot give her.” To the queen herself he was more brutal:

C’est l’ambition de vos parents qui va tout bouleverser ; ils ont commencé par la Pologne, maintenant la Bavière fait le second tome ; j’en suis fâché par rapport à vous.

– Mais ...vous ne pouvez pas nier, Monsieur, que vous étiez informé et d’accord sur cette affaire de Bavière.

  • 22 Letter from Mercy to Maria-Theresa, 18 February 1778, in Marie-Antoinette and Marie-Thérèse 1875, v (...)

– J’étais si peu d’accord... que l’on vient de donner ordre aux ministres français de faire connaître dans les cours où ils se trouvent que ce démembrement de la Bavière est contre notre gré, et que nous le désapprouvons.22

23It is possible, then, that the French government, rather than clearing the European decks so that they could concentrate on an overseas war (the conventional view), involved themselves instead in an overseas war as a pretext not to support their Austrian ally in Germany. This concern could explain why the French government was so keen to present the Belle-Poule incident as the English aggression that started the war. For the 1756 Treaty of Versailles with Austria required an act of aggression as a casus foederis, whereas the limited help (eighteen ships) stipulated in the 1761 Family compact with Spain was unconditional. While it would be too much of a jeu d’esprit to suggest that France seriously expected Austria to provide Uhlans to fight in America, it is a fact that during the sessions of mutual recrimination which increasingly characterized the Franco-Austrian alliance the Austrian reproach of lack of help over Bavaria and (later) Holland was matched with the French reproach of lack of assistance against England.

24So was it all worth it? France’s territorial gains at the Peace of Paris in 1783 were slight. America’s signing separate peace preliminaries with England – breaking the one condition of the alliance –weakened its bargaining position. Vergennes was bitter, George III contemptuous – Louis’s views are not recorded. France had to compensate Spain for not recovering Gibraltar – which was the main Spanish demand. But above all Louis, in accord with his principle of retenue, had not sought major gains. The real prize was diplomatic prestige and for a short period Louis was the arbiter of Europe.

  • 23 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 92.

25This came to a brutal end when France failed to support its Dutch and Ottoman allies in 1787 and 1788, thereby incurring both humiliation and shame, a contributory cause of the French Revolution. France could not support its allies because of its dire financial situation. The war had cost just over a billion livres, and Louis’s finances were better than Louis XIV’s in 1714 and similar to Louis XV’s in 1763; but France was now reliant on footloose international finance to service the debt. Nevertheless it has been argued that France and England’s finances were in similar shape in 1783 and it was subsequent policies that caused the French rather than the English regime to collapse. George III between 1782 and 1784 survived a crisis arguably as bad as that Louis failed to solve in 1787–1789. Louis analysed George’s situation better than his own, and wished him well: “je désire qu’il réusisse jusqu’au bout”, he told Vergennes.23

  • 24 Vergennes to Montmorin (draft approved by the king), 9 November 1782, AAE, CP, Espagne, vol. 609, f (...)
  • 25 Such was the view, presented to the Council, of Castries’s successor La Luzerne, Bibliothèque natio (...)

26I said that Yorktown was something of a fluke. The naval defeat at The Saints in 1782 meant that Jamaica could not be taken to swap for Gibraltar. Vergennes wrote: “tout ce qui s’est passé dans cette campagne annonce un détraquement dans les moyens moraux et physiques.”24 A collapse of the fiscal military machine. Only English political instability saved French bacon. The scare convinced both Vergennes and Louis XVI that reform was necessary. Turgot had warned Louis that if France went to war, the chance to reform the monarchy would be postponed for ten years, perhaps forever. Now the situation was reversed: unless the monarchy was reformed France would not be able to go to war. The 1782 scare led directly to the summoning of the 1787 Assemblée des Notables, with the results we know. For two years France turned in on itself, haunted by the unjustified fear that England would take advantage of France’s internal weakness to renew the colonial war.25 Later the country was too divided to have a diplomatic persona.

Printed sources

La Ville Jean-Ignace de, 1755–57, Mémoires des commissaires du Roi et de ceux de Sa Majesté britannique, sur les possessions et les droits respectifs des deux couronnes en Amérique, Paris, Imprimerie royale, 4 vols.

Louis XV, 1866, Correspondance secrète inédite de Louis XV sur la politique étrangère avec le Comte de Broglie, Tercier, etc.; et autres documents relatifs au Ministère secret; précédés d’une étude sur le caractère et la politique personnelle de Louis XV, ed. by M. E. Boutaric, Paris: H. Plon, 2 vols.

Louis XVI and Vergennes Charles, Comte de, 1998, Louis XVI and the Comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 17741787, ed. and with an introduction by John Hardman and Munro Price, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

Marie-Antoinette and Marie-Thérèse, 1875, Marie-Antoinette : Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le comte de Mercy-Argenteau, ed. by Alfred d’Arneth and M. A. Geffroy, 2nd ed., Paris: Firmin-Didot frères, fils, 3 vols.

Moreau Jacob Nicolas, 1898–1901, Mes souvenirs, ed. by C. Hermelin: Paris, Plon, 2 vols. 


Corwin Edward S., 1915–16, “The French Objective in the American Revolution”, American Historical Review, no. 21, pp. 33–61.

Dull Jonathan R., 1975, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 17741787, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Padover Saul K., 1939, The Life and Death of Louis XVI, New York. D. Appleton-Century.

Petitfils Christian, 2005, Louis XVI, Paris: Perrin.

Scott Hamish M., 1990, British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Véri Joseph-Alphonse de, 1928–30, Journal de l’abbé de Véri, ed. by Jehan de Witte, Paris: Jules Tallandier, 2 vols.

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1 La Ville 1755–57.

2 Moreau 1898–1901, vol. 1, p. 321.

3 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, pp. 190–91.

4 Louis XVI to Vergennes, 4 February 1778, in Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 256. See Louis XV 1866, vol. 2, p. 428.

5 Louis XVI and Vergennes, p. 90.

6 Cited in Petitfils 2005, p. 62.

7 Louis XVI and Vergennes, p. 227; Véri 1928–30, vol. 2, p. 42.

8 Quoted in Padover 1939, p. 109.

9 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 86.

10 Scott 1990, pp. 250–51.

11 Louis XVI to Vergennes, 20 November 1775; Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 213.

12 Corwin 1915–16, p. 37.

13 “after this, therefore because of this”.

14 Dull 1975, general argument.

15 For this reason Turgot thought armed manoeuvres were even worse than war. On 11 January 1777 Maurepas wrote to Noailles, ambassador to England: “Il est certain que de part et d’autre nous [la France et l’Angleterre] épuisons en compliments et en assurances de bonne volonté et de dispositions pacifiques et nous nous ruinons en préparations de guerre.” Archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères (thereafter AAE), Correspondance politique (thereafter CP), Angleterre, vol. 521, f. 53.

16 Naval expenditure in 1776 was some 47 million livres and in 1777, the last year of peace, 59 million – by which time France had some sixty capital ships. Naval expenditure in 1778 and 1779, however, reached 150 million and 155 million livres respectively.

17 See the anguished correspondence between Vergennes and Montmorin, the French ambassador to Spain, Montmorin to Vergennes, 30 October 1780, AAE, CP, Espagne, vol. 601, f. 97; Vergennes to Montmorin, 9 and 26 November 1782, AAE, CP, Espagne, vol. 609, ff. 157 and 293–95.

18 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 258.

19 Dull 1975, p. 92.

20 Véri 1774-1780, vol. 2, p. 94.

21 AAE, CP, Espagne, vol. 589, f. 124.

22 Letter from Mercy to Maria-Theresa, 18 February 1778, in Marie-Antoinette and Marie-Thérèse 1875, vol. 3, pp. 168–69.

23 Louis XVI and Vergennes 1998, p. 92.

24 Vergennes to Montmorin (draft approved by the king), 9 November 1782, AAE, CP, Espagne, vol. 609, f. 157.

25 Such was the view, presented to the Council, of Castries’s successor La Luzerne, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des Manuscrits, NAF, 9434, ff. 172, 213–14 and 209.

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Electronic reference

John Hardman, « Louis XVI, Vergennes and the American Independence », Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles [Online],  | 2017, Online since 13 October 2017, connection on 21 September 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

John Hardman

John Hardman received both his Masters and PhD (1972) from Oxford. Between 1969 and 1983 he was a lecturer in Modern History at University of Edinburgh, and from 2000 to 2004 a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sussex. He is currently an independent scholar. His publications include The French Revolution Sourcebook (London: Arnold, [1981] 1999); Louis XVI (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); French Politics 1774-1789 (London: Longman, 1995); with Munro Price, Louis XVI and the comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 1774-1787 (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1998); Robespierre (London: Longman, 1999); Louis XVI: The Silent King (London: Bloomsbury, 2000); Overture to Revolution: The 1787 Assembly of Notables and the Crisis of France’s Old Regime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); The Life of Louis XVI (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

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