The First of Two 1778 Treaties With France

As soon as French diplomat Conrad Alexandre Gérard de Rayneval’s quill pen finished scratching across the paper that was the Treaty of Alliance, he brought the French into the war on our side. Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee signed for the Continental Congress. However, that was the second treaty Rayneval signed that day in a room in the Hôtel de Coislin as an agent for Comte de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister and King Louis XVI.

The first treaty was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. This document is actually the first recognition by a major power that the Thirteen Colonies are a free and independent entity. This agreement is strictly a “business” deal in that its thirteen clauses define the terms of the “commercial” relationship with the U.S.

In the Treaty of Amity and Commerce the two countries pledge peace and friendship and allow consuls with diplomatic rights in each other’s ports and cities. Both agree to give “most favored nation” status for business laws as well as navigation rights. The treaty commits both nations to mutual protection of all vessels duly registered in either country and to provide manifests and passports on all merchant ships as well as agree to inspection for contraband. Contraband being material that could help an enemy of either country wage war.

There are also rules about how ships are treated if they are stopped by either nation. Both countries agreed to provide safe harbor for both war and merchant ships. The treaty has a ban on fishing in each other’s territorial waters except for the waters off Newfoundland. Fishing off eastern Canada was vital to the economies of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France retained two small islands – Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the southern coast of Newfoundland as well as fishing rights in the area. These rights were again included in the !783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution – see December 20th, 2020 Blog Post Getting to THE Terms of the Treaty of Paris –

Much of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce covers privateers and how they are to be treated. Some of the terms state that privateers can carry and keep property taken from a common enemy and both sides agree not to commission privateers against the other.

By the time this treaty was signed in 1778, American privateers were affecting British trade. By the end of the war, American privateers would capture, depending on the source, between 10 and 15% of the British merchant fleet.

One of the odder clauses is that if the parties declare war on each other, both countries must give the other’s ships free passage for the first six months of the war. The French probably insisted in this clause because in the 18th Century before the American Revolution began, France had been embroiled in six major wars with England (War of Spanish Succession – 1701- 1714; War of the Quadruple Alliance – 1718-1720; War of Austrian Succession – 1740 – 1748; First Carnactic War – 1746-1748; Second Carnactic War -1749 – 1754; and the Seven Years War -1756 – 1763).

In many ways, the American Revolution was another war in a continuing commercial and military struggle for global power between Britain and France that still, in many ways, goes on today. Among French leaders and in Louis XVI’s mind back in 1778, the American Revolution was just one more way to strike back at the British. In the end, American independence would set off a chain of events that would cost Louis XVI everything.


Image – Charles E. Mills drawing of the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance

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