The American Revolution was by no means a purely American-British conflict. The fight for American independence piqued the interest of Europe’s most powerful colonial powers. The result of this conflict would not only determine the fate of the thirteen North American colonies, but also alter the balance of colonial power throughout the world. Similar to how the colonies’ dissatisfaction with the British was years in the making, European involvement in the American Revolution came at the end of a century filled with intense imperial rivalry. In particular, the outbreak of armed conflict between the American colonies and Britain occurred only twelve years after the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
Setting the Table for Revolution: The Seven Years’ War
“The Seven Years’ War was in its origin not an European war at all; it was a war between England and France on Colonial questions with which the rest of Europe had nothing to do” - Arthur Ropes, late nineteenth century British historian
The Seven Years’ War was in many ways the capstone conflict for an eighteenth century riddled with imperial competition. While the war spread throughout most of Europe, and across the entire globe, the causes of this conflict are very much rooted in Britain and France’s colonial rivalry. The Seven Years’ War was in many ways a continuation of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Despite gaining few tangible prizes, Britain emerged victorious from the War of Austrian Succession. The French Navy was weakened and the British had gained knowledge of the weaknesses in French North American holdings. With this confidence, Britain sought to resolve unsettled boundary disputes, concerning the Canadian and Ohio territories. ((Arthur R. Ropes, “The Causes of The Seven Years’ War,”: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Royal Historical Society) 4, no. 1 (1889): 148)) It was under these pretenses that the Seven Years’ War started. The British were joined by Prussia and Portugal, while the French were allied with Spain, Russia, Sweden, and Austria—who turned to France for support in stemming Prussian expansion. Outside of the North American theater, conflicts arose on the European continent itself, as well as in far-away territories, such as French and British holdings in South Asia.
But, what were the outcomes of the Seven Years’ War and how did it change the landscape of colonial power on the eve of the American Revolution? The war officially ended in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Under the terms of this treaty, the losing side—France and Spain—had to turn over many of its North American territories to Britain. France gave many of its northern claims, while the Spanish ceded the Florida territory. The British now controlled all of North America east of the Mississippi River. In short, the most obvious outcome of the Seven Years’ War was that America remained British. ((Arthur R. Ropes, “The Causes of The Seven Years’ War,”: 144.))
British victory, however, came with a heavy price tag. The war proved to be very costly and, by the end of the fighting, massive war debts led the British government to the verge of bankruptcy. ((Richard B. Sheridan, “The British Credit Crisis of 1772 and The American Colonies,” The Journal of Economic History(Cambridge University Press) 20, no. 2 (June 1960): 162.)) Additionally, the rapid expansion of the British Navy came at the cost of the British merchant fleet. In the name of the war effort, the British government oftentimes forcibly converted British merchant vessels into war ships. As a result, Britain emerged from the Seven Years’ War without the commercial trading capacity that it once had. ((Larry Neal, “Interpreting Power and Profit in Economic History: A Case Study of the Seven Years War,” The Journal of Economic History (Cambridge University Press) 37, no. 1 (March 1977): 25.)) The British now also had thousands of new subjects from the newly acquired French and Spanish territories to appease. In such an effort, King George III issued the Quebec Act in 1774. The Act intended to sway the allegiance of the French-speaking Canadians towards the British. In practice, though, the Quebec Act riled anti-British sentiment amongst the American colonists who felt the Act was yet another example of British encroachment on American freedoms of religion and self-rule. ((Joseph J Casino, “Anti-Popery in Colonial Pennslyvania,” The Pennslyvania Magazine of History and Biography (The Historical Society of Pennslyvania) 105, no. 3 (July 1981): 279-306.))
In sum, the Seven Years’ War put in motion many of the driving forces behind European involvement in the American Revolution. As the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 drew nearer, Britain was looking to consolidate its North American empire, France and Spain were trying to recover from a crushing defeat, and American colonists were furious with new British policies.
Europe’s Imperial Motives
The Seven Years’ War teaches us that Europe had a lot at stake when it came to the fate of America. For that reason, when shots rang out at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Americans and Britons were not the only people rushing to arms. Consider the motivations of some of eighteenth century Europe’s imperial powers, regarding involvement in the American Revolution:
Outside of Britain, France had the most at stake in the American Revolution. First, ever since the time of the Roman Empire, there had been a Anglo-Franco rivalry. From the Norman conquest of Britain to the Hundred Years War, the British and French peoples were intense military, economic, and political rivals.
The French were eager to see a British defeat, which would signal a break in Britain’s recent imperial domination and help restore French pride and prestige after their humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War. Secondly, the French still had colonial interests in the region such as Louisiana and American victory would help them secure those interests. France still held many profitable, sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean, such as Haiti and Guadeloupe. France prized these possessions so much that in the Treaty of Paris of 1763. France willingly ceded their Canadian territories to the British under the promise that the small island of Guadeloupe would be returned to their control. French officials saw even greater potential in these small islands because American victory against Britain would open the Americas up to the import of French sugar and rum. ((Frederick H. Smith, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2005) 94.)) There was also a third reason why the French actively took the side of the American colonists—a rather philosophical one. On the heels of the Enlightenment and on the eve of the French Revolution, there was widespread sympathy, in France, towards American calls for liberty and self-determination. While the outbreak of revolution in France started nearly a decade after the end of fighting in the Americas, the ideals of the French Revolution—liberty, equality, and fraternity—were in many ways born in the American Revolution. The French people associated with the struggle of the Americans and considered it hypocritical not to support their cause.
Similar to France, Spain became involved in the American Revolution as a means to fight British imperialism and recoup some Spanish pride after the Seven Years’ War. By the eighteenth century, Spain was facing an uphill battle to try to regain its status as a world superpower. Unfortunately, defeat in the Seven Years’ War did nothing to help that cause. The loss of Florida following the war, and the declining profitability of Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, ((Frederick H. Smith, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History: 94.)) meant that Spanish influence in North America was starting to disappear. A Spain-fueled American victory in the Revolutionary War would help reverse that trend. In particular, Spain sought to recapture many of her Floridian ports and forts that she lost to the British in 1763.
Unlike France and Spain, German involvement in the American Revolution fell on the side of the British. While there was not a unified German state at this time, most German provinces were heavily Protestant, like Britain. Consequently, these provinces formed an alliance with Britain, against Catholic France and Spain. Furthermore, Prussia and Britain had recently experienced successes as allies in the Seven Years’ War. Similarly, the use of German mercenary soldiers, frequently referred to as Hessians (because they hailed from the German province of Hessia) ((Edward J. Lowell, The Hessians and Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1884)) was found to be quite successful and profitable in conflicts leading up to the American Revolution.
Methods of European Support
Many European powers had obvious motives to join in on America’s fight for independence. The question remains, though, how exactly did these European nations provide aid to the colonies? Once again, it is helpful to consider this on a country-by-country basis:
Considering how much was at stake for the French, it is not surprising that France involved itself directly in the American Revolution. Following the American victory at Saratoga in 1777, which showed that the colonists actually had a chance at winning the war, French support of the American cause began to increase drastically. Acting as the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin was able to negotiate a formal alliance with France that secured French financial support, as well as military supplies. ((The French Contribution to the American War of Independence, 2009, http://people.csail.mit.edu/sfelshin/saintonge/homepage.html (accessed June 2012).)) In a more round-a-bout sort of way, the French helped keep the British at bay through a series of proxy wars in the West Indies throughout the late 1770’s and 1780’s. These conflicts, over French and British colonial possessions in the Caribbean, did enough to distract British ships and troops away from the fighting in the colonies. Also key to American victory was direct French military aid. The French navy served as an invaluable ally to the fledgling American fleet and French land forces helped win the decisive battle of the war—victory at Yorktown.
Like France, Spain provided aid to the colonists in the form of funding, as well as by fighting Britain on a second front. The Spanish made significant financial contributions in the form of individual loans and populist fundraisers. The Spanish government gave large loans to prominent patriots, such as John Jay. ((Mildred Murry and Chuck Lampman, Spain’s Role in the American Revolution: From the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, 1999, http://www.americanrevolution.org/hispanic.html (accessed 2012 June).)) Moreover, in 1780, the Spanish king, Carlos III, issued a Royal Order asking for a donation from all Spaniards living in the Americas to decrease the cost of the war against Britain and help the American cause. This request received high levels of participation and popular support. ((Edward F. Sr. Butler, Chronology of Events Surrounding Spain’s Participation in the American Revolutionary War, January 2002, http://www.sar.org/mxssar/sphist.htm (accessed June 2012).)) Shortly following Spain’s formal entry into the war, in 1779, Spain began plotting to recapture many of the Floridian forts and ports it had lost following the Seven Years’ War. Using the Spanish-controlled Louisiana Territory and Spain’s Caribbean possessions as a launching point, Spain was able to successfully wrestle back from the British several southern forts. ((Mildred Murry and Chuck Lampman, Spain’s Role in the American Revolution: From the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, 1999, http://www.americanrevolution.org/hispanic.html (accessed 2012 June).)) While the fighting in Florida was neither as brutal nor as constant as the fighting along the Atlantic coast, the creation of a second front undoubtedly stretched British military commitments even further and increased the likelihood of an American victory.
Germany did not become a united nation until 1871. Lack of a unified German state made it difficult for the German people to exert much international influence in an era dominated politically by the nation-state. What “Germany” lacked in political power, however, it made up for with a well-trained military populace. The greatest German contribution to the American Revolution came in the form of hired mercenaries on the side of the British, often referred to as Hessians. German Hessians made up anywhere between a fourth and a third of Britain’s land forces. ((Edward J. Lowell, The Hessians and Other German Auxiliaries of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.)) The heavy use of such troops, however, only further served to anger many Americans and actually drew some previously British supporters to the colonists’ side. By using Hessian mercenaries, the British treated the American colonies just as they would any indigenous or non-white population—which at this time was a grave insult to the Americans.
Effect of Europe on the American Revolution and the Effect of the American Revolution on Europe
The American Revolution as a European war ultimately centers around two questions:
- How great of an impact did European actors actually have on the outcome of the war?
- In what ways did Britain’s defeat affect Europe in the late 1700’s?
How much did European support actually help influence the outcome of the war?
European support varied greatly in both its form and intensity. For France, support of the Americans meant strong, direct action. This included heavy shipments of military supplies and significant financial support. Later in the war, French action took the form of direct military intervention as French troops landed in North American and French ships began to roam the Atlantic coastline. In fact, the argument exists that if it were not for the influx of French troops and ships, towards the end of the conflict, the American side would not have had the strength it needed to deliver its decisive blow at Yorktown. Spain’s involvement was much less direct than France’s, but nonetheless significant. Spain’s contribution of private donations and personal loans helped keep it so the colonies were able to afford their independence. Moreover, Spain’s opening of a second front, by battling the British in Florida, kept the colonies from having to face the full brunt of the British military. Lastly, the use of German mercenaries greatly strengthened the British military. Without such a resource, the American Revolution might have been a much shorter conflict resulting in a much more decisive American victory. These foreign, hired-soldiers also contributed to the disrespect and insult the colonies believed the British were showing them.
How did Britain’s defeat in the Revolutionary War alter the European context as the end of the eighteenth century approached?
American victory (and British defeat) affected Europe in two major ways. First, many European liberal movements gained momentum from the American Declaration of Independence and the subsequent American victory. Liberal revolutionaries held many of the same ideals as the American founding fathers, and consequently associated themselves with the American cause. The most infamous “result” of the American Revolution was the French Revolution that started nearly a decade later. While serving as ambassador to America, in Paris in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the American war seems first to have awakened the thinking part of this nation in general from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk.” ((Julian P. Boyd, ed., “Letter from Jefferson to Dr. Richard Price, 8 January 1789,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson(Princeton University Press) 14 (1958): 420.)) France also lost their most prized colonial possession – Haiti –due to their uprising inspired by both the American and French Revolutions.
Secondly, American independence signified the creation of a new nation-state and a new player on the world political/economic scene. With its history of European ties, an independent America was sure to become a key political and economic player in European affairs. As the United States grew in the following centuries, its importance to Europe also grew. Today, the United States is one of Europe’s greatest economic and political allies.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for The American Revolution
- Watch “The American Revolution: European Context and Roman Parallels”
- Learn more about British-American diplomacy at Yale’s Avalon Project