Sunday, November 25, 2012

250 Years Ago ... Why the Big Secret?

 *Part of my continuing blog series leading up to the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in February 2014.

 On November 23, 1762 France and Spain signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau whereby France ceded control of Louisiana to Spain.  This fact, however, remained secret for a few years; news didn't make its way up the Mississippi until 1764.  Spain, in fact, would not take over governance of Louisiana until 1766.  

As I was researching the history of the Treaty, I kept looking for a simple explanation for why the treaty was secret.  I assumed that in any given history book, there would be a quick explanation of the strategy that France and Spain were pursuing in keeping the treaty secret.


Surprisingly, there is little discussion of this. Most historians simply referred to the treaty as the "secret" Treaty of Fontainebleau if they referred to the secret at all.  Perhaps looking at it through the eyes of Anglo-centric history, as we often do, it was just one of those things that France and Spain did.  France was the historic enemy, it couldn't be trusted, so OF COURSE it secretly gave the land west of the Mississippi to Spain.  Or, another way to look at it, was that Louisiana was the price that France had to pay to Spain in order to make peace; keeping it a secret saved everybody's face.  Other historians imply that, after the war, Spain was in a better financial position to maintain the barrier between Britain and its own silver mines in Mexico, which might have been true but doesn't explain why it had to be secret.  

Another theory is that maintaining and strengthening the "Family Compact"between the Bourbon King of France and the Bourbon King of Spain was part of France's long term strategy for rebuilding after the war and eventually waging war, again, on Britain.  The cession of Louisiana to Spain helped strengthen that tie. Perhaps that is why it had to be kept secret.  If France's strategy was to simply rebuild, strengthen its alliances and come back against Britain as soon as possible, it is reasonable that they wouldn't want to let Britain in on any part of that strategy too soon.

W.J. Eccles, the noted Canadian historian, buys into the Family Compact theory.  He believes that France's main goal in ending the Seven Years war was to make peace in such a way that they could rebuild their army and navy in as fast a time as possible, consolidate their alliance with Spain, and eventually become strong enough to wage war again in the hope of restoring the balance of power in the world and stop the growth of the ever mightier British Empire. 

Eccles is one of the few historians I've read who is specific about France's view of the role of Britain's North American colonies in their plans. (See his essays, The Role of the American Colonies in Eighteenth -Century French Foreign Policy, and The Social, Economic, and Political Significance of the Military Establishment in New France.)   In his view, by as early as 1710 the French saw the Anglo Americans, and their independent way of thinking, as a source of trouble for the British.  The chief minister for the French North American colonies, hearing a rumor that the people of New England had established "a sort of Republic" in which they were "unwilling to accept the absolute governors of the Kings of England" wrote to the Governor of Canada to tell him of Louis XIV's approval of this state of affairs and his encouragement for Canada to join with the "Council of Boston" to aid it in this endeavor.  Of course this plan came to naught, but it is interesting that the despot, Louis XIV, was willing to encourage a republic in North America if it meant a thorn in the side of Britain.  

By mid-century, according to Eccles, observers were saying that the only thing keeping the Anglo American colonies tied to Britain was a fear of the French and Indians along the inland borders.  He quotes a 1748 letter by the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm:
The English colonies in North America, in the space of thirty or fifty years, would be able to form a state by themselves entirely independent of Old England.  But as the whole country which lies along the seashore is unguarded, and on the land side harassed by the French, these dangerous neighbours in time of war are sufficient to prevent the connection of the colonies with their mother country from being quite broken off. 
The French never saw their own North American colonies as profitable and constantly questioned whether they should continue with them.  However, the French did not want to see the British spread out across the entire North American continent, as far west as New Spain and the silver mines of Mexico.   In France's view, imperial Britain already had too much power.  Control of the entire North American continent by the British would be intolerable.  Hence, French policy in the 1700's was to use its North American colonies to keep the British hemmed in along the Atlantic seaboard. 

The fall of Canada in the Seven Years War shattered this policy.  By war's end the British were poised to keep Canada and all the land east of the Mississippi River.  What was the reaction of France to the fall of Canada itself?  They simply switched to Plan B.  After all, the concern wasn't Canada, the concern was defeating that old enemy Britain.
The reaction in France to these events is revealing.  The King's only concern was over the fact that his troops had been obliged to lay down their arms without receiving the honours of war. That concerned him greatly; the loss of half a continent and the fate of his Canadian subjects concerned him not at all.  Nor did his chief minister, the single-minded duc de Choiseul, appear dismayed at the unexpected turn of events.  Even before Quebec fell a senior official in the ministry of marine, the marquis de Capellis, had advised the abandonment of Canada when the time came to negotiate for peace, since to do so would lead to the ruin of Britain by bringing on the defection of her American colonies. With the acquisition of Canada, he argued, those colonies would soon surpass old England in wealth, and indubitably they would then throw off the yoke of the metropolis ...
As the war came to a close, and the duc de Choiseul prepared to negotiate a peace treaty with Britain, according to Eccles, he informed the French ambassador to Spain that he was going to "insist on the abandonment of Canada in order to drive a rift between England and her colonies."

The British were not unaware of the danger.  According to Eccles, in 1761 Lord Bedford, a British diplomat in Paris, had written home:
I don't know whether the neighbourhood of the French to our North American colonies was not the greatest security for their dependence on the mother country, which I feel will be slighted by them when their apprehension of the French is removed.
 But the Anglo Americans wanted Canada to be retained; they had fought hard for victory and they wanted their spoils. They put pressure on Britain and, in the end, Canada was not returned to France. 

The French clearly recognized at an early point that if they removed themselves from North America entirely, there might be adverse consequences to Britain as her own colonies became too independent.  As part of its own plan to rebuild itself and Spain, while at the same time doing what it could to weaken Britain, France decided to give up all of its colonies in North America.   Giving up Louisiana may, therefore, have had two purposes:  to strengthen the Family Compact with Spain and to remove France completely from the New World so that the Anglo Americans could focus exclusively on the issues they had with their mother country. 

Nineteen years later, in 1781, a combined army consisting of the Continental Army troops led by George Washington and French troops led by the Comte de Rochambeau, with aid from the rebuilt French fleet from the West Indies commanded by the Comte de Grasse, and troops from the Continental Army led by the Marquis de Lafayette,  defeated the British Army of General Cornwallis at Yorktown.  The French had achieved their goal; North America would not be British. 

Across the international boundary line that was the Mississippi River, the French residents of St. Louis living under Spanish rule cheered the victory.