From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Today we recognize two events that showed the United States’ appreciation for France’s support during the six years the young nation actively fought for independence from Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin, America’s first diplomat, was the driving force behind the warm relationship between the U.S. and France which readily agreed to recognize the 13 former British colonies as their own nation.
And so it was on Sept. 3, 1782, the United States gave as a gift to King Louis XVI a not-yet-completed 74-gun man-of-war to be named America, and a year later, it was in France where the Treaty of Paris would be negotiated and signed Sept. 3, 1873, officially giving the United States of America its freedom from Great Britain.
Neither effort by the Americans to honor their French partnership were sustained. The ship America lasted only three years sailing for the French. And less than 10 years after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the death of King Louis XVI would end more than 1,000 years of continuous rule by French monarchy during the French Revolution. And with the Louisiana Purchase 10 years after that, the French had no territory left near their former ally.
Not the first USS America
She had at one point two legends of the U.S. Navy assigned as her commanders. She was the largest and most powerful man-of-war built in her day, constructed in a shipyard of a fledging nation still fighting for its independence.
Yet in a twist of fate, by the time the warship to be named America was ready to leave the dock, she would instead fly under the French flag. On Sept. 3, 1782, Congress decided to give the nearly finished America to King Louis XVI of France to replace the French ship of the line Magnifique, which had run aground and was destroyed Aug. 11, 1782 while attempting to enter Boston harbor. America was to symbolize the new nation’s appreciation for France’s service to and sacrifices on behalf of the cause of American patriots during the American Revolution. It had been less than a year earlier when France’s intervention during the Battle of Yorktown Oct. 9, 1781 resulted in British Gen. Cornwallis retreating, effectively ending the war.
The Continental Congress had authorized the construction of three 74-gun ships of the line on Nov. 9, 1776. America was laid down in May 1777 in the shipyard of John Langdon on Rising Castle Island in the Piscataqua River between Portsmouth, N.H. and Kittery, Maine.
Progress on her construction was delayed by a chronic scarcity of funds and a consequent shortage of skilled craftsmen and well-seasoned timber. After dragging on for two years, the Marine Committee named Capt. John Barry as her prospective commanding officer Nov. 6, 1779. He had already kept the Marine Committee from down-grading the 74-gun man-of-war to a 54-gun frigate. He was ordered to hurry the process and get the ship finished.
But Barry could do little about getting more skilled labor and seasoned wood. On Sept. 5, 1780, he was ordered to Boston to take command of what many considered the finest ship to serve in the Continental Navy, the 36-gun frigate Alliance, which had recently arrived from Europe.
But the loss of Capt. Barry would hardly be felt since the ship’s next commanding officer was Capt. John Paul Jones, legendary already for his exploits in fighting the British earlier in the war. He arrived at Portsmouth on Aug. 31, 1781, where he threw himself into the task of getting the man-of-war to sail within a year.
But then fate would change the ship’s journey, and effectively ended Capt. Jones’ career in a post-Revolutionary War navy. When the French ship Magnifique was destroyed entering Boston Harbor, Congress took the opportunity to play a bit of politics by giving the not-yet-completed ship to King Louis XVI on Sept. 3, 1782.
Greatly disappointed, Jones remained in Portsmouth striving to finish the new ship of the line. On Nov. 5, 1782, Jones watched as the America, partially held back by a series of ropes calculated to break in sequence to check the vessel’s acceleration, slipped gracefully into the waters of the Piscataqua.
After she was rigged and fitted out, the ship, the former commander of Magnifique, M. le Chevalier de Macarty Martinge, departed Portsmouth on June 24, 1783 and reached Brest, France, on July 16, six years after her keel was laid.
As her wake dissipated, so, too, was Jones’ career in the United States. With no ship to command, there simply was no position for Jones. He returned to Europe in 1783 to collect prize money due his crew. By 1787, he was a rear admiral in the Russian Navy. Five years later, while still pleading for a position within the U.S. Navy, he would die in France.
Alas, America’s service with the French was fleeting. Three years after receiving America as a gift, dry rot would do her in. A survey committee determined the dry rot, probably caused by her wartime construction from green timber, was beyond economical repair. She was scrapped and a new French warship bearing the same name was built in 1788. That Temeraire-class America was captured by the British during the Battle of Glorius First of June in 1794. Renamed HMS Impetuex, the ship served in the Royal Navy until she was broken up in 1813. But she became the prototype for the Royal Navy’s own America-class ships of line.
Diplomatic Dream Team
That the Treaty of Paris was developed where it was would come as no surprise to those who knew Benjamin Franklin. A distinguished scientific and literary scholar, French aristocrats and intellectuals alike embraced Franklin as a perfect example of New World Enlightenment. (We’ll forgive Franklin his preference of the turkey for our national bird). He had the popularity of a rock star in France, where ladies would fashion their hair in a style that imitated the balding diplomat’s fur cap he wore instead of a wig.
After Britain’s defeat at Yorktown in Oct. 1781, America’s dream team of diplomats – Franklin, John Adams and John Jay – began hammering out a treaty. Franklin started by asking for Canada, knowing the British government would never accept that offer. But asking for the moon allowed Franklin to gain fishing rights off the Newfoundland coast, plus expanded the young nation west to the Mississippi River, to the Florida border (then owned by Spain) to the south and to the Canadian border to the north. The formal treaty was signed by Great Britain on Sept. 3, 1783, although it wasn’t ratified by the United States Congress until the following year. The treaty also included a promise to give back to British Loyalists their land confiscated during the American Revolution. Some states did, others not so much.
Ironically, France’s appreciation for enlightened thinkers like Franklin and Jefferson, and the creation of a constitution that emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition, would play a large part in the bloody French Revolution. Less than 10 years later, King Louis XVI, who had ruled for nearly 20 years, would be overthrown and guillotined in January 1793.
An offer he couldn’t refuse
Just another decade later, former Treaty of Paris dream team negotiator and now president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, would pull off the April 11, 1803 Louisiana Purchase from the French at a time when Napoleon needed money more than land to fight the British. Prepared to purchase just the city of New Orleans for $10 million, Jefferson quickly accepted Napoleon’s offer to purchase all of the Louisiana Territory for $15 million, which doubled the size of the United States to the Rocky Mountains on the west and completely boot their former ally out of owning any territory near America’s borders.