Part-Time Allies: French Foreign Policy, American Neutrality, and the Dutch Crisis of 1787

Robert W. Smith

Joseph-Désiré, Portrait of Gilbert Motier the Marquis De La Fayette as a Lieutenant General, 1791, 1834. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Dutch Crisis of 1787, American Foreign Policy, and the Constitution” began life as primarily as a study of how the conflict in the Netherlands shaped the debate over the ratification of the Constitution. Americans watched the approach of civil war in the Netherlands and of general war in Europe. The collapse of the Dutch republic led Americans to consider how to avoid the same fate. The Federalists believed a stronger central government was necessary, as the Dutch confederation failed. The Antifederalists saw a strong executive as the root of the Dutch problem, and warned against the United States making the same mistake. Thanks to the advice and guidance of the editors and reviewers at Journal of the Early Republic, it became in addition a study of American neutrality, and a link between the Model Treaty and the Proclamation of Neutrality. An earlier draft included a discussion of how friends of the United States in Europe perceived the event, which was cut out for lack of space.

A study of the Dutch crisis of 1787 provides a way of examining the evolution of French policy, official and unofficial, toward the United States. It provoked the most serious discussion of the meaning of the alliance between the end of the American Revolution and the outbreak of the French Revolution. While 1789 is often a dividing line, in some ways it was not. French thinking on the alliance in 1787 had similarities to that of 1793, in that in both instances France expected American friendship but not participation. Lafayette’s grand scheme may be seen as a precursor, expressed in almost the same terms, as Edmond Genet’s plans in 1793. Indeed, that line might be stretched to include Francisco de Miranda’s plans in 1798. Thus an examination of the Dutch crisis is valuable not only for the study of American foreign policy but also for the study of the Franco–American alliance and the development of trans-Atlantic republicanism.

Officially, and unknown to the United States, France did not expect the United States to participate in any European war. On October 10, 1787, Louis XVI issued instructions to the new French minister to the United States, Élénore François Élie, the Comte de Moustier. The king advised Moustier against being too forthcoming about affairs in Europe. France had already abandoned one ally, and did not wish to lose another. When the Americans asked about the French diplomatic retreat, Moustier should tell them that events had unexpectedly gone in favor of the stadtholder. Furthermore, the king instructed Moustier to spin the king’s decision as a humanitarian one, to not “expose the Republic to the horrors of civil war, and to provoke a general war at the same time.” The king expected the United States would act in accordance with the terms of the alliance, or at least the United States should not follow the British line of policy. The king left the specifics of how this should be accomplished to Moustier’s judgment. The Comte de Montmorin, the French foreign minister, followed up a few days later. He did not expect American help in the event of war. He believed the alliance would be of little use and that Congress would remain neutral. He instructed Moustier that the king would accept American neutrality, but Moustier should not tell Congress that directly. It would be a concession to the United States. Anne-César, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, the former French minister to the United States, wrote Washington to introduce his successor, and took the opportunity to congratulate the United States on its neutrality. “I see with pleasure that the Americans take no part in these disputes,” he wrote.[1]

On the other hand, the Marquis de Lafayette saw a golden opportunity in American involvement. Lafayette’s plans were a combination of political idealism and personal ambition. He was in communication with the Patriots and gave them the impression that he could help. Lafayette also angled to become commander of the Patriot forces. Some French officials knew of Lafayette’s activities but took no part. In his letters to American statesmen, the former Continental Army general lurched between grandiose schemes dependent on some level of American participation, and the hard reality that Americans would prefer to stay out of Europe’s wars. “I have been thinking what our trans-Atlantic community ought to do, in case there is a war,” he wrote to Adams. Lafayette advocated a “friendly, helping neutrality” rather than open participation. He also believed an Anglo—French war the proper moment to demand the British evacuate the northwestern forts. Lafayette sketched out s similar plan to Alexander Hamilton. Lafayette preferred a direct American involvement, but did not “think it Consistent with Her interest.” Again, he proposed a neutrality which “would be Useful to France, profitable to the United States, and perfectly safe on the footing of the treaties.” If the British forced the United States into a war, Lafayette hoped “it would be But for the last Campaign, time enough to Occupy Canada and Newfoundland.” The biggest obstacle to American neutrality, Lafayette explained to Washington, was the mutual guarantee of American territory in the 1778 treaty. Lafayette believed “France Must Be induced not to insist upon a litteral Compliance with this point,” while at the same time France had full use of American ports.[2]

In some ways, French discussions mirrored the debate taking place among Americans. As Americans wrestled with the question of their place in the world, the French also tried to figure out where the United States fit into their plans. In Lafayette’s case, some plans were grander than others. The debate also demonstrates how dividing lines can obscure as much as they illuminate. Much of the consideration of American neutrality in 1787, on both sides of the Atlantic, foreshadowed the decisions of 1793. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


[1] Louis XVI to the Comte de Moustier, Oct. 10, 1787, in The Emerging Nation: A Documentary History of the Foreign Relations of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, 1780–1789,  ed. Mary A. Guinta, et al. (3 vols., Washington, DC,, 1996), 3: 622–23; Montmorin to Moustier, Oct. 13, 1787, ibid., 3: 629; Chevalier de la Luzerne to George Washington, c. Sept. 1787, in George Washington, The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series, ed., W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, et al. (6 vols., Charlottesville, VA, 1992–1997), 5: 349; Orville T. Murphy, The Diplomatic Retreat of France and Public Opinion on the Eve of the French Revolution, 1783–1789 (Washington, DC, 1998), 112–13.

[2] Lafayette to John Adams, Oct, 12, 1787, in John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Ed. Charles Francis Adams (10 vols., Boston, 1850––56), 8:457; Lafayette to Alexander Hamilton, Oct. 15, 1787, in Alexander Hamilton, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Harold C. Syrett, et al. (27 vols., New York, 1961––87), 4: 282; Lafayette to Washington, Oct, 9, 1787, in PGW: Confederation, 5: 362; Murphy, Diplomatic Retreat of France, 91; Louis Gottschalk, Lafayette Between the American and French Revolutions (1782–1789) (Chicago, 1950), 340––41.

8 June 2020

About the Author

Robert W. Smith is assistant professor of history at Worcester State University.

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