The Diplomacy of the American Revolution
By Samuel Flagg Bemis. Introduction by Ben Judge. 
Encounter Books, 2024.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $30.99.

Reviewed by Kevin R. C. Gutzman.

Samuel Flagg Bemis was a master of American diplomatic history, a field that has now fallen on very hard times in academia. Though among the subjects of the earliest known historians and recognized as one of a handful of areas of human experience worthy of historiographical attention for more than two millennia, diplomacy draws relatively little attention from professional historians today. This new edition of a book on one of the most important subjects in American diplomatic history by one of the leading practitioners in the field should remind readers how important—and downright fascinating—such works can be.

Though he wrote influential accounts of several aspects of American foreign policy, Bemis is best remembered today for his two-volume account of John Quincy Adams’s diplomatic career, particularly its first volume, John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. If ever the word “magisterial” applied to a work of history, it must apply to that one. One sees in The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, as in John Quincy Adams, an easy mastery of an enormous body of primary materials, much of it in European languages other than English. One sees, too, a thorough understanding of the policy motivations of many figures in The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, including leading and subordinate officials in all of the major and several of the minor European powers. 

From time to time in this book good, old-fashioned American patriotism peers through. Bemis is unabashed about expressing the opinion that the world is a better place due not only to the Americans’ success in winning their independence, but to their—particularly Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams’s, but also the Continental Congress’s—success in wringing favorable terms from Britain. On the great diplomatic chessboard, the Americans must be seen not only as having vanquished the United Kingdom in winning extremely favorable terms from it, but also as having guided allied and other European powers, particularly France, into going beyond the extra mile on America’s behalf.

While accounts of the Revolutionary War itself do not always make clear precisely how great a role chance played in American success in 1783, Bemis’s bravura performance shows at several junctures that not only the Continental Army’s success, but a particular answer to the Comte de Vergennes from John Jay, a specific response to a British feeler from John Adams, just the right diplomatic instructions at the right time from Congress, particular domestic political circumstances in the Netherlands, etc., were necessary to the war’s outcome, indeed to Americans’ receiving all that they hoped for and far more than they might have expected even from a successful military outcome to the war. Of course, the American diplomats’ success lay behind the gigantic strain French Foreign Minister Vergennes and his king, Louis XVI, put their country through in support of the revolutionary cause. Just how entirely contingent America’s success was in having its independence recognized by all of the leading European powers in 1783—despite the fact that even anti-British powers such as Spain and France had at best no sympathy for rebellious republicans’ political aims—comes through loud and clear in every chapter of Bemis’s book. Things might at innumerable points have gone in directions leading to less positive outcomes.

So, for example, when the Comte de Vergennes heard from his man in Madrid that Spain would enter the war on the American (that is, the French) side, he also heard that, “We ought however not to conceal from ourselves, Monsieur, how little interest Spain takes in the United States of America; we shall certainly have evidence of this in the course of the war, and especially when it comes to negotiating peace.” Through the balance of the book, that reality is borne out in Spanish behavior over and over. Authors and readers of accounts of Spain’s help to the United States (as it has come to be called) in recent years could stand to be exposed to this reality, however fashionable contemporary politics make it to assert that Spain sacrificed on America’s behalf when it did no such thing. Rather, the U.S.A. was on Spain’s side in the constant whirl of European diplomacy and warfare. She hoped to reap territorial acquisition, preferably Gibraltar, from her efforts on France’s and, coincidentally, America’s side.

Though his book is just over 200 pages long, Bemis manages by its end not only to impart clear understanding of the foreign-policy objectives and circumstances of the main combatants in the Revolution (Britain, the United Colonies/States, and France), but also to show how, for example, the War of the Bavarian Succession, the First League of Armed Neutrality, and Spain’s desire to regain Gibraltar weighed in the calculations of policymakers in London, Versailles, and Philadelphia. Only to the British and the Americans was the status of the United States the chief issue at stake.

As today Russia’s Ukraine War prods policymakers in North America and Europe to send furrowed-brow spokesmen to stand in front of television cameras and express grave concern, so during the American Revolution similar statements were made by countries with diplomatic ties to Great Britain to like effect. As Bemis tells us, “Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria forbade their subjects to supply any contraband to the revolted Colonies; but only Portugal, acting under pressure from her traditional ally, Great Britain, actually closed her harbors to American vessels engaged in innocent trade.”

Though Bemis clearly admires Benjamin Franklin, has a low opinion of Arthur Lee, and thinks John Jay consistently gave good counsel and represented the United States well, the diplomatic player whose personality comes through most clearly in his account is the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. Here, Bemis shows, was a true master of keeping several balls in the air. He guided his powerful state in its ultimately successful effort to knock the British down a peg or three after their enormous victory in the Seven Years War. Along the way, he had to reassure the other party to the Pacte de Famille, the anti-republican Bourbon dynasty in Spain, that it would benefit significantly from British defeat, and besides that he had to forestall the Americans’ entering into some kind of separate peace with the British, which always seemed a possibility. There arose during the American Revolution various other diplomatic problems in Europe that might have undercut Franco-American efforts significantly (the British had a side in Dutch politics, for example, which meant the French did too), and Vergennes managed France’s posture in relation to those expertly. Besides that, it could have seemed to Vergennes that the Americans might come to a separate agreement with Britain, and then where would France be? He did not know, as we now do, that Britain’s King George III insisted vociferously on continuing the war until success, which meant one of the chief worries Vergennes must have faced need not have bothered him so much.

News of the American victory at Saratoga came to Europe just in time to prevent serious diminution of support for the Americans, and in the end it was Admiral the Comte de Grasse and his French ships that provided the essential naval support for George Washington’s knockout blow at Yorktown. American diplomats in Europe found it galling that even after Yorktown, Congress continued to instruct them to trust Vergennes to wring from Britain the results America wanted. If John Jay had not ignored his instructions, the story goes, America’s western boundary might have ended up well to the east of where it did—to the shock of the French. It is a heartening tale well told. Let us hope many read it.

Kevin R. C. Gutzman is the New York Times best-selling author of several books, including The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe and Thomas Jefferson—Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America. He is Professor and former Chairman in the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University.

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