Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The American Revolution

As Marie Antoinette had no babies to take care of during the first eight years of her marriage, she had plenty of time to amuse herself with her dairy village; to act in plays with the Count of Artois, her youngest brother-in-law; to study the music of Mozart, Gluck, and Gretry, whose operas she loved; and even to meddle in government affairs. But in 1778 her first child (Marie Therese Charlotte), who was to be known as Madam Royal, came to enliven the palace of Versailles, so the queen devoted herself to the care and education of this little one, instead of giving her up to governesses and attendants, as had hitherto been the custom at court. From that time on Marie Antoinette ceased to be frivolous, and proved the best of mothers, not only to this little girl, but to three other children who came later on.

It was shortly after Louis XVI.'s reign began that war broke out between England and her American colonies (1775). As you have doubtless read much about that war in other books, you will now be especially interested in the part which France took in the struggle. Twelve years before, as you remember, France had been obliged to give Canada to England (1763), and the French still felt sore about their loss. When Benjamin Franklin came to Paris, therefore, in search of aid for the rebellious Thirteen Colonies, he was warmly welcomed, not only because he was already favorably known on account of his marvelous scientific discoveries, but also because he represented a people who were trying to secure the liberty about which recent writers had said so much.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


While Louis XVI. was hesitating whether or not to help the Thirteen Colonies, Lafayette, a young French nobleman, left his wife, freighted a vessel himself, and, escaping secretly from France, sailed across the ocean to offer his services to General Washington. But, knowing that to aid the Americans openly would involve war with England, Louis XVI. could not at first be induced to do anything except to supply money; still, in 1778, he at last signed a commercial treaty with the United States at Versailles. Thus France, you see, was the first European power to recognize the new nation.

As Louis had foreseen, this move resulted in war with England, which, being far too busy elsewhere to fight the French on land, merely challenged their men-of-war in naval duels. As the French took the utmost interest in the conflict between England and her colonies, they made a lion of Franklin, who remained in their midst about nine years, spending pleasant hours with such famous scientists as Mesmer(the man whose discoveries in animal magnetism received the name of Mesmerism), and Montgolfier, whose first balloon was tried before the court of Versailles in 1783. Whenever people asked Franklin how the American Revolution was getting on, he used to say,—nodding his head confidently, for his French was imperfect,—"Ca ira!". This laconic expression, which can be translated, "That will be all right!" so amused everybody that it was generally adopted, and became at last the rallying cry of the French Revolution, as well as the refrain of a popular song.

Now, as you know, Franklin's prophetic words came true; things did go all right for the United States. But after their independence had been duly recognized by the treaty of Paris (1783), France discovered that she had run herself still further into debt by the help she had given the Americans. Besides, the young men who had gone across the Atlantic to lend the Revolutionary army aid, came back full of their adventures, wild with admiration for the American people, and anxious to instill into the minds and hearts of their countrymen the republican ideas they had recently absorbed.

During part of this time, the finances of France had been in the hands of a Swiss banker, Necker, who tried to reduce expenses in every way, but only succeeded in angering everybody by his constant talk of economy. His successor, Calonne, believed in acting very differently, for whenever the king and queen doubtfully inquired whether anything could be done, he used to reassure them by saying, "If it is possible, it is already done; if it is not possible, it will be done." But, so as to do  things, Calonne recklessly borrowed right and left, thus adding $100,000,000 to the state debt, before making place for Brienne, who found it necessary to borrow still more.

It was about this time that the idyllic story of Paul and Virginia  by Bernardin de St. Pierre first appeared (1788), and that plays by Beaumarchais, criticizing the aristocracy, began to become popular, although when they first came out they, encountered the king's censure. The most famous artists of the day, were Vernet for landscapes and marines, Greuze for fancy (genre)  subjects, and Madame Lebrun, to whom we owe the best pictures of the royal family, as well as charming studies of herself and her child.