The 2016 campaign trail is now littered with clapped-out arguments from pundits and politicians that America can and should go it alone in the world, without the need to deeply engage with foreign nations or to accept immigrants on its own soil. The words they use to describe this—American Exceptionalism, American Greatness, America First—are the same expressions that have been deployed in previous elections and during times of perceived crisis to whip up popular sentiment against The Other. Ann Coulter’s Adios, America is a full-on jeremiad about the loss of American Exceptionalism to foreign-born ideas and people. American Greatness has become a meme of the alt-right movement, pointedly excluding anyone who does not fit their narrow profile of an American. And Donald Trump has repeatedly called his worldview “America First,” arguing that our international alliances are not commitments but rather contracts which can be renegotiated upon non-payment.
These terms are often tossed off with little thought to their historical underpinnings and with scant regard for their significance. In actual fact, their first stirrings meant something completely opposite to the isolationist and nativist passions that they evoke today. American Exceptionalism had its roots in John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon of 1630, which exhorted the English settlers of Massachusetts to be part of the wider world by serving as an example to it. “The foundations of American Greatness”, the future Yale president Timothy Dwight pronounced in his 1776 valedictory address, just weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed, required Yale graduates “to act, not like inhabitants of a village… but like citizens of a world.” Even “America First” got its start in World War I with Woodrow Wilson attempting to position the United States as an international leader. In each case, these rallying cries were subsequently turned on their heads to argue that, rather than striving towards leadership, America should instead disengage from the world and pull up the drawbridge.
This pervasive belief that America can go it alone in the world was greatly bolstered by its own creation myth, which was first articulated in the mid-19th century while Manifest Destiny was pushing America’s frontiers westward. In that highly nationalistic fabrication, the Revolutionary War saw the United States fighting alone against the British under the unwavering command of George Washington and his all-American generals, while Lafayette was there just to help out and Rochambeau only arrived at Yorktown at the very end.
But just as the terms American Exceptionalism and America First were twisted to the exact opposite of their original meanings, so too did this legend of the nation’s birth completely distort the international nature of the war. In fact, France and Spain played crucial roles throughout the conflict, sending billions of dollars in munitions and supplies to support the fledgling nation, while their volunteers arrived in the United States in their thousands to fight and die in an American war that also became their own. American Independence, in short, was saved by the alliances forged between these nations and by the immigrants who came to fight for it.
For the Founding Fathers, many of them from the merchant class, the road to American Greatness had always led overseas. Much of colonial America’s prosperity was bound up in trade with Europe and the Caribbean, and it was the increasing British restrictions on this trade, more so than burdensome taxes, that led to the American Revolution. But when America began its fight for independence in 1775, it was stunningly incapable of fending for itself, like a rebellious adolescent who takes leave of his family without a penny to his name. It had no navy, little in the way of artillery, and a ragtag army and militia that were bereft of guns and even of gunpowder. The colonists knew that without the help of France and Spain, Britain’s erstwhile enemies, they could not hope to prevail against the superior British army and navy.
The Continental Congress understood that neither nation would come to America’s aid unless it was seen as a sovereign power fighting a war with a common enemy, and not simply engaged in a civil dispute with its mother country. Even John Adams admitted that “Foreign powers could not be expected to acknowledge us, till we had acknowledged ourselves… as an independent nation.” The Declaration of Independence was therefore commissioned, not as a message to King George III, but rather as an engraved invitation to King Louis XVI of France and King Carlos III of Spain, asking them to go to war alongside the Americans.
For their parts, the kings of France and Spain, and even more so their ministers the Comte de Vergennes and the Conde de Floridablanca, had to decide whether to support the nascent American nation. Just 13 years had passed since their countries had fought the disastrous Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) with Britain, in which France lost Canada and much of its influence over European affairs, while Spain lost Florida and much of its control over the Gulf of Mexico. A new war, on the side of the rebellious Americans, could redress their old humiliations—or plunge them into ruination.
France and Spain, allies under the Bourbon Family Compact, had long been contemplating a rematch with Britain. But even within that alliance, their kings and ministers first had to consider their own national self-interest before committing to war. For Vergennes, his “France First” policy meant weakening Britain sufficiently to regain the balance of power in Europe. For Floridablanca, “Spain First” meant recovering the territories of Gibraltar and Minorca, and driving the British from the Gulf of Mexico. If America saw cooperation with France and Spain as a way to throw off the British yoke, then Vergennes and Floridablanca saw supporting American Independence as a means to weaken Britain’s grip in Europe and around the world.
At first, France and Spain only provided the “insurgents” covert aid in the form of arms and materiel, although eventually they supplied $30 billion equivalent in aid and 90 percent of all the guns used by the Americans in the war. Private merchants like Diego de Gardoqui of Spain and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais of France became the front men for these operations. In the early years of the war, this aid kept the militia in the Western Theater and the Continental Army in the East from defeat. In 1777, a timely shipment of French muskets, gunpowder, and cannon sent via Beaumarchais allowed the Continental Army to capture General Burgoyne’s troops at the Battle of Saratoga. This dramatically changed the nature of the war, and gave Vergennes the pretext he needed to agree to a formal military alliance with the Americans.
Benjamin Franklin, who was the principal envoy to the French court, fully understood that an alliance had to satisfy the national interests of both sides. The treaty he negotiated with Vergennes included America’s requirement that the war could only conclude with Britain’s recognition of a sovereign United States, and France’s demand that no separate peace with Britain be agreed to by the Americans. With the treaty in place by early 1778, the French navy arrived in American waters, limiting the free movement of the British army by sea and forcing them to consolidate their forces in New York City. Spain entered the war a year later, and though it did not formally ally with America, it too agreed that the war could end only with Britain’s recognition of the United States.
The entry of Spain fundamentally changed the war from a regional clash to a global conflict. The British navy and army were spread ever thinner, needing to also simultaneously shield the homeland from the threat of invasion by France and Spain, defend against the siege of Gibraltar and assault of Minorca, and protect its colonies in the Caribbean and India from attack.
Meanwhile, the British forces in America had to contend with a newly-professional Continental Army that had been reinvigorated by an influx of volunteers from France and other European nations. Washington depended upon these immigrants who got the job done, men like Louis Lebègue Duportail, the Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette, who directed sieges and fortifications, trained Washington’s soldiers in European-style warfare and led American troops into battle. Even if these foreign volunteers were more animated by fighting their long-time British adversaries than by any notions of liberty and freedom, they came to adopt the American cause and make it their own.
At the same time, Spanish troops under Bernardo de Gálvez drove the British from Florida, further weakening their presence in North America. When Comte de Grasse’s fleet kept the Royal Navy from reinforcing Cornwallis, it paved the way for the joint French/American army under Rochambeau and Washington to win the stunning victory at Yorktown. In the end, about 200,000 French and Spanish fought in the War of American Independence, compared with the estimated 250,000 to 380,000 Americans who served.
The real story of the American Revolution is that the United States was born as the centerpiece of an international coalition, which together worked to defeat a common adversary. The newborn nation built upon the legacy of its French and other European volunteers, many of whom remained to help it create a modern military system. Even to this day, American Greatness has been bound up with its ability to adopt immigrants and absorb ideas from around the world. Over time, it has also built upon the bonds it had forged overseas to help create an interconnected world, in which the ideals of America First are not confined within its borders but rather are intimately linked to maintaining and protecting the global economic system in order to ensure prosperity at home. In short, America has always proved itself exceptional when it returns to its roots and leads a coalition of nations in pursuit of a common good.
Larrie D. Ferreiro is the author of Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It from Alfred A. Knopf (coming in November 2016).