The news of the outbreak of the American War for Independence was received in the royal courts of Europe in a way that many today would probably be shocked to know. Post-war perspectives have caused many to take a slanted if not outright false view of how the conflict, and the new country it created, was viewed by the crowned heads of Europe. Most of the major monarchs of Europe actually took a favorable view of the American rebels, each for their own reasons based on the fashionable political trends of the time, their own national histories and, of course, realpolitik. Some of those most would expect to embrace the American cause, actually did not and, contrarily, some of those who did make common cause with the Patriots of America, did so reluctantly and with great misgivings about the whole affair. Simplistic thinking about the period will doubtless cause many to be surprised to know how even the British Royal Family looked at the rebel colonists in North America. It was not what most people probably assume.
|King George III|
Starting with the royals most affected, the British, the first thing that must be done is to set aside the entire list of crimes cited as “evidence” of the tyranny of King George III in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. It is as close as one could possibly get to being completely untrue. King George III was not a tyrant, never acted against the wishes of his government and never overstepped his legal authority. It was only that the King presented an easier target to vilify than the nameless, faceless members of Parliament who passed the legislation which the American colonists objected to. In fact, if one reads his own words on the subject, King George III was at every step leading up to the outbreak of war, always anxious to avoid conflict and resolve the matter peacefully. He was prepared to be reasonable but certainly felt that what was being asked of the colonists was not at all out of order. Once violence did erupt, however, he was the most committed in all of Britain to continuing the war until victory was secured. He threatened, more than once, to abdicate rather than accept American independence or to accept the Whig party into government who would push for such a thing.
As the war went on, the King became understandably bitter and voiced contemptuous views of the American populace, despite the fact that two-thirds were active or passive loyalists. However, as he said to John Adams, the first U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, while he was the last to agree to the independence of America, he was indeed the first to extend a hand of friendship to the new nation and work to retain it as part of the British trade network and commercial empire. What many would find more surprising though, is that the King’s son and heir, the Prince of Wales and future King George IV, was allied with a political faction that practically cheered every American victory in the war. This group was backed by the Prince of Wales and focused around Charles Fox, the Marquis of Rockingham and Edmund Burke. Members of this group even took to wearing the colors of Washington’s Continental Army to show their solidarity with the American cause and most of these men were wealthy and/or aristocratic which says something about just how “revolutionary” the war in America really was. Fox and Burke would later part company over the much more revolutionary war in France with Fox supporting the revolutionaries and Burke staunchly opposing them.
|Ben Franklin meets the King & Queen of France|
Of course, no monarchy was more central to the American cause than was the Kingdom of France. Indeed, France would prove the most critical in not only securing the existence of the United States but also establishing the first political divisions in the new country. King Louis XVI was the first foreign ruler to recognize the independence of the United States and then formed a military alliance with the Americans against the British. Yet, at the same time, King Louis XVI was, by almost all accounts, very reluctant to ally his country with the United States. As a Church-backed, absolute monarch brought up to believe in the “Divine Right of Kings”, helping largely republican rebels fight against their own King was very troubling for him. However, as his family had a history of supporting the Stuarts, there were plenty of people to assure him that King George III was no legitimate monarch anyway and anything they could do to weaken the British Empire would be beneficial for France. As it turned out, it gained France very little but the French had been nursing a grudge for some time since their defeat in the French and Indian War and previous conflicts at the hands of the British.
In the end, no one did more than King Louis XVI of France to ensure victory for the United States in the War for Independence. Many Americans were truly grateful for this and never forgot it. Portraits of King Louis appeared in taverns around the country and the town of Marietta, Ohio was named in honor of Queen Marie Antoinette. However, one problem was that the most Francophile of the American founders were also the most radically republican. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for example, were extremely pro-French but very anti-monarchy, though they did effectively make common cause with Napoleon Bonaparte. On the other side of the political divide, the more conservative Americans such as George Washington remained essentially Anglophiles and never forgot that the French had been pursuing their own interests rather than being truly committed to the American cause. Washington was convinced that the King Louis had been more the enemy of England than a friend of America and so he too, after independence, was quick to be friendlier with the British than the French.
|King Louis XVI|
Ultimately, the only major impact the war in America had on France was in putting even more strain on an economy that was threadbare to begin with. Ideologically, the two sides had little in common. Some of the French officers who fought in America embraced the Revolution, others remained royalists. The death of King Louis XVI gave the U.S. the opportunity to break off the previous agreements made with France and the first foreign war the U.S. fought, known as “The Undeclared War” was against republican France. George Washington was adamant that the French Revolutionary spirit not be allowed to spread to America. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was quick to embrace the French Revolution and is the one who purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. Another Francophile, President James Madison, was the one who started the War of 1812 with Great Britain at a time to coincide with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, effectively putting America on the same side as Napoleonic France. Unfortunately for Madison, the war was a disaster for the United States. As this illustrates though, the earliest political divisions in the United States were centered on one faction that favored friendship with Britain and another that favored friendship with France. Sadly, none had much time for King Louis, one side because he was French and another because he was a king.
The other monarch which, after France, contributed the most to the eventual American victory was King Carlos III of Spain. His reaction to the war in America was very much similar to that of his cousin in France. Being one of the “Enlightened Despots”, he too was supportive of the American push for representative government, welcomed the colonies being able to trade outside the British Empire and was also anxious to recoup previous Spanish losses to Britain from past conflicts. Yet, he too was rather hesitant about coming to the assistance of the Americans. Unlike France, the Kingdom of Spain still possessed a massive empire in the Americas, stretching from roughly the modern Canadian border to the southern tip of what is now Chile and Argentina. King Carlos III was less concerned about the cost involved as he was that some of his own colonial subjects might try to follow the example of the British-American colonists.
|King Carlos III|
As it turned out, such fears were unfounded as the Spanish, unlike the French, took a more national as opposed to political view of the conflict. They tended to regard the American colonists as British, regardless of what flag flew over them, and never expected there to be long-lasting animosity between the British and Americans. King Carlos III viewed the British Empire in North America as a threat to his own colonial domains and thus an American victory would divide the forces of the English-speaking world while those of the Spanish-speaking world would still be united under the Spanish Crown. So it was that he entered the conflict as an ally of France rather than the United States directly and rather than sending ships and soldiers to fight alongside the Americans, as the French did, waged his own parallel war against Great Britain which proved very successful, regaining Minorca, Florida and control of most of the gulf coast. The recapture of Gibraltar was the only Spanish operation that did not end in victory for King Carlos III.
|Prince Willem V|
The other major European power that came to the aid of the Americans, with both recognition and joining in the war against Britain was The Netherlands or, as it was known at the time, the United Provinces. This, however, represents a very different case from France and Spain which had monarchs who were reluctant to help the Americans but eventually came around to giving the United States absolutely vital assistance to the winning of the ultimate victory. The Netherlands was a republic at the time but one which was divided between a more republican faction and a more royalist faction known as the “Orange Party” for their wish to see the Prince of Orange given more power and ultimately to become outright monarch of The Netherlands. The republican faction was whole-heartedly sympathetic to the American cause, for both political and business reasons. American colonists boycotting British goods had been the best of customers to the Dutch merchant class and they were very hostile to the British and the competition in trade the British Empire represented. The Prince of Orange, Willem V, however, took the opposite position. He had succeeded his father as Stadtholder in 1766 and was very much supportive of the British and King George III. The anti-Orange faction had the power and the Dutch government recognized the United States and went to war with Britain but it was very much against the wishes of Prince Willem V who did everything he could to hinder efforts to help the Americans.
|Frederick the Great|
If it seems surprising that the leading royal figure in a country allied with the United States would be so hostile to it, one might find it even more surprising just how friendly toward the American cause the very absolutist and militaristic King of Prussia was. Britain had traditionally been an ally of Prussia and the attitudes of America certainly did not seem to be aligned with the attitudes of Prussia. However, as with others, America benefited from the intense hatred so many monarchs had for the British. King Frederick the Great of Prussia had previously had Britain as his only major European ally. Yet, when new governments disengaged Britain from the continent to focus on colonial expansion, Frederick the Great took this as a betrayal and never forgave the British for it. He viewed the British as false, duplicitous and thoroughly treacherous and never made much secret of his sentiments. He was, of course, not in a position to help the Americans or go to war with Britain but he nonetheless was jubilant to see Britain lose the largest portion of her empire (as it existed at the time) and cheered every American success. He was so exuberant that he later sent George Washington an ornate sword with a greeting, in his words, “from the oldest general in Europe to the greatest general in the world” which shows that “Old Fritz” was letting his enthusiasm for the American cause run into extreme exaggeration. No doubt this zealous moral support also played a part in some Americans considering the Prussian monarch’s younger brother, Prince Heinrich, as a potential ‘King of America’.
In the neighboring Kingdom of Denmark, a major power at the time, the war in America coincided with a political division between proponents of absolutism and constitutional government as well as a lack of royal leadership due to the insanity of King Christian VII. There was widespread support for the Americans among the Danish public and even more in the Danish colonies which, of course, was a cause for concern by those in the government. The outpouring of support in the press for the Americans was also embarrassing given that Denmark was, at the time, allied with Great Britain. Those pushing for constitutional government naturally sympathized with the Americans but there was also economic realities to consider. Denmark was, for example, a major importer of rice from South Carolina and this caused considerable resentment against the British for the Royal Navy blockade of the American coast. These facts had an impact on Danish popular opinion but it likely would have amounted to nothing more were it not for another royal friend of the United States which was Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.
|Catherine the Great|
Here again was a case of sympathy for America being driven by a hatred of the British. King George III had tried to enlist the Russians as allies on more than one occasion as well as trying to hire Russian troops as mercenaries to fight the American rebels. The Russian Empress responded to all such requests with an adamant “nyet!” The feeling was largely mutual as King George III remarked about how uncivil the Russians were in their response and spoke condescendingly of them as a barbaric and uncivilized people. The Russian Empress was likewise never slow to speak out about how much she detested King George III and found fault with all he did. While being careful to suppress any American political ideas in Russia, Empress Catherine was determined to do all she could, short of war, to hinder Britain and aid the United States. The Russians really played a major part in making sure that Britain was diplomatically isolated while American envoys were able to freely make appeals across the continent.
It was the Russian Empress who organized the League of Armed Neutrality to thwart the Royal Navy blockade of the American colonies as well as other countries at war with Britain. Many of these countries had little to no trade with the American colonies directly but they did do a great deal of business with France and Spain. Ultimately the League included Denmark (and Norway), Sweden (and Finland), Prussia, Austria, Portugal, Naples and even Turkey along with Russia. The Netherlands was set to join but the British acted first, seizing a Dutch ship and prompting The Netherlands to declare war on Britain, making them a participant in the war rather than a neutral. This made life very difficult for the Royal Navy which was trying to enforce a blockade but was hindered by the threat of making enemies out of all of these neutrals if they did so. As a result, of all the neutral powers of the time, the Russian Empire was doubtless the most helpful to the Americans in ultimately winning the independence of the United States. As it happens, when that came about, Empress Catherine derided King George III for recognizing American independence, which she had done all she could to help, saying that she would sooner commit suicide than to grant such recognition to any rebellious subjects of her own.
|Emperor Joseph II|
For a fledgling republic, the struggling United States actually had more monarchial support than the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland did. However, while still neutral, one major monarchy that was most sympathetic to Britain was one many might find surprising; Imperial Austria (nominally the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, but by that time *very* nominally). The Empress-Mother, Maria Theresa, wrote to King George III, offering him moral support and Emperor Joseph II was even more vociferous, saying to the British ambassador in Vienna that, “The cause in which England is engaged…is the cause of all sovereigns who have a joint interest in the maintenance of due subordination…in all the surrounding monarchies.” Just as the American cause was fairly popular with elites in Britain, it may surprise some that a monarch known as “the People’s Emperor” was so opposed to the idea of American independence but Joseph II, while regarded as an “Enlightened Despot” was very much a royal absolutist and feared that the example of America might be followed by people in his own domains, particularly the Austrian Netherlands, what is today Belgium.
In this, Emperor Joseph II was not wrong as toward the end of his reign the Catholics and liberals in that land came together to depose him and declare independence as “The United States of Belgium”, the first bid for Belgian independence which Joseph’s brother and successor later suppressed. However, realpolitik also played a part in the Austrian attitude toward America and the rather cold reception that John Adams received when he came to Vienna to make the case for the Patriot cause. The Austrians had been trying to improve relations with Great Britain so as to isolate the Kingdom of Prussia which Emperor Joseph II had fought, unsuccessfully, early in his reign. However, the issue was complicated by family politics. The Emperor’s little sister, Marie Antoinette, was, after all, Queen of France which was America’s strongest ally. That marriage had been arranged to bind together France and Austria and the last thing the Austrian Emperor wanted was for Britain and France to be at war, since he desired friendship with both.
|Emperor Joseph II|
The result of all this was that while Emperor Joseph II was the most supportive of King George III among the crowned heads of Europe, he was prevented from taking any actual steps to help him and rather urged the British and French to make peace but that peace could only be obtained along with American independence so it really placed the Hapsburg monarch in an impossible situation from his point of view as the circumstances came together to favor the Franco-American cause at the expense of Britain. Another monarch, as he was at the time, was Pope Pius VI who had been a consistent critic of Emperor Joseph II (the effects of which were seen in Belgium to be sure) and while he certainly was opposed to many of the principles behind the American war, regarding it mostly as a feud between Protestants and, in the end, could hardly be very critical considering that the biggest foreign supporters of the United States were the Catholic kingdoms of France and Spain, whose support the Pope needed particularly since his relations with the Austrian Emperor had been rather strained. Catholic Poland sent soldiers of fortune to help the Americans and the Church had long supported the Irish in opposition to Great Britain (though the French Revolution would change attitudes dramatically on that front). It was at the invitation of the papacy, interestingly enough, that papal ports were opened to American trade in 1784 and the Pope later gave permission for the establishment of a U.S. consulate in Rome in 1797.
So it was that, among the crowned heads of the world, the United States of America was met with more support than opposition. King George III did not want it to come to war but, of course, pressed the fight zealously when it did. King Louis XVI of France and King Carlos III of Spain, after some initial hesitation, backed the Americans and gave absolutely vital support to the winning of independence for the United States. The Dutch backed the Americans though the Prince of Orange supported Britain, the King of Prussia cheered the Americans and the Empress of Russia worked to isolate Britain and make the United States acceptable in the halls of power across the Old World. The Austrian Emperor sympathized with Britain but more than anything else wanted there to be peace between Britain and France which could only benefit America. King Gustav III of Sweden was quick to recognize the United States, making Sweden the first neutral power to do so. Part of the reason for this was what was politically fashionable at the time but realpolitik proved the bigger factor as did the extent of the unpopularity of the British. British success had garnered a great deal of jealousy, past British victories left many thirsty for revenge and British policies had alienated former friends such as Prussia.
|St Mark's republic|
The Europe of the 18th Century was, of course, a very monarchial place but not exclusively so. What is just as interesting as the outpouring of royal support for the fledgling United States is the reaction of the European republics. The Dutch, as mentioned, gave staunch support but, interestingly enough, the oldest significant republic in Europe did not. That was, of course, the “Most Serene Republic of Venice” in Italy. The Venetian ambassadors in France and Spain met with the American envoys but, perhaps surprisingly, the Republic of Venice refused to recognize the independence of the United States or to have any formal correspondence with the Americans whatsoever. One effort at formal communication was made, by the Americans, but this was ignored by the Venetian government. The Republic of Genoa did finally come around to recognizing the United States, after independence was won, in 1791 but the Republic of Venice never did the same. There has been some speculation as to the reason for this but the most likely reasons are the opposition of Austrian Emperor Joseph II to American independence and the extent of trade ties that Venice had with the British Empire. In any event, we are presented with the rather humorous fact that an American Patriot like John Adams had more praise for the government of the British Empire than he did for the Republic of Venice, the oldest significant republic in Europe.
|Washington at the raising of the Grand Union flag|
What does all of this boil down to? At the time of the outbreak of the American War, Britain seemed to be on top of the world and one thing that always accompanies the top spot is the fact that there is no shortage of those wishing to bring you down and who are quick to blame every misfortune of their own on your success. Spain, France, Germany, and more recently the United States itself has been in this position and faced similar opposition. The war in America offered all the major powers other than Britain an opportunity to advance themselves or at least see British power reduced and supporting the United States was the way to make that happen. If this seems to reveal a glaring lack of solidarity on the part of the monarchies of the world, one should also keep in mind that because monarchy was the dominant form of government in the late 18th Century, most did not suspect that the institution itself was in any great danger. The Americans, moreover, were not behaving as the French later would. King George III faced the threat of a loss of territory and prestige, not the loss of his throne or his life and there was no drive to wage an ideological war against the monarchies of the world, again, as the French would later do. On the contrary, the American leaders tailored their message to its audience and actively sought recognition and support from the crowned heads of Europe. As we have seen, they overwhelmingly received it. And, for those monarchs who looked with disdain on the republican Americans, they were confident enough in the superiority of monarchy to assume that the American experiment would soon fail on its own while they, upheld by the hand of God, would endure forever. That, however, is another story for another time.