The Franco-American Alliance: A History Rooted in Rhode Island

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The United States’ bicentennial is just two years away. It’s a significant opportunity to unite the nation and acknowledge the rich history and strength that lies in its future. While many founding figures played pivotal roles in achieving independence, the crucial support from America’s first ally, France, is often overlooked.

Today, the Franco-American alliance is a multifaceted relationship where, despite different perspectives and experiences, the countries are connected by shared cultural, educational, and scientific endeavors, alongside culture and cuisine. Many leaders, wars, crises, economic booms and busts have alternately shaped, strained, and strengthened this alliance over the past 250 years. But few realize that this relationship’s foundations lie in America’s smallest state. The story that emerged on the shores of a popular tourist destination — Newport, R.I. — offers an important lesson on accepting differences that still applies today.

Although the U.S. declared independence in 1776, victory at Yorktown in 1781 was impossible without the assistance of France. Achieving independence required American diplomats to find an ally, but France was not a natural choice.

American colonists were long-standing members of an English-speaking, maritime oriented, Protestant culture that just one generation earlier had fought a bloody war against Catholic, continental French-speaking forces and their Native American allies. But French citizens were drawn to the cause of American independence and Louis XVI was drawn to an opportunity to strike at France’s traditional foes in Britain. In 1778, the Treaty of Alliance established this new partnership. The alliance led to the first military cooperation between the Americans and French during the Battle of Rhode Island (August 1778) with the goal of capturing the British garrison that had occupied Newport since late 1776. Although they did not win this battle, this effort showed promise that the Franco-American alliance could ultimately win the war.

Following British withdrawal from Newport in late 1779, Rhode Island soon helped the roots of the Franco-American alliance flourish. When 6,000 French officers and soldiers of l’Expédition Particulière, led by General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, landed in July 1780, Newporters were initially unwelcoming. Locals saw the French as another occupying army — this one was comprised of soldiers with distinct linguistic, cultural, and religious differences that had long put them at odds with Anglo-Americans. 

However, during their 11-month residency, the two sides established respect and mutual understanding with their new military and civilian partners. Rochambeau understood the citizens’ concerns and the French rebuilt the city, which had been physically and economically devastated by their common enemy. Teas, balls, and other social gatherings helped locals warm to their ally. Surviving documents suggest flirtations between French officers and local women were abundant, and the French even hosted a ball honoring the ladies they celebrated in song as “Belles of Newport.”

During Newport’s French occupation, George Washington and Rochambeau laid the foundation for the cooperation that empowered America’s success. These leaders, who overcame differences in age, temperament, and experience, corresponded and met repeatedly to develop a military strategy to defeat British forces. During Washington’s visit to Newport in March 1781, he foresaw the alliance as “a happy presage of future harmony, a pleasing evidence that an intercourse between the two nations will more and more cement the union by the solid and lasting ties of mutual affection.” 

In June 1781, the French Army departed Newport and marched with Washington to Yorktown, Va., where they trapped British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis with the decisive assistance of the French Navy. This victory led to Britain’s recognition of an independent U.S. through the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Over the last 250 years, French and American people, along with leaders like Rochambeau and Washington, have grown a partnership that has allowed the two countries to stand together in the most challenging of times. The ideals of freedom established during the American Revolution influenced the French Revolution, and this connection has extended to areas as diverse as medicine, art, literature, music, and technology. An alliance that emerged amid America’s quest for independence was strengthened by a different people who found a common thread.

Rhode Island’s roots in the Franco-American alliance are evidence that, by collaborating, showing grace, and accepting our differences, whether cultural or political, we can learn from those whose beliefs contradict our own. During an election year that looks set to highlight starkly opposite perspectives on international engagement and cooperation, this insight from the past remains relevant. 

Elizabeth Sulock, associate director for the John Brown House Museum at the Rhode Island Historical Society, is a member of the state of Rhode Island’s 250 Commission. Don Thieme is Olmsted Scholar and associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Rachel Bahn works in the field of international development as technical director for economic analysis with Limestone Analytics.

The Road to 250 series is a collaboration between Made by History and Historians for 2026, a group of early Americanists devoted to shaping an accurate, inclusive, and just public memory of the American Founding for the upcoming 250th anniversary.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. . Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.