On May 4, 1778, Congress ratified the treaties of commerce and alliance with France. On the 6th, Washington, waiting at Valley Forge for the British to start from Philadelphia, caused his army, drawn out on parade, to celebrate the great event with cheers and with salvos of artillery and musketry. The alliance deserved cheers and celebration, for it marked a long step onward in the Revolution. It showed that America had demonstrated to Europe that she could win independence, and it had been proved to the traditional enemy of England that the time had come when it would be profitable to help the revolted colonies. But the alliance brought troubles as well as blessings in its train. It induced a relaxation in popular energy, and carried with it new and difficult problems for the commander-in-chief. The successful management of allies, and of allied forces, had been one of the severest tests of the statesmanship of William III., and had constituted one of the principal glories of Marlborough. A similar problem now confronted the American general.
Washington was free from the diplomatic and political portion of the business, but the military and popular part fell wholly into his hands, and demanded the exercise of talents entirely different from those of either a general or an administrator. It has been not infrequently written more or less plainly, and it is constantly said, that Washington was great in character, but that in brains he was not far above the common-place. It is even hinted sometimes that the father of his country was a dull man, a notion which we shall have occasion to examine more fully further on. At this point let the criticism be remembered merely in connection with the fact that to cooeperate with allies in military matters demands tact, quick perception, firmness, and patience. In a word, it is a task which calls for the finest and most highly trained intellectual powers, and of which the difficulty is enhanced a thousandfold when the allies are on the one side, an old, aristocratic, punctilious people, and on the other, colonists utterly devoid of tradition, etiquette, or fixed habits, and very much accustomed to go their own way and speak their own minds with careless freedom. With this problem Washington was obliged suddenly to deal, both in ill success and good success, as well as in many attempts which came to nothing. Let us see how he solved it at the very outset, when everything went most perversely wrong.
On July 14 he heard that D’Estaing’s fleet was off the coast, and at once, without a trace of elation or excitement, he began to consider the possibility of intercepting the British fleet expected to arrive shortly from Cork. As soon as D’Estaing was within reach he sent two of his aides on board the flagship, and at once opened a correspondence with his ally. These letters of welcome, and those