A trading company
ed in Spain
, which served as a front
ing aid to the colonies
during the opening years of the American Revolution
The French had been brooding over their defeat (at the hands of Great Britain) in the Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War) ever since peace was concluded by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Not long after, France sent secret agents to the colonies in an attempt to stir up rebellion against Britain. It was no surprise, therefore, when France was quick to provide aid very soon after the outbreak of open hostilities in April 1775.
The chief architect of this policy was Charles Gravier, the comte de Vergennes and foreign minister to King Louis XVI of France. Vergennes was keen on providing as much aid as possible (despite the chronically precarious financial position of the state), but was wary of doing it in the open: He reasoned that to do so would risk the military wrath of Britain, something which France was not, at the moment, eager to face. He was also unconvinced of the ability of the colonials to win the conflict.
In late 1775, the Continental Congress established the Committee of Secret Correspondence, a diplomatic body, and soon dispatched Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee to open negotiations with the French judging (rightly) that they would be eager to provide some type of much-needed aid for the war effort. Before they arrived in France, Vergennes instructed Caron de Beaumarchais (incidentally, the author of the Marriage of Figaro and the Barber of Seville) to set up Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie and use an initial one million livres (several million dollars) to purchase and ship weapons and other war materiel to the Continental Army. Spain, another Bourbon monarchy, contributed an equal sum six weeks later. Within a year of commencing operations, Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie had shipped more than 30,000 muskets, 100,000 rounds of shot, as well as many cannon, tents, bombs, and clothing into the colonies through New England merchants. Many of these items were essential to the continuation of the war effort, as they could not be produced locally in sufficient quantities.
Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie operated for about two years, until France entered into an alliance with the infant United States in 1778, after the Continental Army soundly defeated the British at the Battle of Saratoga. Spain declared war on Britain in 1779, but allied itself with France only. Thereafter, much aid continued to flow into the colonies, but openly and in the bellies of warships, rather than under cover of private enterprise.
I think the delegation of Franklin, Deane, and Lee must have been quite surprised to arrive at Versailles and discover that most of what they could have hoped for was already in motion. Of course, having gained this, they proceeded to ask for another three million livres...