How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution

by Tom Shachtman
St. Martin’s Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Conclusions that appear inevitable often require the most time and effort to make happen.”

Early in the American Revolution, a French emissary for Louis XVI, a king who fancied replacing the British handhold on America with his own, secretly visited the colonies to both measure the resistance and consider future prospects. The emissary was impressed, if not startled, by America’s resolve to achieve independence. France’s expectations needed to be adjusted. Their best hopes were to weaken and humiliate England by assisting the rebels. However, given the tentative truce in Europe, this needed to be launched under cover for as long as possible. Thus begins Tom Shachtman’s unique perspective of how a rebellion succeeded.

For more than two hundred years, the American Revolution has been characterized as a colonial uprising by brave upstarts against an underestimating motherland that eventually found itself worn out and overwhelmed. This legend is typically recited in history classes across the United States, but that’s only part of the story. The first half of the revolution can be classified as a series of blunders, misfortunes, and narrow escapes from utter defeat. If it weren’t for the timely aide in the form of supplies and experience from the French, the foolhardy resilience of the Americans, and the constant political maneuvering on the part of both, the colonial campaign against the British would have collapsed.

George Washington, as documented in his letters and pleas to congress, staff, and just about anyone who would listen, understood the plight and urgency of the revolt as well as anyone. Not only did he overcome his own miscues, he learned to expect nothing to go as planned. His military officers coveted their own agendas, supplies and reinforcements showed up days or weeks late, and his troops were woefully unprepared. Although the troops were never perfect, France may have been the key factor in helping Washington’s army to act like one.

Eventually, Europe recognized more opportunity in America than opposition, and the tide of war turned. Together the colonists and France marched to Yorktown where Washington laid siege and finished the war, or at least this phase of America’s birth. The country was still a mostly unknown continent to form over decades with liens against it from various foreign factions that needed to be resolved by guile and force. Here, at the midpoint of Shachtman’s unique and studied contribution to U.S. history, the book pivots to further expand France’s role in securing America’s foothold after victory.

Shachtman is a detailed researcher, who is both a historian’s and biographer’s dream. With books such as Rumspringa, Whoever Fights Monsters, and American Iconoclast, he delves into the parts that others overlook to form a complete picture. He goes for the extra third of information, the deep research that leaves little debate regarding events. One of his greatest strengths is that his opinion rarely bleeds onto the pages, yet he still interjects unique observational skills and the occasional takeaway line. He becomes fascinated with the subject, not arbiter of it as many modern biographers tend to be.

How the French Saved America follows the mode of Dumas Malone’s classic study of Jefferson, where the story is unearthed through the discovery of fact. The book is heavily annotated and indexed, leaning toward scholarly but eminently readable. Since history has reduced much of France’s involvement in the American Revolution to exchanges between Washington and Lafayette, Shachtman’s new accounting reveals the enormous contribution France made in blood, treasure, and political capital to secure America’s independence.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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The Book Killers: Poor Structure

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Keeping organized is a challenge for many artists, writers included. Order is not intuitive for creative people attempting to push boundaries, but clear structure, even in a work of fiction, provides a recognizable thought process for the reader. As always, the goal is for the reader to understand the writer’s words, not for the writer to confuse or make a stumbling attempt to impress. The human mind seeks order, and a book’s structure is essentially the map of its narrative. The easier it is to read the map, the easier it will be for the writer to deliver even complex details or the high art of fine writing.

For nonfiction writers, the need for structure should be obvious. Nonfiction books attempt to teach certain subjects. The very best of these simultaneously entertain. Regardless, a book’s organization forms the lesson plan, each section building upon the next. While tools like the table of contents, index, and appendixes make the information more accessible, the narrative should assume a sequence and stick to it throughout the book. This allows the reader to not only rely on its direction but anticipate the flow, even if the details are surprising or unpredictable. Various methods of order include alphabetic/numeric (by letters and numbers), chronologic (by occurrences in time), geographic (by locations on the globe), hierarchic (by structures of authority), and thematic (by relevant concepts).

With this in mind, it’s easy to see that fiction assumes a structure and creates a rhythm that moves subconsciously through the reader’s mind. For example, books that shift in time tend to reveal a pattern: two chapters in the present, followed by one in the past, and so on. The same holds true for shifting points of view, where characters A, B, and C rotate through the narrative in a recognizable pattern, even if character A dominates the text.

When it’s working, structure is received subconsciously, because the pattern is clear and therefore the reader doesn’t have to think about it. If the organization is haphazard, the reader will direct focus away from the content and onto decoding the structure or, in this case, figuring out the writer’s mishandling of basic technique. Of course there will always be exceptions. Twelve Monkeys randomly skips through time to make the reader feel the chaos of time travel, but, for most books, this is an unnecessary conceit.

Albert Einstein blew out the chaos theorists by realizing that what appeared to be disorganized—the big bang theory, a chemical reaction, or even a kindergarten class at play—was merely a pattern that we hadn’t recognized yet. Most people aren’t Einstein. Readers will abandon a poorly or chaotically organized book. It will not be received as clever or brilliant, but as pretentious and undisciplined.

Some emerging artists think of structure as restrictive, but skilled writers know that structure is the cornerstone upon which true change and enlightenment can be built. When a book inhabits a mind with a recognizable pattern, the ability to make the reader think and feel is limitless.

Next in The Book Killers series: Amateur Covers

Previously in The Book Killers series: Bad Grammar