"L’Hermione”, the frigate of enlightenment”

To broach upon its main theme, the book begins with a detailed description of the various stages of the building of the frigate, her characteristics and salient features as well as the numberless tests, trials and inspections she must be submitted to, before being considered as seaworthy.

In a second stage, it carries on providing many details upon the various stages of ‘L’Hermione’s test and trial campaign. She has been placed under lieutenant-commander Levassor de La Touche’s command.’

So as to remind the reader of the home and foreign policies led by the kingdom of France in the 1770’s and 1780’s, the third chapter endeavours to supply a summary description of the salient features of XVIIIth century France and its position as regards the kingdom of England.

To provide the still missing details of the general situation sketched out in the preceding chapter, the authors deemed it necessary to offer a detailed description of the state of the French Royal Navy in this time. In the same spirit, a brief survey of the history and evolution of the thirteen English “colonies” in America imposed itself for a better realization of the stakes and challenges these territories were standing for.


Returning to France from a first visit to general Washington and the American rebels, and making prodigal use of his influence and wealth, La Fayette keeps harrassing the French ministers (Maurepas, Vergennes) to convince them that - in her own insterest - France should provide a much more important support to his friend Washington and the “Insurgents”. He nourished the secret wish of being appointed commander in chief of the French expeditionary corps, but his youth and inexperience - he was only 23 at the time - incited Vergennes, then in charge of France’s foreign affairs and the King, to appoint Rochambeau, an older and more mature commander. However, La Fayette is entrusted by the King with an important and secret mission : he will proceed as quickly as possible to general Washington’s headquarters to inform him of the minutest details relating to the navy squadron and the French expeditionary corps, under Rochambeau’s command, which are bound for America within the next months. To enable him to fulfill his important mission within the shortest delay, the King has placed ‘L’Hermione’, his most rapid vessel at his disposal.

According to the orders received, once he has completed the first part of his mission consisting in conveying La Fayette on to American territory, ‘L’Hermione’s commander, places himself and his ship in the service of M. Powel, the president of the State Council of the State of Massachussetts. His new mission is to protect the interests and trade of the State while cruising off the coast of the State, thus preventing any unexpected assault from the British fleet.

La Fayette’s youth and the fact that he had hardly known his father, always incited him into finding out various substitutes of a fatherly figure. Among others, one of them was Charles, Count de Broglie, the chief of the “King’s Secret”, (the title of the time for the French Secret Service). Count de Broglie was the younger brother of Marshall François de Broglie, La Fayette’s regiment commander, where the young hero had been appointed as a young officer. The evolution of the American situation, La Fayette’s philosophical ideals, and his deeply rooted aversion for England (his father had fallen in a battle against a British regiment) were logical incitements for him to strive for Count de Broglie’s friendship and advice. On his side, the latter - in his quality of France’s master spy - was endeavouring to take advantage of the present situation in America to secure and develop a discreet yet enduring French influence in the future United States to be. It so happened that La Fayette - perhaps without being perfectly aware of it - was turned by the Count into what we would nowadays term as an “Honourable Correspondant” to the King’s Secret’s benefit.

The reasons of La Fayette’s commitment have briefly been sketched out in the preceding chapter. Chapter 8 takes it to task to enlarge upon them. In the famous “Age of Enlightenment”, La Fayette - with the enthusiasm of youth - like many among his contemporaries - wholeheartedly sides with the ideas of XVIIIt th century philosophers , for the diffusion of liberty and for the love of mankind. These ideals are those of freemasonry which is vastly and rapidly developing in XVIIIth century France. La Fayette is received in the Craft by his brother in law, Viscount de Ségur, then Worshipful Master of the Respectable Lodge “La Candeur in Paris. He immediately goes into raptures over the Craft, all the more so that he is perfectly aware of the fact that his good friend, George Washington, is also a mason as well a large majority of his friends, all prominent leaders among the “Insurgents”. His secret wish of joining and helping the American rebels is thus powefully strengthened by his reception into freemasonry.

Meanwhile, ‘L’Hermione’s commander keeps on fulfilling his mission on behalf and in the service of the State of Massachussetts. Nevertheless, he is quite happy to welcome the French Squadron and Regiments which king Louis XVI had promised G.Washington to send to help him in his fight against British tyranny and to accede to independance. Commander La Touche plays his part in such a support while completing a brilliant 1781 naval campaign, ending in his magnificent feat of arms at the naval fight off Louisbourg.

Chapter 10 is vital for a better understanding of the facts that led to the ultimate victory of the franco-american forces in Yorktown in 1781. This part of the book strives to describe in detail how the common ideals of American and French staff officers (they were all freemasons) - overlooking the logical differences of status, clothing, comportments, habits... between the French regular troops and the Insurgents’somehow wild militiae - eventually succeeded in forging out such a common enthusiasm and ‘esprit de corps’ that victory could not possibly evade them. Besides, the tactical as well as strategic sense pervading all the members of the franco-american staff led them - quite spontaneously - to set up the first historical combined operation, associating sea and land forces which - while forbidding any English ship to enter the Chesapeake Bay - could only force the British Commander in Chief to surrender. The final act of the British reddition was - ironically enough - to gather a group of protagonists who - whether English, on one side (Lord Cornwallis), or American (Washington, Hamilton and others), French, like La Fayette and Rochambeau, Prussian, like von Steuben, or Polish, like Kosciusko on the other side - were all freemasons to a man !

If they reiterate the urgent necessity for the kingdom of France to endow itself with a powerful navy (which was one of the too often ignored successes of Louis XVI), the authors consider and evaluate such a necessity not from the point of view of some arrogant need for prestige, but, more prosaïcally, from the economic point of wiew. At the time, the West Indies were the principal provider of cane-sugar, cocoa, and other goods that had gradually turned into the most consumed products in European countries. British competition in that field was very harsh, for Britain’s national budget evinced some 65% of its receipts in the form of customs duties (indirect taxes) and very heavily depended on an uniterrupted in-flow of importations from the West Indies. Simultaneously, France experimented growing difficulties in balancing her budget ( one of them resting in the evergrowing cost of her support to the “Insurgents) and in recovering the direct taxes whih accounted for roughly 60 to 64% of the budget receipts. She was then becoming aware of the dire necessity of re-structuring her budget while drawing a much larger part of her receipts from customs duties. This amounted to developing the in-flow of importations from the West Indies, an operation requiring not merely a numerous commercial fleet, (which was the case,) but also, an important and powerful navy able to escort and protect the convoys of French merchant vessels aginst the British Royal Navy ! That is the reason why Chapter 11 carries on surveying France’s financial situation and the political decisions imposed and entailed by the former.

The ultimate and most meaningful consequence of the victory in Yorktown logically consisted in the immediate access of the former “English colonies” to independance which turned into the United States of America. Such a new and portentous state of facts must needs be acknowledged by an international diplomatic treaty consecrating the independance of the new United States, and having the new state of fact recognized and acknowledged by the concerned parties : France, Spain, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. On the French side, one reckoned up one’s losses: they were heavy. however, one expected - from the recent franco-american friendship - to draw some kind of compensation in the form of an improvement of the situation, in the shape of a considerable development of commercial exchanges between France and the United States. Paradoxically, such an intensification of exchanges - which actually took place - did not happen between the U.S. and France, their main ally, but between the most recent enemies : Great Britain and the United States. Many reasons account for this apparently contradictory state of things, yet the fact remains that this unexpected situation could only grievously aggravate France’s already worrying financial situation . The logical outcome naturally assumed the shape of the French Revolution a few years later.

For her part, ‘L’Hermione’ - which had brilliantly discharged all the missions she had been entrusted with during her American campaign- was sailing back to France to be ordered to India where she was to fulfill less glaring missions and appointments.

The French Republic now replaced the kingdom of France and the French Revolution and Terror has decimated the ranks of the country’s worthy marine officers. It was in such circumstances that ‘L’Hermione’ experimented a very sad end under the command of an incompetent officer and a pilot of fortune. She was drossed on to the reefs of the atlantic coast off Le Croisic and miserably sank to her death.

Yorktown’s fraternity of arms, the French commitment beside Washington and the “Insurgents” remain still alive in American collective consciousness. President Wilson’s decision to engage the USA in the First World War, President’s Roosevelt to commit his country into the Second World War bear witness to the persistance of this age-old fraternity. However, in the course of the XXth and in this rising XXIst century, under the influence of economic phenomena more or less escaping men’s control, the human values and ideals that had spontaneously brought together heroes like Washington and La Fayette have been replaced by other values (?), more pragmatic and necessarily more concrete. One must hope that these two nations which - since the birth of the United States - have never been involved in an armed conflict, will recover the path to an already centuries old fraternity.

The foreign policy led by minister Vergennes, on behalf of Louis XVI, disposed of two alternatives to deal with a permanently adverse Great Britain. One of them was that which was actually enacted in the form of a powerful military and financial support to the American “Insurgents”. The other one, elaborated by the “King’s Secret”, supported by Louis XV’s Prime minister Choiseul, simply consisted in taking advantage of the mobilization of most British sea- and-land forces which had been sent overseas, to invade Britain so as to force her to accept the French conditions of some sort of

“Political New Deal”. Far cheaper, quite concretely realizable, this utterly feasible and workable alternative might have considerably altered the history of France and Europe, and - who knows ? - of the world. However, considering what might have been if ... merely amounts to an hazardous adventure in the field of ... history-fiction !

‘Volens nolens’, one factor commands the attention of all those who research in to the history of the United States’ access to Independance : as well on the American side as on the French side, freemasonry did play a central and determining role in the matter. However, insofar as freemasonry was somehow only one of the multiple aspects of the Age of Enlightenment , one should not consider it as the unique cause of the advent of American Independance. Masonry was merely the main conveyor of the spirit of “Enlightenment” and generously mobilized its members - not only to support American brethren in grief, but also to help its own values of brotherhood, liverty and equality to prevail. Such values which - ahead of their time - were to turn into the motto of the French Republic. Before everything, masonry has dazzlingly demonstrated to the world of the XVIIIth century that fraternity in mankind was not beyond reach.

In lieu of a conclusion, paraphrasing Pastor Martin Luther King’ admirable words concerning the necessary love between men and nations, both authors merely wish to take up his magnificent phrase: “We made a dream! “

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