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The Battle of Saratoga and the French Alliance

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how various factors contributed to the American victory in the Revolution

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Washington Crossing the Delaware Narrative and the Joseph Plumb Martin, The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1777 Primary Source to give students an understanding of what Revolutionary soldiers may have faced during the war.


If the Patriots were to be successful in their fight against the British, they would need resources they did not possess. In late 1775, the Continental Congress opened covert negotiations with the French for diplomatic recognition, loans, and war supplies. Guided less by sympathy for the American cause than by European politics and a desire to avenge France’s loss to Britain in the Seven Years’ War, Louis XVI agreed to a one million livre loan and funneled essential supplies to the Americans.

In late 1776, Congress sent Benjamin Franklin to Paris to negotiate a treaty of alliance and commerce with France. A cosmopolitan man of the Enlightenment and an international celebrity known for his scientific discoveries. Franklin quickly won over Parisians with his unique style. Rather than mimic the ornate fashions of French aristocracy, he dressed as a rustic backwoods philosopher in plain republican clothing and a beaver cap. Franklin gained additional loans to purchase essential war material, but the French were hesitant to formalize ties with the Americans until the rebels had won significant victories on the battlefield. Meanwhile, New York general Philip Schuyler was in command of American troops in early June when British general John Burgoyne’s army sailed down Lake Champlain and threatened Fort Ticonderoga, which the small American garrison had recently abandoned. General Washington was alarmed by Burgoyne’s movements and sent a couple of thousand men, including eight hundred sharpshooting Green Mountain Boys, to swell Schuyler’s army to more than six thousand.

The British pursued Schuyler’s army south toward Albany, but their progress was impeded when the Americans felled trees, altered the paths of creeks, and destroyed bridges in their wake. The British thus ran low on supplies, and in mid-August, American brigadier general John Stark ambushed a British foraging party and inflicted nearly nine hundred casualties.

The Continental army nearly doubled in size to more than eleven thousand when New England militiamen joined to defend their region and Washington sent Daniel Morgan and his Virginia riflemen north. After the British reached Saratoga on September 15, the rebels, with General Horatio Gates now in command, moved to take the high ground at Bemis Heights.

On September 19, Burgoyne’s force marched against them in three columns. An epic battle followed, with both sides attacking throughout the day. Morgan’s sharpshooters kept up their fire from surrounding woods, and Benedict Arnold’s left wing assaulted the British lines. The Americans withdrew that night, but the battle had cost the British nearly six hundred casualties.

An image shows an artist's rendering of the Battle of Saratoga. Indians, some with bows and arrows, are fighting men, some of whom are on horseback.

The Battle of Saratoga was an extensive and punishing conflict and a key victory for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. The American victory secured critical financial support from the French.

British general Henry Clinton marched north from New York and could have helped Burgoyne turn the tide at Saratoga, but he never arrived. Instead, he seized a couple of forts, cut the chain that had stopped the Royal Navy from sailing up the Hudson, and returned to the garrison. With supplies running low, Burgoyne’s troops dug in and waited for reinforcements that did not come.

On October 7, another battle with the Americans forced Burgoyne to withdraw to Saratoga. Gates pursued and surrounded the British, cutting off escape. Ten days later, the redcoats and their allies surrendered their arms, agreeing to return to England for the duration of the war. Gates had captured fifty-eight hundred prisoners, twenty-seven field pieces, and five thousand small arms, as well as ammunition and supplies. It was the most significant American victory in the war to date.

Saratoga provided the French with the confidence to sign treaties of alliance and trade with the Americans and join the war against the British. The new allies agreed they would continue the war until the colonies were independent, and neither would make a separate peace with Britain. That spring, the first French fleet sailed to North America, while French armies under the Comte de Rochambeau and volunteers such as the Marquis de Lafayette fought alongside the Continental Army. The French alliance was of critical importance to the American war effort and brought critical financial support and essential war material to the fledgling American army. With their corps of trained engineers, navy, and marines, the French made significant contributions to the cause.


Review Questions

1. All the following were factors in securing French aid to the Americans during the Revolution except

  1. the existing French global rivalry with the British
  2. the French government’s sympathy for the American ideals of liberty and individual rights
  3. the diplomacy and popularity of Benjamin Franklin
  4. French desire for vengeance for the Seven Years’ War

2. How did the French alliance change the war for the Americans?

  1. France provided crucial military support and legitimate recognition of American independence, which strengthened the Americans militarily and politically.
  2. The French military intervened at the Battle of Saratoga, effectively saving Americans from decimation at the hands of the British.
  3. French recognition of the might of the American military prior to the Battle of Saratoga ensured that Americans were on equal footing with the British.
  4. The French provided crucial naval aid and troops to combat the British in their own element: the seas.

3. Who was the prominent American sent to France to secure an alliance during the war?

  1. John Adams
  2. Thomas Jefferson
  3. Benjamin Franklin
  4. Richard Henry Lee

4. How did the Continental Army successfully thwart the British in the forests of New York?

  1. Sheer force in an open meadow allowed the colonists to defeat the disciplined British in a surprise and definitive upset.
  2. They slowed progress by cutting down trees over their path and dismantling bridges, thus keeping the British from their supplies.
  3. American Indian allies of the Patriots used their considerable knowledge of the terrain to launch multiple surprise attacks.
  4. Patriots fed Loyalists false information, which led the British to make poor decisions.

5. All the following resulted from the Battle of Saratoga except

  1. Continental General Gates acquired thousands of small arms and artillery pieces, which the Patriots desperately needed
  2. British forces were reduced when those who surrendered agreed to return to England for the duration of the war
  3. the Americans struck a formal alliance with France, bringing them recognition on the global stage as well as monetary and military support
  4. George Washington was promoted to Commander in Chief of the Continental Army after this stunning victory

6. Which of the following was not a result of the French alliance during the American Revolution?

  1. Multiple volunteers, including the Marquis De Lafayette, travelled to North America to fight against the British.
  2. Trained engineers, naval personnel, and marines assisted the colonists in the fight against the British.
  3. French support provided greatly needed supplies and the money to purchase more supplies.
  4. An enormous profusion of French food travelled through the colonies, resulting in new diet staples and cuisine styles before the close of the conflict.

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how competition between the French and British ultimately aided the American effort for independence.
  2. Explain how Benjamin Franklin’s attire while attending court in Paris might have represented an emerging, distinctly American culture image or value.

AP Practice Questions

An engraving of Benjamin Franklin, wearing a fur hat, glasses, and a coat.

A 1777 engraving of Benjamin Franklin.

Refer to the image provided.

1. The image shown could be used to support which one of the following conclusions?

  1. Benjamin Franklin was the popular and international favorite for the first president of the new United States because of his philosophical writings and scientific discoveries.
  2. Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of capitalizing on the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, which would benefit the colonies in their fight against the British.
  3. Benjamin Franklin was revered in Paris as an internationally renowned scientist and a manifestation of American republicanism, which served him in negotiating with the French for more funds.
  4. Benjamin Franklin was seen by the British as the embodiment of American independence, and they used his image to spread propaganda about American colonists being uncultured and uneducated.

2. Which of the following best describes the causal link between the America victory at Saratoga and French military aid to Americans?

  1. The victory at Saratoga proved the potential of the American troops and demonstrated to the French that the Americans could possibly defeat the British.
  2. The victory at Saratoga demonstrated that the Americans could potentially defeat the French, so it was necessary to secure them as allies before they became opponents.
  3. The victory at Saratoga was pyrrhic, meaning the Americans were almost entirely defeated, and the French took pity on them to appear as the saviors of the conflict.
  4. The victory at Saratoga demonstrated the American commitment to the ideals of liberty and republicanism, with which the French identified.

“Sir: We have now the great satisfaction of acquainting you and the Congress that the treaties with France are at length completed and signed. The first is a treaty of amity and commerce, much on the plan of that projected in Congress; the other is a treaty of alliance, in which it is stipulated that in case England declares war against France, or occasions a war by attempts to hinder her commerce with us, we should then make common cause of it and join our forces and councils, etc. The great aim of this treaty is declared to be to ‘establish the liberty, sovereignty, and independency, absolute and unlimited, of the United States, as well in matters of government as commerce;’ and this is guarantied to us by France, together with all the countries we possess or shall possess at the conclusion of the war; in return for which the States guaranty to France all its possessions in America.”

Benjamin Franklin, February 8, 1778

Refer to the excerpt provided.

3. Which of the following best describes the context of the excerpt provided?

  1. The publication of the Declaration of Independence inspired foreign powers to support the nascent nation.
  2. The defeat of the British at Saratoga proved that the Americans had the strategic ability to win the war. United by their mutual resentment of the British, the Americans and the French agreed to work together until the colonies were free and not to make separate treaties with the British.
  3. Patrick Henry’s fiery rhetoric was printed in newspapers all over the world and articulated many reasons why the struggle for independence was worth supporting.
  4. The savage colonial defeat at Bunker Hill was so extreme, it caught the attention of the empathetic French.

4. What was the primary goal of the French in signing the treaty described in the except provided?

  1. Undermining their imperial rival, Great Britain
  2. Supporting the cause of freedom and independence
  3. Continuing their lucrative slave trade to the Americas
  4. Becoming the first nation to recognize a former colony

Primary Sources

Nini Medallion. Franklin Institute. https://www.fi.edu/history-resources/nini-medallion

Suggested Resources

Dull, Jonathan R.A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Ferling, John. Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015.

Higginbotham, Dan. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1971.

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point in America’s Revolutionary War. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Paul, Joel Richard. Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Schiff, Stacy. A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Snow, Dean.1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Stinchcombe, William C. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969.

Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 2004.