CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
Such, then, were the objects sought by the two nations, whose interposition changed the whole character of the American Revolutionary War. It is needless to say that they did not all appear among the causes, or pretexts, avowed for engaging in hostility; but sagacious English opinion of the day rightly noted, as embodying in a few words the real ground of action of the united Bourbon Courts, the following phrase in the French manifesto: "To avenge their respective injuries, and to put an end to that tyrannical empire which England has usurped, and claims to maintain upon the ocean." In short, as regards theobjects of the war the allies were on the offensive, as England was thrown upon the defensive.
The tyrannical empire which England was thus accused, and not unjustly, of exercising over the seas, rested upon her great sea power, actual or latent; upon her commerce and armed shipping, her commercial establishments, colonies, and naval stations in all parts of the world. Up to this the her scattered colonies had been bound to her by ties of affectionate sentiment, and by the still stronger motive of self-interest through the close commercial connection with the mother-country and the protection afforded by the constant presence of her superior navy. Now a break was made in the girdle of strong ports upon which her naval power was based, by the revolt of the continental colonies; while the numerous trade interests between them and the West Indies, which were injured by the consequent hostilities, tended to divide the sympathies of the islands also. The struggle was not only for political possession and commercial use. It involved a military question of the first importance, - whether a chain of naval stations covering one of the shores of the Atlantic, linking Canada and Halifax with the West Indies, and backed by a thriving seafaring population, should remain in the hands of a nation which had so far used its unprecedented sea power with consistent, resolute aggressiveness, and with almost unbroken success.
While Great Britain was thus embarrassed by the difficulty of maintaining her hold upon her naval bases, which were the defensive element of her naval strength, her offensive naval power, her fleet, was threatened by the growth of the armed shipping of France and Spain, which now confronted her upon the field which she had claimed as her own, with an organized military force of equal or superior material strength. The moment was therefore favorable for attacking the great Power whose wealth, reaped from the sea, had been a decisive factor in the European wars of the past century. The next question was the selection of the points of attack - of the principal objectives upon which the main effort of the assailants should be steadily directed, and of the secondary objectives by which the defence should be distracted and its strength dissipated.
One of the wisest French statesmen of that day, Turgot, held that it was to the interest of France that the colonies should not achieve their independence. If subdued by exhaustion, their strength was lost to England; if reduced by a military tenure of controlling points, but not exhausted, the necessity of constant repression would be a continual weakness to the mother- country. Though this opinion did not prevail in the councils of the French government, which wished the ultimate independence of America, it contained elements of truth which effectually moulded the policy of the war. If benefit to the United States, by effecting their deliverance, were the principal object, the continent became the natural scene, and its decisive military points the chief objectives, of operations; but as the first object of France was not to benefit America, but to injure England, sound military judgment dictated that the continental strife, so far from being helped to a conclusion, should be kept in vigorous life. It was a diversion ready made to the hand of France and exhausting to Great Britain, requiring only so much support as would sustain a resistance to which the insurgents were bound by the most desperate alternatives. The territory of the thirteen colonies therefore should not be the principal objective of France; much less that of Spain.