When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation
“A bright, absorbing account of a short period in history that still resounds today.” —Kirkus Reviews
Beautifully written and brilliantly argued, When the United States Spoke French offers a fresh perspective on the tumultuous years of America as a young nation, when the Atlantic world’s first republican experiments were put to the test. It explores the country’s formative period from the viewpoint of five distinguished Frenchmen who took refuge in America after leaving their homes and families in France, crossing the Atlantic, and landing in Philadelphia. Through their stories, we see some of the most famous events of early American history in a new light—from the battles with Native Americans on the western frontier to the Haitian Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
the late eighteenth century is hard to overstate. Over the course of a century, that one French colony—half of a single Caribbean island, with an area one-sixth the size of Virginia—had experienced an economic boom without precedent; by 1789 it was the richest, most productive colony not just of the French Empire, but of any empire. Feeding this economic dynamo with labor, the French slave trade grew so dramatically in the 1780s that it briefly surpassed the British trade for the only time in
417 diary of, 76, 79, 287, 343 emigration of, 14, 19, 20, 34, 75–77, 233, 330 family of, 11, 76, 79, 80, 113, 120, 348, 374 law practice of, 11, 76 Masonic connections of, 107 nearsightedness of, 1 in Philadelphia, 92, 94, 105, 108, 111, 116, 120–21, 126, 129, 155, 202, 284–88, 342–45, 347–48, 349–50, 354–55, 373–74 as president of the electors of Paris, 11, 76 in return to France, 12, 374–75, 416–17 service in French Constituent Assembly, 2, 76 writing of, 11, 76, 153, 286, 290, 348,
King Louis XVI and to Lafayette. And then came the denouement. In 1792 Talleyrand left on a diplomatic mission to England with the object of preserving British neutrality amid France’s war with Prussia and Austria. Like many French liberals, Talleyrand had harbored long-standing hopes for a Franco-British alliance; peace between the two great powers, he believed, was the key to European—indeed, world—peace. Talleyrand’s mission to London has been the subject of much speculation: Was he a
the French language. Since the seventeenth century, as the historian Marc Fumaroli observes, French “had become the Latin of the Moderns, the international language of diplomacy, of courtly refinement, and more and more of the learned Republic of Letters itself.” It was the European elite’s lingua franca, spoken from the salons of London to the courts of Saint Petersburg. But it was not just the language that exerted such cultural power: it was French norms of conversation and sociability. As
he reported that “Noailles declares to them all that he has renounced France forever, that he never will return, in any change of affairs, unless as a Traveller or Visiter.”41 The émigrés never quite escaped the feeling of existential restlessness that haunted them. “I am already completely bored with la société,” wrote Liancourt after only four days in Philadelphia, each of them filled with an astonishing regimen of socializing, one dinner party fading into another. “It’s not its fault; it’s