Articles

2016 Sonia Galletti Lecture: “When the United States Spoke French”

September 19, 2019


[SPEAKING FRENCH] Ladies and gentlemen,
I am Sylvia Brown, the great great granddaughter
of John Carter Brown, and a member of the
board of this library. And I’m thrilled that our
director is not only bilingual, but has a great love
for things French. And of course I’m very excited
by the theme of our talk tonight. So without further ado, I’d
like to introduce a Neal Safier. Merci, Sylvia. Thank you all and welcome. As Sylvia mentioned, this
is a very special night and occasion. It is the occasion of our
annual Sonia Galletti lecture. Some of you may have noticed
that we didn’t have a Sonia Galletti lecture last year. That was because there
was a blizzard last year. Some of you may recall the
long winter, and indeed the evening exactly one year
after the date last year of the Sonia Galletti
lecture, there was another blizzard this year. And I am very glad that we did
not invite Francois Furstenberg back on that day to give
the Sonia Galletti lecture. In any case, I’m
thrilled to welcome you all here this evening. One of the privileges
of this library is that not only is it an
extraordinary collection and an amazing and spectacular
in many ways research center, it also becomes, on nights
like this, a cultural center. A center for the
materials and the cultures of those books, maps, and
prints that we preserve, and of the countries
whose cultural patrimony we are proud to be stewards of. So tonight, I’m
thrilled to inaugurate what will become
really a year dedicated to the history of France,
the Americas, and the globe. This 2016 happens to be
the 250th anniversary year of the circumnavigation
of– the first printed account anyway, or the first
circumnavigation of what is thought to be
the first Frenchman to go around the globe. That is Louis Antoine
de Bougainville. The reason that I
say “thought to be” is that a very precocious
member of our board of governors told me that, in fact, he
was not the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the
globe, and that he himself has the manuscript
account to prove it. Now I have not, being
the historian that I am, I have not yet
seen the documents, and so I don’t
necessarily believe him, but I do want to give
deference to the possibility. In any case, this
event is the kick off for that year of celebrations. We are also going to be holding
a special forum on the life and work of Gilbert
Chinard later this year, a tremendously important
French scholar who studied the history of the Americas. In November, we will be holding
a symposium on the Jesuit relations in conjunction with
Northeastern University, Boston College, and several
international partners based on a digitization project
that they are engaged in. And finally, at the
end of this year, we will be holding a
special exhibition on France in the globe, building
on the 250th anniversary of Bougainville as well as
our earlier bicentenaria celebration in 1989,
I was trying to think, this might be 25 years after
that original celebration, but in fact it’s a
little bit later. In any case, we are very
grateful in particular to the Florence Gould
Foundation which has given us funds to support
all of these activities this year. And there is a sign up sheet
that is around somewhere that if you would
like to be apprised of these activities,
and particularly the French activities,
please make sure and sign up before
this night is over. In addition to
holding events, we are also acquiring books related
to the history of France. As most of you know, the library
has the special privilege of continuing to
acquire materials in all of the areas of its collection. And so over in this
display case behind you, our curator of European
books, Dennis Landis, has put together a
very small selection of some of the most interesting
French language materials that we have acquired recently. One of my favorites is
entitled [FRENCH], which is a set of [FRENCH], or
interviews, conversations, that took place in– well,
fictional conversations, so we’re not sure that
they actually took place, but this was at the
beginning of the 18th century on a whole variety of
different themes, some of which include references to
tobacco, of course, a very important
American commodity, as well as Mexico,
Peru, and other topics. So for that reason,
this is something that will find a very welcome
place in our collection and was just acquired by the
library about two weeks ago. We also have materials
including geographical materials and botanical materials,
and so we welcome you to take a look at those. We are also focused on
digitizing our French language imprints as well, and
so increasingly you will be able to find
and be able to recommend to your friends who don’t live
in Providence our website, which will increasingly have
more and more material related to our French collection. If there is a particular
item from the collection that you individually would
like to be associated with, we even have an
opportunity now for you to have a digital book plate
attached to that object, and I have a few brochures
that explain the process around which we are doing this. We’re very proud of this program
because what it essentially does is it allows anyone who
would like to participate in our digitizing
the collection, and then it is available
worldwide, free of charge, for anybody who would like to
have a version of that object. So tonight we celebrate
the Galletti Lecture, which has become, as I
mentioned, an annual tradition at the library. And this honors someone
whom we have the fortune to have with us this
evening, Sonia Galletti. Sonia, as many of you know,
was a long time volunteer at the library for
approximately 20 years and whom the library
decided to honor because of that important work
that she was involved with. She has since then, and
together with her late husband, continued to support
this fine institution. And we normally like
to give the opportunity to speak to someone who
was written a book that goes beyond the academic realm
and that speaks to interests that are more, perhaps,
manageable, or perhaps more comprehensible to a
much broader audience. We’re very fortunate tonight to
have somebody who has written, not only one of
those books, but two. And that is Francois
Furstenberg. Francois is a professor of
history at Johns Hopkins University, not only his
alma mater for the Ph.D., but mine as well. Indeed, I had the privilege
of meeting Francois when we were both early on in
our graduate student career, and have continued to follow his
career as I developed my own. And we’ve had the great fortune
of being in many similar places at times, from
Baltimore to Paris, and being able to share
in the development and elaboration of many,
many different projects. Francois has, as I mentioned,
most recently published the book from which
to tonight’s talk will be given, When
the United States Spoke French, which won a
very important prize from the Society of the
Early American Republic. But he also published,
earlier, another prize winning book whose name
I am now forgetting, but I will remember, which
is In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery,
and the Making of a Nation. Francois’s work has consistently
challenged the borders of several different very
central questions of North American history related to, in
the first instance, the history of slavery and the dichotomy
between slavery and freedom, and in terms of
the second project, the geographical
underpinnings of the nation and the people who really
contributed to its development. So I very much to look
forward to– in fact, I’ve been looking forward
to for over a year, to this lecture tonight. And I’m sure you will all
be thrilled to hear it. Before I invite
Francois to the podium, there are just two other
things I would like to do. The one is, once
again, to recognize Sonia Galletti for being
here, and to thank her for providing such a
wonderful opportunity for us. The second is to thank the
staff of the library, especially Brenda de Santiago
and Maureen O’Donnell, but I know you all know
that you share tremendously. We work in an extremely
collaborative environment here. We’re very fortunate to have
people on the staff who are not only professional, but
also very much willing to help out with
one another in order to bring these outstanding
events to pass. So without further
ado, please join me in welcoming
Francois Furstenberg. Well, thank you, Neal,
for that introduction. Let’s see if I can do
this without spilling water on some equipment here. Thank you for that introduction. I’m really delighted to be here
for this long, long awaited talk, as Neal mentioned. And thanks also to
Maureen and to Brenda and to Kim for pulling
the books today, and the whole staff at the
library here, and for having me here for this very impressive
turnout on a rainy Monday afternoon. And I have to say that
it’s really exciting for me to be here, not just because I
get to speak at the John Carter Brown Library,
but also because I get to see Neal in his still
relatively new position at the helm of this really
venerable institution, and so this gives a
particular thrill to me. I’ve known Neal,
as he mentioned, for a really long
time and it seems like such a nice fit for
Neal and for the library. So as Neal mentioned,
I’m going to be talking about my last book
here, which came out a year and half ago or so. And which is, I think, very much
in the vein of the John Carter Brown Library, looking
at intersections between the history of
Europe and the history of the Americas. And the book, I think, looks at
something of a hidden history as I think about it. Today, French US relations tend
to be usually somewhat tense. We’ve all lived through the age
of freedom fries, cheese eating surrender monkeys, it’s easy
to forget that relations weren’t always this way. France was the United States’s
first and its greatest ally. It’s intervention in
the American Revolution had secured US independence. The French knew that and
Americans, at the time, knew that. When the French
Revolution broke out, Americans could hardly
have been more excited. The most powerful
monarchy in Europe had suddenly fallen
to its knees. And I think today
it’s really hard to capture the excitement,
the stunning surprise, of this moment. You have to think of May 1968,
the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, the
nomination of Donald Trump to the Republican presidency. All of these astonishing,
truly unimaginable events, all rolled up into one
spectacular moment. And best of all,
Americans thought that they had started it all. In 1792, France
became a republic. The excitement in the United
States reached a frenzy. Everywhere, I have some
animated slides here, everywhere there were parades,
celebrations, huge gatherings with thousands of people
marching in the street, singing [FRENCH] or other
French revolutionary songs, wearing the French revolutionary
[FRENCH] the cockade. Every July 14 throughout
the 1790s, Americans would gather for
huge demonstrations. They would listen to sermons on
the momentous events in France, give toasts, and
political clubs. It really is hard to recapture
the excitement of this moment. In January 1793, King
Louis XVI was executed. Aristocrats began
to be massacred in the streets of Paris,
and thousands of them fled, including many
to the United States. And so I wrote a book about
five of these refugees, of these political refugees,
on their American adventure. And so I want to talk about them
this afternoon, this evening, as a way of kind of
looking at or thinking about early American
history through a different and I think somewhat
unfamiliar set of eyes. So the research that led to this
book has a long history to it. I grew up here in
the United States but I spoke French at home. My mother’s French,
and so it was my sort of native, co-native
language– actually, my mother’s here tonight. I can’t say that
I was particularly drawn to French history. I did my Ph.D., my dissertation,
in American history. I wrote my first book,
as Neal mentioned, on George Washington’s image. And I see somehow,
someone managed to even secure a few copies
of the book back there. If you guys buy
it tonight, you’ll double the sales of that book. Then in 2003, I
moved to Montreal to start teaching history at
the University of Montreal, the [FRENCH],
Francaphone Institution, and sometimes we like to
think that our work has some connection to our
intellectual commitments, and no doubt it does. But I don’t know how often
we sort of admit or think about that our
scholarship is kind of the result, oftentimes,
of sort of luck or somewhat arbitrary factors. I suddenly found myself
in a corner of America that actually did speak French. I was teaching American
history to Francaphone students in a department that
was mostly focused on the history of Canada,
New France, and of Quebec. And so I thought it would be
kind of fun and interesting for me to connect
the United States to its own French heritage,
a way of connecting my own research interests
with that of my colleagues and of my students. And this was an
auspicious time, I guess. I was fortunate again. It was an auspicious time
to begin a research project like this one. This was a time when
many American historians were really busy broadening
the field of American history. Now I’m sure the audience
here would never know this, the third John Carver library
is such a cosmopolitan place. You’re used to thinking of
the history of the Americas, of crossroads between Europe
and all of the Americas, intersection movement,
all of these things. But you can take
my word on this, the view from the provinces
looks, or at least used to look, quite different. Many American
historians had long taken a pretty narrow
view of American history. They’d used the nation as the
primary frame of reference, and this was that national
borders continued to dominate, even in what we call
the colonial period, before the nation even existed. And so that was really changing
when I began the research for this book. Many imminent historians
had thrown themselves into the field of
Atlantic history. We have one here, Jack
Green, who was really a pioneer in this field. They were connecting
what had been called colonial American
history to broader connections between
America, Europe, Africa. Others were going even further. They were globalizing
American history, setting it in the broadest
possible context of world history. They were connecting
American history to the histories of other
nations, other peoples. So just as I was beginning
the research for this book, I learned, for instance, that
Benjamin Franklin had been a European, not an American. And this seemed to open up
all kinds of opportunities for new research. Over the course of
my previous research, I’d run across the five main
characters of this book, and just in my reading these
were famous aristocrats from France, and they
were sort of hanging out with each other in Philadelphia
and with some major American figures, people like
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton. And these Frenchmen had all
been really centrally involved in the French Revolution,
and yet here they were in the United States,
living in the American capital, traveling through the country. They seemed wildly out of place. It was as though they hadn’t
sort of gotten the memo. They’d forgotten that
they were supposed to belong to French history,
not to American history, and here they were. So what were they
doing here, I wondered. What were these adventurers? Could they offer us
a new way of thinking about American history? I’d first kind of imagined
a small little project, a short book. I was tired from my last book. I wanted a little book on
Philadelphia, maybe 100 pages or something like that. But it gradually began to
expand, far beyond that. It took me beyond
Paris and Philadelphia, through London,
into the Caribbean, and eventually deep into the
American continental interior. It grew beyond the
five aristocrats who I had started to focus on
to include bankers in Amsterdam, slaves in Haiti,
aristocrats in London, Native Americans
in the Ohio Valley, naturalists in Charleston, back
country settlers in Kentucky, and many more. All of these people and
many others, it turned out, were inseparable
from the stories of my five French aristocrats. So why don’t I introduce you
to these main characters? The first figure
who I looked at, and surely the most famous
today is Talleyrand, who was a former
French archbishop, sat in the constituent
assembly, and proposed the nationalization
of church lands. He would go on to
become France’s longest serving and most famous
foreign minister, largely reshaping the map of
Europe in the 19th century. He was the wittiest character. He was by far the most
observant, I would say, always ready with
a terrific quip. In many ways he was the most
useful character for me, and I always had to kind of
resist his gravitational pull and end up having this book
be fundamentally about him. Then there was Louis-Marie
Vicomte de Noailles. He was married to the
daughter of his first cousin, as often happened,
whose sister, Adrianne, had married Lafayette. So he was Lafayette’s
brother-in-law. Like Lafeyette,
he’d been inspired by the American Revolution. He wanted to come over, but,
unlike Lafayette, his father was still alive and forbade
them from coming over. Lafayette had the good
fortune, I suppose, of having lost his parents, so
he was able to just sail over. Noailles had to wait until
France formally declared war, and he came over during
the American Revolution with [FRENCH] forces
and actually there is a kind of local
connection here. He spent about a year here
in Newport, Rhode Island, where he lived with a family
of Quaker merchants called the Robinson family. There’s a terrific
correspondence, actually, that you can find online. I’m happy to share
it with anybody. Quakers were sort of
charmed by the manners of this French aristocrat. He participated in the Siege
of Savannah, and at Yorktown, where he represented
the French government in Cornwallis’s surrender. After the revolution,
he returned to France where he served in the Army. Actually, Napoleon served
as an officer under him. Became a major figure in
reform liberal reform circles. It was he, actually,
who presided over the French
Constituent Assembly on the famous night
of August 14, 1789, when feudalism was
formally abolished. He was brave and dashing. He was a knowledgeable
soldier, and one of the finest dancers at Versailles. He was said to be Marie
Antoinette’s frequent dance partner. The third character was the duc
de Rouchefoucauld Liancourt, who was one of the wealthiest
aristocrats of old regime France. He’d served as the master
of the king’s wardrobe. I want to pause for a
minute here just to say, these are garden
variety aristocrats. These are people
who are descending from the very summit of
France’s noblest families, part of what they call
the Nobility of the Sword, not the Nobility of the Robe. So as master of the
king’s wardrobe, it was Liancourt
who famously burst into the King’s bedchambers
on the night of July 14, 1789, to tell him of the
uprising in Paris. “Is it a revolt?”
the King asked. [SPEAKING FRENCH],
Liancourt famously replied. By the time that he arrived
in the United States, he’d lost his entire fortune. He’d seen his cousin executed. He was the most introspective
figure of the crowd. He was sort of brooding,
often depressed, what we would call
today depressed. He went around the country,
traveling here and there. He wrote about his
travels in eight volumes, which are here at the JCB. Here’s a copy of the first
volume at the John Carter Brown library. His dog was actually his
closest traveling companion as he went around the country. And then there was Voleny,
who was a traveler, and [SPREAKING FRENCH], a famous
writer and future senator. He was probably the deepest
thinker of the group, certainly the most intellectual. He would go on to be a
renowned scholar of the Orient and of the ancient world. He was interested in philosophy
and politics, natural history, and many other subjects. Here’s his account of his
travels in the United States, which he published
when he returned to Paris after the
events had calmed down. This copy is also in the
collection of the JCB here. And then finally was
Moreau de Saint-Mery, who was a lawyer and a historian. He’d been born in the Caribbean,
married into a wealthy planter family, and gone on to Paris
to write about the Caribbean and to enter politics. I sort of grew most
attached to Moreau, I think. He was the only actually
non aristocrat of the group. He was short and pudgy. His belly is actually even
depicted in this portrait. He writes about losing his
belly as he’d sailed over and lacked for food,
and gained it back. He really wore his
insecurities on his sleeve. He was always trying
to prove himself fit for this eminent company
in which he socialized. So these, four of them
anyway, were aristocrats, but they were all liberals. They admired United States
and its constitution, and they hoped to implement
a constitutional monarchy in France. When the revolution began,
they became its leaders. All five of them sat in
the Constituent Assembly, which produced the first
constitution in French history. Had history taken
a different path, they would today be remembered
as France’s founding fathers, but that wasn’t the
path that history took. With King Louis XVI opposing
the new constitution, war between France and
its enemies broke out. Austrian and Prussian
armies bore down on Paris, invaded
France, and politics took a sharp turn left. The monarchy was overthrown,
the King was executed, and the liberal
aristocrats fled. Many of them went
first to England, but when war broke out
between France and Britain, they were chased
across the Atlantic all the way to Philadelphia. The emigres came at a time when
the United States was nothing like the power it is today. It takes a leap of imagination,
I think, to picture the country as it was then. Weak, fragile, a
collection of 13 states huddled along the Atlantic
coast, riven by divisions, continually under siege by
native and foreign powers. Today the United States
is a continental, and even a global power. Back then, its sovereignty
extended from the Atlantic coast to the
Appalachian Mountains, with a few fingers jutting
into Kentucky and Tennessee. The heart of the Atlantic
economy lay to the south in the Caribbean. That was Europe’s main
interest in the Americas, the islands that produced such
rich stores of sugar, coffee, indigo, and other commodities
powered the Atlantic economy. Protecting those
Caribbean islands was a major reason that
France had intervened in the American Revolution. In fact, it was probably
the major reason. American harbors would
provide bases for French Naval operations in the Caribbean. American resources
like lumber and wheat would supply the
French sugar colonies as they had formerly
supplied the British. But the French Revolution
soon spilled over into the Caribbean. Shortly after revolution
exploded into France, insurrection broke out in
San Domingue, today’s Haiti. In 1791, slaves in the
north began a rebellion that soon turned
into a revolution against slavery itself. Under the brilliant leadership
of Toussaint Louverture, Haitian forces fought
off French planters, invading Spanish
forces, and the British Navy, three of the
greatest powers of the age. The Haitian revolution would
upend the Atlantic economy and the labor regime
on which it depended, and it would bring
tens of thousands of refugees pouring
into the United States. And so it was in the
midst of all this sort of political ferment
and migration that my aristocratic emigres
arrived in the United States, and all of them settled
in Philadelphia. So why did they come
to Philadelphia? Well, first of all, it was
the country’s principal port, the most connected to France
and the French Caribbean. It exported wheat, lumber, and
other goods from the Delaware Valley, already known then as
North America’s bread basket, shipping them out
to the Caribbean and across the
Atlantic to Europe. It was the country’s
mercantile capital, imports of sugar, coffee,
indigo, and other commodities coming in from the Caribbean
and being reshipped across the Atlantic to Europe. With trading links to Asia,
French ports as far away as Pondicheri in
India, luxury goods began pouring into
the United States. And Philadelphia became the
country’s consumption capital. It was the country’s
financial capital as well, where the first
bank of the United States had been founded just a
few blocks away from where the emigres lived
on Third Street. I don’t know if all of you
can see the screen over here, but I’m really proud of these
before and after pictures that I got. On the left is Russell
Birch’s watercolors of Philadelphia in the
1790s, and on the right is my own attempt to replicate
the images that he did. It was the country’s
cultural capital as well, the site of the Library Company,
which had been famously founded by Benjamin Franklin. We don’t like to talk
about the Library Company here, sorry Neal. Today this building houses the
American Philosophical Society, an organization that actually
inducted several of my emigres in the 1790s. And then, of
course, Philadelphia was the nation’s
political capital. Here’s a picture of
Congress Hall where Congress sat in the 1790s, the House
of Representatives downstairs, the Senate upstairs. And I hope you particularly
appreciate this shot that I got here. I was almost arrested
by a security guard while I was trying to get it. Philadelphia was, in short, the
country’s political capital, cultural capital, and economic
capital all rolled into one. It was the only time
that the United States had a single great
metropolis the way that France has Paris
or England has London. But of course, Philadelphia
was a very different city then from what it is now. It had a population of
approximately 40,000 people. That’s roughly the size,
when you think about it, of a large American university,
not even in the top 10, actually, of American
universities. It was tiny. Virtually the entire
population was huddled along the banks
of the Delaware River. The size of settled
Philadelphia at the time was roughly half the size of
the University of Rhode Island campus. And it was incredibly dense. Density of 17,000 people
per square kilometer, so that’s much denser than
Philadelphia is today, much denser than
Manhattan even is today. To find that kind of
population density, you have to look all
the way to Bombay, although, of course it’s
much smaller than that. And into this small city,
thousands of French people poured into this mix. It’s never been possible
for me to get exact figures, but on the very
low end it would’ve been a very minimum of
3,000 French people who came to Philadelphia in the
1790s, and as many as 8,000 on the high end
of the estimates. So we’re talking about
somewhere between 8 and 20 percent of Philadelphia
suddenly speaking French. Now keep in mind this is very
much of a face to face city. Think about 40,000
people living on an area the size of a sort of medium
sized university campus. Think of, I don’t know,
the Penn State population on a campus one quarter,
maybe one fifth of its size. You can easily walk the city. You’ll recognize faces,
recognize people, and so on. And so the sudden arrival of
3,000 to 8,000 French speaking people is an event. It will transform the
city, and eventually it would transform the country. With these waves of refugees
pouring into the city, Philadelphia was transformed. French wine and silk and mustard
arrived from distant ports. Merchants built grand houses
in French neoclassical style and filled them with a
refined French furniture, ornate French tapestries, and
exquisite [FRENCH] porcelain. The aroma of French food
wafted through the alleys behind south 42nd
Street, including the delicacies prepared
by [? Marineau, ?] a pastry chef would
had once worked in the French court
at Versailles. French revolutionary
songs performed nightly in the Chestnut Street
Theater echoed off the city’s cobblestones. Madame [? Necia ?],
who’d studied with my Marie
Antoinette’s hairdresser, opened a shop catering
to Philadelphia’s transnational clientele. French silver smiths, French
dentists, French dance instructors, all
plied their services. French language rang out
on Philadelphia streets and its most refined
social spaces. French newspapers,
French bookstores, French taverns all
shaped the city’s cosmopolitan public sphere. In short, it really
did seem for a time as though the United
States spoke French. In the heart of this
little neighborhood, my five emigres lived together. They ate together. They socialized together. The forged the most
intimate of connections. Every day that he
was in Philadelphia, according to Moreau, Talleyrand
would drop by in the evenings. “We opened our hearts
to one another. We poured out our
feelings and each of us knew the others’ most
intimate thoughts.” Talleyrand ate nearly every
day at a Franco Dutch banker’s house, most likely because the
banker employed a French Chef. “The United States
are a country where if there are 32 religions,
there’s only one dish,” Talleyrand commented. “And it’s a bad one,” he added. Moreau’s bookstore was
a fascinating place. It wasn’t just the
center of sociability, it was also a center of
French language publishing in the city. With the help of a printer
who’d fled from San Domingue, Moreau published a
French language newspaper and dozens of books in
both French and English during his time in Philadelphia. He published his
own monumental work on the French and Spanish parts
of San Domingue, which scholars still use as an important source
today, and which the library here today many copies of. Here’s one up on the screen. Moreau also published
works by his friends, including a small book
on Philadelphia’s prison by Liancourt. A copy of that is here. And you can see Moreau
published at Moreau’s bookstore in Philadelphia. In fact, here the
JCB a 17 titles which are published by
Moreau in Philadelphia. But Moreau wasn’t
just a printer, he was also a bookseller,
carrying works from across the Atlantic
world in French and English to American and foreign
customers in Philadelphia. Here’s the first of
his 72 page catalog of books and other materials
that were for sale. Moreau was
particularly interested in scientific tracts. Here’s a publication of
a book by Isaac Newton, along with another 18th
century chemistry text. He sold books in
English and French, of course, also Latin, Spanish,
Italian, German, Dutch. He sold maps, almanacs,
pens, quills, and stationary. He even claimed to
have introduced condoms to the United States. “I carried a complete assortment
of them for four years,” he wrote, “and while
they were primarily intended for the use
of French colonials, they were in great demand
among Americans,” he bragged. All of this gives
us a sense, I think, of how incredibly cosmopolitan
a place Philadelphia was at the time, and I don’t just
mean in terms of condoms. I challenge anyone in this
room to find a bookstore today in the United
States that carries books in English, French,
Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch. I don’t think even Neal can
read all those languages. I’ve studied American history
for about 20 years now, and for me this sort of
thing is just stunning. It gives a whole
new perspective, I think, on Philadelphia, and
in fact, on the United States. During my research
I came to realize that the 1780s and
the 1790s, this period between the American Revolution
and the diplomatic collapse of the late 1790s, this was
a largely forgotten moment, I think, when the United
States was most turned towards the world in general and
towards France in particular. Many of the greatest
merchants in Philadelphia had grown fabulously
rich off trade with France and the
French Caribbean. We’re talking about legendary
Philadelphia families, like the Binghams, the Chews,
the Shippings, the Willingses, the Morrises. Historians refer to
this time as the age or the era of the
Republican Court, which orbited around the George
Washington administration. And I tried in my research
to get inside these homes, to explore the look and the
feel of these social spaces. The center of Philadelphia’s
social life in the 1790s was the home of Anne
and William Bingham. Their mansion is pictured here. Along with Mareau’s shop,
it served as a social center for elite French Philadelphia. The building, the
mansion, had been modeled on the Duke of
Manchester’s house in London. It was known then as
the Hereford House, it’s on the right here. When the Binghams visited
London in the 1780s, they had seen the
mansion and decided that they would build a
replica in Philadelphia, only a little bit larger. They even shipped back
some of the stone work from the masons who’d worked
on the house in London. The portico on the right
was added a bit later. At the time it would’ve
been really identical. That building, the Hertford
House, still stands in London, so some of you may actually
have been inside of it. It houses the Wallace
Collection today. So if you’ve ever visited
the Wallace Collection, you’ve actually been inside the
sort of replica of the Bingham house. The Bingham house
no longer exists, or I should say the model
of the Bingham house. The Bingham house no longer
exists, it burned in a fire the 1820s or ’30s, but we
know a lot about the inside from contemporary descriptions. And few people who
visited the mansion failed to write about
it, describing it in often vivid detail. Of course, it’s
impossible to visit today. So I did the next best
thing that I could. I went to London and
I visited its model. I walked around the
interior to compare it with contemporary descriptions
of the Bingham house in order to see how the spaces
inside the Bingham house would have sort of felt and
looked in the 1790s when my emigres arrived. “So a staircase,”
I’m quoting here from descriptions of
the Bingham house, “a staircase of Italian
marble, wide enough for plants and flowers
on either side, curved up from the vestibule
of the ground floor into upstairs rooms,
and to saloons decorated with [FRENCH] tapestry
and reflecting mirrors.” When the Binghams returned
from their travels abroad, they brought from
Europe, according to one of their acquaintances,
everything for the house and table, which the taste
and luxury of the times had invented. Bingham was so
proud of the spaces that he had created
in his house, he had himself painted right
inside his mansion next to all the columns and
marble of the building. As in the British
model, the Binghams added all the
neoclassical touches that were so fashionable
in Europe at the time, made popular by the Scottish
architect Robert Adam. And they decorated it lavishly. Downstairs was the dining room,
papered in the French taste, according to one visitor. They brought mirrors, armchairs,
and fashionable sedan chairs in the form of lyres. In France they bought carpets,
textiles, [FRENCH] tapestry to drape their sofa, a 350
piece set of [FRENCH] China, 200 pieces of silver tableware,
206 drinking glasses. The furniture was, according to
another visitor, elegant, even superb. The rooms upstairs were
adorned with painted ceilings, brilliant silk curtains,
French arabesque wallpaper by the famous Jon [FRENCH],
painted in red, blue, yellow, and green. Now keep in mind that Bingham
had made his fortune off of trade between the Caribbean,
Philadelphia, and Europe. And so to look at
these pictures, to look at these spaces, is to
sort of understand or at least to be reminded of the wealth
that Caribbean trade produced. I mean, this is why the
Caribbean was so unbelievably important at the time. It was in these spaces that
Philadelphia’s French oriented elite socialized and politicked,
and it was in these spaces that my French emigres
integrated themselves into American life. In fact, Noailles even
lived in the Bingham house for several years. Moreau gave French lessons
to the Bingham girls. And so these people were quickly
incorporated into the country’s most elite social networks. For Philadelphians, they were
a real prize, these emigres, these Frenchmen, as
conversant as they were with the norms of
Versailles court life as they were with the sparkling
conversation in Paris’s legendary salons. They were poised to
enchant Philadelphia, and Philadelphia’s
elites in particular, connecting their provincial
salons and teas to the glitter of the European aristocracy. So it was one of the great
paradoxes of the period. If these French revolutionaries
had sought in 1789, 1790, to emulate men like Washington,
Jefferson, and Franklin, these noble, virtuous
figures as they saw them, that led a
revolution and drafted a successful constitution. They arrived in the 1790s a
few years later to an America where Philadelphian’s
were busy trying to ape the manners of
the Versailles court. The emigres were immediately
bombarded with invitations to suppers, dinners, balls,
to any social event where they could spice up an evening. A dense web of networks soon
knit the emigres into American. And the more I looked at
them, the more interested I became at how these
networks functioned. Now we all talk about networks
these days, sociologists, historians, everyone. Everyone’s rushing in. It’s probably not a
coincidence that this is the age of the social network. I was once accused of doing
kind of Facebook history, which is probably perhaps true. Not nice, but true. I came up with this
image in the book. I spent a little while
trying to– actually, I downloaded some software
at one point, sort of network mapping software. It didn’t really work for me. So I decided to try a more
sort of artisan approach. I tried to create
this image of the book to illustrate how these social
networks were functioning, who was introducing who, who
met who, who was connecting with who through– and so on. Sort of trying to figure
out what they would looked like, these networks that
integrated the French emigres into American life. Now these connections were
forged by various elements. One of the most important
and interesting to me was letters of introduction. I write about them
in the book and I could bore you all evening
talking about these letters of introduction. It’s a fascinating
kind of genre, sort of form of correspondence. Of course there was friendship,
business partnership. Economic relationships
were absolutely central. Marriage and kinship were one
of the most important links, surely, in these
transatlantic networks. One of Talleyrand’s
companions had married into the family
of Henry Knox, who was then the secretary of war. Another one married into
the wealthiest merchant family in Philadelphia. Now there are lots of stories
that I discuss in the book, but my favorite one
that kind of illustrates the way these
family and merchant and economic networks
all overlapped is a story about a young French
banker named Pierre Cesar Labouchere. And now, Labouchere was
a young Frenchman who grew up and was born in France. And at a young age
he began serving as a clerk in the Hope
Bank of Amsterdam. And the Hope Bank, this
was in the 1780s and 1790s, was the major bank of
Europe at the time. You have to think, I don’t
know, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan packed into one. They were loaning
money to governments and to kings around Europe. And at the time,
they were beginning to forge a closer and closer
relationship with the Baring Bank in London. The Barings were emerging
as one of the major powers of European finance,
which they would become in the 19th century. And so they sent
this young clerk to work in the Baring
Bank in London. And while he was there, he
began courting the daughter of Sir Francis Baring, who
was the founder and the head of the Baring Bank. So evidently things were
going quite well, and he went, approached Sir Francis
Baring, and he said, I would like your permission
to marry your daughter. And Sir Francis Baring sort
of looked at him and said, you can’t marry my daughter. You’re just a clerk
in the Hope Bank. And so Labouchere asked
him, said, listen, if you knew that was about to
become a partner in the Hope Bank, would it have
change your opinion? And Baring said,
well, I suppose yeah. It probably would. So with that, he rushed
back to Amsterdam, and he went and he saw
the Hopes, and he said, I want to be a
partner in the bank. And they said, you can’t
be a partner in the bank. You’re just a clerk here. And he said, well, would
it change your opinion if you knew I was about to marry
Sir Francis Baring’s daughter? And believe it or not,
this actually worked. He became a partner in the
bank and he became Baring’s son in law. So these are the ways that these
kinds of networks functioned. And so as this Labouchere
story suggests, these networks had important
economic components. And these economic
components would shape the emigres
experiences while they were in the United States. Through these
networks, the emigres turned their attention to land. The 1790s were a time
of frenzied and reckless speculation in land, and the
emigres launched themselves into it head first. And so this is sort of the last
part of the research that I did, and the last part of the
talk tonight, don’t worry. To assess various
investment opportunities, the emigres spent a
lot of time touring the American back
country, traveling deep into the Ohio
Valley, across upstate New York, and northern New England,
and down the Appalachian hinterlands. The emigres’ networks,
which stretched through the French nobility
and among liberal aristocrats, across European
capitals, these networks provided them with
privileged access on both sides of the Atlantic. It made them ideally positioned
to channel flows of capital into the United States. Now this was really the most
surprising part of the research that I did for me. I really never expected
to get interested in land or land speculation. And at first I used to
just kind of skip over the subject when I saw them
writing about this stuff. I thought, I’m not
interested in that. But eventually it became
really impossible to ignore this aspect of their time
in the United States. It was obviously too important a
part of their lives in America, and, in fact, I would say
the life of early America, to continue to skip over. So as I followed the emigres
and their investments, they began to look
like the advance guard of a great incursion
into the American hinterlands, this flow of European
capital pouring into the continental interior. That capital, I came to
realize, was a critical element that secured
American sovereignty in the back country. It built settlements deep
in the continental interior, carved roads connecting those
settlements to the port cities along the Atlantic coast. It built flour
mills, lumber mills that processed the settlers’
wheat, and their wood. It extended credit to
settlers to buy land, to begin farms and stores
where they bought their goods. From the broadest
perspective, in fact, the emigres’ investments
in American land help us to understand how
European capital transformed the United States in
the late 18th century. Their excursions
into the back country through what were some of the
most contested regions of North America also
enmeshed the emigres into very delicate
geopolitical issues. As they traveled west, they
entered a Franco Indian world that had existed for
more than 200 years by then, a world
of French settlers who had intermarried
with Indians and formed extensive
and highly connected to Franco Indian Metis world. That world still
existed in the west even after Washington, Hamilton,
Madison, and that other crew of friends had drafted and
ratified the Constitution. And it was this world that
the French and Indians had fought to preserve
in the Seven Years’ War. It was this complex that
they sought to resurrect once again in the 1790s. I’m not going to go into
all the details here, I know that I’ve been
talking for a little while, and we’re probably
all getting hungry. You can buy the book
right back there if you want to find out
everything that happened. But suffice it to say that
by 1798, diplomatic relations between the United States
and France had collapsed. An undeclared war between
France and the United States had broken out. Historians today call
it the Quasi War. And it was in this context
that Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts,
sharply restricting the rights of immigrants
into the United States. In fact, these
really infamous laws were passed in part in
response to suspicions that my emigres were
spying for France. Volney himself was directly
targeted by expulsion order. And so the emigres
fled once again. Talleyrand had
already left in 1796. He’d returned to a
post terror France, where he was now
foreign minister. Liancourt, Volney, Moreau,
they all left in 1798. Noailles stayed a
little while longer. By then, French
authorities had decided that they could no longer depend
on the United States, this ally that they had cultivated
in the American Revolution. In fact, France’s
ally had abandoned it in its most pressing moment
of need, declaring neutrality in the bitter war between
France and Britain French authorities determined
now in the mid 1790s that they would need to
find a more reliable source of provisions for their
Caribbean colonies, dependable basis
for naval support. When Napoleon took
power in France under the influence of
Talleyrand and of the ideas that he’d developed while
he was in the United States, France decided to rebuild the
French empire in North America. And so in 1802, having secured
the session of Louisiana from Spain, Napoleon
sent a force that would eventually total
80,000 troops to Louisiana to take Louisiana. But before going to Louisiana,
they would stop in San Domingue they would re
conquer the island, they would put the freed
slaves back into slavery, and they would move from
there to New Orleans. And that’s actually
when Noailles finally left Philadelphia. He went down and participated
in the French mission to re conquer San Domingue
Of course it didn’t work as Napoleon had planned. Under assault by
the Haitian forces and by the diseases and
tropical environment, Napoleon lost one of
his finest armies. Tens of thousands of French
troops died in San Domingue, decimating the army that was
meant to secure Louisiana. And this was, I think, probably
the most remarkable part of the research for
me, to learn about these extensive connections
between American and Haitian history. I won’t go into all
the details here, but I’ll just say that
it became clear to me that the expansion
of the United States, the transformation of a
young and fragile nation into a continental power,
was intimately bound up with the birth of Haiti. You really can’t
separate American history from the history
of the Caribbean. Talleyrand had a hand in
the Louisiana Purchase as Napoleon’s foreign minister. The transaction was,
in fact, financed by the very people
he collaborated with who collaborated
with the French emigres in their American land purchases
by their hosts in Philadelphia, by William Bingham, with
some help from Pierre Cesar Labouchere, that enterprising
banker who’d married so well, and with the Baring
Bank, which financed in large part, the
Louisiana Purchase. And so it was that the United
States gained Louisiana, which ensured that at least one
part of the United States would continue speaking French
right up into the present day. So this brief period
from 1793 to 1803 had witnessed an
extraordinary transformation. Where the United
States had once been hemmed in between the Atlantic
coast and the Appalachian Mountains, its territory
now stretched all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The country was on its way
to becoming a global power. And that transformation,
I want to suggest to you, can’t be fully understood
without reference to the dramatic
events taking place in Europe and the Caribbean. There never was a time when
our history wasn’t connected to that of the rest
of the world, when it wasn’t, so to speak, bilingual. So that was a lesson I learned
while I was doing the research and writing this
book, and it’s one that I’ve been very pleased to
share with you this evening. So thank you very much.

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