When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation

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9780143127451: 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.

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About the Author:

FRANÇOIS FURSTENBERG is an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part 1
THE UNITED STATES SPEAKS FRENCH

On a chilly morning in January 1793, an unusually distinguished crowd gathered in the courtyard of the Walnut Street Prison, Philadelphia’s largest enclosed square. The gathering included George Washington, the president of the United States; John Adams, the vice president; and Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state. James Madison, the leader of the House of Representatives, was probably there, along with James Monroe—the nation’s first five presidents all assembled in this one space along with hundreds of Philadelphians to watch America’s first flight, undertaken by a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Tickets for the event—five dollars for the best spots—had sold at Oeller’s Hotel, a bastion of Philadelphia’s French community, where supporters of the French Revolution had recently staged what the Gazette of the United States called “a splendid entertainment,” in honor of the spectacular French victory at Valmy against Prussian and Austrian armies. But it was not just Philadelphians who were excited that day. Americans up and down the Atlantic seaboard read the details expectantly; New Yorkers even held out a faint hope that, “if the wind should break fair,” Blanchard might make it as far as their city.1

The Walnut Street Prison is the large building in the background. Blanchard lifted off from the inside courtyard, which was then the city’s largest enclosed square.

Cannons began firing at dawn, the great booms echoing through the city’s cobbled streets and the forests and farms of the nearby countryside, drawing hundreds more to the courtyard. By nine in the morning, with temperatures slowly rising into the forties, nearly three hundred spectators crowded in to watch Blanchard prepare for his flight. As the balloon inflated, with a band playing music and cannons still booming, its design gradually became clear: blue spangled with stars. At 10:00 a.m., as promised, Blanchard was ready. The crowd fell silent when President Washington stepped forward and handed the Frenchman a passport written up in his own hand—to reassure whomever he might meet at whatever spot he might land that he was no enemy of the state: not the advance guard of an airborne French invasion. The two said a few words in private, Washington towering over the Frenchman, who stood just over five feet tall. At five minutes past the hour, amid shouts and applause and solemn music, Blanchard, dressed in a blue suit with a cocked hat and white feathers, leaped into the basket and threw off the ballast. Waving a flag—American on one side, French on the other—he soared into the air. The president took off his hat and bowed. “It was indeed a spectacle as magnificent as it was new to us, to see this intrepid aeronaut majestically rise from the earth,” reported one witness.2

And so another spark flew upward.

This highly detailed map of Philadelphia, produced by the French engraver Charles Varlé for the Holland Land Company, shows the extent of settlement in the U.S. capital and the location of major landmarks.

AS BLANCHARD rose, the crowds in nearby streets marveled at the spectacle: “Admiration was painted on every countenance, and many who had not purchased tickets of admission into the prison yard, now regretted, but too late, their having deprived themselves of witnessing the most interesting scene that the human eye ever beheld.” Stevedores with their leathery hands paused for a moment at the docks, putting down their barrels and crates to look up. Solemn Quakers turned their heads to the sky, looking beyond the brims of the hats they refused to remove even indoors, to wonder at the sight of a man in flight. Looking down from the stillness of the sky, Blanchard “could not help being surprized and astonished” at the “immense numbers of people, which covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads.” All of Philadelphia, it seemed, was looking up at Blanchard as he drifted above the city. “Bon Voyage, God bless you, was echoed from every mouth; hats waved, hands lifted up.”3

Notable occupational clusters in 1790s Philadelphia.

As Blanchard floated twelve hundred feet above the earth, the city of brick and wood stretched out below him, the meandering Schuylkill River off in the west, the majestic Delaware River just to the east. From his perch high above, Blanchard heard echoes of life below: the clatter of a horse’s shoes on cobblestone, the bark of a dog prowling the alleys for food, the cries of a baby in a mother’s arms, the shout of a young chimney sweep offering his services. As one person after another looked up and gasped, Blanchard listened with quiet satisfaction to “the cries of joy which rent the air.”4

The soft wind first pushed Blanchard east, across northern Philadelphia, between Market and Race, crossing Fourth, Third, then Second Streets. This was a working-class section of town, and looking down, Blanchard could see the houses of blacksmiths, cordwainers, furniture makers, and other artisans and tradesmen, who worked in their shops on the first floor and lived above with their families. It was Philadelphia’s most densely populated neighborhood, the sidewalks filled with servants pushing their way through the crowds on some errand or another, shoppers on their way to the markets, and clerks heading to shops selling goods from all over the world: sugar from the Caribbean, wine from France, cotton from India.

The first Bank of the United States, on South Second Street: then and now.

To the south, just below Market Street, lay the city’s political and financial center. Rising above the surrounding buildings, Blanchard could easily spot the newly constructed Bank of the United States, conceived by Alexander Hamilton to issue government debt and service the nation’s payment system. The building would later be acquired by the French merchant Stephen Girard; it still stands today in the heart of Philadelphia.

Congress Hall, seat of the U.S. Congress in Philadelphia: then and now.

Blanchard saw just two blocks to the west, and also rising above the neighborhood, the State House, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been debated and signed, and Congress Hall, where both the House of Representatives and the Senate sat.

The Library Company, founded by Benjamin Franklin, which houses the American Philosophical Society: then and now.

These buildings towered above the rest of the city, testifying to Philadelphia’s status as the nation’s capital city during the 1790s: political capital, cultural capital, and economic capital all rolled into one. It was the only time the United States had a single great metropolis the way France has Paris and England has London, and it made Philadelphia by far “the most agreeable city for a foreigner,” as Liancourt would write, gathering “more than any other, people who cultivate” literary and scientific inquiry. “It is the seat of a philosophical society, and a large and valuable public library; and of a museum which has an almost complete collection of the minerals and animals of North America.”5

Philadelphia’s Arch Street Ferry. The port along the Delaware River was the commercial and economic heart of the U.S. capital.

As Blanchard approached the Delaware River the wind shifted, pushing him south toward Philadelphia’s port, the center of the city’s commercial life, its raison d’être. Warehouses lined the riverside, and wooden wharves jutted out into the Delaware to welcome ships from the Caribbean and Europe, and even a few from ports as distant as India and China, all of them trading their goods for produce from the fertile Delaware River valley, known as the Atlantic’s breadbasket. Hosts of artisans lived and worked nearby to service this vast commercial hub: carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, rope and sail makers, all little cogs in an increasingly complex economic machine moving people and goods from one part of the world to another.

Continuing south, parallel with the Delaware, Blanchard could see the handsome new mansions rising up along Society Hill, above the recently covered Dock Creek, where Philadelphia’s merchants, flush from the nation’s booming economy, held their elaborate salons and luxurious dinner parties, making Philadelphia’s real estate the most expensive in the nation. Perhaps Blanchard even saw a servant carrying a calling card to one of the neighborhood’s ornate houses, conveying an invitation to a dinner or tea. Talleyrand, Liancourt, Volney, Noailles, and Moreau would all settle here during their American exile and soon be found strolling these very sidewalks, dropping in on friends, conducting business, and killing time.6

Despite its importance to the nation, Philadelphia was still a small city. From his vantage, Blanchard could easily see it in its entirety, beginning at the Delaware River, and running west to Eighth Street—only eight blocks—beyond which the roads were unpaved and the countryside began. On its northern edge the city ended at Vine Street, three blocks north of Market, with the suburb of Northern Liberties just beyond. Just one mile to the south, a mere seven blocks away, the city ended at Cedar (now South) Street, at the suburb of Southwark. In all, Philadelphia totaled less than a square mile. But with a population of over forty thousand in 1790, approaching seventy thousand in 1800, it was densely packed. In Philadelphia’s most crowded wards, each building housed, on average, seven to eight people in a total of 1,228 square feet—a figure that included half of the ground floor, typically dedicated to commerce. Many laborers lived with their family in a house containing no more than 500 square feet. Behind the buildings lay outdoor kitchens and washhouses in lots often shared with a horse, pig, or cow. Philadelphia’s population density then was far greater than Manhattan’s is today. To find a similar density in our day one needs to look all the way to Mumbai.7

This intense proximity made it impossible for Blanchard—or any other visitor—to ignore the city’s cruel aspects. Some of the faces that turned up to the sky to watch Blanchard that morning belonged to enslaved men and women; although laws for slavery’s gradual abolition were on the books, labor was still coerced, not only through slavery but also through the indentured servitude and apprenticeship systems that still prevailed. The divide between rich and poor, already significant, had been widening since the Revolution, as seaboard elites made ever-growing fortunes on trade, commerce, and finance, while farmers and servants struggled under growing debt burdens in a deflationary economy.

The city also stank. In an era before public sewage or public health, rotting animal corpses and every sort of human waste lay putrefying in open sewers, in alleys, or in the streets. When he arrived, Volney was overwhelmed by the “striking odor of marshland, and the smell of oysters.” Sewage waste regularly contaminated private wells in the years before Philadelphia’s waterworks were established, causing predictable intestinal trouble among residents. Low-lying marshlands abutted the city, causing major health trouble in the summer, when the hot and sticky climate bred mosquitoes carrying yellow fever, driving the wealthy to their summer homes outside the city proper and killing off many poor residents, largely immigrant or African American, who had nowhere to go. Flying high above while others remained stuck below, Blanchard, it might be said, personified the contrasts endemic to eighteenth-century life, when mobility so often meant the difference between life and death.8

FLYING UPWARD into the skies, Blanchard seemed to incarnate the wonders of the French Revolution. France’s stunning victory at Valmy, which saved the French Revolution, heralded a new age: an age that would be shaped not by kings and noblemen, but by citizens making their own history. France was now a republic. No one exulted at the spectacle more than Americans, they who first proved to the world that humans could carve out their own destiny in pursuit of happiness.

Great Blanchard! as you wing your way toward the heavens;

There to announce to all the planets of the universe,

That Frenchmen have conquered their interior enemies,

And that their Exterior Foes have been repulsed by their intrepidity

Dart through Olympus and tell to the gods,

That Frenchmen have been victorious.

Implore the aid of Mars, that the Arms of France

May crush the ambitious designs of tyrants FOR EVER.

As Blanchard soared above Philadelphia like Icarus, Americans turned up to stare in wonder and pride. A French aeronaut flying through the sky, Blanchard embodied the limitless possibilities promised by the age of Revolutions, this new era of world history. But did anyone notice that Blanchard had lost control of his destiny and could only watch, helpless, as the winds pushed him where they would?

In all, his journey lasted forty-six minutes. He landed about fifteen miles from Philadelphia, just a little east of Woodbury, New Jersey.

BLANCHARD’S VIEW of Philadelphia that morning in 1793, of early America—indeed, of the Atlantic world—was an extraordinarily privileged one. It seemed almost magical. Soaring over the city and looking down, he apprehended Philadelphia’s sights and sounds, its objects and people: the city in which the émigré constituants would soon arrive. It is a world we today can only reconstruct through the fragments and traces left behind. But looking out, he could see only as far as the distant horizon. Perhaps he saw there the slight bend of the planet, but no more.

Blanchard could not look south and see the island of Saint Domingue, where republicans and royalists, white and colored, slave and free, were just then throwing themselves headlong into a period of vicious warfare that would last another ten years, pulling in the three most powerful empires in the world, killing tens of thousands of soldiers, freeing half a million slaves, and ending with the creation of Haiti. Nor could he see King Louis XVI, then on trial before the French National Assembly, awaiting the verdict that would pronounce his death at the guillotine and launch twenty years of war that would forever change Europe. He probably saw west as far as the Schuylkill River. Beyond that, however, he could not see the rugged Appalachian Mountains dividing Pennsylvania in two, where angry farmers groaned under new taxes slowly pushing them toward rebellion against the new federal government. Nor could his gaze penetrate farther west still, where the Western Confederacy of Native American villages fought American settlers’ encroachment into their territory, the U.S. Army mustering for another eighteen months of losing battles in the bitterly contested territory between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. Most of all, Blanchard could not see the ties that connected all these distant peoples and places to Philadelphia.9

No, Blanchard could not possibly understand the forces that shaped the Atlantic world. The frenetic movement that persisted during peace and during war, inside imperial borders and across them, around and around in a continuous flow, following tides and currents and winds, pushing up river valleys, crossing the craggiest mountain passes, and tearing down primeval forests. On and on it beat, the pulse of commodities and people that made up that world, coursing up the American coast, across the North Atlantic to fill the coffers of merchants in London, Am...

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