America The Ungrateful

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“In 1492, Christophe Colomb discovered America!! 300 years later, on 21 January 1783, a vast country raised itself up in the north of this continent, acquired its independence from British power and monarchy with the help of the arms of France and by a solemn treaty of peace!!! Liberty reigns here! Who can as yet say and predict what the consequences of this immense and glorious event will be??”

 

When Capt. Louis François Bertrand Dupont d’Aubevoye, Comte de Lauberdière, wrote these lines, he was safely back in France after three years of service in the American Revolution. French arms had been crucial for American independence, and Lauberdière wanted to write an account of France’s role—and his—in that “most glorious revolution of which history speaks.” He also wanted to record those experiences that “had surprised [him] most in this little known country.” Some of the surprises had not been pleasant ones.

For years Lauberdière’s journal lay in private hands in France; it was given to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1978 and has only now come to light. It gives a lively, sharp, and immediate picture of some of the strains that begot the unlikely alliance that won our Revolution a working partnership between French royalists and British colonists determined to have done with their king.

The first and most unsettling surprise that met Captain de Lauberdière was the anti-French prejudice he found everywhere. King Louis’s troops had come to help against a common foe, but they might well have been better treated had they been the British enemy; at least they wouldn’t have been fleeced so mercilessly when buying much-needed supplies. Then there was the total absence of culture. In Lauberdière’s eyes, the attempts by Virginia planters to ape the manners of European courts only emphasized their lack of true culture. Many New Englanders were at least hardworking republicans, even if they did worship money; Virginians “do not have at all the character of the inhabitants of the north.” They were “used to from infancy to do nothing but give orders to their blacks. They live in idleness and indolence.” Throughout his American travels, but especially in Virginia, Lauberdière met with an “apathetic spirit” that “reigns among the people.”

More than two hundred years have passed since Lauberdière penned his scathing indictment of most Americans in the more than 350 pages of his Journal de l’armée aux ordres de monsieur le comte de Rochambeau pendant les campagnes de 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, dans l’Amérique septentrionale . How could he combine the highest praise for a very few with detestation for the rest? How could he call New Englanders ungrateful and charge Virginia, the home of George Washington and Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, with indifference and lack of culture?

Lauberdière was born on October 27, 1759, in Boce, southwest of Paris, into a family ennobled in 1576. The Lauberdières served France with the sword. Lauberdière’s father, François Charles Mathieu (1723–95), was a member of the mousquetaires du roy , an outfit made up entirely of noblemen who did duty as palace guards at Versailles. Lauberdière himself was not yet fourteen when he enrolled in the École Militaire in Paris in 1773. Appointed a cadet-gentilhomme in an infantry regiment in June 1776, he became a sublieutenant in January 1778. In 1780 his regiment was selected to participate in the American campaign, and Lauberdière, promoted to capitaine that April, was assigned as aidede-camp to the staff of the comte de Rochambeau, who would soon become commander of French forces in America. At twenty-one, Lauberdière was the youngest of Rochambeau’s aides, a handpicked cadre of well-educated officers from throughout Europe.

IN NEWPORT THE men “recognized our superiority” in lovemaking.
 

The École Militaire had taught Lauberdière to be an officer, but it could not prepare him for what he encountered when he stepped off the Père de Famille in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 13, 1780. His shipmate Comte William de Deux-Ponts, of the Royal Deux-Ponts, complained that the French “did not meet with that reception on landing which we expected and which we ought to have had”; the Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur found “the local people little disposed in our favor.” They “would have preferred at that moment, I think, to see their enemies arrive rather than their allies.” Newporters so little believed that the French would fight the British that Rochambeau had to assure them that if attacked, he himself “would be buried with his last soldier.”

Lauberdière blamed the British for this. Playing on “old national prejudices,” he wrote, they had increased their anti-French propaganda “once the treaty of alliance with America had been signed” and proceeded to “paint ug fo the Americans in the darkest and most hideous colors,” spreading “odious slander” and “countless and unfounded prejudices” among those poor, “credulous Americans.” Lauberdière was surprised that Americans would believe the British at all, but given the tenor of FrancoAmerican relations during the earlier eighteenth century, the challenge had not been so great.