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America The Ungrateful
CAPT. LOUIS FRAN’OIS BERTRAND DUPONT D’AUBEVOYE, COMTE DE LAUBERDIÈRE, served the patriot cause in the Revolution, did all he could to teach Virginians proper French manners, made love to the local women—and found every American inferior. Except for one.
February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
It also gave a signal for a French cultural mission to begin in Virginia. Lauberdière believed that he and his countrymen provided a much-needed introduction to European refinement, “all those little nothings which render precious the smallest services” and which were so conspicuously absent in Virginia society. Entertainments and balls, fox hunts and horseraces, were the means to this.
With many balls per week, the French and their American hosts kept busy, and the Nelsons, Randolphs, Eees, Harrisons, and Byrds, all flocked to Williamsburg with their daughters in tow. “They really never had spent a more agreeable winter. Entertainments, balls, the obligingness, the attentions of society … nothing had been forgotten on our part.” No wonder that “the women cried” when it came time for the French to leave. Some, however, cried more than others.
In Williamsburg, wrote Lauberdière, there lived “a widow named Madame Ridte”—that is, Susanna Riddel—whose “two charming nieces, Miss Rachel and Camilla Warrington,” had been orphaned in 1770 by the death of their father, a minister. Lauberdière set his sights on Rachel, whom he may have met while she was tending the sick and wounded soldiers in the Williamsburg hospital. In France lower-class women were considered fair game for the aristocracy, and Lauberdière regarded the whole affair lightly. “As the chanson says, ‘Let us make love, let us make war’—these two occupations are filled with attraction. In fact, we tried to combine the one with the other.” Rachel accepted Lauberdière’s advances, and he wrote that “our desires were fulfilled.” They were so fulfilled in fact that Lucy Randolph informed Comte Christian de Deux-Ponts, with whom she had fallen in love, in a letter of August 15, 1783, that the November before, Rachel had been safely delivered of “a son, whom she named Louis after his father Monsieur Lobidier.”
Lauberdière’s attention had long since moved on to “one of the prettiest women I saw in America,” Jenny Stevenson, who “lived sometimes 12, sometimes 23 miles from Williamsburg; and I covered this distance very frequently.” He recalled that “besides her precious qualities, Jenny was endowed with all the sweetness of nature; we spent sweet and charming moments together, always too brief.” Too brief indeed. Lauberdière wrote that his “yearnings will be eternal,” for Jenny Stevenson held on to her “virtues in the realm of love.”
By July 1, 1782, the French troops were on their way north, and on July 18 Lauberdière took the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon and the one American save for Jenny Stevenson who was spared his scorn. He had met George Washington in Newport in March 1781, when the general had been received there with all the honors due a maréchal de France . Lauberdière was overwhelmed, for Washington displayed “all the grandeur, the nobility and at the same time the necessary simplicity which behoove a general of a poor republic. … It is rather difficult to render the feeling that grips one when, after having heard for a long time his praise, one sees him for the first time.
“North America is a vast country where one constantly encounters something to the glory of General Washington. Who else than he could, with the same success, have been put at the head of this nation. … A heroic courage, a virtue, a patience put to the test by the most vexatious disappointments, talents, actions, the unanimous approbation, even that of his enemies, all combine to place him among the greatest persons. He is the father and idol of his soldiers, in short, whoever does not love him, at the very least is forced to value him and to admire him.
He JUDGE George Washington “among the greatest persons”; Martha, “not young, not pretty.”
“His stature is very grand, his bearing is noble, his figure beautiful, his personality is cool but at the same time pleasant and affable, his manner of receiving someone is easy and inspires trust, he often has an expression of troubling thoughts on his face.”
What a difference from what Lauberdière said earlier about other Americans! But there can be no doubt that he was sincere when he wrote these lines. For friend and foe alike, Washington did represent the ideals of the Revolution and alone possessed the virtues necessary to make it succeed.
Now, in the summer of 1782, Lauberdière had the opportunity to see his home as well. He found it “situated in a charming position on the summit of a hill called Mount Vernon. … The view, the sight which offers itself from the top of this agreeable situation along the course of this river is very extensive and very agreeably delineated by the coast of Maryland which borders its left bank. …
“That side of the mansion which faces the Potomac is adorned by a colonnade or covered gallery which protects the apartments from the excessive heat and which gives the building a very noble appearance. … The apartments are very agreeable and well laid out, but they are all very small.
“The plantation of Mount Vernon is of almost no profit to General Washington. The land is generally very poor, full of small stones and sand, and he will certainly decide to turn it into a pleasure seat, because in the environs of it there are farmsteads and other small plantations which are mixed amongst each other. (There are] eight or nine thousands acres of land in an excellent terrain well cultivated and well maintained to make them valuable.