America The Ungrateful

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“During the war, General Washington had much work done at Mount Vernon and though he is fond of his privacy and devoted by inclination to his domestic tasks, yet he sacrificed to his duty, to his fatherland, the pleasures which they provided him to throw himself into the whirlwind of affairs. Since the beginning of the war he has not spent more than nine days there. …”

Martha Washington, Lauberdière wrote, “has no intellectual faculties or appearance which responds to the supreme impression suggested today by the name of Washington. She enjoys a very great fortune which she could not have put to a better use than to share with a hero, with a, by all accounts, great man whose name will pass into the most distant posterity. William the Conqueror took over the country where his ancestors were born, and he set free from the tyranny and slavery the country to which a descendant of William wanted to reduce it.

“After having examined everything that could excite my curiosity and attract my attention at Mount Vernon I left from there and took my leave from Madame Washington to rejoin the army at the first possible moment.”

This was not the last time, however, that Lauberdière saw Martha Washington. He met her again a few months later, in December 1782, in Boston and left the following description:

“Mistriss [ sic ] Washington, who during the war spent each winter with the general wherever he happened to have his quarters, arrived in this one here eight days ago. She is not young, not very pretty, and in no way seems to respond to the grandeur of her husband but she was very rich and that reason which almost always prevails and which covered all the other faults made the general marry her. Altogether it will always be very meritorious of her to deprive herself of all the sweet things and of all the pleasures that she could have procured for herself in Virginia at Mount Vernon under the influence of a climate always sweet and mild even during that season to go live surrounded by ice, snow, the racket and the rigors (as one could call it) of a camp and a quarter of the nature as it was at that time in the American army.”

Martha Washington was no court beauty, no Marie Antoinette, no Madame de Pompadour, not the proper match for Lauberdière’s hero, but in Lauberdière’s world marriage for money was the norm. And he had to admit that her wealth had been put to good use: helping her husband lead the United States to independence.

No one else but Washington could have fulfilled that task, but the French had been crucial too. Lauberdière sought explanations for why he received so little gratitude, and he found them in what he perceived to be the emerging American culture. The problem was that it was much too European.

He and his fellow officers had stepped ashore expecting to find a land of simple, industrious farmers living happily, free from the cultural baggage of Old Europe. But as it turned out, not only did New Englanders “cultivate their fields, live within the context of their families, involve themselves little in affairs beyond that, and [seem to be] zealous republicans,” but all too often they were greedy bigots who hated foreigners yet coveted their money. After three months in Newport, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, grandson of the philosopher, informed a friend in France that “that integrity, those manners, that simplicity so praised in the inhabitants of North America, exists only in the philosophical novels that we have read.”

George Washington alone met Lauberdière’s model of the simple, noble, self-sacrificing hero. He alone held the Franco-American alliance together, and he alone could cross the boundaries of culture when “at the final farewell he embraced all of us in a moment of silence, even though that custom was unknown among men in America.” When duty called, Washington had left the plow and devoted his life to the fight against the “tyranny and slavery” to which Britain wanted to reduce America. In him alone Lauberdière perceived the virtues of the ancient Roman republic he had hoped would permeate American society as a whole. Lauberdière’s journal stands as evidence not only to the potent cult that had grown up around Washington even during his lifetime but also to the political genius of the first President of the United States.

And just when George Washington was assuming that highest office, in 1789, it seemed as if liberty would reign in France as well. Lauberdière, now a lieutenant colonel, threw his lot in with the Third Estate, the body that led the way to revolution, became a full colonel in April 1790 and a chevalier of the coveted order of St. Louis that fall. By 1793 most of his noble comrades had been discharged, been imprisoned, or emigrated, but Lauberdière was still on active duty and sent to England on an espionage mission. Captured and detained in London until the summer of 1800, he survived the Terreur in the safety of an English prisoner-of-war camp.

By then his son, Lewis, had graduated from the College of William and Mary and entered the United States Navy. “Monsieur Lobidier” never acknowledged him, never did anything to provide for him. Rachel Warrington, ostracized for having borne a bastard, lived with her aunt in Williamsburg until 1786, when she married a man named Richard Brown. He apparently treated her badly, and she died around 1813.