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Asylum In Azilum
Refugees from the French Revolution, many of them of noble birth, built a unique community in the backwoods of Pennsylvania—and hoped their queen would join them
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
On October 7, 1798, the streets of Philadelphia were ominously deserted. A yellow-fever epidemic was at its height. Anyone who could had fled the city, and few would enter it voluntarily. Nevertheless thirty-three-year-old Aristide Aubert Dupetit-Thouars, a captain in the French navy, arrived there on foot from Wilmington and was anxiously seeking The Mansion at Spruce and Third streets. He had been warned to avoid the capital, but French refugees from Santo Domingo had also told him it was in Philadelphia that he might find an answer to his immediate need to subsist and to the fulfillment of a life’s dream. At the splendid house of financier and statesman William Bingham, the refugees said, he would find a compatriot, Vicomte Louis-Marie de Noailles. It seemed that Noailles had been dreaming dreams similar to his.
Since childhood Aristide had imagined a home in the virgin wilderness where he would hew out a life; there he would bring his brothers and sisters and found a colony based on love, self-reliance, and simplicity; there the Noble Savage would be his friend and neighbor. So when Aristide learned that Noailles and others were planning to settle enormous tracts of land in northern Pennsylvania with French people seeking refuge in America from the Revolution in France, he could not be frightened off’ by the threat of yellow fever. He had known and survived it aboard ship coming from Europe, and besides, physical danger or a sudden reverse in fortune in the past had failed to deter him. Aristide had taken part in victories and defeats at sea for the last fourteen years; he had left his country torn by revolution and civil war; he had sold his lands to finance his own expedition to seek the lost explorer La Pérouse, who had disappeared in the South Seas almost five years earlier, and when his own funds proved in sufficient he had gained the support of the legislative assembly (and more secretly of the king in his last days of powerless existence in the Tuileries). In spite of a name whose “du” proved him of aristocratic origin, Aristide had managed to become somewhat of a hero in France, and people had rushed to subscribe their money for his expedition. He had sailed just after the fall of the king, and finding it necessary to seek food, water, and medical help for the crew of his little vessel, the Diligent , he had stopped at the island of Fernando de Noronha, only to learn that all Europe was declaring war on France. The Portuguese rulers of the island seized him as a dangerous revolutionary. His ship was sunk, his expedition ruined. Aristide finally managed to prove that his mission was not a warlike one and squeezed a small indemnity out of Lisbon, but his own country now barred him—the new republic had declared him an aristocrat, an emigrant, and a traitor, with rank, profession, and livelihood gone. Perhaps Noailles could tell him if he could hope for any future at all.
Noailles was settled in small but comfortable quarters in The Mansion. There Aristide found him dispensing hospitality to two other compatriots, Antoine Orner Talon and the Marquis de Blacons. “I was most perfectly received by these gentlemen,” he wrote that night to his sister Félicité in Anjou. “They are founding a great establishment on the Susquehanna.”
Aristide had not been sure that a simple introduction of himself as a fellow Frenchman in trouble would open doors so easily, because in France of the ancien régime he might never have met these gentlemen at all. He was a younger son of provincial nobility with no court connections, while the Vicomte de Noailles came from one of France’s most powerful families; his mother, the Duchesse de Mouchy, had been arbiter of etiquette at Versailles, his brother-in-law was the Marquis de Lafayette, and Noailles had himself been a high-ranking officer in both the French and the American armies, a court darling, judged the best dancer at Versailles. Noailles’s popularity at court had plummeted when he achieved national acclaim for proposing the abolition of feudal rights in the early, heady days of the Revolution in 1789. Omer Talon was a dignitary of the law in Paris, civil lieutenant of the Châtelet Prison, chief justice of the criminal court, on terms of almost intimacy with King Louis XVI . The Marquis de Blacons, an aristocrat from the Dauphiné, had represented the nobility of his province when the States-General met in the same great year of ’89.
The rapid progress of the Revolution had tossed Noailles and Blacons, two reforming liberals, and Talon, an obstinate supporter of absolute monarchy, into the same exile. In America, Noailles had been warmly welcomed by old friends from the American Revolution. President Washington received him with affection, William Bingham housed him, the Jays, the Knoxes, and Robert Morris entertained him. But he was poor, earning a puny living from lessons he gave in the French language, dancing, and the violin. Talon had fewer American friends but a great deal more money, having managed to extricate large sums from France through Dutch banks. Blacons had a friend in Thomas Jefferson, but to live he was borrowing from. Talon. They all wanted a position of dignity in their new country either for the rest of their lives—they were all in their thirties- or until France might welcome them home again on some far-off day. It was during Noailles’s busy social life in Philadelphia—as hostesses scrambled to get a delightful French vicomte for their dinner tables—that he had learned of the fortunes to be made out of land speculation.