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France And Us
The French helped us win our Revolution. A few years later we were at war with Napoleon’s navy. The two countries have been falling in and out of love ever since. Why?
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
Similar ideas appeared in each. one of the most commonly cited authors during the Constitutional Convention was Montesquieu (“the celebrated Montesquieu” Edmund Randolph called him). Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was being drafted, offered suggestions to its authors. Some of the active participants in both revolutions were the same. The Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought with distinction in several battles of the American Revolution, became the commander in his own country of the postrevolutionary National Guard, a popular force designed to defend the new National Assembly from reactionary plots. Thomas Paine, the English-born radical who had written Common Sense and The American Crisis to inspire the patriot cause in the United States, moved to France, where he was given citizenship and elected to the National Assembly as a member from Pas-de-Calais. “A share in two revolutions,” Paine declared, “is living to some purpose.” Filled with feelings of brotherhood, the French government conferred citizenship on other Americans, including Washington, James Madison, and “Jean” Hamilton. (“Curious example of French finesse,” Alexander Hamilton noted when he received the honor.) The two countries looked as if they would move along parallel tracks of liberty and enlightened reform.
One observer who did not believe it for a minute was Jefferson’s successor as American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris. Morris was a young man who had led a busy life. He had lost his left leg in a carriage accident when he was 28 and written the U.S. Constitution when he was 35. He came to Paris on business in February 1789, hoping to broker deals in American land and debt; President Washington, who enjoyed his caustic wit, named him minister in 1792. Morris’s first name signified his part-French ancestry. His mother, Sarah Gouverneur, was descended from Huguenots, or French Protestants, who had moved to New Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century. She had sent her son to a school in New Rochelle, New York, run by a Huguenot émigré who taught his charges French, and Morris was fluent enough in the language to write speeches for his French politician friends and little poems for his French lovers.
For all his French ties, Morris never believed that France could make its revolution work. Louis XVI he dismissed as a man of goodwill but slight ability, a “small beer character.” The liberal revolutionaries who took power after the fall of the Bastille, including his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, he dismissed as newcomers to the art of governing. Absolutism had drawn all power to Versailles, and the French had missed the apprenticeship in politics that Americans had served in their colonial legislatures and legal systems. The French “want an American constitution,” Morris wrote, ”…without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support [it].”
The French government gave us tangible help in our Revolution; but Lafayette gave us a symbol and taught us a lesson.
The revolutionary violence that Morris saw firsthand in Paris disgusted him. One evening, a week after the fall of the Bastille, as he stood waiting in the arcades of the Palais Royal for his carriage, he saw a mob parading the dismembered corpse of a royalist politician. “The head,” he wrote in his diary was “on a pike, the body dragged naked on the earth. Afterwards this horrible exhibition is carried through the different streets. Gracious God, what a People!” Morris’s gloomy forebodings were borne out. By the time he left his diplomatic post in October 1794, replaced by James Monroe, Lafayette had fled into exile, Louis XVI had been guillotined, and revolutionary governments had succeeded one another, as he wrote, “like the shadows of a magic lantern.”
Perhaps if the French had had more political experience, they would have shed less blood. Perhaps the experiences they had, of poverty and oppression, disposed them to be bloody. For whatever reason, French politics developed an extremism beyond anything in the United States. America’s record is blotted by racial and labor violence, as well as by the spectacular failure of statesmanship that was the Civil War. But the spirit of party has not been so venomous here.
One enduring strain in postrevolutionary French politics, that of moderate liberalism, finds the American experience congenial. Lafayette loved the United States all his life, not only because he had been successful and admired here but because he honestly shared its ideals. Talleyrand, who served every form of French government from kingdom to republic to empire as cynically as he shook us down in 1797, was an altogether different personality from Lafayette. Yet he too showed a warm spot for liberal constitutionalism whenever it was personally convenient for him to do so. When a Spanish diplomat admitted that he had never read The Federalist Papers , that handbook of American political philosophy, Talleyrand told him bluntly: “Then read it. Read it.” Alexis de Tocqueville, who was a politician as well as a political anthropologist, believed that the world had entered, willy-nilly, a democratic age. He hoped that the American experience of democracy, which he had studied in the early 1830s, could help guide the Second Republic, which was declared in 1848 (and was subverted, after only four years, by Bonaparte’s nephew Louis Napoleon). In the early years of the Third Republic, the great statue Liberty Enlightening the World was presented to the United States to commemorate the Franco-American alliance during the Revolutionary War.