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When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.
July/august 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
But this was a secret war of wills between Washington and King Louis that went on under a surface of amity. Washington did not even confide his misgivings to Lafayette, despite their friendship. After the war diplomatic relations between the two countries, though strained somewhat by French commercial losses in the war, were cordial as a result of Alexander Hamilton’s efforts to repay on a regular basis the debts incurred to France. Meanwhile, the leading thinkers in the two countries seemed to form a single community of rational discourse. French visitors to America—Crèvecoeur and Brissot de Warville—found models for French social reform in American institutions. American visitors to France—Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow—saw the stirrings of discontent with the established church and state as natural consequences of the example America had set in its state and federal constitutions. Thomas Paine, having argued for commonsense government in America, went to France to vindicate the rights of man. The French officers who had served with Washington were the only men at Louis XVI’s court allowed to wear a foreign decoration—the Order of the Cincinnati eagle, designed by a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant.
When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette—recognizing the indebtedness of the French Revolution to Americans, who had shown the way—sent the key of that prison to Washington. Lafayette’s face became the first of many that the French Revolution would turn toward America—and a more welcome appearance could not be wished. Jefferson, who had recently returned from France to become Secretary of State—Lafayette was at his farewell dinner in Paris—was actually more enthusiastic about the French Revolution than was France’s minister to America, Jean Baptiste de Ternant. Jefferson thought the French experiment would not only confirm the American one but spread irresistibly to all the other enlightened parts of Europe. When the National Assembly in France, conscious of the model offered by the Declaration of Independence, issued a Declaration of the Rights of Man, it was designed to be adaptable to any country.
Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, thought, like Jefferson, that French republicanism would spread to other countries—a prospect he feared as destabilizing. He reminded Washington that all treaties had been made with the regime of Louis XVI and that any new government in France would not have the same claim upon America as had the one that actually supplied help to America in its time of crisis. This was Hamilton’s way of turning the revolutionary assistance France had given to America against that country’s own revolutionary effort. The equivocal nature of Louis XVI’s actions was coming back to haunt Franco-American relations.
Jefferson was not convinced. He argued heatedly in cabinet debate that treaties are made with the people who make up a nation and that any people can alter its form of government without forfeiting prior claims upon other nations. Washington agreed with Jefferson that treaty obligations must be met—that, for instance, payments on the war debt should be continued—but he was no more ready to commit America’s fortunes to the giant republic of France than to the giant monarchy of France.
While the cabinet debate was going on in private, an international propaganda war broke out in 1790 over the future of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine was at the center of a triangular debate in England, France, and America. The mob’s invasion of Versailles, menacing the queen—an attack repulsed by Lafayette—had ruffled the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke’s deep sense of historical decorum. Burke wrote his impassioned Reflections on the Revolution in France to defend ancient establishments. Paine responded from France with The Rights of Man , saying Burke “pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird” of the French nation. Thomas Jefferson indiscreetly recommended Paine’s book to its American publisher as an answer to “heresies” that had arisen in America over the French Revolution—an allusion to John Adams’s Discourses on Davila (1790), in which Adams denounced French experiments with freedom. When Jefferson’s letter was published, he had to apologize for this attack by one member of Washington’s administration on the Vice-President of the United States.
There was great misunderstanding on all sides because events were moving rapidly in France, though reports of them came slowly to America. In 1792, when news arrived that France had declared war on the alliance of kings that was taking shape in response to the Revolution, Hamilton argued that America’s guarantee of French rights in the West Indies was framed in case a defensive war should arise, and France had now taken the offensive. Jefferson replied that France was forced to take pre-emptive steps.