The Observant French Lieutenant

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur came to America in 1780 as a lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Artillery—a unit of Rochambeau ‘s army. The young French aristocrat spent three years here and recorded them all in a journal, now translated for the first time. He proved to be an eager observer—interested in everything, open-minded, usually friendly, and tending to sweeping, youthful generalizations. As well as reporting on military matters, he described houses, people, religious customs, and food. But his principal interest was—vive la France!—in American women. A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents here some brief samples of his engaging journal.

OCTOBER, 1780

… The town of Newport [Rhode Island] could pass for a city, though there is nothing pretty about the town itself. Nearly all the houses are built of wood. Sometimes they build them outside the town and, when completed, put them on rollers and pull them to the lot on which they are to stand. Mostly these are very small houses, though it is not rare to see them move fairly large ones. The houses are charming, of simple architecture, and quite well planned for the convenience of each owner. The interiors are wonderfully clean, and the exteriors painted in different colors present a varied aspect that enhances one’s pleasure. The Americans do not possess much furniture, barely enough for indispensable use. Everything is simple and so clean you can see your face in it.

The American manner of living is worthy of mention. Their favorite drink seems to be tea, which is ordinarily served from four to five in the afternoon. The mistress of the house does the honors. She serves it to everyone present, and it is even rude to refuse it. Generally the tea is very strong, and they put a single drop of milk in it. They also drink very weak coffee, weakening it still further with the little drop of milk. They drink chocolate in the same manner.

In the morning they breakfast on coffee, chocolate, and slices of toast with butter. They also serve cheese, jam, pickles, and sometimes fried meat. It should be remarked that those least well off always drink coffee or tea in the morning and would, I believe, sell their last shirt to procure it. The use of sugar generally marks the difference between poverty and affluence.

Their dinner consists of boiled or roast meat with vegetables cooked in water. They make their own sauce on their plates, which they usually load with everything on the table, enough to frighten a man, and pour gravy over it. On the table there is melted butter, vinegar, pepper, etc., which they use according to their taste.

In general they eat a great deal of meat and little bread, which they replace with vegetables. After dinner those in comfortable circumstances have the tablecloth removed, whereupon the ladies retire. Madeira wine is brought, and the men drink and smoke for quite a while. Among the prosperous, and especially at dinner parties, after the ladies retire the customary healths are drunk; there are so many that one rarely leaves the table without being a little tipsy from the vapors of the wine and the noise the men make when the wine begins to go to their heads.

At meals a bowl containing grog, cider, or beer is passed to those who are thirsty. (Grog is a drink made of rum and water; when there is sugar in it, it is called toddy, and if lemon is added, punch.) There are no glasses, but always this inevitable bowl that is presented to you. When you go visiting, the master of the house never fails to offer you a drink. He takes one first, being careful to drink to your health. Then comes your turn. …

The Americans are tall and well built, but most of them look as though they had grown while convalescing from an illness. (There are some, however, who are big and fat, but not very vigorous.) The Americans do not live long; generally one notices that they live to be sixty or seventy, and the latter are rare. There are, however, men and women here of eighty, but it is exceedingly uncommon for them to reach that age. I knew one man who was ninety and still rode horseback with ease, was possessed of all his faculties, and enjoyed perfect health.

The women are also very pale and seem frail. They are quite precocious. A girl of twenty here would pass for thirty in France. It must be admitted, though, that nowhere have I seen a more beautiful strain. As I have said, the women have very little color, but nothing can compare with the whiteness and texture of their skin. They have charming figures, and in general one can say they are all pretty, even beautiful, in the regularity of their features and in what one can imagine to be a woman’s loveliest attribute.

One must see them at a dance, where they acquire the color they do not have naturally; then one is really struck with admiration. But they are displeasing in one very noticeable respect, and that is their cold manner. Once off the floor, they lose much of their charm and show little vivacity and gaiety in your company. If you do not want to be bored, you must assume the burden of conversation, animating it with our French gaiety, or else you will be lost. It is very difficult to make such an effort, especially when you do not know English. However, when these beauties get to know us, and when they deign to let us look at them, we find them absolutely ravishing. …