The Observant French Lieutenant

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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. …

… Few members of the army had cause to complain of their lodging or their hosts. Nevertheless, one may reasonably state that the character of this nation is little adapted to society. The men are very cold, rather stiff, and reticent, except for a group called Quakers. …

[The Quakers’] form of worshipping the Supreme Being seems rather bizarre. Their meetinghouse is open to all. They assemble there twice on Sunday, morning and evening. The sexes are separated, and one never sees men sitting in the women’s pews. The utmost silence reigns, and the members of the sect seem lost in the deepest reflection. Everyone is seated. When they feel so inspired, the men, as well as the women and girls, may speak. Whoever finds himself in this condition is easy to detect by his convulsive movements: his voice, his body, and all his limbs become agitated. Then everyone awaits the gift of the Holy Spirit and prepares to listen to the discourse that follows these quakings. It often happens that they leave the meetinghouse without having uttered a word. …

This sect is very rigid, as I have said above. Quakers allow themselves no pleasures beyond conversation and meditation; they are forbidden to sing and dance. The women, who are very pretty and are more inclined to pleasure than those of other sects (and that is not surprising, considering the constraint under which they must live), cannot become accustomed to such rigorous behavior, particularly while they are young and pretty. They detest their religion and only come to like it at an age when French women begin to become devout. If the Quaker men are even more solemn than those of other sects, one finds that Quaker girls balance the score by being much gayer and more playful. They love pleasure but are always held back by the fear of displeasing their parents. Since they have no ministers, they have no ceremonies. They marry themselves in the presence of all their friends and relatives, promising mutual fidelity. They publish banns and sign a contract in order to ensure that their mutual possessions benefit their children. Their wedding feasts are terribly dreary, since nobody speaks. You may imagine how much fun that must be! …

AUGUST, 1781

… This … leads me to make a brief observation on the subject of American women, or girls. In a country so new, where vice should not be deeply rooted, why should there be such a large number of prostitutes? Only one reason seems to me to be the cause. Although the fathers and mothers keep an eye on their daughters during their childhood, once they reach the age when human nature demands that they know everything, they become their own mistresses and are free to keep company with anyone they wish. Among the country people (for today in the towns education has corrected the abuses of which I shall speak) the girls enjoy so much freedom that a Frenchman or an Englishman, unaccustomed to such a situation, straightaway seeks the final favors. It is actually the custom, when a young man declares himself to be in love with a young girl, without even mentioning marriage, to permit him to bundle with her. This permission is granted by the parents. He then shuts himself up in a room with the young lady to lavish the most tender caresses upon her, stopping short of those reserved for marriage alone; otherwise he would transgress the established laws of bundling. If the young lady should take offense at his intrepidity, her parents will give him a hard time. The truly virtuous girls, who are not governed by temperament, easily resist and conform to the letter of the law of bundling, but it is to be feared that those more amply endowed by nature in this respect succumb to this tender sport. Bundling, it would seem, is made for Americans only. The coldness and gravity of their faces proclaim that this sport suits them perfectly. The bundling period is not defined; you can play this game for five or six years before deciding to marry, and even afterwards if you wish, without committing yourself finally to marry the girl after receiving these initial favors.

The women are generally very faithful to their husbands. You find few libertines among them. Yet some girls lead a most licentious life before they marry, though once married they, too, become good. The men are not fussy in this respect; they believe a girl should be free and do not despise her unless she is unfaithful after marriage. Thus a girl who has proved her worth, if she is pretty or rich, is quite sure of finding a husband; if she has had the misfortune to be seduced and the seduction bears its unfortunate fruit, it is not she who is disgraced, but the man. Respectable houses are henceforth closed to him, and he cannot marry into a respectable family.

It is rare to find a woman committing adultery here, though it does happen. In this situation the husband announces the delinquency of his wife and publishes it in the papers. No dishonor falls upon the husbands for the misconduct of their wives, and no one points the finger of scorn at a cuckold. Instead, they pity him. If the wife absconds with her lover, the husband announces in the gazette that his wife has quit his bed and declares that he will not pay her bills or be liable for any debts she may have contracted. The husband always assumes responsibility for his wife’s obligations, but in this circumstance his conscience is clear, since a wife who abandons her husband becomes a criminal. This is no excuse, however, for dissolving the marriage, which rarely occurs, since their laws do not permit it. The husbands are quite patient about waiting for their wives to repent. If they do, their husbands take them back, forget the past, and live with them in perfect harmony. I leave it to the European husbands to ask themselves whether they are capable of doing as much.…