Skip to main content

America The Ungrateful

June 2024
13min read

CAPT. LOUIS FRAN’OIS BERTRAND DUPONT D’AUBEVOYE, COMTE DE LAUBERDIÈRE, served the patriot cause in the Revolution, did all he could to teach Virginians proper French manners, made love to the local women—and found every American inferior. Except for one.

“In 1492, Christophe Colomb discovered America!! 300 years later, on 21 January 1783, a vast country raised itself up in the north of this continent, acquired its independence from British power and monarchy with the help of the arms of France and by a solemn treaty of peace!!! Liberty reigns here! Who can as yet say and predict what the consequences of this immense and glorious event will be??”


When Capt. Louis François Bertrand Dupont d’Aubevoye, Comte de Lauberdière, wrote these lines, he was safely back in France after three years of service in the American Revolution. French arms had been crucial for American independence, and Lauberdière wanted to write an account of France’s role—and his—in that “most glorious revolution of which history speaks.” He also wanted to record those experiences that “had surprised [him] most in this little known country.” Some of the surprises had not been pleasant ones.

For years Lauberdière’s journal lay in private hands in France; it was given to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1978 and has only now come to light. It gives a lively, sharp, and immediate picture of some of the strains that begot the unlikely alliance that won our Revolution a working partnership between French royalists and British colonists determined to have done with their king.

The first and most unsettling surprise that met Captain de Lauberdière was the anti-French prejudice he found everywhere. King Louis’s troops had come to help against a common foe, but they might well have been better treated had they been the British enemy; at least they wouldn’t have been fleeced so mercilessly when buying much-needed supplies. Then there was the total absence of culture. In Lauberdière’s eyes, the attempts by Virginia planters to ape the manners of European courts only emphasized their lack of true culture. Many New Englanders were at least hardworking republicans, even if they did worship money; Virginians “do not have at all the character of the inhabitants of the north.” They were “used to from infancy to do nothing but give orders to their blacks. They live in idleness and indolence.” Throughout his American travels, but especially in Virginia, Lauberdière met with an “apathetic spirit” that “reigns among the people.”

More than two hundred years have passed since Lauberdière penned his scathing indictment of most Americans in the more than 350 pages of his Journal de l’armée aux ordres de monsieur le comte de Rochambeau pendant les campagnes de 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, dans l’Amérique septentrionale . How could he combine the highest praise for a very few with detestation for the rest? How could he call New Englanders ungrateful and charge Virginia, the home of George Washington and Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, with indifference and lack of culture?

Lauberdière was born on October 27, 1759, in Boce, southwest of Paris, into a family ennobled in 1576. The Lauberdières served France with the sword. Lauberdière’s father, François Charles Mathieu (1723–95), was a member of the mousquetaires du roy , an outfit made up entirely of noblemen who did duty as palace guards at Versailles. Lauberdière himself was not yet fourteen when he enrolled in the École Militaire in Paris in 1773. Appointed a cadet-gentilhomme in an infantry regiment in June 1776, he became a sublieutenant in January 1778. In 1780 his regiment was selected to participate in the American campaign, and Lauberdière, promoted to capitaine that April, was assigned as aidede-camp to the staff of the comte de Rochambeau, who would soon become commander of French forces in America. At twenty-one, Lauberdière was the youngest of Rochambeau’s aides, a handpicked cadre of well-educated officers from throughout Europe.

IN NEWPORT THE men “recognized our superiority” in lovemaking.

The École Militaire had taught Lauberdière to be an officer, but it could not prepare him for what he encountered when he stepped off the Père de Famille in Newport, Rhode Island, on July 13, 1780. His shipmate Comte William de Deux-Ponts, of the Royal Deux-Ponts, complained that the French “did not meet with that reception on landing which we expected and which we ought to have had”; the Comte de Clermont-Crèvecoeur found “the local people little disposed in our favor.” They “would have preferred at that moment, I think, to see their enemies arrive rather than their allies.” Newporters so little believed that the French would fight the British that Rochambeau had to assure them that if attacked, he himself “would be buried with his last soldier.”

Lauberdière blamed the British for this. Playing on “old national prejudices,” he wrote, they had increased their anti-French propaganda “once the treaty of alliance with America had been signed” and proceeded to “paint ug fo the Americans in the darkest and most hideous colors,” spreading “odious slander” and “countless and unfounded prejudices” among those poor, “credulous Americans.” Lauberdière was surprised that Americans would believe the British at all, but given the tenor of FrancoAmerican relations during the earlier eighteenth century, the challenge had not been so great.

For decades the French had been a traditional enemy of New Englanders. Ministers from Maine to Massachusetts had long encouraged repatriated prisoners of Franco-British wars, mostly women, to record their experiences with hordes of Jesuit priests preying upon their Calvinist souls. These accounts went from the pulpit up and down the coast, confirming long-standing beliefs that connected the French and the Catholic Church with immorality, bad theology, and priestly tyranny. During the French and Indian War this practice had reached new heights, and the following years of uneasy peace had not wiped out old prejudices. For most Americans the French remained objects of suspicion and hostility.

Lauberdière saw this hostility assert itself wherever Rochambeau’s troops went. “Upon their arrival in Williamsburg, the French found the same reception from the Virginians that they had had in Rhode Island upon debarkation.” Although Virginians “owe to the French the salvation of their country, the conservation of their goods and of their possessions,” they “refuse to lodge … and to receive amongst themselves those who shed their blood for them.”

There too British propaganda evidently played its part; Clermont-Crèvecoeur wrote that the British “had made the French seem odious to them by their remarks about us … saying that we were dwarfs, pale, ugly, specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails.” (It was, however, an American, Robert Beverley, who as early as 1705 had described a prodigious bullfrog in his History and Present State of Virginia as being large enough to provide a “comfortable meal” for “six French-Men.”)

As summer turned into fall, the French forces settled into their quarters in Newport. French culture, Lauberdière records, broke the ice: “The Frenchman is always the same. No other people has mastered better than he the charming art of making himself loved. … His nimbleness, his gallantry, at times ridiculed by other peoples, always meets with an agreeable response” from the other “sex, [which responds] the same in all countries. … Compliments, whether true or false, seduce them, are always in season with them. At first our manners astonished the Americans. Before long our courtesies, our politenesses conquered them, and they quickly recognized our superiority in this field.”

Rhode Islanders may have put up with such solicitude because the French paid in specie. According to Lauberdière, “our allies were very anxious to get ours.” Other officers expressed themselves more bluntly. Axel von Ferson, a favorite of Marie Antoinette, complained that Newporters “overcharged us mercilessly. They treat us more like enemies than friends. … Their greed is unequalled.” Rochambeau found himself “at the mercy of the userer,” while Clermont-Crèvecoeur claimed that “suspicion, fraud and insincerity characterize most American merchants.”

As the French marched south in the summer of 1781, they encountered another surprise: warfare itself outside European norms and etiquette. Not only did both sides engage in forms of battle fit only for bandits and robbers, but the British in particular committed what could only be described as criminal acts. Lauberdière described how the British had (supposedly) inoculated the black slaves with smallpox and spread them across Virginia to infect Americans and how they had “murdered” an American colonel, Alexander Scammel, near Yorktown (he may have been killed just after surrendering; the record remains unclear to this day). But the British officer Banastre Tarleton outdid them all. Near Portsmouth, Virginia, he hanged a pregnant woman under a sign reading, “You will not bear any more rebels.”

Americans seemed quite prepared to sink to the same level of warfare; only French intervention saved the young captain Charles Asgill from the gallows in retaliation for the British hanging of an American officer. “The French are always the friends of the defeated,” Lauberdière explained; “kindness was the principle of our conduct vs them.” After Yorktown, he added, Americans “were very upset about the capitulation. They had hoped for an assault so that they could take revenge for the tyranny, one could say for the cruelty, which they had experienced by the English during the war.” For Lauberdière, even holding a grudge against a defeated enemy betrayed a serious lack of breeding.

French officers were more than eager to befriend, wine, and dine the vanquished foe. Americans resented this; they didn’t have the means to compete with the French aristocrats. Legend has it that Baron von Steuben had to sell his horse to throw a dinner for his own fellow officers, while, as the Vicomte de Rochambeau, Rochambeau’s twenty-six-year-old son, observed, French officers were making substantial loans to their British counterparts.

But these officers belonged to the same social class, which was far above those in the Continental forces, where according to the Comte d’Estaing, you found “captains who are not good enough company to be permitted to eat with their general officers and colonels who are innkeepers.” As far as the French were concerned, the concept of noblesse oblige simply lay beyond the understanding of any American officer. For the French, “the last shot of the cannon also gave the signal for friendship.”

It also gave a signal for a French cultural mission to begin in Virginia. Lauberdière believed that he and his countrymen provided a much-needed introduction to European refinement, “all those little nothings which render precious the smallest services” and which were so conspicuously absent in Virginia society. Entertainments and balls, fox hunts and horseraces, were the means to this.

With many balls per week, the French and their American hosts kept busy, and the Nelsons, Randolphs, Eees, Harrisons, and Byrds, all flocked to Williamsburg with their daughters in tow. “They really never had spent a more agreeable winter. Entertainments, balls, the obligingness, the attentions of society … nothing had been forgotten on our part.” No wonder that “the women cried” when it came time for the French to leave. Some, however, cried more than others.

In Williamsburg, wrote Lauberdière, there lived “a widow named Madame Ridte”—that is, Susanna Riddel—whose “two charming nieces, Miss Rachel and Camilla Warrington,” had been orphaned in 1770 by the death of their father, a minister. Lauberdière set his sights on Rachel, whom he may have met while she was tending the sick and wounded soldiers in the Williamsburg hospital. In France lower-class women were considered fair game for the aristocracy, and Lauberdière regarded the whole affair lightly. “As the chanson says, ‘Let us make love, let us make war’—these two occupations are filled with attraction. In fact, we tried to combine the one with the other.” Rachel accepted Lauberdière’s advances, and he wrote that “our desires were fulfilled.” They were so fulfilled in fact that Lucy Randolph informed Comte Christian de Deux-Ponts, with whom she had fallen in love, in a letter of August 15, 1783, that the November before, Rachel had been safely delivered of “a son, whom she named Louis after his father Monsieur Lobidier.”

Lauberdière’s attention had long since moved on to “one of the prettiest women I saw in America,” Jenny Stevenson, who “lived sometimes 12, sometimes 23 miles from Williamsburg; and I covered this distance very frequently.” He recalled that “besides her precious qualities, Jenny was endowed with all the sweetness of nature; we spent sweet and charming moments together, always too brief.” Too brief indeed. Lauberdière wrote that his “yearnings will be eternal,” for Jenny Stevenson held on to her “virtues in the realm of love.”

By July 1, 1782, the French troops were on their way north, and on July 18 Lauberdière took the opportunity to visit Mount Vernon and the one American save for Jenny Stevenson who was spared his scorn. He had met George Washington in Newport in March 1781, when the general had been received there with all the honors due a maréchal de France . Lauberdière was overwhelmed, for Washington displayed “all the grandeur, the nobility and at the same time the necessary simplicity which behoove a general of a poor republic. … It is rather difficult to render the feeling that grips one when, after having heard for a long time his praise, one sees him for the first time.

“North America is a vast country where one constantly encounters something to the glory of General Washington. Who else than he could, with the same success, have been put at the head of this nation. … A heroic courage, a virtue, a patience put to the test by the most vexatious disappointments, talents, actions, the unanimous approbation, even that of his enemies, all combine to place him among the greatest persons. He is the father and idol of his soldiers, in short, whoever does not love him, at the very least is forced to value him and to admire him.

He JUDGE George Washington “among the greatest persons”; Martha, “not young, not pretty.”

“His stature is very grand, his bearing is noble, his figure beautiful, his personality is cool but at the same time pleasant and affable, his manner of receiving someone is easy and inspires trust, he often has an expression of troubling thoughts on his face.”

What a difference from what Lauberdière said earlier about other Americans! But there can be no doubt that he was sincere when he wrote these lines. For friend and foe alike, Washington did represent the ideals of the Revolution and alone possessed the virtues necessary to make it succeed.

Now, in the summer of 1782, Lauberdière had the opportunity to see his home as well. He found it “situated in a charming position on the summit of a hill called Mount Vernon. … The view, the sight which offers itself from the top of this agreeable situation along the course of this river is very extensive and very agreeably delineated by the coast of Maryland which borders its left bank. …

“That side of the mansion which faces the Potomac is adorned by a colonnade or covered gallery which protects the apartments from the excessive heat and which gives the building a very noble appearance. … The apartments are very agreeable and well laid out, but they are all very small.

“The plantation of Mount Vernon is of almost no profit to General Washington. The land is generally very poor, full of small stones and sand, and he will certainly decide to turn it into a pleasure seat, because in the environs of it there are farmsteads and other small plantations which are mixed amongst each other. (There are] eight or nine thousands acres of land in an excellent terrain well cultivated and well maintained to make them valuable.

“During the war, General Washington had much work done at Mount Vernon and though he is fond of his privacy and devoted by inclination to his domestic tasks, yet he sacrificed to his duty, to his fatherland, the pleasures which they provided him to throw himself into the whirlwind of affairs. Since the beginning of the war he has not spent more than nine days there. …”

Martha Washington, Lauberdière wrote, “has no intellectual faculties or appearance which responds to the supreme impression suggested today by the name of Washington. She enjoys a very great fortune which she could not have put to a better use than to share with a hero, with a, by all accounts, great man whose name will pass into the most distant posterity. William the Conqueror took over the country where his ancestors were born, and he set free from the tyranny and slavery the country to which a descendant of William wanted to reduce it.

“After having examined everything that could excite my curiosity and attract my attention at Mount Vernon I left from there and took my leave from Madame Washington to rejoin the army at the first possible moment.”

This was not the last time, however, that Lauberdière saw Martha Washington. He met her again a few months later, in December 1782, in Boston and left the following description:

“Mistriss [ sic ] Washington, who during the war spent each winter with the general wherever he happened to have his quarters, arrived in this one here eight days ago. She is not young, not very pretty, and in no way seems to respond to the grandeur of her husband but she was very rich and that reason which almost always prevails and which covered all the other faults made the general marry her. Altogether it will always be very meritorious of her to deprive herself of all the sweet things and of all the pleasures that she could have procured for herself in Virginia at Mount Vernon under the influence of a climate always sweet and mild even during that season to go live surrounded by ice, snow, the racket and the rigors (as one could call it) of a camp and a quarter of the nature as it was at that time in the American army.”

Martha Washington was no court beauty, no Marie Antoinette, no Madame de Pompadour, not the proper match for Lauberdière’s hero, but in Lauberdière’s world marriage for money was the norm. And he had to admit that her wealth had been put to good use: helping her husband lead the United States to independence.

No one else but Washington could have fulfilled that task, but the French had been crucial too. Lauberdière sought explanations for why he received so little gratitude, and he found them in what he perceived to be the emerging American culture. The problem was that it was much too European.

He and his fellow officers had stepped ashore expecting to find a land of simple, industrious farmers living happily, free from the cultural baggage of Old Europe. But as it turned out, not only did New Englanders “cultivate their fields, live within the context of their families, involve themselves little in affairs beyond that, and [seem to be] zealous republicans,” but all too often they were greedy bigots who hated foreigners yet coveted their money. After three months in Newport, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, grandson of the philosopher, informed a friend in France that “that integrity, those manners, that simplicity so praised in the inhabitants of North America, exists only in the philosophical novels that we have read.”

George Washington alone met Lauberdière’s model of the simple, noble, self-sacrificing hero. He alone held the Franco-American alliance together, and he alone could cross the boundaries of culture when “at the final farewell he embraced all of us in a moment of silence, even though that custom was unknown among men in America.” When duty called, Washington had left the plow and devoted his life to the fight against the “tyranny and slavery” to which Britain wanted to reduce America. In him alone Lauberdière perceived the virtues of the ancient Roman republic he had hoped would permeate American society as a whole. Lauberdière’s journal stands as evidence not only to the potent cult that had grown up around Washington even during his lifetime but also to the political genius of the first President of the United States.

And just when George Washington was assuming that highest office, in 1789, it seemed as if liberty would reign in France as well. Lauberdière, now a lieutenant colonel, threw his lot in with the Third Estate, the body that led the way to revolution, became a full colonel in April 1790 and a chevalier of the coveted order of St. Louis that fall. By 1793 most of his noble comrades had been discharged, been imprisoned, or emigrated, but Lauberdière was still on active duty and sent to England on an espionage mission. Captured and detained in London until the summer of 1800, he survived the Terreur in the safety of an English prisoner-of-war camp.

By then his son, Lewis, had graduated from the College of William and Mary and entered the United States Navy. “Monsieur Lobidier” never acknowledged him, never did anything to provide for him. Rachel Warrington, ostracized for having borne a bastard, lived with her aunt in Williamsburg until 1786, when she married a man named Richard Brown. He apparently treated her badly, and she died around 1813.

That same year America was at war with Britain again, and Lewis took command of his own ship, the Peacock . In April 1814 he made history by taking the British brig Epervier off Cape Canaveral. Congress eventually awarded him a gold medal for having captured nineteen vessels. When he died, in October 1851, Lewis Warrington was the U.S. Navy’s chief of ordnance.

His father had gone on to join Napoleon’s army in 1802, became a brigadier in 1807 and a baron of the Empire in 1808, and served in Spain, Germany, and Russia. Then in the spring of 1814 he went over to Napoleon’s enemies and was promoted to lieutenant general. He had settled down to marriage, with a seventeen-year-old Irish girl named Caroline MacNamaraHussey, in 1790, and in 1816 he retired with her to his estate at Baugé, where he died early in 1837.

In the summer of 1930, 150 years after Lauberdière had stepped ashore in Newport, one Josiah S. Maxcy, of Gardiner, Maine—the last American, apparently, to have given much thought to the comte—visited Baugé. He found the castle in disrepair and Lauberdière’s tomb neglected. A tablet on the wall and a tulip tree, brought from America as a sapling in 1783 and now grown to four feet in diameter, were the sole reminders of Lauberdière’s participation in the “immense and glorious event.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.