In 1789, as the French Revolution shook Europe to the core, the new United States was struggling for survival in the face of financial insolvency and bitter political and regional divisions.
In his book, “When the United States Spoke French,” author François Furstenberg explores the republic’s formative years from the viewpoint of a distinguished circle of five Frenchmen taking refuge in America.
“When the French Revolution broke out, these men had been among its leaders,” Furstenberg explains. “They were liberal aristocrats and ardent Anglophiles, convinced of the superiority of the British system of monarchy and constitution. They also idealized the new American republic, which seemed to them an embodiment of the Enlightenment ideals they celebrated. But soon the Revolutionary movement got ahead of them, and they found themselves chased across the Atlantic.”
In the book, Furstenberg follows these five men — Napoleon’s future foreign minister, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord; theorist-reformer Rochefoucauld, the duc de Liancourt; statesman and army officer Louis-Marie Vicomte de Noailles; lawyer and writer Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry; and philosopher, abolitionist, and politician Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte Volney — who left their homes and families in France, crossed the Atlantic, and landed in Philadelphia. The city was then America’s capital, its principal port, and by far its most cosmopolitan city, in addition to being the home of the wealthiest merchants and financiers.
Furstenberg vividly reconstructs their American adventures, following along as they integrated themselves into the city and its elite social networks, began speculating on backcountry lands, and eventually became enmeshed in Franco-American diplomacy. Through their stories, we see some of the most famous events of early American history in a new light, from the diplomatic struggles of the 1790s to the Haitian Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
By the end of this period, the United States was on its way to becoming a major global power. Through this small circle of men, we find new ways to understand the connections between US and world history and gain fresh insight into American history’s most critical era. Beautifully written and brilliantly argued, “When the United States Spoke French” offers a fresh perspective on the tumultuous years of the young nation, when the first great republican experiments were put to the test.
Scroll down for the Grateful American™ Foundation’s Q&A with François Furstenberg, who was a finalist for the 2015 George Washington Book Prize.
Grateful American™ Foundation: What inspired you to write this book?
François Furstenberg: I began thinking about something connecting French and American history when I moved to Montreal for my first job in 2003. My training had been in American history, without really any French focus. My dissertation, and later my first book, were on George Washington’s image in the 19th century, and on its connections to slavery. I approached these as pretty US-centric issues. Two things pushed me toward the research I eventually undertook.
The first was my new home. I was living in Montreal — in a part of North America that still speaks French — and teaching in French. I thought that looking at French connections in the early republic would be a good way to connect my research to the interests of my students and colleagues.
The second motivation was the wealth of wonderful new scholarship coming out on what historians were calling the Atlantic World. Amazing studies were coming out showing all the ways that the history of Colonial America and the history of the early United States were embedded in a larger Atlantic history. They were showing how provincial many historians had been in framing our studies around the nation. And so this work exerted a real influence on my own historical thinking.
Grateful American™ Foundation: What are the three big lessons you hope readers will take away from it?
François Furstenberg: It’s pretty hard for me to say. The book is out there now, and people will take what they want. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of writing a book is discovering how people read that book in really unexpected ways.
But if I had my pick, I guess I would hope that readers might come away with a different portrait of the early years of the American republic. I’d want them to think less in the ways that so much of this history has been framed — as a story about great Founding Fathers — and more about the ways that our history emerged out of, and was intimately intertwined with, bigger struggles and fights, including those over the French and Haitian revolutions. I’d want readers to understand the impossibility of separating our history from the history of Europe and the Caribbean.
I might also hope that readers get a more contingent sense of the early American republic. It’s so hard for us now — in this moment when the United States is such a dominant global power — to understand how fragile the nation was back then, how close it was to disappearing completely. The emergence of this puny set of states hovering along the Atlantic coast into a continental and then global power was as much a matter of luck and coincidence as it was anything else.
And finally, I think I’d like for readers to get a sense of the connections between different historical fields; how political history connected to diplomatic history to economic history to family history to material culture, portraiture, and more.
Grateful American™ Foundation: When was the moment in your childhood or life when you developed a passion for American history? And what do you think can be done to inspire more kids to get excited about learning about the past?
François Furstenberg: I guess I’d be hard-pressed to remember a single moment. I think of it more as a growing interest over time. I remember being a big reader when I was a kid. My grandfather (my mother’s father) was a historian, which might have had some influence. My teachers in college were a big influence on me.
As for inspiring kids, too many people get to college thinking that history is just about memorizing lists of facts and dates. I once told a college professor of mine that I doubted my talents in history. “I can’t even name all the presidents,” I explained by way of illustration.
He had no patience for my concerns. “Why would you ever want to do that?” he asked me. “You can always look that up. That’s not what history is about.” (I’m paraphrasing here of course. Anytime you see a conversation quoted from memory, know that the exact words are made up. There is a free historical lesson for your readers.)
I try to encourage students to think more about problems in history. About how to read texts and criticize them. About causality and contingency. About the importance of imaginative reconstructions of the past. About the ways that American history — indeed, probably all history — is made up of this fascinating commingling of horror and inspiration. I like to think that can be more inspirational than rote learning.
To find more great reads in the History Book Club, click here.
About David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American™ Foundation
With the goal of restoring enthusiasm in American history for kids, and adults, Washington, DC-based author and publisher David Bruce Smith founded the Grateful American™ Foundation in 2013. “You have to know where you came from to know where you are going,” insists Smith, who is the author of the children’s book, American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.
The interactive, multimedia project includes interviews with the leaders of the nation’s most respected presidential and historic homes, including George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, President Lincoln’s Cottage, the New-York Historical Society, and more. Check out the videos at Grateful American™ TV, and the podcasts featured on the Grateful American™ Radio Show.
Find more about David Bruce Smith’s Grateful American™ Foundation at GratefulAmericanFoundation.com.