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Jean Jules Jusserand (1855–1932). With Americans of Past and Present Days. 1916.


I. Rochambeau and the French in America

From Unpublished Documents

LIEUTENANT-GENERAL Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, aged then fifty-five, and Washington’s senior by seven years, was in his house, still in existence, Rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris, at the beginning of March, 1780; he was ill and about to leave for his castle of Rochambeau in Vendomois; post-horses were in readiness when, in the middle of the night, he received, he says in his memoirs, a “courrier bringing him the order to go to Versailles and receive the instructions of his Majesty.” For some time rumors had been afloat that the great attempt would soon be made. He was informed that the news was true, and that he would be placed at the head of the army sent to the assistance of the Americans.

The task was an extraordinary one. He would have to reach the New World with a body of troops packed on slow transports, to avoid the English fleets, to fight in a country practically unknown, by the side of men not less so, and whom we had been accustomed to fight rather than befriend, and for a cause which had never before elicited enthusiasm at Versailles, the cause of republican liberty.

This last point was the strangest of all, so strange that even Indians, friends of the French in former days, asked Rochambeau, when they saw him in America, how it was that his King could think fit to help other people against “their own father,” their King. Rochambeau replied that the latter had been too hard on his subjects, that they were right, therefore, in shaking off the yoke, and we in helping them to secure “that natural liberty which God has conferred on man.”

This answer to “Messieurs les Sauvages,” is an enlightening one; it shows what was the latent force that surmounted all obstacles and caused the French nation to stand as a whole, from beginning to end, in favor of the Americans, to applaud a treaty of alliance which, while entailing the gravest risks, forbade us all conquest, and to rejoice enthusiastically at a peace which after a victorious war added nothing to our possessions. This force was the increasing passion among the French for precisely “that natural liberty which God has conferred on man.”

Hatred of England, quickened though it had been by the harsh conditions of the treaty of Paris bereaving us of Canada, in 1763, had much less to do with it than is sometimes alleged. Such a feeling existed, it is true, in the hearts of some of the leaders, but not of all; it did in the minds also of some of the officers, but again not of all. What predominated in the mass of the nation, irrespective of any other consideration, was sympathy for men who wanted to fight injustice and to be free. The cause of the insurgents was popular because it was associated with the notion of liberty; people did not look beyond.

It is often forgotten that this time was not in France a period of Anglophobia, but of Anglomania. Necker, so influential, and who then held the purse-strings, was an Anglophile; so was Prince de Montbarey, minister of war; so was that Duke de Lauzun who put an end for a time to his love-affairs and came to America at the head of his famous legion. All that was English was admired and, when possible, imitated: manners, philosophy, sports, clothes, parliamentary institutions, Shakespeare, just translated by Le Tourneur, with the King and Queen as patrons of the undertaking; but, above all, wrote Count de Ségur, “we were all dreaming of the liberty, at once calm and lofty, enjoyed by the entire body of citizens of Great Britain.”

Such is the ever-recurring word. Liberty, philanthropy, natural rights, these were the magic syllables to conjure with. “All France,” read we in Grimm and Diderot’s correspondence, “was filled with an unbounded love for humanity,” and felt a passion for “those exaggerated general maxims which raise the enthusiasm of young men and which would cause them to run to the world’s end to help a Laplander or a Hottentot.” The ideas of Montesquieu, whose Esprit des Lois had had twenty-two editions in one year, of Voltaire, of d’Alembert were in the ascendant, and liberal thinkers saw in the Americans propagandists for their doctrine. General Howe having occupied New York in 1776, Voltaire wrote to d’Alembert: “The troops of Doctor Franklin have been beaten by those of the King of England. Alas! philosophers are being beaten everywhere. Reason and liberty are unwelcome in this world.”

Another of the master minds of the day, the economist, thinker, and reformer Turgot, the one whose advice, if followed, would have possibly secured for us a bloodless revolution, was of the same opinion. In the famous letter written by him on the 22d of March, 1778, to his English friend, Doctor Price, Turgot showed himself, just as the French nation was, ardently pro-American, but not anti-English. He deplored the impending war, which ought to have been avoided by England’s acknowledging in time “the folly of its absurd project to subjugate the Americans.… It is a strange thing that it be not yet a commonplace truth to say that no nation can ever have the right to govern another nation; that such a government has no other foundation than force, which is also the foundation of brigandage and tyranny; that a people’s tyranny is, of all tyrannies, the most cruel, the most intolerable, and the one which leaves the least resources to the oppressed … for a multitude does not calculate, does not feel remorse, and it bestows on itself glory when all that it deserves is shame.”

The Americans, according to Turgot, must be free, not only for their own sake, but for the sake of humanity; an experiment of the utmost import is about to begin, and should succeed. He added this, the worthy forecast of a generous mind: “It is impossible not to form wishes for that people to reach the utmost prosperity it is capable of. That people is the hope of mankind. It must show to the world by its example, that men can be free and tranquil, and can do without the chains that tyrants and cheats of all garb have tried to lay on them under pretense of public good. It must give the example of political liberty, religious liberty, commercial and industrial liberty. The shelter which it is going to offer to the oppressed of all nations will console the earth. The ease with which men will be able to avail themselves of it and escape the effects of a bad government will oblige governments to open their eyes and to be just. The rest of the world will perceive by degrees the emptiness of the illusions on which politicians have festered.” Toward England Turgot has a feeling of regret on account of its policies, but no trace of animosity; and, on the contrary, the belief that, in spite of what some people of note were alleging, the absolutely certain loss of her American colonies would not result in a diminution of her power. “This revolution will prove, maybe, as profitable to you as to America.”

Not less characteristic of the times and of the same thinker’s turn of mind is a brief memorial written by him for the King shortly after, when Captain Cook was making his third voyage of discovery, the one from which he never returned. “Captain Cook,” Turgot said, “is probably on his way back to Europe. His expedition having no other object than the progress of human knowledge, and interesting, therefore, all nations, it would be worthy of the King’s magnanimity not to allow that the result be jeopardized by the chances of war.” Orders should be given to all French naval officers “to abstain from any hostile act against him or his ship, and allow him to freely continue his navigation, and to treat him in every respect as the custom is to treat the officers and ships of neutral and friendly countries.” The King assented, and had our cruisers notified of the sort of sacred character which they would have to recognize in that ship of the enemy: a small fact in itself, but showing the difference between the wars in those days and in ours, when we have had to witness the wanton destruction of the Louvain library, the shelling of the Reims cathedral, and the Arras town hall.

An immense aspiration was growing in France for more equality, fewer privileges, simpler lives among the great, less hard ones among the lowly, more accessible knowledge, the free discussion by all of the common interests of all. A fact of deepest import struck the least attentive: French masses were becoming more and more thinking masses. One should not forget that between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the French one only six years elapsed, between the American and the French Constitutions but four years. At the very time of the Yorktown campaign Necker was issuing his celebrated Compte Rendu, which he addressed, “proforma” to the King, and in reality to the nation. This famous account of the condition of France, the piece of printed matter which was most widely read in those days, began, “Sire,” but ended: “In writing this I have proudly counted on that public opinion which evil-minded persons may try to crush or to distort, but which, in spite of their efforts, Truth and Justice carry along in their wake.”

To which may be added as another token of the same state of mind that the then famous Count de Guibert had some time before printed his Essay on Tactics, so full of advanced ideas, notably on the necessary limitation of the power of kings, that it had been suppressed by the authorities; and he had dedicated it not to a prince nor to any man, but to his mother country: “A ma Patrie.”

Six years after the end of the American war, on January 24, 1789, the King of France ordered the drawing up of the famous Cahiers, desiring, he said, that “from the extremities of his kingdom and the most unknown habitations every one should be assured of a means of conveying to him his wishes and complaints.” And the Cahiers, requesting liberties very similar to those of the Americans, came indeed from the remotest parts of France, the work of everybody, of quasi-peasants sometimes, who would offer excuses for their wild orthography and grammar. The notes and letters of the volunteers of our Revolution, sons of peasants or artisans, surprise us by the mass of general ideas and views which abound in them. It was not, therefore, a statement of small import that Franklin had conveyed to Congress when he wrote from France: “The united bent of the nation is manifestly in our favor.” And he deplored elsewhere that some could think that an appeal to France’s own interest was good policy: “Telling them their commerce will be advantaged by our success and that it is their interest to help us, seems as much as to say: ‘Help us and we shall not be obliged to you.’ Such indiscreet and improper language has been sometimes held here by some of our people and produced no good effect.” The truth is, he said also, that “this nation is fond of glory, particularly that of protecting the oppressed.”

The treaty of commerce, accompanying the treaty of alliance of 1778, had been in itself a justification of this judgment. Help from abroad was so pressingly needed in America that almost any advantages requested by France as a condition would have been granted; but that strange sight was seen: advantages being offered, unasked, by one party, and declined by the other. France decided at once not to accept anything as a recompense, not even Canada, if that were wrested from the English, in spite of Canada’s having been French from the first, and having but recently ceased to be such. The fight was not for recompense but for liberty, and Franklin could write to Congress that the treaty of commerce was one to which all the rest of the world, in accordance with France’s own wishes, was free to accede, when it chose, on the same footing as herself, England included.

This was so peculiar that many had doubts; John Adams never lost his; Washington himself had some, and when plans were submitted to him for an action in Canada he wondered, as he wrote, whether there was not in them “more than the disinterested zeal of allies.” What would take place at the peace, if the allies were victorious? Would not France require, in one form or another, some advantages for herself? But she did not; her peace was to be like her war, pro-American rather than anti-English.

Another striking trait in the numerous French accounts which have come down to us of this campaign against the English is the small space that the English, as a nation, occupy in them. The note that predominates is enthusiasm for the Americans, not hatred for their enemies. “In France,” wrote Ségur in his memoirs, “in spite of the habit of a long obedience to arbitrary power, the cause of the American insurgents fixed the attention and excited the interest of all. From every side public opinion was pressing the royal government to declare itself in favor of republican liberty, and seemed to reproach it for its slowness and timidity.” Of any revenge to be taken on the enemy, not a word. “No one among us,” he said further, “thought of a revolution in France, but it was rapidly taking place in our minds. Montesquieu had brought to light again the long-buried title-deeds consecrating the rights of the people. Mature men were studying and envying the laws of England.”

Summing up the motives of the new crusaders, who were “starting off to the war in the name of philanthropy,” he found two: “One quite reasonable and conscientious, the desire to well serve King and country … another more unique, a veritable enthusiasm for the cause of American liberty.” Ministers hesitated, on account of the greatness of the risk, “but they were, little by little, carried away by the torrent.” During the sea voyage only the chiefs knew exactly whither they were going; some officers thought at one time they might have to fight elsewhere than in America. One of Rochambeau’s officers, the aforementioned Mathieu-Dumas, confided his misgivings to his journal: “Above all,” he wrote, “I had heartily espoused the cause of the independence of the Americans, and I should have felt extreme regret at losing the honor of combating for their liberty.” Of the English, again, not a word; what he longed for, like so many others, was less to fight against the English than for the Americans.

More striking, perhaps, than all the rest: shortly after we had decided to take part in the war, the question of our motives and of a possible annihilation of England as a great power was plainly put, in the course of a familiar conversation, by the president of Yale University to the future signer of the Louisiana Treaty, Barbé-Marbois, then secretary of our legation in the United States.“Mons. Marbois,” Ezra Stiles confided to his diary, on the occasion of the French minister, La Luzerne, and his secretary’s visit to Yale, “is a learned civilian, a councillor of the Parliament of Metz, æt. 35, as I judge; speaks English very tolerably, much better than his Excellency the minister. He was very inquisitive for books and American histories.… Among other things I asked Mons. Marbois whether the Powers of Europe would contentedly see Great Britain annihilated.

“He said, no; it would be for the interest of Europe that Britain should have weight in the balances of power.… France did not want to enlarge her dominions by conquest or otherwise.”

For the French diplomat, a man of great ability and well informed, addressing, as he was, one to whom a “yes” instead of a “no” would have caused no pain, far from it, the motive of our actions was neither a prospective loss by England of her rank nor the increase of our own possessions, but simply American independence.