Home  »  With Americans of Past and Present Days  »  III. Washington and the French

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


III. Washington and the French

NO less characteristic of Washington’s sentiments thereafter is the correspondence continued by him with a number of French people when the war was a thing of the past and no further help could be needed. With Rochambeau, with d’Estaing, Chastellux, La Luzerne, then ambassador in London, whom he had seen with keen regret leave the United States, and, of course, with Lafayette, he kept up a correspondence which affords most pleasant reading: a friend writes to his friends and tells them of his feelings and expectations. The attitude of France at the peace is the subject of a noble letter to La Luzerne: “The part your Excellency has acted in the cause of America and the great and benevolent share you have taken in the establishment of her independence are deeply impressed on my mind, and will not be effaced from my remembrance, or that of the citizens of America.… The articles of the general treaty do not appear so favorable to France, in point of territorial acquisitions, as they do to the other Powers. But the magnanimous and disinterested scale of action which that great nation has exhibited to the world during this war, and at the conclusion of peace, will insure to the King and nation that reputation which will be of more consequence to them than every other consideration.”

Washington keeps his French friends aware of the progress of the country and of his hopes for its greatness; he wants to visit the United States to the limit of what was then the extreme West. “Prompted by these actual observations,” he writes to Chastellux, “I could not help taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States from maps and the information of others, and could not but be struck with the immense diffusion and importance of it, and with the goodness of that Providence which has dealt her favors to us with so profuse a hand. Would to God we may have wisdom enough to improve them. I shall not rest contented till I have explored the Western country and traversed those lines, or great part of them, which have given new bounds to a new empire.” To La Luzerne he wrote some years later: “The United States are making great progress toward national happiness, and if it is not attained here in as high a degree as human nature will admit of, I think we may then conclude that political happiness is unattainable.”

That rest for which Washington had been longing (“I pant for retirement,” he had written to Cary in June, 1782) had been granted him by the end of 1783, when, the definitive treaty having been concluded, he had resigned his commission in the hands of Congress, at Annapolis on the 23d of December, “bidding an affectionate farewell,” he said, “to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted.” It was at first difficult for him to enjoy, in his dear Mount Vernon, that so-much-desired quiet life, and “to get the better,” he wrote to General Knox, “of my custom of ruminating as soon as I waked in the morning on the business of the ensuing day, and of my surprise at finding, after revolving many things in my mind, that I was no longer a public man, nor had anything to do with public transactions.” But he soon came to the thorough enjoyment of his peaceful surroundings and happy family life, writing about his new existence to Rochambeau and Lafayette, not without a tinge of melancholy, as from one whose life’s work is a thing of the past. To the man of all men for whom his manly heart felt most tenderness, to Lafayette, it is that he wrote the beautiful letter of February I, 1784, unaware that his rest was only temporary, and that he was to become the first President of the country he had given life to:

“At length, my dear marquis, I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments of which the soldier who is ever in pursuit of fame, the statesman whose watchful days and sleepless nights are spent in devising schemes to promote the welfare of his own, perhaps the ruin of other countries, as if the globe was insufficient for us all … can have very little conception. I have not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself, and shall be able to view the solitary walk of private life with heartfelt satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order for my march, I will move gently down the stream of life until I sleep with my fathers.”

With Lafayette the great man unbends, he becomes affectionate, poetical as in the passage just quoted, sometimes even jocose, which was so rare with him. He wants Madame de Lafayette to come to America and visit Mount Vernon, saying to her: “Your own doors do not open to you with more readiness than mine would.” She never came, but her husband returned for a few months, the same year, and this was the first of his two triumphant journeys to the freed United States; it was then that he parted at Annapolis from his chief, never to see him again; a very sad parting for both, Washington sending him from Mount Vernon, in time for it to reach him before he sailed, the most touching, perhaps, of all his letters:

“In the moment of our separation, upon the road as I travelled, and every hour since, I have felt all that love, respect, and attachment for you which length of years, close connection, and your merits have inspired me. I often asked myself, when our carriages separated, whether that was the last sight I should ever have of you. And though I wished to say, no, my fears answered, yes. I called to mind the days of my youth and found they had long since fled, to return no more; that I was now descending the hill I had been fifty-two years climbing, and that, though I was blessed with a good constitution, I was of a short-lived family and might soon expect to be entombed in the mansion of my fathers. These thoughts darkened the shades and gave a gloom to the picture, and consequently to my prospect of seeing you again. But I will not repine; I have had my day.”

A portrait of Lafayette, his wife, and children was received the following year by Washington, and caused him great pleasure; this, he said to the sender, “I consider as an invaluable present and shall give it the best place in my house.”

He continued to the end to be Lafayette’s confidant and adviser. In one of his most notable letters, passing judgment on the great warrior Frederick II and on his brother, Prince Henry, whom Lafayette had recently visited, he clearly outlined what should be his correspondent’s ideal as to the government of men. “To be received,” he says, “by the King of Prussia and Prince Henry, his brother (who as soldiers and politicians yield the palm to none), with such marks of attention and distinction, was as indicative of their discernment as it is of your merit.… It is to be lamented, however, that great characters are seldom without a blot. That one man should tyrannize over millions will always be a shade in that of the former, while it is pleasing to hear that due regards to the rights of mankind is characteristic of the latter.”

During those years of comparative rest—only comparative, for he had to receive innumerable visitors, to answer an unbelievable quantity of letters, because everybody wanted his counsels, to take part in the framing of the Constitution as a delegate of Virginia in 1787—his fame went on increasing in France from whence tokens of admiration came for him of every kind, some noble, some simple, some high-flown, like that letter from the Chevalier de Lormerie, who made bold to “present a Plan of Perpetual Peace to a general who is even more of a philosopher than a warrior.”

Besides letters, French visitors would now and then appear at the door of Mount Vernon. One did so by appointment, and even in virtue of a law, namely Jean Antoine Houdon, the famous sculptor, whose coming was the result of an act passed by the Assembly of Virginia, prescribing “that the executive be requested to take measures for procuring a statue of General Washington, to be of the finest marble and the best workmanship.”

The sculptor might be of any nationality, provided he were the best alive. “The intention of the Assembly,” the Governor informed Jefferson, then in Paris, “is that the statue should be the work of the most masterly hand. I shall therefore leave it to you to find out the best in any of the European states.” Once more it was France’s good fortune to be able to answer, Adsum.

The “executive,” Governor Harrison, not over-well versed in matters artistic, had thought that all a sculptor could need to perform his task was a painted portrait of the model, so he ordered one from Peale, which would, he thought, enable the artist “to finish his work in the most perfect manner.” Houdon decided that he would rather undertake the journey, insisting only that, as he was the support of his father, mother, and sisters, his life be insured, a condition which, owing to the risks, was not fulfilled without difficulty. It finally was, however, so that we know, to a cent, what the life of the great sculptor was worth: it was worth two thousand dollars.

Houdon came on the same ship which brought back Franklin after his long mission to France, and he reached Mount Vernon on October 2, 1785, having been preceded by a letter, in which Jefferson had thus described him to Washington: “I have spoken of him as an artist only, but I can assure you also that, as a man, he is disinterested, generous, candid, and panting for glory; in every circumstance meriting your good opinion.” He remained at Mount Vernon a fortnight, an interpreter having been provided from Alexandria for the occasion. The antique costume with which the artist and the model had been threatened at one time was discarded; Washington was represented, not as a Greek, which he was not, but as an American general, which he was, the size being “precisely that of life.” Any one who wants to see with his eyes George Washington, to live in his atmosphere, to receive the moral benefit of a great man’s presence, has only to go to Richmond. To those who know how to listen the statue will know how to speak. No work of art in the whole United States is of greater worth and interest than this one, and no copy gives an adequate idea of the original, copies being further from the statue than the statue was from the model. One must go to Richmond.

Unfortunately, no notes on his journey, and on his stay at Mount Vernon, were left by Houdon. As was usual with him, what he had to say he said in marble.

Other French visitors of more or less note called at Mount Vernon. Popular in France, even at the time of their worst troubles, when failure seemed threatening, the United States were much more so now, and men wanted to go and see with their own eyes what was the power of liberty, and whether it could, as reported, transform a country into an Eden, and cities into modern “Salentes.” The year of the alliance, 1778, Sébastien Mercier, in his De la Littérature, had drawn up a picture of the French people’s expectation: “Perhaps it is in America that the human race will transform itself, adopt a new and sublime religion, improve sciences and arts, and become the representative of the nations of antiquity. A haven of liberty, Grecian souls, all strong and generous souls will develop or meet there, and this great example given to the universe will show what men can do when they are of one mind and combine their lights and their courage.” Turgot, as mentioned before, had written in the same strain, the same year.

The results of the war had increased those hopes; the success of the unprecedented crusade for liberty caused an enthusiasm which found its expression in verse and prose. The very year of the treaty securing independence an epic poem was published, written in French Alexandrine verse, divided into cantos, adorned with all the machinery of the Greek models, Jupiter and the gods playing their part:

  • Ainsi parla des Dieux le monarque suprême
  • —with invocations to abstract virtues:
  • Fille aimable des Dieux, divine Tolérance.
  • Preceding by several years Joel Barlow’s own, this epic, due to the pen of L. de Chavannes de La Grandière, appeared with ample annotations by the author himself, and dedicated to John Adams, under the title of L’ Amérique Délivrée.

    The new Tasso, who justly foresaw the immense influence that the change in America would have on Europe, addressed, in tones of the most ardent admiration, Washington and Congress:

  • Illustre Washington, héros dont la mémoire
  • Des deux mondes vengés embellira l’histoire;
  • Toi que la main des Dieux, en nos siècles pervers,
  • Envoya consoler, étonner l’univers
  • Par le rare assemblage et l’union constante
  • D’un cœur pur et sans fard, d’une â bienfaisante,
  • Aux talents de Turenne, aux vertus des Catons,
  • Et qui te vois plus grand que les deux Scipions,
  • Jouis de ton triomphe, admire ton ouvrage.
  • Congress is a Greek Areopagus, whose members have Themis and Minerva for their advisers:

  • Auguste Aréopage, où Minerve elle-même
  • Prononce avec Thémis par l’organe suprême
  • De tant de Sénateurs, ornements des Etats,
  • Une foule d’arrêts où tous les potentats
  • Du droit des nations devraient venir apprendre
  • Les principes sacrés, et jusqu’où peut s’étendre
  • Le sceptre qu’en leurs mains les peuples ont commis,
  • —you have cast on us “a torrent of light and shown us how to break the detestable bonds of tyrants.” A prophetical foot-note, commenting on this passage, announces that “this will perhaps, be seen sooner than one thinks. Happy the sovereigns who will know how to be nothing but just, pacific, and benevolent.” Six years later the French Revolution began.

    Using humble prose, but reaching a much wider public, Lacretelle, of the same group of thinkers as d’Alembert, Condorcet, and Turgot, himself later a member of the French Academy, was also writing in a strain of exultant admiration: “Since Columbus’s discovery, nothing more important has happened among mankind than American independence”; and addressing the new-born United States, he told them of the world’s expectation and of their own responsibilities, so much depending on their success or failure: “New-born Republics of America, I salute you as the hope of mankind, to which you open a refuge, and promise great and happy examples. Grow in force and numbers, amid our benedictions.…

    “In adopting a democratic régime, you pledge yourself to steadfast and pure morality.… But you do not give up those comforts in life, that splendor of society brought with them by riches, sciences, and arts.… The vicinity of corruption will not alter your morals; you will allow the vicinity, not the invasion. While permitting wealth to have its free play, you will see that exorbitant fortunes be dispersed, and you will correct the great inequality in enjoyments by the strictest equality in rights.…

    “Lawmaking peoples, never lose sight of the majesty of your function and of the importance of your task. Be nobly proud and holily enthusiastic at the prospect of your destinies’ vast influence. By you the universe is held in expectation; fifty years from now it will have learned from you whether modern peoples can preserve republican constitutions, whether morals are compatible with the great progress of civilization, and whether America is meant to improve or to aggravate the fate of humanity.”

    This sense of the responsibility of the new republic toward mankind of the future, and of the importance for all nations of its success or failure caused French thinkers to concern themselves with the problem, to express faith and admiration, but to submit also such recommendations as their studies of humanity’s past made them consider of use. The Observations on the Government and the Laws of the United States, of modest, liberal, and noble-minded Abbé de Mably, are, for example, the outcome of such reflections.

    The visitor most representative of the views thus prevalent in the French nation, knocked at the gate of Mount Vernon, provided with that infallible open sesame, a letter of introduction from Lafayette. “This gentleman,” the letter read, “intends to write a history of America, and you would, therefore, make him very happy if you allowed him to glance at your papers. He seems to deserve this favor, since he loves America very much, writes well, and will represent things under their true light.”

    The bearer, a sincere admirer and friend of the new republic, and who had the advantage of speaking English fluently, was Brissot, so famous shortly after for the part he played in the French Revolution, then already penetrated with its principles, and having written, young as he was, on the reform of criminal laws, declared in favor of the emancipation of the Jews, founded a “Society of the Friends of the Blacks” and, what is more to the point, a Société Gallo-Américaine, first of its kind, for the members thereof to “exchange views on the common interests of France and the United States.” To become a member one had to prove “able and willing to bring to the notice of the others universal ideas on the happiness of man and societies, because, though its special and titular object be the interest of France and the United States, nevertheless, it fully embraces in its considerations the happiness of mankind.” In which appears the vastness of humanitarian plans so fondly cherished among us— six years before the Reign of Terror.

    The “particular object” of the association was, however, to “help the two countries to better know each other, which can only be realized by bringing nearer together the French individual and the American individual.” Books were to be published by the society, the first one to be dedicated “to the Congress of the United States and the friends of America in the two worlds.” Newspapers, books, the texts of laws, the journals of Congress were to be imported from “free America.” The society would “welcome Americans whom their business should call to France, and whose knowledge would enable them to impart useful information there”; nothing more natural, since the aim of the society was “the welfare of the two nations.” Lafayette and Jefferson had been asked to join. One of the founders was Saint-Jean de Crèvecœur, already known by his Letters from an American Farmer, who when he left France to return to the United States was intrusted with the care of “making the society known to the Americans, availing himself of newspapers, or of other means; his expenses, if any, to be repaid.” But the farmer-consul, very active in other matters, proved in this one very remiss.

    Brissot reached Boston in July, 1788, and found that America was exactly what he had expected it to be “Sanctuary of liberty,” he wrote on landing, “I salute thee! … Would to heaven thou wert nearer Europe; fewer friends of liberty would vainly bewail its absence there.” The inhabitants, he wrote, “have an air of simplicity and kindness, but they are full of human dignity, conscious of their liberty, and seeing in all men their brothers and equals.… I thought I was in that Salente, so attractively depicted by Fénelon.”

    Equality is what strikes him most, as it does the mass of his compatriots; this was the particularly American trait which, as mentioned before, was imported from the United States into France on the eve of our Revolution.

    Luxury, the visitor admits, is, of course, a danger; but they know it and arm against it: “The most respectable inhabitants of the State of Massachusetts have formed a society to prevent the increase of luxury”—an attempt which, however, never succeeded, but at Salente.

    After having seen the chief cities and paid a visit to Franklin, found very ill but with his great mind unimpaired, Brissot reached Mount Vernon in November, and remained there three days. Different from Houdon, he luckily took notes on the place and on the inhabitants thereof: “The general arrived only in the evening; he returned very tired from a tour over part of his domains where he was having a road traced. You have often heard him compared to Cincinnatus; the comparison is a just one. This celebrated general is now but a good farmer, ever busy with his farm, as he calls it, improving cultivation and building barns. He showed me one of enormous dimensions, just being erected from a plan sent him by the famous English agriculturist Arthur Young, but greatly improved by him.…

    “All is simple in the house of the general. His table is good, without luxury; regularity is everywhere apparent in his domestic economy. Mrs. Washington has her eye on everything, and joins to the qualities of an excellent housekeeper the simple dignity which befits a woman whose husband has played a great rôle. She adds to it that amenity, those attentions toward strangers which lend so much sweetness to hospitality. The same virtues shine in her niece, so interesting, but who, unluckily, seems to be in a very delicate state of health.”

    As for the general himself, “kindness appears in his looks. His eyes have no longer that lustre which his officers noticed when he was at the head of his army, but they get enlivened in conversation.… Good sense is the dominant trait in all his answers, great discretion and diffidence of himself goes with it, and at the same time a firm and unshakable disposition when he has once made up his mind.”

    His modesty is great: “He talks of the American war as if he had not been the leader thereof, and of his victories with an indifference which strangers could not equal.… The divisions in his country break his heart; he feels the necessity of calling together all the friends of liberty around one central point, the need of imparting energy to the government. He is still ready to give up that quiet which causes his happiness.… He spoke to me of Mr. de Lafayette with emotion; he considers him as his child.”

    Not only on agriculture and government, but also on manners the future President gave his visitor much information: “The general told me that a great reform was going on among his compatriots; people drank much less; they no longer forced their guests to drink; it had ceased to be good form to send them home inebriated; those noisy parties at taverns so frequent in former times were not to be the fashion any more; dress was becoming simpler.”

    On receiving news of the convocation of the French States General, Brissot, who felt that this was the beginning of immense changes, hastened back to France and published an account of his journey. He stated in his preface, written in 1790, why he had undertaken it, and what lessons we might learn from our neighbors of over the sea:

    “The object of this journey has not been to study antique statues, or to find unknown plants, but to observe men who had just conquered their liberty: to Frenchmen free men can no longer be strangers.

    “We, too, have conquered our liberty. We have not to learn from Americans how to conquer it, but how to preserve it. This secret consists especially in morality.… What is liberty? It is the most perfect state of society, a state in which man depends only upon the laws made by himself; and to make good ones, he must improve his reason; and to apply them he must again have recourse to his reason.… Morals are but reason applied to all the acts of life.… They are among free men what irons, whipping-posts, and gibbets are among peoples in slavery.… This journey will show you the wondrous effects of liberty on morals, on industry, and on the amelioration of men.… My desire has been to depict to my compatriots a people with whom it behooves, from every point of view, that they become intimately united.”