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


III. Washington and the French

DURING the early stages of the French Revolution, Washington had followed with the keenest sympathy and anxiety the efforts of our ancestors, taking pride in the thought that the American example had something to do, as it undoubtedly had, with what was happening. “The young French nobility enrolled for the cause of [American] independence,” wrote Talleyrand in his memoirs, “attached itself afterward to the principles it had gone to fight for.” Pontgibaud, who remained a royalist, who hated the Revolution and became an émigré observes the same fact, although deploring what occurred: “The officers of Count de Rochambeau had nothing better to do [after Yorktown], I believe, than to visit the country. When one thinks of the false ideas of government and philanthrophy with the virus of which these youths were infected in America, and which they were to enthusiastically propagate in France, with such lamentable success—since that mania for imitation has powerfully helped toward the Revolution without being its unique cause—people will agree that all those red-heeled young philosophers had much better, for their sake and ours, have stayed at court.… Each of them fancied he would be called upon to play the part of Washington.” Asked to join Lafayette and “his former brothers-in-arms of beyond the sea,” he refused: “It has been justly said that in a revolution the difficulty lies not in doing one’s duty, but in knowing where it is. I did mine because I knew where it was,” and he joined the princes and emigrated.

Of this American influence Washington was aware, and spoke, as may be surmised, in terms nearer those of Talleyrand than those of Pontgibaud. “I am glad to hear,” he wrote to Jefferson, “that the Assemblée des Notables has been productive of good in France.… Indeed the rights of mankind, the privileges of the people, and the true principles of liberty seem to have been more generally discussed and better understood throughout Europe since the American Revolution than they were at any former period.”

Few of Washington’s observations are a greater credit to him, as a statesman, than those concerning this extraordinary upheaval. From the first he felt that the change would not prove a merely local one, but would have world-wide consequences; that, in fact, a new era was beginning for mankind. “A spirit for political improvements seems to be rapidly and extensively spreading through the European countries,” he wrote to La Luzerne. “I shall rejoice in seeing the condition of the human race happier than ever it has been.” But let the people at the helm be careful not to make “more haste than good speed in their innovations.”

No less clearly did he foresee, long before the event, and when all was hope and rejoicing, that it was almost impossible to count upon a peaceful, gradual, and bloodless development where so many long-established, hatred-sowing abuses had to be corrected. This, however, was what, as a friend of France, he would have liked to see, and even before the Revolution had really started he had expressed to Lafayette, in striking words, his wish that it might prove a “tacit” one: “If I were to advise, I should say that great moderation should be used on both sides.… Such a spirit seems to be awakened in the kingdom as, if managed with extreme prudence, may produce a gradual and tacit revolution, much in favor of the subjects.”

The movement is started, the Bastile falls, and Lafayette sends the key thereof to his former chief. “It is a tribute.” he wrote, “which I owe as a son to my adopted father, as an aide-de-camp to my general, as a missionary of liberty to its patriarch.” Washington placed the key at Mount Vernon, where it is still, and returned thanks for this “token of victory gained by liberty over despotism.”

The beginnings were promising. The great leader was full of admiration, of awe, of apprehension. To Gouverneur Morris, then American minister to France, President Washington, as he now was, wrote on the 13th of October, 1789, in these prophetic terms: “The Revolution which has been effected in France is of so wonderful a nature that the mind can hardly realize the fact. If it ends as our last accounts to the 1st of August predict, that nation will be the most powerful and happy in Europe; but I fear, though it has gone triumphantly through the first paroxysm, it is not the last it has to encounter before matters are finally settled. In a word, the Revolution is of too great a magnitude to be effected in so short a space, and with the loss of so little blood. The mortification of the King, the intrigues of the Queen, and the discontent of the princes and the noblesse will foment divisions, if possible, in the National Assembly.” The “licentiousness of the people” is not less to be feared. “To forbear running from one extreme to the other is no easy matter; and should this be the case, rocks and shoals, not visible at present, may wreck the vessel.”

The grandeur and importance of the change fills him, in the meanwhile, with wonder. In his before-quoted letter of April 29, 1790, to La Luzerne he said: “Indeed, the whole business is so extraordinary in its commencement, so wonderful in its progress, and may be so stupendous in its consequences that I am almost lost in the contemplation. Of one thing, however, you may rest perfectly assured, that nobody is more anxious for the happy issue of that business than I am, as nobody can wish more sincerely for the prosperity of the French nation than I do.” To another correspondent, Mrs. Graham, he described “the renovation of the French Constitution,” as “one of the most wonderful events in the history of mankind.” So late as the 20th of October, 1792, he was writing to Gouverneur Morris: “We can only repeat the sincere wish that much happiness may arise to the French nation and to mankind in general out of the severe evils which are inseparable from so important a revolution.”

Throughout the unparalleled crisis, the French friends of Washington kept him informed of events, of their hopes and fears. Lafayette’s letters have been printed; those of Rochambeau, written in his own English, have not, and many of them are of great interest. The French general had early foreseen the necessity for profound changes, owing to abuses, to the excessive privileges of the few, the burdens of the many, the increasing maladministration, especially since Necker had been replaced by “a devil of fool named Calonne.”Maybe the States General will provide an adequate remedy, by devising a constitution: “I hope very much of this General States to restore our finances and to consolidate a good constitution.”But he has doubts as to what “aristocratical men” will do.

Himself a member of the Assembly, Rochambeau considers that there are not, in reality, three orders—the nobles, the clergy, and the third estate—but two: “the privileged people and the unprivileged.” The vote being, in accordance with law and custom, taken per estate or order, the two privileged ones always vote in the same way and can ever prevail. Rochambeau informs Washington that, as for himself, he “voted in favor of the equal representation of the third order; your pupil Lafayette has voted for the same opinion, as you may believe it; but we have here a great number of aristocratical men that are very interested to perpetuate the abuses.”

He agrees with Washington that, in order to reach safe results, developments should be slowly evolved; but the temper of the nation has been wrought up, and it is, moreover, a fiery temper. “Do you remember, my dear general,” he writes, “of the first repast that we have made together at Rod-Island? I [made] you remark from the soup the difference of character of our two nations, the French in burning their throat and all the Americans waiting wisely [for] the time that it was cooled. I believe, my dear general, you have seen, since a year, that our nation has not change[d] of character. We go very fast—God will that we [reach] our aims.”

In his moments of deepest anxiety Rochambeau is pleased, however, to remember “a word of the late King of Prussia,” Frederick II, who, considering what France was, what misfortunes and dangers she had encountered, and what concealed sources of strength were in her, once said to the French minister accredited to him: “I have been brought up in the middle of the unhappiness of France; my cradle was surrounded with refugee Protestants that, about the end of the reign of Louis XIV and the beginning of the regency of the Duc d’Orleans, told me that France was at the agony and could not exist three years. I [have] known in the course of my reign that France has such a temper that there [is] no bad minister nor bad generals [who] be able to kill it, and that constitution has made it rise again of all its crises, with strength and vigor. It wants no other remedy but time and keep a strict course of diet.”

Events followed their course, but, while everything else was changing in France, the feeling for Washington and the United States remained the same. The two countries felt nearer than before, and showed it in many ways. At the death of Franklin the National Assembly, on the proposal of Mirabeau, went into mourning for three days; our first Constitution, of 1791, was notified to the American Government: “President Washington,” the French minister informed his chief, “received the King’s letter with the tokens of the greatest satisfaction; and in accordance with your orders a copy of the Constitution and of the King’s letter to the National Assembly was given to him as well as to Mr. Jefferson.” Tom Paine, though an American, or rather because an American, was elected by several departments a member of the Convention, took his seat, but, as he knew no French, had his speeches translated and read for him; he played an important part in the drafting of our second Constitution, the republican one of 1793. As a sacred emblem of liberty, the American flag was displayed in the hall where the Convention held its sittings. A quite extraordinary decree was rendered by this body in the second year of the Republic, “after having heard the petition of American citizens,” deciding, and this at a time when everybody was liable to arrest, that “the wives of American citizens, whatever the place of their birth, should be exempted from the law on the arrestation of foreigners.”

The 14th of July was, in the meantime, celebrated in America, just as in France, as marking a new progress in the development of mankind. Our minister, Ternant, gave Dumouriez a glowing account of such a celebration: “It affords me great satisfaction to inform you that, in spite of the news received the day before of the bad success of our first military operations, the Americans have given, on the occasion of this anniversary, touching signs of their attachment for France and proof of the interest they take in the success of our arms. You will see by the bulletins and newspapers accompanying this letter that the same sentiments have been manifested in almost all the cities which count in the Union, and that the 14th has been celebrated with the same ardor as the 4th, which is the anniversary of American independence.”

For the person of the President French tokens of veneration and friendship multiplied. In the same year—year I of the Republic—the Convention had conferred on him the title of French citizen, as being “one of the benefactors of mankind.” French officers had united to offer Mrs. Washington a dinner service, each piece ornamented with a star and her initials in the centre, and the names of the States in medallions around the border, the whole surrounded by a serpent biting its tail, the emblem of perpetuity.

French dramatists could not wait until the great man should belong to the past to make of him the hero of a tragedy in Alexandrine verse: Vashington ou la Liberté du Nouveau Monde, par M. de Sauvigny, performed for the first time in the Theatre of the Nation (as the “Comédie Française” was then called), on the 13th of July, 1791, and in which a nameless predecessor of mine, “I’Ambassadeur de France,” brought the play to a conclusion with praise of Washington, of Franklin, of Congress, and of the whole American people:

  • Magistrats dont l’audace étonna l’univers,
  • Calmes dans la tempête et grands dans les revers,
  • Vous sûtes, par l’effet d’une sage harmonie,
  • Enfanter des vertus, un peuple, une patrie.
  • And in a kind of postscript, the author, commenting on the events related in his play, observed with truth: “The great American Revolution has been the first result of one greater still which had taken place in the empire of opinion.” Of any animosity against the English, the same comment offers no trace.

    Gloomy days succeeded radiant ones. Past abuses, danger from abroad, general suffering, passions let loose, were not conducive to that coolness and moderation which Washington had recommended from the first. Ternant, had been succeeded as representative of France by that famous citizen Genet, who, in spite of his having some diplomatic experience gathered as Chargé d’Affaires in Russia, and being in a way a man of parts, an authority on Swedes and Finns, had his head turned the moment he landed, so completely, indeed, that it is impossible, in spite of the gravity of the consequences involved, not to smile when reading his high-flown, self-complacent, self-advertising, beaming despatches: “My journey (from Charleston to Philadelphia) has been an uninterrupted succession of civic festivities, and my entry in Philadelphia a triumph for liberty. True Americans are at the height of joy.”

    In his next letters he insists and gloats over his own matchless deeds: “The whole of America has risen to acknowledge in me the minister of the French Republic.… I live in the midst of perpetual feasts; I receive addresses from all parts of the continent. I see with pleasure that my way of negotiating pleases our American brothers, and I am founded to believe, citizen minister, that my mission will be a fortunate one from every point of view. I include herewith American gazettes in which I have marked the articles concerning myself.”

    Encouraged by the Anti-Federalists, who thought they could use him for their own purposes Genet shows scant respect for “old Washington, who greatly differs from him whose name has been engraved by history, and who does not pardon me my successes”; a mere “Fayettist,” he disdainfully calls him elsewhere. But Genet will have the better of any such opposition: “I am in the meantime provisioning the West Indies, I excite Canadians to break the British yoke, I arm the Kentukois, and prepare a naval expedition which will facilitate their descent on New Orleans.”

    He had, in fact, armed in American waters, quite a fleet of corsairs, revelling in the bestowal on them of such names as the Sans-Culotte, the Anti-George, the Patriote Genet, the Vainqueur de la Bastille, La Petite Démocrate.

    His triumphs, his lustre, his listening to addresses in his own honor, and reading articles in his own praise, his being “clasped in the arms of a multitude which had rushed to meet him,” his naval and military deeds were short-lived. Contrary to the current belief, the too well-founded indignation of “Fayettist” Washington had nothing to do with his catastrophe. On receipt of the very first letter of the citizen-diplomat, and by return of mail, the foreign minister of the French Republic took the initiative and wrote him:

    “I see that you have been received by an hospitable and open-hearted people with all the manifestations of friendship of which your predecessors had also been the recipients.… You have fancied, thereupon, that it belonged to you to lead the political actions of this people and make them join our cause. Availing yourself of the flattering statements of the Charleston authorities, you have thought fit to arm corsairs, to organize recruiting, to have prizes condemned, before even having been recognized by the American Government, before having its assent, nay, with the certitude of its disapproval. You invoke your instructions from the ‘Conseil exécutif’ of the Republic; but your instructions enjoin upon you quite the reverse: they order you to treat with the government, not with a portion of the people; to be for Congress the spokesman of the French Republic, and not the leader of an American party.” The diplomat’s relations with Washington are the opposite of what France desires: “You say that Washington does not pardon you your successes, and that he hampers your moves in a thousand ways. You are ordered to treat with the American Government; there only can you attain real successes; all the others are illusory and contrary to the interests of your country. Dazzled by a false popularity, you have estranged the only man who should represent for you the American people, and if your action is hampered, you have only yourself to blame.”

    While this letter was slowly crossing the ocean, others from Genet were on the way to France, written in the same beaming style. He continued to gloat over his successes and mercilessly to abuse all Federalists, those confessed partisans of “monocracy.”

    People were not for half-measures at Paris, in those terrible days. Instead of prolonging a useless epistolary correspondence, the Committee of Public Safety rendered a decree providing that a commission would be sent to Philadelphia, with powers to disavow the “criminal conduct of Genet,” to disarm his Sans-Culotte and other corsairs, to revoke all consuls who had taken part in such armaments, and, as for Genet himself, to have him arrested and sent back to France. What such an arrest meant was made evident by the signatures at the foot of the decree: “Barère, Hérault, Robespierre, Billaud-Varennes, Collot d’Herbois, Saint-Just.”

    Better than any one, Genet knew the meaning. But that same government which he had abused was generous and protected him. “We wanted his dismissal, not his punishment,” said Secretary of State Randolph, who refused to have him arrested. Genet hastened to give up a country so hard to please, he thought, as that of his birth, became an American, and as, with all his faults, he was not without some merits, being welcomed in many families, and especially in the house of “General Clinton, Governor,” he wrote, “of the State of New York, and chief of the Anti-Federalist party,” he married his daughter, and died at Schodack, N. Y., a respected citizen and agriculturist, in 1834. His name has once more prominently appeared, and in the most honorable fashion, in those gazettes whose articles in his favor pleased him so much: a descendant of his has enlisted for the old country during the present war, and has cast lustre on the name by his bravery.

    The last years of the former commander-in-chief of the American and French armies were saddened by difficulties, troubles, and quarrels with American political parties and with the French nation. The Jay treaty with England (November 19, 1794) had raised a storm: “At present the cry against the treaty is like that against a mad dog; and every one in a manner is running it down.… The string which is most played on, because it strikes with most force the popular ear, is the violation, as they term it, of our engagements with France.” Anti-Federalists were indignant; the French not at all pleased, and their “captures and seizures,” coupled with a desire to be allowed (which they were not) to sell their prizes in American harbors, increased the discontent. The opposition press was unspeakably virulent, and the great man sadly confessed he would never have believed that, he said, “every act of his administration would be tortured, and the grossest and most insidious misrepresentations of them be made, by giving one side only of a subject, and that, too, in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero, a notorious defaulter, or even to a common pickpocket.”

    The time came at last for his definitive retreat to Mount Vernon. He reached it a saddened, grand old man, longing to be at last an American farmer and nothing more, and never to go “beyond twenty miles” from his home. “To make and sell a little flour annually, to repair houses going fast to ruin, to build one for the security of my papers of a public nature, and to amuse myself in agricultural and rural pursuits, will constitute employment for the few years I have to remain on this terrestrial globe.”

    His desire was to continue to the end in the regular occupations he describes to McHenry, in a letter giving us the best picture we have of everyday life at Mount Vernon. Wondering what he might say that would interest a secretary of war, he writes: “I might tell him that I begin my diurnal course with the sun; that if my hirelings are not at their places at that time I send them messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition; that, having put these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further, and the more they are probed, the deeper, I find, the wounds are which my buildings have sustained by an absence and neglect of eight years; by the time I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven o’clock, about the time, I presume, you are taking leave of Mrs. McHenry) is ready; that, this being over, I mount my horse and ride round my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner, at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces, come, as they say, out of respect for me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well? And how different this from having a few social friends at a cheerful board! The usual time of sitting at table, a walk, and tea brings me within the dawn of candle-light; previous to which, if not prevented by company, I resolve that as soon as the glimmering taper supplies the place of the great luminary, I will retire to my writing-table and acknowledge the letters I have received; but when the lights are brought I feel tired and disinclined to engage in this work, conceiving that the next night will do as well. The next comes and with it the same causes for postponement and effect, and so on.…

    “It may strike you that in this detail no mention is made of any portion of time allotted for reading. The remark would be just, for I have not looked into a book since I came home; nor shall I be able to do it until I have discharged my workmen, probably not before nights grow longer, when possibly I may be looking in Doomesday Book.”

    But in this calm retreat, described with a truth and charm almost reminding one of William Cowper’s familiar letters, and where he was to spend such a small number of years, trouble, as previously, soon knocked at the door. It seemed at one time as if the former commander-in-chief of Franco-American armies would have to lead the Americans against the French. In spite of the preparations which he had himself to superintend, he refused to believe that war would really occur: “My mind never has been alarmed by any fears of a war with France.” But in his judgments of the French, as governed by the Directoire, Washington was gradually receding toward the time when he knew them only through Steele and Addison, and had, “in the Spectator, read to No. 143.”

    He died without knowing that the threatening clouds would soon be dispelled; that the next important event which would count in the annals of the United States and make their greatness secure would come from those same French people: the cession by them, unexpected and unasked-for, not of New Orleans, but of the immense territory then called Louisiana; and that, while his feelings toward the French had undergone changes, those of the French toward him had remained unaltered.

    When the news came that on Saturday, 14th of December, 1799, the great leader had passed away, the French Republic went into mourning; for ten days officers wore crape, flags were flown at half-mast, and the head of the state, young Bonaparte, issued an order in which he said: “Washington is dead. This great man fought tyranny. He established on a safe basis the liberty of his country. His memory will ever be dear to the French people as well as to all the free men of the two worlds, and especially to French soldiers, who, like himself and the American soldiers, fight now for equality and liberty.”

    An impressive and unparalleled ceremony thereupon took place at the Invalides, the Temple of Mars, as it was then called. Detachments from the Paris garrison lined the aisles; all that counted in the Republic was present, Bonaparte included, and Fontanes, the most famous orator of the day, delivered the funeral eulogy on the departed leader: “Washington’s work is scarcely perfected,” he said, “and it is already surrounded by that veneration that is usually bestowed only on what has been consecrated by time. The American Revolution, of which we are contemporaries, seems now consolidated forever. Washington began it by his energy, and achieved it by his moderation. In rendering a public homage to Washington, France pays a debt due to him by the two worlds.”

    In one of the first sentences of the oration, England (with whom we were at war) was courteously associated to the homage rendered by us to the great man: “The very nation,” said Fontanes, “that recently called Washington a rebel, now looks upon the emancipation of America as one of those events consecrated by the verdict of centuries and of history. Such is the privilege of great characters.”

    In the centre of the nave stood the bust of Washington, wreathed in flags and laurels. Years before, in Independence Hall at Philadelphia, on a spot now marked by an inscription, the flags taken at Yorktown had been laid at the feet of the President of Congress and of the minister from France, Gérard de Rayneval. Now General Lannes, the future marshal, came forth and with appropriate words laid before the image of the former commander ninety-six flags taken from the enemy by the troops of republican France.

    A plan was formed thereupon, the realization of which troublous days did not allow, to erect a statue of Washington in Paris (he now has two there and one in Versailles, gratefully accepted gifts from America), and a decree was prepared by Talleyrand recalling, as a motive, the similitude of feelings between France and that “nation which is sure to be one day a great nation, and is even now the wisest and happiest in the world, and which mourns for the death of the man who did more than any, by his courage and genius, to break her shackles and raise her to the rank of independent peoples.… One of the noblest lives which have honored mankind has just passed into the domain of history.… Washington’s fame is now imperishable; Fortune had consecrated his titles to it; and the posterity of a people which will rise later to the highest destinies continuously confirms and strengthens those titles by its very progress.”

    Châteaubriand, Lamartine, Guizot, Cornelis de Witt, Laboulaye, Joseph Fabre, many other French thinkers and writers, vied with each other in their praise and admiration throughout the century. Châteaubriand, who had seen the great man at Philadelphia in 1791, inserted in his Voyage en Amérique his famous parallel between Bonaparte and Washington: “The republic of Washington subsists; the empire of Bonaparte is no more; it came and went between the first and second journey of a Frenchman who has found a grateful nation where he had fought for some oppressed colonists.… The name of Washington will spread, with liberty, from age to age; it will mark the beginning of a new era for mankind.… His fame rises like one of those sanctuaries wherein flows a spring inexhaustible for the people.… What would be the rank of Bonaparte in the universe if he had added magnanimity to what there was heroical in him, and if, being at the same time Washington and Bonaparte, he had appointed Liberty for the heiress of his glory?”

    Lamartine, receiving an Italian delegation in 1848, asked them to hate the memory of Machiavelli and bless that of Washington: “His name is the symbol of modern liberty. The name of a politician, the name of a conqueror is no longer what is wanted by the world, but the name of the most disinterested of men, and the most devoted to the people.” Guizot published his noteworthy study on the first President of the United States, and the American colony in Paris, to commemorate the event, had the portrait of the French statesman painted by Healy in 1841, and presented it to the city of Washington, where it is preserved in the National Museum.

    Publishing, during the early years of the Second Empire, the series of lectures he had delivered at the Collège de France during our Second Republic, the great Liberal, Laboulaye, who did so much to make America and the Americans popular in France, wrote in his preface: “Washington has established a wise and well-ordered republic, and he has left to after-times, not the fatal example of crime triumphant, but a wholesome example of patriotism and virtue. In less than fifty years, owing to the powerful sap of liberty, we have seen an empire arise, having for its base, not conquest, but peace and industry, an empire which before the end of the century will be the greatest state in the civilized world, and which, if it remains faithful to the thought of its founders, if ambition does not arrest the course of its fortune, will offer to the world the prodigious sight of a republic of one hundred million inhabitants, richer, happier, more brilliant than the monarchies of the old world. All this is Washington’s work.”

    Nearer our time, Joseph Fabre, the well-known historian of Joan of Arc, wrote: “This sage was a wonder of reasoned enthusiasm, of thoughtful intrepidity, of methodical tenacity, of circumspect boldness, facing from abroad oppression, at home anarchy, both vanquished by his calm genius.”