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


III. Washington and the French

ONCE more now a republic has been established in France, which, having, we hope, something of the qualities of “coolness and moderation” that Washington wanted us to possess, will, we trust, prove perpetual. It has already lasted nearly half a century: an unexampled phenomenon in the history of Europe, no other republic of such magnitude having thus survived in the old world since the fall of the Roman one, twenty centuries ago.

If the great man were to come again, we entertain a fond hope that he would deem us not undeserving now of the sympathies he bestowed on our ancestors at the period when he was living side by side with them. Most of the leading ideas followed by him throughout life are those which we try to put in practise. We have our faults, to be sure; we know them, others know them, too; it is not our custom to conceal them, far from it; may this serve as an excuse for reviewing here by preference something else than what might occasion blame.

That equality of chances for all, which caused the admiration of the early French visitors to this country, which was one of the chief things for which Washington had fought, and continues to be to-day one of the chief attractions offered to the immigrant by these States, has been secured in the French Republic, too, where no privileges of any sort remain, the right to vote is refused to none, taxation is the same for all, and military service is expected from everybody. No principle had more importance in the eyes of Washington than that of “equal liberty.” “What triumph for our enemies to verify their predictions!” Washington had written to John Jay, in a moment of depression, when he feared that what Genet was to call “monocracy” was in the ascendant; “what triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are unable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious.”

In France, as in the United States, the unique source of power is the will of the people. In our search for the solution of the great problem which now confronts the world, that of the relations of capital and labor, we endeavor to practise the admirable maxim of one of our statesmen of to-day: “Capital must work, labor must possess.” And though we are still remote from this goal, yet we have travelled so far toward it that, at the present day, one out of every two electors in France is the possessor of his own house.

The development of instruction was one of the most cherished ideas of Washington, as it is now of his descendants. “You will agree with me in opinion,” he said in a speech to both houses of Congress in 1790, “that there is nothing that can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of happiness.” Instruction has become, under the Republic, obligatory for all in France, and is given free of cost to all. Not a village, not a hamlet, lost in the recesses of valleys or mountains, that is without its school. The state expenditure for primary instruction during the Second Empire amounted only to twelve million francs; the mere salary of school-teachers alone is now twenty times greater. We try to live up to the old principle: three things should be given free to all—air, water, knowledge: and so it is that at the Sorbonne, the Collège de France, in the provincial universities, all one has to do in order to follow the best courses of lectures is to push open the door. The man in the street may come in if he chooses, just to warm himself in winter or to avoid a shower in summer. Let him; perhaps he will listen too.

Very wisely, being, in many ways, very modern, Washington attached great importance to inventions. In a speech to Congress on January 9, 1790, he said: “I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home, and of facilitating the intercourse between the distant parts of our country by a due attention to the post-office and the post-roads.”

Distances having immensely increased in America (as well as means to cover them), these latter remarks are certainly still of value. With a much less difficult problem to solve, we believe that, in the matter of post-roads, and with a system of rural delivery coextensive with the national territory, we would pass muster in the presence of the great man. As for inventions, we hope that even the compatriots of Franklin, Fulton, Whitney, Horace Wells, W.T.G. Morton, Morse, Bell, Edison, the Wright brothers, and many more, would consider that our show is a creditable one, with Jacquard’s loom, the laws of Ampère on electricity, Séguin’s tubular boilers, Sauvage’s screw, Niepce and Daguerre’s photography, Renard and Kreb’s first dirigible, Lumière’s cinematograph, Curie’s radium, with the automobile, which is transforming our way of life (decentralizing overcentralized countries) as much as the railroads did in the last century; and, more than all, because so beneficent to all, with the discoveries of Chevreul, Flourens, Claude Bernard, Laveran, Berthelot, and especially Pasteur.

On the question of the preservation of natural resources, to which, and not too soon, so much attention has been paid of late, Washington had settled ideas; so have we, ours being somewhat radical, and embodying, for mines especially, the French principle that “what belongs to nobody belongs to everybody,” and by everybody must be understood the nation. Concerning this problem and the best way to solve it, Washington sent once a powerful appeal to the President of Congress, saying: “Would there be any impropriety, do you think, sir, in reserving for special sale all mines, minerals, and salt springs, in the general grants of land belonging to the United States? The public, instead of the few knowing ones, might in this case receive the benefits which would result from the sale of them, without infringing any rule of justice that is known to me.”

One of the most memorable and striking things done by the French Republic is the building of a vast colonial empire, giving access to undeveloped, sometimes, as in Dahomey, barbaric and sanguinary races, still indulging in human sacrifices. Washington has laid down the rule of what should be done with respect to primitive races. “The basis of our proceedings with the Indian natives,” he wrote to Lafayette, “has been and shall be justice, during the period in which I have anything to do with the administration of this government. Our negotiations and transactions, though many of them are on a small scale as to the objects, ought to be governed by the immutable principles of equality.” And addressing the Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, he again said: “The most effectual means of securing the permanent attachment of our savage neighbors is to convince them that we are just.”

There is nothing we are ourselves more sincerely convinced of than that such principles are the right ones and should prevail. That we did not lose sight of them in the building of our colonial empire its very vastness testifies; using opposite means, with so many other tasks to attend to, we should have failed. The number of people living under the French flag is about one hundred million now. Judging from the testimony of independent witnesses, it seems that, on this, too, we have acted in accordance with the views of the former commander-in-chief, who had written to Lafayette on August 15, 1786: “Let me ask you, my dear marquis, in such an enlightened, in such a liberal age, how is it possible that the great maritime powers of Europe should submit to pay an annual tribute to the little piratical states of Barbary? Would to Heaven we had a navy able to reform those enemies to mankind or crush them into non-existence.” The “reform” was begun by Decatur in 1815, and perfected by Bourmont in 1830.

On one point Washington was very positive; this leader of men, this warrior, this winner of battles, loathed war. He wanted, of course, his nation, as we want ours, never to be without a military academy (our West Point is called Saint-Cyr), and never to be without a solid, permanent army, for, as he said, in a speech to Congress in 1796: “However pacific the general policy of a nation may be, it ought never to be without an adequate stock of military knowledge for emergencies … war might often depend not upon its own choice.” Of this we are only too well aware.

There is scarcely, however, a question that oftener recurs under his pen in his letters to his French friends than the care with which wars should be avoided, and no hopes were more fondly cherished by him than that, some day, human quarrels might be settled otherwise than by bloodshed. To Rochambeau, who had informed him that war-clouds which had recently appeared in Europe were dissipated (soon, it is true, to return more threatening), he expressed, in 1786, his joy at what he considered a proof that mankind was becoming “more enlightened and more humanized.” To his friend David Humphreys he had written from Mount Vernon, July 25, 1785: “My first wish is to see this plague to mankind (war) banished from off the earth, and the sons and daughters of this world employed in more pleasing and innocent amusements than in preparing implements and exercising them for the destruction of mankind. Rather than quarrel about territory, let the poor, the needy, the oppressed of the earth, and those who want land, resort to the fertile plains of our Western country, the second land of promise, and there dwell in peace, fulfilling the first and great commandment.” His dream was of mankind one day “connected like one great family in fraternal ties.”

On this matter, of such paramount importance to all the world, and in spite of so much, so very much remaining to be done, we may, I hope, consider in France that our Republic would deserve the approval of the departed leader. We have indeed vied with the United States (and praise be rendered to empires and kingdoms who have played also the part of realms of good-will), in an effort to find better means than wars for the settlement of human quarrels. Success could not be expected at once, but it is something to have honestly, earnestly tried. The great man would have judged failures with indulgence, for he well knew how others’ dispositions are to be taken into account. “In vain,” he had said, “is it to expect that our aim is to be accomplished by fond wishes for peace.”

And at the present hour, when it seems to the author of these lines that, as he writes, his ears are filled with the sound of guns, wafted by the wind over the submarine-haunted ocean, what would be the feeling of our former commander if he saw what is taking place, and the stand made by the descendants of those soldiers intrusted years ago to his leadership? Perhaps he would think, as he did, when told by Lafayette of a recent visit to the battle-fields of Frederick II of Prussia: “To view the several fields of battle over which you passed could not, among other sensations, have failed to excite this thought: ‘Here have fallen thousands of gallant spirits to satisfy the ambitions of their sovereign, or to support them perhaps in acts of oppression and injustice. Melancholy reflection! For what wise purpose does Providence permit this?’”

Perhaps—who knows?—considering the silent resolution, abnegation, and unanimity with which the whole people, from the day when war was declared on them by a relentless enemy, tried to uphold the cause of independence and liberalism in a world-wide conflict, the leader might be tempted to write once more in the pages of his private journal the three words he had written on May 1, 1781. Who knows? Of one thing we are sure, no approval could please us more than that of the commander-in-chief of former days.