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Originally published Sunday, July 6, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘When the United States Spoke French’: Five eminent Frenchmen come to the aid of a young America

François Furstenberg’s new book “When the United States Spoke French” follows the fortunes of five eminent Frenchmen who fled to this country after the French Revolution and aided a young America.


Special to The Seattle Times

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“When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation”

by François Furstenberg

Penguin Press, 498 pp., $36

In 1789, inspired in part by the American experiment, the French Revolution rocked Europe. A handful of Frenchmen who led the Revolution in its early days watched in dismay as it devolved into chaos. They escaped across the Atlantic to find refuge in the United States. Quickly integrated into life in Philadelphia, the new capital, they were warmly welcomed by Americans who enthusiastically celebrated the French revolutionary fervor.

In “When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped A Nation,” (available at booksellers July 14, Bastille Day) Johns Hopkins University history professor François Furstenberg recounts these tumultuous years from the viewpoint of five highly influential Frenchmen: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (later a foreign minister under Napoleon), the duc de Laincourt, Louis-Marie Vicomte de Noailles, Moreau de Saint-Méry, and Constantin-François Chasseboeuf de Volney.

They were quite the collection. Talleyrand, it was said, “brings with him all the vices of the old regime, without having been able to acquire any of the virtues of the new one.”

At the time, the fledgling United States was crippled with debt, excluded from many ports in the British Empire (particularly in the Caribbean) that had been key trading partners, and had few financial resources to invest in its struggling economy. The French émigrés, with connections to European capital, were able to assist their new hosts in securing lines of credit.

For the Americans, the French were the source of endless fascination. Volney tutored the daughters of William and Anne Bingham, two of the most prominent Philadelphians, in French. Noailles, a former Versailles dancing partner of the French queen, Marie Antoinette, gave them dancing lessons.

At the time, the United States looked to their Revolutionary allies, the French, for support. But it was not to last. In 1794 the United States signed the Jay Treaty with England, signaling neutrality in the war between France and England, which the French considered nothing less than betrayal. An undeclared naval war with France ensued, followed by French efforts to control New Orleans, the key to the vast Mississippi watershed.

Had they succeeded, much of the territory west of the Appalachian Mountains might well have become French. But the army sent to secure French claims stopped first to quash rebellion in French colonial San Dominique (now Haiti), where it suffered grievous losses, mostly from yellow fever. With few options, the French Emperor Napoleon settled for selling the Louisiana Territory to the United States (rather than see it fall into English hands).

The 20-year period covered by the book saw profound changes — for the United States and for France. As Furstenberg notes, “The United States had gone from a small group of states huddled between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coast to a continental power stretching across the Mississippi Valley to the Rocky Mountains.” France had gone from monarchy, to republic and finally to empire. Wars had started, ended, and erupted again.

Furstenberg opens a window into a lost world of glittering Philadelphian dinner parties, rough backwoodsmen speaking French and homesick émigrés. It’s a fascinating portrait of the diplomatic intrigue between France and England for power and position, with the United States displaying a disconcertingly astute aptitude for playing them off against each other.

“When the United States Spoke French” is essential reading for understanding the complex relationship between France and the United States that, to this day, endures.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.



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