When The United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped A Nation

Paperback | June 30, 2015

byFrancois Furstenberg

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“A bright, absorbing account of a short period in history that still resounds today.” —Kirkus Reviews

Beautifully written and brilliantly argued, When the United States Spoke French offers a fresh perspective on the tumultuous years of America as a young nation, when the Atlantic world’s first republican experiments were put to the test. It explores the country’s formative period from the viewpoint of five distinguished Frenchmen who took refuge in America after leaving their homes and families in France, crossing the Atlantic, and landing in Philadelphia. Through their stories, we see some of the most famous events of early American history in a new light—from the battles with Native Americans on the western frontier to the Haitian Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

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“A bright, absorbing account of a short period in history that still resounds today.” —Kirkus ReviewsBeautifully written and brilliantly argued, When the United States Spoke French offers a fresh perspective on the tumultuous years of America as a young nation, when the Atlantic world’s first republican experiments were put to the test...

FRANÇOIS FURSTENBERG is an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

other books by Francois Furstenberg

Format:PaperbackDimensions:512 pages, 8.41 × 5.53 × 1.13 inPublished:June 30, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0143127454

ISBN - 13:9780143127451

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Part 1THE UNITED STATES SPEAKS FRENCHOn a chilly morning in January 1793, an unusually distinguished crowd gathered in the courtyard of the Walnut Street Prison, Philadelphia’s largest enclosed square. The gathering included George Washington, the president of the United States; John Adams, the vice president; and Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state. James Madison, the leader of the House of Representatives, was probably there, along with James Monroe—the nation’s first five presidents all assembled in this one space along with hundreds of Philadelphians to watch America’s first flight, undertaken by a Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. Tickets for the event—five dollars for the best spots—had sold at Oeller’s Hotel, a bastion of Philadelphia’s French community, where supporters of the French Revolution had recently staged what the Gazette of the United States called “a splendid entertainment,” in honor of the spectacular French victory at Valmy against Prussian and Austrian armies. But it was not just Philadelphians who were excited that day. Americans up and down the Atlantic seaboard read the details expectantly; New Yorkers even held out a faint hope that, “if the wind should break fair,” Blanchard might make it as far as their city.1The Walnut Street Prison is the large building in the background. Blanchard lifted off from the inside courtyard, which was then the city’s largest enclosed square.Cannons began firing at dawn, the great booms echoing through the city’s cobbled streets and the forests and farms of the nearby countryside, drawing hundreds more to the courtyard. By nine in the morning, with temperatures slowly rising into the forties, nearly three hundred spectators crowded in to watch Blanchard prepare for his flight. As the balloon inflated, with a band playing music and cannons still booming, its design gradually became clear: blue spangled with stars. At 10:00 a.m., as promised, Blanchard was ready. The crowd fell silent when President Washington stepped forward and handed the Frenchman a passport written up in his own hand—to reassure whomever he might meet at whatever spot he might land that he was no enemy of the state: not the advance guard of an airborne French invasion. The two said a few words in private, Washington towering over the Frenchman, who stood just over five feet tall. At five minutes past the hour, amid shouts and applause and solemn music, Blanchard, dressed in a blue suit with a cocked hat and white feathers, leaped into the basket and threw off the ballast. Waving a flag—American on one side, French on the other—he soared into the air. The president took off his hat and bowed. “It was indeed a spectacle as magnificent as it was new to us, to see this intrepid aeronaut majestically rise from the earth,” reported one witness.2And so another spark flew upward.This highly detailed map of Philadelphia, produced by the French engraver Charles Varlé for the Holland Land Company, shows the extent of settlement in the U.S. capital and the location of major landmarks.—AS BLANCHARD rose, the crowds in nearby streets marveled at the spectacle: “Admiration was painted on every countenance, and many who had not purchased tickets of admission into the prison yard, now regretted, but too late, their having deprived themselves of witnessing the most interesting scene that the human eye ever beheld.” Stevedores with their leathery hands paused for a moment at the docks, putting down their barrels and crates to look up. Solemn Quakers turned their heads to the sky, looking beyond the brims of the hats they refused to remove even indoors, to wonder at the sight of a man in flight. Looking down from the stillness of the sky, Blanchard “could not help being surprized and astonished” at the “immense numbers of people, which covered the open places, the roofs of the houses, the steeples, the streets and the roads.” All of Philadelphia, it seemed, was looking up at Blanchard as he drifted above the city. “Bon Voyage, God bless you, was echoed from every mouth; hats waved, hands lifted up.”3Notable occupational clusters in 1790s Philadelphia.As Blanchard floated twelve hundred feet above the earth, the city of brick and wood stretched out below him, the meandering Schuylkill River off in the west, the majestic Delaware River just to the east. From his perch high above, Blanchard heard echoes of life below: the clatter of a horse’s shoes on cobblestone, the bark of a dog prowling the alleys for food, the cries of a baby in a mother’s arms, the shout of a young chimney sweep offering his services. As one person after another looked up and gasped, Blanchard listened with quiet satisfaction to “the cries of joy which rent the air.”4The soft wind first pushed Blanchard east, across northern Philadelphia, between Market and Race, crossing Fourth, Third, then Second Streets. This was a working-class section of town, and looking down, Blanchard could see the houses of blacksmiths, cordwainers, furniture makers, and other artisans and tradesmen, who worked in their shops on the first floor and lived above with their families. It was Philadelphia’s most densely populated neighborhood, the sidewalks filled with servants pushing their way through the crowds on some errand or another, shoppers on their way to the markets, and clerks heading to shops selling goods from all over the world: sugar from the Caribbean, wine from France, cotton from India.The first Bank of the United States, on South Second Street: then and now.To the south, just below Market Street, lay the city’s political and financial center. Rising above the surrounding buildings, Blanchard could easily spot the newly constructed Bank of the United States, conceived by Alexander Hamilton to issue government debt and service the nation’s payment system. The building would later be acquired by the French merchant Stephen Girard; it still stands today in the heart of Philadelphia.Congress Hall, seat of the U.S. Congress in Philadelphia: then and now.Blanchard saw just two blocks to the west, and also rising above the neighborhood, the State House, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been debated and signed, and Congress Hall, where both the House of Representatives and the Senate sat.The Library Company, founded by Benjamin Franklin, which houses the American Philosophical Society: then and now.These buildings towered above the rest of the city, testifying to Philadelphia’s status as the nation’s capital city during the 1790s: political capital, cultural capital, and economic capital all rolled into one. It was the only time the United States had a single great metropolis the way France has Paris and England has London, and it made Philadelphia by far “the most agreeable city for a foreigner,” as Liancourt would write, gathering “more than any other, people who cultivate” literary and scientific inquiry. “It is the seat of a philosophical society, and a large and valuable public library; and of a museum which has an almost complete collection of the minerals and animals of North America.”5Philadelphia’s Arch Street Ferry. The port along the Delaware River was the commercial and economic heart of the U.S. capital.As Blanchard approached the Delaware River the wind shifted, pushing him south toward Philadelphia’s port, the center of the city’s commercial life, its raison d’être. Warehouses lined the riverside, and wooden wharves jutted out into the Delaware to welcome ships from the Caribbean and Europe, and even a few from ports as distant as India and China, all of them trading their goods for produce from the fertile Delaware River valley, known as the Atlantic’s breadbasket. Hosts of artisans lived and worked nearby to service this vast commercial hub: carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, rope and sail makers, all little cogs in an increasingly complex economic machine moving people and goods from one part of the world to another.Continuing south, parallel with the Delaware, Blanchard could see the handsome new mansions rising up along Society Hill, above the recently covered Dock Creek, where Philadelphia’s merchants, flush from the nation’s booming economy, held their elaborate salons and luxurious dinner parties, making Philadelphia’s real estate the most expensive in the nation. Perhaps Blanchard even saw a servant carrying a calling card to one of the neighborhood’s ornate houses, conveying an invitation to a dinner or tea. Talleyrand, Liancourt, Volney, Noailles, and Moreau would all settle here during their American exile and soon be found strolling these very sidewalks, dropping in on friends, conducting business, and killing time.6Despite its importance to the nation, Philadelphia was still a small city. From his vantage, Blanchard could easily see it in its entirety, beginning at the Delaware River, and running west to Eighth Street—only eight blocks—beyond which the roads were unpaved and the countryside began. On its northern edge the city ended at Vine Street, three blocks north of Market, with the suburb of Northern Liberties just beyond. Just one mile to the south, a mere seven blocks away, the city ended at Cedar (now South) Street, at the suburb of Southwark. In all, Philadelphia totaled less than a square mile. But with a population of over forty thousand in 1790, approaching seventy thousand in 1800, it was densely packed. In Philadelphia’s most crowded wards, each building housed, on average, seven to eight people in a total of 1,228 square feet—a figure that included half of the ground floor, typically dedicated to commerce. Many laborers lived with their family in a house containing no more than 500 square feet. Behind the buildings lay outdoor kitchens and washhouses in lots often shared with a horse, pig, or cow. Philadelphia’s population density then was far greater than Manhattan’s is today. To find a similar density in our day one needs to look all the way to Mumbai.7This intense proximity made it impossible for Blanchard—or any other visitor—to ignore the city’s cruel aspects. Some of the faces that turned up to the sky to watch Blanchard that morning belonged to enslaved men and women; although laws for slavery’s gradual abolition were on the books, labor was still coerced, not only through slavery but also through the indentured servitude and apprenticeship systems that still prevailed. The divide between rich and poor, already significant, had been widening since the Revolution, as seaboard elites made ever-growing fortunes on trade, commerce, and finance, while farmers and servants struggled under growing debt burdens in a deflationary economy.The city also stank. In an era before public sewage or public health, rotting animal corpses and every sort of human waste lay putrefying in open sewers, in alleys, or in the streets. When he arrived, Volney was overwhelmed by the “striking odor of marshland, and the smell of oysters.” Sewage waste regularly contaminated private wells in the years before Philadelphia’s waterworks were established, causing predictable intestinal trouble among residents. Low-lying marshlands abutted the city, causing major health trouble in the summer, when the hot and sticky climate bred mosquitoes carrying yellow fever, driving the wealthy to their summer homes outside the city proper and killing off many poor residents, largely immigrant or African American, who had nowhere to go. Flying high above while others remained stuck below, Blanchard, it might be said, personified the contrasts endemic to eighteenth-century life, when mobility so often meant the difference between life and death.8—FLYING UPWARD into the skies, Blanchard seemed to incarnate the wonders of the French Revolution. France’s stunning victory at Valmy, which saved the French Revolution, heralded a new age: an age that would be shaped not by kings and noblemen, but by citizens making their own history. France was now a republic. No one exulted at the spectacle more than Americans, they who first proved to the world that humans could carve out their own destiny in pursuit of happiness.Great Blanchard! as you wing your way toward the heavens;There to announce to all the planets of the universe,That Frenchmen have conquered their interior enemies,And that their Exterior Foes have been repulsed by their intrepidityDart through Olympus and tell to the gods,That Frenchmen have been victorious.Implore the aid of Mars, that the Arms of FranceMay crush the ambitious designs of tyrants FOR EVER.As Blanchard soared above Philadelphia like Icarus, Americans turned up to stare in wonder and pride. A French aeronaut flying through the sky, Blanchard embodied the limitless possibilities promised by the age of Revolutions, this new era of world history. But did anyone notice that Blanchard had lost control of his destiny and could only watch, helpless, as the winds pushed him where they would?In all, his journey lasted forty-six minutes. He landed about fifteen miles from Philadelphia, just a little east of Woodbury, New Jersey.—BLANCHARD’S VIEW of Philadelphia that morning in 1793, of early America—indeed, of the Atlantic world—was an extraordinarily privileged one. It seemed almost magical. Soaring over the city and looking down, he apprehended Philadelphia’s sights and sounds, its objects and people: the city in which the émigré constituants would soon arrive. It is a world we today can only reconstruct through the fragments and traces left behind. But looking out, he could see only as far as the distant horizon. Perhaps he saw there the slight bend of the planet, but no more.Blanchard could not look south and see the island of Saint Domingue, where republicans and royalists, white and colored, slave and free, were just then throwing themselves headlong into a period of vicious warfare that would last another ten years, pulling in the three most powerful empires in the world, killing tens of thousands of soldiers, freeing half a million slaves, and ending with the creation of Haiti. Nor could he see King Louis XVI, then on trial before the French National Assembly, awaiting the verdict that would pronounce his death at the guillotine and launch twenty years of war that would forever change Europe. He probably saw west as far as the Schuylkill River. Beyond that, however, he could not see the rugged Appalachian Mountains dividing Pennsylvania in two, where angry farmers groaned under new taxes slowly pushing them toward rebellion against the new federal government. Nor could his gaze penetrate farther west still, where the Western Confederacy of Native American villages fought American settlers’ encroachment into their territory, the U.S. Army mustering for another eighteen months of losing battles in the bitterly contested territory between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. Most of all, Blanchard could not see the ties that connected all these distant peoples and places to Philadelphia.9No, Blanchard could not possibly understand the forces that shaped the Atlantic world. The frenetic movement that persisted during peace and during war, inside imperial borders and across them, around and around in a continuous flow, following tides and currents and winds, pushing up river valleys, crossing the craggiest mountain passes, and tearing down primeval forests. On and on it beat, the pulse of commodities and people that made up that world, coursing up the American coast, across the North Atlantic to fill the coffers of merchants in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Nantes, and Bordeaux, then south along the European and African coasts, back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, through the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi, and deep into North America, all the way up the western slopes of the Appalachians. Faster and faster it beat, the centripetal force of it pulling the Atlantic world ever tighter together—until, suddenly, at the end of the eighteenth century it erupted in a bloody, horrific explosion.That eruption flung Noailles, Talleyrand, Moreau, Volney, and Liancourt across the Atlantic Ocean. They drifted in, one by one, sparks blown over by the wind. Their individual lives are inseparable from the much larger forces of history. Their stories are, in certain respects, our story.Chapter 1FRANCE COMES TO AMERICAOn May 3, 1793, Louis-Marie, the vicomte de Noailles, came to America. He had fled France nearly a year earlier, hoping to return quickly, but European politics were becoming more chaotic. Now he had left the Continent.Noailles was a dashing soldier and an elegant courtier with the most polished manners. Like his brother in-law, the marquis de Lafayette, he was a liberal noble who fought with brio in the American Revolution. After the Siege of Savannah, in 1779, Noailles’ commanding officer praised his “love for war, for his métier,” while Admiral d’Estaing himself wrote that he deserved “the king’s grâces.” December 1780 saw Noailles marching with Rochambeau’s army through Philadelphia, where he lingered long enough to dance all night with one of Philadelphia’s most beautiful young women at a ball thrown by the chevalier de La Luzerne. October 1781 found him at Yorktown, where he repelled the last British attack of the siege, a desperate sortie Noailles routed as he led a company of his Soissonois Brigade with the shout “Vive le roi!” When the British at last called for a truce, it was Noailles who represented the French government in the negotiations for Cornwallis’s surrender. And it was Noailles who stood crisply with his brigade, dressed in their ceremonial uniforms adorned with red lapels, light blue collars, and yellow buttons, on the west side of the road to Yorktown, as the British soldiers filed out of the fort, French and American flags already fluttering above, while “universal silence” prevailed below.1Noailles returned to France a hero, his liberal credentials established. In those heady years following France’s great victory, he befriended Franklin, worshipped Voltaire, and worked with other liberals to import the best traditions of English political and economic life to France. In 1788 he became a member of the Société des Trente, a collection of liberal notables that included Lafayette, Condorcet, Mirabeau, and the duc de Liancourt. When Louis XVI convened the Estates General in 1789 Noailles jumped into action, taking a leading role in the Assemblée constituante charged with drafting a French constitution. It was he, as much as any single person, who slew France’sancien régime: on the night of August 4, 1789, while presiding over the Assemblée constituante, Noailles “sketched a very pathetic and touching scene of the misery of the people, the desolation of the countryside, the horrors of anarchy that reigned in the provinces,” as one representative recalled, and proposed in response “not violent means but equality of taxes, the suppression of feudal rights, those ofmainmorte and other rights of personal servitude.” With his speech, Noailles launched what another constituant called “a moment of patriotic drunkenness.” Over the course of the night, one nobleman after another rose to abandon his special privileges. Aristocratic titles, exemptions from taxes, the clergy’s seignorial rights, noble hunting privileges: all were renounced and more. “Let us only regret that we have nothing else left to sacrifice,” proclaimed the chevalier de Boufflers after two in the morning. “Let us consider that henceforth the title of ‘Frenchman’ will be distinction enough for every generous soul.” By the time the sun rose on August 5, the legal structure that had underpinned the ancien régime for hundreds of years had crumbled.2The French Constituent Assembly on the night of August 4, when feudal privileges were formally abolished. Noailles presided over the assembly that night.Noailles had unleashed forces that he and his fellow liberals could not control. A few years later, in April 1792, serving as maréchal in the Armée du Nord, on the collapsing front lines of France’s war against Prussia and Austria, disgusted by the disorder in the army’s ranks, the mutiny, and desertion of soldiers, Noailles resigned his commission. He crossed enemy lines and settled in England, where he found refuge among the community of liberal Whig statesmen he had long admired, with whose politics he felt most at home. It was from England that he learned of the September Massacres in Paris, when—with aristocrats fleeing to enemy lines and murderous Prussian armies closing in on Paris and threatening violent retribution on the population—panicked mobs began attacking those they considered enemies of the Revolution, killing at least eleven hundred, including many of Noailles’ friends. The massacres would definitively polarize the growing divide in worldwide opinion about the French Revolution. From Whitehall, the British undersecretary of state James Bland Burges summarized the reports: “Of new massacres; of 160 priests being butchered in a church; of all the prisoners confined in all the prisons having been deliberately and in orderly succession put to death . . . many must have been of high rank and consequence.” Burges hoped the Duke of Brunswick’s Prussian army would respond without mercy. “Hateful as is the idea of slaughter and devastation, to forbear from inflicting a severe punishment of such shocking crimes will be an offence against mankind,” he wrote, hoping that no “weak disinclination” would prevent Brunswick “from annihilating, as far as he can, the theatre of such detestable exploits.”3There was no going back; one side or the other was determined to exact bloody revenge: the Paris mobs for the crimes of centuries, the Prussian armies for the crimes of the Paris mobs. The mobs would win the first round. Noailles soon learned the shocking news of the French victory at Valmy—when an army of citizens, many of them armed with nothing more than pitchforks and axes, defeated an army of professional soldiers commanded by aristocratic officers marching under the banner of European monarchs. And then, in late January 1793, Noailles learned that King Louis XVI had been executed and that the French had invaded Belgium, making war between France and Great Britain inevitable. Europe was now careening down a bloody path that would continue through two decades of brutal war.Despite his political connections, Noailles’ situation became precarious. As thousands crossed the English Channel in panic seeking safety, many of them penniless, British authorities grew anxious. “These crowds of émigrés add greatly to the uncomfortable circumstances of the time,” wrote William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, the British ambassador to The Hague, in late December 1792. “Though many of the individuals . . . are objects highly worthy both of respect and compassion, it must be allowed that, in general, the levity and dangerous talents of the nation have not been corrected in the school of misfortune.” Suspecting that at least some of the new arrivals were “detached and paid by the Jacobin leaders to do mischief and to prepare and promote revolutions,” Auckland named Noailles (and Liancourt) among “the exiles who are highly dangerous, and are now said to be in London.” No one really knew if England was on the verge of revolution. Certainly many French revolutionaries thought so, and many reactionary Britons, too. In response, British authorities passed the Aliens Act of 1793, sharply restricting the rights of émigrés, including the right of habeas corpus. Thereupon Noailles took matters into his own hands and boarded a ship for the United States in April 1793. It was only a matter of time before Liancourt and Talleyrand would follow.4No doubt as he began the long, uncertain trip across the Atlantic, Noailles thought back to his previous American voyage. In 1780 he had sailed with the comte de Rochambeau and four regiments of French soldiers—fifty-five hundred men in ten ships of war and thirty convoys, along with eight million livres’ worth of munitions, clothes, tents, and French coin—a conquering army from Europe’s greatest continental power. Still in his early twenties, Noailles was the scion of one of France’s noblest families. His great-great-grandfather, Antoine de Noailles, had served as the ambassador to England in the middle of the sixteenth century, under King Henri II. Noailles’ great-grandfather was one of the most powerful generals under Louis XIV, the Sun King, when France reached its height of power and glory. His grandfather and uncle both attained the rank of maréchal, and his father was a distinguished soldier. His mother was Marie-Antoinette’s first lady of honor. There were few nobler lineages than this one in the hierarchy of France’s ancien régime, and the young vicomte was hungry to prove himself fit to inherit his name. “He dreamed of nothing but arms and horses, the school of theory, and German evolutions and discipline,” remembered a childhood friend. When war broke out between the American colonies and the British Empire in the 1770s, it struck Noailles—along with his friend and other young, ambitious, liberal aristocrats like them—as a splendid opportunity: “Sanctioned by the authority of long usage, and by the memory of our ancestors, who . . . had often gone forth in search of adventures and military employment, and had displayed their valor, at one time in the Spanish and Italian service against the Saracens, at another, in the armies of Austria, we now eagerly sought the means of transporting ourselves, individually, across the Atlantic, to be ranged under the banners of American freedom.” And so Noailles had gone to America, where he fought with valor and returned to France a hero.5But this was a very different trip. No longer posing as a crusader, Noailles now headed to America as a fleeing refugee.—NOAILLES ARRIVED in Philadelphia on May 3, 1793. If he had been hoping to take shelter from the political storms sweeping across Europe, he could hardly have arrived at a worse time. The year was a turning point in the history of the United States and of the Atlantic world. France and Great Britain had just declared war, and the United States that Noailles found was ablaze with French revolutionary fervor, with American leaders desperately seeking to keep the country out of the global warfare. British and French ships were in battle throughout the Atlantic, with some skirmishes so close to the American coast that citizens could watch. “We found the sea so much covered with your vessels that I thought its Empire belonged entirely to Great Britain,” Noailles wrote to an English friend shortly after his arrival.6The day before Noailles landed in Philadelphia, the Embuscade, a thirty-two-gun French naval frigate, had sailed up the Delaware River, firing fifteen shots in honor of the fifteen states as she approached Philadelphia, a salute answered by two cannons at the Market Street wharf. Philadelphians packed the docks to watch the grand battleship’s arrival. Watching a warship sail into port in the eighteenth century was a memorable experience. “One discerns first only the top of the masts. The ship then grows visibly larger; soon she can be seen with her sails filled. She salutes the shore” with the booming crashes of cannon fire. Few by now are unaware that a ship from a distant land is sailing into port. “Coming on them with the swiftness of a bird she comes about, drops anchor, and comes to a standstill. No horseman ever knew better how to handle his horse than these navigators their winged castles.”7The excitement grew as the French ship approached. Liberty caps—the great symbol of the French Revolution—adorned each figurehead, another sat on the top gallant mast, and banners fluttered on the other masts. One read, “Enemies of equality, reform or tremble!” Another: “We are armed to defend the rights of man.” The Embuscade had captured seven prizes, two of which had already preceded the ship to Philadelphia, their flags flying upside down in a signal of submission. “Upon her coming into sight thousands and thousands of the yeomanry of the city crowded and covered the wharves,” Jefferson reported to James Monroe the next day. “Never before was such a crowd seen there, and when the British colours were seen reversed, and the French flag flying above them they burst into peals of exultation.” Here was republican France, the country’s most important ally, now its sister republic, sailing in triumph over America’s former master brought low. Jefferson was thrilled: “All the old spirit of 1776 is rekindling.”8The enthusiasm on the streets of Philadelphia had been building for years. Since the calling of the Estates General in 1789 and the fall of the Bastille, the monumental events playing themselves out in Europe had transfixed Americans across geographical and political spectrums. Newspapers reprinted long reports of French politics, speeches in the National Assembly, and, with the outbreak of war between France, Austria, and Prussia, the progress of French armies across the Continent. It seemed to people on both sides of the Atlantic that the republican seed Americans had planted had borne fruit in Europe. And not just anywhere, but in France, the most powerful and corrupt monarchy of the age. All the global hopes that Americans had invested in their revolution were coming true. Paris guards played “Yankee Doodle” just before storming the Bastille, the hated symbol of French tyranny. In 1790 Lafayette sent Washington the key to the demolished prison: “It is a tribute Which I owe as A Son to My Adoptive father,” he wrote, “as a Missionary of liberty to its patriarch.” The gift was perfectly pitched: Washington, like millions of other Americans, shared the sense that the French and American revolutions were bound together as two manifestations of a single global movement for liberty. “Since the commencement of your revolution our attention has been drawn, with no small anxiety, almost to France alone,” Washington later wrote Lafayette. “How great! How important . . . is the part, which the actors in this momentous scene have to perform! Not only the fate of millions of the present day depends upon them, but the happiness of posterity is involved in their decisions.” The enthusiasm grew to a climax in late 1792, as word filtered across the Atlantic that an army of French citizen-soldiers had successfully defended the Revolution at Valmy against the forces of monarchy and reaction, and that France had become a republic.9Americans up and down the coast organized celebrations and parades, sang French revolutionary songs, and proudly displayed French patriotic garb. Charlestonians founded the Société patriotique française—later renamed the Société des sans-culottes—to promote solidarity with the French Revolution. It drew the city’s republicans, French immigrants, and the French consul to its gatherings. Already, American political life had taken new configurations in response to the French events. A few months later, in May 1793, Philadelphians created their own Democratic-Republican Society, an echo not just of American revolutionary groups like the Sons of Liberty but also of the French Club des Jacobins. At least ten sister organizations sprouted in American cities in 1793, and another twenty-five in 1794, composed of professionals, artisans, tradesmen, craftsmen, and French citizens in support of the French Revolution. Many clubs established connections and correspondence with Jacobin clubs in France. Like their French counterparts, members addressed each other as “Citizen,” with some rejecting aristocratic knee breeches in imitation of the French sans-culottes (without breeches). All avowed their solidarity with the French Republic. “Shall we Americans,” asked a Virginia Democratic-Republican Society speaker in 1794, “who have kindled the Spark of Liberty stand aloof and see it extinguished when burning a bright flame in France, which hath caught it from us? Do you not see if despots prevail, you must have a despot like the rest of nations? If all tyrants unite against free people, should not all free people unite against tyrants? Yes! Let us unite with France and stand or fall together.” “On the accomplishment of the great objects of their Revolution,” pronounced members of a Boston Democratic-Republican club that same year, “depends not only the future happiness and prosperity of Frenchmen, but in our opinion of the whole World of Mankind.”10As the violence in Paris grew, however, with the September Massacres and the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, American views of the French Revolution began to diverge. The more conservative Federalists, like Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington—with their political base in New England, a political culture long imbued with anti-Catholic and anti-French prejudices, joined by established merchants and coastal elites across the country—grew increasingly wary of the events in France. They concluded that the Revolution had spun out of control. What had seemed like a single transatlantic phenomenon now became, in their opinion, separate and divergent movements: the American Revolution standing as the good revolution in contrast to the French. On the other hand, the more radical Democratic-Republicans—often just called Republicans in this period—like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, took a different view of transatlantic events. With their base of support in the southern states, across the Appalachian backcountry, and among the rural yeomanry, urban artisans, and small merchants, Republicans continued to support the Revolution in spite of the growing violence. Most viewed the bloodshed in France with regret, as the inevitable cost of overthrowing entrenched tyranny. Whatever the excesses, they remained convinced that, as Jefferson famously put it, “the liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest.” But these diverging opinions did not have a major impact on American politics so long as peace continued between France and England.11Everything changed after February 1793. “The first cannons shot in our climates set fire to all the batteries in America,” Voltaire had once complained, and again a familiar dynamic began. War between France, England, and Spain meant war in the Caribbean, right on the United States’ doorstep. The Caribbean was the beating heart of the Atlantic economy, sending its vast stores of wealth in the form of sugar, coffee, and other crops coursing through the commercial arteries of the French and British economies. During periods of war, the sugar colonies loomed as ripe fruit to be plucked from the enemy. By the terms of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1778, which the United States had signed with France when it joined the American Revolution, the United States was bound to support France in its Caribbean warfare, receiving French privateers and prizes in its ports, providing naval reinforcement, and furnishing French ships with supplies. And now war had come. How would the United States respond? Would the country risk another war with Britain to uphold its revolutionary alliance, repay the military debt it owed France, and support the cause of global republicanism? Or would the country play it safe and stay out of the war by reneging on its commitment to France?12French authorities could not be sure, and it was to shore up the support of its ally and organize Caribbean warfare that the new republic sent a young and reckless ambassador with impeccable credentials. He arrived in the United States just a month before Noailles.—Edmond-Charles Genet, the French minister sent to the United States in April 1793.EDMOND-CHARLES GENET was only thirty years old when he landed in America. His mission was the result of a series of events that began with the rise of the Girondins to power in France, the execution of King Louis XVI, and the outbreak of war with England—a series of events that too hastily hurled Genet to the United States.Standing five feet eight inches tall, with chestnut hair creeping down a prominent forehead, piercing blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and a round chin, Genet was in certain respects a doppelgänger of the French émigrés who would soon follow him across the Atlantic. Whereas many émigrés descended from the heights of the French aristocracy, Genet had scratched his way up from the midlevel bourgeoisie. Whereas the aristocratic émigrés acted with the refined assurance bred by the Versailles Court and the codes of eighteenth-century European diplomacy, Genet was convinced that the old methods of diplomacy were outdated, and transparency was the order of the day. The émigrés’ rich endowments of subtlety and finesse were precisely the qualities most lacking in Genet. And yet for all their differences they would all leave a permanent mark on Franco-American relations.13Genet painted by Adolf Ulrich Wertmüller as a twenty-one-year-old man in 1784, when he worked as a translator at the Versailles Court, nearly a decade before he came to the United States.Genet originally sailed for Philadelphia, but his crossing was slower than he hoped. Leaving France too early in the season for an easy passage, he endured a rough crossing through the Bay of Biscay, with its “long swells and its furious waters.” It took more than two weeks just to clear Cape Finisterre, on the northwest tip of Spain, before they could head south into the Atlantic to catch the trade winds. As his ship, the Embuscade, neared Bermuda, it ran across the Sally, an English brig, which the French ship promptly captured. Genet knew he was getting close when the boat ran into large amounts of seaweed and the water changed color: they were entering the Gulf Stream, which would push them north along the coast to their destination. But Genet couldn’t wait. By the time the boats reached the Carolinas, the young and impatient minister decided to pull in at Charleston. Thus it was, on the morning of April 8, that Genet’s ship, with the Sally as its prize, cleared the sandy shoals lying at the southern entrance of Charleston Harbor and came into view. An immense crowd gathered at the docks to welcome the French ship, “drawn by their curiosity and by the desire to know if war was declared.” It was from Genet that Charleston learned that war had broken out between France and Great Britain.14Genet immediately met Governor William Moultrie of South Carolina, along with various state senators and representatives, and was repeatedly fêted by Charleston’s pro-Republican population. Overwhelmed by his reception, he sent the Embuscade ahead to Philadelphia without him—where its arrival would throw Philadelphians into those peals of exultation that Jefferson had witnessed—and decided to make his way to the capital by land, stopping, if he could, to see President Washington at Mount Vernon along the way. While in Charleston, Genet launched into his mission, commissioning four corsairs, or privateers, to sail into the Caribbean and attack British merchant ships carrying their stores of sugar, coffee, indigo, and more back to Europe. He even began enlisting American citizens to man the French warships: a clear violation, according to eighteenth-century rules of war, of national sovereignty. By the time he left the city, after ten days of celebration and preparations for war—still unrecognized as France’s minister to the U.S. government—Genet had also launched plans for an invasion of Spanish-held Florida and Louisiana in the name of France, and begun to recruit soldiers for that cause as well. It had taken him less than two weeks to set himself on a collision course with the U.S. government.15—WHILE GENET was being fêted in Charleston and Noailles was sailing toward Philadelphia, President Washington was at home in Mount Vernon, where he received the news of war. Washington immediately recognized the delicate situation in which it placed the country. “War having actually commenced between France and Great Britain,” he wrote to his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, “it behoves the Government of this Country . . . to maintain a strict neutrality.” He asked Jefferson and the rest of his cabinet to begin discussing the issue. There was no time to waste. “I have understood that vessels are already designated privateers, and are preparing accordingly.” With that, Washington rushed back to Philadelphia to convene an emergency meeting of his cabinet and formulate an official response. On April 22, just twelve days before Noailles arrived in Philadelphia, while Genet was still fooling around in South Carolina, Washington published his famous Proclamation of Neutrality, a document that would guide U.S. policy for much of the next 120 years. It declared the government’s intention to “pursue a conduct friendly and impartial towards the belligerent powers,” and warned Americans “to avoid all acts and proceedings whatsoever, which may in any manner tend to contravene such disposition.”16This was a clear violation of the U.S. treaty with France. And Genet—who still had not met with government officials to be accredited ambassador—was already working at cross-purposes. Rumors began to sprout. The very day that Washington published his neutrality proclamation in the newspapers, Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia fretted:A variety of reports still continue to amuse and terrify our citizens, respecting the instructions of the French ambassador, and the part our federal government MUST take in the war entered into between England and France—Were these true, we should inevitably be plunged into the horrors of a destructive and unprofitable war, almost without end or object—but as these have evidently no better foundation than the momentary hopes or fears of the reporters, we shall not, on such authority, retail the IDLE GOSSIP.It was a strange notice to publish, denying the truth of the very rumors it was propagating. But these fears were compelling enough that the same report was picked up and reprinted by at least seven newspapers in five different states. The country was on edge at the prospect of a war among Europe’s great powers in the Caribbean—and perhaps also in the Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River.17Still unaware of Washington’s neutrality proclamation, Genet was heading toward Virginia, his progress delayed by continual celebrations in the cities and towns he crossed. For provincial Americans, connected to the world-historical events in Europe only by distant reports and excited discussions in taverns, here was a rare chance to witness history in the flesh, as it practically walked into their parlors. Arriving in Stateburg, South Carolina, late on the night of April 24, stopping just long enough to sleep, Genet could not even get into his carriage the next morning without being accosted by a dozen residents presenting him with “a short, though warm testimony of American esteem and friendship, in behalf of themselves and their neighbors.” After he made a brief reply, Genet headed off, “accompanied a few miles on the road to Camden by several gentlemen of the village,” a touching collection of farmers on horseback trailing Genet’s carriage along the dusty country roads, catching a last glimpse of this man connected to the French king’s execution, as he made his way to meet President Washington.18When he pulled into Camden, just twenty miles north of Stateburg, Genet was met by an even larger delegation, which organized a ceremony to express their citizens’ feelings for France.Your nation has a just claim to our gratitude, for the services rendered us in the hour of our distress, whilst we contended against tyranny and oppression. But, independent of this tie, we feel ourselves warmly and zealously attached to her, for the noble example which she now gives to the world.And so it continued, through South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and, eventually, Pennsylvania. The nation was alight with French revolutionary fervor, and everywhere he went, Genet was met with toasts and celebrations. When he at last reached Philadelphia on the early afternoon of May 16, three cannon shots were fired from the Embuscade to announce his arrival. A large delegation of some of the nation’s most eminent citizens met him at Gray’s Ferry, on the outskirts of town, for a brief ceremony before parading into town as church bells tolled and thousands of people, many of them dressed in revolutionary red, white, and blue, flocked from across the city to watch the triumphal arrival of France’s new republican minister to the United States.The next day, “an immense body of citizens” held a town meeting in the backyard of Independence Hall before “walking three abreast” to deliver an address to Genet at the City Tavern, where Genet responded with a speech of such eloquence the crowd demanded that he repeat it to those gathered outside. “It is impossible to describe with adequate energy the scene that succeeded,” reported one Philadelphia newspaper. “The house and the streets again resounded with congratulations and applause,” commented another. The following day, excited Philadelphians held another dinner for Genet at the city’s grandest hotel, featuring a table decorated with a liberty tree and liberty caps and festooned with French and American flags. “The bonnet rouge was passed from head to head round the table,” one attendee remembered. After fifteen toasts, one hundred prominent Philadelphians joined in a rousing performance of “La Marseillaise,” along with “two additional stanzas, composed by Citizen Genet,” and sung by the French minister “with truly patriotic and republican sentiments.” Genet was beside himself. “My voyage was an uninterrupted succession of civic fêtes, and my entry into Philadelphia a triumph for liberty,” he exulted in a report to the French foreign minister.19Genet had not yet had his credentials recognized by the American government, which had by now issued Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality. But, overwhelmed by his reception over the previous six weeks, by the evident popularity of the French cause and of republicanism more generally, and by the lingering hatred of Great Britain and its monarchy—and prompted, too, by various Jeffersonian politicians—Genet concluded that Washington’s neutrality proclamation could not withstand the explosion of pro-French feeling. “All of America has risen up to recognize me as the Minister of the French Republic,” Genet wrote in a dispatch, almost drunk with exuberance. “The voice of the People continues to neutralize President Washington’s proclamation of neutrality. I live here in the midst of perpetualfêtes.”20And still the fêtes continued. Through the summer months, thousands of Philadelphians, inspired by the glorious events in France, by the republican armies sweeping across Europe, paraded through the city wearing the French tricolore on their lapels and cockades on their hats, and singing French patriotic songs. It was Genet who suggested “democratic” to Philadelphians as the name for their society, in imitation of the Jacobin clubs in France. In sympathy, one tavern was renamed the “Guillotined Queen of France.” The RepublicanGeneral Advertiser advertised the “very interesting” reproduction of a guillotine, including a wax victim, its body on the trunk of the machine and its head in a straw basket. The excitement even pervaded the city’s musical life. Philadelphia’s Southwark Theatre played “La Marseillaise” before each performance, with the audience joining in to sing the famous chorus:Aux armes, citoyens,Formez vos bataillons,Marchons, marchons!21This recruiting poster was published in 1793: “All able bodied seamen who are willing to engage in the cause of Liberty, and in the service of the French Republic, will please to apply to the French Consul, at No. 132, North Second-street.”All the enthusiasm convinced Genet of the righteousness of his belligerent diplomacy. “I am supplying the Antilles,” he reported to the French foreign minister in June. “I am stirring up the Canadians to emancipate themselves from the yoke of England; I am arming the Kentuckians, and I am preparing by sea an expedition that will support their descent on New Orleans.” The United States, it appeared, teetered on the verge of war with Great Britain. It was a war that thousands of Americans cheered on: an extension of the American Revolution, as many saw it, that would bring liberty to the world. In July Genet traveled to New York, where the celebrations continued. A month later he was back in Philadelphia recruiting Americans into the French navy. “The Republic has, at this present time, in her service,” a recruiting poster announced, “officers and soldiers from every civilized country in Europe,” and called for Americans to sign up—“in imitation of the heroes from France in the American revolution.” All of this was a flagrant violation of American neutrality, and a direct challenge to the president’s power under the Constitution to direct foreign policy. Here was an agent of a foreign nation mobilizing popular opinion to draw the United States into war with Britain. And it wasn’t clear that the Washington administration could do much to stop him.22Months after Washington requested his recall, Genet traveled to New York to celebrate Embarkation Day: November 25, 1793, the tenth anniversary of the British evacuation at the close of the American Revolution. Gigantic French warships docked in New York Harbor made their presence known, returning the ceremonial cannon shots fired from the Battery. Did anyone doubt which country was the great power? Genet attended the theater that night with Governor George Clinton and gave a soaring address. “The same all-powerful arm which delivered your country from tyranny is now manifesting itself as the protector of the French people,” he gushed. French officers sat in boxes on one side of the theater, American officers just across. “All were in their uniforms, as dressed for the rejoicing day,” the theater manager later remembered. French officers and soldiers, along with “many of the New-York militia, artillery, infantry, and dragoons, mingled with the crowd in the pit.”As soon as the musicians appeared in the orchestra, there was a general call for “Ça ira.” The band struck up. The French in the pit joined first, and then the whole audience. Next followed the Marseillois Hymn. The audience stood up. The French took off their hats and sung in a full and solemn chorus. The Americans applauded by gestures and clapping of hands. We can yet recall the figure and voice of one Frenchman, who, standing on a bench in the pit, sung this solemn patriotic song with a clear, loud voice, while his fine manly frame seemed to swell with the enthusiasm of the moment. The hymn ended, shouts of Vivent les François! Vivent les Americains! were reiterated until the curtain drew up, and all was silent.No wonder Genet was so ecstatic: here they were, the popular wills of two republics united in the cause of global freedom. What obstacle would not fall before such assembled righteousness? “It will require all the address, all the temper, and all the firmness of Congress and the States to keep this people out of the war,” John Adams wrote his wife that December.23François Barbé-Marbois, who came to America in 1779 during the Revolution, and served as chargé d’affaires in the French mission to the United States in the 1780s, reported that Genet “had secret or avowed followers in several States and up to the heart of Congress.” Adams would later recall, albeit with some exaggeration, “the Terrorism, excited by Genet, in 1793, when ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House, and effect a Revolution in the Government, or compel it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England.” Perhaps he can be forgiven his hyperbole; Adams, after all, was hardly the only person who believed that “a total Revolution of Government” was imminent. For Noailles, who knew what Parisian mobs were capable of in the wake of the Tuileries uprising, the massacres of September 1792, and the execution of the king, the events must have seemed like history repeating itself.24—ALTHOUGH GENET’S mission may seem like the product of one somewhat unhinged ambassador, his diplomacy was planned from France, and he followed instructions almost to the letter. His mission stood as just one pillar of much larger geopolitical objectives then being implemented by France’s Girondin leadership—the very people who had chased Noailles, Liancourt, Talleyrand, and the others out of France, and who were now sending French armies across Europe. Several months before Genet left for the United States, the other, considerably more important pillar rose up when Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, another envoy, sailed for the Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue.25The Genet mission may have left its mark on Franco-American relations in the 1790s, but Sonthonax’s mission was far more consequential to world history. Sonthonax, like Genet and many others come of age during that stormy time, was young and excitable, convinced that the French Revolution was a moral crusade to regenerate the cause of humanity. Had he been sent anywhere else, he would no doubt have fallen from the pages of history. Instead, he sailed to Saint Domingue, a colony whose importance to the late eighteenth century is hard to overstate. Over the course of a century, that one French colony—half of a single Caribbean island, with an area one-sixth the size of Virginia—had experienced an economic boom without precedent; by 1789 it was the richest, most productive colony not just of the French Empire, but of any empire. Feeding this economic dynamo with labor, the French slave trade grew so dramatically in the 1780s that it briefly surpassed the British trade for the only time in history, transporting an annual average of 37,000 Africans—a number nearly equivalent to the total population of Philadelphia, greater than that of New York City—from 1783 to 1792. In all, more than 791,000 Africans were taken to Saint Domingue between 1700 and 1789, by which time some 465,000 slaves worked the island’s fertile plantations, producing over half the world’s coffee, and more sugar than all the British colonies put together. The sum of its trade was staggering. The port of Cap-Français, or Le Cap—a city larger than Boston—was plied by more ships than Marseille, creating vast fortunes for French merchants and bankers, and showering wealth on port cities such as Bordeaux and Nantes—indeed, on French society at large. By 1789 some 218 million livres’ worth of goods had arrived in France from Saint Domingue, two-thirds of which had been reexported to European markets; an estimated one million of France’s twenty-five million inhabitants depended directly on the colonial trade for their livelihoods.26In the 1790s, the United States was—at least according to the Atlantic world’s geopolitics—an appendage to the Caribbean. America’s exports supplied the Caribbean slaves who produced the commodities that powered the global economy; its harbors provided bases for naval operations to the south. With U.S. territory largely limited to the area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachians, the country depended on its trading connections with the sugar islands.This spectacular growth caused spectacular social tensions: between the thirty thousand gens de couleur, or free people of African descent, demanding civil rights and the thirty thousand whites determined to preserve their caste privileges; between wealthy planters itching for freedom from French trade restrictions and a metropolitan government determined to preserve the colony’s wealth for France alone; and most of all between the hundreds of thousands of brutally oppressed slaves and the fabulously wealthy planters whose fortunes rested on their exploitation. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, tensions were already at an all-time high. The Revolution’s rhetoric of liberty and equality was, in this context, a match in a tinderbox, providing an opening for the gens de couleur to advance their demands for equal rights. There was something unreal about the debates taking place in 1790 and 1791, which saw both gens de couleurand whites arguing about liberty and the rights of man while nearly half a million slaves worked under the most grueling conditions imaginable. In 1792 the French National Assembly, under pressure to live up to its rhetoric, proclaimed full equality for the gens de couleur. Now the gens de couleurs allied with the high-handed French civil commissioners against recalcitrant whites, arresting and deporting those who refused to obey the French law of 1792—amid half a million slaves who looked on.The inevitable eruption came in August 1791, when some two thousand slaves in the island’s rich northern plains—the heart of Saint Domingue’s plantation order—rose up and began killing slave owners and their families, and setting fire to the sugar plantations. By September, some fifty thousand slaves were in armed insurrection, a number that may have grown as high as eighty thousand by November. “The noble plain adjoining the Cape was covered with ashes, and the surrounding hills, as far as the eye could reach, and every where presented to us ruins still smoking,” wrote a Jamaican planter who sailed into Cap-Français in September. “It was a sight more terrible than the mind of any man, unaccustomed to such a scene, can easily conceive.” Smoke and dust blocked out the sky for days. French authorities had sought and failed to restore peace in the island ever since, and as the prospect of war with England loomed in late 1792, they began to fear that France might lose the colony entirely. It was therefore to consolidate French authority on the island that Sonthonax and two fellow commissioners sailed to Saint Domingue, dispatched by the same French administrators who had sent Genet to the United States. They arrived in September 1792 with six thousand soldiers—and a printing press.27The outbreak of war between France, England, and Spain complicated the situation in Saint Domingue, grafting an imperial war onto the existing divisions between royalists and republicans, whites and gens de couleurs, free and slave. In late February 1793, a group of French planters in London offered to transfer their allegiance to the British government in exchange for protection and a suspension of debt payments. The planters’ turning to England raised the imminent danger that France would lose its most precious colony to its archenemy. It also created an opening for the insurgents, offering the possibility of an alliance between the revolutionary movement in France and insurrectionary slaves in the Caribbean. That same month, the French colonial minister suggested to Sonthonax that he grant legal freedom to insurgents willing to fight for France.28A major element of Genet’s mission—and the task that took up the majority of his time in the United States—was to furnish Sonthonax and his allies on the island with logistical and military support. Since the American Revolution, French naval authorities had conceived of the United States largely as an appendage to their Caribbean possessions. Indeed, a significant factor motivating French intervention in the American Revolution was the military and logistical use that a U.S. alliance might serve in the event of a war against Britain in the Caribbean. Through its new ally, France would have a base to provide lumber, tar, and other resources for its navy, provisions for its population, and logistical support for wartime operations. And so Genet was charged with attending to these strategic interests, using the American debt to France to purchase food and military aid for the besieged French forces in Saint Domingue, and ensuring that the United States would open its harbors and ports to French privateers. But matters were moving too fast, even for a diplomat with all of Genet’s considerable energy.29A month after Noailles and Genet arrived in Philadelphia, in June 1793, Saint Domingue erupted for the second time. As Sonthonax was beaten back by his political enemies in the streets of Cap-Français, he offered freedom to insurgent slaves willing to defend the island against British and royalist control. Several thousand former slaves descended on the city on June 20. No one will ever know who set the fire, but what is certain is that by the end of the month, much of Le Cap—the most opulent city in the Caribbean, the perle of the Antilles—had burned to the ground. Ten thousand people, mostly white, but also many gens de couleur and slaves, crowded onto ships in the harbor with whatever possessions they could grab. The first convoy of three hundred ships sailed out of Le Cap with their cargoes of desperate refugees. They made their way northwest along the Cuban coastline, following the established shipping lanes by which so many rich fleets of sugar, coffee, and indigo had traveled, catching the Gulf Stream as it pushed its way out of the Gulf of Mexico and up the Eastern Seaboard. Along the way, British privateers intercepted many of the convoys, making the refugees’ misery even worse. The British seized the few possessions the refugees had managed to take with them, in some cases including slaves, claimed as “prizes” and sold into slavery in Jamaica or other British ports. Not surprisingly, the refugees from Saint Domingue arrived in Philadelphia with an intense hatred of Sonthonax’s ally Genet and the French revolutionary government they both represented. Back in Saint Domingue, on August 29, with the French Revolution now allied firmly to the insurgent slaves, Sonthonax proclaimed the abolition of slavery in the name of the French Republic.30A view of Cap-Français burning in August 1793. It had been the crown jewel of France’s almost unimaginably lucrative Caribbean empire. Images such as this—along with reports by the thousands of refugees landing on U.S. shores—produced terror among most slaveholding (and many nonslaveholding) Americans.And that, as the great historian, writer, and activist C. L. R. James put it long ago, “is how white San Domingo destroyed itself.”31—IN THE midst of all this chaos in the Atlantic world, Noailles landed in Philadelphia. Seventeen ninety-three was an El Niño year, when the ocean’s currents brought unusually hot and humid air to North America. That May had been one of the wettest months in years, with storm after storm driving down from the northeast. As rivers and streams overflowed, the city’s lowlands turned into marshes, with consequences that would soon prove disastrous as a hot, dry summer began.32Two local newspapers took note of Noailles’ arrival. The Republican General Advertiser and the Federalist Gazette both printed the same notice: “Vicount de Noailles lately arrived here in the Pigou, was a member of the French Constituent Assembly, and left his country after the revolution of the 10th of August,” they reported. “He is said to come with the intention of settling here, and brings the means, to the amount of 1,500,000 livres.” That equaled roughly $300,000: a vast sum at a time when an unskilled laborer earned a dollar a day. Although the newspapers almost certainly exaggerated the amount of capital Noailles had brought with him, the notices were a clear sign that Noailles was ready to do business.33And do business he did. Soon after his arrival he invested in half a million acres of land in central Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna valley. Still troubled by the September Massacres in Paris, which had seen so many of his friends killed, Noailles imagined himself as the advance guard of a wave of French refugees fleeing Europe. “Since my arrival in this country I have made a purchase of five hundred thousand acres of land,” Noailles wrote to a friend in June in his rough English.My intention has been to prepare an exile to those of my countrymen who, disgusted of the horrid scene which took place in France, will forever abandon the theatre which has produced it. My expectation has so well succeeded that now we are settling forty French families in easy circumstances, and fifty German.There, on the banks of the Susquehanna, they would remake their ideal France in America. “Our manners will be gentle, our conversation animated, our labor act[i]ve,” Noailles wrote. “We will be the French people you have known,” he added, “and not the present nation.”34Noailles was the best connected of the French émigrés. He had fought in the American Revolution and befriended many of its leaders, who now became his friends and business associates. Soon after his arrival, he contacted William Bingham, a Philadelphia merchant who had made his fortune in Martinique during the Revolution. Before long, Noailles made his home in some apartments behind the Binghams’ grand mansion on South Third Street. But Bingham was not the only prominent American with whom Noailles established close ties. The day after his arrival, Noailles met with Alexander Hamilton, then secretary of the treasury, with whom he’d developed an intimate friendship during the Revolution. He also sought, through Hamilton, to deliver a letter of introduction to Washington.35Rumors soon began to circulate about Noailles’ contact with U.S. administration officials. “Last evening at nine o’clock,” read a letter published widely in newspapers around the country, “arrived here from the Court of Ex-Princes at Coblentz, Count de NOAILLES, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary from the Prince Regent of France. At a very late hour he waited on the President with whom he was in private conversation until near morning.” A secret meeting carried on through the middle of the night: was it an ominous sign that elements of the ancien régime and the Washington administration were conspiring to ally the United States with England against republican France? “M. Genet, Minister from the Republic,” added the notice, lest anyone miss the implication, “is on his way from Charleston, S.C. and is daily expected.—The crisis of affairs, it is generally thought, will demand a session of Congress.”36Other newspaper accounts refuted these rumors that Noailles had come on an official mission from French royalists. “The artifices which are made use of to excite suspicions against the general government are equally calculated to surprise and disgust,” read a letter that circulated widely in newspapers in late June and early July. Calling the accusations against Noailles “a mischievous fabrication,” the letter went on to explain that “the Viscount de Noailles is here, as a private gentleman, without any public character whatever, and with views of settlement in this country,” and that his politics were hardly those of the reactionary émigrés in Koblenz, as he “differed in his political views with the emigrant nobility, on the one hand; and from the present ruling party on the other.” Finally, the letter corrected the account of Noailles’ first visit with Washington. “I have learnt,” the writer explained,that the Viscount de Noailles, on the evening of the day of his arrival . . . called on the President, under whom he had served at the head of a French regiment during the late American war; that there happened to be present, when he came in, Mr. TERNANT, then Minister of France; that he staid about fifteen or twenty minutes, conversing on indifferent subjects, and went off either at the same time with, or a little before Mr TERNANT.(Genet had not yet arrived in Philadelphia to replace Jean-Baptiste Ternant, the previous French ambassador.) Other newspaper accounts reminded readers that Noailles had served in the American Revolution and that it was he who had moved the abolition of feudal titles in the French Constituent Assembly in 1789.37These contradictory reports drew the attention of Genet, who saw dark motives in Noailles’ trip. “Noailles and Talon are here,” Genet reported to his superiors when he finally arrived in the capital. “Before my arrival, they provided the President of the United States with letters from the pretended Regent, which this old man had the weakness to open, but since the people recognized me, they no longer dare show themselves; if it were worth the trouble, I’d have them chased out.” Most historians have regarded Genet’s fears as unfounded, the manifestation of his increasing megalomania and paranoia. But there was good reason for Genet to be worried. As he prepared to leave for America, Noailles had suggested to British authorities that he might be useful to them. “Before M. Noailles left England,” the British foreign secretary Lord Grenville wrote to the British ambassador to the United States, “he made some offers of service here which were civilly declined on account of his former connections and conduct, and because it was not thought likely that much advantage could be derived from them. He expressed however a desire of being of service to you when he got there, and stated himself to have the means of being so.” Although Noailles was not acting as an official agent of the British government, Genet’s suspicions were not unfounded. And indeed, Noailles did meet with the British ambassador shortly after he arrived in Philadelphia. What they discussed is unclear, though the minister certainly thought the information was valuable.38Shadowy land deals and shadowy diplomacy in the midst of revolutionary ferment: Noailles had set the pattern for the French émigrés who would follow him. But before their arrival, another ship would pull in from the French Atlantic, docking at Philadelphia some two months after Noailles had landed. Life was about to take a tragic turn.—THE MATHEMATICIANS tell us that a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history. In July 1793 it was not a butterfly but another winged voyageur that did. Jet black, with white spots on its thorax, rings on its legs, and lyre-shaped ornamentation on its back, this traveler, like so many others, followed the circuits of Atlantic trade from Africa to the Caribbean and up the North American coast, piercing into the continent along rivers and turnpikes, canals and railroads. Few have had a greater impact on history: this traveler “felled great leaders, decimated armies, and decided the fates of nations.”39Not for another century would medical science learn that yellow fever is transmitted by the deadly Aedes aegypti mosquito. Only recently has the historian Billy Smith confirmed that the 1793 outbreak began when a colony of British settlers disrupted a monkey habitat in the mangrove swamps on the island of Bolama, off the coast of present-day Guinea-Bissau, Africa, introducing a new and deadly variant of yellow fever into the circuits of Atlantic trade. When the ship Hankey moored off the coast of Bolama for several months in late 1792, the infected mosquitoes laid thousands of eggs in the casks of still water in the ship’s hold. As the Hankey crossed the Atlantic, its crew and passengers falling sick and dying in catastrophic numbers, the virus reached the Caribbean. Stopping briefly at Grenada, theHankey sailed to the still-smoldering city of Cap-Français in Saint Domingue to pick up desperate refugees fleeing the island. As the “Ship of Death” cruised out of Saint Domingue and north along the North American coast—past the Outer Banks of the Carolinas, past the majestic entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, past Cape Henlopen on the tip of the Delaware River and into the Delaware Bay—the mosquitoes down below continued their deadly work. Finally, the Hankey docked along the wharves of Philadelphia’s northern reaches, alongside the marshes still damp from the long spring rains, amid weather getting hotter as the summer wore on. The conditions could hardly have been better for a new breed of mosquito to establish itself on the continent.40On August 4, accounts began to circulate about an ominous death. An Englishman by the name of Parkinson, lodging at a boardinghouse on Water Street, adjacent to the pier where the Hankey had docked, died suddenly, “the vessels of his brain uncommonly distended and turgid with blood.” Something was amiss. An Irish couple and two young Frenchmen who lived at the same boardinghouse were soon infected. One Irish boarder died three days later, followed by one of the French boarders. In short order the owner of the house fell ill and died, along with his wife and then the second French boarder. Only three of the nine people living in the house still lived. A plague was on.41By the end of August, people were fleeing Philadelphia at such rates that “for some weeks . . . almost every hour in the day, carts, waggons, coaches, and chairs, were to be seen transporting families and furniture to the country in every direction. . . . The streets wore the appearance of gloom and melancholy.” Estimates of the exodus ranged from seventeen thousand to twenty-three thousand—roughly half the city’s population. Wealthy Philadelphians, with access to country houses or friends in nearby towns and states, had the easiest time. The poor were hit worst. Lacking refuge, they remained concentrated in the densest neighborhoods, living in confined courts and crowded alleyways amid animals and pools of dirty, stagnant water. Water Street, the city’s narrowest and most densely populated, abutting the Delaware River, was a particular center of death: two-thirds of its residents were killed by the fever. Mathew Carey, the Philadelphia publisher and author of a pamphlet on yellow fever, estimated that seven-eighths of the deaths were among the poor.42But rich neighborhoods were hardly spared. “Fly as soon as you can,” cried Noailles to one resident from the steps of William Bingham’s mansion, “for pestilence is all around us.” Noailles himself eventually fled to Lansdown, the Binghams’ country retreat on the site of the current-day Fairmount Park. George Hammond, the British minister in Philadelphia, joined him there. “The disorder now raging in Philadelphia is, I believe, the most malignant in its nature, and the most extensive in its effect, of any with which the human race has ever been afflicted in any country,” Hammond reported in terror. “Of my family that remained in town, I have lost my principal servant, and two others are at this moment dead or at the point of death. . . . I hope that the distance (five miles) at which my wife and myself are from Philadelphia will effectually protect us from the danger of the contagion.” It was from Lansdown that Noailles updated Hamilton on the situation in Philadelphia: “The epidemic causes awful devastation,” Noailles wrote that October. “Until now, the third parallel in front of Valenciennes,” he added, referring to a recent siege of the French city that had resulted in nine thousand dead or injured, “would have been less dangerous than a stroll through the streets of Philadelphia.”43

Editorial Reviews

The Wall Street Journal:“[A] fascinating account of French involvement in the economic and cultural life of the young American Republic…. Mr. Furstenberg has the vision to encompass a broad pageant in this splendid book, which combines erudition and great flair."Seattle Times:"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."JHU Gazette:"A fascinating examination of the United States at a pivotal moment in history that is as broadly sweeping and narratively captivating as a historical novel.”Publishers Weekly:“A lush social and cultural history of French influences…riveting.”Kirkus Reviews:“Furstenberg expands the historical outlook of the 18th century’s great upheavals and shows the global effects of the Enlightenment. The author studies five former members of the French Assemblée Constituante who became refugees in Philadelphia…Though they were here to escape and to advance their personal fortunes, along the way, they helped the young country survive...[When the United States Spoke French is] a bright, absorbing account of a short period in history that still resounds today.”