Had Washington’s aura of paternal authority only influenced Lafayette, it would still be of more than purely biographical importance, for it gave the rich and impressionable boy an heroic role-model that would affect his own public persona at crucial moments in French history, not least in 1789 and 1830. Yet the American general’s reputation had far wider and more potent celebrity as the embodiment of a new kind of citizen-soldier: the reincarnation of Roman republican heroes. And there was an additional important element in his extraordinary appeal in France (as well as elsewhere in Europe). The secular religion of Sensibility, in part imported from England, with its emphasis on emotional truth, candor and naturalness, had received its definitive form in Rousseau’s sentimental writings in the early 1760s. One of the many important consequences of this revolution in moral taste was the purification of egotism. With the ascendancy of Romanticism, sentimental personality cults became possible. Paradoxically, the more apparently self-effacing and modest the subject, the more potent his celebrity. And in this formula patriotism and parenthood were inextricably mixed.
The Asgill episode is a case in point. Captain Asgill was a British soldier, taken prisoner at Yorktown and condemned to be executed in reprisal for the summary hanging of the American captain Joshua Huddy by the Loyalists. Washington was unhappy with the sentence and took action to stay the execution, but as commander initially felt unable to overturn it. It was only after Asgill’s mother had gone to see Vergennes to implore him to intervene, and when the French Minister in turn had shown the grieving mother’s letter to the King and Queen, that Washington finally acted to commute the sentence. Needless to say, the Asgill story became a minor phenomenon in France, transformed into a sentimental novel, poems and a curious play by Billardon de Sauvigny (subsequently the author, during the Revolution, of Vashington) in which the scene was shifted to a mythical Tartary and Washington appeared in the light disguise of “Wazirkan.” However flimsy this disguise, “Wazir-kan’s” lines “Je commande aux soldats et j’ obéis aux lois” (I command soldiers and I [must] obey the law) announced the supreme quandary of the contemporary hero: how to order public and private values; how to reconcile justice with emotion.
This was the standard subject matter of many of the “Moral Tales” performed on the Paris stage in the 1760s and 1770s, and the bias given to renewed productions of the classical tragic repertoire of Racine and Corneille. It also supplied narrative power in some of the most outrageously grandstanding paintings of Greuze, such as The Wicked Son Punished. Jacques-Louis David’s Belisarius, shown in 1779, the painting that prompted Diderot to remark that the young artist showed he had “soul,” had at its heart the contention between good and evil surrogate fathers. For its subject was the recognition by a young soldier of the general Belisarius, reduced to the condition of a blind beggar by the ingratitude and cruelty of the Emperor Justinian. The conflict between family feeling and patriotic duty surfaced again in the same artist’s masterpiece The Oath of the Horatii, which appeared in the biennial exhibit of paintings in Paris known as the Salon at the same time that Billardon de Sauvigny’s Asgill play was performed at the Théâtre-Français. And both The Deathof Socrates, where the teacher’s students grieve over their master’s patriotic suicide, and more specifically Brutus Receiving the Bodies of His Sons from the Lictors, where an implacably righteous father has sacrificed his own children to the Res Publica, recapitulated this theme in the most unsparing way. But while the official line taken by the revolutionary Jacobins would subordinate personal and family feeling to public and patriotic calling, the power of Washington’s appeal was precisely that he (and more improbably, Vergennes) had succumbed to the tears of a stricken mother. Mrs. Asgill to Marie-Antoinette, mother to mother; Louis to “Vashington,” father to father – the sentimental effect was irresistible.
From father to Fatherland was but a short step. Washington’s embodiment of both in France owed its appeal to some deeper and more general desire for a new generation of patriotic heroes. Some young aristocrats became politicized precisely because they failed to see in the person of the court and the monarchy (especially in the last years of Louis XV) the virtues proper to patriotic severity. Indeed they sometimes accused the court of besmirching the reputation of patriots for reasons of base expediency and self-exculpation. The young Lally-Tollendal, for example, was set on course to become a revolutionary aristocrat by his crusade to vindicate the reputation of his father, who had been tried and executed as the scapegoat for French military failure in India. So awful was this disgrace that the boy was brought up in absolute ignorance of his father. Even his surname was altered to Trophime, his given name, as a way of sparing him the taint. At the age of fifteen, however, he inadvertently discovered the truth from an old comrade of his father’s and, as he later wrote, he “ran to the judicial records”
to give him [my father] my first homage and my eternal adieu; to let him at least hear the voice of his son amidst the jeers of his executioners and to embrace him on the scaffold where he perished.
After a ten-year, dogged campaign to reverse the injustice, the new reign took heed. In 1778, following discussion in thirty-two sessions, Louis XVI’s royal council annulled the proceedings against Lally Senior, though the case still had to be referred to the Parlement of Rouen for formal overturning. When the news of the council’s decision was announced, Lally went to see Voltaire, who had been enlisted in the cause, and the old warrior, on his deathbed, placed his hands on the head of the young noble as a last act of paternal blessing.
It was a story good enough for the Romans, to whom the victims of imperial injustice were constantly being compared. (The analogy between Lally’s fate and Belisarius’s repudiation by Justinian was often made.) Young men of Lafayette and Lally’s generation had been saturated at school with the virtues of the Roman Republic, set out in the histories of Plutarch, Livy and Tacitus. But their concept of the exemplum virtutis was not confined exclusively to the models presented in antiquity. In his Histoire du Patriotisme Français, published in 1769, the lawyer Rossel claimed that patriotic sentiments “are livelier and more generous in the French citizen than in the most patriotic Roman.” Following the defeats of the Seven Years’ War, there were distinct signs of a fresh, if selective search, amidst the annals of French history, for heroes who represented its happier moments. Saint-Louis was a perennial favorite, but something close to a cult of Henri IV grew up among the younger courtiers at Versailles. Louis XII was expressly celebrated for having been proclaimed, at the Estates-General of 1506, the “Father of the People.” Equally consolatory was the renewed interest in William the Conqueror, idealized in Lépicié’s massive history painting – some twenty-six feet long – by far the largest in the Salon of 1769.
The publication of an historical anthology, the Portraits des Grands Hommes Illustres de la France, was an important event in the creation of a new, exclusively French pantheon of heroes, not least because it drew so many of them from medieval history, preferring figures who were unequivocally of the patrie to more remote exemplars from Roman antiquity. The Bourbons, with the exception of Henri IV, were missing, so that while Turenne and Condé were present, Louis XIV was not. And the Hommes Illustresbroadened its criteria for worthies to include events and figures from civilian life like Chancellor d’Aguesseau, commemorated for “saving France from famine” at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and the philosopher Fontenelle “contemplating the plurality of worlds.” More modern heroes were often, like François de Chevert, the hero of the retreat from Prague in the War of Austrian Succession, praised for the modesty of their origins, their commendable closeness to the common soldier and a career which depended “on merit rather than either flattery or intrigue.” De Chevert’s epitaph in the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, quoted in the book, began, “Without noble ancestors, without fortune, without powerful support, an orphan since infancy, he entered the service at the age of eleven…” Women were included for their exemplary patriotism, especially when it was directed, as in the case of Jeanne d’Arc, at the British. Moreover, the most extravagant eulogies were perhaps reserved for those who had died in battle against the hated foe, none more sublimely than the Marquis de Montcalm on the heights of Abraham in Quebec. The overall tone of the work was optimistic if not triumphal, heralding a new age of patriotism in which the heroes would be marked out in opposition to the vanities of court life by their simplicity, sobriety and stoicism. Standing at the head of the gallery with no hint of ironic incongruousness was Louis XVI himself, celebrated as the benefactor of American independence in company with Franklin, “Waginston” (George) and the personification of America, shown holding aloft the hat of liberty and trampling a British imperial beast more leopard than lion.
In this campaign to create a modern patriotic canon, no one labored harder to replace classical with French historical paragons than the dramatist Pierre de Belloy. In the preface of his play The Siege of Calais (dedicated to Louis XV in the somewhat improbable guise of “Père de la Patrie”), de Belloy specifically stated his project of reforming the subject matter of historical tragedy to include French history. As an educational task alone he thought this urgent.
We know exactly everything that Caesar, Titus and Scipio did, but we are in perfect ignorance of the most famous deeds of Charlemagne, Henri IV and the Grand Condé. Ask a child leaving school who was the victorious general at Marathon… and he will tell you right away; ask him which King or which French general won the Battle of Bouvines, the battle of Ivry… and he will remain silent…
It is by stimulating the veneration of France for the great men that she has produced, that one may be able to inspire the Nation with the esteem and self-respect by which alone she may return to what she once was. The soul is led by admiration to imitate the virtues… [it should be] that one no longer always says, on leaving the theater, “the great men that I have just seen represented were Romans and since I was not born in that country I can not resemble them.” Rather it should be said, at least sometimes, “I have just seen a French Hero; I can be a Hero like him.”
And in another passage de Belloy went further by attacking Anglo-mania:
Should one suppose that by imitating, good or bad, their carriages, their card games, their promenades, their theater and even their supposed independence we should merit the esteem of the English? No, love and serve our Patrie as they love theirs…
De Belloy did his best to promote this program through his own drama, writing a series of historical melodramas which, on publication, he supported with (what was for the time) an impressive set of historical notes. He was, as his more merciless critics like La Harpe, the ferocious editor of the Journal Littéraire et Politique, pointed out, handicapped by an insuperable mediocrity as a dramatist, especially when it came to the development of character. In Gaston et Bayard, loosely based on the stormy friendship of Gaston de Foix (the Duc de Nemours) and the Chevalier Bayard (the flower of French Renaissance chivalry), La Harpe reasonably complained that de Belloy had given the young Gaston all the characteristics of stern middle age and the older Bayard those of impetuous youth. But the distinctly second-rate quality of the plays did not preclude their popular success.
It was undoubtedly The Siege of Calais that meant most to de Belloy as an exercise in patriotic instruction, not least because it was a drama taken from the history of his native town. When the play was published it was his peculiar pride to print beneath his name (and above the designation of his membership in the Académie Française) that he was CITIZEN OF CALAIS. The drama – which takes some liberties with history, omitting the famous intercession of Queen Philippa with Edward III for the lives of the burghers – is something of a tract on patriotic citizenship, transplanted from ancient Rome to medieval France. It was not of incidental significance, of course, that the villain of the piece was the nearly implacable Plantagenet Edward III, nor that the heroes were Eustache de Saint-Pierre, the simple mayor, and his five burgher-citizens, who offer to sacrifice their lives to deflect the wrath of the English King from the rest of their townsmen. And once again, the father-son relationship was at the center of the drama, since the Philippa scene was replaced by a tear-jerking passage in which Saint-Pierre’s own son (called, implausibly, Aurelius/Aurèle) implored the intractable King that he might go to the stake first and out of the sight of his bereaved father. And it is at this moment, of course, that Edward relents, struck with awe at the selflessness and courage of the patriotic martyrs.
De Belloy’s play was a stunning success. In 1765, at the Comédie-Française, it was given a free performance that attracted an audience drawn from all walks of Paris society, including artisans and shopkeepers. Nineteen thousand people saw the play during its first run, which would undoubtedly have been record-breaking had it not been interrupted by a serious quarrel among the actors – one of the habitual problems of the eighteenth-century theater. In that same year, The Siege of Calais was the first French play to be published in French America, where the Comte d’Estaing, the Governor of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), ordered a special printing to be distributed gratis to the population and to the local garrison. Its first performance in the French West Indies, on the seventh of July, moreover, was timed with an assembly of militia to whom it was obviously addressed. And in case the point was missed, the illuminations that evening prominently featured especially appropriate verses from the drama.
“He revealed to the French the secret of their love for the State and taught them that patriotism did not belong to Republics alone,” said de Belloy’s eulogist after his death in 1775. This was a large undertaking and it seems very unlikely that the hack dramatist accomplished a great deal, but at the very least, his preoccupations, and his casual use of terms like patrie, patriotique, la Nation and citoyen, looked directly forward to the stock vocabulary of revolutionary exhortation. In de Belloy’s plodding meter, moreover, may be found that soupily vague equation of “Liberty” and “Patriotism” that spurred devotion to the American cause in the young liberal nobility.
During the course of the war there were opportunities to move from the realm of historical melodrama to contemporary heroics. The most spectacular (but by no means solitary) example of the new patriotic mythology was the case of the naval hero the Chevalier du Couëdic. The Sieur du Couëdic de Kergoaler, to give him the full magnificence of his Breton name, was a career officer who had served on board since the age of sixteen. During the Seven Years’ War he had been a prisoner of the British – always a sharp spur to personal and patriotic vindication. Later, he had joined his fellow Breton Kerguéulen on one of the voyages of circumnavigation to Australia, which restored to the French a sense that they were in every sense Britain’s peers in the pioneering of imperial geography. On the morning of November 5, 1779, du Couëdic sailed his sloop La Surveillante out of Brest and ran straight into a British frigate, the Quebec, reconnoitering the coast. Instead of both vessels beating a swift retreat or maneuvering fruitlessly around in the wind for marginal advantage, the ships engaged in a six-and-a-half-hour, side-by-side cannonade of horrifying relentlessness. At about half past four in the afternoon what was left of the Quebec blew up, leaving the Surveillante the Pyrrhic victor. Dismasted, its timbers almost shot to pieces, the Surveil-lante was towed back to Brest carrying with it forty-three British seamen who had been saved from drowning. The master of the ship, still dressed in his buckled shoes and silk stockings, was so badly wounded that he had to be carried ashore. The crowds waiting at the harbor, who had been expecting to cheer their heroes, were instead horrified at the gory mess to which the crew and ship had been reduced by the savage battle.
Du Couëdic duly died of his wounds three months later, but not before he had become a symbol of the reborn patriotic fortitude of France. There had been important and widely publicized naval victories before, most famously the success of the Belle-Poule at holding off the Arethusa in 1778 – the contest that launched the coiffure “Belle-Poule”: fashionable women dressed their hair with miniature ships bobbing on waves of powdered curls. But the very grimness of the story of the Surveillante gave it tragic authority. At a time when the promised invasion of Britain was being frustrated, the saga provided the French with a paragon of heroic endurance: a chevalier ancient and modern, courageous and compassionate. In the funeral eulogy given in the Estates of Brittany the qualities most admired by the devotees of sensibilité were emphasized. Thus du Couëdic was described as a “benevolent citizen” (citoyen bien-faisant); a “generous friend”; a “good master to his servants who adored him; a most tender father, who when he was at Quimperléspent the greater part of every morning playing with his children who adored him.” And for its part the French government responded in the same vein of family goodwill, announcing that the widow Couëdic would receive a pension of two thousand livres, and each of her children five hundred in recognition of their father’s unique contribution to the patrie. On the orders of the King, who was passionately interested in naval matters, a great mausoleum was to be built in the Church of Saint-Louis at Brest with a special inscription designed for the edification of the local cadets: “Young pupils of the Marine, admire and imitate the example of the brave Couëdic.” And when Sartine, the Minister of the Navy, proposed a whole program of paintings celebrating the victories of the American war, du Couëdic’s battle was designed as the centerpiece.
The appeal of du Couëdic as a kind of latter-day waterborne knight-errant is important. For it is at the top, rather than in any imaginary middle of French society, that the cultural roots of the Revolution should be sought. While any search for a conspicuously disaffected bourgeoisie is going to be fruitless, the presence of a disaffected, or at the very least disappointed, young “patriot” aristocracy is dramatically apparent from the history of French involvement with the American Revolution. That revolution did not, as is sometimes supposed, create French patriotism; rather, it gave that patriotism the opportunity to define itself in terms of “liberty,” and to prove itself with spectacular military success. It was among the Noailles and Ségurs – even in the heart of the court itself – that passions became most inflamed in the 1770s. Lafayette’s ecstatic welcome on his return from America in 1779 is symptomatic of this. From an amusingly impulsive provincial youth he had become transformed, in the eyes of les Grands, into a paragon of contemporary French chivalry. The fact that he was placed under a token form of “house arrest” for a whole week in Paris at the town house of his wife’s family, for his temerity in going to America despite the King’s disapproval, only served to distinguish the brand of new patriotism from stuffy tradition. Besides, now that France had formally concluded a treaty with Congress, he had the best possible vindication, and he wrote to the King in a vein of modest but determined self-exoneration, “My love for my country, my desire to witness the humiliation of her enemies, a political instinct which the recent treaty would seem to justify… are, Sire, the reasons which determined the part I took in the American cause.”
Louis signaled his favor by inviting Lafayette to join him at the hunt, and Marie-Antoinette, who had not long before dismissed Lafayette as a conceited bumpkin, now could not do enough to advance him in status. It was on her intervention that he was granted a dramatic rise in rank to become commander-in-chief (at the age of twenty-one) of the King’s Dragoons. Lafayette’s own fame extended beyond the court to the wider Parisian public, eager for young heroes to celebrate. Mme Campan, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, wrote that some verses in de Belloy’s Gaston et Bayard were taken by the theater public as a eulogy to their knight-errant.
J’admire sa prudence et j’aime son courage
Avec ces deux vertus un guerrier n’a point d’âge.
“These verses,” Mme Campan wrote, “were applauded and asked for again and again at the Théâtre-Français… there was no place where the help given by the French government to the cause of American independence was not ecstatically applauded.”
Lafayette’s celebrity is an important moment in the coining of a new patriotism, in that it nativized and modernized a genre that had previously been confined to classical ideals. It also gave that patriotism a distinct ideological color, however faintly tinted. It would be naive to imagine that popularity alone could have pushed France down the road to a more aggressive intervention in the American war, had not Vergennes and Maurepas, the King’s ministers, decided upon that course for reasons wholly unconnected with “Liberty” or other fancy modern notions. But, as we shall later see, already in the France of Louis XVI, the security of ministerial tenure, and the policies associated with the ministers themselves, were to some extent governed by a favor that extended well beyond Versailles. At the very least, the orchestrated campaign of huzzahs that greeted Lafayette’s return and the sensational nature of his exploits in America did no harm at all to those within the government determined to press foreign policy towards a full war with the British Empire.
It was not, of course, Lafayette himself who did the orchestration. For his own fame and that of the distant “god-like Hero” Washington were both the more brilliantly illuminated by the phenomenal electricity generated by Benjamin Franklin. It was Franklin, for example, who turned into a major promotional opportunity Congress’s instruction to award Lafayette a ceremonial sword for his services. He had the finest Parisian craftsmen work on the sword, which had Lafayette’s unintentionally apt motto “Cur Non” (Why not?) engraved on the handle. But he also added the image of the rising moon and the motto “Crescam ut Prosim” (Let me wax to benefit mankind), a device that axiomatically associated America’s cause with the happiness of humanity, a prominent theme in Franklin’s diplomatic propaganda. On the scabbard were allegorical medallions representing France crushing the British lion and America handing laurels to Lafayette, together with scenes from the Marquis’ military engagements. The sword was presented to Lafayette on behalf of Congress by Franklin’s grandson at the encampment at Le Havre that was meant to be the expeditionary force destined to invade England. And Lafayette did his part in rising to the opportunity, expressing the hope that he might carry the sword “into the very heart of England” – a hope that was to be denied to him by the incompetence of the French fleet and the unpredictable violence of the cross-Channel weather. Naturally, the whole episode, charged as it was with such heavy symbolic eloquence, was widely reported in the French press, and both the sword itself and the engravings on which its designs were based were reproduced for popular consumption.
Franklin’s own popularity was so widespread that it does not seem exaggerated to call it a mania. Mobbed wherever he went, and especially whenever he set foot outside his house in Passy, he was probably better known by sight than the King, and his likeness could be found on engraved glass, painted porcelain, printed cottons, snuffboxes and inkwells, as well as the more predictable productions of popular prints issuing from the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. In June 1779 he wrote to his daughter that all these likenesses “have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon… from the number of dolls now made of him he may be truly said to be i-doll-ized in this country.” On one famous occasion, his fame even goaded the King into a solitary act of wit, for, in an attempt to make Diane de Polignac desist from her daily eulogies of the Great Man, he had a Sèvres chamber pot painted with Franklin’s image on the inside.
Franklin was, of course, the designer of his own particular celebrity, and by extension, the Patriot cause, on both sides of the Atlantic. Aware that the French idealized America as a place of natural innocence, candor and freedom, he milked that stereotype for all it was worth. Not the most typical Quaker, he also exploited that group’s half-understood reputation for probity and simplicity to commend himself further to French polite opinion. And Franklin knew that this image of the incorruptible, virtuous old fellow went down so well precisely because it threw into unflattering relief the more sybaritically rococo aspects of court style – which, in fact, were already on their way out under the altogether more sober style of the new King and Queen. Hence his occasional adoption of the peculiar beaver cap – used in many of his promotional portrait prints – and derived directly from earlier images of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Franklin’s undressed hanks of white hair and his ostentatiously unostentatious brown coat, deliberately worn at court audiences, were expressly affected with public sensation in mind and they succeeded brilliantly. Mme Campan naively described him appearing at court “in the dress of an American farmer” but emphasized how that contrasted invidiously with “the laced and embroidered coats, the powdered and perfumed hair of the courtiers at Versailles.” The hack eulogist and chronicler Hilliard d’Auberteuil went even further, virtually turning him into a figment of Rousseau’s imagination or one of the “good old men” of a Greuze melodrama: “Everything in him announced the simplicity and innocence of primitive morals… He showed to the astonished multitude a head worthy of the brush of Guido [Reni] on an erect and vigorous body clad in the simplest garments… he spoke little. He knew how to be impolite without being rude and his pride seemed to be that of nature. Such a person was made to excite the curiosity of Paris. People gathered around as he passed and said: ‘Who is this old farmer who has such a noble air?’”
Dubbed the “Electrical Ambassador,” Franklin was also acutely aware of the rage for scientific learning that gripped the French elite, and how to exploit it. “It is universally believed in France,” wrote John Adams, not without a certain sourness, “that his electric wand has accomplished all this revolution.” And Franklin’s science became a vital feature of his appeal because it seemed to be as much the work of the heart as the head: it was wisdom moralized. Hence his Poor Richard’ s Almanack was translated as La Science du Bonhomme Richard and as such became a best-seller in 1778. Paris society at this time was, in any case, hungry for scientific learning and there was no shortage of both amateur and professional scientists, from the most implausible frauds to the most rigorous empiricists, willing to popularize their findings. Virtually every issue of the daily Journal de Paris was packed with reports of experiments from the provinces as well as the capital and advertisements for series of public lectures to be given by the best-known luminaries, like Fourcroy and Pilâtre de Rozier. So the image of Franklin, who could tap the heavens for the celestial fire of electricity, became woven into the celebration of his other “American” virtues, most especially that of liberty. Turgot may have coined the famous epigram Eripuit Coelo Fulmen, Sceptrumque Tyrannis (He seized fire from the heavens and the sceptre from tyrants) as an innocuous play on words, but it very rapidly became a kind of byword for Franklin’s role as the harbinger of liberty. Popularized first on a medallion bearing his likeness, then on a number of engravings, the theme with its standard iconography of lightning bolts and stricken British lions became a standard subject for painted porcelain and printed fabrics, even those displayed at Versailles. Made casually respectable, the link between the fall of tyrants and celestial fire had ominous implications in absolutist France. For it inescapably suggested, in a Romantic vein, that liberty was a natural and hence ultimately irresistible force, and contributed further to a growing polarity between things natural on the one hand (“Humanity”; “Freedom”; “Patriotism”) and things artificial on the other (“Privilege”; “Despotism”; the court). Not surprisingly this equation of liberty and lightning was eagerly endorsed in the Revolution, so that in Jacques-Louis David’s pictorial account of the Tennis Court Oath, for example, a bolt of electrically charged freedom cracks over Versailles as a great gust of wind blows fresh air through the crowd-filled window spaces.
To some extent, the infatuation of fashionable society with the American cause was a facile matter: the latest novelty to come along after English novels and Italian opera. It is hard to judge whether the beautiful textile designs manufactured by Jean-Baptiste Huet at Joüy in 1784, celebrating “American Liberty” and “America Independent” in allegorical devices and portraits of Washington and Franklin, are evidence of the seriousness with which the revolution was taken, or of a consumer fad. When Mme Campan describes the most ravishing of three hundred court ladies selected to adorn Franklin’s venerable pate with a crown of laurel, the craze for the “Insurgents” seems reduced to the level of a beauty contest. Yet there are other indications of a more serious engagement with the American cause spreading well beyond le monde of the court and fashionable society. In March 1783, for example, the Journal de Paris advertised a complete set of engravings, with textual commentaries, of the battles of the American war for just one livre: a high price for an artisan to pay but well within the range of the broader reading public of the petty professions and trades. In Marseille, the unlucky associations of the number 13 were stood on their head by a group of citizens who expressed their solidarity with the insurgent colonies by fetishizing their number. In this group of thirteen, each wore an emblem of one of the colonies and they went on picnics on the thirteenth of the month at which thirteen toasts to the Americans were drunk. At another festive performance on the thirteenth of December 1778, Pidanzat de Mairobert sat through an heroic poem of thirteen stanzas, the thirteenth of which was reserved for praise of Lafayette.
The consequences of French involvement in the revolutionary war were, in fact, profoundly subversive and irreversible. The American historian Forrest Macdonald attempted to show a high degree of correspondence between returning French veterans of the war and the out-break of rural violence in 1789. Recently, this has been shown by more careful research to be suspect, although there remain striking cases of returning soldiers who show up in the chronicle of the Revolution, most famously Lieutenant Elie and Louis La Reynie, both “conquerors” of the Bastille on July 14. But the case for an “American” cause of the French Revolution does not have to rest on this kind of geographical literalism. A more qualitative approach can hardly fail to register the extraordinary importance of the flirtation with armed freedom to a section of the aristocracy that was rich, powerful and influential. On their own they could not conceivably have constituted any kind of independent “revolutionary” opposition to the crown. But once themoney crisis of the monarchy was transformed into a political argument, the vocabulary of “liberty” was apt to take on a life of its own – and become available to those who were prepared to play politics for very high stakes. Ségur, who was to be just such a participant, wrote to his wife in 1782, before he embarked with the French army, that “arbitrary power weighs heavily on me. The freedom for which I am going to fight, inspires in me the liveliest enthusiasm and I would like my own country to enjoy such a liberty that would be compatible with our monarchy, our position and our manners.” The fact that Ségur, on the highest rung of the nobility, could blithely assume that such a transformation would be compatible with the monarchy may well suggest a myopic naiveté, but it also explains how many of his peers could take the exemplary nature of America seriously without ever dreaming it would lead directly to a Dictatorship of Virtue.
In the euphoria that greeted a great military triumph and a brilliant peace in 1783, few commentators were wont to pour cold water on the elation. More commonly, writers like the Abbé Gentil saw the American example as contributing in some warm and woolly way to the “regeneration” of France or even, more generally, the whole world. “It is in the heart of this new-born republic,” he wrote, “that the true treasures that will enrich the world will lie.” And in 1784, a literary and debating academy at Toulouse set as its prize essay question the importance of the American Revolution. The winner was a captain in a Breton army regiment, evidently an ardent disciple of Rousseau who saw it as the beacon of virtue and happiness and a model to emulate in France. And much of the reporting of the war, especially by commentators who had not been eyewitnesses, emphasized aspects that presented the Americans as harbingers of a kind of new golden age of almost childlike love and harmony. The Abbé Robin (a leading Freemason), for example, who had written extensively on the American landscape and inhabitants, noticed that when encamped the Americans played music.
Then, officers, soldiers, American men and women, all join and dance together. It is the Festival of Equality… These people are still in the happy time when distinctions of birth and rank are ignored and can see, with the same eye, the common soldier and the officer.
There were, however, some pessimists, who made up in their intelligent prescience what they lacked in numbers. The Queen was said to have harbored distinctly mixed feelings about the enthusiasm with which elite and commons alike rejoiced over the humiliation of a monarchy. And more to the point, the most intelligent of all Louis XVI’s ministers, Turgot, had argued bitterly against active intervention in America, predicting that its costs would be so overwhelming that they would post-pone, perhaps forever, any attempt at necessary reform. He even went so far as to suggest that the fate of the monarchy might hinge on this fateful decision. But he lost the argument to the immensely powerful Foreign Minister, Vergennes, for whom the embarrassment of the British crown in America was simply an opportunity so golden that it could not possibly be squandered. Vergennes was no warmonger. A lifetime professional diplomat, he was, in fact, a loyal adherent of the standard eighteenth-century concept of the “balance of power.” But following the disastrously one-sided Seven Years’ War he came to the not unreasonable conclusion that it was Britain that was the insatiably aggressive imperial power, and merely to hold the British at the line set out in the Treaty of Paris in 1763 required some kind of salutary chastisement. In alliance with the “family crown” of the Spanish Bourbons, and with the Dutch Republic, Vergennes crafted a foreign policy designed to present Britain as the aggressor, and the Coalition as intervening only to preserve the justly claimed independence of the Americans. The reasons for which Vergennes took France across the Atlantic/Rubicon were, then, wholly pragmatic, and, as he supposed, ideologically risk-free. Nothing could have been further from his mind than the promotion of some vaguely defined message of “liberty.” In 1782, after all, he intervened militarily on the side of reaction in the affairs of the strategically important Republic of Geneva, where the ruling patriciate had been overthrown by a coalition of democratically minded citizens and artisans. And, as he explained, his reasoning in both the Genevan and the American cases was pragmatically the same:
The insurgents whom I am driving from Geneva are agents of England while the American insurgents are friends for years to come. I have dealt with both of them, not by reason of their political systems but by reason of their attitudes towards France. Such are my reasons of state.
And, in truth, in 1778, when the crucial decisions were taken to enter into treaty relations with America, or even in 1783, when the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed, Vergennes’ sunny view of the war seemed to have been vindicated. For all the red ink on the government’s account books, no one seriously dared to suggest that the American policy had been, for either fiscal or political reasons, a terrible mistake. France was a great power and had done, quite brilliantly, what great powers do to sustain their preeminence in the world and fend off the competition. It seemed likely that the British treasury was suffering quite as severely as the French and that their politics might even be in greater disorder. The French West Indies were pouring money from the sugar economy backinto the mother country and the successes of Suffren’s fleet in south India suggested that even there the prospects for economic recovery were brighter. As the Vicomtesse de Fars-Fausselandry put it, “The American cause seemed our own; we were proud of their victories, we cried at their defeats, we tore down bulletins and read them in all our houses. None of us reflected on the danger that the New World could give to the old.” Or, as another of the French “Insurgents,” the Comte de Ségur, commented, in the rueful aftermath of the American Revolution, “we stepped out gaily on a carpet of flowers, little imagining the abyss beneath.”