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America and France

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

The Revolutionary Spirit in France and America. By Bernard Fay. Translated by Ramon Guthrie. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.00. America and French Culture, 1750-1848. By Howard Mumford Jones. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $4.50. Jefferson, Friend of Prance, 1793; The Career of Edmond Charles Genet. By Meade Minnege-rode. New York-London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $5.00. The American Experiment. By Bernard Fay, in collaboration with Avery Claflin. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00.

A century and a half ago, Louis XVI assumed the role of official patron of the United States nd underwrote our venture in independence. Within a generation, the friendship at that time established between his people and ours was strained, relaxed, then shattered. Revived in our day, it is again imperiled. Termed a Messiah nation in two widely separated eras, the United States is now assigned the re of Shylock. Events and developments during the last decade have undoubtedly rendered us unpopular, in France as in many other countries, but they have greatly increased interest in our historic relations with the land of Vergennes, LaFayette, and Talleyrand. This interest has not been confined to politics and diplomacy, but has extended to less tangible cultural and spiritual relationships. We got more from France than ships, men and money; and even in days of least apparent return, she received stimulation at least from us.

In summing up the Franco-American balance sheet, we have need of experts on both sides of the water. M. Bernard Fay, a young French scholar who has lived and taught in the United States, has utilized his unusual opportunities for research and observation to make a distinct contribution to the historical literature of both countries. His “L’Esprit Rolutionnaire en France et aux ats-Unis” published in Paris in 1925, was received with great favor by the Pulitzer Prize Committee and the American historical fraternity. It is now available in English translation. On the background of political and diplomatic history, which he has shaded with skillful brush, M. Fay describes the moral and intellectual relations between France and the United States during the great revolutionary generation, 1770-1800. He has blazed a trail through the newspapers, periodicals, and other contemporary writings in both countries, which many grateful students will follow and from which they will conduct further explorations. He discusses French writings about America, the study, of the French language here and the introduction of French customs into the country, and thus contributes to the understanding of international cultural relationships. Dealing as he is with public opinion, which has so many manifestations and is so difficult of definition, he creates some confusion by multiplicity of details and is occasionally vague in generalizations. This vagueness, however, wears at times a poetic garb, which is not so surprising in a French, as it would be in an English or American, treatise.

The most significant feature of this very valuable book is not its chronological treatment of diplomacy, nor even its discussion of cultural inter-relations, but its description of the interplay of revolutionary ideas and sentiments between the two countries at a time when the revolutionary, cult was strong only in France and America. There was, M. Fay thinks, a definite Franco-American revolutionary spirit, best embodied in Franklin, who was regarded during his life in France as the high-priest of philosophy, and after his death as the saint of a new religion. Though the faith was based on doctrines already well known, it was original in the universality which was attributed to these doctrines and the zeal with which they were disseminated. Its promulgators created, out of the philosophy of isolated individuals, a universal religion and sent it forth surcharged with fervor and emotion. They formulated their creed in American Declarations of Rights and, supremely, in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. M. Fay thus carries into the international field suggestions implicit in the writings of Albert Mathiez, who has done so much to emphasize the positive side of revolutionary, religion. They can unquestionably be applied, with reservations, to the leaders of the pro-French party in the United States, among whom Jefferson was chief. International spiritual union may never have been so complete as M. Fay thinks, but it undoubtedly, existed between certain leaders and important groups. Unhappily, though, political exigencies forced the weakening of spiritual bonds, and the positive aspects of revolutionary religion were obscured in the public mind by its apparent destructiveness.

Professor Jones, in his “America and French Culture,” approaching the problem from the point of view of the debtor nation, finds that the greatest obstacle to the sympathetic reception of things French in the United States has been a sense of religious differences. Here is an explanation, of which M. Fay is not unaware, of the ultimate rejection by the American masses of a revolutionary religion of social progress which was, at the same time, subversive of time-honored authority. It is an illustration, also, of the supplementary value of these two books. Professor Jones has a less definite thesis and deals with a longer period. No brief review can do full justice to his comprehensive and learned work. It does not lend itself to rapid reading, but has many convenient summaries and a wealth of bibliographical suggestion. No student of American civilization during the period, 1750-1848, can afford to overlook it. He begins by analyzing American culture as consisting of three elements: the cosmopolitan spirit, the frontier spirit and the middle class spirit. The first of these was most sensitive to French influences. He discusses French migration to America, the spread of the French language in this country (reaching its climax, 1790-1797), French manners in America, influences in art, architecture, religion, philosophy, education, and finally in politics. In dealing with so many diverse fields, he has necessarily depended on many other authorities, to some of whom exception may be taken. His general conclusions, however, are unquestionably sound. He concludes that things French possess social prestige for Americans, and that greatest influence has been exerted in the departments of manners and fashions. In addition to suspicions of French religion and irreligion, there has developed among Americans, particularly those of the middle class, the belief that our former allies are a fickle and unreliable race. This reminds one of the description of the French in old geographies as a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines! The gross incompleteness of the characterization has little affected its wide currency.

Mr. Minnegerode’s “Jefferson, Friend of France” deals with one incident in the relations between the countries. He describes the career of Genet, minister of France to the United States in 1793, whose extraordinary popular reception, extreme indiscretion, and ultimate failure have long interested students of history. The title of the book is a misnomer, except in its ironical revelation of the predominant purpose in the mind of the author, not so much the vindication of Genet as the discrediting of the Secretary of State. Mr. Minnegerode attempts to prove that Jefferson was a false friend, that he used pro-French enthusiasm for purely political purposes, that he advised the French minister badly and ultimately betrayed him. Rather than listen to the “superficial rhapsodies” of this man of “duplicities, of contradictions and of treacheries,” Genet, in the opinion of the author, should have put his trust in Washington and in Hamilton, the real power in the government.

The justification for his damning interpretation of Jefferson Mr. Minnegerode finds in certain private papers of Genet which have been accessible to him. Except for a letter from Genet to Jefferson, written several years after the former’s downfall, he appears to have used this body of original material very little. This one long letter, reproduced in several illustrations, repeatedly referred to in the text, and printed in translation in the Appendix, is indeed the basis of his argument and his contribution to the literature of the subject. Practically everything else dealing with Genet’s relations with the United States government is taken from other well-known sources, though without definite indication to that effect. Owing to the entire absence of annotation, the reader unfamiliar with the literature of the period might easily be misled into thinking that a mine of new information had been utilized and a flood of new light thrown upon a famous historical incident. As a matter of fact, the author has distorted a well-known picture by throwing upon it the light of his own intense dislike and that cast by Genet’s personal lantern. This letter is an interesting and very human document, and not without historical value, but re-interpretation must rest upon more substantial foundation.

So flimsy a structure need be attacked by no powerful battery. Suffice it to say that the picture of Jefferson is a caricature, bearing, as a caricature must, some slight resemblance to the original. The Secretary of State was unquestionably the most outstanding friend of France, or at least of the spirit of the French Revolution, in America. He was also a politician. And he was a responsible public official. He suffered much from Genet and came dangerously, near conniving with him in at least one of his projects. He may not have advised him wisely, but Genet was not very susceptible to advice. The Frenchman would certainly have got no comfort from the Anglophile Hamilton. Jefferson’s ultimate repudiation of the Girondist minister is quite explicable on patriotic grounds, apart from politics, though political considerations undoubtedly demanded it. His sympathy with the spirit which gave birth to the French Revolution continued, as Genet’s successors remarked. One of them added, however, that he was, after all, an American. We are indebted to Mr. Minnegerode for new details about the career of an unfortunate and in many ways appealing man, but nothing is added to his glory or charm by exaggerated charges against those who sought to befriend him.

M. Fay, writing this time in English and in collaboration with an American friend, Mr. Avery Claflin, has recently attempted to survey and assess the whole of our life. “The American Experiment” is a fine-spirited and thoughtful book, though not a great one. He sketches the whole course of American history, views our institutions in the large, discusses with considerable acumen our mass-life, attempts to generalize about our individuals, and finally, views us in our relations with the Old World. Though not brilliantly epigrammatic, he does extremely well with an alien tongue and tucks many neat phrases into his well-filled pages. He gives no startingly original interpretation of our life, but one concludes that, on the whole, he understands us pretty well.

He remarks upon our original federalism, from which we have moved toward greater and greater unification, not only in government but even more in other phases of life. He perceives in this process something more than mechanical standardization. He regards it as the working out of a great ideal. His own sympathies are rather with the earlier federalism and its antipathy to centralization, but he recognizes the power and international significance of the mass unity which has been achieved. Americans love their country, he says, for its “well-regulated immensity,” and comprise “one great compact brotherhood.” Democracy, from which we have far departed, serves none the less as an appropriate framework, for in democracy “numbers are both law and supreme wisdom.” He perceives the manifestation of this passion for unification in social life, education, the press, architecture, Prohibition, and the vogue of music, which is a social rather than an individual art. Despite his own nationality, he values the virtues of the Anglo-Saxon stock, which will maintain its headship of the racial hierarchy and continue to rule “with taciturn prudence and resourceful dignity.”

The growing hostility of Europe and Asia to the young giant of the West, M. Fay perceives and analyzes. The immigration laws, which will maintain the ascendency of the older stock, have brought many embarrassments. American travelers harm rather than help international understanding. After Europe has long staggered under the burden of debts, she is not likely to be friendly. Between the continents is a profound gulf, which neither travel nor sentiment can bridge. Indeed, nothing can bridge it except some more adequate solution of Europe’s problems by Europe herself which would put her in a better frame of mind to perceive the essential unity between her civilization and ours. The author has no desire to make of Europe another United States, though he sees a valuable clue in our original federalism. Without giving specific suggestions, he expresses the hope that some sort of European federation may be established and that there may be friendship between America, so powerful in its great mass, and Europe, which will continue sovereign in its variety and fertility.

Though he speaks for the entire continent, he would not be a Frenchman had he not first love for his native land. Whether or not full friendship between the French and American peoples ever has been, or ever will be attained, some at least of our countrymen will agree with the Sage of Monticello that, after their own land where dearest associations are, traveled men would choose to live in France.


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