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France and the Origins of American Political Culture

ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

Some of us vividly recall the start of the funeral procession behind the cortege of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. The White House gates swing open, the new president and Mrs. Johnson walk forth. Emerging behind them, solitary, bemedaled, tall and made taller by his kepi, two steps before the other dignitaries and chiefs of state, is the president of the French Republic, Charles de Gaulle. We imagine that de Gaulle sought his place at the head of that company out of personal pride, out of his fierce sense of stature—after all, only he remained of the Allied leaders of World War II—out of a conviction of la grandeur de la France. No doubt all of this was so. But one doesn’t have to seek for shrouded impulses. De Gaulle took his place by virtue of history’s protocol. France had been the first nation to recognize the independence of the United States. De Gaulle was there by right.

The Treaties of Friendship and Commerce and of Alliance of 1778, in which France recognized American independence and sealed an agreement to aid the new nation in its war with Great Britain, France’s historic archrival—the basis of de Gaulle’s claim to front rank in that funeral procession— marked the formal birth of French influence upon American political culture. That influence had a curious history—”had” such a history because it ended quite early in our national life. It is the story of that influence—upon American politics and political culture—as well as the reasons for its comparatively short duration that I would like to try to relate here.

That this story, some of the circumstances behind it, and some of its fateful results have not been set forth before is itself worth noting. The question has seemed insignificant, as if one doesn’t bother with a phenomenon that doesn’t occur. While the deep impress of the American dream upon French thought—so richly evaluated in Durand Echeverria’s Mirage in the West (1957)—is fully recognized, the best and fullest study of French influences upon the United States that we have—Howard Mumford Jones’ America and French Culture— published in 1927, devotes but two out of 15 chapters to French influence upon American thought; and in Jones’ hands the matter is principally one of opinion and attitude rather than of political culture. The most recent review of the same subject—Henry Blumenthal’s American and French Culture, 1800—1900 (1975)—makes no mention of political culture at all.

We know of course that France was an essential ally in the War for Independence; and we know, too, that she became an aggravant afterward. Perhaps the story should be left at that. We have also succeeded in demonstrating in the last few years the extraordinary debt to British radical and dissenting political and social ideas, to the Scottish Enlightenment, and to the Greek and Latin classics that the revolutionary generation incurred even before 1776; and this new-found knowledge puts into the shade more modest questions of French bequests to American political behavior, institutions, and ideas.

Yet there is a history here that should be of interest to those who are legatees—through art, architecture, letters, fashion, food, and film—of the enduring authority of French culture in the United States. If French cultural influence has retained its vigor in the United States, why has not the political authority of France and of French institutions been of equal measure and duration?

In answering the question, we should start with pre-revolutionary colonial culture. In provincial America, French influence was widespread among the cosmopolitan elites of the large seaboard towns—where it remained largely isolated. In language, fashions, the dramatic and musical arts, manners and aspirations to finesse, provincial knowledge of French ways was substantial. Some of it had been imported by French emigres, whose very names attest to their role in early America: Faneuil, Bowdoin, Revere, Jay, Delano, DeLancey, Boudinot, Girard, Gallaudet, Laurens, Manigault, Dupont, Audubon—people who established themselves at the head of society, politics, commerce, and the arts. Some colonists simply aped what they considered to be the superior and more sparkling ways of the Parisian French. “On s’âbime à Lisbonne, mais on danse à Paris.

Of more lasting importance was the influence upon political thought of the philosophes: Voltaire, Raynal, Montesquieu—especially the last. It was Montesquieu who hooped in the minds of the revolutionary generation the quality of virtue with the future of republicanism—that is, of representative government of and by independent men. We recall Montesquieu for having alerted the American colonials to the checks and balances and the separation of powers found in the British constitution—which the colonists became so determined to set right. Yet it was his emphasis upon virtue as the cement of a republic that above all quickened prerevolutionary reflections on government and symbolized, for American philosophers and political figures alike, the animating strengths of French thought.

Nevertheless, French influence in provincial America was always quite shallow—one historian calling in but a “sentimental attachment.” It little permeated the ranks of the farmers, sailors, shopkeepers, and villagers who made up 95 per cent of the population. In addition, the colonists who can seem so well-informed and sometimes learned were often in fact ransacking the scholarship and wisdom of the past for references and views that would support their own thinking rather than imbibing and absorbing systems or lines of thought from other times and places. The learning of few was deep; the desire for confirmation by authority was broad. So that what appears to be knowledge of French philosophy was often just conversance with French ideas. Finally, and of greater significance, the principal conveyances of any substantial currents of thought and attitude in 17th- and 18th-century societies everywhere in the West—language and religion—were not available in the colonies to French culture.

Though many foreign tongues were spoken in provincial America, English predominated. And a large variety of other languages—especially German, Dutch, and Swedish—competed with French in the many non-British communities of the colonies, although French was the second language of much of the educated elite. French ideas did not pass to America through a mother tongue.

More important, France was Catholic, the colonies overwhelmingly Protestant—with all the tinder for anti-Catholic fears and prejudices that Protestantism brought, not only against the French but against the Irish, too. One of the reasons that France was not a more vital and clearly defined presence in colonial culture was due to the great assimilability—almost to the point of disappearance—of French immigrants, whose stunning absorption into Anglo-American society occurred as a consequence of their religion: they were largely Huguenots, Calvinists, persecuted in France, with little affection for the land or regime of their origins, not naturally inclined to look to the Continent for political ideas. If anything, they brought the stern and tested perspectives of their faith to American shores and helped fortify the colonies—those nests of so many radical and dissenting faiths from Germany and the Low Countries as well as from Britain—against Catholic, “Papist” France.

Of course, the colonies were already fortified against the Bourbon state. Since the late 17th century, they had been accessories of the Mother Country in great imperial wars with France. (In fact, the first engagement of the greatest of these conflicts—the Seven Years’ War, or what we call the French and Indian War—was fought by then Colonel George Washington in 1755 at the site of present-day Pittsburgh—against French troops.) The American Revolution, the fifth of these wars for empire, was unprecedented only in finding the former colonies fighting beside their former enemy. It was, for both, un mariage de convenance; and it neither implied nor appreciably affected a heightened cultural or political affinity between them. To many, if not most, 18th- and 19th-century Americans, France would always signify negative traits: immorality (libertinage, décolletage, nude sculpture), aristocracy (social standing by rank and class), poverty and degradation (France’s widespread propertylessness), and absolutism (the Bourbon state bureaucracy).


Yet in many important segments of society on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century, each country held many attractions and was the subject of much curiosity. Emblematic of the triumph of infatuation over reality and of hope over culture was the celebrated meeting in 1778 between Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin—a meeting recorded by many, including Condorcet. The best description was set down by John Adams, then American minister to France. “After dinner,” Adams wrote in his diary for April 29, 1778, “we went to the Academy of Sciences and heard M. d’Alembert, as perpetual secretary, pronounce eulogies on several of their members, lately deceased. Voltaire and Franklin were both present, and there presently arose a general cry that M. Voltaire and M. Franklin should be introduced to each other. This was done, and they bowed and spoke to each other. This was no satisfaction, there must be something more. Neither of our philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected; they, however, took each other by the hand. But this was not enough; the clamor continued, until the explanation came out. “Il faut s’embrasser à la française.”” The two aged actors upon this great theatre of philosophy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms, kissing each other’s cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the cry immediately spread through the whole kingdom, and, I suppose, over all Europe, “Qu’il était charmant de voir embrasser Solón et Sophocle.” This was the cosmopolitan dream of the promise of the 18th century embodied in the enlightened vision of French philosophy and the enlightened practice of American government and law. It was a dream destined to fade—and to fade rapidly.

That was not, however, apparent at first. Raison d’état provided a strong initial mortar for relations between the two nations—whose enchantment and subsequent disenchantment with each other between 1760 and 1815 followed a roughly symmetrical chronology. France sought every chance to avenge its defeat in the Seven Years’ War and its loss of Canada to Britain at the peace of 1763. And once the Americans showed that they could defeat the best of the British regulars at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, France saw in the new nation both an ally and a surrogate on this continent in its continuing struggle with maritime Britain. The United States for its part recognized the need both for freer commerce in a time of war and for an alliance with the French king. As a result, a delegation headed by Benjamin Franklin concluded two treaties with France in 1778, the first a treaty of amity and commerce, the second—far more consequential for American politics—a treaty of alliance that prohibited either nation from making peace without the consent of the other and that recognized the independence and sovereignty of the United States. In addition, it was an alliance without term.

Nothing in this alliance necessitated the future. But, as it turned out, the treaty and the French aid without which the infant nation could not have won its war with Britain remained forever the high-water mark of Franco-American relations. From 1778 on, the United States became an element in European statecraft. From then on, the example of France was to become a negative reference in American political culture.

Strange that this should have been so. Despite some mild shenanigans on the part of the French government during the complicated negotiations for the Peace of Paris of 1783 in which Britain recognized the independence of the United States, formal relations remained cordial throughout the 1780’s. The storming of the Bastille in 1789 seemed to herald even closer ties. After all, the French Revolution commenced in the year that constitutional government began in the United States. And the birth of a sister republic—and such a powerful one it would be—seemed to most Americans to bear out the promise of their own revolution and to confirm Abb Raynal’s belief in America as the hope of the world. Americans of all stripes welcomed, some embraced, the French Revolution. “If kings combine to support kings,” asked Hugh Henry Breckzenridge of Pennsylvania, “why not republics to support republics?” Few were deterred by the radicalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Calvinist clergy lauded the destruction of the Catholic churches. The ça ira was sung in the streets of Philadelphia. Some sported the revolutionary cockade.

It was in 1794—just as, Thermidor following Terror, French attitudes toward the United States cooled quickly— that American opinion began to change. Perhaps it was bound to. Americans were republicans—neither solely by need nor conviction. They were republicans by spirit. Their republicanism had been shaped by dissenting Protestantism, by British politics, and above all by their own revolution. American republicanism was among the most powerful and permeating ideologies the modern world has known. And at its center were two elements that gave structure to the entire world view of 18th-century Americans: a concern for virtue (above all the gift of Montesquieu to American political thought) and a fear of power. Virtue and power were the yardsticks by which Americans measured public events and public figures. No matter that these standards could be defined and applied variously: in fact, it was their . various definitions that divided Americans into two distinct political camps by 1800—a division catalyzed by the French Revolution. Without that revolution, American politics would have taken a different direction, possessed a far different cast.

Many Americans, especially in New England, had long mistrusted the French nation, French thought, French ways. The northeastern colonies had mustered more men against French “popery” and the Bourbon “Antichrist” in the Seven Years’ War than any other region. “French principles,” wrote George Cabot of Massachusetts in 1794, “are more to be dreaded, in a moral view, than a thousand yellow fevers in a physical.” Yet even the most violent events of the Revolution—the beheading of Louis XVI and the Terror—and the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793 failed to disturb most American opinion. In 1792, a newspaper commentator could write that “not withstanding the late excesses of the Republican party in France, the cause of the French is still that of humanity—is still the cause of freedom.” And in 1795, a Congregational cleric could extol the revolution as “a continuation of the late American war.” Not even Citizen Gênet’s brazen efforts to enlist American privateers in French service, in contravention of Washington’s proclamation of neutrality of 1793, dampened the general enthusiasm.

What finally brought home the full significance of the Revolution was its threatened subversion of American republicanism and religious faith. Among the leaders of Protestant religions, especially members of the Calvinist clergy in the northeast, it was the growth of deistic religion in the United States that first stirred anxiety. Deistic notions had long circulated in America. Jefferson was not the sole, though he may have been the most celebrated, deist on these shores. Few members of the educated elite attended religious services or professed a belief in the active, providential God of orthodox Christianity. But not until the appearance in 1794 of Tom Paine’s Age of Reason did the defenders of the traditional faith recognize the French Revolution’s danger to revealed religion and see in deism the American version of antireligion. Widely read, Paine’s book offered an engaging defense of the French Revolution as an antireligious exercise. Not surprisingly, the clergy, shocked by the book’s popularity, leapt to the defense of religion and its traditional prerogatives. Where until recently they had accepted events in France, they now condemned the Revolution for its “detestable principles of an atheistical philosophy” and as the “scene of horrible blasphemy and abominable wickedness, which stands unrivaled in the annals of history.” When justified as an act of republicanism, the Revolution had won their praise; once portrayed as a threat to revealed religion, it met their condemnation. After 1795, there could be found no deeper foes of France, nor of the Revolution’s American sympathizers, than the clergy.

Clerical anxieties were further enflamed by word of a vast conspiracy to subvert the religions and liberties of the western world. Purported to have originated among Masons and the Bavarian Illuminati and to claim among its adherents the leading figures of the French Revolution, the conspiracy was said to exist “for the express purpose of rooting out all the religious establishments and overturning all the existing governments of Europe.” By 1798, even such figures as the president of Yale, the Reverend Timothy Dwight, was caught up by the fever. Taking the lead of the Abbé Barreul, an exiled French Jesuit who attributed the French Revolution to plotting by the Illuminati, Dwight, in a widely distributed Fourth of July discourse, asked whether Americans would become partakers of the sins of the European Revolution. “Shall our sons become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat, or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati?” The French Revolution was beginning to nudge Americans’ understanding of their own revolution in a conservative direction.

Other domestic events fed the growing fear. First, the disorderly rebellion against the excise tax in western Pennsylvania in 1794, the so-called Whisky Rebellion, revealed the potential for domestic turmoil. But perhaps more important, the creation of Democratic Clubs in the major cities conjured up the most lurid visions of “Jacobin anarchy,” of “the cursed foul contagion of French principles.” These were, we now know, modest organizations, few in number, composed of the middling sort of people in the seaboard towns. They were more or less like the Sons of Liberty, gatherings of like-minded men—men of democratic sympathies and persuasion but not radicals or revolutionaries, met to discuss public events. These were not Jacobin Societies, clubs of revolutionary radicals on the French model. Yet in the context of the fragile and young republican experiment, they seemed dire threats to the integrity of constitutional government. The Democratic Societies arraigned aristocrats, British influence, the politics of Alexander Hamilton—thus becoming, for the first time, opposition groups. Most followed the lead of the Massachusetts Constitutional Society which, in 1794, saw the French Revolution as promising the happiness of “the whole of mankind.”

Like the Sons of Liberty of the late 1760’s, however, these were what Washington, himself fearful of institutions that could disturb the young political system, was to call “self-created” societies, extralegal organizations in a political society just legally constituted. For those who placed social and legal order uppermost, who feared power out of doors, the Democratic Societies posed a grave danger to the republic. For many men of property and standing, the societies’ sympathies for the French Revolution only intensified fear of France as a corrupting influence.

Most historians have seen the emergence of the Democratic Societies as a milestone in the early history of American political parties. It is also the case that the societies created in people’s minds a connection between extralegal radicalism and France and both with the political opposition of Thomas Jefferson. Henceforth, French influence and democracy—that is, the greater participation of citizens in the public life of society and government—as well as French influence and irreligión were equated in the public mind, especially in the thoughts of those already deeply fearful of the policies of Thomas Jefferson and of the growing opposition to the Washington administration. To them, principally members of the Federalist Party in its New England stronghold, for whom popular politics and the reduction in the sway of authority by the wellborn and able was anathema, French influence was tantamount to democracy. “Never let us exchange our civil and religious institutions for the wild theories of crazy projectors,” Noah Webster warned in 1798, “or the sober, industrious moral habits of our country, for experiments in atheism and lawless democracy.” To such men, revolutionary France was a counter-example of stability, public order, power under limits, virtue. Perhaps more important, by the inexorable logic of partisan competition, the equation of France with democracy posed a deadly danger to the emerging Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

That party had two alternatives. It could embrace France, or it could shun it. Its embrace, however, had to depend upon the emergence on the Continent of genuinely republican forms of government and social organization and a kind and style of politics generally in keeping with American notions of limited government and representative legislatures and public order. That was not to be. The consolidation of power under Bonaparte and the creation of Napoleonic imperial government made virtually impossible any further warmth for the French Revolution and for France in the United States. Sympathetic as many might remain to the early promise of revolutionary France, as republicans Americans had no choice. So the partisans of Jefferson had to free themselves of an identification with France and live down a charge of which they were never guilty—that of being French agents in the United States. It can be said that the political realities of American politics after 1795 assured the death of French influence in American political culture.


How did that happen? What assured its end? How was France removed, first from the affections, then from even the concerns, of Americans?

The details need not long detain us. Unfavorable public response to the treaty that John Jay concluded on behalf of the United States with Britain in 1794—a treaty that averted war with Britain and established commercial relations with her, though it failed to settle many other serious issues—led the French incorrectly to conclude that the government of Washington lacked the confidence of the American people. Mistakenly, the French judged that Americans’ opposition to the policies of government amounted to opposition to constitutional authority—when it was far from the same thing. In any case, French envoys to the United States began to sound out among Americans the possibility of establishing a separate republic west of the Appalachians and thus, as the British had long hoped to do, of confining the new nation to the coastal plains and Piedmont. Furthermore, by 1796, the French envoy, under instructions from home, was openly meddling in the presidential elections of that year and urging Jefferson’s election—a move at the very least not designed to please Washington’s eventual successor, John Adams of Massachusetts. More important, George Washington threw his enormous prestige into the balance, implicitly against France, in his Farewell Address of 1796: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” he wrote, “. . .the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. . . . The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.”

From 1796 on, as if taking their cue from the Farewell Address, relations between France and the United States steadily deteriorated. The intensifying wars in Europe led Britain and France to seek whatever advantage they might from neutral nations and their maritime fleets. Although still legally allied with the United States, French naval vessels increasingly preyed upon American merchant ships; and when American commissioners attempted to open negotiations with the French to secure protection for American maritime rights, Talleyrand unblushingly sought the payment of a large douceur before he would even begin to treat with the Americans. The United States negotiators at Versailles refused to accede, with the effective result that, to the accompaniment of public outrage at French bribery, the United States became engaged in a de facto war with France, and the naval ships of each power fought against the other on the high seas.

In addition, whereas much anti-French opinion had been concentrated in the north among Federalists through the mid-1790’s, the actions of the French Revolution with respect to slavery in the Caribbean began severely to agitate Southern opinion by the end of the century. The freeing of slaves was a portent of what a thoroughgoing revolution might bring, for slaves on the French islands had begun to rebel against their masters. In Santo Domingo, Victor Hugues, a Jacobin, had abolished slavery by decree, and the Convention in France had approved his action by 1794— making France the first modern nation to forbid slavery. Free and enslaved blacks elsewhere thereupon began to rally to France, rise in rebellion against their masters, and send thousands of planters and their families fleeing for refuge to the United States, where they sowed fears of revolutionary violence and mayhem. Later in the decade, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a free black, gained control of all of Santo Domingo, and Southerners now trembled at the arrival of free slaves carrying the bacillus of revolutionary radicalism and the potential to incite rebellion in the United States. Robert Goodloe Harper of Maryland believed that France was organizing an invasion of ex-slaves from Santo Domingo against the South; and a mild slave uprising in Virginia led the Boston Gazette sarcastically to point to it as “only a branch of the French system of fraternity.”

Thus by the late 1790’s, anti-French opinion was widely aroused everywhere in the country, and the Federalist Party in Congress and the Federalist administration of John Adams saw an opportunity to move against French influence, revolutionary principles, radical politics, Catholic and other immigrants, and the Jeffersonian opposition—all at the same time. Its weapons were the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which placed severe limits upon the privileges of alien enemies, restricted the rights of alien friends, and sought to muzzle political opposition. Moreover, a new naturalization act extended to 14 years the period during which an alien had to wait for American citizenship, French and radical ideas would supposedly be barred by keeping at a distance from the polls those who might harbor them.

These events dealt fatal blows to any constructive influence of France upon American political culture thenceforth. It was not simply that the formative years of American politics—when the new constitutional system was most open to the influence of external models and ideas—were drawing to a close. It is rather that French behavior was substantiating the wisdom of Washington’s Farewell Address and sharpening Americans’ inclination to immure themselves within their own borders. Equally important, the actions of France and the efforts of Federalists to exploit them against Jefferson’s Party made any overt gesture toward France by Jefferson after his inauguration as president in 1801 virtually impossible. Adams had boldly moved to treat with France in 1800, a move that, while complicating his own bid for reelection, had secured a cessation of hostilities and the formal dissolution of the alliance of 1778. After his close victory over Adams, Jefferson had his own opportunity to turn France’s increasing difficulties on the Continent and her need for funds to fight her land wars to the advantage of the United States. The result was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

We normally look upon that act as one of empire, doubling the expanse of the nation and setting the course of American history directly westward and assuring the nation’s continental proportions. It also removed French influence upon politics and society from the trans-Mississippi territories and neutralized the idea that Jefferson was a pawn of France, not prepared to act in the nation’s full interests. Jefferson’s act must also be seen as the coup de grâce to any future authority of France upon American political culture. By the purchase of Louisiana, Jefferson’s party cemented its hold upon the majority of Americans. The other way of putting it is that the soi-disant French Party of Thomas Jefferson became the first truly majority party in American history at the cost of any further French influence upon American politics.

By the time the United States declared war upon Britain in 1812, Americans were without a care for France, French philosophy, the French Revolution. There were scarcely any who sympathized with France when invaded by foreign armies, and surely none gave a second thought to Napoleon at his defeat, save for a few celebratory bonfires in New England. The United States fought her former Mother Country to a standstill by 1814 without the aid of her former French ally.


This may seem like the end of a tale easy enough to relate. After all, what else might have occurred? In a society so thoroughly Anglicized and Protestant, with a political system owing so much to vital legislative assemblies, with robust local life, without a region of separate French concentration like Canada’s Quebec, without a peasantry or lords, how could there have been any major French political influence, anything more than interstices for it to enter? If we look for institutions or behavior that reflect French influence or for examples to which Americans after 1765 were in debt to France, there are virtually none. The great exception is the influence of Montesquieu. He, however, was a theorist; he was looking at Britain; and of his two principal contributions to American politics, one of them—his conviction that a republic could flourish only if of modest territorial size—was attacked by James Madison in 1788 in his classic and revolutionary Federalist Paper #10 and subsequently disproved by American history.

Yet the question as to how there could have been any French influence in the first place is not the right, or really an interesting, question. The right question is more neutral and direct, the one posed at the outset, whose answer requires all these preliminaries: how did France affect the original political culture of the United States? Here we open up a large territory. As to any large issue, there are many approaches, many answers, none admitting of adequate demonstration but all, it seems to me, worth considering.

In the first place, American experience with France after 1778 greatly fortified American republicanism. In tandem with the armed assistance that France rendered the infant nation in its first conflict with Britain—without which the United States would not have won its war for independence—this was France’s greatest gift to American politics. Not that there was any chance, at any time after July 1776, that the United States would be anything but republican in form. At issue was how republican the United States would be in spirit, and with what emphasis. The example of the French Revolution—republicanism run amok in the eyes of even its most ardent American supporters by the late 1790’s— held American republicanism to a center course and made the spread of radical republicanism—with its thrust toward the redistribution of property, the destruction of religion, and the arousal of the masses—impossible.

The French Revolution also confirmed American suspicion of power—in this case of power in a republic. To many, the Revolution conveyed again a lesson that to the founding generation the record of history already revealed: that even republics could be corrupted and become despotic. If anything, the French Revolution heightened existing American tendencies to look upon power as evil and to find the temptations and corruptions of power in almost every act of every public official, especially of different political persuasions. That tendency remains with us today.

Equally important, the example of revolutionary France deepened Americans’ sense of their distinctiveness and their pride in having avoided the excesses of revolution. From the time of settlement in Massachusetts Bay, those of the northern New World had seen themselves as a people apart. Abundance, the absence of abject poverty and of classes and ranks—these were taken to be the stuff of American reality. The American Revolution added substance to the belief: the first republican revolution, the first republic. In some ways, however, it was not until the end of the century, by reflection upon the French example, that Americans could see clearly how remarkable was their history so far. No terror nor guillotine, no Thermidore nor émigrés, no churches defiled nor Vendee, no Robespierre, no Bonaparte.

Closely related to the sense, often mythic in proportion, of American distinctiveness was the belief in American exclusiveness: that the spheres of politics and of national life governing European and American affairs were, and must be, altogether separate. The classic expression of this belief was Washington’s Farewell Address. Yet Washington was not saying to his fellow citizens anything that they did not already believe. His words were, as Thomas Jefferson wrote of his own Declaration of Independence, “the common sense of the matter,” provoked by the increasing realization of the dangers inherent in the 1778 alliance with France and the meddling in American affairs of French envoys and immigrants. With war raging on the Continent and the possibility of American embranglement in the wars of the French Revolution, the perils of involvement in the affairs of western Europe had become abundantly clear. The Farewell Address simply formulated and sharpened contemporaries’ sense of distance from the Old World. Compared with no other event in our modern political history, even the American Revolution itself, the French Revolution gave form to the nation’s inclination for a century and a half to stand aloof from the rest of the world. The United States would accept the Old World’s peoples and cultures but not its politics nor involvement in its dynastic and national conflicts.

Perhaps also, and paradoxically, as the German historian Otto Vossler once argued, the vision of an American mission to the rest of the world, a vision often enough accepted in Europe from the 15th century on, was a gift of the French Republic to the New World. Surely, because of the French Revolution, Americans became more certain of the right course of their revolution in promoting liberty and in avoiding the excesses of the French. The French Revolution, Americans believed, had commenced upon the model of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. “It is beyond doubt,” Lafayette wrote in presenting to Jefferson one of the keys to the Bastille to convey to George Washington, “that the principles of the United States opened the gates of the Bastille.” Yet in American eyes the French had betrayed those principles by straying from the boundaries of moderation, republicanism, and constitutionality. Little did most Americans appreciate the vast differences in the obstacles that each revolution had faced. But they saw clearly the different consequences of revolution. It was thus the counterimage, the counter-example, of France that helped hold this nation’s subsequent history, by comparison with subsequent revolutions, firmly within republican perimeters and which makes the United States seem, more than ever today, a conservative force in a revolutionary world.

Two other attributes of early American political culture owed something important to France. One was the heightened link between republicanism and religion. The anti-religious impulse of the French Revolution, its desecration of the churches, and its shocking, if ephemeral, Cult of Reason and the Religion of the Supreme Being solidified the ideological and spiritual marriage of Protestant and pietistic confessions on the one hand and of American political beliefs on the other. God was invoked both to explain and to protect America’s fortune. Public officials were expected to pass a test of piety and Protestant faith. Religion became the bulwark of the state.

A second feature of American political culture influenced by French history was the fear of alien ideologies and influences introduced by immigrants. It was not until the 1790’s and the spread of radical philosophies and a revolutionary ideology throughout Europe and into the slave societies of the New World that profound anxieties about the danger of foreign ideas and of the growing heterogeneity of the population were aroused. The principal targets of such nativist prejudices were the Irish and French, not because of their Catholicism but because of their radicalism. Yet the passing of the threat of the French Revolution did not put an end to the nativist impulse, which before long broadened to direct its force against Catholics, especially the Irish. Inaugurated in the 1790’s, taking its first concrete form in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, by the early 19th century nativism became a staple ingredient of American politics; a political party—the Federalists—made attacks upon alien influences a central theme of its popular appeals; and questions of the homogeneity of a republican culture—questions that were to arise again and again over black slavery and territorial acquisitions, as well as over immigration— emerged as enduring ingredients of American political discourse.

A final question: What was the relationship, if any, between the removal of France as a continuing factor in American political culture—or at least as a positive factor in it—and the influence of French ideas and arts elsewhere in American life? One cannot say for sure, but there are some telltale signs. For most of the 19th century, at least until its very end, there existed a kind of quarantine in the United States against French ideas and culture, except perhaps in refined circles of collectors and connoisseurs. It was a quarantine originating in American response to the French Revolution, Its consequences were fateful for American intellectual culure.

For starting shortly after the end of the War of 1812, Americans turned increasingly to Germany for inspiration. Rather than traveling to France, they went to the German states and brought back ideas, institutions, practices. American philosophy became widely affected by German theories. American literature reflected deep strains of German romanticism. American academic structures and behavior, especially after the Civil War, became modeled on those of Germany. And even the acknowledged native growths of American thought, such as pragmatism, were in many ways nurtured in reaction against German influences.

In short, the French Revolution and its resulting termination of whatever political links and currents had existed between France and the United States also had lasting consequences for American thought and intellectual life. But that is part of another story.


* Elliot Brownlee has reminded me of another context in which to understand the relatively low French presence in American life in the 19th century. After the demise of the French monopoly in the tobacco trade in the 1790’s, France never regained any substantial commercial relations with the United States.



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