François Furstenberg. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation. New York: Penguin, 2014.
On the Fourth of July, 1794, two former members of France’s Constituent Assembly gazed from a window across New York’s Bowling Green. Both had arrived in the United States just that year. Back in 1789, they had helped to launch a revolutionary movement for liberal and constitutional reforms. But as the Revolution grew ever more violent and threatened to destroy them, they fled France. The United States, they thought, would be a suitable refuge: the republican spawn of the British government whose constitution they so admired, the new nation whose Enlightenment principles would guard them from the threats of the Parisian mob. They must have been unnerved to see “a host of pro-French radicals” marching towards them that day, the rabble-rousing Girondin ambassador Edmond-Charles Genet at the fore, “singing the Marseillaise and other republican songs,” and hurling insults up to the windows where the émigrés stood watching (80). A few months later, on a trip north of Albany, one of those two émigrés encountered a young friend from the Parisian salons, who had fled the Revolution and settled with her husband into a quiet yeoman life in upstate New York. The two reminisced over meals about friends and family who had fallen to the guillotine. They’d need something to drink, so before they ate, this daughter of Marie-Antoinette’s former lady-in-waiting sat down on a stool and milked a cow.
These topsy-turvy scenes suggest the people and paradoxes at the heart of François Furstenberg’s ambitious and riveting new book, When the United States Spoke French, which investigates the elite social, political, and financial networks that linked France and the new United States during the age of revolution. The book’s dramatis personae are numerous. But Furstenberg, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, builds his narrative out from the experiences of five aristocratic refugees in particular—men who spearheaded France’s constitutional reforms in 1789, but by the mid 1790s were fleeing the Revolution’s radical surge.
The refugees are worth introducing in turn. There’s Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney, a philosophe, traveler, deputy from the Third Estate in the Constituent Assembly, and later close friend of Thomas Jefferson. François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rouchefoucauld, duc de Liancourt, was a rich reformer of farms and prisons, Louis XVI’s master of the garde-robe, president of the Constituent Assembly, and—when in Philadelphia—a hopelessly depressed man. Louis-Marie, vicomte de Noailles, had fought in the American Revolution and grown close friends with Alexander Hamilton before serving, too, as president of the Constituent Assembly. In Philadelphia, he lived right in William Bingham’s backyard. And like both Bingham and Hamilton, he was something of a rake. Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, the group’s only non-aristocrat, was a lawyer and planter in Saint Domingue before joining the Constituent Assembly; in the United States he opened a bookstore and talked about himself a lot. Finally, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, yet another onetime president of the Constituent Assembly, had been a Roman Catholic bishop and stock speculator before fleeing Paris. This is a somewhat arbitrary group. Plenty of other French émigrés populate the book, many of them equally interesting, and there was only about a nine-month span when all five were in the United States. Nevertheless, these five émigrés make compelling tour guides through the world of the young republic, and Furstenberg crafts them into vivid characters whose discrete personalities pop off the page.
When the United States Spoke French looks both backwards and forwards in historiographical time. Though the book is grounded on prodigious fresh research, it also synthesizes a broad range of scholarly trends, old and new. Furstenberg’s footnotes resuscitate scholarship from the early twentieth century on diplomatic and economic history. But in the narrative, Furstenberg’s émigrés inhabit a world that historians have reconstructed only in the past several decades. The émigrés navigate a richly evoked political culture, both out-of-doors and in Philadelphia’s elite republican court. They politick (and flirt) with elite women who manage unofficial political space to pursue their own ends. They and their Philadelphian friends transplant an Enlightened European culture of sociability into American parlors. The characters move through minutely researched urban spaces, stuffed with the subjects of recent studies in material culture: furniture and luxury goods, art and architecture. Their political and financial connections stretch to regions of agrarian unrest, Euro-Native American conflict, and Caribbean slave revolt. “Diplomatic history is not generally a history of sociability, economic history is not often a history of portraiture, and the history of material culture is not ordinarily a history of politics,” Furstenberg writes. “But the lives of the émigré constituants brought all those spheres and more into contact” (406). Indeed. In fact, one of the book’s greatest contributions might be to bring all this recent scholarship into contact with the broader history-reading public, using a well-spun narrative to popularize the findings of monographs and articles from the past few decades.
But the book also looks forward in time. For years now, the impulse to write history that crosses borders has pushed historians of early America in two diverging directions: westwards towards the rest of the North American continent, or eastwards towards the Atlantic world. For Furstenberg, the next frontier of scholarship is to bridge that divide—to connect the Atlantic world to the American interior. When the United States Spoke French is a bold step in that direction, seeking, as Furstenberg puts it, to “deprovincialize the history of the early Republic” (17). It demonstrates both the promise and the pitfalls inherent to ambitions of such broadly transnational scope.
The book unfolds across six lavishly illustrated chapters, which are divided into two very different parts. Part one narrates the émigrés’ arrival in the United States, describes the city in which they settled, and reconstructs the social networks they forged. Furstenberg first introduces the entangled history of Franco-American politics and diplomacy in the 1780s and 90s, explaining in the process why and how his émigrés came to the United States. He then embeds the refugees in a brilliantly depicted 1790s Philadelphia. The city then was a national capital in the midst of a mercantile boom and cultural efflorescence; its elites still felt provincial, and wanted desperately to prove their sophistication on the Atlantic stage. Furstenberg follows the émigrés’ own struggles to overcome exilic ennui by throwing themselves into the city’s rarefied circles of sociability. His account centers on the Bingham family, Philadelphia’s wealthiest and flashiest. Anne and William Bingham had grown infatuated with Paris during the 1780s, and fostered a colony of the city’s courtly society in the massive house they built and packed with French goods upon returning to America. Furstenberg beautifully reconstructs “dinners, balls, [and] salons” at the Binghams’ residence and elsewhere, gatherings which “served as scaffolding, shaping and perhaps even holding up the Republic” before the entrenchment of a political party system (156).
This was a milieu that welcomed the émigrés with open arms. Several years before, the émigrés had tried to replicate much of the Americans’ experiment in republican government. But in Philadelphia, Furstenberg writes, they found “Americans seeking to live like French aristocrats” (94). The émigrés were cultural capital, and Federalists and Jeffersonians alike sought out their company. Noailles became a veritable appendage of the Bingham family. Moreau’s bookstore served as an important intellectual and cultural node, connecting Philadelphians to the francophone world. All the émigrés were coveted guests, their presence not only lending prestige to Philadelphian society but also making it okay for increasingly francophobic Federalists to enjoy French furniture, architecture, food, clothing, and stuff. Amid all this sharing of ideas and dinners, Furstenberg demonstrates, the émigrés came to occupy a key role in transatlantic social, political, and financial networks. Focusing on the workaday documents and encounters of these networks, Furstenberg’s discussion of the politics of visits and letters of introduction demonstrates how much official and unofficial spheres—politics, diplomacy, and sociability—overlapped, and the extent to which the early American republic really remained an ancien régime. Another section on artistic influence and ownership history in 1790s portraiture makes plain, in poses and brush strokes, how thick the émigrés’ networks truly were. Noailles even served as a body model for one of Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of Washington!
The second half of the book shows how émigrés and others mobilized these intricate social networks in the service of financial and political projects. From the émigrés’ arrival in the United States until long after their departure, the networks constitute a dramatic and often ironic history of capitalism and empire. Part Two opens with a chapter on transatlantic land speculation. Furstenberg deftly and accessibly relates the stories of several complex land ventures, which attracted the émigrés’ attention as opportunities to resuscitate the fortunes they’d lost in the French Revolution. Noailles and Omer Talon, a fellow former constituant, invested in the Asylum Company, a scheme conceived by Robert Morris and John Nicholson as “a refuge for French émigrés” (230). On a trip west, Volney surveyed the human rubble left behind by the Scioto Company’s implosion. And Talleyrand and Liancourt had connections to land ventures in Maine and Western New York. In less than sixty pages, Furstenberg uses the émigrés’ stories to provide a rich and freewheeling introduction to early national land speculation.
The conclusion Furstenberg draws from these stories, however, doesn’t entirely square with the stories themselves. For credit-hungry American land speculators, Furstenberg suggests, the émigrés represented a direct path to European pocketbooks. Their “social networks . . . provided them with privileged access on both sides of the Atlantic, and made them ideally positioned to channel flows of capital into the United States” (235). And channel they did, argues Furstenberg. In a “transformative development,” “European capital flood[ed] into the United States during the wars of the French Revolution,” amounting to “a great incursion into the American hinterland” that consolidated U.S. sovereignty over backcountry regions and spurred economic development (233, 17, 232).
But more often than not, these ventures struggled and failed to attract European investment. The Asylum Company, for instance, is less a “story of French émigrés guiding flows of capital from Europe to the United States” than one of American capitalists seeking to profit off a flow of European people to the United States, and of French émigrés unsuccessfully striving to attract European investment (238). Most of the company’s major shareholders, Furstenberg notes, were Philadelphians: Thomas Willing, William White, William Jackson, Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, and John Vaughan. (English financier John Cazenove, who “became connected with the venture” through Noailles’s connections, is the exception who proves the rule .) William Duer’s infamous Scioto Company likewise struggled to attract European capital. Plans for this Ohio settlement sparked a mania among the Parisian nobility and bourgeoisie. Many of them bought shares in Joel Barlow’s Compagnie du Scioto, which aimed to purchase the lands from its American counterpart. But much to the chagrin of both French shareholders and the maligned French settlers who made it across the Atlantic, the vast majority of that money never followed. Poor connections—not strong ones—were the company’s downfall. Barlow’s partner, the nefarious William Playfair, absconded with the company’s money, contributing to Duer’s ultimate collapse and the Scioto immigrants’ enduring misery.
Even in the case of Henry Knox, William Duer, and William Bingham’s Maine lands, what stands out from Furstenberg’s account is not the strength of transatlantic connections so much as a the difficulty of turning social ties and strong reputations into actual investment. Théophile Cazenove, a group of former Scioto investors, Talleyrand, Liancourt, Dutch merchants, British capitalists, and the French government itself: all, one after another, declined to invest. An agent for Bingham and Knox finally persuaded an employee of the Hope financiers and a scion of the British Baring dynasty to cross the Atlantic and view the Maine lands for himself. Transatlantic social bonds weren’t enough, on their own, to convince the Hopes and Barings to invest. The trust just wasn’t there. The Hopes and Barings did, finally, buy in to Bingham’s Maine lands, with some minor encouragement from Talleyrand, Liancourt, and Noialles. Capital connections generated social ones when the Baring scion promptly married Bingham’s daughter.
All told, Furstenberg’s tour of 1790s land speculation demonstrates not so much the strength of transatlantic bonds of social affinity, nor how easily they converted from social and political ligaments into financial ones, but rather their fragility, instability, and—ultimately—unreliability. Further historical context only supports that idea: unmentioned here are the legions of similarly well-connected land speculators in the 1780s and 90s who craved foreign capital but failed to obtain it. Many of these speculators modeled their methods on Morris’s early success in selling six million acres of western New York to English bankers (the Pulteney Purchase) and Dutch ones (the Holland Land Company, engineered by Cazenove, which Furstenberg nicely summarizes). But the vast majority of such copycat schemes ended miserably; Alexander Macomb’s upstate New York purchase, Levi Hollingsworth’s extensive speculation in Pennsylvania and Virginia lands, and, later, Robert Morris’s own North American Land Company are only three of the biggest examples. Furstenberg is right to point to Europe’s great significance for early republic land speculators. But I would argue that the tantalizing prospect—the idea—of European capital shaped land speculation in the 1780s and 90s far more than any actual money that changed hands. And indeed, to conclude his argument Furstenberg has to make a large leap forward in time; he ends the chapter by pointing to European investment in internal improvements in the 1820s and 30s.
When it comes to land speculation, it seems that Furstenberg poses the wrong question—one that flows from a premise that captures only part of the story. Instead of asking why foreign capital poured into American lands in the 1790s, and pointing to social networks as the answer, we should ask why such thick transatlantic social connections more often failed to convert into financial ones, especially when European warfare made American lands seem a safe haven for capital. A corollary unanswered question: why, in the face of so much failure, did quixotic American speculators persist in believing that their next scheme was the one sure bet that would replicate the rare earlier successes in attracting European capital? I’d go so far as to say that Furstenberg’s missteps here are emblematic of a common pitfall in transnational history: a tendency to assume that the early modern world was smaller than it was, and to underemphasize the many ways in which it remained unknown, unknowable, unwieldy, and impossibly large.
Far more convincing than the chapter on land speculation are the two chapters that follow, which track the émigrés through more than a decade of geopolitical intrigue from Paris to the Mississippi Valley. France, Britain, and Spain, Furstenberg reminds us, continued to compete for control of the North American interior long after 1763. And now it was not only Native American polities that sought to play European empires off each other, but the fledgling United States empire, too. France and Britain both aimed to make the United States into a commercial “client state” that would help fund their wars against the other (297). Especially after 1795, Anglo-American rapproachement meant that France needed to reacquire Louisiana, both in order to provision its Caribbean slave colonies and to continue influencing U.S. policy. Native American nations united in a military confederacy to resist the Euro-American diplomatic agreements that ignored their presence. The United States, meanwhile, struggled to maintain neutrality with European powers, to defeat and dispossess the powerful Western Indian Confederacy, and to secure “the triumph of politics over geography” in uniting the interests of its trans-Appalachian and seaboard citizens (224).
The French émigrés were caught in the middle of all this mess. They played major roles in how it unfolded, and their experiences were deeply shaped by it. The book’s final two chapters follow the émigrés through this intricate diplomatic history. In a white-knuckle section on Genet and the botanist André Michaux, we see the American political elite, via the American Philosophical Society, underwrite a westward scientific expedition that became an attempt to bring Spanish Louisiana—and likely parts of the western United States—into the French imperial fold. “Probably it is the only instance in U.S. history in which most of the government’s top officers funded the mission of a foreign agent in its own territory,” Furstenberg wryly concludes (304). The Genet-Michaux intrigues pursued a “global republican project” by uniting Creeks, Cherokees, Francophone settlers the interior, and U.S. citizens (mobilized by Revolutionary War General George Rogers Clark and South Carolina speculator William Tate) to liberate Louisiana and Florida from Spanish grasp (303).
These machinations originated before the constituants arrived in Philadelphia, but set the stage for the sensitive politics the émigrés had to juggle while in the United States. And over time, Franco-American relations grew far worse. The Jay Treaty and French revolutionary politics’ marked swing back towards moderation both pushed the émigrés towards reconciliation with the patrie that had banished them. One by one, the émigrés left the United States, and their information about American politics increasingly shaped French imperial policy. Talleyrand, as the Directory’s Foreign Minister, was responsible for the XYZ Affair, which only stoked the American public’s increasingly anti-French sentiment. Émigré reconnaissance (especially by Volney) and additional intrigues in the Spanish-American borderlands, Furstenberg convincingly argues, helped generate the Adams administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts, which further alienated the émigrés who remained.
Upon leaving the United States, some of the émigrés took on roles in the French imperial resurgence. Noailles became a general in the French attack on San Domingue, where he perpetrated heinous terrors against the island’s black revolutionaries. Toussaint Louverture’s army of former slaves ultimately defeated Napoleon’s attempt to reestablish Caribbean slavery, rendering the Mississippi River Valley useless to France. In short order, Talleyrand—now Napoleon’s Foreign Minister—negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Here, old social connections did convert into financial ones, an apparently easier task in the context of imperial policy than private finance: “With Théophile Cazenove in Paris advising Talleyrand,” Furstenberg writes, “the sale was financed by a consortium made up of the Barings, the Hopes, and William Bingham” (401).
Altogether these final chapters reek of betrayal, of idealism and sentimentality melting into realism, of revolutionaries losing their innocence in their own minds. The émigrés had fled to Philadelphia assuming that the young republic shared the set of principles embodied in their own constituant phase of the French Revolution. But throughout the 1790s, Furstenberg shows, they came slowly and painfully to realize how much France and the U.S. truly differed, and how their interests were increasingly opposed.
When the United States Spoke French is not a book that rewards quick reading. One review cannot do justice to the twists and turns of Furstenberg’s epic, which often adopts a Jill-Leporesque associative style. At times, in fact, it can feel that the book is frustratingly captive to the very networks it seeks to explain. Following the flows—the circulation of people, plans, capital, and ideas—forces Furstenberg to double back in time quite frequently, which both makes it all too easy for a reader to lose track of the historical chronology and leads the writer to cover some topics more than once. To put it another way, Furstenberg’s historical problem and his method are virtually identical. His primary purpose in focusing on the émigrés’ transatlantic networks is to bring those networks to life, rather than to reconstruct the networks as a method for addressing a single historical question. Most of the sentences that describe the book’s goals are couched not in argumentative and causal terms, but in a more vague vocabulary of seeing. Following the émigrés’ experiences “shine[s] a light,” “offer[s] new insight,” and “help[s] us see,” Furstenberg writes (154, 17, 138-139, 407). The book does not bang a reader over the head with its arguments. But if you surrender yourself to Furstenberg’s intricate narrative, the result is among the most engrossing stories of how people respond and react to the historical changes swirling around them that I’ve read in a long while—a tale of how voluntarist revolutionaries, people who “had imagined, perhaps for the first time [in history], that they were in charge of their own destinies,” instead found their lives deeply wracked by the forces they themselves helped to unleash (125).
 Furstenberg first outlined this agenda a few years ago, in “The Significance of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier in Atlantic History, c. 1754-1815,” The American Historical Review, vol. 113, no. 2 (June 2008): 674-677. It strikes me that a fun fruitful grad-seminar discussion about this agenda could arise from pairing When the United States Spoke French with another recent and ambitious work that ties Atlantic History to the North American interior: Paul W. Mapp, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 2011).