Chapter 11 – America and the French People


    About the author

    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      Many reasons united in leading France to espouse the cause of the American colonists. Hatred of England and a desire to lessen her power and obtain revenge for the calamities of the Seven Years’ War worked powerfully on the French mind. The hope of gaining commercial advantages from the gratitude of the new republic allured French statesmen. All these considerations had their weight in the deliberations of the French ministers, in whose hands were the issues of peace or war.

      And yet there was an influence more potent than any of these considerations of policy, of national advantage and national dislike. If the American cause had not excited strong enthusiasm among the French people, unless interference in behalf of our forefathers had been not only approved but demanded by the representatives of French thought, it is doubtful if the government of Louis XVI would have taken up arms in behalf of American independence. The American Revolution occurred at a most opportune time. If the struggle for independence had begun fifty years or even twenty-five years earlier, France would have been as unlikely to interfere in our behalf as Spain or Austria. But the principles for which our ancestors contended, the political and social ideals which they represented, touched a sympathetic chord in the France of Louis XVI. Our Revolution found a welcome in the ferment of French thought that had begun. It was for this reason that Franklin’s influence was of such value to the people he represented. At any time his talents and his wit would have insured him a hospitable reception among the French people. But when changes in scientific beliefs, in political faiths, in social aspirations, were preparing the way for a political and social revolution in France, Franklin was to an extraordinary extent able to appeal to the people, and to arouse among them enthusiasm for the nation and the cause of which he stood as the exponent. Public opinion became at the last the most potent factor in controlling the decision of the French government.

      The problem of the American colonies attracted the attention of French statesmen when French society hardly distinguished Virginia from Massachusetts Bay; but in the rapid changes of French thought, the public in 1778 exceeded the King’s counsellors in eagerness for interference in the cause of American liberty. We are apt to think that public opinion has become an element to be reckoned with only in these later days, and that, in the time of an absolute monarchy, it could be safely disregarded. Such a belief is far from correct. The influence of public thought was as potent perhaps in the reign of Louis XVI as it is in France to-day. It was indeed exercised by a much smaller body. The mass of the population were too ignorant to hold any views on public questions, except as these were brought home to them by the burden of taxation or by a dull perception that others further up in the social scale enjoyed unfair advantages. But if the body that formed public opinion was small, it was exceedingly active. There had never been a time when, among the nobility, the scholars and philosophers, the prosperous bourgeois, discussion had been so alert and so free. No subject was deemed too sacred to be talked about, no institution was too venerable to be questioned.

      To such expressions, which found utterance in literature and in the journals of the day, in the talk of the court and of the salon, the ministers of the King could not turn a deaf ear. Necker, who became minister of finance only a few months after the Declaration of Independence, recognized to the fullest extent the influence of public opinion upon the administration in France. “Favored by various causes,” he says, “it is constantly increasing. It controls all spirits, and princes themselves respect it . . . Most strangers can hardly form a just idea of the authority which it exercises in France. They comprehend with difficulty that invisible power which, without treasure, without guards, and without arms, imposes its laws on the city, on the court, and even in the palaces of kings.”

      It might have been supposed that neither the principles nor the characters of our ancestors would have aroused sympathy in French salons or among the French people. Certainly this would have been true a century earlier, and that it was not so now showed how rapidly French thought was drifting from its ancient bearings. The rebellion of 1640 in England excited no approval in France. The adherents of the Parliament were regarded by the French as men actuated by pernicious principles, who murdered their King, and illustrated the evils of an unbridled and lawless liberty. Nor were the strict morals, the long faces, the formal dress of the Puritans any more popular than their politics among the nobles and courtiers of Versailles or the wits and poets of Paris.

      A little more than a century had passed, and the descendants of the Puritans of 1640 were rebels against their King, and were proclaiming theories of government that would have seemed advanced to their ancestors. The social life, the religious beliefs of the American colonists were not altogether those of the soldiers of Cromwell, but they were quite as far removed from those of Paris. In their rigorous theology, in their strict and often tedious modes of life, there was apparently little to attract a French noble or a French philosopher. A people leading a provincial existence, very strict in its religious observances, very loose in its political orthodoxy, among whom a French philosopher would have found few listeners, and a courtier from Versailles would have died of ennui, seemed ill fitted to excite enthusiasm among the French people. And yet new political aspirations and discontent with existing social conditions led the French people to sympathize with the American colonists in their struggle for independence.

      At the close of the reign of Louis XV, one who possessed the rare power of forecasting the future might have anticipated a revolution in France, quite as much as in America. The causes which at last resulted in the great upheaval in France had long existed. The expressions of discontent and of a desire for change had become so frequent that no one could disregard them, though few realized their significance.

      If one had contrasted the lot of the people in France and in the American colonies, he might have anticipated that in the one country revolution would result in a violent social upheaval, while in the other it would only modify political relations and leave the beliefs and condition of the people little changed. Great wealth was rare in the thirteen colonies, but their people as a whole enjoyed a prosperity which was not exceeded in any other land. Nowhere else in the world, probably, were there so few in actual need of the necessities of life, were beggars so rare, was the number so small of those who went hungry to bed. In France very different conditions prevailed. The lot of the peasantry in that fertile land was not worse than in most of Europe, but great was the contrast between the peasant of Brittany or Auvergne and the farmer of Kent or the colonist of Massachusetts.

      No more accurate picture has been given of a people than Arthur Young drew when he visited France not long before the outbreak of the Revolution. In Salogne, he says, ” the fields are scenes of pitiable management, as the houses are of misery “; in Brittany “the country has a savage aspect, husbandry not much further advanced, at least in skill, than among the Hurons . . . the people almost as wild as their country.” From Montauban he writes, “one third of what I have seen of this province seems uncultivated, and nearly all of it in misery.” And thus he described the condition of a large part of the French people, and their deplorable lot he justly attributed to bad government and feudal exactions; he found only privileges and poverty (Young, Travels in France, 19, 123, 125.)

      “The people of our country,” wrote the Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, ” live in frightful misery, without beds, without furniture, . . . obliged to snatch bread from their own mouths and their children’s to pay the taxes . . . The negroes of our islands are infinitely more happy.” (Clermont-Ferrand, Resume de I’Histoire d’Auvergne, 313.) Poorly fed, dressed in rags, living in a hut, with half his scanty earnings absorbed by taxes and feudal dues, the lot of the French peasant was a melancholy contrast to that of the American farmer.

      The privileges of the aristocracy had become grievous. The peasant looked with anger on the game which fed on his crop and which he dared not kill; he paid with bitterness the feudal dues that were still enforced; be sullenly performed the corvees to which he was still subjected. The prosperous bourgeois, the wealthy farmer-general, better educated and better mannered than their ancestors, and eager for a social equality to which their great-grandfathers had not aspired, found in some artificial distinction, some high-bred sneer or snub, a sting more bitter and more irritating than the serious grievances of the peasant. The rise of a country in which equality prevailed, where the merchant and the lawyer held their recognized position in the best society, where farmers were prosperous, and dingy huts and hungry children were unknown, helped to strengthen resentments that were already strong.

      To those who claimed for the people a voice in their own government, to those who pointed out the abuses of the old regime, the American Republic appeared as the ideal state of which they had declaimed. It has been said that the Orleans family committed a grave political error when they allowed the bones of Napoleon to be placed in a tomb in France, on which the Napoleonic legend might grow anew. The Bourbon dynasty and the old regime made a like error when they assisted in holding up to the French people the spectacle of a newly created republic, inhabited by a prosperous and contented people, proclaiming the doctrines of popular sovereignty and the equality of all men before the law. At almost any other period the Declaration of Independence would have wakened few echoes in France. But French philosophy and French literature had prepared society to receive with enthusiasm the political doctrines and the pictures of social life which came from across the Atlantic. The desire to injure England, and the hope of profiting by the trade she might lose, had more influence on Vergennes and the advisers of Louis XVI than any sympathy with American colonists. But if these motives had most weight with the politicians, they did not account for the popular enthusiasm with which French society embraced the American cause.

      It was not among the peasantry, always ignorant and usually miserable, that sympathy was felt for the American colonists; to most of them the existence of America was hardly known. But the condition of the common people now received from those better provided with this world’s goods a degree of attention unthought of in the past. It was the time, as has been said, when a man about to sup suddenly reflected that there were those who had not yet dined. When a new interest was felt in the lot of the masses, when plans were rife for improving agriculture, for relieving poverty, for lessening the burden of taxation, society was ready to espouse a popular cause on the other side of the Atlantic.

      The seventeenth century was one of the great eras of French literature, but few indeed were the French books which treated of political theories or political questions. Of criticism of a man who held prominent position there was somewhat; the administration of Mazarin and the troubles of the Fronde created a copious literature of pamphlets and Mazarinades, but these discussed personal animosities rather than political principles. In all the picturesque chapters of the Fronde there is little to be found except personal polities; whether insurrections were led by princes of the blood or judges of the courts, they had for their object changes in the persons who should possess power, rather than changes in the system by which the state was to be administered.

      The influence of the salon was considerable in France long before the days of Louis XVI; but until well into the eighteenth century, while the salons were centres of social and at times of literary action, in politics they took little part. The appointment of a minister, the granting of a pension, most of all, the selection by the sovereign of a new mistress, were indeed eagerly discussed; but the principles of government were not much more debated in the salon of Madame de Sevigne or the palace of the Prince de Conti than they were in the home of some bourgeois of Tours or the hut of some peasant in the Cevennes.

      Under Louis XIV the burden of taxation fell heavily upon many, the lot of large portions of the population was hard, yet there came no demand for change; conditions were unfavorable, but they were regarded as being as much a result of unchangeable laws as the devastating blasts that came from the mountains or the drought that destroyed the crops. In the reign of his successor, the situation was greatly altered. The sanctity that hedges round a king had been dispelled, criticism was outspoken, a desire for change was widespread. This was not due to the fact that conditions had become worse, that poverty was more general or distress more common. The contrary was the case. The latter part of Louis XV’s reign witnessed a marked improvement in the economic condition of France. Business was more active, the accumulation of wealth was more rapid; bad as was the condition of the peasantry, it was better than it had been in the reign of the Grand Monarque. Agriculture was still backward, and yet during the thirty years preceding the Revolution it probably made more progress than it had in three centuries before. The rapid growth of Paris excited the dismay of those who regarded this as a portentous omen, while Bordeaux, Marseilles, and other cities doubled in population during the century.

      The voice of complaint, the disposition to blame the government for unfavorable conditions, became more pronounced when these conditions tended to improve. Nor is this strange. When a man’s lot seems hopelessly bad, he submits to it in dull despair; when a measure of improvement suggests the possibility of still further gain, his discontent becomes more active and the demand for change more articulate.

      The demand for change had become not only audible but insistent before Louis XV closed his career of shame. The nation, wrote the Austrian ambassador, not long before Louis’s death, “pours out seditious words and indecent writings, in which the person of the monarch is not spared.” (Mercy-Argenteau to Maria Theresa, April 16, 1771.) Kings are for the people and not the people for the king, declared a document issued by a body of lawyers, usually the most conservative class in the community. A profession of atheism would not have seemed a more monstrous sentiment to Louis XIV. “The cause of the people, by whom and for whom you reign,” said a remonstrance addressed to Louis XV; and with similar declarations in pamphlets and official documents, in the writings of philosophers, and from the mouths of the rich and the noble, from lawyers and litterateurs, one could have filled volumes.

      At no era has conversation been more brilliant or the charm of social influence more alluring, and at few periods has there been greater freedom of discussion. Subjects which a century before would, in France, no more have been brought into controversy than would the inspiration of the Scriptures at a conventicle presided over by John Knox, were now discussed by all the world. There was no phase of religious belief, no form of human government, hardly any institution of social life, that was not considered as freely as the state of the weather or the prospect of the crops.

      The customs of the times made it possible for social intercourse to be more attractive and more important than in our era of pressing business and brief conversation. Only those who lived before the Revolution, said Talleyrand, knew the charm of life. Neither the nobles nor the philosophers who met for constant discussion were pressed for time; the exchange of thought was not a diversion but an occupation. At Baron Holbach’s, says an inmate of that salon, the conversation was the most animated and the most instructive that it was possible to hear; the guests met at two, they dined and talked until seven, often to meet again in the evening, unwearied of discussions which never grew dull.

      Few took an active interest in the affairs of state under Louis XIV; their curiosity was satisfied when they were told of the latest victory of the Grand Monarque or of the last fete at Versailles. There was no such indifference under Louis XV. Thirty years ago, wrote Argenson, “the public was not curious about the news of the state, now every one reads the Gazette de France.” (Memoires d’Argenson, 1754; Miss Wormeley’s translation, chap. x.) The Gazette de France did not furnish as much information as a great daily of London or New York does now, but its readers gained some knowledge as to the affairs of their own country, while of transient publications, that discussed every act of government and often with great freedom, there was an unfailing supply. Words that had been little used in talk or literature now became common speech. An acute observer remarked that the word “nation,” hardly pronounced under Louis XIV, was now on every tongue. An enemy of the new philosophy wrote: “This word ‘liberty,’ which is familiar in these days, is very dangerous.”

      The influence exerted by the talk of the salon was less than that of the newspapers of today, but never has there been a time when literature so controlled public opinion. The great writers of the age had done much of their work before the troubles of American colonists were discussed in French salons. Voltaire had long been at the height of his fame, Rousseau had written his “Social Contract,” Holbach’s “System of Nature ” had appeared, the publication of the Encyclopaedia, extending over years, had been brought to an end. The popularity of these works was unabated. Discussions of government and society, of religion and science, found a widely extended audience.

      The more vigorously did they attack the beliefs of the past, the more eagerly were they received; boldness in thought, as well as skill in expression, characterized the literature of the day, and however revolutionary the theories advanced, they circulated in France, practically, with the same freedom as in England. There was indeed, nominally, a government censorship of the press; only books which it authorized could be sold and read, and on the circulation of those under its ban ruinous penalties were imposed; but this censorship was little more than a farce. The governmental supervision of literature in France in the latter half of the eighteenth century furnishes another illustration of the impossibility of enforcing laws which no longer find a support in public feeling. Many of the famous writers under Louis XV spent brief terms in Vincennes or the Bastille; they emerged from a mild confinement into a blaze of glory. Many a book was burned by the public executioner; it was sold and read all the more. If a writer could be sentenced to imprisonment and his books be condemned to the flames, he might regard his literary fortune as made. And thus a great mass of subversive and revolutionary matter was circulated in France, among a public ready to receive it; the seed was cast upon a soil in which it speedily fructified. A society that a hundred years before would have regarded our ancestors as rebels against the just authority of the King, now saw in them the representatives of public liberties and political reforms, which Frenchmen advocated with all the more vigor because very often they did not understand them.

      Activity in scientific research is apt to be the precursor of change in political as well as in religious beliefs. The scientific discoveries of the eighteenth century excited great interest in France, and Frenchmen took an important part in them. “More new truths concerning the external world, “says Buckle, “were discovered in France during the latter part of the eighteenth century than during all the previous periods put together.” In geology and natural history, in anatomy and chemistry, in electricity and the laws of heat and light, French students did pioneer work. Interest in scientific questions was not confined to those who studied them, but extended to the great numbers who wished to hear of them. The lecture rooms of well-known professors of chemistry and anatomy were almost as crowded as the theatres, and more crowded than the churches. The work done by Franklin in electricity had much to do with the reception he received in France when he first visited that country. Fame in scientific discovery secured for him a more prompt and cordial greeting than if he had been known only in literature or politics. The experiments with the kite excited in France a degree of interest which was not exceeded, even if it was equalled, in his own country.

      It was not only religious thought that was affected by these new phases of intellectual activity; but a community which was interested in discussing the laws of the universe and the anatomy of man soon began to consider the laws of government and the anatomy of the state. A desire for change, new conceptions of government, a willingness to be done with the institutions of the past, an infinite confidence in the promise of the future, had taken possession of French literature and French society.

      An era of boundless hope preceded the French Revolution, and it has been well portrayed by one of the young nobles who crossed the Atlantic to fight for liberty in America. Describing this idyllic period, at the close of a long and active life in which he had seen the overthrow of an ancient monarchy, had been imprisoned in the Terror, had served under Napoleon at the height of his glory, and had witnessed the downfall of the Emperor and the dismemberment of his empire, the Comte de Segur says: “Without regret for the past, without anxiety for the future, we walked gaily on a carpet of flowers that concealed an abyss . . . All that was ancient seemed to us wearisome and ridiculous. The gravity of old doctrines oppressed us. The laughing philosophy of Voltaire amused and bewitched us . . . We were ready to follow with enthusiasm the philosophical doctrines advanced by bold and brilliant leaders. Voltaire appealed to our intelligence, Rousseau touched our hearts.” (Segur, Memoires (2d ed.), i, 27,41.) Naturally they praised the heroes of Greece and Rome and read the republican literature of Switzerland and Holland; at the theatre the praise of liberty and the abuse of tyrants met with thunders of applause, “at the court they lauded the republican maxims of Brutus, we talked of independence in the camps, of democracy among the nobles, of philosophy at balls, and of morality in boudoirs.” (lbid., 82.) “Everyone believed that he was marching to perfection, without being embarrassed by obstacles and without fearing them. We were proud of being French and still more proud of being French of the eighteenth century, which we regarded as the golden age brought upon earth by the new philosophy.” (lbid., 257.)

      It was natural that in this condition of idyllic hopefulness in the future progress of society, the principles declared by American colonists should captivate men who looked with distrust on all that was old and turned with eagerness to all that was new. Wearied with artificial modes of life, French aristocrats discovered what they believed to be their ideals among the American folk; they were charmed by the simple, earnest life of New England farmers, and discovered the virtues of Roman worthies in American statesmen. The Continental Congress seemed the image of the Roman Senate, and its cause the cause of progress and liberty. The first cannon fired in the New World to defend the standard of liberty, says Segur, resounded in all Europe. Even at the watering-places the seekers for amusement made of America a fashion, and invented a game at cards which they styled Boston (Segur, Memoires, i, 81.)

      Thus it was that popular sentiment exercised its influence in the councils of the King and that an alliance with the United States and war with England not only received the approval of statesmen, but excited the enthusiasm of the nation. During the five years that the war continued, the French people remained constant in the cause. Doubtless some of those who were most eager would have stood aghast if they had realized that the part taken by France in the American Revolution was to have its influence in preparing the way for the French Revolution. The very causes, the conditions of thought, the relaxation of ancient beliefs, the confidence in advantages that would result from future change, distrust of the past, and hope for the future, which were preparing the French for their own revolution, made them enthusiastic in their efforts to assist their American allies.

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