5 French Men Who Witnessed the Birth of America

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If you ask your average Joe who invented America, they’re likely to point to that legendary group of be-wigged men known as the Founding Fathers. But even the staunchest patriots may not know that there were other men involved — other French men — and we’re not just talking about Lafayette.

In his latest book written in English, When the United States Spoke French, the researcher and history professor François de Furstenberg describes how five French men impacted America’s political, economic, and cultural spheres during the 1790’s. In its pages are the stories of Napoleon’s future foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Tralleyrand-Périgord, the essayist Duke de La Rocheoucauld-Liancourt, Louis-Marie Vicomte de Noailles, Moreau de Saint-Méry, and Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Count of Volney.

What do these five French men have in common? They all idealized the new American country, which to them seemed like a fulfillment of the ideals of “Les Lumières,” French 18th century philosophers. “I had come across them during my past research, and I knew they had been in Philadelphia. I was curious to know more about them and about how they ended up there in the first place,” explains François de Furstenburg, who currently teaches History at Johns Hopkins University.

With letters of recommendation to vouch for them, the five French men had no troubles entering the highest sphere of American life as soon as they arrived in Philadelphia. It was in this way that Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord quickly became good friends with Alexander Hamilton. The two men often dined together, sharing with each other their ideas about politics and the economy.

These same letters of recommendation allowed the Vicomte of Noailles and the Duke de La Rocheoucauld-Liancourt to rub shoulders with George Washington’s ministers and make forays into francophile salons. At these gatherings of the most elite Americans of the time, they could socialize within the highest, most privileged spheres of society, where they could exert influence while doubtless easing the pain of homesickness.

Much but not all of François de Furstenberg’s research took place in the United States. “I spent most of my time in the archives in Philadelphia, but I also worked in Paris in the National Archives and the archives at Quai d’Orsay.” Born to an American father and a French mother, it was in the United States during his studies at Johns Hopkins University that François de Furstenberg discovered American history. Today, de Furstenberg specializes in the cultural, intellectual, and political history of the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. Somewhat fittingly, When the United States Spoke French hit shelves this past July 14th.

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