François Furstenberg follows these five men—Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoleon’s future foreign minister; theoristreformer Rochefoucauld, the duc de Liancourt; Louis-Marie Vicomte de Noailles; Moreau de Saint-Méry; and Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, Comte Volney—as they left their homes and families in France, crossed the Atlantic, and landed in Philadelphia—then America’s capital, its principal port, and by far its most cosmopolitan city and the home of the wealthiest merchants and financiers. The book vividly reconstructs their American adventures, following along as they integrated themselves into the city and its elite social networks, began speculating on backcountry lands, and eventually became enmeshed in Franco-American diplomacy. Through their stories, we see some of the most famous events of early American history in a new light, from the diplomatic struggles of the 1790s to the Haitian Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
By the end of this period, the United States was on its way to becoming a major global power. Through this small circle of men, we find new ways to understand the connections between U.S. and world history, and gain fresh insight into American history’s most critical era. Beautifully written and brilliantly argued, When the United States Spoke French offers a fresh perspective on the tumultuous years of the young nation, when the first great republican experiments were put to the test.
It’s a thrilling experience to see the publication of my book: it’s the end of a long, ten-year journey for me. Or perhaps it’s been even longer.
The book follows the adventures of five eminent Frenchmen who fled to the United States during the French Revolution, and lived in exile for a few years in the mid-1790s, during an epochal time of war and revolution through the Atlantic World. As we explore the United States through their eyes, we see familiar scenes from a different perspective. We discover a capital city awash with French people, French goods, and French manners. We see a nation buffeted by war, its sovereignty threatened by European empires and Native peoples alike. And we see the complex ways that United States was shaped by the vast global forces of the age.
My own adventures writing the book paralleled those of my characters in a strange way. In a sense, it began with my own expatriation.
The idea originally came to me when I moved to Montreal in the summer of 2003 to take up my first job as a professor of history at the Université de Montréal – a francophone institution. Although my mother is French and I grew up speaking French at home, I was born, raised, and educated in the United States. But now here I was in a part of America that really did speak French, and it gave me the inspiration to start thinking about my own field – U.S. history – from the outside.
What I thought would be a simple book about a few émigrés in Philadelphia, and about the connections between the French and American Revolutions, quickly mushroomed into something much bigger. It became clear to me that the relationship between France and the United States in the 1790s could not be understood without reference to the larger Atlantic World – to imperial conflict between France and Britain, and to the economic centrality of the Caribbean to everyone.
I gradually discovered a story whose contours I only barely perceived at the outset. My transatlantic travellers took me deep into the American continental interior, revealing a story about reckless land speculation, bitterly-contested continental expansion, international capital flows, and the consolidation of an American empire ironically founded on the liberation of Haitian slaves.
So my characters’ journeys led me on a journey of my own. I completed the book just as I moved back to the United States, coming full circle in a sense.
Thank you for your interest in the book. I certainly hope that you’ll find the ride as thrilling as I did.