The French Enlightenment in America is an imposing subject. I have begun this book several times, and on occasion have been tempted to abandon it. Inward pressure to complete it, however, has never weakened. And a desire to convey to others something of the absorbing interest the subject has for me has never diminished.
I address this cross-cultural study to the scholar, to the curious but largely uninformed general reader, and to anyone interested in the history of American civilization. It offers, within modest bounds, an overview of French-American cultural relations, science generally excluded, in the period under consideration. One other comment is appropriate here. Theseus needed a thread to extricate himself from the Cretan labyrinth. I am convinced that many advanced students and scholars, not to speak of the inquisitive general reader, also need guidance in making their way through nebulous areas of this important interdisciplinary field. One does not always know which way to turn, where to look for help. It is my hope that the bibliographical documentation provided in these pages will assist those seeking information to find their way more easily through the maze.
My principal concern in this book is with the literary presence of French authors in America between 1760 and 1800 and with the reception of their writings by the Founding Fathers and other Americans, particularly of the writings of major philosophes of the French Enlightenment whose names turned up rather often in my research. It hardly need be said that while the presence of French books in private libraries may indicate interest, their presence does not necessarily imply influence. Thomas Jefferson’s library is a case in point. I have not hesitated, however, to cite when appropriate the conclusions of various scholars about the action exerted by French thought on Americans.
These essays derive from intensive reading in, and close scrutiny of, all sorts of printed sources. Much material comes from eighteenth-century newspapers published in important cities. I have not dealt with the French enclaves in America. If spellings and punctuation in some of the quotations from the past look odd, or lack French accents, they are like that in the original documents. Research on the subjects treated could go on through the years. The result, however, would differ very little in kind, I think, from what is presented here. Half a loaf is better than no bread.
The writings of Gilbert Chinard, Bernard Faÿ, and Howard Mumford Jones, to name only these scholars, clarify numerous and important aspects of this cultural relationship. I would like to pay tribute especially to Professor Chinard, my mentor at the Johns Hopkins University. He was a pioneer in the study of eighteenth-century intellectual relations between France and America. He inspired and directed fellow workers in new academic territory.1 He had the knowledge, the enthusiasm, and the diligence to cultivate in masterly fashion not only the French-American field but also the fields of French and comparative literature, literary history, the history of ideas, and American history and biography. His contribution is a vast one. Bernard Faÿ’s major contribution is a synthesis of the moral and intellectual relations between France and the United States from 1770 to 1800.2 Howard Mumford Jones’s well-known book spans the long period between 1750 and 1848.3 Neither Faÿ nor Jones gives a sufficient account of the fortunes of the French philosophes here in the times of the Founding Fathers. Nor did either author claim to do so. And neither one has much to say about French literature in itself in the United States.
For editorial permission to use, in whole or in part, articles of mine which have appeared elsewhere, I am grateful to the editors of Actes du Congrès Montesquieu (Bordeaux: Delmas, 1956) for “L’Influence de Montesquieu sur la constitution américaine”; Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century for “Diderot, Alembert, and the Encyclopédie in the United States, 1760–1800”; The World of Voltaire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1969) for “Voltaire and the Enlightenment”; France and North America: Over Three Hundred Years of Dialogue (Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1973) for “French-American Cultural Relations, 1760–1800”; the French Review for “The World of the Founding Fathers and France”; and the Modern Language Journal for “The Founding Fathers and the French Language.”
I am especially indebted to the United States Educational Commission for France for the award of a Fulbright grant to lecture at the Universities of Lille and Grenoble and to the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies of the University of Michigan for a Faculty Research Fellowship. These generous grants, which I acknowledge with many thanks, gave me leisure, support, and encouragement in the initial stages of this project.
Appreciated also are the many courtesies and help extended to me by staff members of the American Philosophical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Library of Congress, and the William L. Clements Library and the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan.