The Fathers’ Knowledge of French
An amusing story is told of an experience James Madison had while a student at Princeton. As the only “French scholar” easily available, he was once called upon to act as interpreter for a Frenchman who had come to the college. According to the anecdote, Madison, listening with all his might, was able to catch a few words … a glimmering” of what the “forlorn, wayworn” Frenchman was saying. Even more frustrated, Madison could not make himself understood. “I might as well have been talking Kickapoo at him!”1 In 1776 the Continental Congress sent one of its members, Silas Deane, to France to seek crucial aid for the American colonies. There, Deane was obliged to work with Beaumarchais, secret agent of the French government. Deane assured Beaumarchais that he never spoke with English people in Paris. “We must conclude from this that he is the most silent man in France,” wrote Beaumarchais to Vergennes, the French foreign minister, “for I defy him to say six consecutive words before Frenchmen.”2 Even Patrick Henry, on one occasion at least, was left speechless. As governor of Virginia, he received the visit of a Frenchman who could speak no English. The fiery patriot and orator could speak no French.3 Shortly before the Declaration of Independence, John Adams lamented his own deficiency in French. “I every day see more and more that it will become a necessary accomplishment of an American gentleman or lady.”4 And so it went, in a time of crisis, in the little world of the American forefathers. Inability to speak French was a cause of frustration to many. Some historians, moreover, have charged the forefathers with another shortcoming. I shall cite only one. Carl Becker wrote that “it does not appear that Jefferson, or any American, read many French books.”5
In any attempt to assess the literary and intellectual impact of France on America in the time of the Founding Fathers questions with regard to the American knowledge of the French language inevitably arise. There is no desire on my part to exaggerate or to minimize the role of French here. There are indications enough, however, that we must be wary of assertions about the supposed unfamiliarity of eighteenth-century Americans with the language. And we must also be on guard against uncritical statements concerning the competency in spoken French of some of the American statesmen. Nor is there any desire to duplicate the fine work of Howard Mumford Jones6 and many others. I too have collected over the years information similar to theirs. I intend rather to take a comprehensive view of the subject, and not to enter overmuch into detail. The French enclaves in America, it goes without saying, are excluded from this inquiry. I shall trace the fortune of the French language in the United States up to the end of the eighteenth century, point out or comment on whatever seems appropriate, and conclude with a series of linguistic portraits of some of the great public figures of the time.
First one can say that American interest in the French language developed only slowly in the eighteenth century. There were a number of reasons for this. Protestant Americans, at one time or another, feared both the Catholicism and the infidelity of Frenchmen. There was also the question of morals. Maurice Le Breton put it all very succinctly: “The main obstacle to a development of French culture in New England was of a religious character. Neither the Catholicism of the France of Louis XIV nor the deism of later days could escape the censure of the Puritans. The word French with them was too closely allied to extreme narrowness of views or loose morals, and often both. So, while quite willing to learn the language, because so ‘useful’ and so ‘distinguishing’ they were not at all disposed to let French ideas be preached to them under that disguise.”7
In the light of Le Breton’s remarks, it is hardly surprising to read that in 1724 Harvard refused a gift to its library by Thomas Hollis of London of Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique because, it was said, students could not read French. The college authorities made it clear, furthermore, that they wanted no more French books.8 In 1778, still annoyed at the thought of his personal difficulties with French while abroad, Silas Deane wrote a letter to President Stiles of Yale in which he urged the establishment of a professorship of the French language in the college. Said Deane, “The French Language is spoken in great purity in most of the Swiss Cantons, particularly so at Geneva, whence a Professor might be obtained, whose principles as well as manners could not fail of being agreeable.” President Stiles began consultations on the matter of the professorship, and in his Diary one finds this notation, “Mr. C—violently against because of Popery—others doubtful.”9
Not all Protestant clergymen, however, were opposed to the learning of French. As far back as 1726, Cotton Mather, in his Manuductio ad Ministerium, had encouraged prospective ministers to undertake the study of French, saying “there is no Man who has the French Tongue, but ordinarily he speaks the neater English for it.”10 Mather of course was interested in the writings of French Protestants. Much later, President Witherspoon, of Princeton, recommended French as helpful in the ministerial calling because of the “sound calvinistic, reformation divinity” written in that language.11
With regard to Le Breton’s comment concerning loose morals, let me point out that this fear was by no means limited to New England. As late as 1786 in Norfolk, Virginia, “the principal of the school was to appoint his assistants, all except the French tutor, who was to be appointed by the trustees.”12 And from Paris, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789, “The French language is unquestionably an important object of education. The habit of speaking it can only be acquired by conversation. This may be done either in France or Canada…. While learning the language in France a young man’s morals, health and fortune are more irresistibly endangered than in any country of the universe: in Canada he would be acquiring a knoledge of the country and it’s inhabitants which cannot fail to be useful in life to every American. On this point I have long ago made up my mind, that Canada is the country to which we should send our children to acquire a knoledge of the French tongue.”13
Greek, Latin, and Hebrew requirements also delayed the development of the study of French in American colleges. These languages were core subjects in higher education. The classics had long enjoyed a monopoly. In the last half of the eighteenth century, Greek and Latin came under heavy attack. As early as 1749, Benjamin Franklin, in his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania, had insisted that “all should not be compell’d to learn Latin, Greek, or the modern foreign languages.” The attacks on, as well as the defenses of, the teaching of the classical languages appear to have been more frequent in the late 1780s and in the 1790s. In 1782, Harvard had permitted students to substitute French for Hebrew, if they obtained special approval.14 And in 1797, Harvard required students who had been excused from the study of Hebrew to take French.15
Political considerations also hindered the progress of French language study, at least until the American Revolution. But the Declaration of Independence meant a new beginning. The American insurgents were in desperate need of financial and military help. With the signing of the treaties between the United States and France in 1778 the old enemy became the ally. American interest in the French language indeed quickened. It was high time, for Le Breton affirms that “when the French officers of the army and navy came to Boston in the days of the Revolution, conversation with the American authorities had to be held in Latin.”16 Alluding to the close proximity of the French fleet, John Eliot wrote to Jeremy Belknap in September 1782 that “it is necessary to talk French, or you would be a stranger in the streets of Boston.”17
In a Baltimore newspaper in 1786 a writer, commenting on a plan for an academy, said, “French is the language most generally used. Boys should be taught to speak and write it with fluency and accuracy, after which they will seldom have cause to regret the want of other modern tongues.”18 The following year another newspaper writer ventured to say of French that in Philadelphia and New York “almost every youth speaks it more or less” and many men in Boston speak it well.19 In its issue for February 1791, the New York Magazine or Literary Repository printed a five-page extract from Rivarol’s celebrated essay Of the Universality of the French Language.
The influx of thousands of émigrés from France and Santo Domingo into the United States, beginning around 1792, increased concern with the idiom. The New York Magazine, in its March 1794 number, printed a “Histoirc,” three and a half pages in French, extracted from Saint-Evremond. The editor said, “As many of our young friends are now studying that language, which is daily becoming more interesting to us, we should be pleased with an exercise of their talents in a translation of this elegant story.” A reader promptly came forth with a translation, which appeared in the next month’s issue. A Boston minister’s advice to a Harvard student in 1796 points up the momentous changes that time and circumstance had wrought. “An acquaintance with the French language is essential to a modern education. The [American] revolution has introduced us to the politest people on earth. Even before that event, there was a prevailing inclination to study their language. And long before a French instructor was employed by the university, some of the scholars added this to their other accomplishments.”20
Despite the “prevailing inclination” and a long history of tutors and extracurricular instruction in the language, Harvard did not appoint its first “salaried” French instructor until 1787.21
The first Department of Modern Languages had been established at the College of William and Mary in 1779 and the second at Columbia College in 1784.22 In 1784 also, the College of Rhode Island, today Brown University, solicited the aid of Louis XVI in establishing a professorship “of the French language and history in this our infant seminary.”23 At Princeton, French had been offered as an elective subject to the undergraduates as early as 1770.24 At Yale the teaching of French was irregular, and the language was not officially recognized until 1825.25
Outside the colleges there was no scarcity of French teachers. Newspapers in the last half of the century are strewn with their advertisements.26 Many also proposed to give lessons in dancing and maintien (posture). Instruction in the language, however, had been available here even in colonial times.27 French was also considered by some to be important in the education of girls.28 But others disagreed. This became a subject of controversy in the press.
We shall never know how many Americans studied, spoke, or read French in the eighteenth century. Compared with the total white population the number was surely small. But the prestige of French was great in the last half of the century. Much more attention was paid to it than to any other modern foreign language. Its growth in popularity was steady.
Chastellux, a major general and a traveler here, particularly in New England and Virginia, noted that a speaking knowledge of the language was far from common in America in the early 1780s, but “at least the importance of it is beginning to be felt.”29 Jefferson, writing from Paris in September 1785, made reference to “our country where the French language is spoken by very few.”30 Even in 1795 Jefferson would mention to Madame de Tessé as one of the obstacles to her coming to America the “little use here of your language.”31
It is a fact that encouragement was not everywhere given to the learning of French. Many people regarded such learning merely as an “accomplishment.” But the amount of earnest advice to young men particularly to acquire a knowledge of the language is both impressive and significant. Cotton Mather, Franklin, Thomas Jefferson repeatedly, John Clarke, all recommended the study of French. And so did others, among them William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, Stephen Girard, John Witherspoon, Noah Webster, and Benjamin Rush. The study of the language was urged for many reasons—commercial, economic, jurisprudential, literary, medical, political, practical, scientific, social, and theological. There were competent American translators of French: Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau (for the State Department), Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin Bache, Charles Brockden Brown.
The weight of the evidence of a broad concern with French, given the small population of the country, is such that it is impossible to accept obiter dicta such as “we were practically limited to one language—the English,” and “it was still a rare individual who could read any modern foreign language.” To contest sweeping generalizations of this sort, I am constrained to acquaint the reader with a few particulars. I do so with reluctance because of the risk of distorting the picture by citing a handful of cases.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as a very young boy, had studied at a Jesuit college in France. John Witherspoon, also a signer, championed the study of French for several reasons, its utility in a new country being one of them. He himself taught the language for a while at Princeton. According to his biographer, “he spoke and read French easily.” He could write letters in the language. But his pronunciation apparently left something to be desired. The marquis de Chastellux, who visited Princeton in 1780, wrote that “in accosting me he [Witherspoon] spoke French, but I easily perceived that he had acquired his knowledge of the language from reading, rather than conversation, which did not prevent me, however, from answering him, and continuing to converse with him in French, for I saw that he was well pleased to display what he knew of it.”32 The prince de Broglie, here with the French fleet, wrote of the Reverend Samuel Cooper of Boston that “although he expresses himself with difficulty in French, he understands it perfectly well, knows all our best authors.”33 Cooper was a leader of American political thought before 1776. Chastellux, in his Travels in North America, observed that William Bingham of Philadelphia, who had been an agent of the Continental Congress in Martinique, returned home with a “tolerable knowledge of French,” and that John Laurens, an officer in the American Revolution, “speaks very good French.” Alexander Graydon, also an officer in the army and an author, wrote in his Memoirs that he was able to read the language “with tolerable facility.” A Swedish officer noted that John Paul Jones spoke “tolerably good French.”34 Robert Morris of Philadelphia, a signer, “financier of the American Revolution,” and a member of the Federal Convention, sent sons to study at Passy. George Mason recommended a Marylander, Richard Harrison, to James Madison for a consular appointment in Spain. Harrison, said Mason, learned French in Martinique, where he “transacted a good deal of business for Virginia and some other of the United States in a manner that gave general satisfaction.”35 Mason, later to become a member of the Federal Convention from Virginia, urged his two sons in France to make the most of their opportunity to learn to speak French. John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, studied French in his youth with Huguenots at New Rochelle. It is reported that Aaron Burr was probably “able to speak French quite fluently, but he commonly wrote it badly, and in a careless and slovenly manner.”36 Fisher Ames, Massachusetts statesman, could read but not speak French.37 William Short, a Virginian, a founder of Phi Beta Kappa, and a diplomat, was Jefferson’s private secretary when the latter was minister to France. When Jefferson returned home in 1789, Short became chargé d’affaires. He is reported by more than one scholar to have achieved a mastery of French. Jefferson said that Short wrote letters for him in that language. But as will be seen farther on, Short had not made any appreciable progress in spoken French in his first year in France. James Monroe was appointed minister to France in 1794. “All the members of the Minister’s family learned to speak French fluently; by 1796 Monroe was sufficiently at ease to dispense with an interpreter at official interviews.”38 Noah Webster, as editor of the New York Federalist paper, the Minerva, “spent countless hours translating from French books, pamphlets, and newspapers, making abstracts and writing editorials for his columns.”39 “Benny” Bache, grandson of Dr. Franklin, was editor of the powerful democratic organ, the Aurora. According to Bernard Faÿ, “Bache spoke good French; one-third of the advertisements of his newspaper were in French…. [He] translated endless French documents and books…. He could translate readily and print quickly news and articles from the French papers, and he was the only newspaperman who could do so in Philadelphia.”40 Many another American was attracted to the study of French—such men as Ethan Allen; John Randolph of Roanoke; Charles Brockden Brown,41 the novelist, mentioned above as a translator; and William Dunlap, the playwright.42
Well-known people—as well as lesser- and little-known—were far from being “practically limited to one language—the English.” Many an American studied French. There is much that I must leave out. But the advertisements of textbooks, their availability,43 and a solicitude about foreign language learning bear witness to an ever-increasing interest in French.
The earliest French textbook published in eighteenth-century America, to my knowledge, was Some Short and Easy Rules Teaching the True Pronunciation of the French Language (Boston: S. Kneeland, 1720). Its author was Thomas Blair, a tutor at Harvard. The most renowned, I believe, was published toward the end of the century. This was Joseph Nancrède’s L’Abeille françoise; ou, Nouveau recueil de morceaux brillans, des auteurs françois les plus célèbres (Boston: Belknap and Young, 1792). Nancrède, Harvard’s first “salaried” instructor in French, brought the book out for the use of the college’s students. Faÿ pointed out that it had only eighty-two subscribers, but they included John Hancock, John Quincy Adams, James Lowell, Elisha Ticknor, and others—“tout le beau monde de Boston.”44 Other books directed to Americans learning French, also published here in the 1790s, might be mentioned. One was Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Voyages of Amasis (Boston: I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews, 1795). Part of a more extensive work, Voyages has French and English texts on opposite pages. Another was Moreau de Saint-Méry’s Idée générale ou abrégé des sciences et des arts à l’usage de la jeunesse (Philadelphia, 1796). And Nancrède published a book addressed “To the American Youth of Both Sexes.” This was his edition of Fénelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus (Philadelphia: G. Decombaz, 1797). In two volumes, this work too has French and English texts on opposite pages.
How best to learn modern languages was a question that evoked innumerable comments and responses. One or two instances will suffice. Noah Webster, in his essay On the Education of Youth in America (1790), wrote that French and other modern languages “should be learned early in youth, while the organs are yet pliable; otherwise the pronunciation will probably be imperfect.” Benjamin Rush expressed the same sentiments, more or less, later on. In his essay Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1798), Rush said, “The state of the memory in early life is favorable to the acquisition of languages, especially when they are conveyed to the mind, through the ear. It is, moreover, in early life only, that the organs of speech yield in such a manner as to favour the just pronunciation of foreign languages.” Good pronunciation was expected, as this criticism of an oration in French at a Harvard commencement, printed in the Boston Columbian Centinel, July 19, 1794, makes clear: “The French Oration was a good composition; but the delivery of it would have done honor to an Aboriginal Sachem, or a Hebrew Rabbi.”
Countless individuals learned French here in the course of the century, however good, bad, or quaint their pronunciation might have been. And many people obviously could and did read the language. Books in French in various private libraries, the gradual accumulation of French titles in the catalogs of college libraries, and the occasional acquisition of books in the language by library companies and societies afford evidence of this. There are, moreover, other indications of readership, all of which contradict the statement above that “it was still a rare individual who could read any modern foreign language.” Nancrède, for example, edited a weekly French newspaper, Le Courier de Boston, which began publication in April 1789 and ran for six months. He said that “three quarters of our subscribers are Americans.”45 And with reference to the some 250 novels and romances in French in Hocquet Caritat’s circulating library in New York City at the turn of the century, George G. Raddin, Jr., wrote, “Certainly the attempt to circulate these books … bespeaks a representative public able to read French.”46
So far I have been mostly concerned in this essay with the French language in the times of the Founding Fathers. In one connection or another I have had occasion to refer to a number of the Fathers: John Adams, Ames, Burr, Carroll, Franklin, Hancock, Henry, Jay, Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Robert Morris, Rush, and Witherspoon. Let me now direct attention, with regard to their knowledge of French, to some of the principal Founding Fathers. Selected for consideration, and based almost entirely on published sources, are the cases of Washington, Franklin, John Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris.47
In an essay on “Washington and the French” Jules Jusserand pointed out that “Washington’s acquaintance with things French began early” and that he was “a pupil of the French Huguenot Maryes, who kept a school at Fredericksburg.”48 Washington had many French titles in his library in the original and in translation.49 He encouraged the study of French within the family circle. He was most solicitous concerning the progress of his stepson and his nephews in this language. As early as 1771 he wrote that “to be acquainted with the French Tongue, is become a part of polite Education; and to a Man who has any [prospect] of mixing in a large Circle absolutely [necessary.]” And as late as 1797, advising a relative on his studies, he pointed out that “the French language is now so universal, and so necessary with foreigners, or in a foreign country, that I think you would be injudicious not to make yourself a master of it.”
Washington himself bought French dictionaries and books. But in spite of his great interest the “Father of his Country” could not understand, read, or speak French. His own correspondence is sufficient proof. To Philadelphia bookdealers Boinod and Gaillard he wrote: “Your Books [are] chiefly in a foreign Language (which I do not understand).” And in a letter to the marquis de Chastellux, thanking him for presenting him with a copy of the enlarged and corrected French edition of his Voyages, he speaks of Colonel Humphreys, then a visitor at Mount Vernon, having put into his hands “the translation of that part [of the Voyages] in which you say such, and so many handsome things of me.” A letter to Lafayette is the most candid of all.
You are pleased my dear Marquis to express an earnest desire of seeing me in France (after the establishment of our Independency) … but remember my good friend, that I am unacquainted with your language, that I am too far advanced in years to acquire a knowledge of it, and that to converse through the medium of an interpreter upon common occasions, especially with the Ladies must appr. so extremely aukward, insipid, and uncouth, that I can scarce bear it in idea.50
It was precisely with the ladies that Benjamin Franklin’s French was perhaps at its best. He wrote, or endeavored to write, billets doux in this language when past the canonical age of seventy. Of greater significance was his own recognition of the prestige and power of French in the eighteenth century. Franklin knew full well the service French could render to the American revolutionary cause. “As French is the political Language of Europe,” he wrote, “it has communicated an Acquaintance with our Affairs very extensively.”51 And in a letter to Noah Webster in 1789 Franklin acknowledged the cultural universality of the French language, noting at the same time that “our English bids fair to obtain the second place.”52
Franklin had begun the study of languages at the age of twenty-six. “I soon made myself so much a master of the French as to be able to read the books in that language with ease.” This self-evaluation concerning his reading skill, to be found in the Autobiography,53 was entirely just. His subsequent career and correspondence prove that his reading knowledge of French served him often and well. In this connection it is of interest to note that he did not like translations; translations, he felt, never did justice to the originals.
In serious matters Franklin did not trust himself to write French. Great caution should be exercised before accepting as authentic some letters in this language, purportedly of Franklin’s composition. It is not burdensome to copy in one’s own hand, and sign, a letter which has been translated or drafted by an obliging French friend. There exist a number of letters in French in Franklin’s handwriting. Some of these letters are neat, well written; others are filled with erasures and corrections. One can safely say that the latter were of Franklin’s own composition.54 He was not unduly inhibited, however, when composing, or trying to compose, letters and bagatelles in French sent to ladies such as Madame Brillon de Jouy and Madame Helvétius.55 Witty and amorous, these make very amusing reading despite the imperfect French.
Franklin lived in France almost a decade, from 1776 to 1785. He was named minister plenipotentiary in September 1778. He had also been in France on two occasions prior to 1776. How well, really, could he speak and understand French? Some light is thrown on this question by John Adams, who, with an appointment as commissioner of the Continental Congress in his pouch, had arrived in Paris in April 1778. In the very month of his arrival Adams jotted down in his Diary:
Dr. Franklin was reported to speak french very well, but I found upon attending critically to him that he did not speak it, grammatically, and upon my asking him sometimes whether a Phrase he had used was correct, he acknowledged to me, that he was wholly inattentive to the grammar. His pronunciation too, upon which the French Gentlemen and Ladies complemented him very highly and which he seemed to think pretty well, I soon found was very inaccurate, and some Gentlemen of high rank afterwards candidly told me that it was so confused, that it was scarcely possible to understand him. Indeed his Knowledge of French, at least his faculty of speaking it, may be said to have commenced with his Embassy to France. He told me that when he was in France some Years before, Sir John Pringle was with him, and did all his conversation for him, as his Interpreter, and that he understood and spoke French, with great difficulty, untill his present Residence, although he read it.56
Seven years after Adams had recorded his own observations in his Diary, Franklin himself disclosed his difficulties with French, revealed something of his progress, or lack of it, in the language. Less than two months before his final departure for America, after nine long years in France, the good doctor wrote a letter on the subject of glasses. It was he, one recalls, who invented bifocals. Hear what he had to say:
As I wear my [bifocal] Spectacles constantly, I have only to move my Eyes up or down, as I want to see distinctly far or near, the proper Glasses being always ready. This I find more particularly convenient since being in France, the Glasses that serve me best at Table to see what I eat… [and] the best to see the Faces of those on the other Side of the Table who speak to me; and when one’s Ears are not well accustomed to the Sounds of a Language, a Sight of the Movements in the Features of him that speaks helps to explain; so that I understand French better by the help of my Spectacles.57
Franklin and Adams provide a study in contrasts. Franklin was leisurely, tolerant, and unpretentious; Adams was aggressive, morally rigorous, and ambitious. Adams’s approach to French was typical of the man. His first stay in France lasted little more than a year. He was in his forties at the time. During this comparatively brief residence he made a frontal attack on the French language. The record of his year’s work in French is one of mortification and hope, dejection and pride, frustration and disillusionment, and of high linguistic resolve for the future.
When he arrived in the French capital Adams confessed that he was looked upon as “a Man of whom Nobody had ever heard before, a perfect Cypher, a Man who did not understand a Word of French.” Feverishly, he set out to get a working knowledge of the language. He proposed to learn spoken French in his own way. “I had not been a month, as yet, in France, nor three Weeks in Passi, but I had seized every moment that I could save from Business, company or Sleep to acquire the language. I took with me the Book to the Theatre, and compared it line for Line and word for Word, with the pronunciation of the Actors and Actresses, and in this Way I found I could understand them very well. Thinking this to be the best course I could take, to become familiar with the language and its correct pronunciation, I determined to frequent the Theatres as often as possible.” Adams also made other plans in order to become conversant with French. But he came to regret that he had not employed a teacher—this was “an egregious Error.”
Adams’s assiduity apparently bore fruit. Less than a year after his arrival he made this notation in his Diary: “Went to Versailles, in order to take Leave of the Ministry. Had a long Conversation, with the Comte De Vergennes, in french, which I found I could talk as fast as I pleased.” He hated to leave France, and he did not mind telling why. “I have just acquired enough of the Language to understand a Conversation, as it runs at a Table … to conduct all my Affairs myself… and understand all the Prattle of the Shop keeper—or I can sit down with a Gentleman, who will have a little Patience to speak a little more distinctly than common, and to wait a little longer for my Sentences than common, and maintain a Conversation pretty well.”
But leave France he must. Reluctantly therefore, Adams departed but not without taking with him some well-considered opinions as to the quickest and best means of learning French. Musing, for example, on the “two ways of learning french commonly recommended—take a Mistress and go to the Commedie,” he concluded, “Perhaps both would teach it soonest, to be sure sooner than either. But … the Language is no where better spoken than at the Comedie.” To plays then he would go as often as possible, to the law courts to hear cases, and to churches to hear sermons. He would eat at taverns because “after a few Coups du Vin [peoples’] Tongues run very fast,” and he would frequent the shops because “the female Shop keepers are the most chatty in the World.” John Adams was sure that “these are the Ways to learn the Language, and if to these are Added, a dilligent study of their Grammars, and a constant Use of their best Dictionaries, and Reading of their best Authors, a Man in one Year may become a greater Master in it.”
Sailing homeward, Adams engaged in shipboard conversations with Barbé-Marbois, a newly appointed member of the French legation in the United States. Adams, in one of these conversations, said “that it was often affirmed that Mr. Franklin spoke French as fluently and elegantly, as a Courtier at Versailles, but every Man that knew and spoke sincerely, agreed that he spoke it very ill. Persons spoke of these Things, according to their affections.” Barbé-Marbois, Adams relates, “said it was Flattery. That he would not flatter, it was very true that both Mr. F. and I spoke french, badly.”
Adams’s Diary is a treasure trove of information pertaining to his French and that of others. He noted, among other things, that his fellow commissioner to seek aid in France for the American revolutionary cause, Arthur Lee, “spoke french with tolerable ease.”58
Jefferson yielded to none of his contemporaries in his awareness of the political, scientific, and cultural importance of French. He encouraged its study in his family and among his friends and protégés. His successful efforts in support of the study of French and other modern languages in the curriculum of higher education in America are well known. He was interested in linguistic methodology.59 And his library shelves were crowded with books in French.
Jefferson began his study of the language early. At the age of nine he was placed by his father in the Latin school. “My teacher, Mr. Douglas, a clergyman from Scotland, with the rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages, taught me the French.”60 Dumas Malone, in Jefferson and His Time, has little good to say about William Douglas as a modern language teacher. When Jefferson left William and Mary College at the age of eighteen, he was said to have been “remarkably proficient” in French.61 His reading ability is of course incontestable. He also showed himself to be an able and discerning translator of the language.62 What of his ability to speak and write French?
Jefferson represented the United States as special envoy and as minister to France during the years 1784–89. One year after his arrival there, he revealed in a letter his difficulties with the spoken language. “Patsy [his daughter Martha] … speaks French as easily as English, whilst Humphries, Short and myself are scarcely better at it than when we landed.”63 Jefferson, according to Kenneth Umbreit, “was unwilling to trust himself to oral negotiations in French…. He usually wrote in English.”64 Whatever his progress in speaking and writing the language in the latter part of his stay in Paris, Jefferson, two years after he had arrived in the capital, still lacked confidence in his ability to express himself clearly in French when putting pen to paper. This diffidence is seen in a letter that he wrote to Hector St. John de Crevecoeur from Paris on July 11, 1786: “Being unable to write in French so as to be sure of conveying my meaning, or perhaps any meaning at all, I will beg of you to interpret what I now have the honour to write.”65 But Jefferson did compose some “informal letters” in the language.66
James Madison owned, ordered from Europe, and borrowed from Jefferson many books in French.67 The “Father of the Constitution” made good use of them. As a boy of eleven he had entered a school kept by a Scotsman, Donald Robertson, where he studied French—reading it, he said, “as a dead language.” Even worse was the pronunciation acquired. “From Donald Robertson, as Madison discovered to his subsequent chagrin and ultimate amusement, he learned to speak French with a broad Scotch accent. Knowledge of this fact caught up with him at Princeton, though not from any superior French scholarship at that institution.”68 Madison’s knowledge of the spoken language must have been exceedingly shaky. Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1787 urging him to “learn French” from Madame de Brehan, then a visitor here.
Benjamin Rush, the distinguished Philadelphia physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, knew French. In 1774, Benjamin Franklin addressed a letter to Rush from London, saying, “I now write to you as one of the Secretaries of our Philosophical Society [the American] who understands French, to request your Attention to the enclos’d Papers and that you would translate them for the Use of the Society.”69 In 1779, John Adams wrote to Rush saying, “You speak French so perfectly … that I wish you to be acquainted with the Chevalier De la Luzerne, and Mr. Marbois.”70
Rush had studied French when a student in Britain. He stated that he made himself a “master” of it in a summer and part of a fall, having as a teacher “a man of uncommon genius.”71 He received his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh in 1768. Many years later he would write to John Adams that “I have found much more benefit from the French than I ever found from the Latin or Greek in my profession.”72
Rush was a great advocate of the study of French—by male Americans. For several reasons set forth in his Thoughts upon Female Education (1787), he did not believe that French should be made a part of the education of American ladies. Noah Webster did not think so either. Except for the American woman, Benjamin Rush did not tire of publicly recommending the study of both French and German. In 1788 he proposed A Plan for a Federal University. These languages should be taught in this university, and a knowledge of them should become “an essential part of the education of a legislator of the United States.”73 In his essay Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1798), he insisted that the two languages be taught in all colleges and “that a degree should never be conferred upon a young man who cannot speak or translate them.”
Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris both began to learn French early in life—Hamilton in the West Indies and Morris at New Rochelle. The mother of each was of Huguenot extraction. Hamilton, according to his son, “wrote and spoke [French] with the ease of a native.”74 Morris, on the authority of one of his biographers, “knew the French language as few of his contemporaries knew it, and wrote it with somewhat prolix but often spritely grace.”75
Both men’s French served them and their country well in the American Revolution. Hamilton’s “command of the French language … made him useful and welcome” in contacts with foreign officers.76 Morris acted as interpreter for his chief, Robert Morris, superintendent of finance (and no relation), in all of Robert Morris’s dealings with the chevalier de la Luzerne, French minister to the United States.77 Gouverneur Morris, the “Penman of the Constitution,” would find his knowledge of French especially valuable when he assumed office as United States minister to France in 1792.
In retrospect, many factors influenced the development of interest in French in eighteenth-century America. Americans had first to surmount prejudices, often deeply ingrained, against France and Frenchmen before there could be any extensive concern with the language itself. The industrious French-speaking Huguenot population surely served as a leaven in moderating bias. Swiss from the French cantons also contributed in some measure to the advancement of the foreign idiom. Albert Gallatin, for instance, was born in Geneva. As a young man he taught French for a year at Harvard and later became secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson. The Scotch teachers of French likewise had a hand in breaking down old barriers that had obstructed the progress of French here—Thomas Blair in Cambridge, clergymen such as William Douglas and Donald Robertson in Virginia, and espedaily John Witherspoon, the Scottish-American Presbyterian minister who became president of Princeton. He was an enthusiastic advocate of the study of French. Perhaps the Quaker example also helped. Quakers and their children studied the language.
The Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution brought a reversal of traditional opinion and policy. War was the paramount factor in influencing change. Just as the American contribution to victory in World War I gave a decided impetus to French curiosity about the United States, its literature and language, so in the War of the Revolution the French contribution to American victory over England heightened American interest in the language and literature of France. The growth and spread of this interest here is an incontrovertible fact.
Unfortunately, political events at the end of the century, referred to in the preceding essay, produced a contrary result. Jay’s Treaty with England angered France. The machinations of Talleyrand, French foreign minister, in the XYZ Affair, an attempt to bribe and intimidate American envoys in Paris, when publicized, infuriated this country. The undeclared naval war with France worsened the now fragile connection. And finally, as we have seen, great numbers of people in the United States had long and vehemently opposed what they considered the ungodly French Revolution.78 All these occurrences caused a heavy surf of Gallophobia. The repeal in 1798 of the treaties with France terminated the alliance. Cultural relations inevitably suffered. In many if not most places, the desire to learn French disappeared. The language was dropped from college curricula.79 In America, French undoubtedly lost much ground as the century drew to a close.