The World of the Founding Fathers and France
Henry Thomas Buckle believed that the “junction of the French and English intellects, … looking at the immense chain of its effects, [was] by far the most important fact in the history of the eighteenth century.” Why? Because the French, wrote the English historian, had sought liberty in England, “where alone it could be found.”1 He was right with regard to the first half of the century. But the rest seems to be an exaggeration. Liberty, as if one could forget, was also the leitmotif in what we may call the New World Symphony. The Founding Fathers made the proper orchestration of this theme their principal task. Inasmuch as eighteenth-century France became the principal theater of Enlightenment, it is appropriate to shift attention away from England and toward the “junction” of the French and American intellects.
Many scholars have written about the ideological impact of the United States on France in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Let me cite in this connection only the studies of Gilbert Chinard on the American antecedents of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man,2 R. R. Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution,3 and Durand Echeverria’s Mirage in the West.4 My inquiry moves in the opposite direction. I am concerned with the image of France and the French held by Americans in the years between 1760 and 1800.5 Knowledge of this concept is basic to any consideration of the role of French thought in the American Enlightenment. This essay deals with the coming together of the American and French minds in these four critical decades.
Today Americans find it difficult to visualize their country and its people in the decisive years of its history. In 1790, the year of the first census, the population totaled 3,929,625.6 Contrast this with the population of France at that time. The first French census did not take place until 1801, but the number of its inhabitants in 1789 has been variously estimated at from 26 to 27 million. The American census figures included whites, free Negroes, and slaves. The whites numbered 3,172,444. The southern states had 48.5 percent of the entire population. The remainder was distributed almost equally between New England and the middle Atlantic states. Virginia had the greatest number of people. Massachusetts was second in number and Pennsylvania third. The nonurban population was widely dispersed. “The four millions of people in the country in 1790,” Frank J. Klingberg writes, “were sparsely settled over a misshapen rectangle some twelve or thirteen hundred miles from its northeastern corner to the southwest, and with primitive homes extending a thousand miles to the west into the Ohio Valley, and beyond the Alleghenies into Tennessee and Kentucky.”7 In 1790 just 5.4 percent of the people lived in towns.
Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Charleston, and Baltimore were, in descending order, the five largest cities. Their combined population at the time of the first census amounted to only 123,475. Even so they were, as Thomas J. Wertenbaker called them, “crucibles of culture.” Merle E. Curti wrote that “the towns were the chief centers of intellectual activity because they enjoyed closer relations with Europe and because they offered great opportunities for social contacts and the discussion of events and ideas.”8 The new federal government began its operations in New York in March 1789. Philadelphia was the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800. Washington became the seat of government in the latter year.
Urban centers along the eastern seaboard were by no means impervious to outside influence. Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston were cosmopolitan cities, “oases of culture and taste,” writes Carl Bridenbaugh.9 According to Michael Kraus, “in the 1760s some two hundred [ships] a year sailed from London alone for the thirteen colonies.” And “more than 1,800 ocean-going vessels arrived at New York and Philadelphia in 1788.”10 Reading matter from England and the European continent flowed into the ports and thence trickled into the interior. Abundant information on the book trade, book ownership, and libraries in the United States, from colonial times on, is easily available. French books in the original and in translation were in a great number of eighteenth-century collections. The importance of the printed word, not to speak of personal contacts and conversations, in effecting a meeting of minds and in the formation of opinion requires no comment. Accounts of the difficulties of travel and communication within the country are also plentiful.11 But America, manifestly, was no hermetic “Hand, intire of itselfe.”
The foreign news columns in the American gazettes kept readers posted on events in Europe, with due allowance for a time lag. How much was it? Atlantic crossings were of different lengths, of course, depending on various factors. An interesting sidelight is to be found in the Maryland Journal for September 22, 1789. The editor announced that he stopped this issue in the press to report the first news of the storming of the Bastille. The news, he said, had arrived in Philadelphia on September 18: July 14 in Paris, September 22 in Baltimore! Kraus, however, mentions speedier crossings in his book. And Elkanah Watson, about whom more later, in his Memoirs wrote, “After a sail of twenty-nine days, I was standing on a quay in France. What a transition!” His voyage had taken him from Boston to Saint-Martin-de-Ré. The year was 1779.
Before 1776 the American attitude toward France had been one of distrust. France had long been the age-old foe of the mother country. Americans also looked upon France as a nation of papists and as a land of religious intolerance. The presence of the Huguenots12 in New England, New York, and South Carolina and the activities of French missionaries in Canada lent cogent support to this view. “The savage years” of the French and Indian War had also left the colonials with bitter memories of their French enemies. But a new order was in the making. The Declaration of Independence would mark the end of an era and the beginning of another. The times change and people change with them. Only two years after the Declaration the United States and France signed a treaty of amity and commerce and a treaty of alliance.
In 1768 the American Philosophical Society, the country’s oldest scientific academy, elected Buffon to its membership. He was the first French member. By the year 1800 the society had elected fifty-eight more French men of science and philosophes and had honored France by the election of still other persons of note.13 Brissot de Warville, journalist and Girondist, visited the Harvard library in 1788 and was moved to rapture when he discovered that it contained French books.14 On the Yale campus in the 1790s, students used names of French philosophes as nicknames.15 These instances of American concern with French thinkers and French literature may appear to be isolated events or fortuitous occurrences. But they are not. One might compare them to the small designs one sees in unrolling a large tapestry—tiny parts of a logically developing pattern of great interest.
“There are multitudes of Frenchmen come over,” noted Princeton’s president, John Witherspoon, in February 1777, “and almost everybody is ambitious of learning the French.”16 But the great influx of Frenchmen began only in 1778, after the signing of the treaties between the two countries.17 Some forty-six thousand French soldiers, sailors, and officers participated in the War of the Revolution. The names of these men and their place of origin have been set down in a lasting record.18 The names of such distinguished commanders as Lafayette, Rochambeau, Chastellux, Estaing, and De Grasse remain firmly secured in memory. The presence of the French offered ample opportunity for acquaintance and even fraternization. “I doubt much,” wrote General Washington on the completion of military operations, “whether there ever was an instance before, where the Troops of two Nations which have served together in the Field, have parted with such sentiments of sincere affection and mutual regret.”19 There were other important consequences of the wartime connection. The presence of the French armed forces and their contribution to the defeat of England greatly stimulated American interest in the language and literature of France. One need but recall a similar situation—this time in reverse. More than two million American soldiers went to France in World War I. Their contribution to victory gave a decisive impetus to French curiosity about the United States and its literature. It is worthy of notice that Charles Cestre, first incumbent of the chair of American literature and civilization at the Sorbonne, began his lectures there in 1918. The association of Americans with the French in the Revolutionary War also helped promote growth of a more tolerant spirit in the United States. Samuel Breck, in his “Recollections,” wrote of an abrupt change in attitude which took place in New England “after a few years intercourse with the French army and navy.” In 1789 he attended a celebration of the Mass in Boston, held in a building in which Huguenots had once worshipped. “I can bear witness, that not the smallest opposition took place; neither was there a hostile remark from the press. Puritan jealousy and intolerance had wholly disappeared. Not a vestige of former austerity remained.” Only fourteen years before, Breck recalled, the pope had been burned in effigy in New England, “as a token of the hatred borne by the people, to the Roman C. Religion.”20
The French Revolution itself facilitated further contacts between the two peoples. It has been estimated that “well over ten thousand” refugees came to the United States from France and Santo Domingo to escape the violent disruption it caused. The author of the monograph from which this figure is taken writes that “they began to arrive in 1792, and in the following years ‘thousands upon thousands of Frenchmen crowded into the American seaboard towns.’ But this immigration was not confined to the East. One group formed a project to found a new city, Gallipolis, on the Ohio, and some six hundred of them not only reached the Ohio wilderness but survived in it. They were people of humble rank, and a fair proportion of the émigrés in the East were artisans and shopkeepers. The majority of those from metropolitan France, however, were aristocrats.”21 Among these were Chateaubriand, Talleyrand, and the future king of the French, Louis-Philippe.
French architects and artists came also to the new Republic—among them L’Enfant, Houdon, and Saint-Mémin. Pierre Charles L’Enfant rests today in Arlington National Cemetery, close to the great federal city he planned. Houdon spent about two weeks at Mount Vernon, modeling Washington’s face, shoulders, and hands. He took the models back to France, where Gouverneur Morris posed for the rest of the general’s statue, which is in the Virginia capitol. Févret de Saint-Mémin executed hundreds of portrait medallions of prominent Americans, a collection of which can be seen in the Corcoran Gallery of Art.22 Quesnay de Beaurepaire, who fought here in the War of the Revolution, proposed to establish an academy of arts and sciences in Richmond, with branches in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. His ambitious project to strengthen the cultural relations between France and America did not succeed.23
French travelers went here and there, noting their impressions, collecting material for the accounts of their American tours.24 French newspapers issued from presses in the United States.25 Meanwhile, in France, Americans were gathering information firsthand about that country.
English visitors by the thousands crossed the Channel into France in the last half of the eighteenth century.26 A voyage across the Atlantic to France in those long-ago days was a much more difficult undertaking. But the number and character of those Americans who braved the high seas will doubtless come as a surprise to many readers. With no pretension to give an exhaustive account, I would like to direct attention to some of these travelers. First, there were the accredited representatives of government—commissioners, envoys, ministers or ministers plenipotentiary, consuls. Then there were students, doctors, tourists, businessmen, and artists. All sorts of people, in fact, made their way from the New World to the Old. Their contacts and novel experiences, it goes without saying, proved highly instructive to them, and through them, to Americans at home. Many became important intermediaries between the two countries.
Benjamin Franklin lived in France from 1776 to 1785. While there he exercised responsibilities of the utmost importance to the success of American arms and to the future of the United States. He and Conrad-Alexandre Gérard helped negotiate the treaties between the two countries. In 1778 Louis XVI named Gérard minister to the United States, and the Continental Congress appointed Franklin minister to France. Franklin’s diplomatic and personal triumphs abroad are too well known to require mention. His circle of acquaintances included Voltaire, Turgot, Condorcet, Cabanis, Marie Antoinette, Comtesse d’Houdetot, and a host of others.27 Voltaire’s blessing in 1778 of a grandson of Franklin’s, at the latter’s request, needs no recounting. Whether Voltaire used the words “Dieu et la liberté” or “God and Liberty” in his invocation is a moot point.28 John Adams, hardly a friend of Franklin’s, wrote glowingly of the high esteem in which he was held throughout France. Albert H. Smyth, one of his biographers, declared that “a list of the names upon the visiting cards found among Franklin’s private papers would be an index of the society of Paris before the Revolution.” Franklin was “the American personality most frequently depicted on the stage” during the French Revolution.29 However prodigious his political activity in Paris, it was not all work and no play for Dr. Franklin. The gallantry of the septuagenarian ambassador in the French capital also commands admiration. The story of his amorous disposition, especially toward Madame Brillon and Madame Helvétius, widow of the philosophe, is a source of perennial amusement and delight.30 “The French are an amiable People to live with,” wrote the good Doctor in 1783. “They love me, & I love them. Yet I do not feel myself at home, & I wish to die in my own Country.”31
Thomas Jefferson succeeded Franklin. He was minister from 1785 to 1789, and saw the beginning of the French Revolution. Much has been written by Jefferson and others on his sojourn in France. For the general reader two or three references are enough. They will provide information concerning his acquaintances, attitudes, interests, life, and travels in that country.32 In his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781, Jefferson had said, “We are but just becoming acquainted with her [France], and our acquaintance so far gives us high ideas of the genius of her inhabitants.” In a letter from Paris in 1786, two years after his arrival in the foreign capital, he wrote, “We have no idea in America of the real French character. With some true samples, we have had many false ones.”33 He met and knew many well-known persons. According to Chinard, “There is no doubt that, during his stay in France, Jefferson formed personal friendships with Morellet, Mably, Démeunier, Condorcet, young Cabanis, whom he met at the house of Mme. Helvétius, and with the last survivors of the old philosophical guard.”34 Jefferson left France in 1789. Here is what he wrote in his Autobiography:
I cannot leave this great and good country, without expressing my sense of its pre-eminence of character among the nations of the earth. A more benevolent people I have never known, nor greater warmth and devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled, and the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city. Their eminence, too, in science, the communicative dispositions of their scientific men, the politeness of the general manners, the ease and vivacity of their conversation, give a charm to their society, to be found nowhere else.
Gouverneur Morris, James Monroe, and William Vans Murray, in that order, succeeded Jefferson as ministers to France in the closing years of the century. A witness to the Revolution, Morris concluded his Diary with a letter to Jefferson, then in Philadelphia. In it he gave the Virginian a description of the execution of Louis XVI.35
John Adams, though never a minister to the French court, had first gone to Paris in April 1778 with an appointment by the Continental Congress as commissioner to France in his pocket. He returned home the following year. In the 1780s he was again in and out of the capital, while acting in various official capacities abroad. At one time or another, the conservative Adams made the acquaintance of various philosophes. The caustic comments in his writings and correspondence on the ideas of some of the philosophes are unforgettable. The diary of his life in France makes good reading.36 And so do the letters of his wife, Abigail, commenting on the French scene. The New England woman’s reactions to such things as customs, dress of ladies, and the scanty clothing of girl dancers etch themselves on the mind. The letter in which she describes the appearance and behavior of Madame Helvétius at a dinner at Dr. Franklin’s has become a minor classic.37 “I own I was highly disgusted, and never wish for an acquaintance with any ladies of this cast,” Abigail declared. “I hope, however, to find amongst the French ladies manners more consistent with my ideas of decency, or I shall be a mere recluse,” said she.
Boys from Maryland Catholic families early went to study at the Jesuit English College of Saint Omers in French Flanders. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, left Annapolis for France in 1748. He was eleven at the time. His cousin Jacky, two years older, accompanied him. After Saint Omers, Charles Carroll studied at Rheims, Paris, and Bourges. He lived in France for ten years. John Carroll Would become the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States and the founder of Georgetown University.38 John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, in his youth, studied French in Passy. Samuel Breck, a leading citizen of Philadelphia and a member of Congress from Pennsylvania, as a boy, studied in the 1780s for more than four years at the Collège de Sorèze, not far from Toulouse. But some four decades before Breck went to Sorèze, Thomas Bond, a Marylander, had “completed his medical education in Europe, chiefly at Paris.” Bond helped found the Pennsylvania Hospital, oldest in the United States. He was also a founder of the American Philosophical Society.39 In 1751 John Jones had obtained his M.D. at the University of Rheims. Jones, from Jamaica, Long Island, became a professor of surgery and obstetrics at King’s College (Columbia) and is said to have written the first textbook on surgery in the American colonies. All these men were in the vanguard of the multitude of Americans who, as time rolled on, would go to France for study.
French medicine also interested other American doctors who traveled or studied in France. Among them were William Shippen, Jr., who visited the medical schools at Paris and Montpellier, John Morgan, Benjamin Rush, Solomon Drowne, and George Logan. Logan attended anatomical lectures in Paris in the winter of 1779–80.40 Morgan and Rush, particularly, command our attention.
John Morgan was medical director of the Continental Army. Early on he had been an apprentice in Philadelphia under Dr. John Redman, who had done some study in Paris. After receiving his M.D. at Edinburgh in 1763 John Morgan studied anatomy for a while in the French capital. He was admitted to the Académie Royale de Chirurgie de Paris in 1764. One Sunday afternoon in this same year, accompanied by Samuel Powel, he called upon Voltaire at Ferney. Morgan quotes Voltaire as saying, “If ever I smell of a Resurrection, or come a second time on Earth, I will pray God to make me born in England, the land of Liberty.” Morgan’s account of their conversation is captivating.41 Of Voltaire’s linguistic ability he made this observation, “We meet with few french Men who pronounce english better.”
Benjamin Rush, another renowned Philadelphia doctor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, went to Paris in 1769. He was received by Diderot in his library, heard the Abbé Nollet lecture, met Jussieu and others.42 Professionally, Rush’s trip was a disappointment. He had received his M.D. at the University of Edinburgh only the year before. “I visited most of their hospitals and conversed with several of the principal physicians in Paris, and was sorry to find them at least fifty years behind the Physicians in England and Scotland in medical knowledge.”43 In his diary, Traveling Through France, which holds the attention, the genial Rush comments at length on French manners.44 He even thought of a number of ways to compare the French to the North American Indians.
The French capital was always the great magnet. “It is amazing,” declared one writer, “how many Americans there were in Paris during those brief years when revolution had ended in America and not yet commenced in France.”45 I have already dealt with a few of the persons he mentions. The reader will come across the names of some of the others in the ensuing comments touching on tourists, businessmen, and artists.
Foster Rhea Dulles calls Elkanah Watson “the first [American] tourist.” Born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Watson initially landed in France, as indicated above, in 1779. Unlike most tourists, he established a mercantile house, at Nantes, in the very year of his arrival. His Memoirs, in which he narrates his travels and reactions while in France, make pleasurable reading. “I trust,” wrote Watson, “that our alliance and intercourse with France may enable us, as a nation, to shake off the leading-strings of Britain—the English sternness and formality of manner, retaining, however, sufficient of their gravity, to produce, with French ease and elegance, a happy compound of national character and manners, yet to be modeled. The influence of this alliance will tend to remove the deep prejudice against France.”46 A number of Americans, in addition to those previously mentioned, went to Paris in the 1780s, either as tourists or in other capacities. Dulles’s book provides us with brief information concerning these travelers.47 Among them were John Paul Jones, Thomas Paine, Louis Littlepage, David Humphreys, William Short, John Ledyard, Thomas Lee Shippen, John Rutledge, Jr., and Mr. and Mrs. William Bingham, who cut a wide swath in the French capital.
During the French revolutionary period itself many Americans resided in Paris or lived somewhere in France. Bizardel has established a list of more than two hundred who were in the country in the years 1789–99. Among them were the inventors James Rumsey and Robert Fulton. Several became officers in the French army. Quakers from Nantucket lived in Dunkerque and fished for whales. Some even knew the insides of Paris prisons because they were mistaken for Englishmen.48 William Henry Vernon, of Rhode Island, spoke formally to the National Assembly on July 10, 1790.49 He swore “amitié éternelle aux François.” Eleven other citizens of the United States, among them Joel Barlow and John Paul Jones, signed this address. In response to it the president of the Assembly exclaimed, “Que les Américains & les François ne fassent qu’un Peuple: réunis de coeur, réunis de principes…. L’Assemblée Nationale vous offre les honneurs de sa Séance.” In his Diary Robert C. Johnson, a Connecticut lawyer and tourist, wrote, “I mixed with the citizens and saw Lewis the Sixteenth beheaded.”50 His underscoring still produces a mild shock.
As early as 1793 American businessmen and merchants began to buy properties that the state had taken over from the church and émigrés. Some even made money on their purchases of hotels and châteaux, paying with devalued assignats, selling for gold or cash. One American won two houses in Paris in the national lottery and another a house that had belonged to Lafayette.51
Paris, of course, attracted American artists. Benjamin West arrived in 1763, John Singleton Copley ten years later. John Trumbull landed in France for the first time in 1780. Joseph Wright and John Vanderlyn, among others, also made their way to the capital.52
The National Assembly bestowed French citizenship upon George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Only Madison accepted it.53 The National Convention made Thomas Paine and Joel Barlow citizens of France. Paine was elected to the convention. Barlow, a Yale graduate and one of the Connecticut Wits, campaigned for election to it from Savoy, but he was defeated.54
I have set down a few of the circumstances that brought Americans and French people together in revolutionary times. The associations were innumerable. For instance, we forget or may not be aware of the fact that Franklin knew Turgot and Beaumarchais, that John Adams was acquainted with the Abbé de Mably and Condorcet. “Did I know Baron Grimm while at Paris?” wrote Jefferson to Adams. “Yes, most intimately. He was the pleasantest, and most conversible member of the diplomatic corps while I was there: a man of good fancy, acuteness, irony, cunning, and egoism: no heart, not much of any science, yet enough of every one to speak its language. … I always supposed him to be of school of Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach.”55 All these connections—personal, artistic, commercial, educational, military, and political—had a role to play in the creation of a somewhat different image of France from that formerly held in the United States. Protestant Americans, we have seen, had long feared, among other things, the Catholicism of the French. But despite their misgivings it was thought, as Gilbert Chinard pointed out so many years ago, that they had something to gain from the study of French economists, political thinkers, and scientists. The increase in travel abroad, and the presence of a large number of Americans in la Ville lumière and elsewhere in France advanced French-American cultural relations, helped allay old fears.
Americans hailed the French Revolution at the outset. Noah Webster wrote, “When the revolution in France was announced in America, his [Webster’s] heart exulted with joy; he felt nearly the same interest in its success, as he did in the establishment of American Independence.”56 John Adams, writing later than Webster, declared, “The enthusiasm for … France and the French revolution, was at that time , almost universal throughout the United States, but, in Pennsylvania, and especially in Philadelphia, the rage was irresistible…. Marat, Robespierre, Brissot, and the Mountain, were the constant themes of panegyric and the daily toasts at table.”57 And, according to Crushing Strout, “in staid Boston Sam Adams, hero of the American Revolution, presided over a typical banquet in the middle of the winter of 1793 in which mass fervor for Liberty and Equality, mingled with a voracious appetite for food and liquor, so moved the people that in an ecstasy of civic good will the city’s criminals were liberated from prison for a day.” Strout goes on to say that “when Citizen Genêt, minister of the new Republic to the United States, arrived in the spring of that year, seeking American aid, he was greeted with elaborate enthusiasm, and his journey from Charleston was so studded with fêtes and ovations that it took him twenty-eight days to reach Philadelphia.”58 This widespread enthusiasm, however, would dwindle.59
The French Revolution, someone has said, “drew a red-hot ploughshare through the history of America as well as through that of France.” The news of the execution of Louis XVI jarred emotions everywhere. Genêt’s undiplomatic behavior as ambassador, his interference in their domestic affairs, infuriated many citizens of the United States. Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality (1793) in the war between France and England strained the alliance, angered many others here. Americans began to take sides. Party cleavage in the United States deepened. The sympathies of the Federalists (conservatives) under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton would lie with Great Britain and those of the Republicans (liberals, democrats), under Jefferson, with France. “Within an all too short period,” Nathan Schachner writes, “the division between Francophobes and Francophiles, corresponding almost exactly with the split between Federalists and Republicans, grew so wide, deep and passionate that for the remainder of the era the more extreme of the participants on both sides were darkly certain that a similar revolution impended here.”60 Struggles between parties in both countries, political events, and the increasing abhorrence of American conservatives to the French Revolution itself would, by the end of the century, wipe out almost all the hard-earned gains in French-American understanding. Cultural relations inevitably suffered.
“Le grand schisme.” This is the phrase Bernard Faÿ used to characterize the rift between the United States and France in the years 1795–1800. And such was indeed the case. The treaty negotiated in 1795 by John Jay with England antagonized the French. The publicity over the XYZ Affair in 1798 antagonized the Americans. An undeclared naval war with France between 1798 and 1801 smothered the spirit of good will and fraternity generated by the Alliance of 1778.61 The Alien and Sedition Acts, passed by Congress in 1798, frightened French aliens in the United States and caused many of them to leave. Volney and Moreau de Saint-Méry, the Philadelphia bookseller, were among those who departed. A faction of the Federalist party pressed for a declaration of war on the allied nation. The United States repealed the treaties with France in 1798.
Conservative Americans would hold the “infidel philosophers” responsible for the coming of the French Revolution. In the decade following its outbreak, they were unsparing in the expression of their aversion to them. Some connected the French philosophes with the Illuminati, feared a conspiracy to destroy Christianity, overthrow governments, and exalt reason. Contemplating France in 1790 even John Adams said, “I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists.” There also appeared here a “literature” of hate, hatred of the French “monsters,” numerous examples of which can be found in articles in the conservative gazettes. Such writings as The Bloody Buoy and A Bone to Gnaw, by William Cobbett, a British and pro-Federalist journalist, also helped arouse hateful emotions. Authors of this kind of literature sometimes wrote in gory detail of French revolutionary “atrocities.”
It is easy to understand the attitude of many American clergymen toward Voltaire and certain other French writers of his time. We can accept the sincerity of their censures. But our understanding of the often heated opposition of some ministers to the philosophes is complicated by another factor—the political. Herbert M. Morais wrote, “Although French deists exerted some ‘influence’ upon a relatively small section of the American public, their ‘influence’ was exaggerated by Dwight [Timothy Dwight, president of Yale and a clergyman] and Payson [Seth Payson, also a clergyman], who, because of their Federalist affiliations, viewed with alarm the rise of Jeffersonianism which they sought to check by using the French bugaboo.”62
The French Revolution was “refought” on this side of the Atlantic in the 1790s. Newspapers, the political platform, colleges, and even pulpits were the battlefields. Some Americans wore partisan badges on their hats—Federalists the black rosette, Republicans the tricolored cockade. Sympathizers with the Revolution organized Democratic clubs, drank countless Gallic toasts, sang martial songs—“La Marseillaise,” the “Ça ira”—and, on occasion, addressed one another as “Citizen.” Federalists sang “Yankee Doodle” and said “Mister.” Phrases such as “the French mania” and “the French faction in this country” became clichés. Torrents of invective against France, Jefferson, and his fellow Republicans flowed from Federalist newspapers. Republican papers published vehement denunciations of the Federalists and defended France. Contention in the United States over French Enlightenment philosophy itself came about mainly in the years from around 1789 to 1801, approximately four decades later than was the case in France. But the smoke of battle between the pro-British and anti-French and the pro-French and anti-British partisans obscures our view of philosophical considerations and makes most difficult a proper assessment of the impact various French thinkers may have had here in this period of party strife.
John Fiske, historian and essayist, long ago wrote, “In 1800 the Federalists believed that the election of Mr. Jefferson meant the dissolution of the Union and the importation into America of all the monstrous notions of French Jacobinism…. New England clergymen entertained a grotesque conception of Jefferson as a French atheist, and I have heard my grandmother tell of how old ladies in Connecticut, at the news of his election, hid their family Bibles because it was supposed that his very first official act, perhaps even before announcing his cabinet, would be to issue a ukase ordering all copies of the sacred volume throughout the country to be seized and burned.’563
Jefferson’s accession to the presidency in 1801 marked the defeat of federalism, but his election did not put a stop to name-calling nor did it absolve him from continued accusations of guilt by association.