Social and political changes in eighteenth-century France were cataclysmic in nature, in America less so. The “junction” of French and American intellects in the second half of this century was a momentous one. My concern has been with important thinkers of that time in both countries. Some American leaders became personally acquainted with French philosophes and writers while they were in France. They and others also came to know French authors by virtue of their literary presence in America. The reception of their writings during the Enlightenment is manifest in these pages. No summary of this information is needed. Nor is any restatement of the opinions expressed by prominent Americans in this meeting of minds necessary. Data on which judgments may be based are clear to the eye. Some observations, however, are appropriate.
In America politics, religion, and cultural relations with France were intertwined from the beginning. The interest of Americans in the French language, for instance, waxed and waned as diplomatic relations between the two countries improved or worsened. American distrust of France before 1776 had hindered the study of French. The Franco-American Alliance of 1778 and the comradeship engendered in the War of Independence accelerated its learning. French enjoyed much prestige here in the last quarter of the century. It commanded attention, far more than any other foreign language. But the repeal of the treaties with France in 1798 caused it to suffer eclipse.
Americans were not, however, discouraged from their reading of French publications by untoward political events. Readership increased from the 1780s onward. The majority of the readers resided in or near the cities or towns. They had easy access to bookstores and libraries of various sorts. “Cultural cleavage,” of course, existed. There were different levels of readers, with differing literary preferences.
With respect to the reading of French literature, including the philosophic, by the Founding Fathers and particular individuals, enough has been said. But I must reiterate that for many, if not most, theories had to be compatible with experience. Speculation was of little value in a new country.
I am wary of assertions about the influence of various French writers on Americans in the formative years of the country’s history. Pronouncements should be based on a broad and sound knowledge of American reading and the reading public in the early years. They should be founded on all kinds of documentary evidence, including the popular newspaper and the magazines. In his book Problems and Methods of Literary History (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1969), André Morize has a chapter on questions of success and influence with which every interested person should be familiar. In his view, “if it is indisputable that [literary] success is not synonymous with influence, it is no less evident that success is usually the starting-point of influence. Success proves the adoption of a work by a social group, which finds in it an answer to its aspirations, an expression of its unanimous opinion…. [but] The influence of a work is something more than its general diffusion. There may be acquaintance and curiosity without the real permeation that is influence. This is particularly true of the work of a foreigner.” For present purposes it is unnecessary to continue to discuss these questions. On the basis of my findings and with Morize’s criteria in mind, I reach the following conclusions concerning the literary presence of a few French authors in eighteenth-century America.
In the novelistic genre, Fénelon’s Télémaque, Le Sage’s Gil Blas, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie had success. La Nouvelle Héloïse may have been a “starting-point of influence” on the early American novel. Rousseau’s pedagogical novel Emile had a vogue but not success. This book, incidentally, along with Saint-Pierre’s Etudes de la nature, was used to resist atheism. In the field of history, three books enjoyed success: Voltaire’s Histoire de Charles XII and Le Siècle de Louis XIV, and Rollin’s Histoire ancienne. Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des lois easily met Morize’s requirement of “the real permeation that is influence.” Rousseau’s Du Contrat social did not. Writings of Voltaire and Volney exerted some influence, immeasurable, on the deistic movement in the United States. With the upsurge of deism in the 1790s, Volney’s Les Ruines, in English of course, became the only French “over-all best seller” in this country in the eighteenth century. But the “infidel philosophy” of Voltaire and Volney also exerted a strong negative influence. Their writings outraged innumerable Americans. We shall never know which influence, the positive or the negative, outweighed the other. My conclusions as to the reception here of the writings of Buffon, Helvétius, and Diderot, of Condillac’s empiricism, of Ideology and Physiocracy, have already been expressed. Condorcet, the man, had a succès d’estime.
Americans were ambivalent about France. This ambivalence had been of long duration. On the one hand, it was thought that much could be learned from theoreticians in various subjects. On the other hand, there was the deep-seated Protestant fear of Catholicism, then of French infidelity and its ethical consequences. Many Americans blamed the coming of the French Revolution on the writings of the philosophes. Others demonstrated enthusiasm. Controversy in the United States over French Enlightenment philosophy occurred for the most part from 1789 to 1801. Partisan politics and strong feelings ran riot. Hostility between the two nations at the end of the century brought to a close the first period of French-American cultural relationship. Such attitudes, reactions, and enmity can becloud the reception of a foreign literature and the effects of divers philosophies. But every endeavor to make an appraisement of the role of French literature and thought in the American Enlightenment is accompanied by difficulties. These essays tell the story.