Author explores era 'When the United States Spoke French'

Johns Hopkins professor follows five refugees from the guillotine who relocated, helped shape America

  • Francois Furstenberg, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, reads from his new book, "When the United States Spoke French," on July 15 at the Ivy Bookshop. credit Will Kirk/
Francois Furstenberg, an associate professor of history at… (Will Kirk/,…)
July 12, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

What remarkable lives they led.

The five men, who hailed mostly from the pinnacle of French aristocracy, were liberals who threw off their own privileges to build a more equitable society. Individually, they danced with Marie Antoinette, fled the guillotine, spied for their country and played a role in a slave revolt in Haiti.

All five relocated to Philadelphia, and in just a handful of years managed to exert a lasting impact on the fledgling United States of America.

Francois Furstenberg, an associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University, follows the exiles on their American adventures in his new book, "When the United States Spoke French."

The refugees include the future master diplomat Charles-Maurice Talleyrand; the social reformer the Duc de la Rochefoucauld; the dashing Vicomte de Noailles, Lafayette's brother-in-law and a onetime dancing partner of Marie Antoinette; the avid traveler, writer and philosopher the Comte de Volney; and the insecure bookstore owner Moreau de Saint-Mery, the only nonaristocrat of the bunch.

"They were extraordinary people," Furstenberg says in a recent phone chat. (An edited transcript appears below.)

"It's no coincidence that they left such a mark on the world. For instance, Talleyrand reshaped European borders for nearly a century.

"But this was also the Age of the Enlightenment, when people dabbled in all kinds of things. To be a philosopher was also to be a scientist and active in politics. The sense of a separation in these disciplines only emerges later in the 19th century."

Furstenberg, 41, is half French himself and spent 10 years teaching history in Montreal. This is his second stint in Baltimore: He earned his doctorate in history from Hopkins in 2003, left for a decade and returned in January as a member of the faculty.

The author's first book focused narrowly on life in the United States in the 18th century. For his second, he wanted to explore how events in Europe and the Caribbean helped to shape the country we live in today. He'll talk more about what he found during a reading Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop.

The United States and the world looked very different in the 1790s than they do today. Can you paint us a picture?

It's hard for Americans today to wrap their heads around the idea of the United States as having been really fragile and precarious.

We had just fought a war and gained our independence, but only because the French intervened. It was unclear whether the United States was going to hang together. Most Europeans thought the country would fall apart and turn into 13 separate republics, and some would fall back into the arms of foreign powers. It looked like the Balkans do today.

You write that the real struggle for dominance by the global superpowers wasn't so much North America but the Caribbean.

The Caribbean is so poor and has been so embattled — but you almost can't exaggerate its importance to European powers in the 18th century. Economies relied on it. It's where spectacular fortunes were made from trading in sugar and coffee. Saint-Domingue [now Haiti] was the richest and most productive colony in the Atlantic world, and it all depended on slave labor.

When France intervened in the American Revolution, a large part of their thinking was that having an ally close by in North America would help them protect their Caribbean possessions.

Your book really is the story of three revolutions, in the U.S., France and Haiti.

It warms my heart to hear you say that, because looking at those connections is what I was after. Most Americans don't know the extent to which American history is dependent on Haitian history, that the Louisiana Purchase and western expansion were made possible by the rebellion of slaves in Haiti and their successful struggle against Napoleon.

One imagines a very different history for the U.S. had the French been able to take Louisiana.

How do you account for Noailles? He starts out dismantling France's feudal system even though that's against his own financial interests. But just 14 years later, he's importing bloodhounds to disembowel enslaved Haitian children.

That's one of the most profound philosophical questions in this history. How was it that this Age of Enlightenment, that gave us ideas of democracy and republicanism and liberty, was also the age when slavery was at its peak?

Noailles' life seems to embody these contradictions and paradoxes. He was involved in some of the noblest experiments in politics and in some of the most horrific acts of the century.

In France, they [Noailles and the other French refugees] pulled down the basis of their own wealth and fortune. But they couldn't even understand the struggle of Haitian slaves as a political struggle, as a struggle for freedom. To them, this was about sheer, meaningless violence being committed by bandits and cannibals.

I don't know how to explain it.

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