On all that our Revolution and existence owe to the French.
Even before the recent controversy surrounding the Iraq War and the resulting boycotts (including perhaps the silliest action ever taken by Congress, the renaming of French fries as Freedom fries in the House of Representatives’ cafeteria), there was a pretty sizeable cottage industry in American politics and culture devoted to belittling and even attacking the French. Perhaps the most common critiques stemmed from World War II, and specifically the idea that the French had quickly folded in the face of and then formed a puppet government in support of Hitler; although the more pro-American narratives tended to emphasize instead that the US military had swept in to save the French at the end of that war (and in some narratives, by extension but with significantly less accuracy, in World War I as well). But in a number of other cultural arenas, including language and film, there have likewise long existed narratives of French elitism and snobbery, as illustrated (if with more satirical self-awareness than most such narratives) by a line in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (1879): “In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.”
As with any negative perspectives on another culture and community, these attitudes have revealed far more about America than they ever could about France. But in this particular case, they have also depended on a pretty thorough elision of two distinct but equally crucial ways in which America’s founding identity and Revolutionary existence depended on Frenchmen. While the founding ideas and core elements captured in the Constitution have been rightly linked to a number of significant political and social theorists and thinkers, none has more of a presence in our nation’s defining document than Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, and especially his book The Spirit of the Laws (1748). The core of that book represents an argument for why the separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial bodies, all bound by the rule of law, could best keep a government from turning into despotism; Montesquieu (as he is usually known) was the first and most prominent thinker to develop that concept, and if any single feature best defines America’s political system as articulated in the Constitution, it is its separation into three equal, balanced, law-bound branches. Moreover, many of the broader ideas on which Montesquieu touched in Spirit, including a sense of the law as profoundly open to reform and improvement, a belief that it is generally a mistake to base civil laws on religious principles, and an emphasis on the need for religious tolerance both in the state and between different religions in a society, likewise became central to both the Bill of Rights and the general concept of the Constitution as open to and in fact defined by the promise of continuing amendment.
There likely wouldn’t have ever been a Constitution, though, if it weren’t for another Frenchman, Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). Lafayette was a twenty-eight year old military officer in the fall of 1775 when conversations were taking place all over Paris about the opening salvos of the American Revolution and what role France should play in it; influenced by one voice in particular, Abbé Guillaume Raynal, and his support for the rights of man and America’s cause, as well as by what he later called his own immediate sympathies (“when I first learned of that quarrel, my heart was enlisted”), Lafayette spent the next two years working with an American agent (Silas Deane) and various powerful French relatives to find a way to join the American military. He was successful, and between 1777 and 1781 fought with and led American troops in many of the Revolution’s most significant battles, including Brandywine (where he was wounded but still organized an orderly retreat that kept the army from total disaster), Monmouth (one of the first genuine American victories, and one where Lafayette’s strategic awareness and quick actions alerted Washington to the opportunity for victory), and Yorktown (where the arrival of the French fleet, due almost entirely to Lafayette, essentially sealed Cornwallis’s surrender and the end of the war). And his contributions did not end there—in the years after the war Lafayette remained very close with Washington and Jefferson (among other founding figures), toured most of the new United States, and spoke and worked on behalf of a strong federal union, as well as the emancipation of slaves and peace treaties with Native American tribes. The honorary citizenships that he was granted by many states during these years could not be more appropriate; despite his subsequent return to France Lafayette was, in many ways, one of the first and certainly one of the most impressive Revolutionary Americans.
Part of the reason for our history of anti-French sentiments is, it seems to me, a desire to define the United States through negation, in contrast to other nations; Mitt Romney famously remarked during the 2008 presidential campaign that “Barack Obama looks to Europe for a lot of his inspiration; John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America.” But as with virtually every aspect of American history and culture and identity, the truth about our founding is that it was strongly influenced by, and really created out of, many other cultures and communities, with none more influential and foundational than the French. Je suis un American! Next Revolutionary reality tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary histories or stories you’d highlight?
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