With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

When the United States Spoke French

Ever since the 1990s, books on the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods of American history have sailed into the best-seller lists. For many readers, the portrait of the Federalist Era that emerged is of a fundamentally national one – a small group of heroic American leaders winning a revolution, writing a Constitution, and making a nation.

Coming at a time when the United States had emerged as the dominant global superpower, this portrait of the nation’s founding may not be surprising. But it is essentially at odds with the history as contemporaries lived it. It overlooks the extent to which the United States was enmeshed in a series of global connections from its earliest days: connections with France in particular.

Today, few Americans remember that French intervention in the American Revolution secured U.S. independence. During the early years of the rebellion, the French Crown supplied money and munitions essential to American resistance. Once they officially entered the war, the French provided money and a navy and some of the world's best soldiers and military engineers.

If Americans today have largely forgotten this history, Americans at the time were well aware. “My affections are Frenchified,” exclaimed Ethan Allen, the hero of Ticonderoga, upon hearing news of the French alliance. “I glory in Louix XVI, the generous and powerful ally.”

It was the French navy that blockaded the Chesapeake Bay and trapped the British in at Yorktown without reinforcements. It was a French army and French military engineers, with Americans alongside, that defeated Cornwallis in the siege of Yorktown. Without the French army and navy Washington would have won no victory at Yorktown.

No wonder Americans’ sympathies were so transformed. “The people had forgotten their ancient prejudices,” remarked one Frenchmen who sailed over with the French army and later settled in Philadelphia. Americans had become, according to him, “sincerely attached to their French allies.”

After the American Revolution, France was the United States’ most important ally and its fastest-growing commercial partner. With the United States now out of the British trade orbit, the young nation turned more and more to France. The Treaty of Amity of Commerce that brought France into the American Revolution also linked the two nations together in a mutual grant of most favored nation status. As ambassador to France in the 1780s, one of Thomas Jefferson’s primary objectives in Paris was to promote American trade in France.

And then, in 1789, just after George Washington’s inauguration as president of the United States, the French Revolution broke out. From its beginnings, the two revolutions, French and American, seemed joined at the hip. Paris guards played “Yankee Doodle” just before they stormed the Bastille. In 1790 Lafayette sent Washington the key to the demolished prison: “It is a tribute Which I owe as A Son to My Adoptive father,” he wrote the American president: “as a Missionary of liberty to its patriarch.”

Americans up and down the coast organized celebrations and parades, sang French revolutionary songs, and proudly commemorated the monumental events. Some Americans rushed to France to join in the effort. Tom Paine, author of Common Sense, the pamphlet that had done so much to promote revolutionary sentiment in the United States, became a French Citizen and even sat in the French National Assembly.

For President Washington, as for millions of his countrymen, the French and American revolutions were bound together as a single movement for liberty. “How great! How important . . . is the part, which the actors in this momentous scene have to perform!” Washington exclaimed in a letter to Lafayette. “Not only the fate of millions of the present day depends upon them, but the happiness of posterity is involved in their decisions.”

It was not long before the French Revolution spilled across national borders. As French armies began marching across Europe, with war breaking out among the world’s most powerful empires, the violence shifted across the Atlantic, finding fertile soil in France’s colony of Saint Domingue – today’s Haiti. The island was at the heart of the impossibly lucrative plantation complex producing rich stores of sugar, coffee, indigo, and other commodities that powered the Atlantic economy.

In 1791, slaves on the colony’s northern plains rose up in insurrection, launching more than a decade of warfare that would lead to the first and only successful slave revolution in Western history. By 1793, with slaves across the colony in open rebellion, French authorities played their trump card: in a desperate bid to maintain control of the island, they proclaimed the abolition of slavery.

Tens of thousands of refugees fled the Caribbean, many of them to the United States, which had become Saint Domingue’s most important commercial partner since the American Revolution. Trade between the United States and the French Empire had since increased precipitously.

In Philadelphia, the nation’s capital, arriving refugees found a city awash with French people from Europe and the Caribbean. French wine and silk and mustard arrived from distant ports. They found merchants who built grand houses in French neoclassical style, filled them with refined French furniture, ornate French tapestries, and exquisite Gobelins porcelain.

The refugees could smell the aroma of French food wafting through the alleys behind South Second Street, hear French revolutionary songs, performed nightly in the Chestnut Street Theatre, echoing off the cobblestones. They walked past French silversmiths, French dentists, and French dance instructors. They heard French spoken on Philadelphia’s streets and in its most refined social spaces. They read French newspapers published in Philadelphia, shopped in French bookstores, and ate in French taverns.

It really seemed, for a time at least, as though the United States spoke French.

From the longest perspective, the age of the American and French Revolutions launched a historical period dominated by modern nation-states. That period may be ending today, as the pressures of globalization and localism and political change push against the nation from all sides. And so, in a moment once again marked by revolution and global instability, we may be to look back at the late eighteenth century and see it as people saw it then, beyond the lens of national history.