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03.20.2003

French Week: American Revolution

The theme tonight is the American Revolution, and back at the start of French week I thought things would be simple. I would find a few links, show how the Revolution would have failed without active French help, and be in bed by ten thirty.

Showing that France saved the Revolution turns out not to be that tough. France provided pretty much all of the gunpowder for the colonists in the Revolutionary War. Going a step further (and I really savor this fact) they sent an entire French Expeditionary Force of 6,000 soldiers to wander around the country and make trouble for the British. Imagine that - armed Frenchmen, marauding around the States, and kicking English ass on behalf of America! Oh, those were the days.

As if sending troops weren't enough, France also provided us with the very poster boy of Franco-American friendship, the Marquis de Lafayette, who paid his way over to the States just so he could fight in the War of Independence. Lafayette lobbied hard for the newborn country after his return to France, as did three great francophile founding fathers: Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, who all spent happy times in Paris. Between Lafayette's lobbying and their own Founding Father charm, the two countries hit it off splendidly. France was the first power to recognize the new United States, and the countries signed a mutual defense pact, the only treaty of its kind the United States would sign for over a hundred years.

And on the purely theoretical level (come on, this is French Week!) there is Montesquieu, bane of the spell checker, who came up with the whole separation of powers business at the core of our Constitution.

But this is where it gets tricky. Because when you start looking at the details, it's hard to pretend everything was always hunky dory between the nascent United States and France. For example, look at what George Washington was doing early on in his career - killing French people:

With the tensions already riding high, the French began to build little Fort Le Boeuf downriver from Fort Duquesne, near Lake Erie. The English at this time claimed this land as their own. After some debate, the English decided to send a certain Major George Washington to the region of Fort Duquesne and evict the French. Washington, then 22 years old, headed a small party through the woods. While advancing, he came upon a party of French who were probably scouts. Washington gave the order to fire, and in the battle that ensued 10 French were killed, and some 22 captured.

Not the kind of French week message we want to project.

It gets worse - you know that hoary quote, "Millions for defense, not a penny for tribute"? The exact phrase is a post-hoc fabrication, but it has its origins in the very real complaint of an American diplomat talking about France. The new American government had sent a negotiating team to France to discuss changes in the Franco-American allience, and Talleyrand wanted a big fat bribe from the Americans before he would even start talking. There ensued the engagingly named XYZ affair, the American public found out about the whole thing, and from then on it was all Adams could do to prevent the country declaring outright war. Whoops. We can laugh off some of these difficulties with the excuse that France at that time was changing governments faster than most people change socks. But still, it's hard not to feel that there isn't something deeper going on, some kind of residual Englishness in the American character that has made getting along with France very hard. The US fights two major wars with Britain, in 1776 and 1812, yet in between and forever afterwards the two countries cultivate their Special Relationship. France pays our way through the Revolutionary War, but immediately before and after we're firing the old grapeshot.

I think the real answer is that early American history is crazy complex. One of the things I absorbed in grade school, along with those infernal lunches, was the notion that American Independence had pursued a noble and clear trajectory: English tyrrany, high-minded American patriots, a nobly fought war and the secular miracle of the Constitutional Convention. Instead, it turns out that there are nine sides to every question, the Founding Fathers are all at one another's throats, and even the most obscure bits of legislation seem to foment a riot in one place, or a diplomatic crisis in another. It's as if the post office raised the price of stamps by a penny, and Nevada attacked Idaho. Somewhere in the middle of this sits France, going from old monarchy, to Directorate, to Napoleon and then to hell, all in the space of a few short years, and fighting about nine hundred separate wars with England. I throw up my hands.

The place to look for our real bond with France is long before the two Revolutions, before even the froufrou salon banter of the Enlightenment. It's in the really old days, when the Great Lakes were just hearsay, and any sea voyage could make you the lucky Frenchman who found the Northwest Passage. You can find the vestiges of it flowing right down the middle of the country, enshrined in place names across Illinois and Wisconsin, all the way down the Mississippi, where the first white explorers came through. What other country would have blessed us with a place name like the "Big Tits Mountains"?

I remember going to high school near Chicago, and gradually realizing that Des Plaines and Fond-du-Lac and Portage weren't just arbitrary strange names, but were the vestiges of a time long-gone, when Illinois was actually somewhere exciting to be. The Midwest was forest and prairie then, unrecognizable. Those brave French canoe paddlers beheld many wonders:

"While skirting some rocks which by their height and length inspired awe, we saw upon one of them two painted monsters which at first made us afraid, and upon which the boldest savages dare not long rest their eyes. They are as large as a calf, have horns on their heads like those of a deer, a horrible look, red eyes, a beard like a tiger's, a face somewhat like a man's, a body covered with scales, and a tail so long that it winds all around the body, passing above the head and going back between the legs, ending in a fish's tail. Green, red and black are the three colors composing the picture. Moreover, these two monsters are so well painted that we cannot believe that any savage is their author, for good painters in France would find it difficult to do so well. And besides, they are so high up on the rock that it is difficult to reach that place conveniently to paint them."

That's Father Jacques Marquette, describing mysterious paintings on the Illinois bluffs, since disappeared, that he saw on his voyage of discovery down the Mississippi in 1673. Reading their descriptions of the American interior is like reading about some strange parallel universe, where everything has gone feral, and there's no trace of the sleepy rectilinear fields that fill that space today.

I intended to devote the post tonight to the warmakers of 1776, French and American, and the great success that they shared. But it doesn't feel like a night to toast warmakers, however lofty and noble. Instead, I would like to raise my glass to Marquette, Joliet, Champlain, Brûlé and La Salle, the first white men to see so much of this new continent. I envy them their courage, and the primeval America they saw: uncultivated, dangerous, with wild dragons on the cliffs. No one will ever see that again.

Wars, we'll still have plenty of.

--

Tomorrow on French Week: Catherine the Great and her big French crush.

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