Peter Stephen Duponceau was born in France in 1760 as Pierre Etienne du Ponceau. His family, genteel but impoverished, pushed him into a church career because of his proficiency as a scholar, but in his mid-teens he ran away to Paris.
In 1777, du Ponceau met Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, a former officer of the Prussian army and out-of-work courtier. Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane were trying to recruit Steuben for the Continental Army, believing him to have been a general for Frederick the Great. Steuben initially turned them down because they didn’t offer enough money, but then a sex scandal gave him a strong reason to get out of Europe. Du Ponceau was expert in English, enamored of republicanism, and up for adventure, so the baron took him on as a translator and aide.
As it turned out, du Ponceau made a terrible military officer: utterly inexperienced, near-sighted, comically absent-minded, and sickly. He was, however, committed to the new U.S. of A. He settled in Philadelphia after the war, Americanized his name, and became a very good linguist and lawyer.
In 1836 Duponceau began to relate his Revolutionary experiences in letters to a colleague named Robert Walsh and then to his granddaughter. These letters have been reprinted in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Here is Duponceau’s recollection of his conversations with Samuel Adams in early 1778:
I shall never forget the compliment paid me by Samuel Adams on his discovering my Republican principles. “Where,” said he to me, “did you learn all that?”Adams, as a good traditional Yankee, viewed France as a big barrel of papist despotism.
“In France,” replied I.
“In France! that is impossible.” Then, recovering himself, he added, “Well, because a man was born in a stable, it is no reason why he should be a horse.” I thought to myself, that in matters of compliment they ordered these things better in France.
Speaking of Samuel Adams I remember something of him that let me into the little jealousies that then existed between some of the great men of the day. I sat next to him at a dinner given by Govr. [John] Hancock to Baron Steuben, and happened, by mistake, to call him Mr. John Adams.John Adams also occasionally had to deal with people who thought he was Samuel. Although Duponceau recalled this mix-up as an example of “little jealousies,” the Adams cousins, who weren’t shy about expressing their resentments, almost always had good things to say about each other.
“Sir,” said he, looking sternly at me, “I would have you know that there is a very great difference between Mr. Samuel Adams (striking his breast and laying a strong emphasis on the word Samuel) and Mr. John Adams.”
I was afterwards on my guard addressing people by their Christian names.