J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

A French Novelist’s Description of Meeting President Washington

François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), spent five months in the U.S. of A. in 1791, ostensibly on a quest for the Northwest Passage.

He brought back enough material to fill his novels Atala (1801), René (1802), and Les Natchez (written in the 1790s but published in 1826). These became some of founding texts of French Romanticism.

For his Memoirs, published soon after his death, Chateaubriand wrote about the first President:
When I arrived at Philadelphia, General Washington was not there, and it was a week before he returned. I saw him pass in a carriage whirled along by four spirited horses. Washington, according to my ideas at that period, was necessarily a Cincinnatus; but Cincinnatus in a carriage was a little out of harmony with my republic of the year of Rome, 296. Could the Dictator Washington be other than a rustic, urging on his oxen, and holding his plough? But when I went to deliver my letter of introduction, I found all the simplicity of an ancient Roman.

A small house, similar to those around it, was the palace of the President of the United States; no guards, not even any men-servants. I knocked, and a young girl opened; I asked if the general was at home; she replied in the affirmative, and I said I had a letter to deliver to him. She asked my name, but found it very difficult to pronounce, and could not remember it; then requested me to “walk in,” led me along one of those narrow corridors which serve as vestibules to English houses, and left me in a parlour, where she begged me to wait for the general.

I was not moved or embarrassed; neither greatness of soul nor splendour of fortune awe me; I admire the former without feeling overwhelmed by it; the latter inspires me with more pity than respect; face of man will never confuse me.

After an interval of a few minutes, the general entered; tall, calm, and cold, rather than noble in mien; the engravings of him are good. I silently handed him my letter; he opened it, and turned to the signature, which he read aloud, exclaiming, “Colonel Armand!” The Marquis de la Rouerie was known to him by this name, and had signed the letter with it. We sat down, and I explained to him, as well as I could, the motive of my journey. He answered me in English and French monosyllables, and listened to me with a sort of astonishment. I perceived this, and said to him with some warmth, “But it is less difficult to discover the North-west passage than to create a nation as you have done.”

“Well, well, young man!” cried he, holding out his hand to me. He invited me to dine with him on the following day, and we parted.

I took care not to fail in my appointment. We were only a party of five or six; the conversation turned on the French revolution, and the general showed us a key of the Bastille. I have already said that these keys were the rather foolish playthings which it was then the fancy to distribute. Three years later, the distributors of locksmiths’ work might have sent the president the bolt of the prison of the monarch who gave liberty to France and to America. If Washington had seen the victors of the Bastille in the gutters of Paris, he would have less respected his relic.
This is a vivid picture of the first President early in his administration, greeting a young French nobleman when the direction of the French Revolution was still up in the air.

It’s also a baldfaced lie.

TOMORROW: Sorting truth from fiction.

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