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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Friday, January 26, 2018

“A person capable of peopling the banks of the Mississippi with parrots”

When I wrote yesterday that French novelist and diplomat Chateaubriand’s description of meeting President George Washington in 1791 was a “baldfaced lie,” that didn’t mean it was entirely false.

Chateaubriand was correct in saying that Washington was “tall,” for example.

But as for meeting the first President before heading to the Niagara region to search for the Northwest Passage, we know that wasn’t true.

Chateaubriand did arrive in the U.S. of A.—in July 1791, according to his memoir. He brought a letter from Armand-Charles Tuffin, marquis de La Rouërie. As “Colonel Armand,” that French nobleman had fought for America in the Revolutionary War, riding confusingly to the rank of general. On 22 Mar 1791 he wrote to George Washington:
Mr le chevalier de Combourg [that’s Chateaubriand] a noble man of the State of Britany & a neighbourg of mine, is going over to north america.

the purpose of that Journey, I presume, is to inrich his mind by the active Contemplation of such a moving & happy country, and to satisfy his soul By seeing the extraordinary man & thoses respectable Citizens who, led By the hand of virtue through the most difficult contest, have made their chief Counsellor of her in establishing & enjoying their liberty—

his relations, for whom I have a very great regard, desire me to recommand him to the notice of your Excellency…
But on 5 September President Washington wrote back:
I have had the pleasure to receive your letter of the 22nd of march last.

Being indisposed on the day when Monsieur de Combourg called to deliver your letter I did not see him—and I understood that he set off for Niagara on the next day.
Washington had been ill in early July, just the time the young Frenchman passed through Philadelphia.

Some scholars have suggested that Chateaubriand could have actually met the President at the end of his American travels instead of the beginning, and just misremembered many years later. The problem with that theory is that Chateaubriand made so many false claims about what he saw in America that we should presume his stories are false unless there’s corroborating evidence.

Matthew Wills just wrote at JSTOR Daily:
One of the founders of French Romanticism, Chateaubriand spent five months traveling the United States in 1791 and then proceeded to write wildly successful books about his American experiences, real and imagined. . . .

In his Memoirs and his Voyage en Amérique, Chateaubriand claimed to have visited Niagara Falls, voyaged on the Ohio and the Mississippi, and seen Louisiana, Florida, and Kentucky.

Given the non-existent state of national infrastructure, it seemed highly improbable that he covered so much terrain in less than half a year. Yet it wasn’t until 1903 that a thorough debunking by a fellow Frenchman showed that Chateaubriand’s American trip was largely fictitious. He definitely got to Niagara Falls, which awed him, and possibly to Pittsburgh. He did not venture south.
Instead, Chateaubriand cribbed details of the southern landscape from earlier travelers, particularly the botanist William Bartram. But of course not all parts of the Americas are alike. Even in 1827 the American Quarterly Review dismissed Chateaubriand’s descriptions by saying: “A person capable of peopling the banks of the Mississippi with parrots, monkeys and flamingoes, can never have been there.”

So what about Chateaubriand’s encounter with President Washington is true? We know he delivered his letter of reference to the President’s mansion; that document survives in Washington’s papers, and he eventually sent his reply to Colonel Armand.

Chateaubriand may well have seen the President ride through the streets in his carriage and felt the disappointment he described that this modern Cincinnatus wasn’t just a plain farmer.

But as for having a one-on-one meeting with Washington, impressing him with exploration plans and complimenting him with wit, and then warning the President over dinner that souvenirs of the French Revolution were nothing to be proud of? Those parts of Chateaubriand’s story appear to be the products of wishful imagination.

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