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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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Source of “the volley fired by a young Virginian”?

In The Fight with France for North America (1902), Arthur Granville Bradley wrote:
The killing of Jumonville raised a great commotion not only in the colonies but in Europe. “It was the volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America,” says Horace Walpole, “that set the world on fire.”
That line referred to George Washington, then a young major in the Virginia militia, ordering his men to fire on the French officer Jumonville in 1754.

That’s the earliest example I’ve found of that quotation attributed to Walpole. In the following decades it was whittled down to: “The volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire.” I see it appearing mainly in local histories of places important in the French and Indian War, but in the late twentieth century it started to appear in biographies of Washington. Lots of them.

So far as I can tell, those biographies cite previous biographies rather than any collection of Walpole’s writings. I’ve seen the line quoted by such authoritative authors as Peter Henriques, Ron Chernow, Russell Shorto, and various National Park Service resources.

In The Loyal Son (2017), Daniel Mark Epstein noted the similarity of that line to one attributed to Voltaire (shown above), and suggested “the belletrist Horace Walpole [was] translating the words of Voltaire.”

Indeed, in his Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), Voltaire wrote:
La complication des intérets politique est venuë au point qu’un coup de canon tiré en Amérique peut être le signal de l’embrasement de l’Europe.
That was translated a few years later by the Scottish editor and novelist Tobias Smollett as:
So complicated are the political interests of the present times, that a shot fired in America shall be the signal for setting all Europe together by the ears.
That idiom about ears not only means nothing today but it didn’t replicate Voltaire’s metaphor. “Embrasement” means setting on fire. In 1884, the historian Francis Parkman offered a better translation in Montcalm and Wolfe:
Such was the complication of political interests, that a cannon-shot fired in America could give the signal that set Europe in a blaze.
There was, to be sure, no cannon involved in Washington’s action. But Voltaire was playing on readers’ knowledge of signal cannon.

How did Walpole come into the picture? I can’t tell. He and Voltaire did correspond about Maj. Washington’s attack on the Jumonville party in 1768, but Walpole’s letters of 21 June and 27 July don’t contain the phrase about “a young Virginian in the backwoods.”

Some authors cite Walpole’s Memoirs of the Reign of George II for the line about Washington. That long book does include one paragraph about young Washington, but not this line.

I’ve found some French versions of the line about “a young Virginian in the backwoods.” However, they all render “backwoods” differently, suggesting that they’re modern translations from the English rather than a phrase that Voltaire set down in French centuries ago.

At this point, therefore, I suspect that the oft-repeated line attributed to Walpole was actually created by A. G. Bradley, mixing up what Parkman said Voltaire wrote about the Jumonville incident with what Walpole wrote about Washington.

If anyone can find the quotation in question in Walpole’s voluminous writings, or anywhere else before Bradley’s book, I’d welcome the additional information.

TOMORROW: What Walpole definitely wrote about young Washington.

1 comment:

Don Carleton said...

I'm suspicious of the phrasing “a young Virginian in the backwoods" being from anywhere near the era of the Seven Years War. Would a British or Continental writer of the time even differentiated one British American colony from another, or have expected their readers to have done so? They might have referred to a "Young American," but "young Virginian" just doesn't ring true to me for the period....