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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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Peter Duponceau Meets Samuel Adams

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?”

“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.
Adams, as a good traditional Yankee, viewed France as a big barrel of papist despotism.
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.

“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.
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.


Anonymous said...

Von Steuben left Europe due to a sex scandal? :-) What did he do? (or fail to do..) I googled this and only found only one thin reference to homosexuality. I'd prefer to think that he was dallying with someone's wife.

J. L. Bell said...

Steuben was the top administrator in the court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen until early 1777. That spring he contacted a number of courts and armies about a new job. He met with, among others, the American envoys Franklin and Deane, but declined to join their cause because they couldn’t guarantee him enough money. His best prospect appeared to be in Baden.

On 13 Aug 1777, an official in Baden wrote to the prince of Hechingen: “It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.”

Within a week, Steuben was in Paris, 300 miles away. He quickly sealed a deal with the Americans despite the lack of money. On 10 September he left with his entourage for Marseilles, and on the 26th the baron was sailing for America, never to return to Europe.

Some historians have insisted that those accusations must be false, but I think their arguments are circular, poorly grounded in eighteenth-century history, and motivated by a wish to shield a man they see as a hero.

I’m not sure the charges were true, or even whether they’d be considered “charges” in Frederick the Great’s Prussia, where Steuben began his career. But it’s clear that the looming scandal was a factor in Steuben’s decisions to leave Hechingen and then to leave Europe.

Naturally, I plan to gossip about Steuben more at some point.