French travellers in North America
From the quest for freedom to the pursuit of modernity: America as a country of inspiration, disenchantment and concern. French travellers in North America from the War of Independence to the late 19th century.
The quest for freedom
Towards the end of the 18th century, travelling in North America, and above all telling the tale, was an intellectual adventure. The travellers’ horizons of expectation were based on controversies which, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, saw "the new world" either as the final refuge of the natural liberty dear to Rousseau, or the birthplace of a modern freedom framed by European colonists. The War of Independence crystalized this debate. The French officers who took part in it were opinion-leaders, with their sympathetic tales describing America as a successful experiment, in which natural freedom beneficially became transformed into civil freedom (Blacks and Indigenous people were barely mentioned). Without darkening this vision, others created a polemic, such as Chastellux who admitted that he missed the elegance of the "civilized" world. The scandalized republican Brissot answered him after a hasty journey, which revealed a daring America, a land of equality and freedom.
A revolutionary model or counter-model?
The French Revolution thus made the debate more political: was America a model to be followed? Now aware of the turn of events, post-1789 travellers did not think so. Lézay-Marnésia, disappointed in his quest for half-natural, half-modern philosophical freedom, found hope only among the Moravians, outside American society strictly speaking. La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, an unwilling migrant, set off for America in 1795. What he saw did not enchant him: rapaciousness, ignorance and coarseness, raised to the rank of a principle, were the blemishes of a newly born society which was already in decline. Also in 1795, the Idéologue Volney coldly observed, for purely scientific purposes, an America which was quite bland, and above all starting to fail in its founding principles, freedom first of all. For all, the disarray of the Indigenous people and the enslavement of the Africans completed the image of a world that was barbaric rather than free, and which had nothing to teach France. As a counterpoint, Chateaubriand joined the eulogists of natural freedom the better to evoke death through asphyxia, under the weight of modern trade freedom. Haunted by the inevitability of history, Chateaubriand saw a historic defeat, rather than an injustice, in the tragic fate of the Indigenous people living in osmosis with a poetic nature, which was also under threat.
In 1824, Congress invited Lafayette to the USA. Welcomed as a hero, and blinded by nostalgia, he took a real pleasure in rediscovering the intrepid, virtuous country which had been worth fighting for. Such luminous optimism was not shared. Alexis de Tocqueville started the tale of his trip to America (1832) with a confession that any other French traveller would have shared: "I admit that in America I have seen more than America; I have sought there the image of democracy itself (…) if only to know at least what we must hope or fear from it." (De la Démocratie en Amérique). Without any romantic melancholy, Tocqueville took up again the theme of America as destiny. In observing America, he assigned himself the intellectual task of interpreting a historical process that was, inevitably, part of France’s future as well. While his meticulous description of institutions could reassure readers looking for markers, his social criticisms took on an even deeper significance than those of Chastellux or Liancourt: in his view, the coarseness and lack of introspection proper to American society ended up weakening the very institutions that were supposed to guarantee freedom. As proof he offered the flagrant injustices inflicted on the Indigenous and enslaved people but which did not break any law. To sum up, this wily traveller did not see in America a model, but a warning. Even its nature was disappointing: Tocqueville and his friend Beaumont had difficulties finding an unspoilt spot for a moment’s reverie (Quinze jours dans le désert américain, 1998). Tocqueville’s analysis rounded off this arc of disenchantment. From now on, travelling in America became banal. From founts of philosophical reveries, the lifestyles of Native Americans turns into mere objects of study. No longer does America stir powerful emotions, save for habitual mocking of its mores. Neither loved nor hated, observed from afar as the land of triumphant modernity, America provides food for thought, still.
Published in may 2021