AHA Presidential Addresses
The Influence of American Ideas upon the French Revolution
The following was delivered as the Opening Address to the AHA meeting, September 8, 1885, in Saratoga, New York. Published in Papers of the American Historical Association. vol. I (1886), 210–14.
Books by Andrew D. White
The Association was called to order at ten o’clock, by President Andrew Dickson White, who briefly reviewed the history of the American Historical Association. In deference to Goldwin Smith, the guest of the Association, who had consented to deliver the opening address, President White announced that instead of reading at length his own paper on “The Influence of American Ideas upon the French Revolution,” which had been advertised in the programme as the opening address of the second annual session, he would merely comment briefly upon the following printed analysis of his subject, which had been put into the hands of the audience.
President White’s Syllabus—Introductory.
Documentary and other sources of information.—Mr. Rosenthal’s “America and France.” Brief review of the period preceding the French Revolution,—want of practical direction to French ideas of liberty and reform,—general influence of America,—Lecky’s statement as to the different ways in which this influence was exercised on philosophical thought through Voltaire and Rousseau,—special American influences.
I. The Influence of Franklin.
1. On the nation directly. 2. On political thought through Turgot and Condorcet. 3. On militant literature through Champfort and Morellet. 4. On orators and poets of whom Mirabeau and Chénier are representatives. 5. On the conduct of public affairs through Vergennes and others.
II. The Influence of Jefferson.
1. Reciprocal influence between Jefferson and the leaders of French thought.
2. Jefferson’s influence through Lafayette,—through Rabaut St. Etienne,—through the Girondists,—federal ideas of the Girondists.
3. Relations with Robespierre falsely imputed to Jefferson,—the dividing line between American influence and want of influence in the French Revolution.
III. The Influence of Barlow and Paine.
1. Early suggestion and speedy promotion of monarchical ideas by Joel Barlow. 2. Similar work by Paine—Translation of his “ Common Sense.” His after efforts in modifying anarchical action.
IV. The Influence of French Soldiers returned from the American Revolution.
1. Lafayette:—His influence in bringing on the French Revolution,—in shaping it,—his draft of the Declaration of Rights.
2. Rochambeau:—His character,—peculiarities of his growth in Americanism.
3. Ségur:—Light thrown on French feeling regarding America by his memoirs,—his own impressions.
4. The French common soldiery,—effect of familiarizing them with ideas of liberty and equality,—Mr. Rosenthal’s excellent statement of this,—detection by Arthur Young of American ideas in the early revolutionary ferment,—Ethis de Corny at the destruction of the Bastille.
V. The Influence of Frenchmen returned from American Travel.
1. Chastellux:—Difference in spirit between that and the recent race of travellers in America,—causes of Chastellux’s great influence.
2. Brissot “de Warville”:—Clavière’s letter of suggestions,—Brissot’s book,—Brissot the first open Republican in France.
3. Mazzei, Crèvecœur, and others.
VI. Summary of the American Influences.
1. Familiarity with the idea of Revolution.
2. Strength given to French ideas of Liberty:—New meanings of the word Liberty,—Chénier’s ode,—Fauchet’s sermon,—Anarcharsis Clootz’s tribute.
3. Practical shape given to ideas of Equality:—Vagueness of these ideas previously,—remarks of Sir Henry Maine on this,—proofs from the constitutions of 1791, ’93, and ’95.
4. Practical combination of Liberty and Equality into institutions, republican and democratic. Brissot’s writings,—Camille Desmoulins’ La France libre,—indirect testimony of Portiez.
5. An ideal of republican manhood:—Chénier’s apostrophe to Washington and Franklin. Pompigny’s drama in which Franklin is put upon the stage,—Washington similarly treated in Sauvigny’s tragedy of “Vashington, ou la Liberté du Nouveau Monde,”—extracts, to show its absurdities,—summary, to show its real significance.
6. American influence on the French Revolution a source of just pride,—that influence coincident with the greatness of that Revolution,—it ceases when the Revolution degenerates,—typical hostility to American institutions shown by St. Just and Clootz.
VII. Lesson of this History for America To-day.
1. How this American influence on Europe was lost.
2. How, alone, it may be regained.
Abstract of President White’s Remarks.
President White’s comments upon the above syllabus were summarized at the time of their delivery as follows:
As to the sources of information on the subject, he referred to a large collection of French journals, pamphlets, and fugitive writings of various sorts in his own possession. He also mentioned in terms of praise Mr. Rosenthal’s “America and France.” He then showed the influence exercised on various eminent Frenchmen by Franklin, Jefferson, Barlow, and others, tracing it among the French philosophers—the men of letters, the orators and poets, and the men of affairs. He showed the reasons for supposing that the “federalism” for which the Girondists were sent to the guillotine was largely due to Jefferson, but disproved the old charge that Jefferson held friendly relations with Robespierre and the extreme anarchists. Mr. White showed various proofs that while the early lovers of constitutional liberty in France were strongly American in their ideas and sympathies, Robespierre and his associate extremists were not; that they disliked the American constitution, with its two branches of the national legislature, its power given to the Supreme Court, the veto power of the President, and the separation into States. Mr. White also traced out the influence of French officers and soldiers who had served in America, also of French travellers in America at that period, concluding with a summary of the American influences in giving French ideas of liberty—in the first place, development, and, after that, practical direction toward a moderate republic. To show the admiration of Frenchmen for the American Republic at that time he cited Crèvecœur’s admiration for the Greek and Roman names given to townships in the State of New York, and the deification of Washington in a great French drama in blank verse performed at the Théâtre Français in 1791. In this drama Washington was represented as reciting blank verse in honor of the Supreme Being at the “altar of the country,” erected on the banks of the Delaware, and bewailing the loss of his son, whom Lord Dunmore was represented as carrying away from Mount Vernon, regardless of the fact that “Providence left Washington childless that a nation might call him father.” Mr. White also showed Franklin represented as declaiming platitudes in another drama.
In conclusion he dwelt upon the moral of the whole history, which was that American influence abroad was gained by fidelity to republican doctrines and by honesty and integrity in the administration of public affairs; that it had now been largely lost by American mis-government, especially in our great cities, so that American republican government is now pointed at in Europe rather with word of warning than with admiration. He insisted that if the proper influence of American institutions abroad is to be regained it can only be by reforming our system in various parts, and, above all, in maintaining and extending a better civil service through the country at large and a better system of administration in our great cities.
Andrew D. White (November 7, 1832–November 4, 1918) taught for a number of years at the University of Michigan, later serving as the first president of Cornell University. He was also the author of History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom and Paper Money Inflation in France. [back to top]
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AHA Presidential Addresses
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