Matthew Price, writer and book critic
When The United States Spoke French
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, August 16, 2014

They were the cream of the aristocratic crop, reform-minded gents who initially supported the French Revolution — indeed, they helped foment it — and then watched it turn against them. Spurned outcasts, some sought refuge in England, only to be exiled once more by the fortunes of history. America became their refuge, and Philadelphia, for a time, their home.

In his ambitious new book, “When the United States Spoke French,” historian François Furstenberg charts the international odyssey of these figures, five Frenchmen who came to our shores in the 1790s: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a bishop and bigwig in the Catholic Church; the social theorist and inveterate schemer François Alexandre Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld, duc de Liancourt; soldier Louis-Marie, vicomte de Noailles, who fought in the American Revolution, danced with Marie-Antoinette, and became president of the French Assembly; Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, the comte de Volney, philosopher and compulsive traveler; and Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry, not quite as high-born as his compatriots, lawyer and former president of the electors of Paris turned bookseller.

Moderate leaders in the French Constituent Assembly during the Revolution’s heady first days, they had fallen from power after “failing to reconcile aristocracy with democracy,” Furstenberg writes. “They had served as witnesses, midwives, and victims as a new order was born, and now they hung suspended between two worlds: an old regime that had long tructured their existence and a new modernity they could not fully perceive, much less understand.”

Furstenberg does an admirable job evoking their personalities through anecdote and scene setting. They installed themselves at the heart of Philadelphia society and took part in the social round; these were well-bred men who lived and died by their wit, intellect, and manners. The notoriously charismatic Talleyrand could charm his way through a brick wall. But their journeys were also disorienting and disconcerting. They found themselves alternately fascinated and put off by what they found in America. Talleyrand was depressed (and hated American cooking); after only four days in Philadelphia, Liancourt moaned, “I am already completely bored with la société.”

Moreau, who ran a bookshop where the emigres gathered, lamented when a customer failed to recognize him, “I was king of Paris for three days, and today in order to live I am forced to sell inks, quills and paper in Philadelphia.”

This kind of material is delightfully mordant — even the whining is eloquent — and a scaled back version of “When the United States Spoke French” might have been a page-turning study in high-toned gossip: Talleyrand and Co. are never, ever boring company. But Furstenberg has much bigger things on his mind. He is writing against the provincialism of American revolutionary studies. This is a fair point, but he fails to deliver on his grand ambitions.

Using his five subjects as a lens on the first decade of the American Republic, Furstenberg roves from Maine to New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., and points between in his six chapters, spinning off enough ideas for half a dozen books. He stresses the vulnerability of the early American Republic, confined to a handful of coastal states, pitted against Native Americans in the Ohio River Valley, trying to contain settler unrest on its periphery, and squeezed by ceaseless warfare between revolutionary France and Great Britain. The author writes of a world aflame in revolt and social unrest — not only in France, but in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), France’s most valuable colony seething as slaves revolted against their masters in a bloody and prolonged insurgency.

Furstenberg’s protagonists were trenchant observers of such changes. They were highly connected — Noailles, for example, was friends with Alexander Hamilton, and lived in the house of one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families — but it is open to question how much they “shaped a nation.” Furstenberg, at times, resorts to academic hemming and hawing, smothering his argument with tentative assertions. He is fond of trendy buzzwords like “nodes” and “networks,” and often supplies a dozen examples to support a point when only a handful would do. “It might not be an exaggeration to say that they would shape the future of the United States itself,” Furstenberg contends. This is a bold, but unconvincing, proclamation.

Their time in America was actually quite brief. Talleyrand returned to France and became Napoleon’s foreign minister. Volney was appointed a senator. Moreau, with the help of Talleyrand, secured a job in the Ministry of the Navy. Liancourt returned his estate. Noailles died in Havana in 1804, from wounds sustained in an attack on a British privateer, but things did not turn out so badly for his friends.


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