French lessons: from revolutionary Philadelphia to Libya with love

With France playing a leading role in the NATO coalition supporting the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, it’s a good moment to recall the first great era of Franco-American cooperation, the time of the American Revolution. Back then that alliance had special meaning in Philadelphia.

Flickr photo by agaw.dilim

Philadelphia’s French fetish is hard to miss. We have some of the finest French restaurants in the nation, and many of our city landmarks, such as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and City Hall, are modeled after French counterparts. Legendary Philadelphia residents such as Stephen Girard hailed from France, and some of our most beloved founding fathers, such as Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris, once served as ambassadors to France.  

You’d think that in the 1790s, when French emigrants were flocking to Philadelphia, they would have taken to our city like fish to water. But they didn’t.  

In 1790, 5,000 Philadelphians were Frenchmen — one-sixth of Philly’s population at the time. And in the decade that followed, that number only grew.

Why were so many Frenchmen living in Philadelphia?

Thank the French and Haitian revolutions. In the 1790s revolutionary upheaval in France and its colony of St. Domingue (today Haiti) led to the emigration of thousands of Frenchmen to the United States. And as the nation’s largest city and the birthplace of America, Philly was first choice for émigrés looking to ride out the revolutionary storm.

They quickly established a vast press network that rivaled Philadelphia’s English-language publications.

The press reveals so much about the émigrés’ activity. First impressions of the city were positive, but the émigrés were unsure about the role they would play in Philly, then the nation’s capital.

Philly was first choice for émigrés looking to ride out the revolutionary storm.

The French ministers residing in Philadelphia were of practically no help to their fellow countrymen, often dismissing them. Rather than report on daily news in Philadelphia, newspapers focused on sharing news of revolutionary happenings in France and St. Domingue. Though there were some exceptions, the refugee press reveals few reports on American politics and few attempts to socialize with Philadelphians despite residing in the political and social hub of America.

Ultimately, the émigrés’ were disillusioned. Despite all that Philadelphia had to offer in the 1790s, the community retained a constant desire to return to France.  

When the revolution ended in 1799 the émigrés left in mass exodus and returned to start life in post-revolutionary France. By 1800, not a single French periodical was being published on American soil.

Franco-American relations as a whole have improved considerably since then. In fact, in 2010 French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that “Seldom in the history of our two countries have the shared values between the United States of America and France been so aligned,” which the recent Libyan operation only seems to reinforce.

 Catherine Sigmond is a Public Programs Intern at the National Constitution Center. She has lived in Béziers and Paris, France, and in the fall will move to Marseille to teach English through the French Ministry of Education’s Teaching Assistant Program in France.

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