Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation

By François Furstenberg Penguin Press. 498 pp. $36

Most Americans are aware that France helped us win independence from Britain, but few appreciate the huge influence France continued to have here during our nation’s formative years.

In its infancy, the United States was a scarecrow of a country — mostly farms and a few hamlets scattered among diverse, semi-independent states — with meager economic development. When revolution struck France, many in the ruling class found their way to Philadelphia, which was then the U.S. capital. In his new book, François Furstenberg tells this story through the eyes of five French emigres, including the notorious Talleyrand, who held posts in the French government before and after the revolution.

Their numbers were soon augmented by French fleeing Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean, today’s Haiti, after half a million slaves rose up against their masters. Saint -Domingue had been the most productive colony of the French empire.

By the mid-1790s, the French accounted for perhaps 10 percent of the population of Philadelphia. They brought with them their culture — language, literature, music, art and Enlightenment values — as well as access to capital, which the new country desperately needed. They were welcomed by the vast majority of Americans, who appreciated the French support in the American Revolution. Soon everything French was the rage as Americans embraced the newcomers and began to emulate them in dress and manners. It should come as no surprise to learn that Alexander Hamilton and Talleyrand became pals.

Most Americans thought it just peachy that the French were having their own revolution, which resembled our own for a while, but the bloodbath that ensued took the fun out of it. The French emigres in the United States were soon joined by diplomats from the new government in Paris who would have been happy to send them back to France and the guillotine. Meanwhile, France was pressing the United States to join its war against the British. There was much sympathy here for the French cause, but President George Washington knew that this country was not prepared for another war and thus issued a neutrality proclamation.

Despite our warm feelings for the French and resentment of the British, there remained indelible bonds to the mother country. “In every part of America through which I traveled,” Talleyrand wrote, “I did not find a single Englishman who did not feel himself American, not a single Frenchman who did not feel himself a foreigner.”

The author posits that the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts that empowered President John Adams to deport foreign citizens without a hearing were aimed at curbing efforts to embroil Americans in France’s war with Britain. Then, after France and Britain made peace, France made plans to use the Louisiana Territory as the basis for a new French empire, stretching up the Mississippi Valley to Quebec — an intiative that, when discovered, poisoned our relations with France. This issue was resolved a few years later (1803) when Napoleon sold the territory to the United States, and U.S.-French relations have been mostly positive ever since.

This work is repetitive in spots, and the author assumes the reader is well versed in the French Revolution, but overall it is an entertaining read that fills an important gap in our history.

Hank H. Cox , a writer in Takoma Park, Md., is the author of “Lincoln and the Sioux Uprising of 1862” and “Conversations With the Devil.”