Yankees Caught in the Crossfire: The Trials and Travails of Americans in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France
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Yankees Caught in the Crossfire: The Trials and Travails of Americans in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France WILLIAM L. CHEW III Iη March of 1796, and in France less than one month, Yankee merchant and consular agent William Lee already lamented: I find I shall pay dear for being an American. A stranger is well known in Paris. If he goes into a shop to buy anything, he is sure to be asked triple the price they would charge a citizen for the same article, and they are so polite, agreeable, and affable, that a person acquainted only with the rough-hewn, honest, natural American manners cannot escape from their impositions.1 With his reference to the perceived defenselessness of the "rough-hewn American"—an auto-stereotype frequently invoked by his compatriots traveling abroad, and soon to become part of the moralist tendency of American exceptionalist discourse—Lee also recalled the timeless problem of all foreign travelers, afraid of being taken in by an astute local salesman. Louis-Sébastien Mercier would have agreed wholeheartedly, when he bemoaned the average tourist's fate of being condemned to seek his leisure in the notorious amusement district of the Palais Royal, since locals cared not a wit about his welfare.2 But such problems were universal, if not 297 298 / CHEW banal. Yet if Americans in revolutionary and Napoleonic France had only been confronted with the already difficult questions of integration and culture shock, many would have considered themselves lucky indeed. Unfortunately, this was not the case during a period of uneasy Franco-American relations, and innocent American bystanders in France—as it were—were sometimes caught in the crossfire of a complex international conflict pitting revolutionary and Napoleonic France against Britain (and her allies). The consequences for Americans in France, of this political and military conflict, were further exacerbated by a rising wave of Anglophobia (as distinct from an earlier enlightened Anglophilia) and an increasingly ambivalent if not hostile attitude toward the United States, erstwhile sister republic.3 A detailed representation of the period's diplomatic relations transcends the framework of the present study. Nonetheless, a basic understanding of the context that determined the special problems encountered by Americans in France at the time is necessary. Harmonious relations between the two allies had begun to cloud over soon after the end of the American Revolution, in part due to the outstanding repayment of America's debt to France, which had liberally (if not selflessly) aided the United States during their struggle for independence. The issue was worsened by the ruinous state of the French national budget, and while there was some debate about exact amounts owed, the sums involved were respectable indeed, certainly when viewed within the context of the bankruptcy of both the young American republic and that of the outgoing Ancien Régime. By the time Franklin and Vergermes signed the second contract on financial aid, on February 25, 1783, the United States had recognized the receipt of loans totaling 34 million livres and an additional 12 million livres in outright grants.4 The bulk of this financial aid, along with direct military assistance, fell in the period after the Battle of Saratoga, and had an undeniable impact on the American war effort.5 No further funds were granted after the signing of peace with Britain, and the first repayments were due on January 1, 1786, at which time the United States were far from solvent.6 Various alternative payment schemes were considered, such as a 1786 financing proposal advanced by a Dutch banker to take over the debt for 20 million livres.7 The problem hounded Thomas Jefferson until the end of his tenure as plenipotentiary, and the United States could not make their first payment on schedule. Adding to the already difficult resolution of the purely financial aspects, public relations ramifications complicated matters further, as Jefferson pointed out to President Washington. "A very small portion of this debt; I mean that part due to the French officers, has done us an injury of which those in office in America cannot have an idea. The interest is unpaid for Yankees Caught in the Crossfire I 299 the last three...


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