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Reborn in America

French Exiles and Refugees in the United States and the Vine and Olive Adventure, 1815-1865

Eric Saugera, translated by Madeleine Velguth

Publication Year: 2011

The history of the Vine and Olive Colony in Demopolis, Alabama, has long been clouded by romantic myths. The notion that it was a doomed attempt by Napoleonic exiles in America to plant a wine- and olive-growing community in Alabama based on the ideals of the French Revolution, has long been bolstered by the images that have been proliferated in the popular imagination of French ladies (in Josephine-style gowns) and gentlemen (in officer’s full dress uniforms) lounging in the breeze on the bluffs overlooking the Tombigbee River while sturdy French peasants plowed the rich soil of the Black Belt. Indeed, these picturesque images come close to matching the dreams that many of the exiles themselves entertained upon arrival.
But Eric Saugera’s recent scholarship does much to complicate the story. Based on a rich cache of letters by settlement founders and promoters discovered in French regional archives, Reborn in America humanizes the refugees, who turn out to have been as interested in profiteering as they were in social engineering and who dallied with schemes to restore the Bonapartes and return gloriously to their homeland.
The details presented in this story add a great deal to what we know of antebellum Alabama and international intrigues in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat, and shed light as well on the other, less glamorous refugees: planters fleeing from the revolution in Haiti, whose interest was much more purely agricultural and whose lasting influence on the region was far more durable.


Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-10

In the mid-1960s a crisis shook the old Franco-American alliance. France asserted its independence, left NATO, and condemned the actions of “the American war apparatus” in Vietnam.1 Yet on October 28, 1967, the two nations exchanged tokens of friendship in Demopolis, Marengo County, Alabama. After months of preparation and two weeks of commemorative celebrations, the people...

Part I: Treason and Terror

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1. A Critical Moment

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pp. 13-27

In the early months of 1814, an exhausted French nation watched almost impassively as its territory was invaded, and Paris offered vain resistance to the allied forces that took it on March 31. Napoleon had worked wonders to drive back the invaders, but the enemy’s crushing numerical superiority finally overwhelmed...

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2. The “Chief Culprits”

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pp. 28-41

On the day after the battle of Waterloo, Louis XVIII wrote to Wellington expressing his satisfaction with the success of the allies over the French troops. The allies and their English supreme commander had, it is true, made a distinction— in theory—between the French nation and Napoleon, waging war only against the latter. But the royal delight at the imperial chaos, even if it was comprehensible...

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3. Political Reaction in Gironde

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pp. 42-54

In the Europe of 1816, Belgium was the refuge of the Frenchmen rejected by the Bourbons; it was the closest and most accessible continental destination from Paris and northeastern France. But others, whose legal situation was particularly critical and urgent, had to flee as soon and far as possible. This, we shall see, was so for...

Part II: Across the Atlantic

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4. Maritime Exodus

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pp. 57-75

Jacques Lajonie’s stay in Switzerland was brief. After years under Napoleon’s rule, the new Confederation had just returned to the control of the old elite, from whom the fleeing French could expect no help: the right to stay was denied to many, and others were taken back to the border and handed over to waiting French gendarmes...

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5. A Conflictual Friendship

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pp. 76-97

America was for a time to become an area of turbulence between two antagonistic forces of a foreign nation: official France, well established in Washington and in its consulates, and the émigré France of renegades driven out by the newly restored Bourbons. Situated between the good and the bad Frenchmen, the host country strove to be pleasant to one group without displeasing the other, but diverging...

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6. Settling in America

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pp. 98-122

After eighteen months in America, General Bernard expressed his gratitude for a welcoming country, blessed by the gods and destined for a bright future. Even if his heart remained in France, like that of his compatriots in exile, his abilities were so exceptional that they could not model their integration on his. The French arriving in the United States, thought Hyde de Neuville, were a second-rate population...

Part III: Alabama’s Exotic Roots

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7. Grape Harvests in America

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pp. 125-140

Lieutenant Buonaparte’s reading notes prove that his interest in the United States, a new but harsh country, began very early. In France, he wrote, four acres of land are enough for a living; there over forty are needed, and fishing besides. There is plenty of wood, but it would not pay to export it. The fur trade is declining. Tobacco grows well in the central part of the country, but it depletes the soil. On...

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8. The New Thebaid

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pp. 141-156

In August 1816, the Abeille Américaine published a letter from a subscriber who preferred to remain anonymous so as not to influence anyone and to welcome all initiatives, since the common interest should come before his personal ambition. After a glowing tribute to the superiority of American republican institutions over...

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9. A Gift from Congress

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pp. 157-175

We do not have the text of the Colonial Society’s petition for lands, but this is scarcely a hindrance, since we know its driving principles and the names of its signatories. The important thing is to understand that, in a generally favorable climate, there was every chance the petition would succeed. The “era of good feelings,” introduced by the outgoing Madison administration, was not confined to...

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10. A Family Affair

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pp. 176-198

Jefferson had turned down the Colonial Society’s request to draw up its rules, but he did not doubt that its members would succeed in their settlement and bring happiness to their descendants. The society seemed to be established upon a firm foundation with encouraging signs of its development guaranteeing its outcome: its builders were experienced men and their plans aroused increasing interest. Six...

Part IV: French Lands in Alabama

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11. Routes to the South

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pp. 201-219

In the first half of April 1817, in Philadelphia, the Colonial Society deliberated over how to get to its future place of settlement and retained three options accessible to each other at various connection points. None of the proposed routes— land, maritime, and river—was without its risks, but on the scale of pitfalls and...

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12. The Promised Land

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pp. 220-256

After July 1817, one arrival followed another, so that by the beginning of the following year, according to Pénières, more than 150 colonists to whom Congress had granted land were clustered on the White Bluffs.1 Depending upon the conditions of their emigration and their reasons for joining the Colonial Society, their presence in Alabama was either the fulfillment of a dream, the default choice of...

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13. The French and the Others

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pp. 257-281

The colonists could have enjoyed their new environment right away, if one complication had not followed another. The trials of the journey and then of marking the boundaries of their lands made many realize how far they were from cities and the conditions of a comfortable existence. However, while not an Eden, for the thermometers soared in the summer, it did offer advantages: abundant rain, fertile...

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14. A Model Colonist

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pp. 282-316

The nature of the relations between the French colonists and those who shared their environment does not sufficiently explain the success of some and the failure of most. The Indians, pushed west of the Tombigbee, were peaceful, and the slaves docile. Some Anglo-American farmers were certainly unfriendly, taking advantage of the naïveté of the French, occupying their lands, defaulting on payments...

Part V: Choice of a World

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15. Rebirth in America

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pp. 319-344

Jacques Lajonie, heroic farmer and winegrower, was not the exception in the French colony. For varying lengths of time, in their own way and with the means at their disposal, others also put a lot into its development: his associates Mangon and Fougnet, General Lefebvre-Desnoëttes, Roudet the nurseryman from Isère, and...

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16. Return to the Homeland

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pp. 345-372

Of 352 observable cases, 86 members of the Colonial Society—that is, one-fourth of them—left America to return to Europe permanently, in ways determined by the conditions of their departure: motivated by economic considerations or political harassment, those who had left voluntarily could return whenever they wanted; on the other hand, those condemned to death or banished, victims of the proscription...


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pp. 373-380


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pp. 381-426


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pp. 427-508


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pp. 509-536


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pp. 537-572

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780817385118
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317232

Page Count: 572
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1