- This Bright Era of Happy Revolutions: French Consul Michel-Ange-Bernard Mangourit and International Republicanism in Charleston, 1792–1794
The age of revolution was the culminating phase in the history of the Atlantic world. The American, French, and Haitian revolutions drew their ideas and inspiration from transoceanic intellectual channels that Europeans, Africans, and American creoles had created over three centuries. Throughout the Atlantic community, thousands of obscure people spread a gospel of liberation, in the process fatally undermining the institutions (New World empires and the African slave trade) that had defined the Atlantic world since 1500.1 Among this group of "lower-level revolutionaries," as Robert Alderson calls them (173), were diplomats from revolutionary nations like France, who carried liberal ideas with them to their foreign posts. One of the more significant members of this cadre was Michel-Ange-Bernard Mangourit, French consul to Charleston, who served as a nodal point between the French and American revolutions. This revolutionary context, as much as Mangourit himself, forms the principal subject of Alderson's biography, a work solidly [End Page 335] grounded in French archival research and published American primary sources.
Mangourit was a lawyer, Freemason, and journalist who in 1789 became an influential member of the French National Assembly. By 1792, when Louis XVI appointed him consul-general for the Carolinas and Georgia, Mangourit had also become a committed republican. Among his first actions in the United States was to help found Republican societies in Savannah and Charleston, which inspired the formation of other Democratic–Republican clubs in the lower South. The consul's intent was to counter the influence of antirevolutionary émigrés from Saint Domingue, but the societies would also become nuclei of an American "oppositional public sphere" (x, 2) whose constituents openly criticized their nation's elected officials, especially the Washington administration and its neutrality policy.
While he was cheered by the Republican societies' toasts, speeches, and other professions of Franco–American friendship, Mangourit had a more substantial goal during his American sojourn than generating good feeling: He planned to open up a new front in the French Republic's war with European monarchies. In spite of the American proclamation of neutrality, Mangourit commissioned privateers to attack British and Spanish shipping, and in June 1793, on the orders of Minister Edmond-Charles Genet, he began planning a French–American invasion of Spanish East Florida. The projected attack, employing American gunmen and a few French warships, would have as its goal the creation of a new republic in Florida that could offer land to poor American farmers and ports to French privateers. In Mangourit's Florida both Americans and Frenchmen could merge republican solidarity with self-interest. However, despite the support of local American leaders, the Florida expedition ultimately depended on official French support. It collapsed shortly after the rise of France's Jacobin government, which, needing American grain (and thus good relations with the U.S. government) more than it wanted Spanish colonies, recalled Genet and Mangourit.
During his twenty-month stay in Charleston, Mangourit came to view "aristocrats," whether émigrés from Saint Domingue or wealthy American supporters of the administration in Philadelphia, as his principal adversaries. He argued that the French Revolution offered the American masses greater opportunities for advancement and equality than did their own revolution, which had left the United States in the hands of a monarchical [End Page 336] president and his "degenerate" courtiers (166). The consul did, however, exclude one important group from the disaffected poor with whom he sided: African American slaves. While Mangourit personally opposed slavery, he found he could not win the support of local whites without repressing these views. Thus Mangourit refused to visit a quarantined French refugee ship from Cap Français, the Maria, because he feared the Charleston émigré community would accuse him of plotting with Saint Dominguan rebels, and he removed an antislavery clause from his plan for the proposed Floridian republic. While the...