Our Revolutionary Forefathers: The Journal of François, Marquis De Barhé-Marbois
TRANSLATED BY PERCY NOËL
August 3, 1779. — Here we are in Boston. On seeing these countrysides, formerly wild and almost deserted, today inhabited, fertile, and covered with orchards, I never tire of admiring the progress of civilization, which has made more headway here in a hundred years than it has in Europe during ten centuries.
The State Council of Massachusetts judged it proper to lodge us at the home of one of its members, Mr. Cushing, a good, loyal American. He received us with hospitable simplicity, unostentatious, unstudied, but as though truly happy to see us lodging with him.
Before we left Europe they explained to us that it was good usage here to commence the day by drinking a glass of wine and eating a few cakes; and that toward ten o’clock one took coffee or tea with fruits and a few cold meats. Also, if one made or received visits, that wine was again brought and one drank a few healths while waiting for dinner; that this dinner lasted two hours; that about five or six o’clock one drank tea, punch, or other refreshment, and so got to supper, which ordinarily was rather frugal.
Americans are sober, but they do not easily permit foreigners who are living among them to exercise this virtue. However, this régime has not marvelously well succeeded for our health, and I have taken pains to exclude all intermediary repasts in order to relish lunch, dinner, and supper.
The dinner does not too much resemble ours. It commences with a blessing, recited with unction by a priest or by the eldest of the family. All the courses, and even the dessert, are served together. The tablecloth falls on the knees of the guests and takes the place of napkins. To us the dishes appeared to be badly prepared, but that is a matter of taste; thus Americans are permitted to say the same of ours. With the first glass of wine one drinks the health of all the guests, without exception. If one has some affections more private for one of them, he invites him in the course of the repast to refill his glass and the two friends drink reciprocally their health. Ordinarily the women seat themselves next to each other. They retire at dessert, either of their own accord or on a sign from the master of the house. We have had trouble to accustom ourselves to this usage.
It is a part of the austere manner of these people, we are told, to believe that they should banish the ladies at the time when the men, animated by liquors or wine, might forget the respect which is due them. I should like it better if this austerity had led them by a shorter road to sobriety and the respect due women, and if at dessert one would not see the table thus deserted and transformed into a kind of divan, where they smoke or sometimes get intoxicated and where they use all the ‘comforts’ to a point which seemed to us quite strange. Thus the ladies leave, to our great regret, and the cloth is removed. Bottles, glasses, and fruit remain on the mahogany table and we proceed to drink healths, now political, now military, and to conceive jokes, sometimes rather obscene ones.
August 9. — I should have spoken of the customs of the Bostonians the first days following my arrival in Boston, as I was then more struck than I am today by the difference between their practices and ours. I still find it extraordinary that a woman leaves her hair its natural color and is content to arrange it with elegant simplicity, not disguising it at all with colored powders. An American lady to whom I remarked my surprise asked me if French ladies also powdered their eyebrows! Rouge is proscribed still more severely than powder, but I had not the least trouble to accustom myself to a usage so natural. I have not yet seen a beautiful woman, although I have seen several rather comely ones. There are no Parisian waists, so slim and so fine that they sometimes lose proportion with the rest of their bodies; but, if you will, their bodies are well developed and formed by nature, not by tailors.
Religious persecution made the first colonists flee from Europe to settle in New England; they have kept up to now — and above all, the Presbyterians — a violent hatred for the monarchy. This hatred took new strength at the epoch of the Revolution. On the other hand several prominent people regard religion today as a political instrument and most of the ministers have been ardent promoters of the Revolution. The people of each parish decide annually upon a sum for their minister’s living, and those whose public or private conduct is little fit are badly treated in the grant. The only authorized churches are those of the Presbyterians or Congregationalists, the Anglicans, the Quakers, and the Anabaptists.
At the time of the early colonization of Massachusetts, reason, good sense, and natural right took the place of laws for the colonists. One had been able to compare the colony in its infancy to a numerous family governed by the authority of a wise and severe father.
A man called Plistore stole four bushels of wheat from the Indians. He was condemned to restore them double the amount, was fined one hundred and fifty Tours livres, and condemned to call himself in the future ‘Josiah Plistore’ without being able to add the word ‘master’ to his name. A drunkard was condemned to some work useful to society. They put a workman in irons who demanded a much too large wage, and he paid a fine besides; simply a suspicion of calumny or idleness was punished with the whip and prison. They were content to admonish a girl who had been light in her conduct, but double adultery, proved, was often punished by the death of the two culprits. It must be admitted that nothing is rarer to-day than this latter offense.
A husband is permitted to beat his wife by paying a fine of ten pounds; if it is the wife who has beaten her husband, she receives the same fine, but if she has no money and her husband refuses to pay for her, she runs the risk of being whipped.
Boston houses are almost all constructed on a uniform plan; the only difference is in their proportions. Thus — a ground floor, two stories, five windows wide; the door in the middle, a vestibule and staircase on entering. As for anterooms, they do not know what they are.
The governor of the state is chief of the council in which rests the sovereign power, and he is the most eminent person in Massachusetts. We paid him a visit. Following our knock at his door, he came himself to open it and received us in a clean apartment, but of Lacedæmonian simplicity. The visit ended, he reaccompanied us to the door, his candle in hand, and as it was late I judge he put the key in his pocket and went to bed.
In a few states the chief justice, who is always a very important man, receives a very modest salary, and if he has no horses he must make on foot all his circuits, which are eighty to one hundred leagues. Thus he goes from town to town, carrying justice to the citizens.
We often met senators, representatives, and respected magistrates returning from the market carrying herbs or a fish. They called my attention to the same thing in Venice, but there was this remarkable difference, that the Venetian senator hides with care under his robes the merchandise which he has bought and none would be able to guess it if some longer roots or more active fish did not betray him. But the Bostonian goes along with head high and blushes no more to carry his provisions than a European does to carry a book or a print he has just bought; their habits are too simple to make a mystery of such a natural thing.
These Americans who open the door themselves, who go on foot to judge their citizens, who do their own marketing, are the ones who have brought about the present Revolution and who will, if it is necessary, shoulder a musket and march on the enemy. And, between us, I do not know if people who have suisses, stewards, officers and berlines with springs would have likewise resisted despotism.
We were surprised to see regularly every Friday that the tables were covered with fish, and above all salted fish; we were edified to find among the Presbyterians a practice which I believed particular to Catholics. We have learned since that this custom has nothing religious in it, and that the inhabitants of North America, whose principal wealth consists in fishing, adopted it from a purely commercial point of view to favor their fisheries.
August 24. — We have been to see the college at Cambridge, which is three leagues from Boston. It is situated in the midst of a plain cut off by a river bearing the same name. The college itself is composed of five buildings solidly constructed. The greatest part of the funds were given by rich American individuals. They say that England, interested in keeping the colonies in ignorance, did not view this establishment without apprehension, but it would have been too revolting to stop its progress; she contented herself by not contributing. The chairs are occupied by learned men and the plan of study appeared to us well conceived. They estimate the revenues of the college at sixty thousand Tours livres. The war has of necessity considerably diminished the number of scholars, and there are now only one hundred and twenty.
We were received into the library of the museum by all of the professors, at the head of whom was the rector or president in ceremonial robe. He made three profound reverences to His Excellency,1 and addressed him a speech in Latin. When the president had finished, he made three more reverences, and then there was another Latin oration. This had been constructed a little hastily, however, and I do not know how the orator made the slip of saying that he looked upon this meeting (referring to our mission) as the ‘conubium’ of the French and Atlantic muses. Several young bachelors of art smiled malignantly, as if they thought that such a marriage would not be infinitely fruitful.
We did not find any of the curiosities at Cambridge that we expected to see. A few arms, some costumes of the savages, a few snakes, a few mosquitoes, hardly extraordinary — that is what the collection was reduced to. We were shown a complete Bible in the Indian language, translated by an English minister who had learned one of the savage tongues. This monumental work, representing a zeal more active than well directed, will probably never be very useful to the men whom the author had in view. The respect due this sacred book, understanding of which demands a great depth of preliminary knowledge, does not hinder one from observing that it must be very obscure to the individual for whom the instruction was so imperfect. A good catechism of morals in four pages, which the Indians might have learned by heart, would have been useful, and the author of such a work would have been able to flatter himself that he had rendered a real service to humanity.
Before leaving Boston I should really tell you something of the Adamses and of Generals Gates and Hancock, who have had such a large part in this Revolution and will leave respectable names to posterity. We have seen them frequently during our sojourn here, but I promised to enter not a line of politics in my journal. I much prefer to speak to you of Phyllis, one of the most extraordinary creatures in this country and perhaps in the entire world.
She is a negress, born in Africa, from whence she was imported at the age of ten and sold to a citizen of the town of Boston. She learned English with extraordinary facility and read and reread the Bible with eagerness. This was the only book which had been put into her hands. Phyllis was filled with its poetic imagery and at seventeen published divers poems in which there are poesy, imagination, and enthusiasm, but little method or interest. I read them with some astonishment. They are printed and one finds on the flyleaf of the book authentic certificates which do not permit a doubt that she is the author.
We are now to leave Boston on a little pilgrimage to other places of interest.
WESTON, September 4. — We left Boston at five in the afternoon in a carriage drawn by six horses, and we have come to pass the night at Weston; we have provisions of all kinds and shall renew them each time the occasion presents itself. We are in the most favorable season of the year to make this voyage and to know the localities that we have to cross. The country is beautiful, the fields are fertile as far as Weston; fine orchards, Indian corn in abundance, green and flowered prairies, houses scattered along the road, continually vary the point of view.
WORCESTER, September 5. — We dined at a pretty village, fairly large, and passed the night in Worcester. As we approached the latter place we noticed that we were traveling in an entirely new country. The roads were practicable, but the habitations farther apart; our companions told us that the most beautiful farms and the richest inhabitants were within the wood. Almost all the country is covered by a vast forest which the road traverses, and cultivation has been begun in some spots where the soil appears most fertile and tillage least difficult.
BROOCKFIN [BROOKFIELD], September 6. — Many stones and granite rocks on the surface of the earth; that is what we observe in continuing our journey. No function is reputed ignoble here from the moment it is useful to society. We learn that our innkeeper was a colonel in the service of the state; or we see a priest occupied with his harvest or tilling his field. We hear a man called ‘Captain’ who is stacking his hay or leading his cattle to the neighboring brook. Everywhere there is an air of comfort and even of abundance; not a single beggar, not a man whose unfortunate appearance troubles the pleasure that we have in contemplating the abiding place of happiness and liberty. One day when we had a superfluity of provisions we said to our host, ‘Give these to the poor.’ He could hardly understand what we meant, and no poor were to be found.
We do not pass through any of the pretty little villages without being met by a solicitous clerk, who, hat in hand, begs us by the Thirteen States to get out of our carriage and pay a visit. There are no tolls at any of the bridges, no seignioral rights on entering one district or leaving another, no great or little salt taxes (gabelles), no Dutch tobacco shop, no contrabandists, no gamekeepers or forest guards.
We arrived very early at Broockfin, where we were to sleep. While waiting until supper was ready we went for a walk in a charming valley to the west of this little village. The countryside was covered with harvesters and reapers, all cheerful people, healthy, well clothed, and well nourished. We addressed ourselves to one of them, who appeared to be the farmer and whom the others called ‘Major.’ We made him talk about his farm and his manner of living. He told us that his principal wealth consisted of live stock; that the grain which he harvested did not always suffice for the consumption of his household, but in case of need potatoes supplemented it; that his orchards furnished him with good cider and fruit for the whole year; that his cows gave excellent milk, and he made us taste a good cheese made in his house.
‘During the winter I also make the material which we are wearing from the wool of my sheep,’ he continued. ‘My daughters and my wife weave, and in sixteen years I have not bought an ell of cloth. You see that forest, one quarter of a league from my dwelling? I possess a portion of it, amounting to three hundred acres. There I find what is necessary to repair my house, construct barns, and make plenty of fire in winter.’
He told us that justice was neither high nor low in America; that it was perfectly level and equal for everybody. We could not make him understand what kind of being was the lord of the village; he continued to believe that we meant a justice of the peace, and could not separate the idea of superiority from that of magistracy.
SPRINGFIELD, September 7. —We have left the beautiful valley and entered into rocky and rugged mountains. The road has been extremely difficult and not without danger. One of our coaches turned over and there was trouble getting it back on its wheels. Woods are omnipresent, habitation more rare, scenery wild.
At last we see Springfield and the banks of the Connecticut bathing it; here, fatigued by the dryness of the country which we have just crossed, we find population and culture as of the most beautiful places in Europe, and the dwellings are so close together that one could compare the two banks of the Connecticut from Springfield to Hartford, in a space of six leagues, to several contiguous villages.
HARTFORD,September 8. — Two leagues above this city there is a waterfall which prevents ascending the Connecticut. It is navigable as far as Suffield, and we took the opportunity to embark in a long boat covered with freshly cut leaves, while our horses and coaches proceeded leisurely by land. This navigation is charming; the current is a little swift, but with four rowers we made a league and a half an hour. The river is a quarter of a mile wide and the banks are covered with fine forests; they spread on the right bank a thick shade, which invited us to land for dinner. The turf served for a seat, a fallen tree took the place of a table, large leaves were converted into plates, and our wine was cooled in a neighboring spring. We shared with the sailors our pâtés, fruits, and Burgundy wine from our canteen. Wood nymphs would have been astonished by the novelty of this repast.
We went back to our boat and, following our custom, made our rowers talk; we learned that one was Scotch, another Irish, a third from Anspach [Bavaria], and the last Hessian.
You must know that our coach driver and postilion are deserters from the German-English troops, as are our four rowers, and that among the horsemen who form our escort three quarters are English and only the rest are Americans. It will appear amusing that in the present circumstances the Minister of France is conducted on sea and land and served by men sent at great expense to America by the English Government!
Arrived at Suffield, we were informed that we could not go down the Connecticut as far as Hartford without the risk of hitting some rocks. Our protectors had no trouble in persuading us that we were extremely precious beings to the American Republic, and we returned to our coaches. Despite their prudence, our welfare was imperiled, however.
We were alone, Monsieur do la Luzerne and I, in a four-wheeled cabriolet of very light construction. The militia of the place assembled on the occasion of a halt which we believe was due to the English; a company formed and presented arms to His Excellency. The noise and the sudden movement of arms frightened our horses, and as at the same instant, in order to do us more honor, they fired a cannon, the animals took the bits in their teeth, broke their reins, and dragged us over ditches, hillocks, and rocks. We had a precipice before us toward which they were running, and we were thinking of jumping to the ground when a dragoon from our escort, galloping to the horses’ heads, pressed them up so roughly that they stopped. Things were adjusted as well as possible, and at last we arrived at Hartford.
I have been to see the famous Governor Trumbull. The old man was saying his prayers when they announced me. While waiting for him to finish I examined his furniture, which was of an extremely Lacedæmonian simplicity: an armchair, two other chairs, a mahogany table, a lamp hanging from the ceiling, a rifle and a halberd, also a sword, attached to the wall. His person was no less simple. He is revered in just title by all the citizens of Connecticut, and he is one of those men who have rendered the greatest service to the cause of independence. He obliged us with a history of the present war, which he proposes to write himself. I deeply hope that his advanced age will not prevent the execution of this plan. You will permit me to brighten my description by telling you that people of the highest rank here are enfranchised from the unclean use of a pocket handkerchief and I was a little surprised when I saw the Governor blow his nose quite lustily with his fingers.
We saw some of the militia of the place. They are big, resolute, robust people. Their equipment, their clothes, their arms, their paper money, have small allurement for the German soldiers, and it is perhaps that which makes the latter so indifferent to success or defeat. What interest do you imagine these mercenaries have for the cause in which they are armed if they are not animated by the hope of pillage?
It is necessary to measure one’s words with an innkeeper. An imperative tone would succeed badly. A rather ordinary reply is: ‘You may demand, not command.’
We were present at a municipal assembly of the district; it was held in a church. These people believe that occupying themselves with public welfare is only another way of honoring divine majesty. In the assembly great calm and extreme attentiveness prevailed. Each one discussed his opinion, and, as the speakers do not sway from the point of the subject, they had all the time necessary. Following this discussion, those who are for the affirmative raise their hands. After them, those who are for the negative do the same. If the difference is very apparent, they draw a resolution conforming to the feelings of the majority. If it appears difficult to judge on which side it stands, they count the votes.
We were shown the old oak where the charter of Connecticut was hidden last century when the King of England wished to revoke it in order to submit this province to his unlimited power. Such are the curiosities of this country. No galleries, no public gardens, no palaces, no magnificent temples; but anything to do with liberty is sacred.
It is still a custom of this state for the daughters of the family to serve strangers at the table. Sometimes even the mistress of the house serves as well, and does not take a place at the table until the middle of the dinner. This inequality appears uncivil to us, but the masters and sovereigns of their submissive and obedient spouses cannot permit anyone to be superior to themselves; and if the necessity of having a regular government obliges them to elect magistrates and chiefs, they have taken pains to see to it that the luxury and magnificence of these heads do not emphasize their own mediocrity.
They do not even wish for a man, through his commerce, his industry, or any other cause, to be richer than his fellow citizens or to distinguish himself with an affluence greater than they enjoy. One very rich man in particular had a simple and modest carriage made, but he could never use it. His neighbors threatened to throw this ‘ostentatious’ carriage into the Connecticut River, and so, as in the past, it was necessary for his daughters to go on horseback in fine weather and in little closed-in coaches when it rained.
We are treated with great familiarity, but with so much innocence and simplicity that we should be very hard to please if we took it in bad part. Travelers seat themselves at our table without having been asked there, and they are not always the best company. Sometimes teamsters, after having put their carts under cover and given oats to the horses, place themselves next to us without ceremony.
I dined at Hartford with several inhabitants of the city. One evening I was seated next to a pretty miss, young and attentive, who had a strong desire to please. Only one thing caused me some impatience: I was dining with extreme appetite, but she pretended not to believe it and waited with indefatigable care for the moment when I was about to change my plate to tell me that I was not eating and to assure me that the turkey, game, and pudding were excellent, and that I must absolutely eat some. Besides, we drank from the same glass, a thing which I was able to accept in patience, but I had at my left an old lady with a hooked nose who accorded me the same favor, and from that moment I felt my thirst quenched. Unfortunately, it was necessary to return to this banal glass, for almost all the guests proposed that I should drink a glass of wine with them in the same way, and despite my repugnance I could not well refuse them all.
Without wounding the modesty of an American lady one cannot pronounce the words ’legs, knees, chemise, garters,’ and a number of other words equally unoffensive to our ears; but we can propose to a young lady to ‘bundle’; not only is she not offended, but she regards this proposal as politeness, and sometimes this strange favor is accorded to a traveler, even one she does not know very well. It is difficult to reconcile this general usage with the severity of manners and a natural shyness about sex in North America. It was from the Indians or savages that the Englishmen who settled in Connecticut borrowed this custom, and they assured me that, if modesty is wounded, chastity is not at all. They do not bundle in summer and one may not remove any clothing to bundle, except coat and shoes. This custom has only been abolished quite recently in Boston, New Hampshire, and New York; Connecticut has not adopted this reform at all. However, the first French officers who were permitted it conducted themselves with so little reserve that the old people begged the mothers not to permit them this form of courtship with their daughters. The practice was suspended, but the departure of the army permits its reëstablishment, and the old women, although they have at heart no interest, are the most zealous to incite young girls to follow a custom they themselves formerly found good.
In this city we lodged at the Golden Donkey. I advise my friends to avoid this hostelry. Our host treated us as if we were the heroes of his sign, and made us pay 150 piastres for a very bad dinner.
We heard of the Blue Laws, which some people call ‘Blood Laws.’ It is forbidden to nourish or lodge a Quaker, an Adamite, or any other heretic Forbidden to promenade on Sunday, even in one’s own garden. It is only permitted to leave one’s own house to go to church and to come back. This law was still in force when we crossed Connecticut and people gave us some hints on the impropriety of traveling on Sunday. The war has slightly softened the rigor of these customs, but whosoever travels without passport, or cannot prove that he is charged with important packets for the public, risks being arrested and held until next day. The people will not do any cooking, they will not sweep, will not cut their hair or shave, they will not even make up the bed on Sunday. It is forbidden for a woman to kiss her child on Sunday or a fast day. The only instruments permitted are the cornet, harp, and drum, and they punish more severely the most skillful musicians.
I made the acquaintance of General Putnam. It was he who caught the first English spy—a young officer in whom the English general took an interest. He wrote a letter to Putnam which was a mixture of prayers and menaces; he terminated with the words: ‘If they have the audacity to exercise any violence to his person, the Americans who are my best prisoners will answer for it.'
The General replied in a few words that the prisoner would be judged and the court-martial would decide his lot. His letter was sealed and the messenger received it, when Putnam called him back and wrote on the cover of the missive: ‘N.B. I learn that the spy has just been hung.’
The affair, as one can well believe, had no sequel.
You know that, after the example of all travelers, I admit only authentic facts into my record. The General’s aide-de-camp told me the following: —
Twenty-five years ago an enormous bear carried off a sow from the farm of Israel Putnam, in the middle of the night. The cries of the sow awoke Putnam, who, without dressing himself, followed the bear to its den without other arms than a heavy stick. He penetrated the cavern on his hands and knees. Guided by its growling and the fire in its eyes, he approached the monster and with three blows he beat it to death. He discovered and killed also two bear cubs and carried them to his village. I have been told other anecdotes equally remarkable; this intrepidity and intelligence acquired him a military reputation, and his fellow citizens made him a general.
NEWHAVEN, September 10. — From Hartford we traveled in two days to Newhaven, This journey across Connecticut is one of the most remarkable surprises we have had. The country we passed through is comparable to the most fertile of Europe. We lunched at Weathersfield. One of the inhabitants at whose house we stopped conducted us to the top of a high clock tower whence we could see the wide extent of land, looking like an immense garden, watered by the Connecticut.
Onions make the wealth of this city. They say that when a girl is eight years old her parents each give her every spring thereafter a silk dress, and that she must on her part pull up with her own hands every morning the weeds from a plot of onions.
Making our way, we stopped at a farm of doubtful appearance. We entered a house which, according to the custom of the country, was not locked. Houses remain open all night without bars on doors or windows; cupboards have no lock and are closed with a simple catch. Against dogs and cats locks are of no use, and there are no other thieves. Master and servants were absent from this dwelling, but we found in the larder all the necessary provisions and, on the advice of our escort, we used them freely. Our dinner was ready when the master of the house returned. He did not appear at all surprised at our liberty; simply told us that we were welcome.
We went to see the College of Newhaven. The regulations have been drawn up with wisdom and simplicity, but I do not like the following article:
The state of marriage being entirely incompatible with that of a student, it is ordered that whomsoever shall marry will be dismissed from the college.
As if it sufficed to have taken a wife to have nothing more to learn, or as if marriage were an offense of which ignorance must be the punishment!
From a hill we saw Long Island, one of the most beautiful islands in the world, live or six leagues distant. Tt is at present occupied by the English, and General Washington, by an access of prudence and attention, has just sent us an escort of thirty men.
In the Newhaven Cemetery they show the tomb of Dixwell, one of the judges who sent Charles I to the scaffold. Fanatics of republican government go there on pilgrimages as to the tomb of their apostle. A league and a half from the town one sees a cave where it is claimed two other judges of the Prince took refuge after the death of Richard Cromwell, and where they remained hidden and proscribed until their death.
One finds almost no traces of the existence of the savages; one hundred and sixty years have sufficed to annihilate these unfortunate nations and all the monuments which could have testified their existence. Bows, a few stone hatchets, a gross and almost formless idol of granite that we saw near Hartford, some families who have preserved their customs, their language, and who continue to live around New-London, in a kind of independence—that is all we could pick up concerning the former inhabitants of this country. They told us that on Long Island there were about twenty Indian families who have preserved the ancient form of society which existed before the arrival of the Europeans.
FAIRFIELD, September 12. — We continued our journey by Grunfield, Stratford, and by Fairfield, of which the name indicates the natural beauties; but we were unable to see without pity the condition of the country which the English traversed, sword and flame in hand, two months before. Almost all the habitations have been entirely burned over a space of two leagues. As they were built of wood, with the exception of their fireplaces and chimneys, one sees an isolated mass of bricks rising up twenty-five or thirty feet. The Americans have the courage to joke about their very misfortunes, calling these ruins ‘English chimneys.’ Churches and public buildings have not been respected. At every step we find heaps of ruins, and the flames have not even spared the orchards and crops.
You know that the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes spread over the surface of Europe a great number of useful citizens who have enriched foreigners with our losses. Some of them came as far as America and we are now in the vicinity of Nouvelle Rochelle, a colony founded by French refugees. We will not go to see them; our hearts would bleed at the sight of this picture of the mistakes committed by our fathers.
Despite all the remonstrances of Monsieur de la Luzerne, General Washington had come to welcome us at Fishkill: he received us with noble urbanity, modest and gentle, with that amenity which appears to form the depth of his character. He is fifty years old, well built, a little thin; he has freedom and a certain military grace in all his person. He has the male look without his features being less gentle. I have never seen in any person easier and more natural politeness. His eyes are blue and rather large, the mouth and nose regular, the forehead high. His uniform does not differ at all from that of the soldier. Formerly, on solemn occasions, — I mean on battle days, — he wore a wide blue ribbon. He has given up this scarcely republican distinction. They say that in battle he keeps that humane character which in camp renders him so dear to soldiers.
I saw him for some time with his family and he has always appeared to me even, quiet, and composed in his occupations, sober in his speech. He asks few questions, listens attentively, and replies very low and in few words. He is serious in affairs; outside of that, he lets himself go with a reserved gayety. His conversation is as simple as his manners and exterior; he does the honors of his house with dignity, but without haughtiness and without adulation. His aides-de-camp preside at his table and offer the toasts. Before being at the head of the American Army he did not disdain the cares of his farm. To-day he sometimes plays ball for whole hours with his aides-decamp. He is pious without bigotry, abhors oaths, and punishes them with the greatest severity. As to his public conduct, ask his compatriots and the universe. If you like parallels, I could compare him to Timoleon, who enfranchised the Sicilians from the tyranny of the Carthaginians, joined to His military qualities those which constitute an excellent citizen, and, after having rendered signal services to his country, in private life was not ambitious of power or honors, but was content to enjoy modestly the glory of having given liberty to a powerful nation.
We embarked with the General on the River of the North, or the Hudson. We sailed down with the ebb as far as West Point, where the General Headquarters of the American Army are situated, surrounded by its principal posts. The General held the tiller, and in the light breeze, which called for skill and practice, he proved to us that this little manœuvre was no more a stranger to him than other sciences useful to man. The river is hemmed in between two rugged banks covered by trees; its bed narrows sometimes to a third of a mile and widens soon after to three quarters of a league. On the right, near West Point, the mountains are more distant from the bank and leave a space of about thirty arpents, where are the tents of the General and the officers attached to him. The Army divisions are around this Headquarters, on the hilltops, which are covered with forts and redoubts. The air there is pure and salubrious, and we did not see forty sick in the hospital.
During dinner the conversation was of the great things that Americans had done. All the generals and the principal officers were assembled. It was interesting to see the reunion of these warriors — famous patriots, each one, because of some brilliant action; and this military repast, served in a tent in the midst of the accoutrements of war, to a ministre and French officers, was a remarkable novelty for all.
I was seated near the General and, as he inspired confidence, after several general discourses we talked together rather openly on different subjects. He spoke to me of the splendid actions of my compatriots and of the glory that they had acquired in America. Everything around us was of interesting character to me. The river, reflected by the tide, brought the waves up to the tent pins; they broke there with a solemn noise; a few steps from us the band played French military airs; the banks and forests of the mountain replied lingeringly to the noise of cannon fired to the health of the King and Queen; the opposite bank shone with fires that the soldiers had lighted. I had before my eyes one of the spectacles the most worthy of man’s admiration: the valiant chiefs and generals of a brave nation fighting for liberty. I was very much touched, and I felt my eyes moisten.
The General told me that he drank to the health of the Marquis de La Fayette, and asked me if I had seen him before my departure. I replied in the affirmative, and I added that he had spoken of him with the tenderest veneration, that the conduct of the Marquis de La Fayette in America had drawn general esteem and that he had gained distinctions and favors from the King. I then saw Washington flush like a tender father to whom one would speak well of his child; tears fell from his eyes, he grasped my hand, and he could scarcely pronounce these words: ‘I do not know a more noble soul, more honest, and I love him as my own son.'
Night, September 16-17. — The thunder of a cannon has just awakened me; it is four o’clock in the morning; drums and fifes and bugles resound about our tents. As I cannot get asleep again, I must write you the news of the day by the glimmer of my night lamp.
At nine o’clock in the morning we mounted our horses to accompany General Washington, who wished to conduct us himself to all the principal points of the position which he has taken on the Hudson. It was extremely important for the Americans to blockade this river. The frigates come up it almost to Albany, and the enemy, if he were master of it, could prevent all communication between the states north and south of Albany. To stop the enemy the Americans have installed a heavy chain across the river, which is strongly anchored on both banks. Forts advantageously situated can combine their fire against all war vessels or ships which might attempt to break or destroy the chain.
The location of West Point is rather happily chosen. The river narrows at this spot and makes such a bend in the opposite direction that a sailing vessel loses all the advantage of the wind as it makes the curve. The fort on the right is commanded by a hill and other eminences command it in turn, to the number of four. The Americans believed they must fortify all these heights to shelter the principal fort from attack. We visited them successively despite the steepness of the rock. After this walk we went to see the different brigades camped along the river; they were scarcely dressed, but very well armed, the kind of strong and robust men who have proved that one can make good soldiers with new levées. This promenade did not finish until four o’clock, and then we went to dine on the other bank, at the headquarters of Monsieur du Portail.
I made my way to the General, and in the course of the conversation which followed I asked him if he would not come one day to France to enjoy the applause of a sensitive nation which idolizes glory. He said that he was only waiting for the end of the war to retire to his own countryseat and end his days in the bosom of his family, after having acquitted the debt which every citizen owes to his country in time of trouble and misfortune.
September 17. — Obliged to hurry our march, we left the camp, after having sojourned there two days. The General conducted us as far as New Bethune, where we took leave of him and some of the principal officers of his army who had accompanied us. I shall always recall with pleasure the time we passed with this admirable man. His appearance and his actions bespeak virtue and he inspires it in all those surrounding him; his family (this is the name that they give in America to an establishment composed of a head, his wife, his children, or all those who live in his familiarity and under the same roof) is really worthy of its chief; his aides-de-camp arc an agreeable society, the greatest union reigns among them. Only one of them is distinguished by more application; it is Mr. Hamilton. If courage, assiduity, penetration, mixed with some grains of ambition, may lift a man from the common level in a budding republic, you will hear him talked of some day.
(To be continued)
- Chevalier de la Luzerne, formerly one of La Fayette’s officers, and in charge of the Mission sent to the United States by the King of France. — TRANSLATOR↩