Merci à Joseph Visser et Tom Kaiser pour leur aide à la traduction et leur relecture du manuscrit.

The history of diplomatic relations between France and the United States during the years between the American and French Revolutions is, without doubt, one of the less well-studied in the historiography of French foreign relations. Themes revolving around the cultural and political contacts and transfers between the Sister Republics received ample attention at the time of the bicentennial of the French Revolution (1) , but the strictly diplomatic aspects were never central. Thus despite the partial revival of perspectives on the history of international relations in recent years, not a single work of diplomatic history pertaining to the relations between France and the United States in the time-span between the War of Independence and the French Revolution has been published, and most of those still considered essential are now over forty years old (2) . Similarly, works following the “Atlantic History” paradigm have multiplied, but there also Franco-American diplomatic relations are absent (3) .

This article summarizes a work meant to start filling this historiographical gap, by examining the subject of relations between France and the United States using sources little explored to this day : consular archives (4).

The eighteenth century saw the growth of a culture of peace, expressed particularly in the extension of consular networks, which made up, along with permanent embassies, “a new framework for relations between states and princes” (5) . In december 2003, a colloquium bringing together specialists of the consular function, in modern times but in different geographical areas, was able to establish a preliminary assessment of the research recently conducted (6). Most historians stressed the fact that the history of diplomcy and consular networks should be set in perspective of the long-term development of structures of dialogue between states, and the emergence of an international community. In this expanded time of diplomacy, the eighteenth century appears as the “consuls’ era”, with networks expanding quickly in answer to the growing importance of commerical requirements in Enlightenment diplomacy.

There has recently been a remarkable acceleration in the study of consular networks. The works of Anne Mézin or Charles Windler have introduced new approaches, partially integrating the new prosopographical and cultural perspectives on diplomacy (7) . The consular function has emerged as a new object of study and an observatory for international relations, on one hand because creation of these networks reveals the position of states in the international community, and on the other because consuls operate in international relations “at the bottom”. In this new history, political decisions are viewed more as a backdrop or a context than as actually practised. Once neglected by “classical” diplomatic history, which took notice only of the more prestigious actors of international relations, consuls are now recognized as full actors in the relations between states and their inhabitants.

The American case is of particular interest. It was indeed a “new” network, set up in the singular context of a federal Republic, a structure quite foreign to the political mindset of a monarchy, very problematical for the Republic, one and indivisible which replaced it in 1792, and absolutely unfathomable for Napoleonic authoritarianism. Distance was also a distinguishing element of the French consular network in the United States. It long remained the farthest from continental France. Its position, an interface between Europe, North America and the colonial world make it a priviledged observation point for the diverse attempts at controlling the Atlantic space.

This article will examine the three subjects present in consular sources : the political role of consuls in shaping the networks, their tasks of economical control and information in the general control of Atlantic commerce and French colonies, and finally the reciprocal images of the Franco-American Alliance.

The French consular network in North America is, chronologically, the last one set up by the monarchy. Although it shares common traits and traditions with the European and Levantine networks, the political, rather than economic, functions of the consuls in the American Republic set it apart (8) .

What was the importance of the French consulates in the USA, in the French-American relations between 1778 and 1792 ? Did the consul merely follow orders, or did he play a personal role in these relations ? Apart from their traditional functions, commercial and administrative, did he act as a political link between France and the United States ? How, and how well did they fulfill their mission to forward information to the king’s Council ? The consuls play a part in building parallel representations of the French and the Americans : the initial mistrust towards a longtime enemy was soon replaced by a feeling of gratitude for the French kingdom, which helped them gain their independence (although a slightly tepid gratitude, according to the French). The consuls provided precious observations : they tracked the evolution of public opinion, kept an eye on the “French nation”, and took appropriate measures to make France popular with its New World ally.

1. A very « political » consular network

As soon as the treaty of commerce and alliance with the American Insurgents was signed in 1778, the French minister Vergennes hurried to send agents to help win the ongoing war, and also to try to make the most of this alliance, in an economic sense. The mission assigned to the first French agents in America was far from easy. They had to gather information on a country they knew little, if anything, about, form personal contacts, and, first and foremost, help win the war. The first of these agents was Conrad Alexandre Gérard, who arrived in America at the beginning of July with the fleet of Admiral d’Estaing, and presented himself to Congress in Philadelphia on August 6. Gérard was minister plenipotentiary, and also consul general of the king to the United States, a sign of the French will to set up an important consular network. The legation and the consulate general, the heart of the network, were set up in Philadelphia, except for a brief period between 1784 and 1787 when the consulate general went to New York.

The most urgent task was to organize the military assistance and the exchange of information between allies, a task rendered particularly difficult by the fact that each of the thirteen American states had its own de facto independant diplomacy (especially as regarded commercial matters). Thus, the necessity to organize a large consular network, at least on a temporary basis, arose quickly. From 1779 on, Gérard was assisted by the chevalier de la Luzerne, his successor from 1780 to 1784. La Luzerne had experience, and Vergennes trusted him, but he knew nothing of the USA. He had to quickly become acquainted with the military and commercial situation between France and the USA. In this, he was helped by Jean Holker, named consul general in December 1779 (9) .

Consular activity was essentially linked to commercial exchanges ; thus they necessarily had to be located in the main ports of the country, which often were also at the time the political capitals of the different states. Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and on a lesser scale Baltimore and Charleston, were obvious choices. The first difficulty in setting up the consular network was the war, for in some sites – such as New York – the English menace made consular presence impossible (the New York consulate was not effectively created before 1783). But the greatest obstacle was the absence of candidates to fill the positions. The functions were difficult, and the required abilities numerous : the consul had to be French, bilingual, and in good health; he had to have a training in law, in commerce, and even, if possible, in military affairs ; last but not least, he had to be honest. The French candidates fulfilling all these requirements were not many. Too often, they were soldiers or adventurers, solely motivated by the prospect of easy money ; or merchants whose functions were in theory incompatible with those of a consul. Yet it was in their ranks, those of merchants or men occupying commercial positions that the consuls were chosen between 1778 and 1779.

This first consular network in the United States included the consulates in Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston – the sole large southern city, closely tied by its commerce to the French Antilles – and Baltimore. This network installed a French presence in all the cities where French ships bearing French help would arrive, and also in the ports doing business with French ports, in metropolitan France or in its colonies. As early as 1779, this network was capable of conducting peacetime operations, thereby paving the way for regular commercial exchanges.

One of the recurring problems of the consular organization in the following years was the difficulty to precisely outline each consul’s responsibilities, and especially to prioritize the different missions. These problems, linked to the questions of a hierarchy and of the network’s internal organization, greatly hindered the consuls’ activity. Furthermore, a consular convention was not signed before 1788, which brought about much confusion. The difficulties in hammering out this convention were partly due to the American refusal to accept European traditions, especially as concerned the practice of “immunities”. The weakness of the federal government and its growing paralysis are another fundamental explanation. Quite logically, the convention was not signed before the adoption of the federal constitution in 1787. Without a general text defining their obligations and privileges, the consuls had to find a particular compromise between established consular tradition and local realities. They were obliged to improvise constantly and to negotiate with the powers of each different state for the recognition of fundamental rights for the French community and their representatives in America. Their traditional commercial function was obviously central to this activity, yet in wartime it mostly dwindled to tracking fraudulent activity. In their original instructions, which were repeated to La Luzerne in 1781 (10) , the different tasks were essentially political. The consuls were first supposed to obtain official recognition of the immunity of the French pavilion, and of their authority on French ships, to allow them to keep a constant watch over French sailors. No mention was made either of commerce, or of the rights of French citizens, or even of French merchants. The consuls were thus initially a part of the French military and material support to the Americans. They had to keep track of this support, and from 1779 on, they also had to organize the arrival and general supplying of the king’s troops in America, as for example Létombe did in Boston (11). Some consuls even played a direct part in the operations, as the chevalier d’Annemours, consul in Baltimore who took an active part in the preparations for the battle of Yorktown (12) . From 1783, their task was to sort out the different problems related to the end of French military presence, such as the cost of the upkeep of the fortifications in Boston (13) , sending French troops back to France, or the presence of fleets in the New England shipyards during the winter.

French interests in America being double--in the short term, to win war, and in the long term, to occupy a dominant position in the American market – the consuls’ workload was particularly heavy until 1783. The context of war, the newness of the consulates and the very real possibility for sailors and merchants to dodge French authorities made their work even more complex. The difficulties arose from the shortage – or absence – of judicial and material means at the consuls’ disposition, and the complexities of American laws, which often allowed greedy adventurers to escape the consuls’ authority. The return to a normal situation only occurred in 1783 when the last French troops reembarked for Europe.

In the years following the peace, the network went through a phase of restructuring and extension : up till 1792, the network included the consulates in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston, along with five vice-consulates (Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Richmond, Wilmington and Savannah). The high cost of living in America and the importance the king’s government gave the American consular network justified particularly high wages, especially when compared to those of their counterparts in Europe. The French consuls in the United States were among Louis XVI’s best paid diplomatic agents (14) . Yet this extensive network was soon faced with problems. Efforts to develop French commercial presence in the USA were a glaring failure, and the Baltimore consulate disappeared in the general restructuring of 1792 (it became a vice-consulate). The geographic layout of the four remaining consulates revealed new French preoccupations : Boston and New York maintained a connection with American ship builders, Philadelphia had a more political role, whereas Charleston was seen as link to the French Antilles.

From 1789 to 1792, the French Revolution had limited consequences on the consular administration. The changes were mostly symbolic and did not greatly modify the general structures. The same men remained in positions of importance as agents of the king under the supervision of the minister of the navy. It was only after proclamation of the Republic and the obligation to swear the new civic allegiance that changes multiplied, with the administration of Consulates shifting to the Foreign Affairs ministry, and especially with the general reorganization of the consular personnel (15) , but we will here deal only with the preceding period. In the first two years of the Revolution, most consuls were rather badly informed of the situation in France, and were content to approve what they saw as a reform of the monarchy. More disturbing signs came from the Antilles with the beginning of disorders among white landowners, black freedmen and slaves. As early as 1789, the consuls were involved in the situation in Saint-Domingue, and in the following years their work became more and more oriented towards the control of the caribbean colonies, yet again setting aside their traditional functions related to commerce as they were further implicated in the defence of the “Pearl of the Antilles”.

French consuls in the USA thus appear as full actors in French diplomacy in North America. When compared to French consuls in other parts of the world, they were clearly much more concerned with political matters than their colleagues. They were under the authority of the legation, yet particularities of the American political system and geography gave them much more freedom to act in their dealings with the separate state authorities. The American federal system reinforced the political side of the consuls’ missions. In this system where, despite the adoption of the constitution in 1787, each state de facto applied its own law in many affairs, the consuls acted the part of substitute legates. The perpetual complaints brought about by the complexities and “oddities” of the American system are the proof of the relative French incapacity at the time to adapt to federal institutions. These difficulties are to be found even after this initial period, when even under Napoleon’s reign, consul general Félix-Beaujour vented his anger against the federal system which made of all treaties a “fool’s bargain”, since the states, despite the treaties and agreements signed by the federal government and the President, would only apply them as they saw fit (16) .

2. Prevalence of commercial and colonial missions

From 1783 to 1792, the consuls’ work was redirected almost exclusively towards commercial implantation. How were they to give assistance to French commerce in the United States ? And how were they to take the place of the English in North America ? These questions came back constantly, in diplomatic correspondence as well as in the public debate, which started to develop in France itself. The positions and efforts of Brissot and Clavière come to mind, who created the “Gallo-American” Society in 1787 and encouraged French merchants to set out for America in their essay Of France and the United States, published the same year.

The French believed that the United States should serve not only as an outlet for their products, but also as a warehouse for colonial merchandise. Indeed, France and the USA adopted the “free ship free goods” principle, which made it possible for American commerce to take over for French commerce, in case of a naval war between France and Great Britain.

The consuls informed their superiors of the list of products that could be exchanged between the two countries. Unsurprisingly, they recommended the importation of colonial raw materials that France did not produce in sufficient quantities : timber, tobacco from Virginia and Maryland, rice, indigo from the southern states, pelts, whale oil from the northern states. According to the consuls, by becoming America’s first commercial partner, France could considerably lower the cost of these products, which she traditionally got from northern Europe. The principal French exportable goods were wine, spirits and textiles. The consuls also insisted on France’s role as a redistributor of goods imported from the Levant (silkstuffs, articles of gold and silver, oil, etc.) and the need for France to position itself as the primary link between Mediterranean and Atlantic commerce.

But the consuls soon found – as Brissot and Clavière did – that the major commercial problem between France and the United States was neither the absence of a market, nor the lack of complementarity between their different products, but the methods of French merchants, compared to those of their British competitors, and their occasional total ignorance of the ways and means of American commerce. Thus some consuls suggested that French commerce should turn to American intermediaries, and they also promoted joint Franco-American commercial ventures, rather than the usual, maladapted practice of ship captains selling the goods themselves. In his memoirs concerning Maryland’s commerce, consul d’Annemours recommended spreading information about the American market in French commercial circles, and conversely making French products better known to American consumers by selling them at lower prices or, for a while, at even less than their actual cost (17) .

Despite this advice, the failure of French commerce in America between 1783 and 1792 is obvious. The French chargé d’affaires Louis Guillaume Otto wrote, on his arrival in the USA in 1785, that “French commerce is at the moment practically nonexistent”. Yet, he added, “the shops in New York are overflowing with English goods” but “appart from two or three French merchants in Philadelphia and Baltimore, there is no solidly established French merchant on this continent” (18) . The causes were multiple : an overall mediocre quality of French goods sent to this market, the structural weakness compared to the English competition, the cultural ignorance of colonial mentalities, American ill will… all these factors were put forth in the abundant correspondence the consuls sent to the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Marine. The consuls wrote essays in which they tried to give a positive view on economic perspectives in North America, but most of these memoirs grew less and less positive as time passed. France felt confident that its military victory over England would enable it to deal a fatal blow to its economy. Yet these illusions soon vanished. The French monarchy was not able to capitalize on its initial successes. Despite the important concessions made by Louis XVI to the young Republic, the monarchy had made serious blunders. The main one was to have thought it could replace England as main commercial partner for the Americans. Instead of pushing French merchants to set up directly in the USA as the British and Dutch did, France thought it could boost exchanges simply by continuing a colonial type of commerce. This policy was a failure. The French underestimated English influence, and the English quickly realized they could safeguard their economic and diplomatic positions if they emphasized cultural proximity and openness. The other French mistake was to believe in the eternal gratitude of the Americans. Although they did show themselves thankful for the French help, they did not consider themselves eternally obligated. Despite their colossal debt towards France, Americans intended to handle their own commercial affairs themselves. France did not understand, in obtaining privileges such as the most favored nation, that American philosophy, as regarded foreign relations, saw in these concessions the expression of a natural right common to all nations ; whereas the French saw them only as favors, extended occasionally to one nation to the exclusion of all others (19) .

The extent of the French consuls’ action went beyond the United States, and included the entire French colonial area in America. The consular network played an essential role as a link between the colonies and France itself. This correspondence is not exclusively to be found in Charleston, even if it was seemingly closest to the islands ; the other consulates also were in frequent contact with Saint-Domingue and the sugar producing islands, but also with Guyane and Africa. Boston held a privileged position in monitoring the fishing industry of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. It was this consulate that was responsible in 1783 for organizing the re-colonization of the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, after they had been abandoned during the War of Independence. Saint-Pierre codfish transited via Boston towards Saint-Domingue, and the goods necessary to the small island were shipped under the supervision of consul Létombe. After Castries decided in 1784 to soften the rules of the “Exclusif”, direct commerce became possible ; yet the important restrictions were not altogether abolished as many American merchants wished, and contraband continued to thrive. This is why consuls had to accumulate data on ships and suspect ship passages, and were supposed to make a complete, physical search of cargoes.

All consulates had to keep close watch on French nationals moving about the Atlantic. Consuls were to keep sailors from deserting and indebted settlers from fleeing their responsibilities in the great American vastness. During the Revolution, this surveillance became one of the most important tasks, since it was critical for sorting good patriotic seed from counter-revolutionary weed. Consuls not only regulated movement of people, they also organized the commercial exchanges between the colonies in the Antilles and the United States. In extreme situations, they were sometimes called upon to set up supply convoys, which became more frequent with the onset of the riots in Saint-Domingue in 1791. The situation grew more complex after August 1791, when the general slave uprising in the island threw thousands of settlers on ships bound for American ports. It was then necessary to administer and control these thousands of distressed French citizens, but also to give them support. A substantial part of the American debt was paid off with the help given by the federal government to the French refugees from the Antilles.

The task of administering the French “nation” was made lighter by the small number of French persons living in the United States, at least until 1791. The greater part of this activity consisted in the rather half-hearted attempts at securing a strong commercial presence. Once again the consuls were mostly called upon to promote a general policy – which included commercial aspects – rather than to manage existing affairs. Thus French consuls tried to anticipate future economic developments.

3. An impossible alliance ?

Higher authorities expected the consuls to produce numerous reports each year : annual reports on commerce and navigation, arrival and departure statements, navigational statements, a yearly report on officers, on the activities of the consular records service, a trimestrial accounting statement, etc. But the particular character of the state in which they were positioned brought about many commentaries on the republican “oddities” of the New World. Although limited and often even terse, the consuls’ political remarks on Americans contributed to French information and misinformation regarding the United States.

As we know, the French-American alliance was well short of being natural : memories of the French and Indian Wars – or, as the French called it, Seven Years War – had contributed to form reciprocal images that were almost entirely negative. The French consuls were thus supposed to sanitize the image of France in America, especially by emphasizing French help in the war, to take advantage of the tension between England and its old colonies. During the war, they had to counter the rumors started by the English and the Loyalists, who claimed that France was seeking only to profit the conflict by setting up the English against the Americans in an endless fight. According to such rumors, the French sought not victory for the Insurgents, but only their final exhaustion. The difficulties encountered in delivering French aid and its delayed effects validated these rumors in the eyes of some Americans, who were already inclined to view the French through the distorting lens of gallophobic ethnotypes, dominant at the time in England : the French were thought to be irresponsible, light, effeminate, their wits dulled by despotism, etc. The consuls were also called upon to watch over the practices of the French merchants, attracted to America by the possibility of quick and easy enrichment : prices set too high, merchandise of inferior quality, lack of commercial follow-up. All contributed to an even more negative French image. What means did the consuls have at their disposal ? They were, actually, quite limited : using newspapers, surveilling ports, controlling French shiphands, setting a positive example and especially contracting close ties with local ship-owners and merchants… American opinion was finally conquered only with the military victory and the good discipline of French troops until 1783.

Relations with France could have been expected to grow even better after the war, yet the Americans were quickly disappointed. The French-American treaty of commerce was extremely liberal, but the American had not obtained what they deemed most important : total access to the French Antilles. In 1784, French merchants in the Atlantic ports were still protesting against the idea of opening the Antilles to American commerce. The French king did wish to encourage direct commerce between France and the United States, but did not want to give up the French sugar islands to a potential commercial opponent. French politics in America were not very honest. The alliance with the United States did not keep Louis XVI from thinking of ways in which he could expand into the New World. The French political system in North America favored a balance of powers among the English, the Americans, the Spanish, and themselves rather than unlimited expansion for the Americans, whose “bad example” it was feared might be followed in the French colonies. Furthermore, all in Versailles knew that an important fraction of American political leaders were very wary of France.

And yet if the Americans had cause to be disappointed with the alliance, so did the French. As early as 1783 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, reflexions on the ingratitude of the Insurgents towards the powers that had helped them to exist sprouted in the correspondence of French emissaries to America. Many pointed out that after all, these Americans were nothing more than a lot of unfinished English ; some went on to say that their entrepreneurial spirit had brought them even lower than their “cousins”. Their information mission gave the consuls a part in building these reciprocal images of French and Americans. In their correspondence, many details are given of geographic characteristics, social habits, institutions, the state of the American economy, and even of species endemic to America. Their statistical data on maritime commerce was particularly appreciated by the Versailles administration and, in their reports, the consuls were asked to give as much detail as possible. This information about the USA was particularly important to the French because of their general ignorance of American affairs. When reading the archives stored in Nantes, it is apparent that the consuls’ observations were directed to political affairs – republican, i.e. “strange” – as well as to commerce. In the case of the chevalier d’Annemours, consul in Baltimore, a mission to Virginia became the occasion to observe the “political system” of this state . Its constitution and electoral system were subject to harsh criticism. The constitutions of Virginia and Maryland were too “popular” in the eyes of consul d’Annemours, who believed that farmers and shopkeepers could not seriously be asked to direct the affairs of the state. Consul Létombe in Boston was a keen observer of the institutions of Massachussets (21).

Oddly, the constitutional debate of 1787 took up very little place in the consular correspondence. The king’s agents seem not to have understood the importance of the issues debate by the Philadelphia Convention. Their “monarchist” prejudices were greatly responsible for this blindness. The United States seemed weak, on the verge of implosion, and American political life under the Articles of Confederation was, to the consuls, proof enough of the incapacity of Americans to work out common policies. The mere idea that these republicans could be capable of building the political tools to achieve power was incongruous. It is true that between 1783 and 1787, the civil and political strife in the Union had all Americans worried, and the consuls’ notion that a civil war, or at the very least an explosion of the Confederation, might materialize could not be ruled out (22).

The French consuls’ appreciation of American social habits and morals was also far from enthusiastic : once the war was finished, these shopkeepers and farmers lost all patriotic sentiment. Gone was the republican faith, which had saved them from the peril of wartime : the Americans were now preoccupied only with their own particular affairs, a people debased by English influence. Love of homeland – which replaced honor as national force – had disappeared, leaving only a thirst for riches. Americans hid their fortunes to evade taxes, which according to Létombe made the consuls’ task much more difficult, to the point that he was obliged to find his statistics in books imported from England to be able to finish his reports (23) ! Generally, French consuls were struck by the practices of American commerce, which they thought were practically altogether illegal, a form of systematic fraud. The colonial era’s legacy had turned contraband into a form of “national sport”, and was still quite present among port authorities who often closed their eyes to the captains’ and ship-owners’ dubious statements. The consuls also criticized the constant changes in commercial rules, and the imbroglios, which resulted of the federal constitution of the new state.

The French emissaries to America did not mince their words and believed the American nation to be altogether ungrateful. Honor was found lacking, as was gratitude; money and business appeared to be their sole interest. French chargé d’affaires Louis-Guillaume Otto thought along such lines : “Their concerns restricted to the extent of those of a merchant nation, they follow no policy other than that which leads to mercantile profit, having no consideration for the powers which brought them out of the void. To be their enemy one needs only be a foreigner and not share in their outrageous pretentions ; the treaties of commerce, the help given during the war, their ministers’ pledges, everything is sacrificed if there is 5 % to be gained. It is as if to them we no longer exist, and the revolution was but a dream, washed out of their memory by more essential preoccupations. They care little about paying their debt and, living in abundance, they see with no emotion the French merchants whom they brought to ruin solicit half, or only the interest accrued for the sums which are legitimately theirs (24) .” The selfishness of merchant nations was one of the topoi of the Lumières, and it is not surprising to find it so often used in consular correspondence. Twenty years later, Napoleon’s agents used this very same language (25) . It is true that Washington’s declaration of neutrality of 1793 gave French revolutionaries further reason to complain of what they felt was another example of American ingratitude, made more incriminating by the supposed feelings of fraternity between republics.

The severe social unrest of 1786 was for the French diplomats proof of the inherent weakness of republican and “popular” regimes. Otto exchanged such views with the consul in Boston when he wrote about that “civil wars” were characteristic of the republican system. For consul d’Annemours, the crisis proved that American decadence was practically inevitable, and that a return of the English was not to be ruled out (26). The crisis of 1787 had shown how low in their esteem foreigners held the American government. Diplomats wrote to their superiors of the scorn this weak institution inspired in them. Otto wrote : “The Congress is but the ghost of sovereignty, deprived of all power, energy and popular consideration, and the edifice it is supposed to uphold is falling to pieces.” (27) Other diplomats in the United States were no tenderer, and as for the English, they had refused outright to send official representatives.

As soon as the war was over, France feared reconciliation between the Americans and the English, aimed at its islands in the Caribbean. The behavior of American negociators during the preliminaries of the Treaty of Paris – they had signed alone, without confering with the French – gave fresh arguments to those who held that Americans were, after all, only “the scum of England”. Constant surveillance of diplomatic contacts between the English and the Americans ensued, as well as a constant effort to make impossible any reversal of alliances. Happily for the French, the causes of disagreement between the USA and England were numerous : the forts in the north which England refused to evacuate, the question of compensation for the Loyalists as well as commercial matters – all of which the French consuls kept a close eye upon, as they did relations between England and the Republic of the New World in general. Yet all did not believe that these difficult subjects were most important. Létombe, for instance, noted that if on the one hand England officially strengthened its ban on commerce with the USA, it intended on the other hand to come back as quickly as possible to the American market by multiplying its contacts and setting up its own consular network.

The opinion of French consuls in America was far from the enthusiastic pro-americanism that was quite common in France itself. They had little consideration for the fact that the American Revolution opened a new era for humanity. Their opinion was much closer to that expressed by Raynal, who believed that the war of Independence was after all merely a quarrel among English, and that the alliance between an old monarchy, itself a colonial power, and a republic recently freed of its colonial bonds was only a circumstantial alliance (28) . Furthermore, if many Old World “publicists”, in the debate over the American revolution, held pessimistic considerations on the future of the United States, they were generally not as dark and especially better informed and defended. Mably, for instance, also criticized the entrepreneurial spirit the English had left as a legacy to the Americans, but it was only to reassert the need to maintain a republican spirit that had led the Insurgents to victory.

Consuls’ analyses were founded on direct observation, but they were not politically very sound. The representations of Americans drawn out by the French consuls between 1778 and 1792 did not go far beyond the most simplistic ethnotypes. They adopted a very moralizing stance, which offered no new insights. But this lack of originality in itself makes the consuls’ remarks, at the beginning of Franco-American relations, all the more interesting. Quite astute when it came to commerce and maritime affairs, the consuls, while effective enforcers of French colonial policy, were mostly poor political analysts : agents of a great power, they held many prejudices against a state that they deemed full of potential, yet too weak to hold any position of importance in world affairs. These consuls may have played a role in creating strong prejudices, unfavorable to Americans, which revolutionaries and political leaders in France inherited and kept alive for many years. Without going so far as to speak of a so-called typical French anti-Americanism and its distant origins, it is clear that the French governments’ ignorance of American affairs from the end of the eighteenth century and during a great part of the nineteenth century is largely due to the failure of this initial alliance, which the consuls in North America were incapable of making profitable for both parties.


(1) P. HIGONNET, Sister Republics. The Origins of French and American Republicanism, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1988. D. Lacorne, L’invention de la République, le modèle américain, Paris, Hachette, coll. "Pluriel", 1991.

(2) Marie-Jeanne ROSSIGNOL's, Le Ferment nationaliste. Aux origines de la politique extérieure américaine 1789 - 1812, published in 1994 by Belin, examines the subject of franco-american relations only in an indirect manner (and focuses on the american point of view, not the french).

(3) For more ample specifications, see Silvia MARZAGALLI’s historiographical synthesis in Dix-huitième siècle, spécial Atlantique, n° 33, 2001.

(4) M. BELISSA, S. BEGAUD, J. VISSER, Aux origines d'une allaince improbable. Le réseau consulaire français aux Etats-Unis (1776-1815), Paris, Bruxelles, Cologne, Peter Lang, 2006.

(5) J. P. BOIS, De la paix des rois à l’ordre des empereurs, 1714-1815, Nouvelle Histoire des relations internationales, 3, Paris, Seuil, 2003, p. 59 : « une armature nouvelle des relations entre Etats et souverains. »

(6) La fonction consulaire à l’époque moderne, J. ULBERT (dir.), Rennes, PUR, 2006.

(7) A. MEZIN, Les consuls de France au siècle des Lumières (1715-1792), Paris, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, 1997. C. WINDLER, La diplomatie comme expérience de l’autre. Consuls français au Maghreb (1700-1840), Genève, Droz, 2002.

(8) This work is based on the new research produced by a group from the University of Nantes. It aims at offering a synthesis on the theme of political and diplomatic relations between France and the USA, from 1776 to 1815, based on the archives from the French consulates in the USA, stored in the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes. The students working in this group were able to cover a substantial amount of these archives, until then little if ever compiled. For further reading, see BÉGAUD Stéphane, La représentation diplomatique française aux États-Unis et le conflit anglo-américain (1807-1815), Mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par M. BELISSA, Université de Nantes, 2002. LETERTRE Laurent, Le Consulat de Philadelphie et la question de Saint-Domingue 1793-1803. Mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par M. BELISSA, Université de Nantes, 2000. ROCHETEAU Aurélien, Le consulat de Boston de 1781 à 1793, Mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par M. BELISSA, Université de Nantes, 2001. SIM Gérald, Le consulat français de Charleston (1793-1835), Mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par J. - P. BOIS, Université de Nantes, 1999. VISSER Joseph, Le consulat de France à Baltimore (1778-1793), Mémoire de maîtrise dirigé par M. BELISSA, Université de Nantes, 2002.

(9) For biographical information on the consuls, see A. MÉZIN, Les consuls de France au siècle des Lumières (1715-1792), Paris, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, 1997.

(10) Ministère des Affaires Étrangères (MAE), Correspondance politique, EU, vol 11 : Sartine to La Luzerne, march 7th 1781.

(11) Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes (CADN), Boston, A series, 4, letter to Létombe dated april 12th 1782.

(12) VISSER Joseph, Le consulat de France à Baltimore (1778-1793), op. cit., pp. 91-106.

(13) CADN, Boston, A series, 2, letter n° 59, La Luzerne to Létombe, april 2nd 1783.

(14) A. MÉZIN, Les consuls de France au siècle des Lumières (1715-1792), op. cit., p. 66.

(15) Many consuls were relieved of their functions, yet most were sent to given similar positions soon afterwards. Thus the men in position remained mostly the same – at least in America – despite political changes.

(16) S. BÉGAUD, La représentation diplomatique française aux États-Unis et le conflit anglo-américain (1807-1815), op. cit., p. 48.

(17) J. VISSER, Le consulat de France à Baltimore (1778-1793), op. cit.

(18) Otto to Vergennes, 26 août 1785, MAE, Correspondance politique, États-Unis, 30, quoted by A. KASPI, L’Indépendance américaine, Paris, Coll. "Archives", Gallimard - Julliard, 1976, p. 169.

(19) M. BELISSA "La diplomatie américaine et les principes du droit des gens (1776-1787)" in Revue d’Histoire diplomatique, 1997, n° 1, p. 10.

(20) J. VISSER, Le consulat de France à Baltimore (1778-1793), op. cit., p. 76.

(21) CADN Philadelphie, consulat général, 31 Mémoire… de Létombe, mars 1785, voit également A. ROCHETEAU, op. cit., p. 86-87.

(22) See F. MARKS, Independence on Trial, Foreign Affairs and the Making of the Constitution, Wilmington, 1984.

(23) Idem.

(24) Otto à Vergennes, 26 août 1785, MAE, Correspondance politique, États-Unis, 30, op. cit.

(25) See S. BÉGAUD, La représentation diplomatique française aux États-Unis et le conflit anglo-américain (1807-1815), op. cit., pp. 85-86.

(26) J. VISSER, Le consulat de France à Baltimore (1778-1793), op. cit., p. 117.

(27) Quoted in D. LACORNE, L’invention de la République, le modèle américain, Paris, 1991, p. 110.

(28) See M. BELISSA, "Agrandir le cercle de la civilisation : le débat sur les conséquences de la Révolution américaine" dans Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, juillet-septembre 1999.

Marc Belissa, "French consuls in the United States and the first period of French-American relations (1778-1792)", Révolution Franç, Etudes, mis en ligne le 25 février 2007, URL: