Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio
Claude-François de Lezay-Marnésia, Edited with an introduction by Benjamin Hoffmann, and Translated by Alan J. Singerman
Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio
Claude-François de Lezay-Marnésia, Edited with an introduction by Benjamin Hoffmann, and Translated by Alan J. Singerman
“This book is a major addition to the fields of American studies and the history of political thought, and it will be welcomed by historians and political theorists alike. Benjamin Hoffmann’s erudite introduction offers a genuine tour de force in intellectual history that brings a significant contribution to an important ongoing debate on the image and role of America in the new world order.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Looking to build a perfect society based on what France might have become without the Revolution, Lezay-Marnésia bought more than twenty thousand acres of land along the banks of the Ohio River from the Scioto Company, which promised French aristocrats a fertile, conflict-free refuge. But hostilities between the U.S. Army and the Native American tribes who still lived on the land prevented the marquis from taking possession. Ruined and on the verge of madness, Lezay-Marnésia returned to France just as the Revolution was taking a more radical turn. He barely escaped the guillotine before dying a few years later in poverty and desperation.
This edition of the Letters, introduced and edited by Benjamin Hoffmann and superbly translated by Alan J. Singerman, presents the work for the first time since the beginning of the nineteenth century—and the first time ever in English. The volume features a rich collection of supplementary documents, including texts by Lezay-Marnésia’s son, Albert de Lezay-Marnésia, and the American novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge. This fresh perspective on the young United States as it was represented in French literature casts new light on a captivating and tumultuous period in the history of two nations.
“This book is a major addition to the fields of American studies and the history of political thought, and it will be welcomed by historians and political theorists alike. Benjamin Hoffmann’s erudite introduction offers a genuine tour de force in intellectual history that brings a significant contribution to an important ongoing debate on the image and role of America in the new world order.”
Benjamin Hoffmann is Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University. His publications in French include four novels and a forthcoming scholarly book.
Alan J. Singerman is Richardson Professor Emeritus of French at Davidson College and the editor and translator of the abbé Prévost’s novel The Greek Girl’s Story (Penn State, 2014).
Editor’s Note and Acknowledgments
Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio
Letter to Monsieur Le Chevalier de Boufflers
Letter to Monsieur Jacques-Henri-Bernadin de Saint-Pierre
Letter to my Eldest Son
Prospectus for the Colony on the Ohio and Scioto Rivers in America
The French on the Banks of the Scioto
The Paris High Court on the Scioto
Letter Written by a Frenchman Emigrating to the Lands of the Scioto Company
New Prospectus of the Scioto Company
Letter to Monsieur Audrain
Index of Proper Names
BUILDING FRANCE IN AMERICA
Return and Ruination
“We must now stop hoping for any kind of settlement in America: with each day that casts new light upon this continent and each man we encounter, we feel how unbearable it would be for honest and right-feeling Frenchmen, accustomed to a peaceful life, to settle here”. Albert de Lezay-Marnésia penned this bitter account in 1792 while waiting to leave Philadelphia and embark upon the return voyage to France alongside his father, the marquis Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia. Two years earlier, father and son had crossed the Atlantic in order to found a colony on the banks of a tributary of the Ohio that was intended as a refuge for those of their countrymen who were hostile to the Revolution. By early 1792 the situation had become dire. Quarrelsome by temperament, the marquis de Lezay-Marnésia had alienated his former associates and, having dissipated the lion’s share of his once-considerable fortune purchasing land he was never to set eyes upon, found himself penniless and faced with debtors’ prison. He would narrowly avoid spending time in a cell in a Philadephia jail thanks to his son obtaining desperately-needed financial aid from a distant acquaintance. News of the death of the marquis’ eldest daughter, Adrienne de Beauharnais, was a further blow, hardening his resolve to return home. In May 1792, Lezay-Marnésia and his son would return to France having failed to remake their homeland on the banks of the Scioto.
And yet their colonial enterprise had begun with great promise. Casting himself in the role of a latter-day patriarch, the marquis de Lezay-Marnésia had visions of the Northwest Territory as the promised land to which he would valiantly lead a virtuous people: “The eyewitness accounts all converge, the stories all agree, and all assure us that the promised land is the one we are about to inhabit”, he had declared in the winter of 1790. In a series of missives sent to Jean-Jacques Duval d’Éprémesnil —a rather more circumspect associate who, having bought land in America, left Lezay-Marnésia with the task of building their settlement–the marquis never ceases to deplore his homeland’s growing turmoil, which stands in stark contrast to the idyllic tranquility of the Scioto region. He is effusive about the commercial opportunities presented by this fertile land, and, above all, the possibility of creating a society whose political and social organization would be radically opposed to those being elaborated in post-revolutionary France.
How did this grandiose project come to such a sorry end? What does it tell us of the construction of America in the late eighteenth-century French imaginary? And where does it fit in with the bloody history of territorial expansionism in the Trans-Appalachian West? Written in the twilight of the Enlightenment, Lezay-Marnésia’s letters in many ways prefigure the anti-American discourse of the nineteenth century. In what measure are phantasmatic representations of fact—the compensatory construction in words of a utopian city that would never see the light of day in reality—the real material of Letters Written on the Banks of the Ohio?
“Scioto is all that anyone talks about”
In early autumn 1789, an American poet named Joel Barlow walked through the door of 162 Rue Neuve des Petits Champs where he had just opened a Paris sales office with his associate, William Playfair. The recent turn of events in French politics had given them hope that their newly founded Scioto Company would undergo rapid growth. Three million acres on the banks of the Scioto were put up for sale. In a Prospectus distributed to their potential clients, they describe the territory variously as a shelter from the political storm raging in France, the location of a present-day Arcadia, and the perfect place to found settlements destined to do lucrative trade with the rest of the United States. Jocelyne Moreau-Zanelli observes of the Prospectus: “Deftly alternating between arguments seeking to gain the confidence of its readers, whet their appetite for accumulation, then awaken their fears, the text knows exactly how to sway a French audience already enamoured of America, ready to believe all kinds of chimeras, and worried for the future of their country.” In order to dispel any doubts that potential emigrants might have been harboring, Barlow and Playfair included the translation of an American brochure that conveniently passes over the presence of American Indian tribes. They also gave extracts from St. John de Crèvecœur’s Lettres d’un cultivateur américain in which he paints an idyllic picture of the banks of the Scioto. The publicity campaign was an instant success; would-be settlers flocked to the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs.
Soon Barlow and Playfair’s office was crowded with aristocrats set upon founding a New World colony modelled after Clarens—hoping to enjoy the virtuous and peaceful life led by the heroes of Rousseau’s New Heloise. Noblemen rubbed shoulders with young bourgeois who—driven by wanderlust, increasing impoverishment, or France’s uncertain future—came to join the long line of Europeans who left to make their fortune in America. The velvet-coated bourgeois stood cheek by jowl with priests in cassocks, uniformed officers, variously-attired bureaucrats, merchants, and a significant number of artisans, who came to buy what land in America their means allowed. The buyers of tracts were acompanied by a troop of indentured laborers who sought to sell their toil to the new landowners in exchange for a salary and passage to the New World. The diverse geographical origins of this multitude of aspiring colonists mirrored their social heterogeneity: people clamored for news of the Scioto Colony all over France, from Périgueux to Rouen, Saumur to Grenoble. Indeed, a quarter of all the land sold was bought by inhabitants of the provinces. 350 clients in total shared an area of 162,294 acres between them (sold at a price of VI livres per acre). The least well-off buyers had to content themselves with a meager 50 acres, whereas the nobility generally bought upward of 1000 acres, the largest single tract being 24,000 acres. The flux of emigrants ready to leave for the banks of the Scioto was a phenomenon of considerable magnitude, driven by convincing publicity and word of mouth advertising. “Scioto is all that anyone talks about”, declared Madame de Beaumont in February 1790. And yet, in spite of their flourishing business, Joel Barlow and William Playfair were faced with a problem whose consequences were becoming harder and harder to control: from the outset, their enterprise had consisted of selling land they did not own.
A Disastrous Enterprise
In order to fully comprehend the human and financial drama that would befall the French emigrants when they arrived on the banks of the Ohio, we first need to understand the origin and operation of the Scioto Company to whom they had entrusted their fortunes and futures. In October 1787, the U.S. Congress had granted the Ohio Company—an American enterprise largely composed of veterans of the Revolutionary War—preemptive rights on three million acres located in the Scioto region. The contract stipulated that the Company had to make four payments of 500.000 dollars in order to receive a quarter of the total area of land upon each payment. It was these preemptive rights that the directors of the Ohio Company sought to sell to major European investors. To this end they called upon the services of Joel Barlow, an alumnus of Yale with a checkered career who, having first tried his hand at being a professor then a chaplain, later became a newspaper editor and then a lawyer. In 1787, Barlow had garnered critical success with the publication of the epic poem The Vision of Columbus, more notable today for its fervent patriotism than its literary merit. In spite of his limited experience in the world of business, Barlow was chosen by the Ohio Company to represent its interests in Europe. In May 1788, Barlow set out for Le Havre with the mission of selling or mortgaging the land covered by the Scioto contract.
After a stopover in Paris, Barlow travelled to London and Amsterdam, where he was unable to find any willing investors. He returned to Paris in the spring of 1789. Barlow still failed to make any sales, all the while living at the Ohio Company’s expense; its directors had begun to harbor serious doubts as to their employee’s diligence. Admittedly, Barlow’s task was far from an easy one: his potential clients wished to buy title deeds outright but were instead offered the option of advancing the sums necessary to validate the option contract. It was in these circumstances that he became acquainted with William Playfair. Playfair was a Scotsman who had come to France to commercialize a new process for laminating metals; he would otherwise have been known to posterity as the inventor of the pie chart. The two men became business partners in the summer of 1789, undertaking their disastrous joint enterprise soon after.
On August 3, 1789, Barlow and Playfair gathered a small group of perfectly respectable French associates at the Paris offices of their notary, Rameau, to found the Scioto Company. The intention was to amass enough capital to pay Congress and thereby validate the option on the Scioto land. In order to achieve this aim, they resorted to a plainly dishonest ruse: they told potential buyers that they owned the land outright. In theory, clients would never find out about this initial deception as the group intended to use their clients’ money to pay Congress and thereby actually take possession of the land. It was, however, to prove an overambitious attempt to brush aside a number of insurmountable obstacles. Indeed, Barlow and his associates were forgetting a key clause in the contract between the Ohio Company and the U.S. Congress: the requirement to amass $500.000 (the price of a quarter of the total Scioto land) before coming into possession of a single acre. Furthermore, the Scioto Company was using an inaccurate map—selling land to which they had no claim. Barlow further neglected to mention the presence of American Indian tribes near the land his clients were buying, or the considerable hardship of life on the American Frontier. He intentionally led clients to believe that the neighboring regions were populated when in fact there was only a single settlement, Marietta, which was still something of a backwater. All told, Barlow’s enterprise was built on questionable foundations both in terms of moral integrity and financial viability.
It was in late November that Barlow informed the directors of the Ohio Company of the considerable liberties he had taken with the terms of his mission, which had never stipulated selling the Scioto land outright. His employers were staggered to discover the engagements he had made without consulting them—but it was too late to take them back. Since November 3, 1789, the Scioto company had been selling sham title deeds to buyers who—paying no heed to the ominous precedent set by the Mississippi Company’s spectacular collapse under Philippe d’Orléans’ Regency (1715-1723)—thronged to the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs just as their forebears had flocked to the Rue Quincampoix. The buyers’ desire to leave France would come to fuel a virulent anti-Scioto campaign in the press.
Sciotophobes and Sciotophiles
Heated exchanges took place between “Sciotophobes” and “Sciotophiles” in a series of letters, caricatures, pamphlets, satirical texts, articles and poems; gathered into a single volume, they would make for an intriguing new chapter in the cultural history of the Revolution. As is systematically the case with late eighteenth-century French discourse on the United States, the quarrel about emigration to the Scioto region was a stand-in for a debate about France—the country’s future, social organization, political institutions, and what it might draw from the American example, positive or negative, in order to theorize its own regeneration. The terms “France” and “America” occupy opposing positions in a circle of argumentation where they take on contradictory meanings depending upon the speaker’s parti pris: “France” and “America” become synonymous alternatively with regeneration and anarchy, the Golden Age and uncontrollable bloodshed—each side painting the other in terms of its own hopes and fears. If a minor tributary of the Ohio, situated more than 4,000 miles from Paris, became the subject of a raging controversy both in the capital and the countryside during the winter of 1789-1790, it was precisely because Scioto provided a proxy for debating politics at home. During this period, the structure of the Constituent Assembly was in constant flux: the initial Patriot group was continuously splitting into more or less moderate sub-factions as events forced members to decide how far was too far for each of them. The Assembly was riven by disagreements over questions as fundamental as the role of the clergy and aristocracy or the manner in which a constitutional monarchy might divide powers between the King and the representatives of the people. It was at this time also that the Assembly proposed the sale of the biens nationaux, ‘national lands’ recently confiscated from the Church in order to cut public debt. The growing disagreement between Monarchists and Patriots over these questions became manifest during the Scioto Affair with each side symbolically adopting a particular vision of the eponymous faraway place. Among the Monarchists, some turned to America as the place where their reforms might come to fruition. The Patriots, on the other hand, wished to realize their own idea of political and social regeneration at home in France. For one side, the Scioto region was an anti-France, whereas, for their opponents, France was the true Scioto: the debates on this topic followed the progression of the revolutionary discourse, from reformist to radical.
Let us first examine the position of the Sciotophobes whose attacks upon Barlow and Playfair’s company had two main objectives: to wit, shattering the American illusion that was drawing their countrymen away to a hostile land, and striking at the heart of the Monarchists’ conservative political program. One of their most polemical representatives was a Prussian-born nobleman naturalized as a French citizen, best known by the nom-de-plume he used in the Chronique de Paris, Anacharsis Cloots. Trenchantly anti-aristocratic and in favor of exporting republican values to all, Cloots used Scioto as a backdrop onto which he projected a caricatural image of effeminate nobles whose iniquities are all the more monstrous for the fact that they seek to perpetuate them on virgin soil. America’s state of nature stands in stark contrast to the aberrant character of the privileges afforded to the aristocracy under the Ancien Régime. Cloots employs a choice insult to sum up the French involvement in Scioto: “Two ships full of fools left from Le Havre […].” Although the colonists in fact came from diverse backgrounds, Cloots reserves his venom for the members of the nobility, whom he depicts as the victims of a collective delusion. In Cloots’ view the nobles were in for a rude awakening, having read too many rose-tinted literary works like those of Crèvecœur:
Our delicate ladies, who condemn themselves to this exile with the delirium of fever, will have time enough to repent. No charming transformation escapes their flights of fancy. Trees turn into palaces; hordes of savages into gentle shepherds; poverty, anguish, boredom, and early death into a joyous picture of long-lasting bodily and moral delight. These pretty women, never having attended the school of hardships, will be unable to draw upon experience in order to save themselves. It will be too late to listen to reason by the time their scalps are trophies for barbarians who remove the pericraniums from peaceable laborers without warning. There’s nothing like projects born in an armchair!
When the colonists’ first letters home confirmed his direst predictions, Cloots welcomed the news with no little schadenfreude: “Come now, Messrs. d’Éprémesnil, Marnésia and company, reign over your superb Scioto estates. No doubt, the lesson’s worth a cheese!”
Other major figures in the history of the Revolution contributed to the anti-Scioto campaign. Camille Desmoulins, a habitué of the newly formed Jacobin Club and the founder of Révolutions de France et de Brabant (published from November 1789), used his newspaper to relentlessly launch attacks against the Monarchists and aristocrats. The Scioto Affair gave Desmoulins the perfect opportunity to settle scores with the nobility and clergy whose members he saw as so many enemies of the Revolution. Like Anacharsis Cloots, Desmoulins was adroit at using the unlikely pairing of refined seigneurs with coarse “Savages” to comic effect—providing a political critique. By transporting an imaginary French aristocrat to the banks of the Scioto it was all the easier to demonstrate the inanity of hereditary rights—the personal attributes of cunning, skill and strength being the only laws that applied in the wilderness of the New World. On March 8, 1790, Desmoulins used the Scioto Affair to fire a satirical broadside against seigneurial privileges that targeted his various opponents. Taking conservatives like Mirabeau-Tonneau, the Abbé Maury and Cazalès to task, as well as more liberal Monarchists like Malouet, Desmoulins accuses them of wishing to perpetuate the Ancien Régime’s iniquities in America: “What would become of my newspaper if you leave alongside d’Éprémesnil to rebuild turreted châteaux with your dovecotes and Droits du seigneur on the banks of the Scioto?” A few days later Desmoulins let fly with another salvo, deploying some black humor worthy of the marquis de Sade to describe the fate that might await d’Éprémesnil’s wife once her husband had succumbed to the blows of a tomahawk:
I see her amid the forests with nobody to turn to for help—using her noble muscles to carve out a refuge in a tree trunk, remembering halcyon days with Monsieur Thilorier, the boudoir of her youth, her allowance of 20,000 livres and the sweet nothings of Monsieur de Cluny’s ministry. Her own servants will abandon her with the intention of using their strong arms to become landowners in their own right, and around her Monsieur d’Éprémesnil’s widow will see only orangutans fighting each other for her third wedding night. Eaten by remorse and withered by consumption, longing for the banks of the Seine, she will set sail and return to Le Havre—winds and tempests permitting that she is not to be destined to pass from the arms of an orangutan to the belly of a shark.
The honorable lady would, however, face none of the perils that Desmoulins wished upon her as she never made the voyage to America, following her husband to the guillotine on June 17, 1794, a few weeks after his death. Unlike other Sciotophobes, such as the author of Observations relatives au plan de l’établissement d’une colonie sur les bords de l’Ohio et du Scioto, dans l’Amérique septentrionale, Desmoulins had little interest in the validity of the Scioto Company’s promises nor in the fate of its clients once they reached America. He would feign to ignore that these clients included members of the Third Estate, not only the nobility and clergy. Desmoulins’ aim is not to warn his compatriots against a fraudulent scheme but to demonstrate that the elites of the Ancien Régime were lacking in patriotism, being ready to leave France once their former preeminence was no longer assured. For Desmoulins, Scioto was an imaginary space more than a real territory—a rhetorical position that allowed him to lay bare his adversaries’ true nature.
Unlike Desmoulins, for whom the French colonization of America was an inherently anti-patriotic enterprise, Brissot was less cut-and-dried in his view of the Scioto Affair—and with good reason, himself having taken part in various transatlantic speculations. A member of the Gallo-American Society, which aimed to promote intellectual and commercial exchanges between France and the United States, Brissot was among the most fervently pro-American of his compatriots at a time when enthusiasm for the New World was not in short supply. In 1788, he undertook a six-month trip around the East Coast of the United States on behalf of Étienne Clavière and Théophile Cazenove, who were considering speculating on American stocks. It was on this trip that Brissot made the acquaintance of William Duer, an important figure in the Ohio Company whom we will have occassion to further discuss below. Brissot recounted his journey in a work entitled Nouveau voyage dans les États-Unis de l’Amérique septentrionale, fait en 1788 [New Journey to the Northern United States of America, Undertaken in 1788], which deals with the Scioto Company. Brissot was well acquainted with the Company and its milieu. In the late 1780s, the future Girondist deputy was a frequent guest of Duval d’Éprémesnil, later a key figure in the promotion of French emigration to the Northwest Territory. Another of his friends, Clavière, did business with Joel Barlow’s future associate, William Playfair. It is thus that in one of the notes of his New Journey, Brissot must balance his personal convictions about France’s political and economic opportunities in the United States with the wish to distance himself from a wave of emigration portrayed by the contemporary press as a reactionary scheme. Brissot begins by defending the Scioto Company, declaring that it holds “incontestable title deeds” (which was untrue) and uses the services of a “geographer held in high regard in America” (it would later transpire that the geographer in question had miscalculated the western border of the land being sold to the emigrants). However, although he disagrees with the Scioto Company’s hardline detractors, Brissot is no less critical of what he supposes to be the intentions of the aristocrats leaving for the United States:
Without doubt a cruel disappointment awaits the French aristocrats who have had the foolish idea of emigrating there [to the Scioto region] to establish a monarchy […]; they are fleeing in order to keep their titles, honors, and privileged esteem, but they have stumbled upon a new society in which the titles conferred by vanity and chance are trampled underfoot, even ignored—where brute strength alone commands respect.
Granted, the unsuitedness of the French nobles to the hardscrabble existence of the backwoods did not bode well for their future in America; nevertheless, in Brissot’s eyes his compatriots remained hapless victims of fate—bereft of their vocation—who might eke out an existence in the New World. In his view, emigration would, furthermore, serve both the immediate and future interests of France, reducing a burdensome population of beggars and allowing the country to establish ties with what would become a platform for lucrative trade in years to come. Wherereas Lezay-Marnésia calls upon those discontented with the Revolution, inviting them to leave for good, Brissot describes his compatriots’ emigration across the Atlantic as the means by which to enduringly attach them to their homeland as they would “[…] pave the way for ties of politics and commerce with a people who, one day, shall be France’s major partner.” Brissot’s nuanced position on French emigration to America was, however, an exception to the growing number of writings that roundly condemned the phenomenon for various reasons.
Some, such as the anonymous author of Nouveau Mississippi, ou les dangers d’habiter les bords du Scioto [New Mississippi, or The Dangers of Inhabiting the Banks of the Scioto] are in the mould of Buffon and Cornelius de Pauw, describing a barren land alternating between extremely harsh winters and stiflingly hot summers, inhabited by dangerous animals and threatening “savages”. Others depict the Western United States as the ground upon which Ancien Régime France is about to reconstruct itself just as it was—with its aristocrats full of their own importance and its rapacious royal officials—while France is, paradoxically, undergoing a regeneration in which the values the philosophes’ discourse traditionally associated with America (freedom of speech, religious tolerance, equality before the law) are finally being realized. As Suzanne Desan writes, “[…] the partisans of the French Revolution sought to appropriate certain elements of the promise America had offered the world in order to incorporate them into their own programme to renew France.” In contrast to the projected American dystopia, redolent of a past that seemed to spring straight from the annals of the Ancien Régime, stood the French utopia that was inspired by the social and political model embodied by a certain idea of the United States. This symbolic chiasmus between the two countries finds a particularly pure expression in Les Français aux bords du Scioto [The French on the Banks of the Scioto], poem by François Andrieux in which aristocrats seeking refuge in America encounter a philosophe returning to France at the news of the storming of the Bastille: “You’ve just arrived, I’m leaving”, the aristocrats are told by the philosophe, who hastens back to the new home of liberty. In the same vein, Le Parlement de Paris établi au Scioto [The Paris High Court on the Scioto] offers a gleeful satire of magistrates who carry “[…]to the very edge of Pennsylvania, their solemn manner, their ermine robes, their mortarboards”, losing nothing of their hauteur while judging cases brought by Algonquins and Iroquois.
More or less outraged Sciotophobes were opposed by more or less sanguine Sciotophiles. These supporters of the Scioto Company would become embroiled in the war of words in their turn. Bewildered by the critiques of their planned emigration, they would nevertheless hold steadfast to their reasons for resolving to leave France. Published in February 1790, the Lettre de M. de V. à M. le C. D. M… [Monsieur de V.’s Letter to Monsieur le C. D. M…] replies to a certain series of Observations that had appeared in the Spectateur national [National Spectator]. The author admits to having been unsettled by the latter’s admonitions but justifies his intention to leave for Scioto in the hope of escaping the insecurity plaguing France and that of finding more favorable circumstances in America. It seems probable that this text was written by one of the Company’s clients; it was part of the Sciotophiles’ counter-attack in which Barlow and Playfair were active figures. The latter penned a defense entitled Lettres et observations adressées à M. l’Abbé Aubert… [Letters and Observations Addressed to Monsieur l’Abbé Aubert…] in which he draws upon the eyewitness accounts of the Abbé Raynal, St. John de Crèvecœur and Thomas Hutchins in order to support the Prospectus’ promises. Playfair again used a similar strategy when the New Prospectus was published in December 1790, adjoining extracts of letters written by emigrants to Scioto which categorically deny the rumors then spreading in France. Among the signatories of these letters we find Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia, who gives a vigorous defense of the Scioto Company. Lezay-Marnésia was himself a target for the Sciotophobes due to the role he had played since early 1790 in the creation of a group of landed proprietors in the Northwest Territory: the Society of the Twenty-Four.
“Plans for building châteaux in the land of the savages”
“Some set off down revolutionary roads, others considered civil war; others again left for the Ohio, where they were preceded by plans for building châteaux in the land of the savages[…]”, Chateaubriand once declared of the different paths open to French aristocrats at the beginning of the Revolution. The expression he employs in allusion to the clients of the Scioto Company is particularly apposite, capturing the delirious quality of the pipe dreams some of these emigrants were in thrall to—none moreso than the marquis de Lezay-Marnésia.
Born into an ancient noble family of the Franche-Comté, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia had left military service in 1769 and given himself over to various literary projects. A poet and contributor to the Encyclopédie—for which he wrote the entries “Masturbation” and “Plunderer” (“maraudeur” in French)—in 1785 he published Le Bonheur dans les campagnes [Happiness in the Countryside] where he expounded the view that the nobility should return to overseeing their estates in person and endeavor to create a bond of affection with their vassals through the practice of philanthropy. The text depicts a patriarchal society inhabited by benevolent lords and honest peasants that prefigures the society he would envision creating on the banks of the Scioto several years later. Initially, Lezay-Marnésia had welcomed the Revolution with enthusiasm. A fervent admirer of Montesquieu and Rousseau, he longed for the opportunity to realize reformist projects and promote a greater political role for the nobility. He was elected as the representative of the nobility for the bailiwick of Aval and attended the Estates-General, where he was reunited with his childhood friend the chevalier de Boufflers. He soon joined the ranks of the Monarchists in the Constituent Assembly, where his discreet presence would be qualifed as “vegetative,” although he did make several speeches, notably against capital punishment for grain exporters and—basing his view on the principles expounded by Rousseau in the Letter to d’Alembert on the Theater (1758)—opposing the right of actors to hold positions in the administration.
Although the revolutionary movement gained his sympathy at first—he joined 46 fellow deputies of the second order who sat in solidarity with the third estate on June 25, 1789—Lezay-Marnésia was thunderstruck by the abolition of aristocratic privileges on the night of August 4 and outraged by the decree of November 2, 1789, which seized the Church’s wealth on behalf of the nation. The feverish pace of change, which far outstripped the simple reforms he and his Monarchist colleagues had proposed, soon had him fixed upon emigration. Sent from Paris on November 9, 1789, a letter to his wife gives the reasons for his imminent departure:
How, above all when one has had the misfortune to have been noble, can one become accustomed to being but a wretched creature, to seeing oneself relentlessly injured, debased? I admit that such a shameful courage is not mine to command. It seems to me that no such courage would be necessary if one were to seek a homeland where one could surely find that peace, repose and security that now exist in a single country: New England, where good laws and good morals make men truly free and as happy as it is possible to be upon this Earth […].
Why did Lezay-Marnésia choose to set sail for the distant shores of America instead of finding refuge, as so many of his compatriots did, elsewhere in Europe? In his description of the French emigrants to America, Ghislain de Diesbach distinguishes between two groups: “The adventurers, who imagine making their fortune in only a few years, and the fantasists, the dreamers, the disciples of Rousseau who, haunted by the myth of the ‘Noble Savage’, take the United States to be a sort of earthly paradise where at last they might realize humanity’s oldest dream: the return of the Golden Age.” Although Lezay-Marnésia was not indifferent to the possibility of turning a fast profit, he fits squarely in the second category, seeking to return to a state of nature conceived of as “[…] the state in which man left the Creator’s hand, formed by God himself” and which he described again, after his return to France, as the only place where it remains possible to live the “[…] gentle illusions of the Golden Age.” In presenting America as the real space in which two mythical eras might be relived, Lezay-Marnésia reveals the extent to which he was steeped in a discourse that had long imprinted a glowing image of the New World upon the minds of his compatriots. This discourse had circulated at least as far back as Voltaire, who praised William Penn for having “[…] brought to Earth the Golden Age of which so much has been said, and which it would seem has only truly existed in Pennsylvania.” Following in the footsteps of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin became the flag-bearer for Pennsylvania and a major celebrity on the political scene . As François Furstenberg observes, Franklin managed to “[…] use the myth of the Pennsylvania Quaker to his advantage, further spreading the popularity of the state in Enlightenment Europe” . Far from diminishing after the Revolutionary War, French enthusiasm for the new Republic grew even more fervent. The historian Robert Darnton has used the term “craze” to describe the allure of all things American among Lezay-Marnésia’s contemporaries—evidence of this fascination ranging from numerous texts to pantomimes and plays depicting native Americans. Anti-Americanism in eighteenth-century France—as Philippe Roger has shown in his classic study —channelled Buffon’s scientific works in order to depict a cursed land where flora and fauna brought over from Europe are ineluctably fated to degeneracy. By contrast, pro-American sentiment drew upon a political discourse that bore equally as distorted a relation to the truth, being mediated by a plethora of representations (treatises, brochures, and even travel diaries, short stories and novels). This discourse opposed the vision of a continent where prosperity, equality, tolerance and liberty prevail to the image of the sempiternal iniquities of the Old World. In the short interval between the American and French revolutions, Americanophilia reached its peak in terms of enthusiasm—America never again seeming so close to embodying the age-old dreams of the New World. Marked by this ideological climate, it was only natural that Lezay-Marnésia should have decided upon America when he sought refuge outside his homeland: the social and political program he had been unable to promote in France would be realized upon the faraway plains of the Scioto.
Playing upon ardent pro-Americanism and widespread anxiety over France’s future, the Scioto Company offered a seemingly reasonable solution to those who wished to emigrate. Lezay-Marnésia did not take much convincing, coming to the Rue Neuve des Petits Champs on January 14, 1790, in order to buy 20,000 acres for himself and 1000 more for his daughter and then, with a pang of regret, coming back the next day to buy another 1000 acres and 100 acres again on February 11. These repeated purchases suggest that Lezay-Marnésia was convinced of making an excellent investment and worried that he might not be making the most of the opportunity. In possession of an area of land that made him one of the Scioto Company’s biggest clients, Lezay-Marnésia played a leading part in the creation of the Society of the Twenty-Four.
The eponymous 24 members banded together in early 1790 with defined statutes and goals that they continued to refine at each of their meetings. It was not necessary to be a noble in order to join (largely made up of aristocrats, the society was nevertheless open to commoners) but simply to have acquired 1000 acres or more from the Scioto Company. The Society planned to establish two towns on the 24,000 acres it disposed of. The first, whose name was not decided upon, was to house artisans and farmers. These laborers would be given room and board by the landowners, who would reward them with 50 acres at the end of their three-year contract. The second town, initially named Newpatrie before Lezay-Marnésia proposed that they rechristen it Aigle-Lys, would contain all the municipal, religious and educational buildings and would be home to the landowners and their families. This overall layout demonstrates that the Society of the Twenty-Four intended to maintain a sharp division between their colony’s two towns, keeping institutional power for themselves to the detriment of the working classes, who would also be on the front line of potential attacks by native Americans. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to take a caricatured view of this project, representing it as an attempt to create a mirror image of Ancien Régime France in the western United States.
Although the members of the Society of the Twenty-Four had been born into a society structured by the division between nobles and commoners, their intention was not to invest these categories with the same significance as in France. In early 1790 their vision was to create a society founded on the distinction between “landowners” and “farmers”. On the one hand, the landed class would run the colony, managing its growth and reproducing in America the kind of sociability its members had enjoyed at home; on the other, the working classes would not only be tasked with feeding the population but also with repelling potential marauders. Marked deeply by the recollection of Clarens in Rousseau’s New Heloise, which had given them the model of a hierarchical society whose permanence and harmony were guaranteed by its members’ mutual bond of affection, Lezay-Marnésia and his associates expected that the status quo would be maintained by acts of benevolence toward their workers. As noble birth would no longer be the criterion for assigning individuals to social categories, it would be theoretically possible to imagine some mobility between the categories, notably in the case that a farmer became a landowner himself at the end of his three-year contract. However, the Twenty-Four reserved the right to choose who could join their number, stipulating that would-be members had to be sponsored by a current member and approved in a ballot of the other associates. Inspired by the practices of Masonic Lodges, this procedure for admitting new members would allow the Society of the Twenty-Four to preserve a shared outlook among its membership and maintain consensus over its plans for a paternalistic project in America. The project was nonetheless plagued by a philosophical paradox that threatened its chance of coming to fruition from the outset. It sought to return to a state of nature, supposedly preserved in the Ohio region, in order to lead a simple and virtuous life there—one that would be alien to the corrupting influence of the big cities. But it also sought to bring to the Ohio the refinements of the Ancien Régime’s urbane society, especially music, a taste for belles lettres and the art of conversation. Equally inspired by Voltaire’s urbane soirées at Ferney as by the diatribe against sophistication that Rousseau put into Fabricius’ mouth, the Society of the Twenty-Four had a paradoxical dream—that of a refined state of nature.
This outlook, developed over the course of nine meetings held by the Twenty-Four between January 24 and February 10, 1790, furnished Lezay-Marnésia with a canvas upon which his fertile imagination unceasingly embroidered. Impassioned by ever more grandiose projects, in letters sent to his partners he expounded the vision of a flourishing colony, displaying an alarming ignorance of living conditions on the American frontier. Deforestation, in Lezay-Marnésia’s view, was far from a dangerous activity. Having had several of their novice woodcutters injured while felling giant sycamores, the colonists of Gallipolis, a town founded in the Northwest Territory by another group of clients of the Scioto Company, might have begged to differ. The climate would be “most salubrious and very temperate” Lezay-Marnésia again assured his partners, little foreseeing the long winter he would later spend in an encampment buried among the snowdrifts. As for the American-Indian tribes living west of the Appalachians, Lezay-Marnésia imagined these “noble savages” would ask for nothing more than to be allowed to adopt European customs and participate in bucolic fêtes champêtres; they were, in reality, rather less favorable to the colonization of their lands, inflicting a historic defeat upon the American army on November 4, 1791: the bloody rout of General Arthur St. Clair’s troops at the Battle of the Wabash (we will come back to this event).
This idyllic representation of the Ohio region, which displays a marked tendency to confound the Trans-Appalachian West with a Swiss canton taken from the pages of Rousseau, allows Lezay-Marnésia to enjoy his American chimeras without much thought for the real. Aigle-Lys, he predicts, would soon boast factories whose products would be sold across the United States and the Caribbean, competing with British trade. “To desire and to do are all that one needs in this country” Lezay-Marnésia asserts with the bravado of a captain of industry. The marquis did not only have dreams of economic prosperity but also of spreading French culture to the United States. In one passage he casts himself in the role of founder of the new Sorbonne: “[…]like the major American towns we shall have a university and ours will have over those others the great advantage that the French language will be taught there.” A member of several literary academies, Lezay-Marnésia planned to associate the future university (Lezay College? Marnésia University?) with a philosophical society whose members would dedicate themselves to the study of the arts and humanities as well as agronomy. A newspaper published in the language of Molière would complete the Twenty-Four’s civilizing mission. While the prematurity of these projects is striking—Lezay-Marnésia’s imagination was roving at a time when the location of the future colony was still undecided—they are nevertheless telling with regard to an assumption that was one of the most singular aspects of the Twenty Four’s project. Their intention was not to integrate into a pre-existing American colony or to create a multinational society alongside other immigrants, favoring mutual assistance and the choice of broad church deism, such as that which Crèvecœur outlines in his Lettres of 1787. Rather, they sought to transport a homogenous society to America, a society united in its language, customs, rejection of the Revoluton, and of course, religion. Lezay-Marnesia saw his future colony as a little France in America, or, at least, the incarnation of a certain idea of France set on the banks of the Ohio, intending to bar entry to Americans (whom he held in complete contempt) and other Europeans (of whom he said nothing, unlike Bernardin de Saint-Pierre). The new society would comprise of Frenchmen chosen for the purity of their morals and the conformity of their political views with Lezay-Marnésia’s own.
Nowhere is what we can only call the folly of Lezay-Marnésia’s great expectations more apparent than in the domain of religion. He was not content with an ordinary priest for Aigle-Lys—only a bishop would do. The latter would lead the faithful in worship and supervise the almshouses and aid committees that would soon, in Lezay-Marnésia’s confident prediction, flourish upon the virgin banks of the Scioto. Alas, in spite of their efforts, the Twenty-Four failed to obtain the creation of a diocese from Pope Pius VI; in the end, the priest charged with tending to parishioners in Aigle-Lys answered to the Diocese of Baltimore. Lezay-Marnésia’s disproportionate religious designs are, however, not merely further proof of his confused priorities in trying to establish a settlement from nothing: they also attest to a genuine anxiety about the future of Catholicism in France. Aigle-Lys was thus to have a prophylactic role: the future colony would transplant Catholicism to the American West during a time when the French were becoming accustomed to scenes at home like those described by the horrified Abbé Morellet, “[…]churches profaned and closed, sacred vessels paraded on poles around Paris, communion wafers trampled underfoot, a fille d’opéra upon the altar in the place of the “so-called Virgin”, and a ballet in Notre Dame”.
In fine, the emphasis Lezay-Marnésia places upon the religious question situates his emigration in the lineage of countless predecessors since the sixteenth century who, wishing to preserve proscribed teachings in the face of persecution, had sought refuge in America. Lezay-Marnésia imparts a Biblical flavor to his journey to the western United States; the banks of the Scioto take on an air of the Jordan in his writing. He declares that he would have been Abraham or Boaz if he could have chosen his destiny, compares the banks of the Ohio to the Promised Land, and his son also makes analogies between his father’s adventures and the Old Testament. For Albert, the Revolution was a second flood and his father’s mission in America was akin to that of the dove that took flight from the Ark to seek land. Like a patriarch—at 55 years old, he was among the oldest embarking for Scioto—Lezay-Marnésia sees himself bringing a chosen people to America. In order to scrutinize the morals of the future colonists, he asked that they submit their marriage certificates and confession statements signed by their priest; the precaution would prove ineffective as the candidates presented Lezay-Marnésia with fakes that he accepted without further ado. Far from being stringently selected, Lezay-Marnésia’s band would contain “[…]some of the most perverted elements of the Parisian populace”. No matter: while crossing the desert, Moses too was disappointed in the conduct of his people—a people quicker to idolize the golden calf than to prostrate themselves before the Tablets of Stone. Like Moses, Lezay-Marnésia never arrived at his voyage’s final destination: as we will later discuss, he reached Marietta in the Northwest Territory but was never able to take possession of the thousands of acres on the banks of the Scioto to the south and west.
In this regard, there is a faint melancholy about the title of his work. Although Scioto was all the rage in contemporary gossip and the toponym had become synonymous with the French adventure in the American West, Lezay-Marnésia omits to use the name upon the cover of his work. We might have expected him to use it for publicity reasons, in order to explicitly link his work to an enterprise that was the subject of much debate. By allusion, his chosen title reflects the project’s failure. The expression “banks of the Ohio” indicates that the voyage was interrupted, never reaching the tributary of the Ohio that was to be its final destination. Tantalizingly near to the land of his dreams, the banks of the Ohio were to be Lezay-Marnésia’s Mount Nebo; his letters are the testament of a patriarch who came within sight of the Promised Land but never set foot upon it.
On the Path to the Promised Land
Lezay-Marnésia’s confidence in one day seeing Aigle-Lys was undiminished during the crossing—a long and arduous one according to his son’s account—and upon arrival in the United States. Arriving in Alexandria, Virginia on July 29, 1790, his enthusiasm redoubled on his first encounter with America. Admittedly, he and his compatriots were greeted by troubling news: the roads leading west of the Appalachians were in a very poor condition and fierce native Americans lay in wait, purportedly ready to scalp new arrivals. Far from being put off by what he brushed aside as mere hearsay, Lezay-Marnésia elaborated a conspiracy theory: the English, alarmed by the imminent foundation of a colony whose trade would soon spread across the United States, were spreading these false rumours in order to dissuade the French emigrants who had come to compete with them. “They realize how much [our settlement] will harm their business for we shall bring to the heart of America the very arts by which they have unfairly kept it subaltern” Lezay-Marnésia declared, convinced of having outfoxed his rivals. After a fortnight in Alexandria, he conferred to a companion the mission of transporting the sixty laborers hired in France to the Scioto region. Meanwhile, he travelled to New York with his son in order to deal with the American authorities on behalf of the Twenty-Four. Lezay-Marnésia met the new Republic’s most important leaders: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and George Washington himself. He also made the acquantaince of William Duer, an unscrupulous businessman who had played a pivotal role in the Ohio Company’s activities. The latter loaned 12,000 pounds to Lezay-Marnésia and his associates and promised to use his influence in government to obtain an exemption from direct taxation and military service for the future inhabitants of Aigle-Lys. His business concluded, the marquis headed west, remarking for the first time upon the considerable gap between his notions of the wilderness of the New World and the actual hardships of the American frontier.
The natural barrier of the Appalchian mountains presented more than a simple obstacle, which led Albert de Lezay-Marnésia to conclude, as did many of his contemporaries, that it in fact threatened the political unity of the fledgling American nation. It also marked the boundary between the last vestiges of European civilization and a state of nature that proved much less enchanting than the author of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio had imagined it in France. Following the Forbes Road that linked Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, passing through Lancaster, Lezay-Marnésia and his son came upon roads that were barely useable, log cabins with only animal skins on the floor to welcome their weary limbs and American colonists who seemed closer to animals than civilized men. It is most plausibly in Pittsburgh that Lezay-Marnésia wrote a number of letters which the Scioto Company published as extracts in its New Prospectus (December 1790). The marquis declares that he has nothing but good to say of his dealings with the Scioto Company and that his new lands are incomparable. He was, however, hardly in a better position to make this claim than he was in Paris, as he had still not set eyes upon a single acre. Over 180 miles of rough terrain had to be covered before he did. If Lezay-Marnésia publicly takes a stance in the debate raging between Sciotophobes and Sciotophiles—he authorizes his correspondent to make the letter public—it is in order to persaude his countrymen to emigrate to America. As the author of the Lettre écrite par un français émigrant sur les terres de la Compagnie du Scioto [Letter Written by a Frenchman Emigrating to the Lands of the Scioto Company] writes, the security and prosperity of a new colony largely depended on its number of inhabitants. It was therefore in Lezay-Marnésia’s best interest to describe his lands in Scioto as a veritable paradise, ancipitating the wonderment he expected to experience when he finally took possession of them. The marquis continued on his journey with his son in tow, embarking at Pittsburgh to follow the Ohio downstream to Marietta. They arrived in early November and while Marietta was supposed to be only a stopover on their way to Scioto, it ended up being the westernmost limit of their journey.
Founded in 1788 by General Rufus Putnam and a band of veterans of the Revolutionary War, Marietta still only had 500 inhabitants when Lezay-Marnésia arrived there two years later. The town was named after Marie-Antoinette in recognition of France’s role in American independence. In spite of this symbol of friendship between the two nations, it was in Marietta that a serious disagreement took place between Lezay-Marnésia and his American associates. Arriving on November 5, 1790, Rufus Putnam asked Lezay-Marnésia and one of his companions, the comte de Barth, to join an expedition of twenty rangers and two guides that would seek to scout out the exact location where Aigle-Lys would be built. Alarmed by the presence of hostile tribes in the region, Lezay-Marnésia ruled out the possibility of hazarding into this dangerous territory. His refusal angered the General, who ignored him as a result, choosing to deal exclusively with de Barth in future.
To make matters worse, Lezay-Marnésia’s collaboration with the Society of the Twenty-Four came to an end less than a fortnight later. On November 15, 1790—the same day he sent the first of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio to the chevalier de Boufflers—Lezay-Marnésia announced that he would found his own settlement independently of that of his partners and that already founded by his countrymen at Gallipolis. While the exact reasons for this split remain unknown, it is possible that the marquis’ far-fetched projects for Scioto had long been a source of tensions among the Society of the Twenty-Four, ultimately leading to their parting ways. With 57 laborers in his service, Lezay-Marnésia was far from having the necessary manpower to form a dissident colony in the Scioto wilderness. The point was moot, however, as by mid-November it was no longer possible to think about laying foundations, an exceptionally harsh winter having set in, forcing Lezay-Marnésia to take up residence in Marietta awaiting more clement weather in spring. It was during this winter that a threat he had long dismissed became clearer: that of American Indian resistance.
Although the directors of the Scioto Company had feigned to ignore their existence, several of the American Indian tribes living in the Northwest Territory were less than thrilled by the colonial projects being formed in their lands. Situated 30 miles north of Marietta, the colony of Big Bottom was attacked during the night of January 2 and 3, 1791, by Delaware and Wyandot warriors—fourteen colonists were killed and three went missing. Marietta was menaced by the same danger: in his memoirs, Albert de Lezay-Marnésia recounts that the inhabitants could not venture out of town without risking being cut down or scalped by native Americans waiting in ambush. Lezay-Marnésia found himself in the unenviable position of being separated from his land in Scioto by nearly 100 miles and the fierce resistance of the Amerindian tribes, held at arm’s length by the Americans in Marietta due to his propensity to both irascibility and fantasy, and completely estranged from his former associates in the Society of the Twenty-Four. He survived the famine caused by the difficulty supplying the town during the winter as best he could and, as soon as the snows melted, in early 1791, set out east again in the company of his son. Lezay-Marnésia clung stubbornly to the hope of settling in Scioto one day until the defeat of Arthur St. Clair at the Battle of the Wabash (November 4, 1791) put an end to his hopes for good. Rather than returning to France, where political developments did not augur well, he purchased a property of 400 acres on the banks of the Monongahela: Azile.
“A gentle retreat for a philosopher-farmer”
In his memoirs, Albert de Lezay-Marnésia suggests that Azile might have been the realization of his father’s high hopes for life in the United States: “[…] the soil was virgin, the location favorable; it could have become a gentle retreat for a philosopher-farmer, if only to have waited out the dénouement of the bloody turmoil ravaging France […]” At least at first, Lezay-Marnésia seemed to be grow accustomed to life in his new abode. A letter to d’Éprémesnil attests to this, describing the abundant vegetables produced by his potager and the plentiful game in the nearby woods. The marquis even had brick and pottery workshops built, hoping to make an annual profit of 100 louis from them. Economically viable and sweetened by the charms of nature, his retreat was further graced with good company: Lezay-Marnésia came across another unfortunate client of the Scioto Company, the marquis de Lassus de Luzières, who had come to settle near Pittsburgh with his wife, children and son-in-law. Three other countrymen, Barthélémi Tardiveau, Pierre Audrain and Jean-Baptiste-Charles-Lucas des Pintreaux, also attended their gatherings, as did a choice guest, the writer Hugh Henry Brackenridge. Settled in Pennsylvania, on an estate where little by little he was recovering from his adventures, Lezay-Marnésia had something of Candide about him, cultivating his garden and enjoying happiness in moderation. And yet, in spite of the bucolic charms of this life, Lezay-Marnésia decided to sell his property—for “next to nothing”, his son specifies —less than a year after settling there. To explain this decision, Albert de Lezay-Marnésia makes mention of his father’s “inexperience of life’s hardships” and “irresolute character”. But the inability of the marquis to acclimatize to a foreign country whose language he did not speak and whose citizens he disliked was not his only reason for leaving a property that he would describe, some years later in his “Letter to M. Audrain”, as a lost paradise. External factors also made him take the bold (to say in the least) move of returning to France while it was in the grip of the Revolution—with the King having just attempted the Flight to Varennes and Lezay-Marnésia’s name on the list of émigrés. Moreover, Lezay-Marnésia was faced with extreme financial difficulties: he was receiving no further funds from France and William Duer, who was about to go bankrupt in spectacular fashion, was unable to continue the line of credit he had granted the marquis. The news that reached Lezay-Marnésia in early 1792 increased his resolve to return home: his eldest daughter, Adrienne, had died the previous August. Stunned by this loss, Lezay-Marnésia and his son decided to return to their family, setting sail in May, two years after leaving France. The end of Lezay-Marnésia’s tale was to be unhappy: one misfortune after another awaited him on his return home.
A Return to the Native Land
“We had left France in order to escape the disasters revolution threatened to bring upon the country; we returned at the very moment that revolution made good upon its darkest promises” Albert de Lezay-Marnésia remarks on the subject of his paradoxical emigration. Indeed, the moment which his father had chosen to return home was a delicate one. After the crossing and a brief sojourn in London, they entered Paris on June 20, 1792, just as the Revolution entered into a new phase: that same day the masses descended upon the Tuileries Palace, forcing the King to toast the nation’s health and wear the Phrygian cap. On August 10, Lezay-Marnésia and his son were still in Paris to witness the turbulent end of the constitutional monarchy, when the mob stormed the Tuileries Palace in anger. They were joined in the capital by Albert’s elder brother, Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia, who was returning from studies at the University of Göttingen. While waiting for the authorities to approve his passport, Lezay-Marnésia pursued a number of activities. Still plagued by financial difficulties, he was obliged to sell off his estates at Moutonne, Présilly and Grandvaux. He also took the opportunity to give the manuscript of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio to Prault. First published in 1792, they were banned by the Girondist government not long after and were not reprinted until 1800.
Having been granted a passport, Lezay-Marnésia and his sons set off for the Franche-Comté. In mid-September father and sons took up residence at their ancestral seat at Saint-Julien but following a row with their father, Albert and Adrien left for Paris in early 1793—again choosing an inopportune moment for landed aristocrats to move to the capital, Louis XVI having just been executed. Lezay-Marnésia remained at Saint-Julien until he was arrested in March 1794 as a ci-devant whose name still had not been struck from the list of émigrés. During his imprisonment in Besançon he learned that his wife had died on June 30 while in exile in London. Set free in October 1794 thanks to a certificate of civism written in his favor by the municipality of Saint-Julien and the Orgelet Revolutionary Committee, he returned to his estates to devote himself to writing and gardening. This brief respite from turmoil ended with the Coup of 18 Fructidor, Year V (September 4, 1797) and the wave of persecution against Royalists and émigrés that followed, forcing him to leave France once again. Lezay-Marnésia found refuge in Switzerland, first in Lausanne then Coppet where he was the guest of Necker. He was unable to return home immediately: although struck from the list of émigrés by the department of the Jura, he remained on that of the Haute-Saône where he still owned land. In early 1800, he was finally allowed to re-enter France and took residence in Besançon, where he began his final work L’Action des principes de la religion et de la véritable philosophie [The Action of the Principles of Religion and True Philosophy]. Of this “Apologia for Christianity” only fragments remain, clearly inspired by Pascal’s Pensées. Lezay-Marnésia was never to finish this work: on December 9, less than a year after his return to France, he died—leaving nothing of his once considerable fortune other than debts and the Château de Saint-Julien.
LEZAY-MARNÉSIA, THWARTED UTOPIAN
Writing the Truth about America
Lezay-Marnésia’s Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio begin with a seemingly anodyne statement which in fact goes to the heart of a problem that has remained unresolved since Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic: the publisher promises that, unlike his countless predecessors, Lezay-Marnésia is telling the truth about America. It is a bold claim given that contemporary European discourse on the New World largely consisted of commentaries and reinterpretations written by novelists and ivory tower philosophers, based only on second-hand accounts by bona fide travellers. The length and arduousness of a transatlantic voyage greatly restricted the number of witnesses to events in America, which meant that the knowledge available about the New World remained limited during the eighteenth century. As Durand Echeverria has observed, this situation was slow to evolve: “Practically all, however, of these French reports and interpretations published during the war [the American Revolution] were composed from second-, third-, or fourth-hand information and were usually written in haste and with little critical evaluation of the facts”. His publisher effectively promises that Lezay-Marnésia’s letters will break with the weary repetition of ideas and recycling of homogenous themes, giving a new lease of life to a discourse that had long been moribund.
However, it would be too simplistic to distinguish between philosophers writing in France and travellers returning from the New World on the assumption that in the works of the latter one might find a discourse about America that would finally reveal the “truths” inacessible to the former. In their accounts of America, eighteenth-century travellers show a great propensity to recast discourses they had heard prior to their actual experiences. This phenomenon might be explained by a number of interlinked factors. Firstly, travellers more or less consciously drew models from the works of their predecessors. These models might be stylistic—as in the use of a pastoral mode to describe nature in America—or thematic, predetermining certain topoi such as descriptions of Quakers, native Americans, or the Niagara Falls. Indeed, without these generic elements a text on the New World would have been seen as incomplete by both author and readers. More profoundly, gaining knowledge via an intermediary of a reality one has never directly experienced produces expectations that constitute an a priori interpretative frame: the discovery of America was not an encounter between an unformed consciousness and an unknown land, but rather an experience during which observations were constantly compared and contrasted with presuppositions in order to either confirm or invalidate the latter. As such, each traveller’s account is marked by the traces of its predecessors. Another ideological factor also comes into play in the specific case of how the French saw late eighteenth-century America. Because the American model was often taken up by the philosophes in the course of their arguments in favor of the civil and religious liberties they were agitating for at home, the discourse on America came to have a polemical function. America’s role in debates about France contributed to the distortion of the discourse regarding the New World, casting the continent in a predetermined role in a clash of ideas which, in truth, had little to do with America.
As both a traveller and philosopher, Lezay-Marnésia would seem to fit the role of the ideal observer that Rousseau calls for in a famous footnote to his Second Discourse. However, far from being an exception to the mass of men of letters who projected their dreams and theories onto the American continent—and in spite of his publisher’s commercially-motivated claims to the contrary—Lezay-Marnésia’s work bends observable reality to suit his goals and aspirations. Plain lies, omissions, self-delusion, denial and intentional misunderstandings combine to conjure an imaginary continent out of words, one that often corresponds to the author’s idea of the New World prior to crossing the Atlantic and not to what he discovered during his travels. In this regard, the first and third letters are telling examples of Lezay-Marnésia’s reinvention of America in the Letters.
Addressed to the chevalier de Boufflers, Lezay-Marnésia evinces a curious paradox. The principal subject is an episode in which Paulée, the Queen of the Huron, visits the author while he is living in Marietta. Lezay-Marnésia undoubtedly embellishes the scene: the behavior of the native Americans that he describes to Boufflers is strikingly unrealistic, they behave just like the marquis’ dinner guests of yesteryear at his estates in the Franche-Comté. Furthermore, Lezay-Marnésia’s son was to give a very different account of the same episode. Yet the distortion of the promised “truth” about America is more complex than the partial embroidering of an encounter between the representatives of different cultures. Lezay-Marnésia goes to great pains to convince the chevalier de Boufflers that his description of native Americans will serve to reform the idea the French have of the latter, but nevertheless reproduces himself a stereotypical discourse that is French in origin. In this regard, the point where the text turns to the theater is telling. Lezay-Marnésia claims that his description of the Queen of the Huron would allow playwrights to form a more accurate picture of native Americans, but in fact his portrait of Paulée follows the conventions of French discourse on “savages”. Overall, the letter confirms the presuppositions of its readership while claiming to amend those same presuppositions. This paradox is far from gratuitous for in giving a comforting image of American reality—in particular the American Indian tribes that posed a major obstacle to colonization—Lezay-Marnésia purposefully avoids disabusing his compatriots of their misapprehensions, instead inviting them to follow in his footsteps in the Northwest Territory. Meanwhile, the marquis promotes colonialist notions that negate the specificity of American Indian culture—its textual representatives are perfectly happy to abandon their own culture in order to symbolically reproduce French customs and norms pertaining to sociability—and support a conventional discourse about the supposed temperemental affinity of native Americans and Frenchmen, an affinity that would allow the latter to impose their authority over their New World subordinates. He also adds an erotic promise to this colonialist vision: in a telling detail, Paulée happily receives his “somewhat sensual and at the same time very paternal” kiss—a male fantasy integral to the imperial imagination.
The third letter is as slippery as the first, deploying a number of subterfuges in order to mask the failure of the author’s projects. While Lezay-Marnésia’s last months in America were in fact marked by the manifold difficulties discussed above, the final letter manages to persist in painting a pleasant and reassuring picture of life across the Atlantic through an account of the successful emigration of Monsieur des Pintreaux and his wife. The des Pintreaux really existed, as is attested to by a short passage from New Journey where Brissot mentions them as a family from Normandy who had moved near Pittsburgh before the Revolution. However, Lezay-Marnésia rewrites the des Pintreaux’ story by merging his biography with details of his own first text, a morality tale entitled L’Heureuse famille [The Happy Family] (1766, deemed “truly insipid” by Grimm). The opposition of Monsieur des Pintreaux’ parents to their son’s marriage retreads the story of the ill-fated match that is at the center of Lezay-Marnésia’s tale, while the rest of his third later takes many liberties with the real life of des Pintreaux and his wife. Presenting a tale that is more than half fictional as a true story is not the missive’s only, or even most flagrant, departure from the “truth” that Lezay-Marnésia’s collection of letters purportedly reveals. In fact, the story is a sort of diversion that allows him to brush under the carpet the abject failure of his colonial project in America. The marquis does, however, leave revelatory traces—unguarded moments where he speaks the truth in spite of himself. Lezay-Marnésia touches in veiled terms upon “very difficult circumstances” and “troubles” although refraining from any further comment. Until the very end of the collection, Lezay-Marnésia strives to depict America as he would have wished to see it rather than as he found it, to persuade the reader—and no doubt himself, having given in to the consolations of writing—that America truly is the blissful idyll he so desired. If the first and third letter rewrite the reality of America in order to make it fit with the author’s expectations, the second pushes the enterprise of invention further in imagining an ideal society, a hybrid and contradictory construction admixing the promise of a colonial project and that of a utopian city.
The Risks of Erudition
Springing from a long line of French representations of North America, the central letter in Lezay-Marnésia’s collection bespeaks the evolution of this tradition in the aftermath of the American Revolution. “From the émigrés’ perspectives,” François Furstenberg observes, “the United States was a distant place. It was less a nation than a remote borderland on the fringes of European civilization […].” Indeed, Furstenberg goes on to highlight that “to an extent that many people today forget, that was also the perspective of the people with whom the émigrés socialized during their travels in the United States: men like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Adams. None of these founding fathers could afford to ignore the diplomatic, economic, or political hierarchies of the Atlantic world, or the relatively powerless place they occupied in it.” Like the five Frenchmen whose American travels and posterity Furstenberg retraces, Lezay-Marnésia viewed America as existing on the margins of Europe. In the Northwest Territory – on the periphery of America itself – he saw the opportunity to launch a new French colonial enterprise. The very fragility of the nascent Republic allowed interested onlookers to project vast colonial ambitions onto the great blank canvas of the American continent. These onlookers shared a view of the Trans-Appalachian West as an unexploited goldmine of political, strategic and economic opportunities that the fledgling United States would be as powerless to keep for itself as the American Indian tribes were. What distinguishes Lezay-Marnésia’s colonial designs from those of his compatriots – the project Talleyrand presented to the French Institute, for example – is its characteristic literary bent. Fictional works, particularly in the utopian genre, shaped the very formulation of Lezay-Marnésia’s colonial designs – indeed, it was this enchantment with literary ideas that doomed his designs to failure before a single stone was laid down. Where exactly do these influences manifest themselves in Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio?
Readers of Flaubert and Cervantès will already know that reading novels can give rise to pipe dreams about worlds in comparison to which reality seems to pale. The curious case of Lezay-Marnésia demonstrates that reading about utopias is no less risky. Indeed, it shows that reading More and Montesquieu can induce its own sort of bovarysm: a treatise on the best form of Republic, no less than a sentimental novel or chivalric romance, may leave the reader dissatisfied with the world as it truly is. Sent from Pittsburgh on November 2, 1791, the second letter of Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio describes in detail a colonial project that Lezay-Marnésia wishes to realize with the help of Bernardin de Saint-Piere, the author of Paul and Virginia (1791). Named “Saint-Pierre” in the latter’s honor (and perhaps to persuade him to participate in an uncertain endeavor), the city would have been established in the western part of Pennsylvania, “[…] between the Allegheny and the calm Monongahela.” While Lezay-Marnésia has already spent 15 months on American soil at this point, his project is not so much inspired by on-the-ground observations as it is by various texts that he mentions by name: The Adventures of Telemachus (1699) by Fénelon, the apologue of the Troglodytes in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721), the Studies of Nature (1784) by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre and, of course, Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), are repeatedly held up as examples by Lezay-Marnésia. Among all the literary models at his disposal, the most influential is undoubtedly Rousseau’s Clarens, a society where mutual affection between its members guarantees the permanence of a political structure characterized by a strong hierarchy. Divided into the population of servants and the central couple of Julie and Monsieur de Wolmar, Clarens is a microcosm where the formation of a sentimental bond between masters and servants assures the cooperation of all in search of the common good. The servants, who are likened to children, perceive the masters whom they work for as strict and loving parents, justified in punishing their children should the latter give in to licentious practices that would make them unworthy of the reflected virtue which they are so fortunate to partake of. Rousseau’s description of the paternalistic society of Clarens is the locus classicus for all those who—like Lezay-Marnésia in Happiness in the Countryside—advocate the restitution of lands to the nobility in order that the latter might work to better the life of the peasantry and lead by example, effecting a moral regeneration of the countryside, and all the while inviting other aristocrats to quit the corrupting influence of the city.
The social organization that Lezay-Marnésia intends to create in Saint-Pierre is inspired by the concern with hierarchy at the heart of Clarens’ political system (it is worth noting that slavery is never mentioned by Lezay-Marnésia as a possible social system for his colony: it was, in any case, forbidden in the Northwest Territory). As in Rousseau’s model, Saint-Pierre’s society would be divided into two groups charged with distinct responsabilities: workers and landowners, living in separate zones. The first zone, situated outside the city walls, would accomodate the artisans and laborers whose main role would be to approvision Saint-Pierre. Meanwhile those living within the city walls would share the administrative, political and religious responsabilities. This division of labor reflects a clear inequality between the two groups: Lezay-Marnésia affords no possibility for members of the working classes to truly join the oligarchy of landowners, even if the former were to one day own land themselves. The text’s silence on this matter allows Lezay-Marnésia to leave unquestioned a contradiction that is inherent to the social model he promotes. To wit, such a system would seem to have feet of clay as the poorest citizens are supposed to forever content themselves with their lot as subordinates, while the landowners are given the opportunity to live a life of contemplation within the comfort of their American refuge. Lezay-Marnésia finds in Rousseau’s Clarens a solution that might allow him to perpetuate his political system in the long term. In their behavior toward the working classes, the oligarchs of Saint-Pierre will model themselves after Julie’s treatment of her servants : they will adopt a social contract based on philanthropy. Lezay-Marnésia explains that “[Property owners] will owe these men, their salaried help, care, protection, ample remuneration for their work, graciousness, indulgence, and kindness”. Moreover, he enjoins them to erect a “hospital for the disabled and sick” as well as “two schools.” In other words, the landlords will lessen the difficulties encountered by the working classes with charitable giving; they will use philanthropy as a palliative to the inequality of conditions, and it will also provide the oligarchs with the gratitude of the lowliest citizens as well as recognition for their political role. It is thus toward literary works that Lezay-Marnésia turns in order to imagine the elements of his colonial project. He does so to such an extent that the complete failure of his project can be explained by the paradoxical ambition that results: to build a real city out of utopian dreams.
A Project of Many Contradictions
Lezay-Marnésia’s project might be summed up in terms of contradiction. He plans to create a utopia, but utopias are not blueprints for cities that can be built in the real world. Rather they are the result of a mental exercise, the imagining of “lateral possibilities to reality” to borrow Raymon Ruyer’s expression. That impossibility is part of the very nature of utopias is hinted at by the genre with which they are most often associated: travel literature. In Sade’s Aline and Valcour, it is during a voyage across the Pacific that the utopia of Tamoé is discovered the day after a storm. Ignorant of the exact location of a place he comes across by pure serendipity, the traveller can attest to the utopia’s existence, but cannot establish a durable link that would allow others to follow in his footsteps. The affinity between the utopian genre and travel literature, between a certain mode of political speculation and one of exoticism, brings out “Utopia’s secessionism”, to use Frederic Jameson’s term from Archeologies of the Future. Jameson uses this term to mean the tendency of utopias to recede from the empirical world and history—a recession that problematizes the possibility of their serving as models for real societies.
Unlike the many utopian writers he has read, Lezay-Marnésia wanted to realize in the here and now that which is perhaps only meant to exist outside the realm of reality. In his letters, the marquis does not worry unduly about how American Indian tribes might actually receive his compatriots, although the realization of his project greatly depended upon it. The American Indian tribes were in fact fighting against the westward expansion of the United States at that time. On November 4, 1791, only two days after Lezay-Marnésia’s letter to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, an army sent by George Washington, as mentioned above, was defeated by native Americans at the Battle of the Wabash (fought near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio). In spite of the many grim proofs of the native Americans’ fierce opposition to the growing presence of European settlers beyond the Appalachian mountains, Lezay-Marnésia continues to depict them as children who will gladly welcome their French fathers:
The good Indians will feel that friends have arrived, and since they really call the French their fathers, they will cover them with a multitude of unaffected and sincere marks of their affection. They will abandon themselves to the penchant they have always had for a cheerful, just, sensitive nation that honors men in whatever shape and color they appear.
In this idyllic depiction, native Americans are described as obedient colonial subjects, impatiently awaiting the arrival of their natural masters. Lezay-Marnésia’s pastoral depiction of what was in fact a warzone again demonstrates the constitutive ambiguity of the text—it is a prospectus describing at once a colonial project and a utopia in the making. Indeed, little by little, the status of the text becomes more and more uncertain. What had started as a request to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre turns into a detailed description of a utopian city reminiscent of Thomas More’s masterpiece. Lezay-Marnésia declares that Saint-Pierre will be shaped like a crescent and the houses, unadorned and simple, will all have gardens. In 1516 Thomas More had already insisted on the geometrical form of his city Amaurot, which would be built of constructions creating perfect vistas with gardens ever present at the core of the urban space. The harmony of spatial organization in More’s city mirrors the perfection of the political system adopted by the Utopians while the eschewal of luxury is another dominant feature of utopian constructions that Lezay-Marnésia likewise adopts.
The literary model furnished by More is complemented by a source of inspiration drawn from architecture: Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s (1736-1806) Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans. Based in Lezay-Marnésia’s home region, Franche-Comté, fewer than a hundred kilometers north of his Château at Saint-Julien, the Saltworks were proof that it was possible to make real a dream vision of symmetry. Lezay-Marnsia derives the crescent shape of his project from Ledoux’s semi-circular layout, modifying its function somewhat. For Ledoux, this spatial organization was to facilitate the overseers’ control over the workers; it would make objective and enduring “[…] the social harmony of which the King is the guarantor in God’s name.” As Michel Foucault has shown, Ledoux establishes a panopticon organised around a central point upon which inward gazes converge while a single eye looking outward can observe all without missing anything: “Among all the reasons for the prestige that was accorded, in the second half of the eighteenth-century, to circular architecture, one must no doubt include the fact that it expressed a certain political utopia.” In Lezay-Marnésia’s project, however, the laborers live outside the urban center and their behavior is monitored by the “Approbateurs”(“Commenders”) who are themselves obliged to circulate in order to observe the laborers. Here the semi-circular shape marks a break between an interior space, surrounded by walls, rigorously organized and reserved for the elite, and an exterior space whose development is more anarchic—intended for agricultural activity and inhabited by the working classes. However, the semi-circular shape is not, for Lezay-Marnésia’s project, in service of Foucault’s “disciplinary gaze”; the denizens of Saint-Pierre hold power for themselves and their actions are not subject to discipline. In spite of this difference, at Saint-Pierre just as at the Royal Saltworks, the geometrical layout expresses and promotes a social order, one that conforms to the role given to architecture by Ledoux himself:
Beauty that is none other than proportion holds a sway over men against which they cannot resist: figures of a pure and flattering correctness adorn the walls of the monument; they personify principles, and by the influence of their charms alone they accelerate development and propagate its effects.
For Ledoux, as for Lezay-Marnésia, the rigorous spatial order of built environment is at once the sign of a rational mind that has moulded nature to its own ends, the reassuring image of an ordered world, and a silent exhortation to discipline and virtue. Architecture is the path to the “[…]desireable happiness of the fabled times of the Golden Age”; it demonstrates the possibility of making utopian ideals real.
The spatial organization that Lezay-Marnésia inherits from More is not the only point in common between his project and the utopian genre: another is the ideal of insularity, Lezay-Marnésia regrettng that Saint-Pierre cannot be constructed upon an island. Authors of utopian fictions tend to situate their utopias on islands because insularity would afford their imagined societies some protection from exterior influences that might lead to the regression of their political and social perfection over time. Fénelon, for example, makes use of a number of “utopian isles that are embedded in the unfolding of the narrative” in his Aventures de Télémaque (1699). In order to overcome the disadvantage of his being an inland colony, Lezay-Marnésia imagines a sort of social isolation that would allow the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre to preserve their customs on American soil. The future city would only admit inhabitants of French origin, strongly advising them to avoid all political involvement in America itself. In order to think through the means of preserving a French identity in the midst of a dominant culture, Lezay-Marnésia turns to the examples provided by Moravians and Jews, two peoples who had demonstrated their ability to preserve their customs in spite of settling among communities that did not share them. In sum, the only possible equivalent to the geographical isolation of traditional utopias is conceived as being autarky on the part of the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre, surrounded by the United States of America.
In spite of his evident fascination with the utopian genre, Lezay-Marnésia repeatedly expresses a sense of dissastifaction with it; the second of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio thus oscillates, as suggested above, between two contradictory positions: that of a colonial project destined to be realized and that of a utopia with no existence outside of words.
Lezay-Marnésia sees himself as a man of action: he crossed the ocean and invested the lion’s share of his fortune to build a city. His goal is to provide his fellow citizens a haven where they might rest, heal their wounds, and even prosper by joining a growing community that would compete with the British merchants. It should not surprise us then to see Lezay-Marnésia interrupt his letter to express his impatience. He grows tired of merely writing when he would much prefer to be building:
Will we never make anything but books? Shall we be contented with providing entertainment, with stimulating vivid, gentle, and sensitive imaginations, with giving them pleasure followed by regrets by continually offering them what are indeed often enchanting visions that we only see, unfortunately, in works of genius with no hope that they will ever be realized? Shall we constantly limit ourselves, with grand and beautiful ideas, to provoking sterile admiration and providing a few delightful hours that become a distant memory as soon as the book is closed?
“Diverting” reading in the least noble sense of the term, for Lezay-Marnésia utopias offer only the vain pleasure of an ephemeral escape from reality. Whereas Fénelon and Montesquieu had the leisure of meditating upon utopian projects that might be studied by a powerful monarch—perhaps even inspiring him to reform—Lezay-Marnésia is faced with the urgent situation of those who, like himself, had to leave France and needed assistance. In these turbulent times, he feels his aim cannot be merely to write of a wise and reasoned utopia. Thus, while on many occasions expressing the influence of the utopian genre on his idea of Saint-Pierre, Lezay-Marnésia clings to the hope of creating a genuine haven in a specific location rather than a nonexistent idyll that is “no place”.
This distaste for imaginary constructions without real applications is not the only place where the vexed relation of Lezay-Marnésia’s text to the utopian tradition is manifest. It is also brought out by the significance he attaches to the model suggested by the town of Bethlehem in Pensylvania, which is the subject of the first part of the second letter. This Moravian community that played host to Lezay-Marnésia in the summer of 1790 showed that it was possible for a community of a singular foreign origin to prosper in the United States: thus Lezay-Marnésia uses it as a de facto argument in favor of his colonial project when trying to persuade Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. But Lezay-Marnésia also uses Bethlehem as an exemple of the force with which the idea of the general interest is adopted by its inhabitants, disposing them to serve their community. He hopes to cultivate just such an idea of the general interest in Saint-Pierre by creating a group of “Commenders” whose role would consist of publically praising the most generous citizens. Ordinarily, the authors of utopias begin with the meticulous observation of society’s flaws in order to envision a city that has methodically eliminated these systemic shortcomings, the revulsion produced by the iniquity of the real world giving them the energy to complete their task. It is, on the contrary, from the real town of Bethlehem that Lezay-Marnésia draws inspiration, finding therein a clear model for the city of Saint-Pierre. Ultimately focusing on reality rather than fiction, Lezay-Marnésia’s vision tends to diverge from classic utopian scenarios.
The importance given to the prosperity of the inhabitants of Saint-Pierre–one must be rich in order to shower the wider community with one’s munificence –marks another break between Lezay-Marnésia’s project and the utopian tradition. In Thomas More’s Utopia, as in his successor Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, we find a form of small-c communism that determines citizens’ relations to one another, the mode of production of agricultural and manufactured goods, and their modalities of exchange. From this perspective, the two texts envisage societies in which money and private property are abolished. For More as for Campanella, the abolition of private property is a return to the teaching of Jesus Christ—the two writers lean toward what Edward L. Surtz has called a form of “Christian Communism”:
[…] there is an underlying consistency in the attitude toward Christian Communism in Hythloday's views as propounded in Utopia […]. God originally intended communism to be the social system best suited for human beings. Fallen man, however, divided up possessions hitherto held in common, and introduced the right of private property.
Thus, the abolition of private property that More demands is less a striking break with the practices of his time and more a call to return to the common ownership of goods originally established by God. This same return is called for by Campanella in The City of the Sun, which defends common ownership in terms of its reducing the selfishness of individuals in favor of the general interest. Far from wishing to abolish private property in Ohio, however, Lezay-Marnésia counted on being able to entice his compatriots with the promise of vast tracts of land. The emphasis Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio places upon the economic role of agriculture closely reflects the principles propounded by the Physiocrats, who were a major influence on the liberal aristocracy of the eighteenth century. All the while demonstrating that physiocratic thought was not simply an economic theory but also encompassed philosophical, epistemological and esthetic dimensions , Liana Vardi reminds us that one of the cornerstones of physiocratic doctrine was the belief that “agriculture alone is capable of creating sustainable wealth.” In line with this theory – which he had already defended in Happiness in the Countryside – Lezay-Marnésia envisaged farms of over fifteen hundred acres whose cultivation would not only support whole families but also bring them a large surplus to be sold both in Saint-Pierre and further afield. Thus, Lezay-Marnésia uses the appetite for gain to encourage emigration to America, breaking with the monastic inspiration of the founding texts of the utopian tradition and viewing the land as the primary source of the wealth of nations (as the Physiocrats did). Indeed, he evokes the “ever-renewing riches” that Saint-Pierre would generate year after year, and which he intends to be used for the improvement of infrastructure and the means of production, thereby promoting a capitalist economy of exponential gains. This system could not be further from the economic system advocated by More where gold is degraded in the eyes of the citizenry in order to destroy its capacity to serve as an exchange value.
The future economic growth of Saint-Pierre is to be accompanied by a territorial expansionism. Both aim for the potentially exponential development that marks, above all other elements, the extent to which Lezay-Marnésia’s dream city departs from the utopian model that he otherwise seems to favor. Unlike his predecessors, he makes no attempt to imagine the means by which Saint-Pierre might remain true to its idealistic conception and stay in the sort of perpetual present characteristic of utopias (at once safeguarding them from exterior interferences and interior changes that might upset the perfect balance of their political system and social contract). On the contrary, Lezay-Marnésia envisions certain changes as being inevitable, notably population growth, which he seems little concerned with regulating. The problem he is most concerned with addressing is the contradiction between the principle according to which a city can only be happy with a limited number of inhabitants and that which dictates the inevitable growth of a prosperous population. It is in the proliferation of modest-sized cities that Lezay-Marnésia finds the solution to the problem:
When the mother hive becomes over populated, it sends its swarms out to create new hives. Thus, when your colony has grown sufficiently, it will hasten to found others, to give itself daughters, emulators, and friends. It will endow them with the lands that it will constantly acquire and will enrich them with its principles and its example.
Lezay-Marnésia goes on to flesh out the idea of this thriving empire spreading throughout the United States. The many cities originating from Saint-Pierre will develop complementary economic activities and do business both together and with the rest of the United States; each year, they will send deputies to a meeting in order to keep alive the bond of fraternity resulting from their shared origins. By imagining a growing network of cities, Lezay-Marnésia breaks with the tradition of closure and secrecy that characterizes utopias. Far from attaining enduring perfection, Saint-Pierre will have to keep creating more cities in order to preserve the happiness of its inhabitants, a project the American government would have certainly considered with a hostility Lezay-Marnésia does not take into consideration. The colony of Asylum, conceived by Frenchmen and also located in Pennsylvania, could be considered a relative success because, rather than forming a fixed population base, it effectively allowed émigrés to weather out the revolutionary storm in its confines. For Lezay-Marnésia, however, Saint-Pierre would be the mother city of an “empire of the Ohio” that he sees in his mind’s eye spreading across an American territory that, being scarcely charted prior to Lewis and Clark’s expedition (1804-1806), still lent itself to imaginary land grabs, the possibility of projecting utopian constructions onto the background of terra incognita. In the end, it is the extravagant ambition of Lezay-Marnésia’s colonial project that undermines its concrete realization and confines it to paper and ink.
Castles in Words
Lezay-Marnésia regularly betrays his worries for the future of Saint-Pierre through certain stylistic details of which the paradoxical usage of the future indicative is a notable example. Of course, it is appropriate that he choses this tense since the second of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio describes a project that he has yet to bring to fruition. Being an indicative tense, the future conveys the idea that there is no doubt about Saint-Pierre’s upcoming construction. Nevertheless, in several instances the future tense loses its modal value of certitude and becomes a “prophetic future,” a future evoking a scenario surrounded by a considerable degree of uncertainty, as is notably the case in the following passage:
Ah, Sir! I can see it because I have known it, because I still take pleasure in it; I see this moment when each family will take possession of the parcel of land that is bestowed upon it. A fervent admiration, a sort of ecstasy will be the initial feeling of its members. It will be as if their imagination is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the spectacle; the novelty, the majesty, the immensity, and the tranquility; but the tranquility will soon be replaced by movement and activity. The ax will strike and fell the enormous aged children of the earth. Their branches will be devoured by flames; their trunks piled one on another will form walls, and an impenetrable shelter will soon be ready.
The tone will be familiar to readers of the Bible, where the future tense is often used to make phrophesies. In Lezay-Marnésia’s text, it is the association between the future tense, abstract vocabulary, grandiose ideas and metaphors that leads to a shift in meaning: the author shows us an archetypal family experiencing an ecstasy only possible upon arrival in the promised land. By adopting the posture of an oracle, unfortunately, Lezay-Marnésia leads the reader to understand that Saint-Pierre is another beautiful but misleading vision. However, as unreal as it may be, it plays a therapeutic role for the author, who frequently interrupts the recounting of his plans to comment on his state of mind at the time of writing:
When the whole face of the earth is battered by dreadful storm winds, the idea of your republic gives me repose, consoles me, and charms me; it grips me, and I caress it lovingly. I am like a passenger surrounded by dangers in a furious sea, threatened by lightening, terrified by waves, who discovers, by the bright, fleeting, sinister light of the flashes, one of the Islands of the Blessed.
Comparing Saint-Pierre to the Islands of the Blessed, Lezay-Marnésia contradicts the letter’s primary argument. In Greek mythology, these islands of the underworld are reserved for the souls of the virtuous after death. While Lezay-Marnésia claims to believe that Saint-Pierre embodies the possibility of happiness in the world of the living, he confesses, in one of the unguarded moments that punctuate his letter, that the colony represents only the hope of finding joy after death, a promise of future happiness that allows him, not without grimacing, to bear his present misfortunes. The conclusion of the text indicates the therapeutic nature of his writing, of which Lezay-Marnésia himself is the primary readership, admitting that he has never in fact met the famous Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to whom he writes. The length of the missive (approximately two thirds of the volume) is further proof that writing provided a temporary haven for the author, a way to forget momentarily the difficulties he was encountering in America. Saint-Pierre will never exist in Pennsylvania but rather forever remain a beautiful castle in the realm of words.
Indeed, condemned by the excess of its creator’s ambitions, Saint-Pierre’s only existence is between the covers of Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio. Its pages like the ground where the author wanted to build walls, the words and the sentences akin to the forests and the swamps he would have needed to master, the literary work is a toil as arduous and painful as the one a settler had to endure to make civilization flourish in the American wilderness. A rigourous architect, a moralist, a philosopher, a legislator as well as a dynamic businessman, Lezay-Marnésia rules like a sort of demiurge over every aspect of the city and creates a complete world with utmost care. This attention to detail also appears in the literary work itself—the city is made of words chosen with attention, built with sentences the author crafts precisely:
We will begin to enjoy, from the first year, an affluence well beyond these hopes. Beneath these modest roofs, where we shall lack none of the essentials, peace will reign and with it the good cheer that is its inseparable companion. The calm, close-knit life of the Swiss, their interesting, easy activities, their open and honest manners in a climate far better than the one they left, on a far more fertile soil, in the midst of all the riches of nature, will endow your settlers with the imaginary bliss of Tempe in the American forests.
The dual ternary rhythms of this last sentence in perfect unison, a promise of happiness springs forth one last time, even more evocative for being alluded to and then held back until the end. It displays at a microscopic level the rigor and the harmony of the city Lezay-Marnésia wished to create, and transposes the care he would have taken of the real city to his literary construction. It also brings together the major themes of the letter as a whole, merging the recollection of Clarens (manifested by the reference to the Swiss), the memory of the Golden Age (the allusion to Tempe), and America, conceived as the place where this ideal fusion will at last be possible. Lezay-Marnésia’s careful construction of a literary cosmos compensating the failure of his colonial project shifts the status of the text from that which it espouses at the outset. The letter to Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is not a mere plea for help, readable only as a historical document that lies outside the ambit of literature. It becomes a work of art that required all the culture and the craft of a true writer to reach accomplishment. Having only the liberty to build castles in the air, Lezay-Marnésia shapes a magnificent world—a textual Saint-Pierre
In Archeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argues that utopias are collages of heterogeneous ideas and observations that ultimately contradict one another, and as such they cannot envision a society radically different from the one we know. In that light, Saint-Pierre’s main interest for us today is not so much that it proposes a novel form of political organization but rather the manner in which it weaves together ideology and the vestiges of a cultural imaginary, notwithstanding the complete failure of the uneasy alliance of these elements. But in book form they are preserved for posterity, waiting to be rediscovered by we archeologists, twenty-first-century readers confronted with this forgotten work. Saint-Pierre manifests Lezay-Marnésia’s nostalgia, one shared by a number of his compatriots, for the time when France’s presence in North America constituted a vast empire “[…] extending from Labrador to the Floridas and from the shores of the Atlantic to the most remote lakes of Upper Canada”; Saint-Pierre reminds us that the time was when trans-Appalachia was synonymous with a state of nature from whence civilization might begin again along rational lines. The project also casts light on the deep-rooted stereotypes about native Americans that existed in late eighteenth-century colonial discourse. But perhaps above all, Saint-Pierre marks the chimerical recreation on American soil of a France that was already lost, a France whose values, political system and religious beliefs had been swept away in 1789 by revolutionaries who dreamed of giving shape to their own vision of utopia.
Its contribution to the utopian genre aside, why is rediscovering Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio significant for us today? For one, it constitutes the missing link in an evolution that has seen a complete reversal in what “America” means in French thought: “[…] America has moved from representing a pastoral Arcadia and Europe’s past to symbolizing Europe’s future and the land of incessant change, mobility, impersonality, and progress – in short, the apotheosis of modern society” as Aurelian Craiutu and Jeffrey C. Isaac observe. In his travel writing, Lezay-Marnésia bridges these two different interpretations of America. On the one hand, he describes a rural idyll according to the “pastoral” mode of New World representation. On the other hand, Lezay-Marnésia portrays a violent, volatile, avaricious population in terms that make his writing a forerunner to the most trenchant critiques of modern America, those which, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, cast the New World in unflattering contrast to the Old: “[…] American cities were ugly and its people uncivilized; there was no intellectual and artistic culture to speak of; the dollar alone was what mattered; capitalism and capitalists in America were particularly brutal; political institutions were corrupt and its politicians venal.” In Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio, these successive interpretations of America coexist, corresponding to the depiction of the land and the people respectively. Lezay-Marnésia reserves his enthusiasm for the “happy shores” whose “prodigious” fertility might allow for the rebirth of the shepherds of “Theocritus and Virgil.” Meanwhile, he aims him criticism at the Americans themselves, a “fickle”, “lazy” people, “subject to boredom”, “always anxious”, and unable to “resist the appeal of money.” Lezay-Marnésia makes a clever distinction between the land and the people that had claimed it, contrasting an idealized image of the American Indians’ virtuousness to the barbarity of the colonists who had made their home west of the Appalachians. Thus, Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio does more than simply bring attention to a potential French colonial project in the Western United States — it also represents a turning point in the progressive reinterpretation of the idea of America, the marked tarnishing of America’s image in the decades following the French Revolution.
Not only does Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio navigate between the two conceptual poles identified by Craitutu and Isaac, it also occupies a place between the two great works that interpreted America for the French before and after 1789: Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Crèvecœur does not place political analysis at the center of his project but rather recreates America “through the mirror of memory”, to borrow Bernard Chevignard’s felicitous expression , in a polyphonic text where fiction rubs up against autobiography, the compiling of anecdotes and the practice of allegory. An explicit commentary on American society and its political institutions, Democracy in America is quite the opposite of Crèvecœur. Tocqueville neither gives an account of the travels on which his observations were based nor makes a fiction of them, leaving novelistic practice to Gustave de Beaumont and reserving travel writing for two texts that would be published posthumously . Brief and consecrated to the Scioto expedition and its disastrous aftermath, Lezay-Marnésia’s Letters may not possess the richness of Crèvecœur’s, which rival the progressive expansion of the American nation in their three successive volumes in French. Nor do they come close to the depth of analysis or near prophetical power of Tocqueville’s work. Nevertheless, Lezay-Marnésia demonstrates a talent comparable to that of his compatriots in the two genres they respectively came to epitomize. An epigone of Crèvecœur, with whom he shares a taste for effusive sentimentality and a propensity toward bursts of lyricism, Lezay-Marnésia is anxious, like Tocqueville, about the political development of the United States. Thus he occupies a place in a long line of commentators (Chateaubriand would follow in his footsteps, along with a number of less illustrious writers, such as Victor Jacquemont, Michel Chevalier, Jean-Jacques Ampère and Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne ) who question the viability of the American Republic and the possible reconfigurations of a Union divided by slavery and confronted with the problems thrown up by its own territorial expansion. One might wager that it is the hybrid, indeterminate genre of Lezay-Marnésia’s letters – at once a historical document, an epistolary novel, a travel journal, and a reflection on the early days of the American Republic – that best ensures their interest for twenty-first-century readers. Aficionados of American history, specialists of the French Revolution and scholars of travel literature, just as much as admirers of Rousseau and lovers of utopian fiction, will all find enjoyment and illumination in rediscovering Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio today.
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