The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview
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The French Revolution
in America

How Two Peoples Have Viewed Each Other

The two national civilizations of Western Europe with which Americans have had most to do in the course of their history are those of Great Britain and France. But between these two sets of connections there has been a vast disparity. In their character, quality, and substance the Anglo-American and the Franco-American understandings could hardly be more different.

In the case of our relations with the French, unlike those with the English, there has somehow been nothing very cumulative. One finds strikingly little in the way of interpenetration and growth, even down to the present time. Thus a modern writer can still complain of "mutual ignorance," and urge that "each society do better in educating its citizens about the other"--a sentiment no less appropriate, or no more, than at any time during the preceding two hundred years. 1

Past experience in this respect has been full of extravagant contradictions. The most perceptive book ever written by a foreigner about America was the work of a Frenchman. But in spite of Tocqueville, it is hard to think of one major society more consistently misinformed or uninformed about another -- or subject to wilder misconceptions -- than France about the United States. True, our only non-American national hero has been the Marquis de Lafayette, and our most conspicuous national monument -- the Statue of Liberty -- was the gift of the people of France, the funds for it having been raised by popular subscription. But while there have been periods of mutual enthusiasm -- indeed, of the most passionate attachment -- these have been fitful and intermittent, and generally followed by disenchantment. The more normal state has been one of suspicion, even antipathy; more normal still have been long periods of unconcern and a "mutual ignorance" that had the look, at times, of being almost actively pursued. 2 In earlier times a fair number of Frenchmen were transfixed, at a distance, by the vision of America as a kind of Arcadia. The reality of what they found, in the event of an actual visit, was oftener than not appalling. "In fact," wrote a reviewer of travel


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