That's one of the most profound philosophical questions in this history. How was it that this Age of Enlightenment, that gave us ideas of democracy and republicanism and liberty, was also the age when slavery was at its peak?
Noailles' life seems to embody these contradictions and paradoxes. He was involved in some of the noblest experiments in politics and in some of the most horrific acts of the century.
In France, they [Noailles and the other French refugees] pulled down the basis of their own wealth and fortune. But they couldn't even understand the struggle of Haitian slaves as a political struggle, as a struggle for freedom. To them, this was about sheer, meaningless violence being committed by bandits and cannibals.
I don't know how to explain it.
Was there ever a moment when the U.S. could have swung permanently toward France instead of Great Britain? Or was England realistically always going to end up as our closest ally given our history and common language?
Politically, there was a sort of forgotten moment when the United States was so closely allied to France, and when popular opinion is so warm toward France and hostile toward Britain. But I guess I don't think it could have lasted.
Economically, there was a much better fit between Great Britain and the U.S. France was a powerhouse in the luxury trade, things like silk, wine, high-end furniture that weren't very useful in the United States. What Americans wanted was cheap manufactured goods, and what we could export were raw materials like wheat and lumber.
Ultimately, it probably was overwhelmingly likely that the United States and Great Britain would return to their old, neo-colonialist relationship.
As a Baltimorean, I was horrified, shocked and appalled that a book that talks at length about the socialite and Francophile Anne Bingham didn't even mention our own Betsy Bonaparte, who wed Napoleon's brother.
The book kept ballooning on me. I had to make painful decisions to keep the book from becoming completely incoherent. I ended up making the book very Philadelphia-centric and trying to focus it around these five figures who lived there. I don't think Betsy Bonaparte had much of a Philadelphia connection.
About the book
"When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation" will be published July 10 by Penguin Press. $36, 498 pages.
If you go
Johns Hopkins University professor Francois Furstenberg will read from his new book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Call 410-377-2966 or go to theivybookshop.com.