French relations with women in America
Newport, Rhode Island, played an important part in the American Revolution by housing military personnel who arrived from France to help the Americans. Excerpts from three journals, kept by Jean Francois Louis Clermont-Crèvecœur, comte de; Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, and Louis Alexandre Berthier, provide material for this second post on Newport, Rhode Island and American women. To read Part 1, click on The French Military in America During The American Revolution: Pt. 1.
In 1780 women in America were very pale and seemingly frail. The men were “tall and well-built,” although some were big, fat and lacked vigor.
This was according to diarist Jean Francois Louis Clermont-Crevecœur, one three French military officers in M. le Comte de Rochambeau’s army who kept journals which extensively described their observations and thoughts about Revolutionary America. The army spent the winter of 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island. Along with the other two diarists, Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger and Louis Alexandre Berthier, Clermont-Crevecoeur recorded his keen observations about Americans and their dating/marriage habits. Observations from two other diarists, Prince de Broglie (in 1782) and Comte de Segure, add to the word picture painted by Clermont-Crevecoeur, Verger and Berthier.
Americans had a lifespan of sixty years, Clermont-Crevecoeur wrote. Some rare residents lived to be seventy, and occasionally even eighty, “…but it is exceedingly uncommon for them to reach that age. I knew one man who was ninety and still rode horseback with ease, was possessed of all his faculties, and enjoyed perfect health.” However, most American men “look as though they had grown while convalescing from an illness,”
The French journal-keepers recorded apt descriptions about Newport and/or American women. Clermont-Crevecoeur wrote that he must admit “that nowhere have I seen a more beautiful strain.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the women had little color, nothing could “compare with the whiteness and texture of their skin.” They also had “charming figures, and in general one can say they are all pretty, even beautiful, in the regularity of their features and in what one can imagine to be a woman’s loveliest attribute.”
Several of the names listed in Verger’s journal described particular belles whom the French greatly admired, including Mr. Champlin’s daughter. He was known for his wealth, “but even more so in our army for the lovely face of his daughter…,” who, when she appeared in the parlor, was examined “with attention, which was to treat her handsomely…” The French men observed that “she had beautiful eyes and an agreeable mouth, a lovely complexion, a fine figure, a pretty foot, and the general effect was altogether attractive.”
One Miss Brinley, “…and some other ladies to whom I was introduced,” convinced Broglie “that Newport possessed more than one rosebud.”
Broglie recorded his impressions of a Quakeress named Polly Lawton, whom various Frenchmen elaborately praised as goddess of grace and beauty, a “a nymph rather than a woman,” Venus, Minerva and the Holy Virgin. “Her favorite pastime seems to have been chiding the French officers on their immoral profession,” Broglie wrote. “Her costume…had the effect of giving to Polly the air of a Holy Virgin. I confess that this seductive Lawton appeared to me as the chef d’aeuvre of nature.”
de Segure furthers Lawton’s description: “Her eyes seemed to reflect, as in a mirror, the meekness and purity of her mind and the goodness of her heart…Certain it is that, If I had not been married and happy, I should, whilst coming to defend the liberty of the Americans, have lost my own at the feet of Polly Leiton.”
Although the women were pale, “One must see them at a dance, where they acquire the color they do not have naturally,” wrote Clermont-Crevecoeur. “… then one is really struck with admiration.”
However, he continued, they “fall short in one very noticeable respect, and that is their frigid manner. Once off the floor, they lose much of their charm and show little vivacity and gaiety in your company.”
To prevent themselves from being bored, the Frenchmen had to “assume the burden of conversation, animating it with your French gaiety…It is very difficult to make such an effort, especially when you do not know English.”
Yet, Clermont-Crevecoeur noted, after “these beauties get to know us, and when they deign to let us look at them, we find them absolutely ravishing.”
Since the French so much admired American women, it would be easy to assume their parents would protect them from the foreigners. Not so, according to Berthier.
“People here cannot believe that a man would think of seducing a girl, so the latter are allowed an extraordinary amount of freedom. Their parents often leave them alone with young men. They kiss one another quite casually. The girls seek only to please and to use their freedom in associating with men to make a good choice, on which their future happiness depends.”
Berthier continued. “All the young ladies were allowed the same freedom with us. This we did not hesitate to attribute to our own charm. We were delighted to find the road ahead apparently so easy. Well, we were very foolish and were much embarrassed to find ourselves suddenly confronted with an insurmountable barrier.”
The only way some French military men might succeed in crossing the barrier, he wrote, was “by the vile means of false promises, a form of seduction unknown here before our arrival.”
Berthier explained that “When young people fall in love, they inform their parents. From that moment on they are constantly together. “They even spend half the night in conversation after their parents have gone to bed without taking the slightest advantage of this liberty, which is regarded as a sacred trust, by doing anything wrong. In Connecticut it is even the custom for two lovers to lie down together on a bed for several hours during the day, or more often during the evening, during which they talk of their future happiness. (This is called ‘bundling.’) I have entered several rooms where I have found them thus engaged and where, without stirring, they continued to express their affection for one another with the utmost propriety.”
Once a young lady married she became “as discreet as she had beforehand been free in her ways and anxious to please… As a wife she belongs entirely to her husband and is subservient to his wishes, spending all her time in caring for his household, his children, and doing everything to make them happy.”
Among the Frenchmen, there were no “instances of seduction” with married women.
“You have to admit, my dear friend, that things are different in France, but…”
SOURCE: The journals, translated and edited by Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S. K. Brown, are published in their book The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Volume I, The Journals.