Chateaubriand's memoirs, VI, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book VI - Chapter 7
Philadelphia – General Washington

London, April to September 1822.

Baltimore, like all the other capitals of the United States, did not then possess its present extent: it was a pretty little Catholic town, ordered and lively, whose social mores bore a close resemblance to those of Europe. I paid the captain my passage-money, and gave him a farewell dinner. I booked my seat in a stage-coach which made the journey to Pennsylvania three times a week. At four in the morning I climbed in, and found myself rolling along the highways of the New World.

The route we followed, more marked out than made, crossed fairly flat country: there were hardly any trees, few farms, and scattered villages, the climate being French, with swallows flying over the water as they did over the pond at Combourg.

Near Philadelphia, we met farm-workers going to market, and public and private carriages. Philadelphia struck me as a fine town, with wide streets, some planted with trees, intersecting at right-angles in a regular pattern, north-south, and east-west. The Delaware River runs parallel to the street which follows its west bank. This river would be regarded as considerable in Europe: in America they barely mention it; its banks are low, and not picturesque.

At the time of my journey in 1791, Philadelphia had not yet been extended as far as the SchuylkillRiver; the ground, in the direction of that tributary, was divided into lots, on which houses were being built here and there.

Philadelphia’s appearance is monotonous. In general, what are lacking in the Protestant cities of the United States are great works of architecture: the Reformation, young in years, sacrificing nothing to the imagination, has rarely erected those domes, airy naves, and twin spires with which the Catholic religion has garlanded Europe. Not one monument in Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, soars above the mass of roofs and walls: the eye is saddened by this uniform level.

First putting up at an inn, I later took a room in a boarding-house where San Domingo planters, and Frenchmen who had emigrated, possessing other ideas than mine, lodged. A land of liberty offered asylum to those fleeing from liberty: nothing proves the high worth of generous institutions more than this voluntary exile of the supporters of absolute power to a pure democracy.

Anyone, arriving like myself in the United States, full of enthusiasm for the people of classical times, a Cato, seeking everywhere the severity of early Roman life, was bound to be shocked by the luxurious carriages, the frivolous conversation, the inequality of wealth, the immorality of the banks and gaming houses, and the noisy ballrooms and theatres. In Philadelphia I could easily have thought myself in Liverpool or Bristol. The people there were attractive: the Quaker girls with their grey dresses, their uniform little bonnets, and their pale faces, looked lovely.

At that stage of my life, I had a great admiration for Republics, though I did not consider them achievable in the era we had reached: I thought of liberty after the manner of the ancients, or liberty as the daughter of the methods of a new-born society; but I knew nothing of liberty as the child of enlightenment and an old civilisation, liberty which the representative republic has shown to be a reality: God grant it my prove durable! It is no longer necessary to plough one’s own small field, to curse the arts and sciences, or to have pointed nails and a dirty beard to be free.

When I arrived in Philadelphia, General Washington was not available; I was obliged to wait a week to see him. I saw him go by in a carriage drawn by prancing horses, driven four-in-hand. Washington, according to my ideas at the time, was of course Cincinnatus; Cincinnatus in a chariot, clashed a little with my Republic of the Roman year 296. Should the dictator Washington be other than a rustic, prodding his oxen with a goad, while grasping the handle of his plough? But when I went to him with my letter of recommendation, I re-discovered the simplicity of the ancient Romans.

A small house, resembling the neighbouring houses, was the palace of the President of the United States: no sentries, not even any footmen. I knocked; a young maidservant opened the door. I asked her if the General was at home; she told me he was. I replied that I had a letter to deliver to him. The maid asked my name, which is difficult to pronounce in English, and which she could not master. Then she said softly: ‘Walk in, sir,’ and led the way along one of those narrow corridors which serve as entrance-halls in English houses: she showed me into a parlour where she asked me to wait for the General.

I was not greatly moved: greatness of soul or fortune do not impress me; I admire the former without being overawed; the latter fills me more with pity than respect: no man’s face will ever disturb me.

After a few minutes, the General entered: tall in stature, with a calm, cool air rather than one of nobility, he looked like his portraits. I handed him my letter in silence; he opened it, going straight to the signature which he read aloud, exclaiming: ‘Colonel Armand!’ This was the name he knew him by, and with which the Marquis de la Rouërie had signed the letter.

We were seated. I explained to him as best I could the motive for my journey. He replied in monosyllables in English and French, and listened to me with a kind of astonishment; I noticed this, and said to him with a degree of vivacity: ‘But it is less difficult to discover the North-West passage than to create a nation as you have done.’ – ‘Well, well, young man!’ he exclaimed, giving me his hand. He invited me to dinner on the following day, and we parted.

I took good care to be there. We were only five or six guests. The conversation turned to the French Revolution. The General showed us a key from the Bastille. These keys, as I have already remarked, were foolish toys which were widely distributed. Three years later, the exporters of locksmiths’ wares could have sent the President of the United States the bolt from the prison of that monarch who gave France and America liberty. If Washington had seen the conquerors of the Bastille in the gutters of Paris, he would have had less respect for his relic. The seriousness and force of the Revolution did not derive from its bloody orgies. At the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, the same populace from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, demolished the Protestant church at Charenton, with the same zeal with which they devastated the church of Saint-Denis in 1793.

I left my host at ten in the evening, and never met him again; he departed the next day, and I continued my travels.

Such was my meeting with the soldier-citizen, the liberator of the world. Washington descended into his grave before even a little fame attached itself to my footsteps; I came before him as the most insignificant of beings; he was in all his glory, I in all my obscurity; my name may not even have lingered a day in his memory: though I am happy that his gaze should have rested on me! I have felt warmed by it for the rest of my life: there is a virtue in the gaze of a great man.