Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln’s America

Exactly one century and a half ago, a young Frenchman named Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne came to America in the waning months of the American Civil War.  Inspired by de Tocqueville, who was a close friend of Duvergier de Hauranne’s father -- himself a historian and political figure – the twenty-two year old Frenchman traveled further and probed deeper than most foreign observers of the United States ever do. 

Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne
Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne’s account of his journey in 1864-65 first appeared in France in a series of articles for the Revue des Deux Mondes, one of the most prestigious journals of its day – and was then published in a two-volume set, Huit Mois en Amerique:  Lettres et Notes de Voyage.  Despite his youth, Duvergier de Hauranne’s observations on the American North and West – he was never able to travel behind the lines of the crumbling Confederacy – are mature beyond his years, his prose bright, sharp and engaging.  With his series, Duvergier de Hauranne established himself for French audiences as a leading expert on the United States.  His “Huit Mois” in America also made him a convinced believer in democratic republicanism and he emerged after his return as an ally of up-and-coming political leaders like Leon Gambetta and Georges Clemenceau.   Finally, his support for the abolitionist cause and his confidence that the United States would quickly recover from its traumatic Civil War had a significant effect on mid-century French views of America.

Duvergier de Hauranne’s premature death, in 1877, cut short what was by all accounts destined to be a life at the summit of French politics and letters.  Today’s reader will quickly forgive him for the handful of mistakes he makes along the way of his American narrative, as well as his occasional predictions about the Republic’s destiny that time has demonstrated were misplaced.   What is genuinely extraordinary, looking back at his account of his travels and conversations, is his evident understanding of so much that remains fundamental to U.S. politics and society, even to this day.  Very much in the spirit of his intellectual mentor, de Tocqueville.

I propose to follow Duvergier de Hauranne, step by step – so to speak -- this month and next, as he visits Washington, D.C. – including in an interview with Lincoln at the White House -- and tours the battle lines before Richmond and Petersburg.  I will be drawing both from the original French edition and an excellent English translation published in the nineteen seventies by the Lakeside Press.  In light of the murderous attack in Paris against the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, it is also a useful reminder of just how closely connected French and Americans have been, not just today or yesterday, but throughout the past two and a half centuries.

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