Author: derekkaneoleary

Hugh Swinton Legare and the transatlantic letters of US diplomacy

 by Derek O’Leary

Image 1 Hugh Swinton LegareHugo Swinton Legare engraved by  T. Doney, c.1830-1850.

From the Brussels diary of Hugh Swinton Legare (1797-1843), while US chargé d’affaires there:

24th May [1832]: Nothing remarkable; stretched off on a sofa today in the salle-à-manger, while my valet-de-chambre reads to me the preface to Erminier’s Philosophy of Law; and a soothing air breathing all the sweets of my little garden, and whispering in my ear where he stole them. I determined to let my friends in America know how well I am learning to do without them, and to paint in the most glowing colors the charms of the elegant epicurean existence I am leading here. (Mary Legare, ed., Writings of Hugh Swinton Legare (Charleston, S.C.: Burges and James, 1846)

Legare regularly griped that his diplomat’s salary couldn’t sustain life in Brussels, capital of Europe’s newest state when he arrived in 1832. He had left a somewhat comfortable existence as South Carolina’s attorney general and editor of his Southern Review (1828-32), a short-lived but unabashedly literary journal based in his native Charleston, which showcased his expertise in the Classics. Later that year, he fumed privately about his $500 yearly discretionary fund, “the niggardly, and, what is worse, (I suppose,) narrow-minded and foolish policy of thus attempting to circumscribe contingency, and reduce their diplomatic representative to the condition of a broker’s out-door clerk!” (Diary, 22 August 1832). Legare kept this diary during the first of his three-year stint in Brussels, before returning to political life in the US, where before his early death he would assume a crucial role as US Attorney General in President Tyler’s unsettled administration. (Then, not as now, diplomatic postings were a reliable stepping stone to higher office; as Legare arrived in Brussels, future president Martin Van Buren was departing his ministership in London, and James Buchanan beginning his in Saint Petersburg.) He catalogs mornings of bookish leisure and evenings of opulent ennui among the titled, lettered, and moneyed elite of the capital.

 

Image 2 Anti-NullificationAnti-Nullification Lithograph by Endicott and Swett (1833) in New York Public Library Digital Collections. Before he departed for Brussels, Legare had ardently opposed the movement in South Carolina to “nullify” federal tariff legislation deemed disadvantageous for the state. His vocal opposition gained him favor with the Jackson administration, helped secure the posting in Brussels, and granted him a respite from that rancorous political crisis.

Legare’s grumble about paltry State Department support is a refrain that echoes from US consular and diplomatic posts throughout the Atlantic in the country’s first half-century. Consuls— unsalaried and numbering nearly 150 during Legare’s tenure—had long been expected to get by through their own, sometimes suspect, commercial endeavors (this would change only in 1856). As consulates burgeoned from the 1830s, they became outposts of the federal spoils system, eagerly sought by many, bestowing a scintilla of authority, but granting only a tenuous lifestyle. Diplomatic posts remained relatively underpaid, legacy of the early republic’s suspicion of the value of “diplomatists” and their relevance for US geopolitical interests.

EngravingEngraving from Lieutenant Colonel Batty’s Select Views of the Principal Cities of Europe (1832), overlooking the avenues across from the Royal Palace, a social corridor for Legare.

Yet given Legare’s salary of $4500, the light duties imposed by his office, and his well-heeled company, we might be unimpressed by his complaint. As he mines the city’s cultural resources, learns German, and flirts with European aristocrats, his diary is indeed a catalog of disaffection: he finds constant fault with his domestic servants, whom he accuses of dereliction and theft; he grows tired of the physical and social climate; he complains about import duties on his wine and hosts’ poor choices of Chinaware and weak Belgian oratory, and he positively bristles at the slightest imputation against the United States and ongoing Nullification crisis in South Carolina. He skirts Frances Trollope—“the Trollope”— like a blight during her visit to Brussels, following the publication of her excoriating Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832). Perusing his diary and personal correspondence, one does suspect a pervasive depression–recurrent “blue devils,” he names them. In a broader sense, though, this is all a recognizable performance of expatriation. At a moment of teeming national confidence, European travel became available to far more Americans, and with it a fairly narrow traveler’s script. Along these lines, Legare consumes the language, literature, and prestige of Europe at the same time that he asserts his distinctiveness from it; he suffers his solitude abroad while vaunting the experience to his American correspondents. As a highly learned South Carolinian doubly diminished vis-à-vis New England literary culture and Europe, the new, fragile Belgian state provided an especially welcome foil for his lifelong exercise in literary regionalism and nationalism.

Image 3 Wappers_belgian_revolutionÉpisode des journées de septembre 1830, Gustave Wappers (1834). Legare was the first US diplomat to Belgium, once the dust settled from its rupture with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Legare ushered forward the first commercial treaty between the US and Belgium.

But rather than just another elite wanderer or beneficiary of the ballooning federal spoils system, Legare allows us an insight into a different type of diplomatic and consular history, which can both add more depth to that field of study and suggest a broader, more complex context for understanding American literature during this period.

Legare’s account of an evening’s exchange with Lieut. Col. Jeffreys, a West Indian planter, is suggestive of the multiple roles performed by diplomats and consuls. It was months before Britain’s 1833 abolition of slavery in the islands, and dreading a post-emancipation future in the Caribbean, Jeffreys planned to immigrate to the US rather than Europe. Seeking “renseignemens,” he came to Legare, who records:

…he has no hope of Europe, and, as a West-Indian, very little feeling of amor patriae for England…besides his West-India cidevant property, he can scrape together £23 or £24,000, of which a good deal is in American stocks now. I lend him a number of the Southern Review, containing an article on Flint’s Valley of Mississippi…Advise him, by all means to go; that it is the only country which has an avenir, and the world might well be divided thus,—Europe for bachelors and their suite; America for family men and theirs. (Writings, 17-18)

Here we encounter the intersection of the geopolitical and literary, a recurrent phenomenon in many small moments of diplomatic and consular life. Two large themes deserve attention. The first is Legare’s promotion of American expansionism and stark dichotomy between the fates of the Old and New World, whatever his anxieties about the ongoing nullification crisis. Matthew Karp has recently depicted a new, compelling context to read this spare comment in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Harvard UP, 2016): despite popular narratives of southern opposition to federal power, in the antebellum decades Southerners wielded its foreign policy apparatus to bolster slave-based economies in the Western Hemisphere. Legare’s tenure preceded the focus of that story, and though a former slaveholder, he was hardly a missionary for its expansion. But in this rhetoric and his anxious efforts to make slow-churning Belgian administration ratify an advantageous bi-lateral trade deal, he certainly promoted an ambitious version of his country’s future dependent on slave labor.

More to my point, however, Legare furnishes a copy of his literary journal the Southern Review, which included an article on the Mississippi, where Jeffries could presumably reinvest his capital and continue his slave-based agriculture. It is a small gesture that links the US’ geopolitical aspirations, as it cleared the Southeast of its indigenous populations, with Legare’s literary labor, as he presented his Southern intellectual production to European critique. Legare’s time in Europe is interesting in itself because the exchange between Europe and Southern writers in this period has received far less attention than transatlantic relations with New Englanders. But Legare also represents the broader constellation of US diplomats and consuls who acted as cultural intermediaries with Europe, well before public diplomacy became an institutionalized practice. Like Legare, they frequently distributed US periodicals and literature to Europeans, circulated European writings among themselves, and forwarded them back to US audiences. Meanwhile, they acted as literary agents, expediting books and archival documents to writers in the US. For instance, as minister and consul to Madrid, respectively, Alexander Hill Everett and Obadiah Rich dispatched materials to Boston historian William Hickling Prescott, which would inform his colossal works on Spanish empire (including The History of the Reign Ferdinand and Isabella in 1837 and History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843). Meanwhile, consuls and diplomats helped to publish US books for European audiences, such as long-serving consul to London Thomas Aspinwall, who facilitated the publication of such works as Washington Irving’s biography of Christopher Columbus in 1828. Their reflections on life abroad were diffused in the US press and were crucial in elaborating US perceptions of an increasingly interconnected world, including James Fenimore Cooper’s series of European sketches, published in the 1830s following his (mostly absentee) consulship in Lyon.

Legare played his small part in this story, in which the inchoate foreign policy infrastructure of the state also served the literary projects of an expanding nation shaking off an ingrained sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Europe.

How Victory Day became Russia’s most important Holiday

by guest contributor Agnieszka Smelkowska

At first, Russian TV surprises and disappoints with its conventional appearance.  A mixture of entertainment and news competes for viewers’ attention, logos flash across the screen, and pundits shuffle their notes, ready to pounce on any topic. However, the tightly controlled news cycle, the flattering coverage of President Vladimir Putin, and a steady indignation over Ukrainian politics serve as reminders that not all is well. Reporters without Borders, an international watchdog that annually ranks 180 states according to its freedom of press index, this year assigned Russia to a dismal 148th position. While a number of independent print and digital outlets persevere, television has been largely brought under state control. And precisely because of these circumstances, television programming tends to reflect priorities and concerns of the current administration. When an ankle sprain turned me into a reluctant consumer of state programming for nearly three weeks, I realized that despite various social and economic challenges, the Russian government remains preoccupied with the Soviet victory in WWII.

Celebrated on May 9th, Victory Day—or Den Pobedy (День Победы) as it is known in

Ivan's Childhood

Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962)—the child protagonist encounters the reality of war.

Russia—marks the official capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945 and is traditionally celebrated with a military parade on the Red Square. During the few weeks preceding the holiday, parade rehearsals regularly shut down parts of Moscow while normal programming gives way to a tapestry of war-related films. The former adds another challenge to navigating the already traffic-heavy city; the latter, however, provides a welcome opportunity to experience some of the most distinguished works of Soviet cinematography. Soviet directors, many veterans themselves, resisted simplistic war narratives and instead focused on capturing human stories against the historical background of violence. Films like Mikhail Kalatozov’s Cranes are Flying (1957), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) or Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are widely recognized for their emotional depth, maturity and an uncompromising depiction of the consequences of war. Unfortunately, these Soviet classics share the silver screen with newer Russian productions in the form of Hollywood-style action flicks or heavy-handed propaganda pieces that barely graze the surface of the historical events they claim to depict.

The 2016 adaptation of the iconic Panfilovtsy story exemplifies the problematic handling of historical material. The movie is based on an article published in a war-time Soviet newspaper, which describes how a division of 28 soldiers under the command of Ivan Panfilov distinguished itself during the defense of Moscow in late 1941. The poorly armed soldiers who came from various Soviet Republics managed to disable eighteen German tanks but were all killed in the process. The 1948 investigation, prompted by an unexpected appearance by some of these allegedly dead heroes, exposed the story as a journalist exaggeration, designed to reassure and inspire the country with tales of bravery and an ultimate sacrifice. Classified, the report remained unknown until 2015 when Sergei Mironenko, at the time director of state archives, used its findings to push against the mythologization of Panfilov and his men, which he saw as a sign of increasing politicization of the past. His action provoked severe, public scolding from the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky that eventually cost Mironenko his job, while Panfilov’s 28 (2016) was shown during this year’s Victory Day celebration.

Panfilov's 28.jpeg

Panfilov’s 28 (2016): Soviet heroism in modern Russian cinematography.

Many western commentators have already noted the significance of Victory Day, including Neil MacFarquhar, who believes that President Putin intentionally turned it into the “most important holiday of the year.” The scale of celebration seems commensurate with this rhetorical status and provides an impressive background for a presidential address. The most recent parade consisted of approximately ten thousand soldiers and over a hundred military vehicles—from the T-34, the venerable Soviet tank to the recently-developed Tor missile system, which can perform in arctic conditions. Predictably the Russian coverage differs from that presented in the western media. The stress does not fall on the parade or President Putin’s speech alone but extends to the subsequent march of veterans and their descendants, emphasizing the continuation between past and present. The broadcast of the celebration, which can be watched anywhere between the adjacent to Poland Kaliningrad Oblast and Cape Dezhnev only fifty miles east of Alaska, draws a connection between Russia’s current might and the Soviet victory in the war. Yet May 9th did not always hold its current status and only gradually became the cornerstone of modern Russian identity.

While in 1945 Joseph Stalin insisted on celebrating the victory with a parade on the Red Square, the holiday itself failed to take root in the Soviet calendar as the country strived for normalcy. The new leader Nikita Khrushchev discontinued some of the most punitive policies associated with Stalinism and promised his people peace, progress, and prosperity. The war receded into the background as the Soviet Union put a man into space while attempting to put every family into its own apartment. Only after twenty years was the Victory Day officially reinstated by Leonid Brezhnev and observed with a moment of silence on state TV. Brezhnev also approved the creation of a new Moscow memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in the war—a sign that Soviet history had taken a more

Tomb of unknown soldier image copy

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Aleksandrovsky Sad, Moscow – Russia, 2013. (Photo credit: Ana Paula Hirama/flickr)

solemn turn. Known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Могила Неизвестного Солдата), a bronze sculpture of a soldier’s helmet resting on a war banner with a hammer and sickle finial pointing towards the viewer symbolizes the massive casualties of the Soviet Union, many of whom were never identified. Keeping an exact list of the dead was not always feasible as the Red Army fought the Wehrmacht forces for four years before taking Berlin in April of 1945. Historians estimate that the Soviet Union lost approximately twenty million citizens—the largest absolute (if not proportional) human loss of any state involved in WWII. For this reason, in Russia and many former Soviet republics the 1941-1945 war is properly known as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война).

The victory over Nazi Germany, earned with a remarkable national sacrifice, was a shining moment in otherwise troubled Soviet history and a logical choice for the Russian Federation, a successor state of the Soviet Union, to anchor its post-ideological identity. Yet the current Russian government, which carefully manages the celebration, cannot claim credit for the popularity that the day enjoys among regular people. Many Russian veterans welcome an opportunity to remember the victory and their descendants come out on their own volition to celebrate their grandparents’ generation. This popular participation has underpinned the holiday since 1945. Before Brezhnev’s intervention, veterans would congregate informally and quietly to celebrate the victory and commemorate their fallen comrades. Today, as this war-time generation is leaving the historical stage, their children and grandchildren march across Moscow carrying portraits of their loved ones who fought in the war, forming what is known as the Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк). And the marches are increasingly spilling into other locations—both in Russia and worldwide. This year these processions took place in over fifty countries with a significant Russian diaspora, including Western Europe and North America.

Immortal regiment photo

The Immortal Regiment in London, 2017. (Photo credit: Gerry Popplestone/flickr)

This very personal, emotional dimension of the Victory Day has been often overlooked in western coverage, which reduces the event to a sinister political theater and a manifestation of military strength.  The holiday is used to generate a new brand of modern Russian patriotism precisely because it already resonates with the Russian public. People march to uphold the memory of their relatives regardless of their feelings towards the current administration, views on the annexation of Crimea, or attitude towards NATO. Although this level of filial piety can be manipulated, my Russian friends seem to understand when the government tries to capitalize on these feelings. Mikhail, my Airbnb host, who belongs to the new Russian middle class, and who few years ago carried a portrait of his grandfather during the Victory Day celebration, remarked that the government attached itself like a “parasite” to the Immortal Regiment phenomenon because of its popularity. The recent clash over the veracity of the Panfilovtsy story also given many Russians a more nuanced understanding of their history even as some enjoyed the movie’s action sequences. Additionally, the 1948 investigative report that Mironenko had posted online, remains accessible on the website of the archive.
At the same time, many Russians are genuinely frustrated with what they perceive as the western ignorance of their elders’ sacrifices or what seems to them like the Ukrainian attempt to rewrite the script of the Victory Day. In this respect, they are inadvertently playing to their government’s line. This interaction between the political and the personal, family history and national narrative occurs in every society but in Russia seems particularly explicit because the fall of the Soviet Union shattered Soviet identity, creating an urgent need for a new one. While the current administration is eager to supply the new formula, based on my recent experience in Moscow, Russian citizens are still negotiating.

Agnieszka Smelkowska is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation about the German minority in Poland and the Soviet Union while attempting to execute a perfect Passata Sotto in her spare time.

Failure and Fantasy on the Banks of the Ohio

A Conversation with Benjamin Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of a new edition of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio by Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia (Pennsylvania State University Press, translated by Alan J. Singerman, 2017)

In 1790, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia left France to found a colony on the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio in the Northwest Territory. Yet by 1792, he had fled, his fortune squandered and his grandiose plans for an aristocratic utopia unrealized. This new edition of his letters, penned in 1790 and 1791, reveals a man purposefully, somewhat pathetically, imagining a pastoral idyll in the Old Northwest as the realities of the Ohio Country increasingly resisted his vision.Image 1 Book cover

His letters, as Benjamin Hoffmann explains, can be read as a bridge between two very
well-known French texts about North America: Crèvecœur’s 1789 Letters from an America Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Together, they trace a literary evolution of the United States in French thought from a clean slate of possibility to an uncivilized, capitalist, and deeply flawed republic.

What follows is part of my conversation with Hoffmann on the themes of Lezay-Marnésia as a tragic figure, fantasy and colonization, and competing imaginaries of the Ohio Valley.

 

Julia: What made you want to edit and re-publish this volume?

Benjamin: This project started in 2011, as I was undertaking my doctoral dissertation at Yale. Being French in the United States, I wanted to investigate the representations of America in French Literature during the eighteenth century. The problem I immediately encountered was the extreme abundance of materials: dozens of travel narratives were written by French people about North America during the age of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, they are not very artfully written, and they present at best a documentary interest. Consequently, while it was easy to find texts fitting in the category of “French representations of America written between 1700 and 1800”, few writers transformed their experience in the New World into a genuine work of art. The Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio struck me because they are an exception to this rule. First, they are the work of a mature writer, a man who was in his late fifties when he published them, after spending most of his adult life reading the work of fellow philosophers and building his own œuvre. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia was a talented polygraph, the author of philosophical essays, poems, short-stories, translations, even works on mineralogy. In 1790, when he traveled to the United States, he had already a long intellectual career behind him. Moreover, his Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio pursue a dialogue with Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, and Rousseau by making numerous references to their works and asking a question they all spent a great deal of time meditating: what makes a perfect society and how can you create one in the real world rather than just imagining it? This intellectual dialogue plays a major part in the literary and philosophical richness of Lezay-Marnésia’s volume, which is a late reinterpretation of some of the major preoccupations of the French enlightenment. A question immediately comes to mind after reading the story of Lezay-Marnésia’s emigration to the Northwest territory: his journey was a complete failure, a true disaster, he lost most of his fortune, two years of his life, and finally decided to go back to France at the most dangerous moment for an aristocrat, just before the terreur. And yet, despite all his hardships, Lezay-Marnésia keeps describing the Scioto region and western Pennsylvania as a true paradise, a sort of lost Eden he deeply regrets having left.

Julia: Why did French émigrés like Lezay-Marnésia choose the Northwest Territory instead of culturally “French” places in North America, like Spanish Louisiana or British Quebec?

Benjamin: Lezay-Marnésia and his compatriots chose the Northwest Territory based on false assumptions. The most important one was the assumption that it was an empty space. Indeed, we have to realize that the Northwest Territory had just been surveyed, and that very little was known about it in Europe. When Lezay-Marnésia bought lands in this region, he only knew what the Scioto Company told him about it, and most of the information he received turned out to be misleading at best, and at times completely dishonest. For example, the Scioto Company failed to mention the presence of Native American tribes in the region: in the several documents provided by the Scioto Company to its clients, Amerindians are not mentioned a single time, whereas they turned out to be the biggest challenge French settlers were going to meet in their attempt to create a colony. Consequently, the Scioto Company slyly conveyed the idea that the Northwest Territory was a clean slate where its clients would be able to organize themselves the way they wanted to, by adopting the rules and the social organization they desired. That was especially appealing for Lezay-Marnésia and his partners of the Society of the Twenty-Four, who thought an ideal French society could be realized in this isolated space: a society that would retain some of the basic structural elements of the Old Regime (especially, a strong hierarchical divide between social classes), while creating a new kind of social contract, based on philanthropy. That’s why the Scioto region had advantages over other potential spaces of emigration, such as Spanish Louisiana and British Quebec: it was more than just a space to temporarily settle and wait until the end of the Revolution before going back to France; it was seen as a permanent settlement, close enough to trade with the United States, but far away enough to create an independent society on a territory that was not yet an official part of the Union. Moreover, the land was quite affordable for French people, and a lot was for sale: if the least well-off buyers acquired only several acres, the richest ones bought thousands (Lezay-Marnésia acquired no less than twenty thousand acres!). Very astutely, the Scioto Company played with the fears of French people who were witnessing the first events of the Revolution, while offering them at an extremely competitive price a quantity of land none of them would have been able to buy in their homeland.

Image 2 Map

A map of the Federal Territory from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to the Scioto River, Manasseh Cutler, 1788. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. This 1788 map shows imagined townships and township subdivisions between the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where the Ohio Company had purchased pre-emption rights. Lezay-Marnésia and his associates in France bought parts of these pre-emption rights under the false impression that they were complete ownership rights.

Julia: Lezay-Marnésia’s vision for his Scioto colony is one in which hardworking settlers are “careful to include Indians among them” (69). His pointed insistence on their inclusion – based on an imagined racial hierarchy and an expectation that Native Americans would adopt European customs – strikes me as bittersweetly naïve, especially given the incredible violence between whites and Native Americans in the Ohio Country in this era. Do you read Lezay-Marnésia’s inclusion of Native Americans as a response to this cultural climate (however impractical), or does it just further betray his disconnection from reality on the ground?

Benjamin: I believe it betrays his disconnection from reality. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia knew very little about America before deciding to emigrate to the Scioto region, and the little he knew was taken from his reading of the Lettres d’un cultivateur américain by Saint-John de Crèvecœur, a work very much influenced by Rousseau, where Native American are depicted as “bons sauvages”, living in perfect harmony with white settlers. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the concepts of “noble savages” and “state of nature” on the writings of eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers such as Crèvecœur, Lezay-Marnésia, but also Brissot, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and so many others. Rousseau used these concepts as thought experiments, as theoretical artifacts, in order to imagine what happened before the creation of complex human societies. But these concepts became so wildly popular that they ceased to be used the way Rousseau intended to employ them: they were taken more and more literally, as if they were describing real people, living at a prelapsarian state that one could still witness outside Europe, something believed by Bougainville and other French explorers. Lezay-Marnésia is a striking example of these disciples of Rousseau who outlived their master and saw the world through the mediation of his works. What fascinates me is the fact he did not try to communicate this troubling experience of alterity, but insisted on representing Native Americans the way he imagined them when he was still in France. Traveling, in a way, was completely useless: in his case, it did not change who he was or what he thought he knew, he even had to forget about it to repeat what he would have said if he had stayed at home. I read this phenomenon as one of the many indications of the therapeutic nature of his literary work: representing things and people as you wish they were, instead of the way you know they are, is a way to come to terms with the almost unbearable disappointments you can experiment. It also proves the outstanding power of literature, that becomes a tool to create an alternative reality corresponding to your wishes and hopes. But when you drop the quill, you have to face reality: that’s why the third of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio is so long, because Lezay-Marnésia cannot bear to stop writing, which would break the spell, so he keeps describing these quite absurd (and at the same time, quite beautiful) scenes of rural banquets, where Native Americans, rich and poor settlers alike, all share a moment of common happiness, enjoying together the beauty of nature and the prosperity of their colony. Of course, this is a pure fantasy, where the point of view of the Amerindians is absolutely not taken into consideration. Lezay-Marnésia just assumes they will be kind and obedient subjects. But I think it’s an illusion he cultivated while he was writing, because it was just too hard for him to accept that he had spent nearly the totality of his once gigantic fortune, risked his life, left at home his wife and two of his children, and spent so much energy, before heading back to France, ruined and bitter. Consequently, this disconnection from reality is in a way self-induced: it’s not madness, or stupidity, it has more to do with finding a way to grieve a world he did not manage to create.

Julia: In addition to a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans had been exterminated, Lezay-Marnésia’s Ohio utopia made me think of the Native American prophets Neolin (Lenape), and later, Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), who also imagined a possible world in the Ohio Country, in which Native Americans would achieve a purified unity through their rejection of European culture and lifeways. Unlike Lezay-Marnésia’s, theirs were distinctively exclusive visions in which settlers and Native Americans could not and would not co-exist. What does it mean to consider Lezay-Marnésia’s utopian Aigle-Lys not just as part of a genre of French visions of the U.S., but as one of several competing imaginaries about the same place? His certainly co-existed in the Ohio Country with a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans have been exterminated, and a prophetic Native American vision in which whites have been expelled and their culture rejected. We might want to explain Lezay-Marnésia’s penchant for fantasy as a result of his being a distant émigré, but what if those much closer to the ground also saw Scioto as an imaginary space?

Benjamin: Not only can we read Lezay-Marnésia’s utopia as part of several competing imaginary appropriations of this land, but also as one of many competing geopolitical projects. Indeed, the vast territory where he wanted to build Aigle-Lys was coveted by several super-powers at the end of the eighteenth century. Great Britain still held several key military positions in the region; Native American tribes fought to keep the control on their ancestral lands, in particular the Miamis and the Shawnees; the American government was planning the westward expansion of the United States; even the French government had views on this place, since the Girondins aimed to create sister-republics in the region, sharing political and commercial interests with France. So, there was a fierce competition, not only of imaginaries as you observed, but also of power and political projects. To comment on this phenomenon, I would venture two possible explanations. The obvious one has to do with a sense of opportunity: the political status of this region was still uncertain, and to ambitious powers, it looked as a place free for the taking. Let’s not forget that France, just a few years later, when it got back Louisiana from Spain thanks to the treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), for a moment imagined to recreate its empire in North America. We know how things turned out – the purchase of Louisiana in 1801 definitely put an end to this dream – but for the contemporaries, there was still the sense that what we know would become part of the United States, could still belong to a European power. But there is another explanation that has to do with the specificity of the landscape, I think. This region, especially Ohio, is very flat: in a way, it is a sort of natural embodiment of the concept of the “clean slate”, a vast space, where anything is possible, where utopias can freely flourish. It has an idyllic aspect in many places, and, precisely, the comparison between the Ohio region and the garden of Eden was repeated by several French writers, including Crèvecœur and Lezay-Marnésia. It is as if the Ohio landscape was a kind of canvas where the boldest imaginations of the human mind could be projected while simultaneously leading to an association with very ancient fantasies, such as the dream of recreating the golden age. For Lezay-Marnésia, there was certainly no limit to what he thought possible: he imagined Aigle-Lys – even if he never articulates the political relation of this growing colony with the American government – as the center of a future empire, an empire he compares to a hive sending its swarms to colonize the almost boundless American space…

Image 3 Portrait.jpg

Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) 1768-1837, by Henry Inman (1801-1846), after Charles Bird King, c. 1830-1833. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Julia: By way of concluding, I’d like to push this final point on the inclusion of Native American visions of the Ohio Valley a bit further. As Gregory Dowd demonstrates so well in A Spirited Resistance, broadly accepted ideas for Native self-determination and resistance—often based in theories of separate creation between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—proliferated throughout the Old Northwest from the 1760s on ( Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1992): 309–350). Spiritual theories fused with political action in the form of, for example, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa’s 1806 invitation to all Indian peoples to join him in settling the town of Greenville, Ohio. This imagined community forms an intriguing counterpoint to Lezay-Marnésia’s own planned town (ibid., 312). In reading Dowd’s writing about Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh’s visions for the Ohio Country, I found that your characterization of it as a place that feels both ancient and full of potential possibility seems to fit very appropriately into what they hoped for and preached of. More generally, I’d also propose that including Native Americans as visionaries may allow a broader and more complex picture of these connections between fantasy, politics, and place to emerge. It frames Native Americans as more than reactive defenders of ancestral territories who didn’t have the power or luxury to transcend pragmatism.

The third competing imaginary for the Old Northwest during this era was, of course, the United States project of imposing the Public Lands Survey System grid. The Ohio Valley was the first place that the U.S. tried out this attempt at regular, linear township squares, and they often appeared on maps long before they appeared on the ground. Thus, the 1788 map of neatly delineated townships squares represented an imagined future, not a present reality.

In an important sense, all three projects—Lezay-Marnésia’s Aigle-Lys, Tenskwatawa’s Greenville, and the PLSS.—these were all imaginative projects involving an element of fantasy, but they also represented very real geo-political designs. Lezay-Marnésia’s might seem the most fantastical because it failed so spectacularly, but even though the United States project of imposing the PLSS succeeded didn’t make it necessarily less imaginary in its nascent stage. For Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, whose visions of the Old Northwest also met with failure, the power of fantasy and the reality of defending and protecting land were intimately intertwined. Can we ever draw clean conceptual lines between geopolitical contests and imaginative visions?

Julia Lewandoski is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation considers the impact of imperial transitions on indigenous landholding in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.