Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, a 19th century knight-errant
Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville, France’s ambassador to the United States from 1816 to 1822, was a staunch royalist with a heart of gold. A counter-revolutionary who was exiled by Napoleon, he became a doctor, a farmer, a diplomat and a politician who was generous to his opponents. His wife was a noted watercolourist who left many sketches of early 19th century America.
Jean-Guillaume (John William) Hyde de Neuville was born on January 24, 1776 at La Charité-sur-Noire in France, into a family of English immigrants. His grandfather, Sir James Hyde, was one of the Jacobites who followed the Stuarts into exile after the battle of Culloden in 1746. The de Neuville part of Jean-Guillaume’s name comes from a small estate he and his brother inherited through their mother.
In 1790 Hyde de Neuville was sent to Paris to complete his studies. A royalist from an early age, he was soon distracted by the politics of the French Revolution. He received a military appointment but declined to take it up, being unwilling to take the revolutionary oath. He became active in counter-revolutionary schemes and came under official suspicion.
On August 23, 1794, at age 18, Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville married Anne-Marguerite-Henriette Rouillé de Marigny. She was older than him, though just how much older is not clear. Both 1749 and 1771 have been suggested as her birth year. She was old enough to remember the festivities accompanying the birth of Princess Marie-Thérèse in 1778. She was also old enough to convincingly disguise her husband as her son when he was a fugitive. Anne-Marguerite was well off and became even wealthier when her father died in 1802, leaving her and her husband the château de l’Estang in Sancerre, as well as property in Paris.
Hyde de Neuville was in England plotting a royalist uprising, with the approval of the Count of Artois, when he learned of Napoleon’s coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9-10, 1799). In late December of that year, he and General Louis d’Andigné met twice with Napoleon (then First Consul) to try to persuade him to restore the Bourbon monarchy. Hyde de Neuville later wrote:
I was deeply moved at the thought of finding myself face to face with the man who held in his hand the destiny of the cause to which I had devoted my life…. The door opened. Instinctively, I looked at the man who came in, short, thin, his hair plastered on his temples, his step hesitating; he was not in the least what I had pictured to myself. I was so much wanting in perception, that I took him for a servant…. He leaned his back against the chimney-piece, raised his head, and looked at me with such an expressive, such a penetrating glance, that I lost all my assurance under the fire of that questioning eye. (1)
At the second meeting, Napoleon
treated us, personally, with every mark of consideration and courtesy, even when he gave way to violent outbursts. His hot temper seemed to me the sort of anger that gives an opportunity of saying anything; an anger, almost voluntary, and under control, if not altogether assumed. I have always thought, since, that there was as much policy, as nature, in Napoleon’s anger. (2)
Napoleon and his police minister Joseph Fouché later became convinced Hyde de Neuville had played a role in the attempt on Napoleon’s life by the infernal machine on December 24, 1800. Hyde de Neuville and his wife concealed themselves at l’Estang. Their property was seized from them. In 1805, hiding near Lyons, Hyde de Neuville studied medicine, which he practiced under the name of Dr. Roland, and undertook some experiments in vaccination.
Exile in America
In an attempt to recover their estate, Anne-Marguerite met with Napoleon in Vienna, after the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon agreed to restore their confiscated property, but only if they went into exile in the United States. They left France in March 1806, spent some time in Spain, and arrived in New York in June 1807. They travelled around New York State and went as far west as Tennessee. Hyde de Neuville wrote his sister:
The United States is truly a land of miracles. It is impossible to imagine such astounding and rapid prosperity; and one must penetrate deep into the wilds, as we have done, to learn how quickly industry can make conquests. (3)
They settled in New York and busied themselves with worthy pursuits. Hyde de Neuville studied medicine and agriculture and was elected a member of the Philo-Medical Society of New York. He founded a school for the children of French refugees from Saint-Domingue (Haiti). The American government contributed funds for the school’s construction; Hyde de Neuville organized balls and concerts and edited a monthly literary magazine to support the school’s operation. In 1811 he bought a small estate near New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he reared merinos. General Jean Moreau, then also in exile in the United States, tried to entice Hyde de Neuville to join him in serving with the allies against France, but Hyde de Neuville refused. Though a royalist, he was first and foremost a patriotic Frenchman.
Anne-Marguerite painted watercolours, a number of which she published in a book called American Sketches in 1807.
After Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, Hyde de Neuville and his wife returned to France. Louis XVIII sent Hyde de Neuville to London to attempt to persuade the British government to send Napoleon to a remoter place of exile than Elba. When Napoleon escaped from that island in 1815, Hyde de Neuville accompanied Louis XVIII into exile. Though still a firm royalist, he felt sympathy for Napoleon when the latter was again defeated:
As soon as I saw him in misfortune, an outlaw as I had been myself, I pitied him, and forgot the persecution I had undergone. I was sorry that Napoleon, when in Elba, had not abandoned his terrible design, and accepted the offer I had been empowered to make to him of exile in America. On that virgin soil of liberty, the name of the great Conqueror would have commanded the respect of Europe; it would have been a background worthy of him, and the renunciation of his ambition would have been an heroic end. (4)
Ambassador to the United States
Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville was elected as deputy for Nièvre in the Chamber of Deputies. In 1816, he was appointed French minister (ambassador) to the United States. He was warmly received by President Monroe, whom he had met when Monroe was the US minister to France (1794-96).
Aided by the consuls under his supervision, including François Guillemin in New Orleans, Hyde de Neuville kept a close watch over the Bonapartist exiles in the United States. These included Joseph Bonaparte, Charles Lallemand, Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes and other Napoleonic followers.
I had a delicate mission in the surveillance of the French refugees. The very fact that the Government, and the majority of the inhabitants, accorded unlimited freedom on their territory, exempted the refugees from police supervision. This rendered my position difficult; but as I never shirk a duty, I resolved to be firm, in checking every kind of plot against the Government that I had the honour to represent. I wished to be clear-sighted but just, and to employ severity with extreme reserve. Shall I confess it? I felt deep pity for these Frenchmen, exiled to this land as I had been. Were they not suffering for the crimes and errors caused by the ambition of one man; expiating, far from their families and country, faults, committed it may be, from blindness and fidelity? (5)
In August 1817, Hyde de Neuville received evidence of a supposed plot, connected to Joseph Lakanal, to make Joseph Bonaparte the king of Mexico. He brought this to the attention of US Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who questioned the plot’s credibility. In April 1818, Hyde de Neuville expressed “much anxiety and alarm” to Adams about Charles Lallemand’s expedition to Texas.
Despite this surveillance, Hyde de Neuville was generous and helpful to his political opponents, knowing firsthand what it was like to be in exile. When he found a portrait of Napoleon by François Gérard at the French legation in Washington, he sent it to Joseph Bonaparte on his own accord (Louis XVIII approved). He came to the relief of his countrymen when requested, and helped many of the exiles return to France. He thought highly of Lefebvre-Desnouettes and persistently advanced pleas for his pardon. In 1817 he wrote to the Duke of Richelieu, then Foreign Minister of France:
I treat the refugees as if they were ill. I disdain to react to what they dare say about the Bourbons, and I consider their insults to my person an honor. I have not denied my advice or services to those who have turned to me, either directly or through the intermediary of friends. (6)
A British observer described Hyde de Neuville as:
a fat, portly gentleman with a broad chest, big head and short neck, which he seems almost incapable of turning ad libitum. He is full of Bourbon importance and French vivacity; has petits soupers every Saturday evening during the winter and spends his summer at the springs, or his country residence, in extolling the virtues of his beloved Louis le desiré. I do not think that M. Neuville, though an amiable and, I understand, a benevolent man, has that kind of talent which would qualify him for the station he holds, or that, in the event of any difficulty arising between this country and France, he could counteract the intrigues of diplomatic ingenuity, or benefit his nation by inducing the American cabinet, though I believe he is highly esteemed, to adopt any measure not manifestly advantageous to the United States. (7)
In 1820 Hyde de Neuville was recalled to France, leaving Washington at the end of May. John Quincy Adams wrote, upon his departure:
I shall probably never see Hyde de Neuville again…. He…was one of the most violent ultra Royalists, and so conspicuous as a leader that the members of that party were for some time called from his name the “Hideux” in derision. His ardor became troublesome to the King and the Bourbon party itself, and he was sent here into honorable and lucrative banishment to let overheated passions evaporate. Soon after his arrival his inflammable temper brought him into a short collision with the Government for a foolish and indecent toast given at Baltimore by Skinner, the Postmaster, a man more hot-headed and wrong-headed than himself, against the King of France. This, however, soon blew over, and his conduct since that time has been unexceptionable, his private life irreproachable, and his social, friendly, kind, and benevolent relations with the various classes of the people exemplary. His wife is a woman of excellent temper, amiable disposition, unexceptionable propriety of demeanor, profuse charity, yet of judicious economy and sound discretion. No foreign Minister who ever resided here has been so universally esteemed and beloved…. He has not sufficient command of his temper, is quick, irritable, sometimes punctilious, occasionally indiscreet in his discourse, and tainted with Royalist and Bourbon prejudices. But he has strong sentiments of honor, justice, truth, and even liberty. His flurries of temper pass off as quickly as they rise. He is neither profound, nor sublime, nor brilliant; but a man of strong and good feelings, with the experience of many vicissitudes of fortune, a good but common understanding, and good intentions biased by party feelings, occasional interests, and personal affections. The diverting part of his character is the conflict between his Bourbon royalism and his republican fancies, involuntarily contracted here from the irresistible fascination of practical freedom…. He now goes home with a professed intention of returning next winter; but I do not expect him, and perhaps ought not to desire that he should come back. To part in peace once in a life with a diplomatic man is as much as can be reasonably anticipated (8)
Regardless of Adams’s desire, after a short stay in Paris – during which Louis XVIII rewarded him with the title of Baron – Hyde de Neuville was back in Washington in early 1821. He had been appointed ambassador to Brazil, but before taking up this appointment he was instructed to finish negotiating a commercial convention with the United States. Thus Hyde de Neuville is the French representative in Washington when Napoleon lands on America’s shore in Napoleon in America.
Adams found him rather a pain to negotiate with:
Mr. Hyde de Neuville came at four and urgently pressed for an answer to his last proposals…. He rambled over the subject of our commercial negotiation, as usual, without coming to any point. (9)
And, a month later:
There is little material difference between us but he is so tenacious upon trifles and adheres so stiffly to his own loose phraseology that it is difficult to come to terms with him. (10)
Life after Washington
The treaty was finally concluded in June 1822. Hyde de Neuville left Washington immediately afterwards. With Brazil in revolt, he could not take up his appointment there, so he and his wife returned to France. In November 1822 he was elected deputy for Cosne. In 1823, he became the French ambassador to Portugal. As such, he helped rescue Portuguese King John VI, who had been imprisoned by his son. In gratitude, John VI gave him the title of Count of Bemposta.
Back in France, Hyde de Neuville was reelected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1824 and 1827. He was among the constitutional royalists close to Chateaubriand. In 1828-29, he served as France’s naval minister. During his term, he showed sympathy for Greek independence, and prohibited the slave trade in France’s American possessions. After the 1830 July Revolution, which ousted Charles X from the French throne in favour of the Orléanist Louis-Philippe, Hyde de Neuville resigned from the Chamber in protest. He retired quietly to l’Étang, where he tended his vineyard, raised sheep and occupied himself with philanthropy. He continued to spend part of every winter in Paris. In 1837, he took an active part in discussions regarding a new treaty of commerce with the United States. In 1841, he petitioned the Chamber in support of free medical care for indigents.
Anne-Marguerite died in September 1849. This would have made her 100 if she was born in 1749, or perhaps a more plausible 78 if born in 1771. Hyde de Neuville wrote that it was:
The heaviest blow that could strike my heart…. I lost the devoted companion of my life, who had been my guide and comforter as well as my happiness. Of such sorrows one does not write. (11)
Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville died in Paris on May 28, 1857 at the age of 81. Notwithstanding his years as an outlaw and an exile, he seems to have kept a sanguine attitude.
Nothing has ever weighed upon my soul, not even trouble. I can say with truth that all the trials I have passed through have not prevented my being constantly happy. (12)
His nieces – he and Anne-Marguerite were childless – compiled his notes into three volumes of memoirs, which were published in French in 1888. An English version was published in 1913, abridged and translated by Frances Jackson, who wrote that her object was:
simply to make known the character of this Knight Errant of modern times, fearless and blameless, who took as his motto through life: ‘Do right, come what may.’ (13)
There is a French biography entitled Jean-Guillaume Hyde de Neuville (1776-1857): Conspirateur et diplomate, by Françoise Watel (Paris, 1997). A large number of Anne-Marguerite’s drawings are owned by the New York Historical Society and a few are in the Stokes Collection at the New York Public Library. You can see some of them on the Early American Gardens blog and even more on my Pinterest page.
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- Frances Jackson, ed. and trans., Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville, Vol. I (Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1913), p. 126.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- Ibid., p. 234.
- Frances Jackson, ed. and trans., Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville, Vol. II (Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1913), p. 57.
- Ibid., p. 81.
- Ines Murat, Napoleon and the American Dream, translated by Frances Frenaye (Baton Rouge, 1981), p. 62.
- W. Faux, Memorable Days in America: Being a Journal of a Tour to the United States (London, 1823), pp. 376-77.
- Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. V (Philadelphia, 1875), pp. 136-138 (June 2, 1820).
- Ibid., p. 485 (April 2, 1822).
- Ibid., p. 540 (May 27, 1822).
- Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville, Vol. II, p. 277.
- Memoirs of Baron Hyde de Neuville, Vol. I, p. xv.
- Ibid., p. x.
He is neither profound, nor sublime, nor brilliant; but a man of strong and good feelings, with the experience of many vicissitudes of fortune, a good but common understanding, and good intentions biased by party feelings, occasional interests, and personal affections.
John Quincy Adams