What did Americans think of the Napoleonic exiles?

In writing Napoleon in America, it was easy to find French exiles in the United States in the early 1820s who could fictionally help Napoleon carry out his schemes. From Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte to scoundrels like Louis-Joseph Oudart, many Bonapartists fled to the United States after Napoleon’s 1815 defeat, to avoid persecution by the government of Louis XVIII. Some, like Simon Bernard, were relatively content in their new land. Others, like Louis Lauret, wound up miserable. What was the American attitude toward the Napoleonic exiles in their midst?

View of Aigleville, Colony of Texas or Field of Asylum, by Ambroise Louis Garneray, circa 1819. An idealized depiction of the Napoleonic exiles in America. Source: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg, www.mfah.org

View of Aigleville, Colony of Texas or Field of Asylum, by Ambroise Louis Garneray, circa 1819. An idealized depiction of the Napoleonic exiles in America. Source: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Bayou Bend Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg, www.mfah.org

Raising the tone of society

Initially, the Napoleonic exiles were esteemed for their wealth and their military expertise, as indicated in this letter from a resident of New York, dated May 23, 1816.

In so large, opulent, and of itself so populous and busy a city as New York, the addition of a few thousand individuals could scarcely make any difference; but in our places of public resort the presence of so many foreigners becomes very perceptible, and the many emigrant Frenchmen now here are not without influence on the tone in society, There are at present in this place a multitude of French ex-dukes, counts, barons, ministers, and counsellors of state, high officers of court and state, both civil and military, who have all brought more or less money. Joseph Buonaparte lives here without any great show…. He seldom visits in the societies of this city, and his circle is chiefly confined to Frenchmen. He lately made a journey to Philadelphia, where he was accompanied by Marshal Grouchy and General Lefebvre Desnouettes. In Lansdowne, where he resided for some time, General Clauzel was also in his suite. Regnault de St. Jean d’Angely has recently returned to New York from Charlestown, where he purchased 10,000 acres of land in South Carolina….

Eight thousand acres of land, on the Ohio, have been purchased on the account of M. Real (formerly Counsellor of State and Prefect of Paris), who is daily expected here: portions of these lands are to be given gratis to such French families as choose to settle there. Among the persons who have brought off large sums from France to America, Messrs. Lacepede and Chaptal are particularly spoken of, both celebrated naturalists and formerly members of the Paris Institute – the former a Count and President of the Senate, the latter also a Count, and for some years Minister of the Interior under Napoleon. European veteran officers are at present in demand for the American service. Many French military men have already obtained advantageous appointments. This measure is generally approved of; because it was particularly ascribed to the want of good officers in the militia, that, in the late war [War of 1812], the enemy was able to attempt landings, which were very mortifying to the American national pride. Experience has also taught, that in the United States, in a period of common danger, it is easy to increase the regular army, which in peace is very small, by voluntary levies to almost any amount, though it is not so easy to find in this country officers to lead them. (1)

Pursuing a laudable calling

In March 1817, Congress granted a number of the French exiles land in Alabama, near the present site of Demopolis.

The French emigrants to whom Congress has allotted a parcel of land, in the new purchase, ‘for the cultivation of the vine and olive,’ have reached the Tombigbee [River], and are now on their way to the Black Warrior [River], where they intend selecting a situation for the purpose of forming a settlement and pursuing the laudable calling of husbandry. There are fifty families of these adventurers, they have brought with them cuttings and scions of choice traits, &c. together with the necessary tools and implements to commence their operations immediately. Such emigrants as these, who have been trained in the field of industry from their earliest years, are truly desirable guests in a country so widely extended and so susceptible of improvement as is this our Western World. (2)

Taking advantage of public generosity

Sympathy for the Napoleonic exiles started to evaporate when many of those who had stakes in the Alabama colony sold their land grants to help finance an armed expedition to Texas, which was then under Spanish rule.

The events in Europe, and the changes of dynasty, have driven to this country a number of illustrious French exiles. Feeling for them and their state a sympathy not warranted by all the rules of prudence, has been evidenced; and we have not only held out the hand of succour and hospitality, but have even gone further – we have, by law, granted them facilities in the purchase of public lands, which it now appears they have sold or discarded, and have gone to the province of Texas to establish a species of commonwealth. This province we have ever claimed as our own, and these associations should be discountenanced in the very bud. Those emigrants who are not satisfied with our country and laws should not be permitted to erect independent governments on our borders. They will, eventually, give us trouble; and, however humble these commencements may be – however modest these declarations may seem, they will, in time, carve work for our army and unlock the coffers of the nation. (3)

In 1817, 22,240 people arrived at US ports from abroad – an unprecedented number. (4) There was concern that American generosity to the French exiles could set an undesirable precedent when it came to other immigrant groups.

It is not politic for the nation…to hold forth to emigrants more than the general advantages arising from an equality of rights and equal and exact justice. If the power of Congress is to be bent to any special object, having in view the benefit of emigrants, we shall have associations from every part of Europe claiming, by precedence, an equal distribution of national favors. These, in time, will create a species of chaos, of independent confederacies; and where our policy is to amalgamate emigrants with the mass of citizens, to divest them of their foreign attachments, we shall, on the contrary, nourish their national predilections, foreign propensities, and foreign manners; and, in the heart of our country, instead of being purely American, we shall partake of a parti-colored complexion, and native citizens will attach themselves to the habits of such foreigners as may suit their inclination. We have national strength, and we must establish and provide for national character. As to these independent associations, with arms to their hands on our borders, they must occupy the attention of the government. These confederacies, in a quarter where a thin population is found, may give us serious trouble in time. On the threshold of these expeditions, measures should be taken to prevent their extension, and any evil consequences which may grow out of them. (5)

Hezekiah Niles, editor of the Baltimore-based weekly news magazine Niles’ Weekly Register, wrote bluntly:

Among the splendid fooleries which have at times amused a portion of the American people, as well as their Representatives in Congress, was that of granting, on most favourable terms, to certain emigrants of France, a large tract of land in the Alabama territory, to encourage the cultivation of the vine and olive.…

What was honestly intended as a common benefit to a number of unfortunate persons, is understood to have immediately centred, like banking, into the benefit of a few; and I am told that one man’s gains by this speculation are estimated at from 500,000 to a million of dollars. …

It was the abuse of the Alabama grant that caused the rejection of the petition of the Irish emigrant associations for the laying off a tract of land in the Illinois, though everybody felt satisfied that their design was an honest one….

I very much question the policy of any act of government that has a tendency to introduce and keep up amongst us a foreign national language or dialect, manners or character, as every large and compact settlement of emigrants from any particular country must necessarily do. Though some have been almost ready to quarrel with me for the often-repeated assertion, I still assert and will maintain it, that the people of the United States are yet wretchedly deficient in national character, though it is rapidly forming, and in a short time will be as the vanguard of the national strength. Its progress, however, is retarded by the influx of foreigners, with manners and prejudices favorable to a state of things repugnant to our rules and notions of right, since few enlightened men may be called citizens of the world; but most men’s ideas are narrowed to the spot or country, with its habits of thinking and of acting, where they received their education, which it requires at least the mixture of a generation to remove. These prejudices extend as well to the religious as to the political supremacy of certain poor, weak and miserable individuals; and considerably prevent an exercise of the right which man has to worship God after the dictates of his own heart, and are at open war with the power that he has, in its liberal sense, to manage all his concerns in his own way. To lessen the force of prejudices so hostile to our free institutions, it is important that those subject to them should be cast into the common stock of the people, in which, if they do not get more expanded ideas and fall in with the general habits of the nation of which they are members, their scattered condition will measurably forbid them from retarding the growth of a general feeling – or at least, prevent a powerful action against it. (6)

Tempting the male sex?

The Napoleonic exiles soon abandoned their Texas colony (Champ d’Asile). Many of them went to New Orleans, where they were met with sympathy by the largely French-speaking population. Over the following years, several senior French officers were granted amnesty by Louis XVIII and returned to France. Joseph Bonaparte remained in the United States until the 1830s. In June 1822, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine took a jab at both the Americans and the French by writing:

The Yankees appear to us a testy and quarrelsome race, and we like them the better for it; they shew young blood, and swagger becoming a nation in its teens. Nevertheless, we wish, for their own sakes, that they would somewhat amend of these propensities; inasmuch as they savour more of national vanity than of national pride, and betray (we allude chiefly to the quarrels at Gibraltar,) more a want of confidence in their own dignity, than any genuine and sound-nerved sensibility of insult. As to their national manners, we do not believe half of what we hear; nor can we credit the account of their ladies hanging their legs out of the window in hot weather, any more than Mr. Nodier’s slanders concerning the Glasgow belles. But this we will assert, that in Philadelphia and other towns frequented by the French exiles, society has rapidly degenerated, both in morals and in manners, from its pure English origin; and that by taking, or attempting to take, the ton from these upstart mousquetaires, American high-life unfortunately unites the vulgarity of English simplicity with the ten-fold vulgarity of French refinement. (7)

This prompted Louisa Adams, who visited Philadelphia that summer, to write to her husband, then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams:

The Philadelphians are very angry with Blackwoods Magazine. This last stroke of ‘the ladies hanging their legs out of the windows’ is quite too much. I differ with them in opinion, as these exaggerations can never be credited by rational people. And instead of stopping emigration, such a thing must act as a temptation to the male sex, who generally admire such sights. (8)

You might also enjoy:

Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

What happened to the Bonapartists in America? The story of Louis Lauret

General Charles Lallemand: Invader of Texas

Narcisse & Antonia Rigaud: Survivors of the Champ d’Asile

General Charles-Lefebvre Desnouettes: Unhappy in Alabama

Simon Bernard, Napoleon’s General in the US Army

Napoleonic General Henri Lallemand: Improving the US Artillery

Napoleon’s Policeman, Pierre-François Réal

Louis-Joseph Oudart, a Downright Scoundrel

Napoleon & New Orleans in 1821

  1. “French Exiles in America,” The Times (London, England), August 8, 1816.
  2. [From the New Orleans Commercial Press], The Supporter (Chillicothe, Ohio), July 29, 1817.
  3. “Emigrants,” The National Advocate (New York, NY), July 27, 1818.
  4. Dennis Wepman, Immigration (New York, 2008), p. 94.
  5. “Emigrants,” The National Advocate (New York, NY), August 11, 1818.
  6. “French Emigrants,” Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, MD), August 8, 1818.
  7. Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh, UK), Volume XI, January-June 1822, p. 685.
  8. “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 27 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4144.

2 commments on “What did Americans think of the Napoleonic exiles?”

  • Falgoux says:

    Great article. It gives perspective to the region between New Orleans & Baton Rouge, La where so many Napoleon exiles settled. Even maybe to the towns of Napoleonville & Bertrandville on Bayou Lafourche where headstones carry the worn epitaphs “Soldat de Napoleon.”

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Accounts of the Napoleonic exiles tend to mention only the higher-ranking military men and government officials. I imagine there were quite a few in the lower ranks who (if not forgotten) are remembered only in local or family lore, or on such telling tombstones.

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Among the splendid fooleries which have at times amused a portion of the American people, as well as their Representatives in Congress, was that of granting, on most favourable terms, to certain emigrants of France, a large tract of land in the Alabama territory, to encourage the cultivation of the vine and olive.

Hezekiah Niles