The glorious opening of the French Revolution in 1789 was met with widespread celebration across the Atlantic. To Americans, it signified further victory for the shared ideals of liberty and equality in the face of absolutist power—the very notion against which they had rebelled with France’s help thirteen years before. By 1793, the Revolution had taken a dramatic turn for the worse, precipitated by the beheading of King Louis XVI, the abandonment of Christianity as the official state religion, and the onset of a series of sweeping military conflicts that embroiled the First Republic in near global strife. As radicalism arose from reason, terror set in. The principle instrument of the men leading this Reign of Terror was the guillotine, whose bloodstained blade severed not just the heads of monarchist sympathizers, but also any sense of agreement Americans had on this revolutionary turmoil abroad.
As the French attempted to usher in a complete ideological break from the past, enforced with draconian tenacity, American opinion on the matter became increasingly divisive. Understanding that the infant nation over which he presided was in no capacity to take sides, George Washington issued an official Proclamation of Neutrality on April 22, 1793. While all cabinet members agreed neutrality was essential, pro-French Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson believed there was undue Federalist influence in the decision, and eventually resigned from his post as Secretary of State in disagreement over the matter. The proclamation was so contentious that it sparked the Pacificus-Helvidius Debates of 1793-1794—a war of pamphlets between Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Democratic-Republican James Madison. Writing under the nom de plume Helvidius, Madison accused the Federalists of being secret monarchists “who hate our republican government and the French Revolution.”
The arrival of Edmund-Charles Genêt in Charleston, South Carolina on April 8, 1793 further complicated the scene. Defying Washington’s decision to remain neutral, French minister Genêt set about corralling support throughout the country. This led to a full-scale diplomatic crisis that later came to be known as the Citizen-Genêt Affair. Reflecting on Washington’s alleged monarchist tendencies, Genêt recalled, “As long as General Washington lives… the Americans will continue the mixing of elected monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy that are combined in their constitution.” To many revolutionaries, Americans had not gone far enough with their revolution. Their lack of support now solidified such a claim.
Federalists continued to view the revolutionary fervor abroad with skepticism, seeking instead to support Anglo-American rapprochement and the maintenance of commercial ties with Great Britain. Additionally, many felt indebted to the French Monarchy—America’s chief ally in their own Revolution. Washington, in response to the Reign of Terror, welcomed persecuted “monarchist” émigrés to the United States with open arms, an act protested openly by Genêt. One such welcoming Federalist was influential Philadelphia financier Robert Morris, who in 1793 was approached by two French refugees with an idea for a promising business venture. The first of the two men was Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, brother-in-law of Lafayette and veteran of the American Revolution. The second, Antoine Omer de Talon, had been the former head of the royal secret service and an advisor and confidant to Louis XVI. A suspicious Genêt reported to his superiors in the capital city of Philadelphia that “Noailles and Talon are here.” “Before my arrival, they provided the President of the United States with letters from the pretended Regent, which this old man had the weakness to open.” Newspapers later corrected course on these unfounded suspicions, stating that the French refugees were here on their own accord and sought to settle in the country as private residents.
With the aid of Robert Morris, Pennsylvania comptroller John Nicholson, and intermediary Captain John Keating, the two Frenchmen spearheaded a plan to build a colony by and for refugees in the Pennsylvania backcountry. Seaboard cities were teeming with refugee families. An outbreak of yellow fever in 1793 in Philadelphia further propelled the agents to make headway with their plan. Part escape effort, part business venture, the group set to work immediately on their bucolic settlement. They purchased 1,600 acres of land within a great bend of the Susquehanna River, protected on three sides by water, in present-day Bradford County. Calling themselves first the Asylum Company, they eventually settled on a simpler name: Azilum.
In the summer of 1793, they laid out three hundred acres like Penn’s Philadelphia in a gridiron pattern, centered on a two-acre market square with broad avenues and a quay on the river. By the following spring, hired labor had constructed at least thirty log houses. Almost immediately, refugees harbored in Philadelphia began to arrive at the new settlement, along with many escaping violence in Santo Domingo, where slave and mulatto uprisings inspired by the French National Assembly were in full swing.
Few refugees, if any, were farmers. Nevertheless, the settlers persevered, imbuing the wilds of Pennsylvania with a distinctly gallic flair. At its zenith, Azilum may have attracted upwards of sixty or seventy refugees. The town boasted a schoolhouse, chapel, theater, and dancing pavilion. A gristmill, distillery, and blacksmith shop were erected as well. “La Grande Maison,” allegedly constructed for Queen Marie Antoinette before the untimely news of her execution reached them, hosted festive parties in between the toil of surviving on the frontier. Azilum welcomed several notable visitors, including in 1797 Louis Philippe, destined to become the last King of France in 1830.
The colony persisted for ten years until its American financiers went bankrupt and the colony became enveloped within an increasingly Francophobic culture that culminated in the XYZ Affair and Quasi-War with France (1798-1800). Congress quickly passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, solidifying anti-French fears that harkened back to the French and Indian War. Finally, news reached the settlement in 1802 that Napoléon had granted amnesty to all dispersed refugees, prompting many to return to their homeland. Though short-lived, Azilum left a lasting impact on the Pennsylvanian landscape. Several families remained in the area, developing the land from frontier wilderness into the eponymous towns of Laporte, Homet’s Ferry, and Dushore (Du Thouars), to name a few.
So what do we make of Democratic-Republican political discourse and Genêt’s characterization of Washington and the Federalists as monarchist sympathizers? Surely by harboring refugees who benefitted under the ancien régime they themselves were opposed to the ideals of liberty and equality now flourishing in France? The short answer is that Genêt and those supporting his agenda purposely reduced the French Revolution to its basic tenets, blatantly ignoring the recurrent evolution and descent of its cause from noble and glorious in 1789 to intransigent and tyrannical by 1793. Victims of this political mischaracterization were the French émigrés, who were labeled as “monarchists” simply because they would not have survived radical Jacobin purges during the Reign of Terror. By marching to the tempo of Jacobin radicalism, Democratic-Republicans called for liberty and equality abroad by supporting a government that was rapidly becoming the very opposite of these ideals—a virtual dictatorship. Those being persecuted—the same who supported and fought for American Independence just years before—were actually the very liberals who had launched the French Revolution in the first place.
Azilum’s principle agent, Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles, was a stark example of these victims. A man of moderate inclinations, Noailles viewed the American fight for independence as an opportunity to put his liberal ideals into action. Finding himself at Yorktown in October 1781, he repelled the final British sortie of the siege, ensuring victory for the Franco-American alliance. Noailles then represented the French government in the negotiations for Cornwallis’s surrender. He returned to France a hero. When Louis XVI convened the Estates General in 1789, Noailles took a leading role in the destruction of the ancien régime. Presiding over the National Constituent Assembly on August 4, 1789, Noailles engineered the abolition of feudalism from France. One constituent recalled that Noailles, through his romantic discourse, elicited “a moment of patriotic drunkenness” during which one nobleman after another rose to voluntarily cede his special privileges, gleefully becoming “citizens” of la Patrie instead. In the course of a few hours, a millennium of feudal rule and aristocratic privilege had vanished. Nevertheless, a radicalizing snowball effect consumed this historic act of liberal reform, culminating in the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety. For Noailles, in spite of his efforts, this meant exile or death. While he fled to safety, most of his family whom he left behind were jailed and guillotined during the Terror—including his father and his wife Louise in June of 1794. The French Revolution had descended into utter chaos.
Noailles, in describing his fellow refugees on the bank of the Susquehanna, wrote, “Our manners will be gentle, our conversation animated, our labor act[i]ve. We will be the French people you have known, and not the present nation.” In two sentences, Noailles struck at the heart of the matter. If he and his fellow liberals were the original revolutionaries of 1789, bent on curbing the most egregious abuses of the government while retaining the king as constitutional monarch, who now ruled under the guise of liberty and equality in France? What could possibly distinguish these liberals from the radicals that only four years later sought to drop their severed heads in a basket? This sweeping departure shows just how rapid the evolution of this world-historic experiment was. The Reign of Terror marked the moment in time when a pipedream pursuit of virtue reared its ugly head highest; labeling all citizens suspect, save for those deemed worthy by a dictator. Its ramifications reverberated throughout America in the formation of early American political discourse, forged by the divisive rhetoric of nascent political parties. Its reach extended to the edge of wilderness, where refugees created a frontier asylum in the Pennsylvania backcountry. Like the ouroboros of Greek mythology—a serpent constantly eating its own tail—the French Revolution continually usurped itself in an ideological quest for pure liberty and equality. In doing so, it gave rise to the worst qualities of the human psyche.
The Revolution continues.
Read about the 1871 Commune in the “Paris of the Midwest” here
Alexander D. Gibson, “The Story of Azilum,” in The French Review, vol. 17, no. 2 (December 1943): 92-98.
Catherine A. Hebert, “The French Element in Pennsylvania in the 1790s: The Francophone Immigrants’ Impact,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 108, no. 4 (October, 1984): 451-469.
Elsie Murray, “Experiments in Pioneering in Northern Pennsylvania,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 68, no. 2 (April, 1944): 175-188.
Elsie Murray, “French Refugees of 1793 in Pennsylvania,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 87, no. 5 (May 5, 1944): 387-393.
Francois Furstenberg, When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation, New York City, NY: Penguin Group, 2015.
James W. Ceaser, “America in the Mirror of France: The Two Revolutions,” in Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997, 66-86.
Michael Kennedy, “LA SOCIÉTÉ FRANÇAISE DES AMIS DE LA LIBERTÉ ET DE L’ÉGALITÉ DE PHILADELPHIE 1793-1794,” in Annales historiques de la Révolution française, vol. 48, no. 226 (October-December, 1976): 614-636.
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, New York City, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.