Between 1789 and 1814 over 150,000 émigrés left France. Beyond being forced into exile during the French Revolution, however, these individuals did not share much in common. The term is used to describe not only leading counterrevolutionary figures, such as the king's brothers, but also many who were initially supportive of the revolution but gradually became alarmed (and indeed endangered) by the course it took. Doina Pasca Harsanyi's book focuses on one specific group of liberal émigrés—the circle of Frenchmen who arrived in the United States between 1793 and 1795 and gathered regularly at a bookshop in Philadelphia owned by one of their number, Médéric‐Louis‐Élie Moreau de Saint‐Méry. Besides Moreau, the group included the duc de la Rochefoucauld‐Liancourt; Charles‐Maurice de Talleyrand‐Périgord; the vicomte de Noailles; the baron de Beaumetz; the marquis de Blacons; Omer Talon; Jean‐Nicolas Démeunier; and François‐Louis Legendre Boislandry. Most were nobles who had, nonetheless, greeted the French Revolution with enthusiasm and participated in its opening phase. Many had been elected to the Estates‐General and played influential roles in the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, they had also come together before leaving France in groups such as the Society of Thirty and the Feuillant Club.
Several members of the group wrote about their experiences in and views of America, and these works together with their correspondence form the basis of Harsanyi's account of the ideas, activities, and interactions of the group. Unfortunately she has little to say about the meetings at Moreau's bookshop themselves, and more than half of this modest volume is devoted to contextual material: the lives of group members before and after their American exile; French attitudes toward America in the late eighteenth century; and the views of other French visitors such as René de Chateaubriand and Alexis de Tocqueville. Nonetheless, the insights Harsanyi offers into the mindset of the members of this group, as well as her thoughtful reflections on what they reveal about wider issues, renders the enterprise worthwhile.
The noble origins of the majority of Harsanyi's cast of characters were clearly important to their own sense of identity, and the fortunes of the contested concept of “nobility” during this period is a prominent theme throughout the book. The opening chapter explores the use of the term “aristocracy” and the role played by the liberal nobility during the early years of the revolution. Unfortunately there is no mention of William Doyle's recent book on the aristocracy, but nevertheless Harsanyi offers a thought‐provoking account of this issue and a nuanced picture of the early months of the revolution. She demonstrates how the patriot nobles drew on a combination of traditional noble ethics and Enlightenment practices to develop the notion of a meritocratic but refined elite, the existence of which was crucial to political stability and the avoidance of the twin horrors of royal and mob despotism.
Despite spending the majority of their exile in the United States, these émigrés were not enamoured with American society. Although positive about American institutions, they were critical of the people. In particular they condemned the ignorance of those belonging to American elites and their preoccupation with money, both of which rendered them unsuited to performing their essential role of offering enlightened leadership and civilizing the masses. Thus, although they mixed with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and William Bingham, they preferred each other's company and remained a largely insular group. Similarly, although several members of the group engaged in land speculation in order to make a living in America, they retained the traditional noble disdain for work and money. Increasingly alienated both from American society and from other émigré groups (with whom they refused to mix), they focused their attention on planning their return to France. Most returned home as soon as it was practical, and all but two were back in France by 1798. In most cases their stay in America formed a brief and insignificant interlude in their lives, but Liancourt and Talleyrand were keen to apply what they had learned from their American experiences, meditating on the stability within postrevolutionary American society—something that was still proving elusive to the French in the late 1790s.
Surprisingly, given Harsanyi's evident scholarship and expertise, the book suffers from one or two factual slips, particularly concerning events in France. Moreover, the division of the secondary sources section of the bibliography by theme makes it a little awkward to use. Nonetheless, this study offers interesting reflections and insights on transatlantic connections during the revolutionary era, the complex debates over the meaning of “nobility” during the period, and the development of French liberalism. It also enriches our understanding of this group of patriot exiles and reminds us that blanket terms such as “nobles” and “émigrés” distort as much as they convey.