James Monroe and the Badge He Wore

James Monroe and the Badge He Wore:

The French Revolution Narratives

 

Both the United States and the French Republic were born in the conflagration of revolution near the end of the 18th century,[1] and some of the same agents that acted in the American Revolution can be found in the annals of French history. James Monroe is one of the most famous names, and arguably the most important. During his time as Minister to France between the years of 1794-1797, Monroe lived through the still violent period following “The Reign of Terror,” called the Thermidorian Reaction, which also targeted enemies of the state for execution. Despite this violent aspect of the French Revolution, Monroe wore a badge in support of it and the citizens’ cause. It is this badge upon which this essay will focus, as it represents the actions carried forth by the new French government, some of which Monroe approved and some of which he did not. It also represents the constantly changing French Revolution and the attitudes that various important agents, such as Thomas Paine, had towards it. As such, the badge embodies the connections between those involved in the French Revolution as well as reflects the changes in the Revolution itself. If Monroe’s badge was ever to be featured in some kind of museum exhibition besides being displayed on its own, it is necessary to understand its overall relevance to history. There are clearly many narratives that can be told about the badge and stories that the badge can act as a vehicle for exploring. The two that seem most relevant are the imprisonment and release of Thomas Paine by James Monroe, and the continually changing French Revolution and its evolution from popular movement to self-destructive insurgency. These two narratives allow for deeper analysis of the times in which they were crafted, especially into the nature of revolutions, dissent, cultural fixations, and the sometimes dangerous consequences of politics.

Monroe was seasick for a couple of hours on the twenty-nine day journey to France, where he had been assigned as Ambassador. The rest of the time on the Atlantic, Monroe was able to read the documents detailing the American policy towards the Revolution and understand perfectly that Washington was a friend of the Revolution. In the event of any war, France, went the American policy, “was our first and natural ally.”[2] Also part of the policy was instruction to work for a reduction of the seizure of American ships by the French Navy, though Monroe had little power to make any actual significant changes.[3][4] Monroe landed in France on the 3rd of August, the week after Robespierre had been executed by the Revolution.[5] It was an interesting turn of events that led to civil unrest and uncertainty in the Revolution, because Robespierre had been the leader of the Comité de salut public, the Committee of Public Safety. The Committee was an administrative body formed by the National Convention in 1793 and was responsible for governing France during the “Reign of Terror.” The committee was dissolved in 1795, while Monroe was in France. This period of civil unrest was followed by the creation of a new administrative body, The Directory, which lasted until it was overthrown by Napoleon in 1799. After his arrival in France, Monroe was received warmly by the National Convention on August 15th, 1794, where “Citizen Monroe, Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America near the French Republic is admitted to the hall at the sitting of the National Convention.”[6] They addressed Monroe in English, but they did not call it English in their decrees—“The frantic hatred existing and felt by the French towards the English…would not permit the convention to recognize [their] mother tongue…hence they called it ‘the American language.’”[7] Monroe, very happy with his induction into French society, cried.[8]

This temporary adoption of Monroe by French society included his support for the actions of the French government. This support was shown through the wearing of a badge. The badge, found in the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia, has faded red, white, and blue stripes appearing twice in the same pattern as seen on the French flag. It is about six inches long and a little under an inch wide. When handling the badge, one notices its age because of its delicate fabric. It is very thin and made from grosgrain-ribbon, meaning it features prominent transverse ribs and was most likely made from wool or silk. Between the two repetitions of the stripes is an off-white patch. This same patch is seen at the top of the badge, before the first iteration of the stripes. Upon this first patch of white is writ the words: “LIBERTE, ORDRE, PUBLIC.” These words, symbolizing the mantra of the French Revolution, are stitched into the fabric. In its former framing, a message was written on either side of the badge: “French Revolutionary Badge worn during the French Revolution by Monroe U.S. Minister to France under—Washington in 1794 (sic).”[9] The badge, due to its fragile nature, is not in very good condition. Monroe would have it fastened to his clothes on the left side of his chest, over his heart. It was not optional to wear the badge, and Monroe wore it ceaselessly.[10] “In 1792 it became mandatory, by municipal degree, to wear a cockade, [a tricolor button which would be fastened to one’s hat].”[11] Likewise the badge became a necessary component to wear so to avoid being killed by guillotine.[12] Both the cockade and the badge were owned and worn by Monroe during his entire time in France. Monroe wore the badge while he performed his diplomatic duties, the most interesting of which was the successful effort to release “all Americans incarcerated in French prisons;” especially the release of “Madame Lafayette, the wife of his friend the Marquis,” and Thomas Paine.[13] When Monroe learned that different Americans and other friends of the American Revolution were imprisoned by the French Revolution, he knew that securing their release clearly fell into the purview of the current American Minister to France.

Not all in America were aligned with the French Revolution. “Public sentiment in America was” divided, with the North “generally favoring England…[but] the working classes in the North and practically all classes in the South favoring France [despite her excesses.]”[14] It went so far that “Americans saluted each other as ‘Citizen’” in the streets.[15] Monroe was fluent in French and both he and his wife, Elizabeth, were very comfortable with the French culture. Many deemed them Francophiles, like Thomas Jefferson. This helped them fit in relatively well, and it is known that they were very well received by the French people.[16] In Paris, the Monroes took a home and equipped it with French furniture and other pieces. A lot of these items were brought back by the Monroes and ended up in the White House.[17] In fact, Monroe was so comfortable with the French lifestyle that it was the basis of his being recalled by George Washington in 1796. Washington and his administration felt that Monroe was too anti-British, a sentiment that was not at odds with the current French attitude.[18] In fact, “President Washington had chosen the Francophile Monroe as minister to prevent further deterioration in relations with France in light of the ongoing American treaty negotiations with Britain.”[19] Though at the time of the Jay treaty this would prove destructive to Franco-American relations, this closeness with the French administration was helpful in Monroe’s efforts to have the incarcerated Americans released.

Monroe’s arrival in Paris signified some kind of new friendship between the countries, but “Monroe’s emotional investment in the friendship between the two republics would continue to contrast sharply with French officials’ preoccupation with more pressing domestic matters.”[20] These domestic affairs, in an unsure turmoil after the execution of Robespierre, included jailing and keeping jailed, enemies of the state—or so they were deemed by the National Convention.  Monroe’s opinions of the end of the terror and the start of The Directory were positive. He felt that “the frequency with which the revolution had devoured its children was in fact a sign of the regenerative power of the French nation to rid itself of leaders who strayed from the path of righteousness.”[21] Also with the execution of Robespierre came a reduction in beheadings and an opening for the negotiation of the release of those whom the Committee for Public Safety had imprisoned. Paine, one of the American prisoners of the French Revolution that Monroe freed, had been captured by the authorities and incarcerated because of his opposition to the execution of King Louis XVI.

Monroe’s comment about the revolution eating its own is apt, though, because Paine was the author of Rights of Man. This was a political book that was a collection of articles in defense of the French Revolution. This book led to Paine being tried in absentia in England for libel against Edmund Burke, to whose pamphlet, Reflections on the French Revolution, the Rights of Man was a response. Paine was convicted of treason by the British. At the very least, Paine’s writing meant that he was willing to risk his reputation for the cause of the French Revolution. Paine was even granted honorary French citizenship for his support of the Citizens’ cause, and was elected to the National Convention. It was enough, however, for Robespierre that Paine was in favor of the exile of the deposed monarch, Louis XVI, instead of his execution. Though Paine likely wore a badge or cockade much like Monroe’s, Robespierre had Paine arrested in 1793.

The Revolution, under Robespierre, had turned xenophobic. Paine’s arrest was the result of a new French law by Robespierre in 1793 which ordered the arrest of all foreign nationals. Robespierre said, “I distrust without exception all those foreigners whose face is covered with a mask of patriotism and who endeavor to appear more republican and energetic than us…They are the agents of foreign powers;”[22] this was clearly a shock to those, like Paine, who fervently supported the French cause. Paine was expelled from the National Convention and arrested in December where he was incarcerated at Luxembourg Prison, originally a palace, in Paris.[23]. Another foreigner that was a part of the National Convention, Anacharsis Cloots, was executed by guillotine; Paine’s imprisonment was lucky. Monroe eventually worked with the French administration to secure Paine’s release, arguing that Paine was not an Englishmen—which would give the French reason to hate and suspect him—but was an American. This argument worked and Paine was freed. Instead of fleeing France, though, he remained for some time and continued his pamphleteering. He eventually returned to the United States where he died in 1809.  As for the Revolution itself, which had already seen several administrative changes, there was worse to come. After the Directory replaced the Terror of Robespierre, the Revolution was eventually dismantled and turned, by Napoleon, into a French Empire. The Revolution’s nature of eating its own proved suicidal and unstable. James Madison said, of the self-destructive nature of the French Revolution, that The Directory had “erected itself into a Tyranny, actuated by its own ambitious views, in opposition to the sentiments and interests of the nation.”[24] This quote mirrors many of the same sentiments that were said of Robespierre. The Revolution had also turned Anti-American, according to Phillipp Ziesche, another example of its implosion.

These narrative histories are best described and analyzed in Philipp Ziesche’s Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution from 2010, which should be read alongside George Morgan’s The Life of James Monroe,[25] and other histories of both Monroe and the French Revolution. The badge that Monroe wore is something to be studied because it offers a view into a turbulent and interesting time in diplomatic history, but also because it allows museums and exhibitions to craft a narrative in such a way so to illuminate the social change that occurred in a popular movement during the late 18th century. Because “Monroe’s mission as Minister to France occurred during one of the most difficult periods in Franco-American relations,”[26] the Badge provides a valuable anchor into other avenues of research as well, such as the evolving Franco-American diplomatic connections, the sale of Louisiana, and perhaps an intimate history of all the American Ministers to France or their personal lives while there. The badge also represents some success, because for a while Franco-American relations did improve, and it was because of Monroe that they did.[27] Without the valuable addition, description, and analysis of the badge, and even Monroe’s cockade, an exhibition detailing American involvement in the French Revolution of any kind would be significantly lacking.

 

Bibliography

 

Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. Charlottesville: University

Press of Virginia, 1990.

 

Baczko, Bronislaw. Ending the Terror: The French Revolution after Robespierre. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1994.

 

Bond, Beverly W., Jr. “The Monroe Mission to France: 1794-1796.” Johns Hopkins University

Studies of Historical and Political Science 25, no. 2–3 (February 1907): 9–101.[28]

 

Cresson, W. P. James Monroe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.

 

Founders Online. [founders.archives.gov]. Accessed April 19th, 2016.

 

Langston-Harrison, Lee. A Presidential Legacy: The Monroe Collection at the James Monroe

Museum and Memorial Library. Fredericksburg: James Monroe Museum, 1997.

 

Maass, R. W. “”Difficult to Relinquish Territory Which Had Been Conquered”: Expansionism

and the War of 1812.” Diplomatic History 39, no. 1 (2014): 70-97.

 

“Mission to France.” Monroe Papers University of Mary Washington. Accessed March 21, 2016.

http://monroepapers.umwblogs.org/monroes-mission-to-france/.

 

Monroe, James, and Stuart Gerry Brown. The Autobiography of James Monroe. Syracuse:

Syracuse University Press, 1959.

 

Morgan, George. The Life of James Monroe. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1921.

 

Papers of James Monroe. “Monroe Catalogue Online.”

[http://academics.umw.edu/jamesmonroepapers/searchable-database-of-correspondence/]

Accessed April 19th, 2016.

 

Scherr, Arthur. “James Monroe and John Adams: An Unlikely ‘Friendship.’” Historian 67, no. 3

(Fall 2005).

 

Sid Meier’s Civilization V. Computer software. Firaxis Games, 2010.

 

Styron, Arthur. The Last of the Cocked Hats; James Monroe & the Virginia Dynasty. Norman:

University of Oklahoma Press, 1945.

 

Wilmerding, Lucius. James Monroe, Public Claimant. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University

Press, 1960.

 

Ziesche, Philipp. Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution.

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.

[1] Sid Meier’s Civilization V. Computer software. Firaxis Games, 2010.

[2] Cresson, W. P. James Monroe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946. 128.

[3] “Mission to France.” Monroe Papers University of Mary Washington.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cresson, W. P. James Monroe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.. 129.

[6] Morgan, George. The Life of James Monroe. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1921. 183.

[7] Morgan, George. The Life of James Monroe. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1921. 184.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Langston-Harrison, Lee. A Presidential Legacy: The Monroe Collection at the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. Fredericksburg: James Monroe Museum, 1997. 95.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 79.

[14] Styron, Arthur. The Last of the Cocked Hats; James Monroe & the Virginia Dynasty. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1945. 140.

[15] Styron, Arthur. The Last of the Cocked Hats; James Monroe & the Virginia Dynasty. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1945. 140-141.

[16] Langston-Harrison, Lee. A Presidential Legacy: The Monroe Collection at the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. Fredericksburg: James Monroe Museum, 1997. 80.

[17]Ibid.

[18] “Mission to France.” Monroe Papers University of Mary Washington.

[19] Ziesche, Philipp. Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution.

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 90.

[20]Ziesche, Philipp. Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution.

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 89.

[21]Ibid. 90.

[22]Ziesche, Philipp. Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution.

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 90. 83.

[23] The same building also served as the seat for The Directory, and was the first home of Napoleon Bonaparte.

[24] Ziesche, Philipp. Cosmopolitan Patriots: Americans in Paris in the Age of Revolution.

Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 111.

[25] Morgan, George. The Life of James Monroe. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1921.

[26] “Mission to France.” Monroe Papers University of Mary Washington.

[27] Ibid.

[28] This was incredibly hard for me to find. I did find an online version eventually, though. It sells for well over $100.