A Small, Distant, Weak, Fascinating Land

Let’s have some fun. I’m gonna kinda also briefly put on my old university lecturer hat, but in a relaxed manner. There is no exam at the end!😂

Why have I moved for a time from writing 1990s novels about Americans abroad to 1790s novels about Americans abroad?

Because I find that early period in our history to be truly remarkable. I think it also makes for some pretty good romance/historical novel material, too… if I am, uh, totally honest. Not that you haven’t noticed either of those things, of course. 😉

[Photo by me, 2018.]

In the early 1790s, the not even twenty year old United States of America had only four ambassadors – they were called ministers – abroad. Four. They were in London, Paris, Madrid, and The Hague. Also there were lower-level consuls (usually just ordinary Americans, often merchants, who knew the local laws) usually in European port cities where U.S. ships regularly called: the consuls interceded for Americans in dealing with the foreign government on importation and other matters. (Sometimes, if no American was local and available, they were even locally-born non-Americans.) Back then, there was no massive State Department, or Foreign Service Officer exams, or diplomatic training at a Georgetown University.

When the American consul at Hamburg tried to intervene on behalf of an imprisoned French Marquis de Lafayette, the Prussian king shrugged: there could be no talking with the U.S. because there was no U.S. representative in Berlin and the U.S. and Prussia had no diplomatic relations. But at least in Western Europe Americans were on somewhat familiar turf. In 1780, wannabe U.S. Minister to Russia (the Russians never received him officially, which would have meant recognizing the independence of the U.S.), Francis Dana, and a teenage John Quincy Adams – a future president of the United States – who accompanied Dana there, are believed to have been among the first Americans ever to set foot in the city of St. Petersburg. As for places such as Japan and China and India: they were practically still the stuff of legend.

George Washington’s Continental army having been quickly disbanded, by 1784 there was no U.S. army worthy of the name. The navy was so small that if anyone abroad thought about it at all (in London, especially), mostly they just laughed. In the great capitals of Europe – London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, The Hague, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg – what the distant, tiny, weak, U.S. thought about anything hardly registered or mattered.

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Click to expand.]

That was then the closest the United States had ever been, really, to being “weak.” We are as children and teens in U.S. schools, and even at university, immersed in the American Revolution, the Constitution, and the initial growth of the country, such as the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. However, while we may learn at university something also about “Jefferson in Paris” in the 1780s, we spend little time on the U.S. on the world stage between 1776-1812, and know very little about other Americans who found themselves abroad trying to cope on that stage.

The few Americans in Europe in the 1780s and 1790s were mostly twenty-something and thirty-something, well-to-do (or trying to become so), single white men. Some married and had children by European women, and would eventually bring their wives and children “home” to America. (And some never returned to the U.S. – especially if they lived in England.) There were some American women in Europe too, who were usually either married to American men, or were daughters accompanying their parents.

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Click to expand.]

The most prominent example is John Quincy Adams. At age thirty in 1797, he married in London twenty-two year old Louisa Johnson, who was the daughter of an American merchant long resident in London and his English wife. She would therefore later become the first U.S. First Lady born abroad – although, because her father was an American, technically Louisa had been a U.S. citizen. The new Mrs. Adams – who had never seen America – was also reportedly underwhelmed by Massachusetts after she arrived there the first time with John Quincy. It was nothing like London, or even Nantes, France – where she had also spent time living while growing up. She disparaged the Adams’s family home as being “like something out of Noah’s Ark.”

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Click to expand.]

What the distant U.S. did hold, however, was an amazing grip on many a European imagination. The French officers and enlisted men who had returned from the U.S. in 1782-83 having aided in the U.S. victory, were full of experiences and tales about the country and its people, and some even began to question living under a strong king in France. The U.S. was also perceived as literally a “new” place of “equality” and a chance for an ordinary person to make a mark.

In Great Britain, too, the U.S. that had wrenched itself out from under British rule held a great deal of interest among many British. During the war, the American rebels always had the support of a vocal minority of British. The war had largely interrupted normal travel between America and Great Britain; but after Britain recognized U.S. independence in 1783 “routine” travel began to recover and ordinary British began to pick up and move in even greater numbers than before the war to the now independent United States of America.

Some of those British were men who had either been in, or were even deserters, from the Royal Navy. They usually joined American ships visiting Britain, and the Americans were happy to have them. The sea was how they knew how to make a living, so as “Americans” now they would travel back and forth on U.S. merchant ships over the next decade. That would help create a huge problem between the U.S. and Great Britain by the 1790s:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Click to expand.]

Before that, numbers of British soldiers had also deserted inside the U.S. during the U.S. war for independence. Often they eventually married American women and vanished into the American population. One wonders if that may have led to some questions in a few American homes a decade or so later:

“Mother, what did Father do during the War? He speaks of it not. I know he left England. Did he leave it to fight with General Washington?”

“Uh, hum, yes, dear, he fought with General Washington…”

As an American today, it is hard to conceive of just how small and relatively “insignificant” the country was globally from 1776 until at least the end of the War of 1812. It is difficult even to picture that early United States. We rarely step back and truly think about it.

In 1790, it was only about 4 million people (fewer than today live in just Connecticut). Most lived within a few hundred miles of the Atlantic Ocean coast. Only 5 percent of the population lived in communities larger than 2,500 people. Most people’s first concern was simple survival: eating and keeping a roof over their heads. For most, it was a life of daily manual labor. For many, actual cash money was a rarity; they often lived by barter. A county was the first major governmental loyalty; the new – they may have vaguely heard about it – federal government was, for most, just the Post Office. Their church was a main focus of their lives. There was no such thing as good medical care (regardless of how rich you were) as we understand the term; most children were lucky to make age 5; age 50 was “elderly.” Most (white) people (especially in the northern states) could read and write at least somewhat, but books were expensive and treasured possessions. It goes without saying there was no electricity or any of our modern conveniences. It was a quiet existence. There were no machines of consequence; the loudest man-made noise most heard was usually a firearm or other explosive. If you wanted to hear music, you made your own – which was why many learned to play a musical instrument (if the family could afford it). Father or Mother reading out loud to the gathered family was a common form of evening entertainment. Families were often large – more children meant more hands to work on the farm and around the house. (And there was no modern birth control, of course.) In the presence of young men, child-bearing age single women were usually closely supervised by older women. (Older women knew about men. Self control? What’s that?) There were some schools – in the northern states – but education, such as it was, was mostly a family matter. There were some newspapers, and they made no secret of their biases. (We think we have a “fake news” problem today?) “News” was mostly passed by word of mouth. (When George Washington died in December 1799, many didn’t know about his death for months.) It could take six months, and more, to send a letter to Europe and receive a reply. Sailing to Europe? Only the well-off usually could do that. Yet most roads were so bad it was probably easier to sail to Europe from New York, Boston, Norfolk, or Charleston, than it was to travel to another state. Not a single river in the entire country had a bridge. Most had at least one gun in the house for simple protection (there were no police), as well as for hunting. Few rarely ventured more than about 50 miles from home…

…I’ll stop and take a breath now. 😉

[New tentative cover for Tomorrow The Grace. Click to expand.]

Most of us today would probably last about “five minutes” trying to cope in their world, yet we love to read about it. For example, Jane Austen’s – daily life was not much different in some ways in England – books are more popular than ever. Perhaps in our far more comfortable, well-traveled, and even jaded, world, we merely like escaping into that “remote” past for a little while.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. 🙂