Diary of John Adams, volume 4

[April 16. Thursday 1778.] JA


[April 16. Thursday 1778.] Adams, John
April 16. Thursday 1778.

April 16. Thursday 1778. From my first Arrival in France I had employed every moment of my time, when Business and Company would permit, in the Study of the French Language. I had not engaged any Master and determined to engage none. I thought he would break in upon my hours in the necessary division of my time, between Business, and Study and Visits, and might often embarrass me. I had other reasons too, but none were sufficient to justify me. It was an egregious Error and I have seen cause enough to regret it. In Stead of a Master I determined to obtain the best Advice of those who were Masters of the Language, and purchase the Books in which it was taught upon Principle. Two Abbys, De Chalut and Arnoux, the former a Brother of the Farmer General of that name, and himself a Knight of Malta, as well as of the Order of Saint Louis, and both of them learned Men, came early to visit me. They had a House in the City and another in the Country at Passi, in our Neighbourhood, where they resided in Summer. Whether they were Spies of the Court or not I know not. But I should have no Objection to such Spies for they were always my friends, always instructive, and agreable in conversation. They were upon so good terms however with the Courtiers that if they had seen any thing in my Conduct or heard any thing in my Conversation that was dangerous or very exceptionable, I doubt not they would have thought it their duty to give Information of it. They were totally destitute of the English language, but by one means and another They found a Way of making me understand them, and sometimes by calling an interpreter and sometimes by gibbering something like French I made them understand me. Dr. Franklin was reported to speak french very well, but I found upon attending critically to him 60that he did not speak it, grammatically, and upon my asking him sometimes whether a Phrase he had used was correct, he acknowledged to me, that he was wholly inattentive to the grammar. His pronunciation too, upon which the French Gentlemen and Ladies complemented him very highly and which he seemed to think pretty well, I soon found was very inaccurate, and some Gentlemen of high rank afterwards candidly told me that it was so confused, that it was scarcely possible to understand him. Indeed his Knowledge of French, at least his faculty of speaking it, may be said to have commenced with his Embassy to France. He told me that when he was in France some Years before, Sir John Pringle was with him, and did all his conversation for him, as his Interpreter, and that he understood and spoke French, with great difficulty, untill his present Residence, although he read it.

Finding that I should derive little advantage from Dr. Franklin in acquiring French, I determined to go to the fountain head, and I asked The Abbys Chalut and Arnoux, what Books they would recommend to me, as the best for teaching their Language upon Principle? They appeared to be much pleased with this question, and immediately named the true Principles of the French Tongue, and the French Synonimous Words of the Abby Gerard, The Dictionary of the Rules of the French Tongue in two Volumes, and The Dictionary of the Accademy. This they said was undoubtedly the most correct as an Authority, but there were other and larger Works such as the Dictionary of Richeley in three Volumes and the Dictionary of Trevoux in Eight Volumes in folio. I asked further what Writings were esteemed the best models. They said Pascalls provincial Letters, Madam de Sevinnes Letters, Hamiltons Memoirs, and even the Thousand and one Knights were as pure French as any in the language, but they would advise me to read The Cardinal De Retts and the Writers of that time but especially L'Esprit de la Ligue in three Volumes and L'Esprit de la Fronde in five, for these Books would lead me into the History of France and bring me acquainted with many of their Characters. They gave me the Names of Booksellers who would furnish me with any books I wanted. I soon went to Paris and purchased them all and many more.1


This day We dined at Mr. La Fretés. A splendid House, Gardens and Furniture. The Family were fond of Paintings and exhibited a Variety of exquisite Pieces, but none of them struck me more than one Picture of a Storm and another of a Calm at Sea. I had not forgotten the Gulph Stream, the English Channel nor the Bay of Biscay.2

At this dinner the Conversation turned upon the Infrequency of Marriage in France. Go into any company they said and you would find very few who were married, and upon Examination of the numerous Company at Table I was found the only married Person in Company except the Heads of the Family. Here We were shewn a manuscript History of the Revolution in Russia in the Year 1762. The Author was asked why he did not publish it. He answered that he had no mind to be assassinated as he certainly should be if he printed it and was known to be the Writer. Mr. Franklin retired to another room and read it. When he returned it to the Author he made many Eulogies of the Style, Arrangement, Perspicuity &c. and added “You have followed the manner of Sallust, and you have surpassed him.”—I thought this as good a french Compliment as the best of the Company could have made.

At Table there was much conversation about the Education of daughters at the Convents, and I found the discreetest people, especially among the Ladies, had a very bad Opinion of such Education. They were very bad Schools for Morals. It was then News to me that they were thought such in France.

The greatest part of the Conversation was concerning Voltaire. He was extolled to the Skies as a Prodigy. His Eminence in History, Epick Poetry, Dramatick Poetry, Phylosophy, even the Neutonian Phylosophy: His Prose and Verse were equally admirable. No Writer had ever excelled in so many Branches of Science and Learning, besides that 62astonishing multitude of his fugitive Pieces. He was the grand Monarch of Science and Litterature. If he should die the Republick of Letters would be restored. But it was now a Monarchy &c. &c. &c.


Most of the titles listed can be identified among JA's books now in the Boston Public Library. See the following entries in the Catalogue of JA's Library: Girard, Les vrais principes de la langue françoise and Synonymes françois (p. 103); [Féraud,] Dictionnaire grammatical, de la langue françoise (p. 92); Institut de France, Académie française, Dictionnaire de l'Académie françoise (p. 127); Richelet, Dictionnaire de la langue françoise, 2 edns. (p. 212); Dictionnaire universel françois et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (p. 74); Pascal, Les provinciales, ou lettres écrites par Louis de Montalte (p. 188); Marquise de Sévigné, Recueil des lettres (p. 226); Antoine, Comte Hamilton, Oeuvres, which includes the Mémoires du Comte de Grammont (p. 113); Cardinal de Retz, Mémoires (p. 211). One other work, the author of which is not named by JA, remains in the Adams family library in Quincy (MQA): Louis Pierre Anquetil, L'esprit de la ligue, 2d edn., 3 vols., Paris, 1771.

JA's listing of specific authors and titles in this passage, for which there is no equivalent in his Diary, clearly indicates that he went to his shelves to refresh his memory about the French grammars, dictionaries, and literary and historical works he had acquired in Paris in order to learn French. But those named here are a more or less random selection from a much larger number of works of the same kind that he purchased in French and Dutch bookshops within the next few years. See another listing of French books in JA's Autobiography under 8 July, below.


The following three paragraphs were begun by JA as an interlineation in the MS and then continued on a separate sheet marked for insertion ahead of the entry of 17 April, below.

[April 17. Fryday.] JA


[April 17. Fryday.] Adams, John
April 17. Fryday.

April 17. Fryday. We dined home with Company. Mr. Platt and his Lady, Mr. Amiel and his Lady, Mr. Austin, Mr. Alexander &c. There were two Alexanders, one a Batcheller, the other with a Family of several Daughters, one of whom Mr. Jonathan Williams afterwards married. They lived in a House not far from Us, were from Scotland, and had some connection with Mr. Franklin, which I never understood and took no pains to investigate.1

After dinner We went to see the Fete de long Champ, or the feast of the long Field. This was good Fryday. On this Week, all the Theatres of Paris are shutt up and the Performers forbidden to play. By this decree, whether of the Church or State, or both, All the fashionable People of Paris and its Environs are deprived of their daily Amusements and loose their ordinary topicks of conversation. The consequence of which is that they are si ennuiée, so weary of themselves that they cannot live. To avoid this direfull calamity they have invented this new Spectacle and have made it fashionable for every Person who owns a Carriage of any kind that rolls upon Wheels, and all those who can hire one to go out of Town and march their Horses slowly along one side of the great Road to the End of it, then they come about and return on the other Side, and in this manner the Carriages are rolling all day. It was asserted on that day that there was not a pair of Wheels left in the City. For some Years, the Ladies who were not acknowledged to have established reputations, were observed to appear in unusual splendor in these Processions, and the indecency increased from Year to Year till one of the most beautifull but one of the most infamous Prostitutes in Paris had sold her Charms to such profit that she appeared in the most costly and splendid Equipage in 63the whole Row:2 six of the finest horses in the Kingdom, the most costly Coach that could be built, more numerous Servants and richer Liveries than any of the Nobility or Princes. Her own Dress in Proportion. It was generally agreed to be the finest Shew that had ever been exhibited. This was so audacious an Insult to all modest Women and indeed to the national morality and Religion, that the Queen to her honor sent her a Message the next morning, that if she ever appeared again, any where, in that Equipage she should find herself in Bicetre the next morning.3 Yet even this was a modest fancy in comparison with the palace of Bellvue.4 This was another Symptom of the pure virtuous manners which I was simple enough to think would not accord with our American Republican Institutions. To be sure it had never yet entered my thoughts, that any rational Being would ever think of demolishing the Monarchy and creating a Republick in France.


The Alexanders were a numerous and ubiquitous clan, some of whom Franklin had known in England and others apparently in Scotland, and all of whom were correspondents of his. William Alexander Jr. owned property in the West Indies and had had financial dealings with Franklin before the Revolution. He left England for France in 1776, welcomed Franklin from Dijon, and later established himself with his daughters (one of whom, Marianne, married Franklin's grandnephew Jonathan Williams in 1779) at Auteuil. It is now known that Alexander was a secret agent of Sir William Pulteney, who in 1777–1778 tried to bring about peace by personal negotiations with Franklin. Alexander's career is described and his correspondence with Pulteney is quoted and abstracted by Frederick B. Tolles in “Franklin and the Pulteney Mission: An Episode in the Secret History of the American Revolution,” Huntington Libr. Quart., 17:37–58 (Nov. 1953) His letter of 26 May 1778 (p. 53–54) contains a vivid sketch of JA soon after his arrival in France.


In JA's Works (133) the preceding passage reads as follows: “For some years, certain persons of equivocal reputation were observed to appear in unusual splendor in these processions, and the scandal increased from year to year, till one of the most notorious females in Paris appeared in the most costly and splendid equipage in the whole row” —a rare but striking instance of editorial bowdlerizing by CFA.


A long letter from John Thaxter to AA, Paris, 18 April 1783 (Adams Papers), is very largely devoted to an account of the “Fête des longs Champs” that he had witnessed the day before.


Bellevue, the splendid palace built for Mme. de Pompadour on the Seine near Meudon; it is described in Dezallier, Environs de Paris, 1779, p. 35–40. See JA's reflections on the role of Bellevue and its mistress in French history, in the entry of 2 June, below.