Marc Belissa

Marc Belissa is master lecturer in modern history at the University of Paris X (Nanterre). His area of research is the political history of international relations during the modern period, and especially during the Age of Enlightenment. He has been particularly interested in French-American relations
during the time from the American Revolutionary War to the fall of Napoleon. He has published articles and has co-authored numerous works of interest, including La Diplomatie américaine et les principes du droit des gens (1776-1787) (American diplomacy and the principles of the rights of peoples, 1776-1787), in the journal Revue d’Histoire Diplomatique, 1997, no. 1;  L’armée permanente et la politique de la puissance dans le débat constitutionnel américain de 1787 (The permanent peacetime army and the policy of military strength in the American constitutional debate of 1787), in Aux armes citoyens! (Citizens, take up your arms!); and Conscription et armée de métier des Grecs à nos jours (Conscription and the professional army from the Greeks to the present), Paris, Armand Colin, 1998.
Durig his time on staff at the University of Nantes from 1998 to 2001 he studied the consular archives maintained there, leading to a comprehensive view of French-American relations seen through the eyes of French diplomats posted in the United States during the revolutionary and imperial periods. This study Aux origines d’une alliance improbable:  Le réseau consulaire français aux Etats-Unis, 1776-1815 (The origins of an improbable alliance: the network of French consuls in the United States, 1776-1815), P.I.E. Peter Lang, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the collection Diplomatie et Histoire (Diplomacy and History), Brussels, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New your, Oxford, Vienna, 2005 provides a new approach to these relations from the perspective of the practitioners, who were the consuls.
His most recent books have dealt with political ideas in the arena of international relations: Cosmopolitisme, Patriotisme, Europe, Amériques, 1776-1802 (Cosmopolitanism, Patriotism, Europe, the Americas, 1776-1802), with Bernard Cottret, (Rennes, Les Perseides, 2005). Repenser l’ordre Européen, 1795-1802  (Rethinking the European Order, 1795-1802), Paris, Editions Klimé, 2006.




The Marquis de La Fayette is a central character in the myths built up around French participation in the Revolutionary War who played a leading role in creating a positive impression of America in Europe  in the years leading up to the French Revolution. Born into an old aristocratic family from Auvergne, a member of the military and a Free Mason, he was one of the first of the Patriot noblemen to meet the American envoys, Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, at Versailles, with whom he signed an agreement. Defying Louis XVI’s refusal to allow his participation, he set sail at his own expense to join in on the American adventure and contributed to the victory by the revolutionists, in particular by allowing them a rapprochement with the Iroquois. But all of that is already well-known, and we have a much greater interest in his role as disseminator of what could be called “Americanism” or “Americanomania” among the French and European elite. The “Hero of the Two Worlds” was at the center of an Americanophile sociability, of a propaganda favoring close relations between France and America. He was also one of the most determining forces of the American constitutional principles and of the political debates surrounding the creation of the federal republic between 1783 and 1789, helping to elaborate a positive image of the New World’s young republic for those of enlightened opinion in “Old Europe.”


French-American relations are central to the current political debate in France as well as in the United States. But as a practical matter, French-American relations are given scant consideration in historiography, especially during the period from 1776 to 1815. It was precisely at that time, however, that diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties, the cornerstones of the common history, were put into place.
During this key period, the consuls of France were actors and observers of great importance. Often relegated by diplomatic history to the “minor” area of commerce, their function has be reevaluated by recent historiography, which views the 18th century as the time when the “culture of peace” asserted itself, brought to the fore by the extension of the network of correspondence between the two states.
The lecture will focus on French-American relations between 1776 and 1815, through the specific use of the consular sources. What is the role of the consuls in the configuration of diplomatic circles? What mutual impressions of the French and Americans do they help to forge and disseminate? How did they perform their tasks of gathering information and analyzing commercial and economic activity? What role did they play in the strategy to control the French colonies, and in the fierce battles to control shipping lanes to and from the Antilles?

The American revolution “opened a new perspective in human affairs and marked the beginning of a new era in the history of humanity.” It was in these terms that Richard Price, in 1785, defined the nature of the political upheaval caused by the Thirteen Colonies during the War for Independence and afterwards. The first of the Revolutions of the last quarter of the 18th century is thought of first and foremost by the “patriot” segment of European opinion as a radical change for all peoples. Even before the decisive victory over Great Britain, a debate had begun on the consequences of this political turmoil. All those both in Europe and America considered to be enlightened writers participated in the discussion. Writers responded to each others’  writings with stunning speed, made possible in large part through the numerous translators on both sides of the Atlantic. The press, almanacs and encyclopedias contributed in familiarizing the Europeans with America.
On both sides of the Atlantic, “the political” was conceived of by using the same historical and theoretical points of reference. The work of Locke, Montesquieu, Vattel, Burlamaui, and Pufendorf were known to all. The American revolutionaries and their European counterparts formed part of the continuum, begun by the writers of the Enlightenment, concerning the debate on the politics of power. Beginning with constitutional questions, this debate in fact touched on the whole of American society coming into its own and on America’s relations with the world. The exemplary aspect of the American revolution was not only a call for the reconquest of the rights of nations, but also an invitation to practically transform the existing rights of man and to encourage relations among peoples who stand for reciprocity and equality. It was, as Thomas Paine wrote to Abbé Raynal, an encouragement “to widen the circle of civilization.”

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