America, France, and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace

I had the great pleasure this weekend of attending the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., where I got to hear David McCullough speak. I enjoyed it immensely.

The theme was sharing knowledge across borders and generations. He spent a lot of time outlining the need to get students interested in learning and exploring. I get the greatest joy out of life by discovering something that I didn’t know. I love nothing more than to put together the puzzle pieces and make a story. I wish more people realized just how fun and interesting history really is–it’s one long string of great stories.

Mr McCullough suggested that students be shown real documents and be taken to historical sites, and I agree whole-heartedly. Nothing will interest young people in history more than showing them items held by other people just as alive two hundred years ago as they, the student, are now. Walking through the same places they walked through, standing in the same rooms as them–I know for me that kind of experience has had a powerful effect. Asking students to discover something for themselves–to use real documents, archaeology, or architecture–gives that all-important sense of achievement.

I take a lot of interest in this sort of thing, because I’m aware that for people my age (and younger) it’s unusual to be interested in history. More people my age and younger need to get excited about diving into the stories of history. Fact really is stranger than fiction. The Affair of the Diamond Necklace is one example. But there are millions of stories involving normal people with extraordinary tales to tell.

Mr. McCullough’s discussion of learning was not just about teaching new generations to appreciate history; it was also about learning from other cultures. In the case of his newest book, the exchange is between France (especially Paris) and America in the nineteenth century. As he put it, people often don’t realize how much we owe the French (the French army and navy were key in winning our independence, and after all the French gave us the Statue of Liberty). The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, Mr McCullough’s newest book, is about the cultural gifts that France gave us: art, medicine, architecture.

The idea of Americans going to Paris to soak up its culture is apropos to the time period of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Eighteenth-century France was the acknowledged leader in all fine things–art, ballet, fashion, food. This was true when Marie-Antoinette was setting the fashion for three-foot-tall hair, and it is still true today. If it comes from Paris, it’s automatically the best (and, let’s face it, much more expensive). In the other direction, there was quite the vogue for all things American during and after the American Revolution. Suddenly ideas of rebellion, freedom, and quaint rusticism were all the rage.

Americans were very much in Paris at the time of the Affair. Just before the time of the Affair, Benjamin Franklin made an enormous splash by being both very American and very French. He wore a fur hat but made himself well-liked by playing politics their way. French politics was still wrapped up in a hierarchy of nobility and royalty. John Adams was commendably moral (too moral?), but not quite as successful at making friends in France as Franklin was. Thomas Jefferson was very much at home in a place with so much beauty and knowledge to soak in. It was the efforts of men like Franklin that convinced Louis XVI to aid the Americans in their fight against the English in spite of the cost and the danger inherent in helping rebels overturn a monarchy. The Americans in Paris at the time of the Affair of the Necklace spread the idea of government by the people. Ten years after America won its war against Britain, France executed its monarchs. That, more than anything, speaks to the important links between the United States and France at the time of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace.

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