France and America, Partners

By Jules Bois

[The Century Magazine, February 1917]

The great European War has already lasted long; it may still last long. Save for some unforeseen event, unhappily it can be brought to a close— and the fault is not ours—only through an increase of destruction.

But the world does not come to an end: it is simply transformed. Death is only one aspect of eternal life; destruction is only the troubled sleep of resurrections. Let us turn our eyes for a moment from this wild crisis. We know that it will end in the triumph of right. Let us try from now on not to picture in mind a theoretical renascence of the dreams of visionaries, but to correct the balance-sheet of our deficits, to face our difficulties like men, and, recognizing our mistakes and meditating on our faults, strive to escape their recurrence. Let us seek the remedies that exist for all ills.

But how reconstruct? Reconstruct the body and the soul? It is not too early to consider all this, because it will demand much time and attention. We must deliberate, discuss, exercise our critical faculties, cultivate enthusiasm, coordinate our endeavors. During peace Germany had prepared for war; we must not await the end of war to prepare for peace.

When the husbandman sees his fields laid waste by hail, storm, drought, or fire, if he is wise he does not wring his hands, curse the heavens, or collapse in fruitless despair; but he turns to his granaries, where in years of abundance he has put aside a reserve store of wheat and provender, and at once prepares for a new sowing and a new harvest. In just such a sense Europe has a granary—a granary that has made itself. America is that granary.

For several centuries certain men, fired by the love of adventure or impatient at the restraint imposed on them by old laws or too constricted territory, have crossed the Atlantic to form themselves into a new nation, freer, more energetic, more idealistic, and at the same time more practical, settling there in an immense land the degenerate natives of which, in their ignorance of any way to turn it to the best account, had left barren of man's cultivation.

Sometimes these hardy pioneers had sought unknown regions under the spur of persecution; sometimes they had gone through a longing for adventure, drawn to the New World by the great expectations it held out. They were not exiled; they uprooted themselves from their country's soil, impelled by that migratory impulse that in the past as well as to-day has always been the point of departure of new civilizations.

Now, these men, after having won their independence through a foreign war, and cemented their different racial tendencies and aspirations by civil war, have enjoyed and continue to enjoy a security and prosperity that their native lands no longer know. But although they are Americans and only Americans, they cannot forget, and ought not forget, that their ancestors were Europeans. Most certainly they have worked out their own destiny in the New World: they have cleared the land and peopled the wilderness, with their own hands they have built opulent and flourishing cities that rival the most famous cities of ancient times; but this stupendous economical and moral development they have accomplished well through the European training and culture that they carried with them, and which have brought forth results wholly unexpected.

Americans do not deny this debt to the Old World. Of their own free will many have devoted themselves and their wealth to Europe. Moreover, they have been able to separate the wheat from the chaff. They have given their sympathy and their coöperation to those nations that they recognized as being especially loyal to the cause of liberty, consecrated with justice and blood—to England and to France, and particularly to France, whose help in their own hour of danger and deliverance they have not forgotten.

This has come about naturally through the keen vision of popular instinct, which outstrips the subtle interpretations of diplomacy and the explanations of governments. When Lafayette hurried to the assistance of America, young then and eager for self-government, it was the spirit of France that led him, not the will of a monarch or statesman. He was impelled by a principle, the right of the people, and by that true love of liberty that always leavens France, and to-day is leading her to sacrifice herself not alone for self, but for civilization. In the same way those Americans who are fighting in our ranks and are giving their lives to care for our wounded are moved by no selfish purpose; they desire to show their gratitude and serve the ideal of justice and liberty. I am sure that if there existed an instrument that could measure the quality of emotions, it would undoubtedly show a strong likeness between the splendid exaltation of your young aviators hovering above our lines and the big-hearted decision of Lafayette. One of our moralists has said, "The heart has reasons that reason itself cannot understand." However that may be, in this case I believe the heart is right.

Even our enemies realize that America and France are linked together by a strong, though subtle and yet scarcely conscious, bond—a bond largely made up of sentiment. This war, in affirming it, strengthening it, proving it to be logical, now gives it historically a new brightness. One discovers one's friends in the hour of suffering. The traditional and spontaneous affection that America has for us is real, vital, and has no need of treaties and agreements. France to-day responds to it, and will respond more and more. But the realization of this friendship, now an established fact, must become clearer in order that we may cultivate it and make it more fruitful until it yields the two nations the rich harvest of its promise. The plan is too vast for us even to attempt to sketch. We must content ourselves with giving a little advice, making a few suggestions. The best way to bring the two peoples together is to show them their common characteristics, to define their common interests, and to enumerate the ideas and sentiments that they share. The rest will take care of itself. We ought not to force that which should come about in accordance with the rules of common sense and natural attractions.

Despite certain very marked external differences, there are profound likenesses in the genius of the two nations that will work in harmony because they are fundamental and are based upon character and spirit. Though the constitutions of the two republics differ in certain respects and their customs have their individual peculiarities, the two democracies nevertheless follow the same impulses and respond to the same principles. As Frenchmen and Americans, we have the same national and international ideals. There is also a more nearly indefinable likeness.

While I am well-rooted in my French and Latin soil, I have traveled far through the world, and one may believe me when I say that I have found no city that more resembles Paris in its ways and the characteristics of its inhabitants than New York. Even London, admirable as it is, is more apart. This is not to say that New York is not profoundly original, but that between it and Paris there are parallel originalities. The gaiety of the streets; already certain aspects of picturesque antiquity; the atmosphere of welcoming; the vivacious spirit, cordial hospitality, and disinterested enthusiasm for talent, merit, or novelty; a certain quickness to adopt and to discard ideas, art movements, and people; a restlessness at times too feverish; a love of pleasure, elegance, and luxury; a tendency to respond instantly and as one man to any great and international event—all this is what makes of Paris and New York, each in its own particular way, with its little faults and grand qualities, the two most sympathetic, the most "electric" capitals of the civilized world.

The manner in which France slowly formed herself through the centuries recalls the manner—and this has never been sufficiently remarked—in which the United States came into being and was developed. To so great an extent is this true that one might call France a solidly traditionalized America, and America a France that is magnificently improvising herself.

The geographical position of France and the attraction that she has always exercised have, by a peculiar process, slowly developed her from many crossed races into a homogeneous people. She is not wholly Latin, like Italy; or Celtic, like the country of the Gauls; or Norse, like Scandinavia or Scotland and a part of England. Far from being a peninsula like Spain, almost isolated from European influences, she is made up of a series of alluvial deposits: in the north, the Bretons, the Normans, the Angles, and the Flemish; in the middle and the east, the Franks, the Gauls, the Arvernians, the Burgundians, the Lorrainers, and the Alsatians; in the southeast and the south, the Latins, the Italians, and the Greeks; and in the southwest, the Basques and the Iberians, with not a little trace of English blood, especially in the region of Bordeaux.

And yet a Frenchman is nothing more than a Frenchman, whatever the province from which he comes, and despite certain differences of accent, manner, or appearance. Our soul is one. The same interests, the same ideal, and, though the horizons are varied, a like harmony that is at once both moderate and refined, have molded and remolded the people of that country the natural boundaries of which are the Rhine, the Pyrenees, and the Alps. Add to all this the constantly repulsed menace of barbarians—a menace that did not begin in 1914, and which has continually brought us together as a united force. Royalty, welding together its feudal forces; the First Republic, with its humanitarian and national gospel ; and Napoleon, with his centralized system of administration, so skilfully made of all these provinces a coherent economic and political organism that without any danger or any weakening of the inalterable identity of the united country the people of the several provinces may display their racial characteristics and varied origins.

America will not lose sight of such an example not of uniformity, but of grouping, so blended together, so impossible to be made to crumble or to dissolve, that the world can find therein a reason for our growing victory. It has been said in the Holy Word that "if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand." The United States ought also to desire to become more and more united in purpose. They are already united; they can be, and ought to be, even more united.

Nevertheless, we should be slow to deny an encountered peril, and one that may reappear—the settling among us of hostile and unassimilated foreigners. We, too, have our problem of "hyphens." To be exposed to the same risks is only another form of resemblance between the two countries.

To-day France has become aware of her vitality and power; but she realizes that she has remained France only by not permitting herself to be weakened in times of peace as in times of war by malevolent aliens. A nation exhausts itself and is not enriched when it nourishes elements that cannot be assimilated, because they in their disloyalty are wont to attempt to alter its customs and national characteristics for their personal gain.

Paris had become too incongruous, too cosmopolitan. Though a certain number of the select few congregated there, in far greater numbers the frothy elements of society came in floods: inimical spies, brewers of questionable affairs, idlers who sought to amuse themselves at any cost, taking advantage of our ready welcome to lead among us a sophisticated and unwholesome existence that they thereupon called "Parisian life." This setting was unhappy both for our home and foreign politics, which it disturbed, and for our art and culture. Our theaters of late years, for example, no longer reflected French manners, but the manners of adventurers, roués, and intriguers, who came from the ends of the earth and posed among us as masters of the house and arbiters of a taste that they made less pure. Especially is it true that our neighbors beyond the Rhine, attracted by our cities and our country, began secretly to colonize among us.

All this we saw at the outbreak of the war, but unfortunately too late. The majority of these were spies, working for the advantage of their fatherland and preparing for an invasion that this time was to be armed. They strove, moreover, to blacken the fair name of France. Their noisy eccentricities, their brutal characteristics, and their hypocritical plots had the effect of giving to foreigners the impression that we were undergoing a moral relaxation. It was a false and regrettable impression, an appearance of frivolity that was mainly exotic. We had not taken sufficient pains to impress upon those whose naturalization we had too readily accepted the necessity of adaptability. This is always a danger that threatens those people among whom foreigners who are not of the best type delight to sojourn.

Because of her mixture of races, her freedom, and her inheritance of certain European characteristics, the baneful vibrations of which have been felt across the ocean during the course of this war, America has been brought face to face with the necessity of keeping close watch over those parasites who establish themselves in a country, live upon it, yet turn against it when they believe that their interests demand such a course.

In France the remedy for this evil has been national unity, already very ancient, and which this recent virus had not yet weakened—a unity of those who agree to submit themselves to the most costly patriotic duties, even the complete sacrifice, if necessary, of the individual to the commonwealth, a firmness necessary for the elimination of the baneful and the useless.

In short, safety lies first in oneself before one has recourse to laws, which, however, must not be overlooked. If a great and varied population is fermenting in the vast American vat, it holds an excellent dissolvent for uniting conflicting elements, provided they are healthy. The character and physical and moral vigor that you inherit from your forefathers, your idealism, which the egotistical pretensions of newcomers have not overwhelmed, make a mold where are cast nationalities and individualities seemingly irreconcilable. I am confident that you will suffer no break to appear in this marvelous crucible. Your firmness is never tyrannical. On the contrary, it wins every one by its tolerance. The descendants and followers of the great men who created America, its wealth, and its spirit have sufficient keenness and enterprise to impress upon late-comers, when brought into contact with them, these homogeneous qualities: self-control, love of toil, respect for the point of view of others, honest ambition, generous aspirations, fidelity to the starry flag. Those who do not accept these duties, sources of vast good, are unworthy of you. You may calmly reject them.

Thus will be averted treason to a country which opens its arms wide to all loyal good-will, and which is by a providential mission a redeemer. The country of Lincoln and Emerson is the country of mankind. In this America bears another resemblance to France, which has been called the second country of all men.

One of our sociologists has declared that national likenesses and attractions are closely connected with destinies. The sympathy that exists between France and America certainly inclines them toward coöperation. Being an intellectual, I view this coöperation especially in its most profound and freest aspect—the aspect of organized friendship.

So far you have remained faithful to that "splendid isolation" that England has abandoned. But one who lives wholly for himself and alone does not lead a full life. A friend completes us less by his personal contribution than by all that he calls forth in us that was already there. From the fact that intercourse between races is increasing to-day, whether through greater and more rapid means of travel or through the intellectual vibrations of minds, which also have their wireless telegraphy, the world is gradually forming for itself a single conscience. I feel indeed that this unified conscience is developing itself more particularly here. America therefore has national and humanitarian reasons for turning to Europe and thus singling out those nations more capable of working with her for the benefit of the whole world.

If even before the war we practised a system of national agreements—it was necessary in order to counterbalance the warlike Triple Alliance, we French were too ignorant of other countries. France and England, though near neighbors, began to know each other and esteem each other's value only when they became brothers in arms. We French had become a little apathetic with the prosperity that came to us through a favorable climate, the wealth brought into the country by visitors, and the frugality of our race—from one point of view a virtue, from another a fault; for economy, while heaping up capital, diminishes initiative and leads one to become satisfied with too little.

To-day, awakened, with much of her soil under the heel of her foe, France must gather herself together for the rebound. For her life to-morrow will be hard and rough. "When the cannon are at last stilled, we shall have to think of intellectual and economic wars. We shall have to furbish up the weapons of our inborn and acquired gifts, and especially those gifts that before our awakening were drugged by habit or made sterile by neglect. Our industrial life, our commerce, our literature must rise in a new flight if they are to escape decay. We ought to be more ambitious, less timid, have a greater love for risks, learn to allow our children to expatriate themselves in order to be better known to other lands and in turn to know them better. All this should be done for our own profit and for the benefit of all. In this America will aid us.

It is therefore well for us to visit each other more; for it is in talk together, in living and working together, that the strongest ties are made. Before the war we did not spend time enough with you and since its outbreak necessity has brought home a still larger number of French. I am sure that, aside from the patriotic duties that engaged them, they must have found pleasure and profit in your company. I hope that this state of affairs may last and even develop itself when peace again comes. Indeed, I was the instigator of commercial exchanges, in order that the young prizemen of our chambers of commerce and syndicate chambers might travel in America.

Just as artists, sculptors, painters, and architects receive from our Government the means that permit them to study in the cities of the splendid past like Athens and Rome, so it would be to our interest for our young business men to visit New York or the more industrial cities of America in order to "study the future," gain a familiarity with the mechanism of great enterprises, stimulate their practical capabilities, and increase their initiative. Theoretical courses in universities are not so imperative for our young students as terms in the offices of your great financiers and your most important industrial centers. These students will later become the interpreters of the economic culture of the United States. Our writers and artists might also gain an advantage by contact with your people and institutions.

I have been assured that at one time you feared that the commercial agreement between the Allies to resist our enemies after the war in their attempts to seize the markets of the world might prove disastrous to your interests. But authoritative voices, like that of your ambassador at Paris, quickly undeceived you. In our plans for the future there is nothing harmful to your interests. On the contrary, we shall have more and more need of your raw material, your machinery, your products. Even in the past we often had recourse to these. Is it necessary to recall, for example, that at the end of the last century, when we had to combat phylloxera, we imported some of your youngest and most robust vines? In this manner strengthening our vineyards, we were enabled to destroy the epidemic. But what is phylloxera compared with the plague of war? But I leave it for specialists to indicate more precisely and completely the economic assistance that you will be able to give us, and which cannot but be of profit to your people.

I hasten to touch upon the subject of intellectual commerce, according to the expression current in the eighteenth century when speaking of matters that related to the mind. The exchange of professors between our universities is not sufficient. Our whole modes of thought, when examined carefully, will disclose certain results that will be for our common advantage. For example, modern French philosophy has unquestionably been affected first by the spirit of Emerson and recently by that of William James. The American who has fundamentally a taste for adventure, travel, action, and business affairs should place character and insight in the first rank. Emerson was the philosopher of character, William James of insight and intuition. Even before the war the prophets of American force were increasing in France, and our moralists, abandoning the field of abstraction and criticism, were allying themselves in a practical way with that phase of intellectual activity that the celebrated Bostonian called "the conduct of life." Moreover, the most popular of our speculative thinkers, M. Bergson, at the prompting of William James, took the side of intellectual reason and reinstated instinct. Many of his disciples, and perhaps he himself, are what you choose to call "pragmatists."

Do you fully realize to what an extent you revived the inspiration and even the esthetics of our poets? Your great Walt Whitman did much to change our verse form, which with you has led to "free verse." Moreover he brought to our literature a breath of nature, both rustic and friendly, and a rugged sincerity which attracted us yesterday and will undoubtedly prevail to-morrow. Certain French lyric poets like Stuart Merrill, who was born in America, have been highly considered and have formed a school.

On the other hand, apart from the theater, and our milliners and dressmakers, indeed, French influence has not been strongly felt by any of your people except those who have come to our shores. Up to the present only English and German, and perhaps Slavic, influences have penetrated into your universities and literary groups. Yet I feel that our individualistic and humanitarian spirit, both in its critical and constructive aspects, would be of service to you. I know indeed that a choice few among you do not ignore us; but geniuses like Voltaire, Renan, and Taine—to name only the dead—merit as much popularity with you as a British Carlyle or a Prussian Nietzsche. We also have our Emerson, Michelet, who would charm, and stimulate you. Your novelists, with few exceptions, are still at the first stage. The maturity of ours would not be useless to them in developing the art of construction and the psychology of character portrayal.

You are a young people, thanks to the renewal brought about by new geographical surroundings and the fusion of many races. But youth, which is the most precious of gifts, turns too credulous eyes toward life. It becomes enthusiastic over mere appearances, and is easily deceived ; it is wont to be infatuated with immediate and easily won successes. For it a certain surface audacity makes up for the lack of the finer mental qualities that are either wholly absent or are replaced by facility, chance, or bluff. Through contact with intellectual France, which possesses certain well-defined characteristics that are more in accord with your own traits than are Germany's, you would profit by our earlier arrival on the field of ideas and aspirations, and your judgment, already penetrating, would increase until you reached that point where you would forge the final world culture.

Through its destruction of men and monuments the war has given to surviving Europeans more ruggedness and firmer character and a realization of the fact that it is dangerous to bury oneself in a past that the present has set about abolishing, and that a settled state of mind tends to form prejudices, and to become old faster than the nation itself. But there remain to us a sufficient number of traces of our ancient glory—traces sometimes painfully shattered and for that reason all the more precious—to permit us to find in the past a criterion and a point of comparison for our new enterprises. The deserted cottage is loved all the more when we return to it. The field that has been made barren by a thunderous rain of steel will be cultivated with even more perseverance for its having been for a time a waste. The mutilated cathedrals predispose one to a firmer faith. On visiting our battlefields and sojourning in our shattered cities, which recovery will quickly make more prosperous, you will better understand what good fruit lies in traditions that upheld and comforted us when the present appeared to hold only ruin and disaster. In all this there is still another reason for intercourse between America and France: on one side a kind of sorting out the debris of past ages; on the other a feverishness for the future, which constantly increases with us, and which you will be able to enrich with your habits of work and system. Ah, American system! I shall not cease to advise its adoption by Europe and specially France.

You accomplish things quickly and you do them in a big way. You work much, with a vivacious readiness and a kind of intoxication, but you also have a proper desire for rest. You know how to shorten the hours of business precisely because you have made them more intense. With us, despite our impulsive natures, our clear vision, our ability to shift for ourselves, work lengthens out and drags; and it encroaches on our rest just as our rest encroaches on our work. You know and practise the law of relaxation through frequent changes; this our stay-at-home workers and business men, too faithful to the homes of their ancestors, ignore.

And how much might be said of your technic, your marvelous mechanism! You not only freed the negro through war and legislation; you have freed yourself to the greatest possible extent through machinery. You have found new slaves in the elements, and have disciplined them by your inventiveness. You have lifted from man's shoulders every burden and care and weighty obligation that can be performed by material agents. I know that your workmen become more and more exacting and that servants are hard to obtain; but does not the dignity of man gain by this? With the arms used less and the secondary faculties of intelligence relieved of all unnecessary strain, there is a possibility for the higher forms of intelligence to assert themselves. In the society of the future it will be possible for all men to think, to love, to amuse themselves because they will have more leisure.

Your method, your methods, to be more exact, please us for still other reasons. They are superior to German organization inasmuch as they use and develop the initiative of individual men instead of destroying it. It is for this reason that they are better adapted to our intelligence and sensibilities than passive obedience, the state of deaf-and-blind mechanical action to which the controlling powers beyond the Rhine wished to reduce mankind. The American, like the Frenchman and the Englishman, consents to submit to the regulations of the social hive ; but first he wishes to know what he is doing and why he is doing it. Thus he does it better. His consent is free, and thus every day he toils for the perfection of an organization of which he is a conscious member. Your workshops are not barracks. In them one breathes equality, independence, mutual helpfulness, coöperation of effort, a tendency to escape, to ascend, If I dare say it. And this is no light jest on the rapidity of your elevators. I see in it an undeniable truth, that of the open door for all, the possibility of quickly becoming wealthy, of "climbing," of broadening.

This transformation of France in which you will cooperate must naturally be a normal evolution of the forces and values that she has at her command. The old Germany, in becoming a powerful empire, modified herself not only at the expense of neighbors near and far, but also, as we begin to see, at the expense of her own happiness. Formerly she appeared to be pacific, domestic, thoughtful, bourgeois, although dreamy. Was she really all this? I no longer dare affirm it. In any case, she wished to surpass herself. She submitted to the ascendency of Prussia, whose ethnic origin is mixed, being both military and predatory. In consequence she lost the character that she had or that she desired to have. She became quarrelsome, turbulent, aggressive, conquering, supreme. The feeling for liberty for herself and for others became vitiated by a longing for power—tyranny within and beyond her borders. Providence and our common sense, the Gallic-Latin civilization with which we are impregnated and which has always molded us, will keep us from committing errors which are also faults. There is among us no more than among you a military caste, nor do we possess a warlike province that would impose on our other provinces their rancors and their hatreds. We know what we desire, and no one can make plans for us that are opposed to our nature or ideal. Moreover, a people that governs itself, a republic, a democracy—Americans know this, and need to be told it by no one—is always pacific; and it understands fully the English saying which you have so well practised, and which is ours also, "Live and let live."

Therefore the development of France cannot be other than gracious and harmonious. It is likewise true of yours. This is why, I repeat, we can advance together, work together. The union will be at the expense of no one ; and this friendship can be dangerous only to those self-centered peoples and castes who are promoters of warfare.

Nevertheless, we must be on guard against other dangers. Becoming less sedentary, and coming more into contact with other races, with new horizons, we French must learn to conserve our scrupulous, refined culture, our moderation, our critical faculty, our common sense, our well-balanced feeling for the beautiful, our firm good taste. And you Americans, pioneers of a world civilization, and now at the height of your prosperity and opulence, must cherish your spirituality.

The spirituality of America is the salt of the world. You will bear in mind, as did your ancestors, that the aim of life for individual men and communities is not success, fortune, or even the supremacy of intelligence and action. Man has been placed on this earth to demonstrate the superiority of the spirit over material instincts and blind forces. And when I use the word "spirit" it is with the same meaning that you give to it. Spirit in man is the purified heart; it is the soul wholly mistress of itself. Intelligence has its snares even as the senses have their follies. We become truly great only when we have triumphed over these tests. We believe in the spirituality of America, and we are not of those who think of her only as the "country of dollars." A dollar is worth only what it stands for, the power of doing good that it possesses, and nothing as the procurer of immediate and gross satisfactions. For the fact that your banks are overflowing with wealth I give you great credit; but for the fact that your souls are rich I admire you far more.

Since my travels in America I have felt not only an increase of initiative and energy, but the consciousness of great human duties. My own land had already revealed this to me, but it was yours that showed me on a vaster scale the possibilities that lie in the pursuit of the ideal. You, the most practical men on earth, never lose sight of your flag, whereon appear the stars of the heavens. One who would go far must look high. It has been said that "England thinks of life as a sport, Germany as a system, France as an art, and America as a business." I accept the formula; but there is not alone commercial business, industrial or financial: there is also the great business that concerns the whole of humanity, the problem of mankind in the world, the victory of the soul over self-interest and instinct. To Americans we look for the working out of this problem. It is, if I may venture to call it, the "business of spirituality," which the cynical barbarity of other days or the hypocritical barbarity of the present has always menaced.

France, who has fought, who has suffered, who has sacrificed herself, the France of the Marne and Verdun, faithful to her past and desirous of a still fairer future, stretches out her hands across the ocean to you. It is as much a gesture of hope as an expression of gratitude. We shall not forget, as you have not forgotten, Lafayette and Rochambeau. But we ought to accomplish still more. The principles of our French Revolution and your Declaration of Independence should be the new gospel of the world.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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