Americans in Europe

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Before the advent of the first regular transatlantic passenger service between New York and Liverpool in 1818, relatively few Americans had the means and opportunity to travel to Europe. Yet their experiences played an important role in fostering the notion of a distinct American national identity, as the New World continued to be defined against—and therefore in terms of—the Old World.

For eighteenth-century Americans, Europe meant essentially England and France. Before the Revolution, Anglo-Americans looked to Britain for markets, consumer goods, cultural standards, political ideas, and self-definition. The colonies and the mother country also had strong religious ties. Because of the lack of an American bishop, Anglicans who wanted to be ordained as deacons or priests were required to travel to England. American Quakers kept in close contact with Friends in Britain. Improved postal services and seagoing traffic in the second half of the eighteenth century also linked evangelical activity on both sides of the Atlantic by spreading news of conversions, establishing models for revivals, and facilitating the transnational workings of itinerant preachers.

After merchants and sailors, the sons of the colonial elite accounted for the largest number of Americans visiting Europe. An English university education or professional training was a rite of passage, especially in the South. Until the late eighteenth century, aspiring doctors and lawyers lacked educational opportunities in the colonies and had no choice but to go abroad. The uncontested center for legal studies was the Inns of Court in London, but for medical training most American students preferred Edinburgh, supplementing their courses with visits to London hospitals and medical facilities on the Continent. In addition to meeting students from all over Europe and the British Empire, Americans formed enduring bonds with ambitious young men from the other colonies.

The young elite men (women very rarely crossed the Atlantic, let alone on their own) often extended their formal education to include a "grand tour" of Europe for the purpose of self-improvement. Following the itinerary prescribed in guidebooks, tourists began with an extensive sojourn in Britain, then moved on to sightseeing in France and Italy with brief excursions through Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Grand tours included visits to historical monuments and battlegrounds, museums and cathedrals, as well as spas and bordellos.

Education and travel in Europe were meant to enable young Americans to shed provincial habits and mindsets, yet the experience often made them only more painfully aware of their country's lack of sophistication. This gnawing sense of inferiority manifested itself both in admissions of the colonies' backwardness and in brash declarations about the wholesome simplicity, purity, and equality of American society. Some came to regard the identity and interest of the colonies as different from those of the mother country.

In the midst of the colonial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, the works of Italian-educated, London-based American painters John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) and Benjamin West (1738–1820) combined Old World artistic traditions and standards with distinctly New World subjects and approaches. Both artists influenced younger American painters, such as Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), and John Trumbull (1756–1843), who went abroad to study with them after Revolution.

During the War of Independence, around 7,000 Anglo-American Loyalists from across class lines took refuge in England. Some prominent Loyalists tried to lobby the British government to intensify the war effort in the colonies, but the refugees mainly served as objects for English war propaganda. After the war, few expatriates regained the social status they had enjoyed in America and were unwelcome reminders to their host country of an embarrassing loss. The war also brought to London hundreds of African American refugees who had liberated themselves or had been freed by the British army. As many were destitute and reduced to begging in the streets, the British government sponsored their resettlement to Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa in 1787.

Britain continued to be a source of technological innovation for the early Republic. In the late 1780s and early 1790s, American merchants and Treasury officials attempted to obtain workable models of new British cotton spinning machines and to (illegally) recruit mechanics and mill managers. Some textile workers contacted prominent Americans in Europe, like Benjamin Franklin, to sound out their prospects before they were willing to emigrate and engage in industrial espionage. In the late 1820s American engineers traveled to Britain to gain firsthand knowledge of the emerging railroad technology, and the most successful early railroads in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey closely copied British models.

But as Britain lost its place as the preeminent trading partner and cultural role model, Americans began to look to France, both for help on the battlefield and in defining an American identity. As the envoy to Paris between 1776 and 1785, Franklin came to personify the new nation in the European imagination. Rather than hiding his provincial origins, Franklin shrewdly catered to the preconceptions of the French nobility who liked to think of Americans as noble savages. He was equally adept at advancing his own status as a transatlantic celebrity and promoting an image of his country as a land of virtuous and studious farmers, universal prosperity, and religious toleration.

Other American emissaries, notably John Adams, remained torn between fascination with the grandeur and refinement of European court societies and scorn for their decadence and immorality. Many post-Revolutionary travelers expressed the hope that the yet-to-be-modeled American national character would find a midpoint between the gravity and formality of English manners and the ease and elegance of the French. In the first decades after Independence, the United States sent envoys to only a few European capitals other than London and Paris: the Hague, to negotiate loans and trade agreements; Madrid and Lisbon, because of Spain's and Portugal's continued presence in the New World; and, for a short time, Berlin and Petersburg.

Between his arrival in France in 1784 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, the next American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, tried to educate European intellectuals about the New World while constantly keeping his eyes open for animals, plants, machines, and buildings that could be usefully transported to America. He also served as host and mentor to many young Americans traveling in Europe, but warned them to avoid the temptations of Paris.

Many French reformers looked to the United States as setting the precedent for a successful revolution. In 1789 American residents of Paris, including Jefferson, actively participated in the debates about a new French constitution. Some, like Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816), who was to become Jefferson's successor as minister to France in 1792, and Jefferson's former secretary William Short (1759–1848), were convinced that the French people were not yet ready to follow in American footsteps and argued for a constitutional monarchy. Others, like Joel Barlow (1754–1812) and Thomas Paine (1737–1809), saw France as showing America the way by trying to establish a republic on a more democratic basis.

When the French republic and Britain went to war in 1793, the United States declared its neutrality. Nonetheless, American merchants tried to profit from the European conflict, even as both belligerents seized their ships. The crisis in Franco-American relations caused by the United States' refusal to side with France, the continued seizure of American vessels, and the XYZ affair (1797–1798) all rendered the situation of Americans in France increasingly precarious. Owing to their language and dress, Americans were often mistaken for Englishmen and faced insults, threats, and even arrests for espionage. Many American supporters of the French Revolution, disillusioned by Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power in 1799, returned home.

The ill-fated attempts at economic coercion designed to obtain French and British recognition of America's neutrality, especially President Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807, caused a further decline in the number of Americans traveling to Europe, which continued with the outbreak of war between the United States and England in 1812 and the economic depression in 1819. Meanwhile, the proliferation of colleges and professional schools in the United States and the new emphasis on a distinctly republican education reduced the necessity for studying abroad. But, beginning in the 1820s, improved transportation by transatlantic steamboats brought unprecedented numbers of American tourists to Europe.

At the same time, American authors living abroad also spurred popular interest in Europe. Washington Irving (1783–1859) inspired his readers to imagine a trip to Europe as a romantic return to the past and the origins of their own culture. The Old World was now less associated with tyranny and immorality than with venerable traditions and the latest fashions in art, music, and literature. James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), who spent ten years in Paris, expressed a belief in American republican ideals combined with an appreciation of the cultural and intellectual achievements of European aristocracies that made American society appear shallow and materialistic by comparison.

See alsoEmbargo; War of 1812; XYZ Affair .


Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Andrews, Stuart. The Rediscovery of America: Transatlantic Crosscurrents in an Age of Revolution. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. Americans Abroad: Two Centuries of European Travel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1964.

Sachse, William L. The Colonial American in Britain. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956.

Philipp Ziesche

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Americans in Europe

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