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SAR Genealogical Research Library Receives Rare Book



The NSSAR is pleased to report that the SAR Genealogical Research Library has received an exciting new addition to its special collections.The gift, a book entitled Révolution de l’Amérique by M. l’Abbé Raynal, is a history of the American Revolution written entirely in French!

This copy of the book, published in 1781, is in beautiful, near perfect, condition with an unbroken binding and little to no wear on its scarlet leather cover. The book itself is relatively small, only 131 pages, with three sketches. The first is placed just before Raynal begins the history and depicts a cherub seated on a cloud, holding a harp. The last sketch on the final page of the book is a laurel wreath decorated with a horn instrument and the caduceus, the popular Greek symbol of two serpents wrapped around a winged staff, with the French word for end, ‘fin’, just below it. Finally, the largest and most detailed of the sketches is a fold out illustration, now in two pieces, presumably because of age and wear, showing a map of the thirteen colonies and a sliver of Louisiana and Canada. Below the illustration is a quotation from the poet James Thomson that reads:

                        Full are thy cities with sons of art;

                        And trade and joy in every busy street,---

                        Yet like the mustering thunder when provok’d,

                        The dread of tyrants, and the sole resource

                        Of those that under grim oppression groan.



Interestingly enough, it is the only text in English throughout the entire book. The quotation is from Thomson’s longer epic poem Summer, which was originally published in 1727 and was revised several times. It is unknown to us which of the editions this quotation was borrowed from.

Although the book is nearly pristine, its most valuable asset is, of course, its content. On the title page the author of the work, M. l’Abbé Raynal is cited to have also written an important history of the eighteenth century called Histoire philosophique et politique des etablissemens, et du commerce des Europeens dans les Deux Indes. Roughly translated this title means “The Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Commerce of the Europeans in the Two Indies.” (The “Two Indies” references the East Indies, and in the eighteenth century, typically referred to India and almost the whole of East and South-East Asia and the other Indies are the West Indies in the Caribbean.) The author was born in 1713 in the French village of Latpanouse de Séverae and grew up in Saint-Geniez, both towns that are located in the south of France. Later, he became an abbé, or priest, but he eventually left the clergy and became a journalist and historian. 

Overall the book is a concise history chronicling the events of the American Revolution with some interesting insights on the conflict from an outside party’s point of view. Raynal makes very little reference to individual people, outside of the leading figures of the war, most notably of course, General George Washington. His first mention of Washington occurs after a summary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, saying, “Le commandement en est donné à George Washington, né en Virginie, & connu pour quelques actions heureuses dans les guerres précédents.” Loosely translated this means that “the command of it (the army) was given to George Washington, born in Virginia, and known for heroic actions in previous wars.” This is certainly a treatise to George Washington’s positive reputation abroad among his contemporaries, particularly his reputation with our ally France. Unsurprisingly, the book follows the events of the war chronologically, beginning in the 1760s and discussing the English governing of the colonies. Raynal follows the chain of events and circumstances that lead to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, discussing this on page 86 and the retelling the beginning of the war shortly after that. Astonishingly, less than half of the book spends time discussing the war itself; instead, Raynal spends more time discussing the corrupt rule of the English over the American colonies. This is particularly evident in an impressive portion of the book in which Raynal recounts a conversation he had with an unnamed Whig. Whether or not the conversation was in fact real is neither here nor there; however, it is perhaps just as likely an invention by the author to express his point of view regarding the English treatment of the colonies. The following cited passage is only a snippet of Raynal’s diatribe against England. The Whig’s arguments are in italics and Raynal’s responses and interventions are unchanged:

            Mais, dîtes-vous, ce font des rebelles…

Des rebelles! & pourquoi? Parce qu’ils ne veulent pas être vos esclaves. Un peuple soumis à la volonté d’un autre people qui peut disposer à son gré de son government, de ses loix, de son commerce; l’imposer comme il lui plait; limiter son industrie & l’enchaîner par des prohibitions arbitraries est serf, ou il est serf; & sa servitude est pire que celle qu’il subiroit sous un tyran. On se délivere de l’oppression d’un tyran ou par l’expulsion ou par la mort. Vous avez fait l’un & l’autre (31-32).

Loose Translation:

 But, you said, the rebels

The rebels! And why? Because they do not want to be your slaves. A people subject to the will of another who may have at its discretion their government, their laws, their commerce; imposing as he pleases; limiting its industry and the enslaving by arbitrary prohibitions is serfdom, yes it is a serfdom; and its servitude is worse than it is to be subjected under a tyrant. One frees themselves from the oppression of a tyrant or by expulsion or by death. You have done one or the other.

Raynal continues for several pages along this vein, criticizing different arguments and rebutting each of them. Yet, despite some opinion driven sections, the history described in this book is fascinating insight into how some individuals, other than Americans, had perceived the war effort, as well as simply being an excellent history of the time period itself. For any and all interested in the book, members are welcome to have a look at this marvelous donation. Please contact Rae Ann Sauer (Ext. 6130, 6132) or Michael Christian (Ext. 6131) for arrangements.

(Please note: The translations in the quoted passages were adaptations. Feel free to contact Ellen Bushong at eobush01atlouisville [dot] edu for suggestions or corrections.) This was not translated by a professional translator. Please excuse any inconsistencies or errors in the English.