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Leaving America

November 10, 2019

Richard Gilman‘s 1961 essay “Americans Abroad” and David McCullough‘s The Greater Journey are two interesting accounts of Americans who deserted America to live, work, study and paint in 19th century London and Paris.

A century before, Benjamin Franklin lived for many years in England and France and Benjamin West made his career in London where he was favored by George III.

Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter and inventor, began his sojourn in 1811. Washington Irving, began his stay abroad in 1815 that included a seventeen-year sojourn in England and Spain.

James Fenimore Cooper, had gone to France in 1826 as United States consul at Lyons, but remained there for seven years after giving up his consular position.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens and painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent thrived in Paris and London and Sargent, Henry James and James McNeill Whistler, virtually the first American expatriates living in Paris, knew and socialized with one another.

Harriet Beecher Stowe traveled to Paris to escape the controversy generated by her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, had her reasons, too.

Henry Adams, who had been his father’s secretary at the London embassy during the Civil War, overwhelmed by the death of his wife spent summers in Paris where he encountered Augustus Saint-Gaudens whom he commissioned to create a monument at the grave of his late wife in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery.

On a happier note, William Dean Howells, who had been awarded a position as consul at Venice for campaign work he did for Abraham Lincoln, was married to Elinor Mead in the American Embassy in Paris on Christmas eve in 1862.

But, Henry James put into words the reasons that attracted Americans to lives as expatriates: America had

… no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church … no army … no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools … no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class … The elements of high civilization, as it exists in other countries … are absent.

For us today, as we contemplate the Two Hundred Years War that began with the election of a celebrity as President who brings to office no ties to American conservatives nor knowledge of history, foreign policy and the operations of government, we must reflect on the dearth of political leaders and a future series of failed celebrity presidents.

Like these 19th century expatriates, leaving America seems like a good way to watch the carnage to come in safety.


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