Jean-Louis Alphonse-Le Romain in modern times

Jean-Louis Alphonse-Le Romain (1750-1817) is best known as the son of a colonial French father. Why is it that many people thought he was American?

Jeune égalité, jeune liberté — “what is liberty, what is equality, what is fraternity?” These three words, after all, are the guiding principles of republicanism, even if for most Americans, the radicalized brand of it — from King George III to Huey Long — was often perceived as a foreign imposition.

Thus, when the writer Robert Penn Warren memorialized Pierre L’Enfant, a well-known aristocrat and military commander for revolutionary France during the mid-1700s, in his bestselling novel “On the Sea of Galilee,” “Itwas impossible for most Americans to take pride in L’Enfant’s success,” Warren wrote. “We had our own Frontiersman right across the ocean in Philadelphia.”

In French, “with-honor” — “with privilege” — was always reserved for the virtuous. Jean-Louis Alphonse-Le Romain had learned these words at a young age from a paternal uncle, and then as a soldier under Gen. Francois-Joseph de Gardières during the French Revolution. By the time the revolutionary army fled Paris, Alphonse-Le Romain had been promoted to major, having lost his youth and his sense of being inferior.

From age 18 on, Alphonse-Le Romain spent much of his time elsewhere in Europe, witnessing not only the collapse of the old way of life but also the rise of an entire new one. His extended journey, much like that of French revolutionary France itself, began with the dispossession of the countryside and the establishment of towns for the working classes. There followed several years of slavery. The French Revolution, which turned a debate about the relative importance of the individual and the whole — liberty, equality, fraternity — into a political fire-breather, had already emptied the lands of their original inhabitants; what Alphonse-Le Romain witnessed in the power struggles between the separate classes would do much more lasting damage. He describes it all in 14 volumes, which form the basis of his towering novel “Bonjour Tristesse,” published in 1781.

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