The Objects

9th May 1815

Adams May.jpg
Source: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

An ‘instructive spectacle’ of French Quiddism

Contributed by: Elodie Duché

On 25 April 1815, whilst visiting Paris on diplomatic duties, the American politician John Quincy Adams attended ‘the Spectacle Instructif and Phantasmagoria of Robertson on the boulevards’. There, he saw various optical illusions and automata, through which he had a glimpse into the state of the arts and sciences in post-Napoleonic France. But, for him and for other American observers, the whole city of Paris became an ‘instructive spectacle’ of political turmoil during the 100 Days.

In his diary, he noted how witnessing Parisian reactions to Napoleon’s return informed and altered his vision of political legitimacy and liberalism. His initial admiration for the Emperor and the popular fervour he observed in theatres faded away in May when, after witnessing the exodus of English travellers, he decided to visit the Marquis de Lafayette in his sheltered Château de la Grange in Seine-et-Marne. For a week, they discussed the events at a distance from the central stage of the capital, through the collective reading of newspapers.

‘The General gave [him] the last number of the Censeur – a periodical work, edited by two young lawyers, who after having been in violent opposition to the Bourbons, [were] now equally opposed to Napoleon’. Whilst the newspaper echoed the views of Lafayette, these readings were subject to debate in the marquis’ private library.

Marie-Charles-César de Faÿ joined them in commenting on Benjamin Constant’s pamphlets and, after conversing on the essence of liberalism, they agreed that the current situation in France, and the opinions expressed by the Censeur, were testament to the fact that ‘Quiddism [was] not exclusively the growth of the American soil’.

The movement ‘Tertium Quids’, or ‘third something’, had emerged in America in 1806 as a third political way between Federalists and Republicans. For Adams, a third way, between Louis XVIII and Napoleon, needed to be pursued in May 1815 to restore liberty, peace and unity in France.

Overall, Adams’s diary tells us something about the importance of print culture and polite conversations in the ways in which foreign diplomats interpreted the French political upheaval of 1815.