Frank Whitney. Jean Ternant and the Age of Revolutions: A Soldier and Diplomat (1751-1833) in the American, French, Dutch and Belgian Uprisings. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. 264 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-6213-8.
Reviewed by Rory T. Cornish (Winthrop University)
Published on H-War (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
In 1782, Charles Wilson Peale opened a portrait gallery of the leading participants of the American War of Independence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Included in his pantheon of American heroes were the portraits of eight volunteer French officers who had fought for the United States and for whom the artist had particular esteem. These portraits included, of course, such well-known figures as Marquis de Lafayette and Comte de Rochambeau but also a portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Jean Ternant, later the Chevalier de Ternant, which is now on display at the Independence National Historical Park.
Before the publication of Frank Whitney’s book, the only study of Ternant was a 1985 article by Douglas N. Adams, which highlighted both Ternant’s experiences during the American Revolution and his later decline into obscurity. In this new study, Whitney similarly concludes that for most “people today, American or French, Jean Ternant remains an unknown figure, one of history’s countless footnotes” (p. 2). However, during the American Revolutionary War, Ternant seems to have been everywhere; met and was well thought of by many American leaders; remained well connected; and was a participant, if sometimes marginal, in later European revolutions. In August 1791, he capped his diplomatic career with his appointment as French minister plenipotentiary to the United States. If Ternant’s career should have attracted more notice, he has largely escaped attention for there remains no extant Ternant archive on either side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, Whitney has made a determined effort, based on a close reading of an impressive array of printed primary and secondary sources, to resurrect the career of this largely forgotten soldier and diplomat. The title of the work suggests that Ternant may have been a committed republican, a man of the Enlightenment, but was he? All one can say regarding this question is that as the events of the Atlantic revolutionary world became more complex in the late 1780s, Ternant’s actions, motivations, and loyalties became increasingly opaque.
Born in Damvillers, a small provincial city on the northeastern border of France, in December 1751, Ternant was the son of a leather merchant and tanner. It is this fact alone that prompts Whitney to speculate that Ternant was born into the petit bourgeoisie, which not only gave him a burning desire to succeed and improve himself but also led to his involvement in the American Revolution. His interest in the liberal causes of the era, his early support for the antislavery movement, and his “personal involvement in the armed struggle for American independence and the Dutch Patriot movement is ample evidence of the strength of his political convictions” (p. 6).
Little is known of Ternant’s life from 1772 until he arrived at Valley Forge in March 1778 in an attempt to gain a commission as an engineer officer in the Continental Army. Whereas his earlier biographer supported Ternant’s claim that he had been a French army officer who had been previously sent to Louisiana on official business, Whitney argues that Ternant was not what he claimed to be, for although he had applied to the French military school for engineers at Mezieres in 1772, he had been an unsuccessful applicant. Ternant, Whitney suggests, has been confused with the aristocratic Philbert-Jean Dubard de Ternant (1753-1800?), an engineering officer from Burgundy.
Much of Jean Ternant’s early life must remain speculative due to the lack of documentation, but it is known he visited the French West Indies and Louisiana between 1773 and 1777. These trips, Whitney suggests, were in pursuit of a mercantile career and to settle his younger brother, Claude-Vincent, in Louisiana. Claude-Vincent’s own success in the then Spanish colony (by the time of his death in 1818, his estate was worth 148,000 dollars and included 159 slaves) prompts the author to conclude that every bit “as ambitious, enterprising and diligent a bourgeois as his older brother, Claude-Vincent was determined to better his condition and succeeded in doing so” (p. 35). However, Claude-Vincent was also just a simple bourgeois; other sources, including the United States National Park Service, which now administers his estate, the Parlange Plantation, notes that the plantation began as part of a 1750 French colonial land grant given to and first developed by a Vincent Ternant who died in 1757. This Vincent Ternant is sometimes referred to as the Marquis of Dansville-Sur-Meuse, or, as other sources regarding the plantation have claimed, the Marquis de Ternant. Indeed, some sources even refer to Claude-Vincent’s elder son as the third Marquis of Dansville. Still, American history is littered with would-be European aristocrats, but it should be noted that Ternant’s father, like Philbert-Jean Dubard de Ternant, was also from Burgundy and that his maternal grandmother was from the wealthy and prominent Tabouillot family, a fact that no doubt would have been useful to the young Jean Ternant, for he would have needed four supporting letters from nobles attached to his application for a place at Mezieres. While it remains an open question whether Ternant was actually qualified as an engineering graduate from Mezieres, as Whitney illustrates here, Ternant’s success was due partially to his intelligence and attractive personality, personal characteristics that helped him cultivate the aid of various useful aristocratic connections.
In reviewing his whole career, it is hard to escape the conclusion, as Adams has previously claimed, that while some European officers were motivated to join the colonial cause by the republican ideas generated by the American Revolution, Ternant’s career suggests that despite “his five years of service with the Continental Army, and later with the Army of the Dutch Republic, he may have never left the services of his King” (p. 221). This is later evidenced even in this study, if only obliquely, by his later appointment in 1787 as a chevalier of the Royal and Military Order of St. Louis, an award bestowed on distinguished French officers for which even a colonel required at least eighteen years of continuous service. One would think that this was a rare honor to have bestowed on a failed applicant to the Royal Army engineering school at Mezieres even though he was a veteran officer from the War of Independence.
Ternant’s American military career is covered rather extensively in four chapters and generally the author concludes that it was “an unqualified success” (p. 109). He arrived at Valley Forge without any credentials. General George Washington was at first unwilling to employ this young, unknown Frenchman, but Baron Von Steuben, who had recently been appointed as Washington’s army inspector general, intervened on Ternant’s behalf, for at least Ternant spoke fluent English, which, of course, Von Steuben did not. Both, it now seems, had shared the patronage of Claude Louis, Comte de Saint-Germain, the French minister of war from 1775 to 1777. There can be no doubt that Ternant proved useful to Von Steuben in his attempt to install both discipline and a regular sense of military élan within the Continental Army. Appointed as one of four sub-inspectors to the inspector general, but serving as a civilian without pay, Ternant labored under a restriction to his authority the other three sub-inspectors, who were all army colonels, did not share. He, nonetheless, attracted attention as did the increased military performance of the army at the battles of Barren Hill in May 1778 and Monmouth in June 1778, two engagements Ternant was present at even if he had no line appointment in either battle.
His known dissatisfaction with his position, his ability, and the active support of Von Steuben finally secured Ternant a congressional appointment as a lieutenant colonel in September 1778. His new appointment, however, brought with it new responsibilities as the inspector of troops in South Carolina and Georgia. Somewhat dismayed at the distances involved in attempting to instill any kind of regularity of inspection in the region, not to mention the general condition of the army in the South, Ternant was nonetheless present during the British attack on Savannah in December 1778, as well as the later siege and capture of Charleston in which he acted as General Benjamin Lincoln’s adjutant-general. Entrusted to negotiate the surrender terms, Ternant was paroled quickly so he could take the news of the defeat to Congress. His then brief celebrity status in Philadelphia possibly explains the Peale portrait, but it was followed by twenty months of military inactivity while he waited for formal notification of his exchange, which finally arrived in January 1782. His later appointment to an active line command in Armand’s Legion in Virginia, and subsequent promotion to colonel, came too late for Ternant to see any further action.
Attentive as ever to his finances, he secured an American military pension for his service and, after becoming a member of the Society of Cincinnati, he returned to France in June 1784. He had hoped to secure a regular career in the French army but King Louis’s government had other plans for Colonel Ternant. One of the values of Whitney’s study is that it also includes a lengthy discussion of Ternant’s career in Europe after 1784, an area omitted in Adams’s earlier study. It is also a fairly good introduction to the complex developments that led to the Dutch Patriots Revolt of 1785 and the even more complex causation underpinning the revolt in the Austrian Netherlands, now present-day Belgium, in 1789. The French government was interested in countering English influence in the United Provinces after the American Revolution, but if eager to support the anti-English Patriot Movement, French ministers neither wanted nor could financially afford to become directly embroiled in the revolt. Consequently, a mixed force of European ex-soldiers with French officers known as the Maillebois Legion was raised and sent into Dutch service by France; Ternant was commissioned as the colonel commandant of the second brigade and would spend three years with the Dutch army. When Prussia became involved in an attempt to rescue the Orange royal family and invaded the United Provinces, Ternant ably led a brave, but futile, defense of Amsterdam in October 1785.
It would be convenient to thus consider Ternant as a principled republican, but as Alfred Cobban has suggested in his Ambassadors and Secret Agents: The Diplomacy of the First Earl of Malmesbury at the Hague (1954), Ternant was in fact a paid French informant during this period and was constantly in communication with the French government during the whole affair. His Dutch service was certainly considered as French active service when awarded the Cross of St. Louis, and it is also known that he was sent on a naval spying mission to England in January 1788 for his movements were closely monitored by British agents. Indeed, when he was presented to George III by the French ambassador in February 1788, Ternant was rudely greeted with a premeditated silent royal glare.
Later appointed the colonel commandant of the newly raised Royal-Liegeois regiment in March 1788, Ternant would continue to follow a career of diplomat rather than soldier for he was granted an extended period of leave until September 1789 to undertake a number of special king’s errands. What he was doing during these errands remains a mystery and when his name was suggested to General Lafayette in 1789 as a potential military advisor to help prepare the Austrian Netherlands against an expected Austrian invasion, he was again in Germany on a mission and thus unavailable. Colonel Ternant, it seems, was also often absent from both his regiment and Paris during the early days of the French Revolution on errands for the French administration, not the new National Assembly, and it is difficult to conclude from this study on which side of the barricades he would have found himself if he had not accepted the diplomatic appointment to the United State in August 1791. While the author is slow to admit it, Ternant was clearly moving toward a Fayettiste position in revolutionary France and this, together with the increasing radicalism of the National Assembly, hampered and foreshortened his diplomatic role in the United States. Consequently, his mission was not a great success, and the way in which he handled the attempted suppression of the 1791 slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, his deep and public mourning following the execution of Louis XVI, and his alignment with Alexander Hamilton came to alienate many, especially Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state, who wrote to James Madison in 1793 that Ternant’s monarchist leanings were now clear for all to see as he was “becoming the perfect counter-revolutionary” (p. 169). When informed by the French National Assembly in February 1793 that he would be replaced by Citizen Edmund Genet, Ternant prudently decided to stay in Philadelphia as either a dangerous obscurity or, worse, one for whom the guillotine probably awaited in Paris.
Ternant finally returned to France in August 1801, and another valuable aspect of Whitney’s research, detailed in his last chapter, is the astonishing discovery that Ternant did not die in 1816 as had been previously assumed. In fact, until November 1833, Ternant continued to live in a three-storied Parisian suburban detached house supported by servants, his army pensions, and an income from his very extensive investments in the United States. He wisely avoided any political entanglements during the Napoleonic period but warmly welcomed the Bourbon restoration, and later proclaimed his unwavering past devotion to the monarchy at Louis XVIII’s Sunday levees yet ultimately failed to receive the generalship he thought he deserved. Nonetheless, whereas a retired French general could expect an annual pension of 7,500 francs a year, Ternant’s annual income was in excess of 13,800 at the time of his death.
Disappointingly Whitney fails to offer a stronger conclusion regarding the importance of Ternant’s life to students and historians of the late eighteenth-century trans-Atlantic world. Instead, when discussing Ternant’s later career as something of an anticlimax, the author again returns to the Ternant-as-bourgeois theme. If as obscure in later life as he had been in his youth, he was content, it is suggested, for it is the dream of a successful bourgeois like Ternant to end his career in a situation where he can live nobly, “in other words, to avoid having to work for a living.” One suspects that in retrospect Ternant came to view his own past life more akin to the adventures of a Lemuel Gulliver than a preparation for a Candide-like existence in the garden: by 1809, he was already admitting that when pleasantly vegetating in lucrative obscurity he was only “passably content” (p. 193). This new study is, nonetheless, an interesting introduction to a largely forgotten figure, as well as the military background and political developments of his time.
. Douglas N. Adams, “Jean Baptiste Ternant, Inspector General and Advisor to the Commanding General of the Southern Forces, 1778-1782,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86, no. 3 (1985): 221-240.
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Rory T. Cornish. Review of Whitney, Frank, Jean Ternant and the Age of Revolutions: A Soldier and Diplomat (1751-1833) in the American, French, Dutch and Belgian Uprisings.
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