L’Utilité des deux Mondes: Joseph de Nancrède and the Courier de Boston

Guest blogger Nicole Mahoney is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at the University of Maryland, College Park, currently writing her dissertation, “Liberty, Gentility, and Dangerous Liaisons: French Culture and Polite Society in Early National America.” She recently attended AAS’s  Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC) annual seminar

2017 PHBAC seminar outside AAS’s Goddard-Daniels House

This past July, the Society hosted “Other Languages, Other Americas, a week-long seminar focused on American print culture in languages other than English and on how different colonial and national cultures influenced, received, and translated early U.S. publications. Participants also discussed how scholarship today might incorporate multilingual sources into narratives of American history, literature, and cultural expression. As part of the seminar and my dissertation research, I examined French-language newspapers printed in the United States in the decades after the Revolutionary War as Americans grappled with national identity and varying foreign allegiances and alliances. One of the most remarkable of these newspapers, of which the American Antiquarian Society holds all twenty-six issues, was the Courier de Boston.

AAS’s complete run of Courier de Boston was acquired by Isaiah Thomas.

In September 1788, Paul Joseph Guérard de Nancrède made a long and eloquent plea to the American public on behalf of the French language and its service to the United States. “This language seems to be necessary to America,” he wrote in the Massachusetts Centinel.[1] Nancrède saw it as his mission to provide that essential language to the citizens of Boston.

Born in France, Nancrède served in the French expeditionary with the Comte de Rochambeau in the American Revolution, later settled in Boston and became a French instructor at Harvard. While teaching at Harvard, he found it difficult to put French texts in the hands of his students. Either the books had not yet been imported from France or American editions had not yet been published. His solution was to publish a French-language journal himself. The chief functions of the journal, according to an address to the public written by Nancrède, were to further friendship and commerce between the French and American people and to disseminate a digest of domestic and foreign news. The Courier de Boston would, he promised, be “the Interpreter, the Organ of every citizen–of every husbandman.”[2] He anticipated readers from Canada to the West Indies and from Europe to the United States. The subtitle of Nancrède’s journal was “L’Utilité des deux Mondes”—the utility of two worlds.

The May 14, 1789 issue includes George Washington’s inaugural address in both French and English.

Nancrède published the Courier de Boston weekly from April to October 1789. He abandoned the journal after six months and twenty-six issues. But that tenure was perhaps the most remarkable half year in the history of the Atlantic world. The first issue on April 23, 1789 reported on the first meeting of the new American Congress, the elections of George Washington as president and John Adams as vice president, and it printed a list of the first American senators and representatives. Two months later, the journal published the text of George Washington’s first inaugural address. Nancrède also translated and printed American congressional debates on the first amendments to the Constitution–the Bill of Rights.

The idea of France in turmoil provoked great anxiety for Nancrède and the journal increasingly focused on the outbreak of the French Revolution. During the summer of 1789, the journal published accounts of the opening and dissolution of the Estates General in Versailles, the subsequent formation of the National Constituent Assembly, and the “millions” of pamphlets in Paris concerning the political crisis–a testament to the ongoing fortitude of the liberty of the press.[3] It offered details on Lafayette and the Declaration of Rights, quoted Rousseau, and reprinted speeches given by King Louis XVI. On September 24, 1789, the journal announced: “France: Révolte, Massacre, Confusion, Tranquillité” followed by a precise account of the fall of the Bastille.

Despite its breathless reporting on the new American democratic government and the collapse of the French ancien régime, the journal did not prosper. On October 15, 1789, Nancrède announced abruptly the suspension of the journal. He disclosed in the last issue that two robberies had depleted his funds. But it was primarily an unimpressive list of subscribers—many of whom never paid for their subscriptions—that ended the journal.

Even though the Courier de Boston was short-lived, it coincided with the high point of publication of French newspapers and periodicals in the United States. The journal waged a battle, according to its editor, to free the new nation from linguistic and moral servitude to England under which it still trembled because inhabitants of the United States relied on English newspapers and spoke English. The key to independence, Nancrède wrote in the journal’s prospectus, was the French language. The publication of the Courier de Boston represents a critical moment in early American history when the post-revolutionary generation faced the tricky task of establishing both equality with and separation from Great Britain. By taking their eyes off the British and instead turning their gaze toward the French, Americans were perhaps truly employing the “utility of two worlds.”

[1] Massachusetts Centinel, 17 September 1788, page 4.

[2] Massachusetts Centinel, 3 January 1789, page 1. A husbandman is a farmer or a person who cultivates the land.

[3] Courier de Boston, 28 May 1789, page 47.

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Molly O'Hagan Hardy

Molly O’Hagan Hardy is AAS Director of Digital and Book History Initiatives. She shares news on digitization and cataloging efforts at AAS, coverage of digital humanities projects using AAS materials, and ideas for such projects. Stay current with all things DH at AAS by checking out the “Digital AAS” section of our website.

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