The Prussian-Born, American Revolutionary Army Officer Writes about Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the French Revolution

Signed by Friedrich W. von Steuben

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STEUBEN, FRIEDRICH W. VON. (1730-1794). Prussian-born, American Revolutionary army officer and military adviser to General George Washington. ALS. (“Steuben”). 2½pp. 4to. New York, November 3, 1789. To French diplomat and Count ELÉNOR-FRANÇOIS-ÉLIE, MARQUIS DE MOUSTIER (1751-1817). In French with translation.

“Please trust me when I tell you that I was most disappointed upon learning that you had left New York just two days before my own arrival here. Be assured of my unwavering attachment to you and of my highest esteem that your merits and your way of thinking have inspired in me.

May you, my dear Count, after a safe voyage, find tranquility and order reestablished in your country, and may you enjoy perfect happiness commensurate with your merits: those are my sincere wishes for you.

Since your departure nothing here has happened that merits your attention. Our President is still on his tour of the Holy Land; he receives and gives beautiful speeches everywhere. In ten days he will return to our capital. 

We have very little direct news of what is going on where you are. Jefferson has still not arrived, and your cursed ship still moves as slowly as a turtle to keep us in the dark. We get all our news via London, as dark as the smoke out of their chimneys. A lot of your ministers have been disgraced, courtiers exiled, robins chased to England and all are disheartened. 

Reading the articles about France, I feel transported to the century of Honorius. France stands for the Eastern Empire, and Paris for Constantinople. Assuming that the outcome will be happier, I am glad for you that the Huns and the Goths are not as active as they were at the time of Honorius. And I am glad for you that the valiant Selim turns Europe’s attention toward the East and that the barbarians will not easily speculate on the convulsions of Ancient Gaul. 

Meanwhile, try to get on with the organization of your constitution. It pains me to read about your tribunal’s debates about tolerating Protestants, while the discipline of your army must be ridiculously lax in this state of anarchy. I have a lot of respect for your large and brilliant Paris militia; they will reestablish the police in the capital, but for France a good and a large army is indispensable for the safety of the kingdom at home and abroad. May your honorable Body be wiser than ours and not entertain itself with trivial things while neglecting essential ones. It seems to me that the tolerance of the Huguenots, the massacre of boars [‘sangliers’], and the hunt for Capuchins could well wait for calmer days. In Madrid and Lisbon, that tolerance of Protestants strikes me as serious as it strikes me as being ridiculous in Paris. 

Our President is still on his tour of the Holy Land; he receives and gives beautiful speeches everywhere.

I beg you, my dear Count, reassure me soon about the unrest that I read about in the British papers. I care about you, about my friends, and about the nation in general. I love the Welsh, even though it was they who made me a Republican. 

I was planning to have this get to you via Mr. de Saintrée.  But he left a few days ago for Philadelphia, where he will embark. Madame Church takes a ship for London tomorrow and she will make sure this letter will get into your hands. I am very sorry to see her go. What a nice little lady; she is very close to Madame de Brehan. 

Dear Count, please accept my gratitude for all the kindness and friendship you honored me with during your stay – I am not saying ‘in my home’ because, to tell the truth, my home has not yet been decided. 

Whenever and wherever in Paris, I will be happy to tell you in person of my esteem and unwavering attachment with which I have the honor of being, dear Count, Your humble and obedient servant…”

Baron von Steuben

The distinguished aide-de-camp to Prussian King Frederick the Great, Steuben first offered his services to France, following his discharge from the Prussian Army, but the French Minister of War, Count de St. Germain, diverted the general’s application to America’s fight for independence. “He recognized in Steuben an accomplished graduate from the school of Frederick the Great who was peculiarly qualified to give the American authorities much needed advice on military training, organization, and administration,” (DAB). Steuben was eager to leave Europe because of rumors regarding his homosexuality and threat of imprisonment for it in France. Efforts to secure Steuben’s services initially failed because the American delegates were not authorized to guarantee him an appropriate rank and compensation. Eventually, it was decided “the Baron should go purely as a distinguished volunteer and trust to fortune for a suitable opening for his recognized talents after his arrival in America,” (ibid.). Allowing his rank as Lieutenant General in the Prussian Army to speak for itself, and bearing letters of recommendation from American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane as well as the French playwright Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Steuben arrived at a meeting of the Continental Congress in February 1778. “When a special committee waited upon him to ascertain his aims, he waived all claim to rank or pay and asked only that his expenses should be paid while acting as a volunteer with the army. He proposed that if his services should contribute to the eventual success of the American cause, he would then expect compensation for his sacrifices in leaving Europe and such reward as Congress might be pleased to grant him,” (ibid.).

General George Washington (1732-1799) was so impressed with Steuben’s abilities that he appointed him inspector general and Steuben began drilling the army and preparing military training manuals despite the fact that he spoke no English. Steuben probably contributed more to the American victory than any other foreign officer and after the war he continued to serve Washington by helping to decommission the Continental Army.

Steuben became an American citizen in March 1783 and the state of New Jersey granted him a confiscated estate of Loyalist Jan Zabriskie. He restored the property at considerable personal expense even though he lacked clear title until 1788, at which point he was forced to sell the estate to pay down his debts. “Always careless in his business affairs and extravagant in his charities and hospitalities, he went heavily in debt in anticipation of the grant of about $60,000 for his military services which he claimed from the Congress,” (ibid.).

At the time of our letter, Steuben was residing in New York City, then the capital of the fledgling republic. He was present at the inauguration of President Washington that had occurred seven months prior to writing our letter, wherein Steuben mentions the new president’s ongoing tour of New England (the “Holy Land”) that lasted from October 15 to November 13, 1789, when the General traveled “through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. He visited nearly sixty towns, stopping along the way to visit factories, talk with farmers, and partake in celebratory festivities. From Washington’s perspective, it was a fact-finding and promotional tour; from the perspective of the people he visited, it was both a chance to celebrate and to advise their new president… In large part, Washington intended the tours to rally support for the Constitution and promote a strong central government in the face of fierce state loyalties… Despite Washington’s best republican intentions, New Englanders would not let him pass through their towns without grandiose celebrations,” (, Treesh).

Our letter also mentions Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) who became the first secretary of state in September 1789. Jefferson had been serving as one of the United States Ministers in Paris since 1785, but resigned his post to take up an unspecified position in Washington’s administration at the end of August. His return to the United States was plagued by delays and mishaps including a fire aboard his ship, before Jefferson finally arrived in Norfolk, Virginia on November 18. It was only after he arrived that he read of his appointment as secretary of state in a newspaper – official notice didn’t arrive until the following month.

Steuben also expresses his eagerness to obtain news from France, which had been in tumult since the revolution’s beginning in May. The Bastille was stormed on July 14, and in August, the National Constituent Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, the celebrated veteran of the American Revolution, assisted in authoring. This historic document, among other things, granted equal rights to Protestants, namely French Huguenots, and was opposed by the Catholic Capuchin order that dominated the Third Estate of the Estates General of 1789. Steuben seems to be dismissive of these events, relegating them to the level of minor details that could be dealt with after the Paris National Guard (under Lafayette) restored order.

Steuben mentions the French aristocracy and “robins” fleeing to England, the latter possibly a reference to the antiquated term that described French magistrates and men of law who, as a class, were sometimes referred to this way.

Steuben mentions the Emperor of the Western Roman Empire Honorius (384-423) remembered for his chaotic reign during which attacks on Gaul, Italy, Hispania, and Britannia by barbarians proliferated, culminating in the Sack of Rome. He compares Paris to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire with which Honorius was at odds, and mentions Selim I (1470-1520) the Ottoman sultan best remembered for his expansion of the empire.

Our letter’s recipient, Count Moustier, attained the rank of major in the French military before serving as minister to the United States from 1787 to 1789, during which time he reported to the French government on the likelihood of the ratification of the American Constitution. He departed New York in mid-October and upon his return to France, was nearly sent to the guillotine. He was spared as an official representative of the monarchy, having obtained the title of Regent for the captive King, Louis XVI. Moustier was instrumental in coordinating the failed 1795 Royalist invasion of Quiberon Bay after which he lived in exile in Prussia. Our letter mentions the sister of his deceased wife, Anne-Flore Millet, marquise de Bréhan (?-1826), with whom he maintained a lifelong attachment. In fact, in 1787, James Madison wrote that Moustier’s relationship with Bréhan, “is universally known and offensive to American manners,” (Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures, Frank). To smooth over the affront caused by the disapproval of New York society, Washington invited the pair to his Mount Vernon estate in 1788, and the following October Washington sat for Bréhan, an artist, in New York, while she painted a miniature of him and his wife’s grandchild, Nelly, (

Mrs. Church,” almost certainly, is Angelica Schuyler Church (1756-1814), a prominent socialite in New York, Paris and London. She was the eldest daughter of New York Congressman and American Revolutionary General Philip Schuyler and a sister-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, whose wife was her sister, Elizabeth. Angelica was married to London merchant John Barker Church a supplier to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, who later served as U.S. envoy to Paris. At the time of our letter, the Churches were about to depart New York for England where Mr. Church would run for Parliament in 1790. (After returning to the United States, in 1799, Church fought a duel with Aaron Burr, who would later kill his brother-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, in 1804.)

In 1790, New York State granted Steuben a large farm in the Mohawk Territory and the federal government offered him a pension. Well-liked, Steuben served as president of the German Society, regent of the University of the State of New York and president of the New York branch of the Society of Cincinnati. New York’s annual Steuben Day Parade is held in his honor. In very fine condition.

Content letters of Steuben are rare.

The Prussian-Born, American Revolutionary Army Officer Writes about Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the French Revolution

Signed by Friedrich W. von Steuben

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