Atlantic Dimensions 2

That Raynal and Talleyrand in France, Falsen in Norway, Gentz in Prussia, Silva Xavier in Brazil, and Miranda in Venezuela were well aware of American constitutionalism and sought to explore it and to some extent promote it is less mysterious when viewed in the light of the extraordinary speed with which notice of America’s innova¬tions coursed through the Atlantic communities, metropolitan and colonial.
It is not surprising that the Declaration of Independence was cir¬culating in England within a month of its publication; but it is sur¬prising that it appeared simultaneously in French in a Dutch journal, and then repeatedly in a series of French periodicals—in all, there would be at least nine different French translations before 1783. By October 1776 the Declaration was available in Basel in a German translation of a French translation, which was followed the next year by another, partial German translation, based on another French version, by one Matthias Sprengel. And that is a curious document. Sprengel, being a cautious Hanoverian fearful of spreading sedition and offending his king, first omitted the Declaration’s preamble as not being important, and then substituted “regime” (Regierung) for the “He” of Jefferson’s enumerated charges against the king, thus vaguely identifying the accused as someone or something feminine (“She imposed taxes on us against our will [Sie hat uns Taxen wider unsere Einwilligung aufgelegt]”).
By then, in early 1777, Franklin had arrived in France, and the major phase of the circulation of American public documents began. Working with great speed, he published a French translation of the copy of the Articles of Confederation that he carried with him (it was a preliminary, incomplete, confidential draft, different from the document that would be adopted by Congress in 1781), and it is in the form of a retranslation back into English of that French trans¬lation that the Articles of Confederation first appeared in England. And then, in a bizarre twist, that English version of a French transla¬tion of a misleading American original became the source of several new French translations that quickly appeared in various French periodicals.
By mid-1777, only a year after American, independence had been declared, the state constitutions and bills of rights had begun to appear in Europe—some in English in John Almon’s Remembrancer, others in French in La Rochefoucauld and Franklin’s Affaires de I’An- gleterre et de l’Amerique. That collection—curiously inaccurate since much of it was copied from the Remembrancer which had left blanks in place of derogatory references to the crown and Parliament— proved to be a preliminary version of La Rochefoucauld’s major publication, the Recueil of 1778. That popular miscellany of Amer¬icana included, besides various enactments of the Continental Congress and, strangely, Harvard’s honorary degree encomium to Washington, the texts of the constitutions of all the new Ameri¬can states—documents, La Rochefoucauld declared, that were “the finest monuments of human wisdom. They constitute the purest democracy which has ever existed; they already appear to be achieving the happiness of the people who have adopted them, and they will forever constitute the glory of the virtuous men who con¬ceived them.”
By then a variety of European presses were turning out French and German versions of the state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation in a maze of translations, retranslations, summaries, and digests, all of which were read, Franklin reported, “with rap¬ture,” and which nourished intense discussions among the French intelligentsia and liberal politicians, on the constitutional principles of ideal states and the possibilities of reform. German translators relied on French translations that appeared not only in French peri¬odicals but in Leiden’s Gazette. Van der Kemp in Holland, inspired by John Adams, produced in Dutch what he called a collection of pieces drawn from a variety of American and French sources. By 1783 La Rochefoucauld had produced a French translation of the official Articles of Confederation that had finally been adopted by Con¬gress. In 1785 Franklin sponsored a bulky, comprehensive German translation of the French versions of all the American state constitu¬tions. And then, in 1787, translations of the federal Constitution in both German and French began their circulation through Europe— in Hamburg within a month of the Constitution’s initial publication in Philadelphia, in Brussels and Leiden within two months, and in Paris early in 1788. In 1792 the Federalist papers were published, and quickly republished, in a full French translation that was so well received that its two main authors were given honorary French citi¬zenship by a nation “made free by their guiding light and courage.” Later in the 1790s, Spanish versions of the American documents began to appear. By 1798 copies of the American Constitution were being published in Spanish in the West Indies, and by 1811 all the constitutional documents, from the Declaration of Independence to the state constitutions together with extracts from Paine’s writings, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Jefferson’s first inaugural address were available in Spanish, and newspapers in Caracas, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Santiago were carrying excerpts and commentaries.

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