| September 15, 2023

By a ratio of about 6:1, clients requested that I post my third and last blog about how my family came to America. This is the result for those who are interested.

Jeanne Renée Charlotte de MONDION alone charted the course of my French-Basque family. When she was not “given” in marriage she chose to marry military men. Yet she educated her children to fit into the class of citizens that, unfortunately, would be targeted by the Jacobins for the guillotine. In the chapter devoted to his mother, Jean-Paul apologizes to her and explains that “I write to my mother to excuse myself, as much as possible, for not having done as well as she should have expected from the care that she took with my education.”

Formal education proved to be of little immediate value for émigrés in the very practical United States. Here I should define émigré. Those who left France in 1789, the year of the Revolution, were subject to the death penalty if they failed to return to France by January 1792. Failure to return also meant the confiscation by the state of an émigré’s property. To support themselves in America, some émigrés established finishing schools for young women or schools of dance. Others took to tutoring the children of wealthy Americans in languages, philosophy, mathematics, geography, and music. The polymath Moreau de Saint-Méry, who organized the distribution of arms to the revolutionaries when the Bastille fell, opened a print shop and bookstore in Philadelphia.

Jean-Paul wrote to his sister that “if I was ruined in my infancy, someone would have without a doubt taught me a trade; one would have above all inspired in me the tastes and the habits analogous to my new situation. Oh, my sister! Raised as we have been, I see nothing for us in the future than misery, privations, and chagrins: may the heavens inspire in us the courage and the force to bear them!”

In Brooklyn, where I was born, Jean-Paul encountered other desperate refugees who also lacked the practical skills required to make it in America. This “gave birth to the idea, among several ruined creoles [French people born in the Caribbean], to give a concert and a ball that could fatten our purses that were a little too flat.” Having arranged their “musical army,” they set off for Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they gave what he believed to be “the first concert ever performed in Elizabethtown.” There, they “regaled the audience with several songs in Italian, French, and English.”

In the end, the reason that Jean-Paul needed to apologize to his mother is that he did become a military man. Jean-Paul wrote much of his uncorrected and (for him) hastily written memoir while fighting in the jungles of Saint Domingue. His half-brother, my third great-grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Manesca, followed the example of other émigrés. He established himself on Reed Street, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he became a teacher and author, writing An Oral System of Teaching Living Languages. The Boston Language Institute claimed him as “the first modern foreign language teacher.” They continued to utilize his system until Covid lockdowns permanently shuttered the school. I had hoped to take classes there when the pandemic ended.

Here in France, the papers ask, “what does it mean to be European?” That question is unanswerable. Everyone has a small bit of history that they fiercely hold on to. The signs here in the Basque country are in French and Basque, and while I find it charming, the practice is exclusive. Identity in Europe is tied to place and to language. Separatist movements abound because there is no overarching European ideal to which everyone can subscribe. Jean-Paul’s fears that he had the wrong education proved unfounded. Each group of immigrants brings with them skills, traditions, and perspectives that define what it means to be American.

Jeanne did not remain in the United States. She departed for France from New Orleans and is buried at Poitiers. Her children remained there though, where nobody needs to ask, “what does it mean to be an American?” Instead, they added to what it means to be an American.

Jean-Baptiste, together with his friend and student, Albert Brisbane, founded one of the most successful utopian movements in the United States, Fourierism. Among its many adherents was Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, known for “Go West, young man, Go West and grow up with the country.” Jean-Baptiste’s daughter Pauline took up with another teacher, Carlo Bassini, who came to the United States from South America. Carlo, a violinist from Cuneo, Italy, dreamed of using the funds he earned directing an orchestra in Brazil to make his fortune giving concerts in America. Sadly, he lost it all on his first extravaganza and followed in the footsteps of the émigrés, giving voice lessons and working “untiringly, often beginning at seven in the morning and working until ten at night.” He also published five books on the science of the voice. I have collected all of them. Carlo is buried near Greeley in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

Unhappily, Pauline’s sister, Lodoiska, fell in love with Albert Brisbane while he was a student in her home. Their love affair and nationally publicized divorce made her part of nineteenth-century America’s history of communitarian movements. That story will need to wait for a more appropriate venue.