When the museums in the Brandywine Valley mention the emigration of the du Ponts from France, they usually say it was to escape political persecution following the French Revolution. Good spin, but it depends how you look at it.
Pierre Samuel du Pont, the first of four to have that name, was the great, great grandfather (second great grandfather) of the Pierre Samuel du Pont who built Longwood Gardens (see posting of 9/25). Born in 1739, he unpromisingly began his adult life in France as a reluctant watchmaker, short, blind in one eye and with a poorly healed broken nose, but he was intelligent with an indefatigably positive and cheerful outlook that he longed to express as a writer. All his life, people were attracted by his good nature and joie de vivre. Time and again, he succeeded because someone simply liked him.
Early on, he wrote a popular pamphlet on the economy that allowed him to leave watchmaking. (Like Benjamin Franklin, fledgling writers got their ideas out in the public by buying a printing business and publishing their ideas in pamphlets that were bought and passed around among friends.) Further pamphlets added to his fame, and he eventually was appointed to a position in the French government (apparently something like a Secretary of State). In gratitude for his help in the treaty with Britain he was granted nobility with a coat of arms, and allowed to add “de Nemours” to his name from the small city of Nemours where he lived. He continued to serve as an official in the government, often involved in diplomatic negotiations, until it all came crashing to an end with the French Revolution. He did not hide, but simply retreated to his country home. The best guess is that the rebels simply forgot about him with so many others to guillotine.
Pierre seems not to have realized how close he had come to losing his head. The Revolution was over, the insurgents had won, but Pierre came out of obscurity to write and publish pamphlets critical of the new government. Newly successful insurgents do not usually accept criticism well. He was arrested twice, and the second time was scheduled to be sent to Devil’s Island. An influential woman friend got him pardoned by claiming he was only a harmless 80-year-old kook who would soon be dead anyway. Pierre, barely 60, was relieved by the pardon, although miffed by the reason, and quickly left for America.
Arriving in 1800, he settled in northern New Jersey with his wife and two adult sons, Victor and Eleuthère Irénée, still with connections in France, but needing a new occupation. Positive as always, he had many ideas.
Pierre has been described as a Mr. Micawber character right out of Dickens. In the old movie, Micawber was played by W. C. Fields, and that is my image of Pierre. No matter how long the string of failures, he always cheerfully had one more grand plan that was sure to bring riches. His older son, Victor, had the same temperament, and the two fed off of each other’s irrational dreams.
His first grandiose plan was to establish a utopian French colony of landowners called “Pontania,” but he could not find enough subscribers. He then tried other ideas, such as an import-export business, a shipping company, and provisioning the French troops in Santo Domingo, seven ideas altogether, but none worked.
His fortunes turned when his unappreciated younger son, the studious and level-headed Irénée (he went by his middle name), who was usually content to stay in the background, was invited to the Brandywine Valley on a hunting trip with a family friend. When they stopped at local store to buy gunpowder, he was shocked at the cost and later dismayed by its poor quality. The best was imported from England, but the local gunpowder was almost unusable. He had studied chemistry under Lavoisier (as prestigious as studying physics under Einstein) and thought he could profitably produce a better gunpowder himself.
(He was never the dashing figure as he appears in the later painting shown here. He suffered from fits of depression. He is shown facing to his left because of a large birthmark on his left cheek. Neither was he as tall as he appears. The artist was very good.)
In early 1801, Irénée returned to France to arrange financing for a powder mill and received far more help than he expected. The French were delighted for the opportunity to undermine the British influence in the colonies, and in addition to the financing, they showed him proprietary techniques of production, agreed to sell him equipment at cost, and even seconded a few experienced workers to help him start.
Irénée searched widely for a proper location for the powder mill. It had to be on a fast-flowing river to supply power (this was all before steam), forested (to supply the charcoal ingredient), sparsely populated (explosions were common), yet near a port (the other ingredients came by ship from India and South America). The perfect spot that had it all was along the Brandywine, right where he first got the idea. The name he chose for the company still lives today: E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company.
Pierre, for all of his comedic bumbling, was capable and did have one historic achievement. While in France, Pierre had become friends with Benjamin Franklin, who was there as America’s ambassador, and then with Thomas Jefferson, who replaced him. When Pierre arrived in America, Jefferson recommended him as “the ablest man in France,” and later arranged for the first large purchase of gunpowder from Irénée’s new company.
On one of Pierre’s return trips to France (his wife refused to live in America and had returned to France as soon as it was safe to do so), Jefferson asked him to deliver a note to the French officials opposing their plans to buy the Louisiana Territory back from Spain. The note was overly belligerent and would have surely resulted in war. Pierre persuaded Jefferson to rewrite it, suggesting we offer to buy the territory ourselves and grant concessions to the French merchants residing there. Jefferson’s final note was as Pierre suggested, although some historians question Pierre’s version of his involvement. He said he burned the original note as he had been instructed by Jefferson, so we only have his word for the events, which was always notoriously self-serving.
France, tired of the whole affair and afraid they could not protect it from the British, surprisingly agreed to the sale. War was averted, America expanded westward with the vast Louisiana Purchase, and the rest is history.
Which explains why we tawk Amuricun tuhday. Parlez-vous français? Mais non! I kid you not.