What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He has brought with him ample Certificates of his Character.”
When John Girault, “A Native of FRANCE,” arrived in New York, he turned to the New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury to introduce himself to the residents of that city. He also sought employment, stating that he “proposes to teach the French Language.” His origins testified to his knowledge of the language, but also raised suspicions. Less than a decade had passed since the Seven Years War concluded. That war began in the Ohio River valley, contested territory claimed by both Britain and France, but spread far beyond North America. Battles took place around the globe in what became a great war for empire that resulted in France ceding its claim to territory in North America. Yet the enmity between Britain, a Protestant nation-state, and France, a Catholic nation-state, extended back centuries. Colonists in New York had long been suspicious of French and Catholic threats to their colony as well as anxious that strangers from nearby New France would attempt to infiltrate the bustling port city for nefarious purposes.
Girault understood that he faced such suspicions when he migrated to New York. As part of his introduction, he announced that he “has brought with him ample Certificates of his Character, from the Consistory of a Protestant Congregation at Poitou in France, of which he was an Elder, and from the Consistory of a French Church in London, where he has resided for several Years.” As a “Stranger” in the colony, he offered reassurances that he was not a threat, but he did not merely ask his new neighbors to take him at his word. He arrived with documents that they could examine for themselves, in addition to offering “Messrs. James Buvelot, and Francis Bosset” as local references. At the same time that he declared himself “A Native of FRANCE” to establish his qualifications “to teach the French Language,” he also distanced himself from his place of origin by noting that he had lived in London for several years. Perhaps most importantly, he proclaimed himself a Protestant, hoping to alleviate suspicion about what might be his true purpose in the city. Even as New Yorkers and other colonists vied with Parliament over the Townshend Acts, they continued to have other concerns as members of the British Empire. Girault did what he could to address them in order to settle peacefully and to encourage students to take lessons from him.
For more on New Yorkers’ anxieties about French infiltrators in the first two thirds of the eighteenth century, see Serena R. Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York.