July 28th, 2011
01:27 PM ET

Why Americans once loved France

On this week’s show, famed historian David McCullough joined me to talk about his latest book, "The Greater Journey," which looks back at the nineteenth century, a time when elite Americans went abroad in droves to study in France, which was then the cultural center of the world. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Fareed Zakaria: We think of Americans as famously uninterested in the world. We think of America today and we don't care what's going on in the rest of the world. We don't want to borrow anything from the rest of the world. The Americans you're describing seemed fascinated by France. Why?

David McCullough: They craved, craved France, and they weren't anxious to go there because they were disenchanted with our country. They went to find out if the talent they had was really as strong as people were telling them, and in order to get the training, the experience that they could not get here. There were no museums with paintings hanging in them then. There was not one school of architecture in the United States. This is in the 1830s.

And no way to train as an artist to work in an atelier or to get the kind of training that one would need to be a sculpture or a painter. And Paris was the medical capital of the world. So they went for a multitude of – of professions and artistic careers.

If you were a foreign student in France, in Paris, you could go to the Sorbonne. You could go to the l'ecole de Medecine for nothing, free. Imagine if the students who were coming to Harvard or Yale or Stanford were coming here and going free. It was part of the policy of France at the time.

So if they could afford to support themselves - room and board - then they could go to these greatest of institutions. But American medical training, for example, was woefully behind. Most doctors in the United States in the 1830s, '40s, '50s, really right up through the Civil War had never been to medical school.

Fareed Zakaria: The Paris you describe is a place that is clearly the center of the world in a sense, and we forget now because the industrial revolution had just begun when - so you're describing the last gasp of the great agricultural revolutions, and France was probably the richest country in the world - and Paris certainly the center.

David McCullough: Well, what most people don't realize is that Paris was the cultural center of the world. And we had this city, New York, has became the cultural center of the world after World War II.

But Paris was also the center for medical education, medical science, science itself, technology. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, stands on an underwater foundation system called caissons, which was developed by French engineers in Paris. So the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Roebling went to Paris to find out how they do it. And that's why he was able to do it.

And most Americans don't realize that, how much we owed to France.

Fareed Zakaria: I've got to just go on a tangent here for a second, because you wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. And here you are talking about the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge and what he borrowed from France. How does it stay that fresh in your mind?

David McCullough: To me the writing of the book is like an experience in life, you never – particularly if that's a powerful experience. You never forget it. And some subjects, once I've finished with them, that's it. I've gotten it out of my system. But with the Brooklyn Bridge, there's something about it, I'm still involved. My wife and I take a walk over the bridge every year. We go back and walk through the old neighborhood in Brooklyn where we lived when we were first married.

And I think it's one of the great accomplishments of our civilization. It's both a work of technology and a work of art, and it stands the test of time, both visually and technically. It's a magnificent production.

And it also rises up out of what was really a very corrupt time, much like our own. And the idea of this emblem of affirmation can rise up out of that sort of swamp of the gilded age is to me reassuring, and particularly in our time.

Fareed Zakaria: Our times, though, do seem more parochial. I mean, the people you discuss in the book, they seem so interested in the world and in intellectual currents in France, but elsewhere as well.

David McCullough: It wasn't cool to be cynical then. It wasn't cool to be filled with self pity. People often ask me when I'm starting a book, "What's your theme?" Particularly some of our academic friends. I have no idea what my theme is. I make up something to calm them down, but I have no idea. It's one of the reasons I'm writing the book.

And one of the themes that I realized is a theme as I was about halfway through this project is work. We receive such ballyhoo constantly about ease and happiness being synonymous. Again and again, people were saying on paper in their diaries and letters, I've never worked harder in my life and this is the happiest time of my life. And they're struggling as Augustus Saint- Gaudens, the sculptor said, we're struggling with all the realities of life, the mundane, every day chores of life, struggling to 'soar into the blue,' as he says. And I think that's emblematic of that generation.

Fareed Zakaria: Do you think that we have lost some of the optimism and energy that – that you saw in the 19th century?

David McCullough: Yes, temporarily. I'm a short range pessimist, long-range optimist. I think we'll get through these troubles. We've been through worse.

When the 9/11 happened, people said, "Oh, this is the worst thing we've ever been through. Yes, it was terrible." But by no means was it the worst we've ever been through. The Revolutionary War; the Civil War. Imagine 600,000 people killed. The influenza epidemic; the Great Depression. These were terrible times.

The dark – I think maybe the darkest time was right after Pearl Harbor. We had no army. Half our navy had been destroyed. The Russians – the Germans were nearly to Moscow. Britain was about finished and Churchill came across the Atlantic and he gave a speech and he said, 'We haven't gone this far because we're made of sugar candy." That's the message we need now.

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soundoff (292 Responses)
  1. pensimmon

    Well, France was once a cultural center, that's true, but the Germans have them beat in music. But now there are many world wide cities embracing culture whole heartedly. French is a pretty language, but Italian more so. English is by a very long shot the richest language in the world. More words by far than any other language. France is notable for amazing food, but you can get amazing food anywhere now. France is living on the reputation of its past. I get tired of the French touting their superiority. All couties have wonderful things to offer. One of the greatest in the US is that we do not have a long history dragging us down into how we "should" live. We're freeeeeee!

    August 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Sel

      English has the easiest grammar, only 12 tenses ( 18 in French, 17 in Italian) . In English, all verb are conjugate exactly in the same way. For the future tense all verb follow the rules: Will +INFINITIVE. For the present progressive all also follow the same rules Be+ING. All tenses have rules you can easily follow to conjugate a verb. The verb don't also change according to the pronoun ( except for he, she and it). In Italian and in French, it is much more difficult. English don't have concept such as subjunctive tenses and imperfect tenses. English has a big vocabulary but a very simple grammar compared to French and Italian.

      August 2, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Tokyo tok

      I Lived in California for 9 years and in France for 12years. French people are more free and educated than the Americans. You should go live there and stop reading fox news. They don't have to pay huge amounts of money to send their kids to college, they can't fall in bankruptcy and end up in the streets because a medical bill, they elect directly their presidents, it is illegal there for corporation to create lobbies and influence politicians. Their culture is way more interesting and complex than the Americans'one.

      August 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  2. American

    I like France. Don't lump me and my views together with those belonging to hillbillies

    August 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
  3. Jacqueline R.

    Loved??? I still love France!

    August 1, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  4. palintwit

    The French have poor hygiene. They smell.

    August 1, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Todd

      wow how insightful. it's patently false; you obviously have no knowledge - and assuming you're an American - you're making our country look stupid with your posts.

      August 1, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  5. dfs

    It's well worth asking why we no longer love France quite so much. Because French culture has become so effete and exhausted that France appears to have nothing worthwhile to offer the world in terms of ideas, science, technology, philosophy, or letters and the art?. Because of the pervasive and strident anti-Americanism of their intellectual establishment? Because France is the single Western country where anti-semitism is acceptable, or even fashionable? Because their absurd insistence on language purity makes them seem so parochial and cut off from the rest of the world? Because, all in all, the French do not have very much to gain the world's admiration these days. Except maybe Sarkozy, but they'll find a way to get rid of him pretty soon.

    August 2, 2011 at 4:45 am |
  6. Tom Mariner

    David McCullough's book is a great read and yes deals with the extreme attraction of the best and brightest in America for France in the nineteenth century. But if you've been to Paris in this century and don't fall in love with the city and the people, have your senses checked - some of them aren't working very well. "Once loved?" - Obviously for different reasons - not the place to travel as the center of civilization as in David's book or in the thirties as a center of art and literature, but more as a gentle look at once was.

    I wonder if tourists years from now will look back fondly on America as a place that once was before we lost our spirit.

    August 2, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  7. Kish

    Speak for yourself and not others.

    I have no problem with France, especially its people who proctice a form of democracy that Americans have long forgotten and the French helped US earn. We also owe them a fine statue.

    But like my brothers, I still "kick it on them" when I see fit. I'm sure they do the same while eating cheese and avoiding bathing 😉

    August 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  8. Cybernetic1

    The French helped American independence, but when the French revolution came Ben Franklin neglected their plea for help. Some of Franklin's friends ended up under guillotine, including the chemist Lavoisier. Franklin died shortly after.

    August 2, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  9. cjb122


    August 2, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  10. ElComadreja

    The French make me sick. The language is ridiculous and the food is overrated garbage. We should have let the Germans have them.

    August 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Tokyo tok

      Very respectful for your people who died during the WW2 in Europe

      August 2, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  11. sel

    Knowing that the American educational system is one of the worst among the developed countries (ranked 41st) and that only 12% of the population have a passport, how it comes that so many Americans have such "knowledge" about France and its history?

    August 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • salvatore

      It's 30% actually, which isn't all that surprising since the US is roughly tied for 3rd largest landmass. Education is very poor, though, and American ignorance along with anti-Americanism (and lack of vacation time in the US) contribute to a lack of travel abroad.

      August 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  12. bob

    David McCullough is the best! I will read anything he writes...

    August 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  13. olivier

    Seriously guys?
    I'm french and i'm sorry if my english isn't perfect.

    french language is ridiculous? It is far more complicated to lea

    September 2, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  14. Valeria K ing

    OMG, do you see whats transpiring in Syria? In spite of a brutal government crackdown, the manifestations continue

    December 15, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  15. hypothekee

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    March 6, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  16. DIDIER

    le francais n est pas une langue moche , car sachez que pendant 250 ans environs tout les gens cultives , puissants la parlait pour ca beautee sont prestige, c'etait la langue diplomatique , scientifique , culturelle du monde civilise. C'est la langue officielle des jeux olympiques de la commuautee economiques europeenne, c'est la langue qui a modifier la langue anglaise qui etait considere avant ca comme un idiome juste bon pour parler au chevaux. vous les incultes americains vous nous devez 1000 fois plus poue la liberte de votre nation pour la fondation de votre nation que nous vous devrons jamais et ca ceest la seule verite... a bonne entendeur ...

    April 30, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  17. did


    April 30, 2012 at 7:42 am |
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