secret_history (2006-43)

Sweet Marie

The six degrees, or less, of Marie Antoinette

by Jack Neely

The other day I saw one of the oddest movies I’ve ever seen in an actual licensed movie theater. It’s called Marie Antoinette . It’s not so much a movie as an experiment in stasis, a strange dream of costumes and chandeliers and an insulated life lived in one place. At times it seemed like therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. A theater full of strangers and I sat in a stupid silence, watching it like you’d watch a sky full of clouds.

Thanks to this movie, books, articles, and a PBS documentary, the last queen of France has never been so popular. The image of extravagant self-indulgence, she has rarely been portrayed as any sort of sympathetic character, but there’s evidence that some of the first Tennesseans were fond of her.

The movie has little dialogue of substance, but touches on an irony of Louis XVI. The monarch, much more absolute and intolerable, from a democratic perspective, than George III, was a friend to the American Revolution. His financial over-commitment to American democracy undermined his monarchy.

Knoxville was founded during the French Revolution, and there’s maybe a little bit more than random coincidence in that fact. On occasion, the new administrative capital entertained well-dressed refugees of the Terror. The Chevalier de Chateaubriand was apparently one of the first guests at the almost-finished Blount Mansion. A few years later, Louis Phillippe, Duc d’Orleans, visited, with his two nobleman brothers; a cousin of the Bourbons, he would later be France’s Citizen King.

Scientist Andre Michaux, though he was raised at Versailles as son of the royal arborist, became an anti-monarchist, and on the first of his several botanical expeditions to Tennessee, was working as a secret agent for the Revolutionary government. All these Frenchman who stopped for a night, or a week, at the new town on the bluff overlooking the wild river likely knew Louis XVI and his Austrian bride, Marie Antoinette.

There was plenty of local news in those days, maybe more than now: talk of statehood, and of battles against the Indians, when Chickamaugans under the fearsome rebel chief Doublehead were assassinating white settlers at will. Still, the Knoxville Gazette often led with news from Europe—though traveling by sailboat and horseback, news was typically four or five months old. In the first few years of Knoxville journalism, the hottest topic on the front page may have been the French Revolution. In fact, Chateaubriand said he learned the Bourbons had vacated Versailles from a newspaper here.

(News traveled both ways. A 1794 Gazette remarked that a recent London newspaper had mentioned the hilltop town: “The following new cities, independent of innumerable small towns and villages, have been lately built in America,” it said, and listed 10. One was “the city of Washington which, in the year 1800, is to be the capital of the United States.” Another was “the city of Knoxville, in the new district of Franklin.”)

Some Americans first cheered on the Revolution, but by the time of the Terror and the Guillotine, even Tennessee dirt farmers came to sympathize with the hunted nobility, a fact that was especially perplexing to visiting Revolutionaries like Michaux. 

Even local stories sometimes alluded to the Terror. In a 1794 inventory of two weeks’ worth of attacks under the headline “INDIAN DEPREDATIONS”, was an account of the murders of four men, three of them preachers, in Hawkins County. The writer ascribed the crime to the insurgent Doublehead “who, with his own hands...has shed as much blood as any man (not a Jacobin) of the age.” Even those who considered the Indian rebels bloodthirsty had to admit they weren’t quite as savage as the radical French.

The Gazette’s front page supplied Knoxvillians with scenes worse than any war Americans had witnessed: “the guillotine continues to be occupied, and the commission, ad hoc, dispatches 400 and 500 at a time...they shoot them or drown them, and bury them 40 or 50 in a grave, which occasions such a stench that we fear of some contagious disorder breaking out.”

On March 27, 1794, the Knoxville Gazette ran a five-month-old eyewitness account on the front page: It was titled “LAST MOMENTS of the late QUEEN OF FRANCE.” The eyewitness account is unsigned. “At half-past eleven in the morning, Marie Antoinette was brought out of the prison, dressed in white dishabille, like other malefactors—she was conducted upon a common cart to the place of execution. Her beautiful hair from behind was entirely cut off, and her hands were tied behind her back. Besides her dishabille, she wore a very small white cap....

“An  immense mob, especially women, crouded the streets, insulted the queen, and vociferated, ‘Long Live the Republic....’

The family of East Tennessee’s local military hero, John Sevier, may have read with special interest. Sevier would soon be the first governor of the new state of Tennessee. In 1794, he was a militia general, best known as an Indian fighter.

Unlike most of their neighbors, the Seviers were French: originally Xaviers, from Navarre. Though they were kin to one of the icons of Catholicism, St. Francis Xavier, one branch of the family became Huguenot protestants, and subject to persecution after Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Sevier’s grandfather had fled Paris as a religious refugee. They would seem to be no friend to the Bourbon monarchy. But as time passed, the Seviers and Bourbons had both opposed the British in the same war.

Major James Sevier, oldest son of John Sevier, had fought at King’s Mountain as a teenager. Later, he had served as courier for his father’s secret correspondence with Don Diego de Gardoqui, the Spanish chargé d’affaires in New York; it would later be raised as evidence that the frontier hero had colluded to make Tennessee, then known as Franklin, a Spanish colony, a treasonous offense. When that intrigue was over, the younger Sevier settled into a long career as court clerk for Washington County at Jonesborough. James would later support his father at his famous confrontation with young Andrew Jackson in downtown Knoxville. At one point during the noisy argument outside of the courthouse, which bandied about charges of cowardice and adultery and prompted the drawing of swords, the younger Sevier “raised a large stone” and warned Jackson to back off.

In May, 1794, six weeks after that account of the death of Marie Antoinette appeared in the Knoxville Gazette , James Sevier’s  wife, Nancy, had a child. 

It was a daughter, one of the first of John Sevier’s many grandchildren. For reasons unrecorded, they named her Maria Antoinette. She died a child, long before she could ever charm a prince, but she can still jump off the page of an obscure old book of Tennessee genealogy like none of her brothers and sisters.