Henriette-Lucie de La Tour du Pin de Gouvernet was the wife of a French aristocrat who sought refuge in the United States with his family in 1794 to escape the guillotine. The exiles made a life for themselves—quite different from the one they had in France—on a farm they purchased near Albany. Henriette-Lucie recorded the details of their years abroad in a journal which was published by her heirs, and in which she described herself.
On paper, the portrait will not be flattering, for my reputation for beauty was due entirely to my figure and my bearing, not at all to my features.
My greatest beauty was my thick ash-blond hair. I had small grey eyes and my eyelashes were very thin, partly destroyed when I was four by a bad attack of smallpox. I had sparse, fair eyebrows, a high forehead and a nose often described as Grecian, but long and too heavy at the tip. My best feature was my mouth, for my lips were well shaped and had a fresh bloom. I also had very good teeth. Even today, at the age of seventy-one, I still have them all. I was said to have a pleasant face and an attractive smile, yet in spite of that, my appearance might have been considered ugly. I am afraid a number of people must have thought so, for I myself considered hideous certain women said to resemble me. But my height and my good figure, my dazzlingly clear and transparent complexion made me outstanding in any gathering, particularly by day, and I certainly overshadowed other women endowed with far better looks than mine.
The family had four slaves, among them Prime who “although he could not read or write, nevertheless kept accounts with such exactitude that there was never the slightest error.” In the spring of 1796, word was received from France that confiscated property had been returned to the family of Henriette-Lucie’s husband, and that it was necessary for him to return to France to claim it. Before departing, Henriette-Lucie insisted that their slaves be given their freedom.
These poor people, on seeing the letters arrive from Europe, had feared some change in our life. They were disturbed and alarmed. Therefore, all four of them were trembling when they entered my room to which I had called them. They found me alone. I said to them with emotion: “My friends, we are going to return to Europe. What shall I do with you?” The poor creatures were overcome. Judith dropped into a chair, in tears, while the three men covered their faces with their hands, and all remained silent. I continued: “We have been so satisfied with you that it is just that you should be recompensed. My husband has charged me to tell you that he will give you your liberty.” On hearing this word our good servants were so stupified that they remained for several seconds without speech. Then all four threw themselves at my feet crying: “Is it possible? Do you mean that we are free?” I replied: “Yes, upon my honor, from this moment, as free as I am myself.”
Who can describe the poignant emotion of such a moment! Never in my life had I experienced anything so sweet. Those whom I had just promised their liberty surrounded me in tears. …
The following day my husband took them to Albany before a judge, for the ceremony of the manumission, an act which had to be public. All the negroes of the city were present. The Justice of the Peace, who was at the same time the steward of Mr. Van Rensselaer, was in very bad humor. He attempted to assert that Prime, being fifty years of age, could not under the terms of the law be given his liberty unless he was assured a pension of a hundred dollars. But Prime had foreseen this case, and he produced his certificate of baptism which attested that he was only forty-nine. They made the slaves kneel before my husband, and he placed his hand upon the head of each to sanction his liberation, exactly in the manner of ancient Rome.
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