This is perhaps the first recorded visit to see Voltaire by Americans. Taken from The Journal of Dr. John Morgan of Philadelphia from the city of Rome to the City of London.
'Chateau de Fernay. Sunday, ye I6th. --After Dinner went to the Chateau de Fernay--distant ab't an hours ride from Town to pay our respects to Monsr Voltaire to whom we had a letter from Mr. Wm. Huett an english Gentl'n whom we knew at Rome.
His Chateau as we observed it in driving into the Court Yard appears new--a double House, sufficiently large to contain a great family, being 3 stories high & neat with a Chapel on one side of the Court Yard in front, & the other w'ch is the side by w'ch we enter some round turrets,--which give more ye Air of a Castle--the front side to the Road being shut up. As for his Theatre I did not see it to know it, being as I suppose on one side of the Hall of Room before the Hall by w'ch we enter from the Court Yard.
Our Coach having drove into the Yard up to the Door, Monsr Voltaire himself received us on the steps. Having delivered him our recommendatory Letter, this wrote in French yet from the Characters of the subscription he knew it to come from an englishman, and therefore addressed us in English. For the Present he only look'd at the beginning of the Letter to learn our Names & at the Bottom to see who it came from. This was in the Antechamber.
His Reception of us was very Polite. He ask'd why we had not come out time eno' to dine with him, & why we made any Difficulties, for says he, You know Gentlemen that sitting together at table opens ye Heart & makes one more sprightly & sociable. AIthough at a loss sometimes for an english Word, & that he used many Gallecisms, yet he took pains to articulate his words properly & accent them fully. In this he succeeded beyond what one might expect from his having been but only twelve Month' in england & that so many years past as in 1726. We meet with few french Men who pronounce english better.
Our apology for not having come time eno' to dine with him being made, he then ushered us into his Sal, & introduc'd us to a polite Company there of Gentl'n & Ladies, in terms peculiar to himself. He addressed himself more particularly to a Chevalier whom we could see was a Military Man, & an Officer of Distinction, & whom we afterwards learnt from Mr. Voltaire himself was the Count de Beaufremont, who was a Commodore last War & Broth'r to the Prince de Beaufremont in franche Compte as well of one of the best Families as one of the best officers in France.
His introduction of us was to this effect: I beg leave to present to you two english Gentlemen--Oh Glorious Nation renowned Conquerors of Canada. Though they have fought against you, & well have they fought battles by land & Sea, we must now look upon them as our brave friends, since we are now at peace.
To this we replied that we hoped this peace might be lasting, that we might always regard one another in the same light of Friendship. Then Mons'r Voltaire introduc'd us more particularly by Name; we received & return'd Compliments with mutual respect.
Mr. Voltaire then said he was very well acquainted with a Gentleman of the Name of Morgan when in England in the Year 1726. Mr. Beaufremont said there was a Col'l of the Name on the Expedition against Martineco & the Havannah. I told them that the latter was dead; that there were many of the Name in England, & I could not say particularly that I knew the one Mr. Voltaire meant. They reply'd they had often heard of the Name & both of them said there was a General Morgan, Gov'r of Bergenopzoom an officer of Great Reputation. This now indeed 200 Years since his time.
A Dish of coffee being presented to us, the Conversation turned upon the places we had lately visited in Italy--Upon Naples, The famine & epidemical Disease w'ch lately reign'd there--Upon the Discoveries made at the Herculaneum &c.
A little Dog happening to cross the room stopp'd before Mr. Voltaire, wagg'd his Tail and seem'd to notice him very attentively--on w'ch Mr. Voltaire turn'd to Mr. Powel, & as I thought a little abruptly ask'd him, what think you of that little dog; has he any Soul or not, & what do the People in England now think of the Soul. This Question so unexpected & before Company some of whom Mr. Powel was very sure at least of Mr. Voltaire, that they entertained Sentiments concerning the Soul very different from himself & the bulk of Mankind who have been taught at all to reason about the Soul, was a little startled at this Question put so mal a propos. To shew that he was not desirous of enlarging upon this Topic, his Answer was that the People of England now as well as heretofore entertained very different Notions from each other concerning the Soul. Very true says Mons'r Beaufremont, Everybody thinks after his own fashion.
Mr. Voltaire however did not drop the subject entirely--says he I esteem one of your Country-Men who has wrote on that Subject, My Lord Bolinbroke. He has done essential Service to Mankind, but there would have been still greater had he given the same Matter in fewer Words. Of these he is so profuse that he frequently renders the Subject he handles obscure from being too copious in his expression. Have you not read this valuable Author? Another Question as little to Mr. Powel's gout as the former--But without hesitation he told him what appear'd to me sufficiently spirited--Whatever his Merit may be I own I have never read him. Oh read him by all Means--He is a most valuable Author & let me recommend to you when you return home to get some of y'r Fr'ds to give an abridgement of it. It will bear to be reduced to a third of its bulk & then it will be a most excellent Work.
The English added he have some fine Authors, they are I swear by God himself, the first Nation in Europe, & if ever I smell of a Resurrection, or come a second time on Earth, I will pray God to make me be born in England, the Land of Liberty. These are four things w'ch I adore that the English boast of so greatly with his fore finger of the right hand counting them up, & naming each distinctly & with an emphasis--Liberty, Property, Newton & Locke.
Although he then spoke in English the Count de Beaufremont seem'd to understand him. They tell me says he that the English have not even a word in their language w'ch answers to the French Word Esclavage so little have they an Idea of its State I beg your pardon says Mr. Voltaire; they speak of it in ye way of opposition--English Liberty & french Slavery or Servitude.
Here a Pause ensued. To avoid being hook'd in to any seeming dispute about the soul &c., I had from time to time addressed myself to a Young looking Gentleman who sat next me on in differ't Matters, perhaps two or three & twenty years old--tho' all the while very attentive to what passed.
I had now time to look at little about me, & observe the Company and place I was in a little more particularly.
As for Mr. Voltaire himself as I have a good print of him I shall not describe him very particularly. He begins now to stoop with Years of Care, is thin meagre & if strait I believe would be about five feet ten Inches high. Has a very sagacious but at the same time Comical look. Something satirical and very lively in his Action, of w'ch he is full as most of his Nation are. His words w'ch are very emphatical seem to be accompani'd with an Action little less so.
Count de Beaufremont is a well looking jolly fat Man, appears under fifty, of a good appearance for an officer, one that seems to claim respect from deserving it.
Near him in one Corner sat a fat french Lady middle-aged--well painted. She did not talk much, tho' she seem'd one ofthe family. Her Discourse seem'd to be chiefly confined to a Gentleman in a white broad Cloth suit & Silver Lace, who seem'd to repay her with the whole of his attention, he not bestow'g a great deal on the Company.
In a diagonal Corner on an easy Settee were placed also a middling Age but meagre french Lady well smeared with paint. She did not want for discourse--at her left hand at the same settee was a younger Lady perhaps aged 20, & Mr. Voltaire on her right--the Young Gentleman with whom I convers'd sometimes sat between him and myself, & Mr. Powel to my right hand. These were the personages & such the arrangement of our goodly Company.
The Salle was elegantly adorned & had some tolerable paintings, one indeed better executed than the rest was a Mars seeming to have rose from the bed of Venus but giving her a close parting Salute. His left Arm supporting the weight of her Body but pressing her swelling Breast she turn'd to the right embraces him closely, whilst he gives her the parting Kiss. His Helmet & Plume are behind him--a pair of billing doves fluttering their wings on the bed of Venus. The Windows of this Room w'ch I sat just opposite to look into a fine Garden. Mr. Voltaire perhaps observing my Eyes that Way, ask'd do you love Greenwich Gentlemen--do you love Richmond; Upon answering in ye affirmative says he I will shew you these places.
He conducted us into the Garden, & pointing to the lake of Geneva within ab't half a league or perhaps a little more--there says he is the Thames--& there is Richmond Hills, shewing us the Hills of Savoy beyond the lake--and these Vineyards all round this Garden & the verdant Lawns are Greenwich. You see I am quite in the english Taste. Look at the Woods; there you see a Road in the Woods another in the Vineyard--In the garden you have plain gravel walks or green Lawns--no french Gew-gaws--All is after Nature. <> We congratulated him upon the Happiness of his Situation, the Judgment he had shewn in the Choice of his Residence & the pleasing happy Arrangement he had given to every thing about. He prided himself in having ordered every thing himself, from the building the Chateau to the Disposition of the Garden--all the gravel of the walks he had himself caused to be brought here.
I have says he six miles in Circuit here, & am Lord of a greater extent than the neighbouring republic of Geneva--I pay no Taxes to the french King or any other--I enjoy Liberty and property here & am my own Master.
We told him his Situation was, what it really is, most charming; & that no doubt he must have enjoy'd a particular pleasure in seeing a kind of second Creation rise under his hands.
Where my Chateau is, says he, there were Churches & Chappels. I bought all & pulled them down to build my Chateau. I hate Churches & Priests & Masses. You Gentleman have been in Italy--You have been at Rome. Has not your Blood often boiled to see shoescrapers & porters saying Mass at a place where once a Cicero or Cato & a Scipio have thundered in eloquent harangues to the roman People.
His Soul seem'd to be mov'd with Indignation whilst he spoke it, & he accompany'd this with a Vehemence of Action that show'd to what a degree he abhorred Masses and the religious.
How often when one would go fast do these fellows detain you says he. If you ask where is the Postillion he is gone to Mass, & you must wait with Patience for a half an hour till he has done.
By this time I became quite familiar with him, ask'd him Questions with as much Assurance as if I had been long acquainted with him--I ask'd him if he had read any Acc'ts of Electricity or was acquainted with Dr. Franklin's writings on that Subject--& what he thought of him. He acknowledged him to be the Dis cov'r & Improv'r of Electricity, that he was a Man of Genius of Merit & a great nat'l Philosopher.
I then ask'd him if he had read Mr. Humes writings of Doctor Robertson's History of Scotland as he said he often read english Books.
He told me he had, that both were Men of Merit, but he preferred Mr. Hume, whom he said wrote more like a Philosoph'r. He has given us a good History of England. It is not so full of minute facts as that of Rapin, who smells indeed of the Presbyterian whilst Mr. Hume throughout smells of the Philosopher. He often used the word smell of, figuratively for to partake of. I know not whether it was because he delighted in the Sense of smelling particularly, or for want of words to express himself better in english.
He now pull'd out of his Pocket a snuff Box. In taking a pinch of Snuff, I observed in the inside of the Lid a Miniat're Picture of the King of Prussia, w'ch probably was presented to him by that Monarch at the time Voltaire was so great a favourite of his, & his chief Counsellor.
In speaking of an intended new publication upon the History of a Time w'ch has been often wrote on he inveighed against writing on trite Subjects where the Author had it not in his power to bring new facts to the light or publish some new discoveries that are important and interesting--Above all Authors I admire Newton & Locke--These opened our Eyes to glorious Objects & immortal Discoveries w'ch we did not think of.
One has dissected & laid open to us ye planetary System; the other has, as I may say, dissected the Soul & discovered to us all ye powers of the Understanding. On my Knees I prostrate myself all my Life before two such great Men as these; to whom I esteem myself as an Infant.
I then ask'd who Mons'r Beaufremont was. He told me of him what I wrote above.
I then ask'd him if the Young Gentleman whom I had set next to was his son, as I had heard him call him Papa; and who the young Lady was.
He answered me the Young Lady I call my Daughter, because she was a poor orphan neglected Neice of the deceased great Corneille--every Nation you know has its Shakespeare--Corneille was our french Shakespeare--& because I look on myself as a Soldier under the Gen'ls Corneille, Racine &c in this sort of Warfare, I found out the Neice of Corneille and brought her to live with me. I call her my Daughter & have marri'd her to that Young Man.. Their Children I look on as if they were my own, & take care of them all as of my own family.
Being now time to return to Geneva lest the Gates of the City should be shut ag'st us, we thanked him in the politest terms for the Honor he had done us. He return'd the Compliment, said he should always be proud to entertain english Gentlemen. Being now at the Steps he ushered us in, breaking into a kind of Rapture with-- "Oh Goddess Liberty; thou heaven born maid.".
We were now within the Salle, & Mons'r Voltaire as if he had been pleased with our Conversation & the freedom we used with him--crys out in french to this Effect--addressing himself to the Company.
"Behold two Amiable Young Men Lovers of Truth & Inquirers into Nature. They are not satisfy'd with mear Appearance, they love Investigation & Truth, & despize Superstition--I command You Gentlemen--go on love Truth & search diligently after it. Hate Hypocrisy Hate Masses & above all hate the Priests."
Compliments being over we left the Company. Mons'r Voltaire accompany'd us to the Door, told us he should allways be proud to see us, particularly whenever we would call & dine with him; his hour was two o'clock; he would be glad to see us, & if his Health permitted would dine with us but if not, His Children, (meaning his adopted ones) would take care of us, nor should we ever want for Company at his House who would endeavour to make themselves agreeable. We return'd our Thanks once more in the warmest terms, & gett'g into the Chariot drove off.
I could not help noticing a Chappel before the Gate of the Court Yard with this Inscription over the door:
I afterwards heard that in buying this Possession he was obliged to stipulate for building a Chappel--of w'ch I suppose no great Use is made. Till I heard this I did not know whether it was not his Theatre.
In a Tavern on the road not far off these lines are pencilled