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Observing the American Scene: The Abbé Correia da Serra in America, 1812–1820

Edgardo Medeiros da Silva


Abstract. Foreign visitors to America have provided us with the most insightful observations about the United States, its people, and its institutions. Some of these observations are outright dismissive, while a few are laudatory, others are biased and to a very large extent subjective. The correspondence of José Francisco Correia da Serra (1751–1823), best known as the Abbé Correia da Serra, Portugal’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the young republic of the United States between 1816 and 1820, offers us a truly remarkable picture of Americans, their society, and politics in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Drawing on the letters he wrote to the most representative public men in American society at the time, this paper examines some of the Abbé’s observations, comments, and advice on the great issues of the day, whether on the treacherous talk of the supporters of the Hartford Convention in the New England states, or the establishment of institutions of  higher learning in Virginia and Pennsylvania, or even the importance of public opinion in a free, egalitarian society such as that of the United States. Correia da Serra was a true representative of the Portuguese Enlightenment, a man of varied scientific interests and strong liberal ideas, most notably those associated with the founding of the American republic. His thoughts on the great American experiment in representative democracy, in line with the ideological precepts of the Jeffersonian-Republicans, are an enduring legacy to those interested in understanding the challenges faced by the United States in the decades that followed its independence from Great Britain.


American education, American experiment, American federalism, American press, Portuguese-American diplomacy

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