Coming to America to start a new life is filled with challenges, even for the wealthy and well-connected. When the du Pont family crossed the Atlantic, they sought a new beginning in a land of opportunity. Burdened by sibling rivalries and divergent ideas about how best to make their fortune, the family made up for it with dedication to one another and a boatload of capital invested by social and economic elites in France. Once landed, the du Ponts set to work figuring out how to remake themselves into Americans, and how to return a profit.
In this episode of Stories from the Stacks, Roma Beaufret, master’s student at L'École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, discusses the early history of the du Pont family’s business ventures. With a focus on the relationship between business practice and family intimacy, Beaufret seeks to understand the ways the du Ponts brought new ideals of economic and scientific rationality with them to America, and how they worked together to put them into practice.
Using Hagley Library collections, including the Winterthur manuscript collection of du Pont family records, Beaufret discovered that the du Pont family suffered numerous reversals of fortune before stumbling upon a business plan that could turn a profit. Pierre Samuel wanted to acquire land and found a settler colony. The speculation lost a fortune. Victor Marie wanted to serve commercial links between France and North America, but failed to make it work. Finally, Eleuthere Irene applied his scientific education to the problem, and began manufacturing gunpowder in mills on the Brandywine River. When the young company won a contract to sell powder to the U.S. government, thanks in part to friendly relations between the du Ponts and noted Francophile Thomas Jefferson, the family began to enjoy a return on their effort, and to repay their outstanding debts.
To support the use of Hagley Library collections, the Center for the History of Business, Technology, & Society provides research grants and fellowships. More information on funding opportunities for research at Hagley can be found here.
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Interview and production by Gregory Hargreaves.
Image: Composite of three du Pont family portraits, Eleuthère Iréné (1969_2_0961), Pierre Samuel (1969_2_1841), & Victor Marie (1969_2_3366), Audiovisual Collections & Digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, DE 19807