The Exhibit

Towards the American Century

 - Panel 2 -

The Habsburgs and the American War of Independence and the Era of Non-Recognition, 1776–1838

Even though there was an enormous interest in the Habsburg Empire’s public sphere in events in “America” during the Revolution (1776–1783) and fascination with people such as Benjamin Franklin, Emperor Joseph II never fully came around to recognize the newly founded United States after their hard-earned victory in the bloody war against Great Britain and King George III. In 1778, the Continental Congress dispatched William Lee to Vienna to negotiate recognition and establish diplomatic relations. Yet, the Imperial Court in Vienna led by State Chancellor Prince Kaunitz never granted Lee a formal audience with the Emperor. After the Peace Treaty of Paris (1783), Congress gave its representatives in Europe the green light to negotiate a Treaty of Amity and Friendship with the Habsburg Empire. The U.S.’s new minister in Paris Thomas Jefferson was not interested in initiating diplomatic relations with the Habsburg Empire and the “whimsical” Emperor Joseph II and used dilatory tactics to postpone negotiations. No treaty was ever signed and monarchical Habsburgs pursued no “diplomatic interest” with the republican U.S. until 1838. Well, not entirely; in 1820, Prince Metternich appointed Alois Baron Lederer as the first consul general in New York with Vice-Consulates to follow in New Orleans (1837), Boston and Philadelphia (1841).

During the War of Independence Austrian merchants from the Austrian Netherlands (in the port of Ostende) and from Trieste lobbied Vienna to negotiate a trade treaty with the British colonies in America fighting for independence. Under the neutral Austrian flag, merchants from the Austrian Netherlands exported weapons, munitions and gun powder to the “Americans.” The Austrian Netherlands dispatched Baron Beelen-Bertholff as the first Austrian trade commissioner to Philadelphia. He sent back valuable reports about trading opportunities (including with Native Americans) in the colonies. After independence, the merchants of Trieste established rich trade links with the U.S., exporting Styrian iron products and Bohemian glass wares (Jefferson’s glass dome at Monticello is imported Bohemian glass) and cloth for American tobacco imports. No trade treaty was ever signed.

Austrians were emigrating to the new continent during this time period too. Prague-born Maria von Born grew up as a socialite in Vienna and married a count from Ragusa. She eloped with a Swiss officer to U.S. in the early 1790s. She had three kids with her lover and moved to New York and Michigan frontier, where he built fortifications as a military engineer. They moved to Philadelphia, were Maria started a finishing school for young elite ladies. Her Swiss officer died and after some more years with the school, she returned to Vienna in 1815 after some twenty years in the U.S.


Maria Aloysia Anna von Born (1768 - 1830)

Maria Aloysia Anna von Born was born in Prague and grew up as a socialite and much-admired beauty in Vienna. She married Count Tommaso von Bassegli from the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) but returned to Vienna without her husband and eloped with the Swiss-born officer Johann Jakob Ulrich Rivardi to revolutionary France and then to the U.S. in the early 1790s.

While Maria entered the salons in Philadelphia, Rivardi took a job with the U.S. Army as a military engineer, fortifying frontier forts destroyed during the American Revolution. She followed him to Fort Clinton (today’s West Point) on the New York frontier and married him in 1795 (without annulling her previous marriage with Bassegli). They moved further west to frontier forts in Detroit and then Fort Niagara to lead a life that was far removed from the Vienna palaces she had been used to. The couple had three children.

In 1802, Rivardi was honorably dismissed, and Maria now had to rescue the family from ruin. Supported by Presidents Jefferson and Madison, she founded “Madame Rivardi’s Seminary for Young Ladies” in Philadelphia, a finishing school for privileged young women. As Jonathan Singerton, her biographer puts it, “Maria created a microcosm of enlightenment and cosmopolitanism.” When her second husband died, she was stuck with his debts and ended up in debtors’ prison.

She returned to Vienna in 1815, after some twenty-five hard years in the U.S. In 1817, she moved to Trieste to be with her son Ulrich, who had relocated his American trading company there, signing her name again as Countess Bassegli. After spending her final years in Italy and France, she died in 1830 (Singerton, Beginning Her World Anew ).


Sources: Jonathan Singerton, Empires on the Edge – The American Revolution and the Habsburg Monarchy, 1763–1789, PhD dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 2018.

Jonathan Singerton, “Beginning Her World Anew: Maria von Born”


Monticello - home of Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, Virginia (between 1800 and 1906). The glass for the home’s dome was imported from Bohemia via Trieste, an example of the rich trade links established between the Habsburg Empire and the United States after gaining their independence.

Library of Congress

Prince Klemens Metternich

Prince Klemens Metternich, the Austrian Emperor’s Chancellor

Austrian National Library