Convent school attended by Jefferson's daughter, Patsy. Existing today on rue de Grenelle (click photo to enlarge)
Following the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson in today's Paris
Studying the story of Thomas Jefferson's stay in France from 1784 to 1789 has turned out to be a fascinating experience. Not only for what I learned about Jefferson, but also what I learned about the time leading up to the French Revolution. And then, going to Paris, I found that there are many buildings, parks, paintings, bridges and streets that still exist from the time Jefferson walked the streets and paths of the city and rode his horse in the Bois de Boulogne. This project began as research for an historical mystery novel I am now writing which has Jefferson as its main character. Writing about Jefferson in Paris exposed me to the incredible ferment of the years when the newborn United States was fighting to find unity and economic stability after its victory against Great Britain. My studies also exposed me to the drama, struggles and heroism of the years leading up to the deadly French Revolution. I am sharing what I have discovered with the hope that readers will learn about this time when France came to the aid of America and the close friendship of the two countries began. What I write and show is intended to help readers understand the human qualities as well as the formidable talents of the man who became our third president. I also encourage readers to visit Paris as well as to Provence and follow the footsteps of Jefferson in the streets, palaces and countryside that he visited.
For the convenience and interest of our readers I have added this clock for the actual Paris Time at this moment. Depending on variations in daylight savings time, there is about a 7 hour difference between Paris and New York, a 10 hour difference between Paris and San Francisco.
When you are in Paris and walking on the Champs Elysees somehwere near l'Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe be sure to find the corner of the rue de Berri and the Champs Elysees where Jefferson's home/embassy once stood. Try for a moment to block out the mad rush of ice cream slurping tourists and the hawking going on in the shops and let your mind retreat to the 1780s when this was the outskirts of Paris (see the engraving above). Listen for the notes of Jefferson's violin and watch him set off for his five mile walk in the Bois de Boulogne.
While Jefferson was in Paris, there was a huge extension of scientific knowledge and inventions going on. The Montgolfier brothers, paper manufacturers from the south of France, invented and manufactured the first hot air balloons. Soon others followed with hydrogen balloons. To Europeans of the late 18th century, balloons were an invention comparable for us to rocket ships. In this scene from the remarkably true-to-time HBO documentary of the life of President John Adams, Adams, his wife Abigail and Thomas Jefferson (an accurate represesentation, mostly, though he rarely wore wigs, which set him off in Paris) watch one of the earliest hot air balloon flights.
The Palais de Justice
If you are facing Notre Dame Cathedral, turn around and walk straight as far as you can and you will end up looking at the entrance of the Palais de Justice. This is the complex of buildings that houses the main courts of Paris. Well-guarded by police (the Police Judiciare are housed in one of the buildings) the courts and corridors are open to the public and as you walk around you will be mingling with the robed men and women who are the lawyers (avocats) and judges processing a huge variety of trials and hearings. Some of these building and parts of others have been around since before the Revolution. Hence, Jefferson would have passed by and visited many times, for this area in his time was truly one of the centers of public life in Paris. The most important thing to know about the courts and the men (sadly, no women in this part of Paris life in Jefferson's time) who ran them is that they formed the most important counterweight to the otherwise unlimited power of the King and his ministers. There were huge struggles between the King and his supporters against the men of the Robe, the men of the courts, of Parlement, as it was called then (not to be confused with Anglo-Saxon Parliaments). It was here that people (mostly the new middle class) could appeal decisions made by ministers of the King and by those who worked for them, such as tax-collectors. A curious thing is that the Palais de Justice surrounds the medieval, gothic La-Sainte Chapelle, which was built between 1243 and 1248 (click here for great photos of Sainte Chapelle). Though much of this church was renovated in the 1800s, still the architecture soaring and beautiful. I mention Sainte Chapelle because to understand the huge complex of Le Pallais de Justice and the surrounding buildings I suggest buying at the souvenir counter of Sainte-Chapelle the specialized guide to the entire complex-when I was last there in 2007 it was still only in French, perhaps they've translated it-the photographs are good enough so that it makes as great souvenir. In Jefferson's time-you'll have to use your imagination-there were still stalls of merchants selling books and writing materials between the cours de Mai and the salle des pas perdus. In fact, over the staircase there are still inscriptions identifying such merchants. Because of a huge fire in 1776 and the rebuilding and then the Revolution, the number of merchants never equaled those in the building before the fire. The magnificent irone fence in the front of the Palais de Justice was ordered to be built by Louis XIV and it is still the original one that Jefferson would have passed by.
Palais de Justice, Paris. Courtyard Entrance. Click photo to enlarge.
The books on the right are basic sources for the Paris period of Jefferson's life. The Garrioch book is very well written and deals with life in Paris during the 1700s. There are lively descriptions of hospitals, nobles, candle-sellers, dressmakers, etc. It is a "you are there" book with authentic details. The Malone book is the second of six volumes of Malone's lively biography of Jefferson. This volume begins with Jefferson's arrival in Paris in 1784 "Lowest of the Diplomatic Tribe" and ends with the struggle between Jefferson and Hamilton in the 1790s.
Les Invalides-built under Louis XVI and finished in 1679. Built as a veterans hospital, it is now a museum and site of Napoleon's Tomb and the tombs of his brother and his important generals. The hospital was situated between where Jefferson lived and worked on the Champs Elysees and the convent school, L'Abbaye de Panthemont where his daughter, Patsy, went to school on the rue de Grenelle. The Abbaye de Panthemont also continues to exist, but at this time as a Protestant Church. I shall write about Patsy Jefferson's school at another place in this website.