- Historic Sites
An American In Paris
Faced with war, famine, and bloody revolution, a political wheel horse turned into a first-class ambassador.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
Washburne carried on all of these activities in addition to his usual tasks as a United States diplomat. He was hampered by long delays in communication with Washington, but continued to keep the State Department informed of fast-changing events as best he could. Sometimes he employed bits of midwestern color that must have startled Secretary Fish, the New York aristocrat. Describing General Trochu, for example, Washburne said he was “weak as the Indian’s dog which had to lean against a tree to bark.” Then there were Americans and American property to be protected. The French initiated several schemes to levy heavy taxes on the apartments of U.S. citizens, but Washburne succeeded in having them revoked. He was especially proud of the fact that while American property in Paris was estimated to be worth seven to ten million dollars, its owners suffered less than five hundred dollars in war damages.
The Prussian siege of Paris began on the weekend of September 17. By its thirty-fourth day food shortages were becoming a real concern and fresh meat was rationed to one-sixteenth of a pound per day. The American minister reported that “the magnificent blooded steed of the Rothschilds, by the side of the old plug of the cabman,” went to the slaughterhouse. Mule meat, two dollars a pound in gold, was considered superior to horse meat. (Washburne assured the Swiss minister that he would not starve; the Swiss, who had a sense of humor, answered, “Neigh.”) Butcher shops were stocked with cats, rats, and dogs. The zoos later contributed such items to Parisian menus as kangaroo, wolf, antelope, and elephant. Lions and tigers were spared because of the danger of trying to kill them, but the Boucherie Anglaise was offering its customers camel kidneys.
Washburne was in considerable personal danger. The street on which he lived was mined, and on January 5,1871, when the Germans began bombarding the city, a shell struck the American legation, missing Washburne by twenty feet. Yet he did not wait for danger to seek him out. As the secretary of the legation later recalled, “If we heard of any part of Paris where shells were likely to burst and bullets to whistle, Washburne was sure to have important business in that direction.” “Voila!” the Minister cheerfully wrote in his diary. “Another revolution.”
While the French government was forced to get what news it could via balloons and pigeons, Washburne regularly received English newspapers in diplomatic pouches from London. His office was filled with news-hungry reporters, but by agreement with Bismarck he gave no information. A Parisian journal pleaded, “We gave you Lafayette and Rochambeau, in return for which we only ask for one copy of an English paper.” Finally, after Washburne’s porter was offered a thousand-franc bribe for a paper, the Minister concluded that “it is too much to me to have the news for two millions of people. … I have therefore written Bismarck that I will have no more London newspapers sent to me.”
It was not an easy decision for Washburne, who found the long siege oppressive. “Four months of siege today, and where has all this time gone? It seems to me as if I had been buried alive,” he wrote in his diary on January 18, 1871. But finally, on January 27, the 131st day of the siege, the terms of an armistice were announced, and two days later it took effect.
The news was badly received by the average Parisian, who wanted to fight on. Under the terms of the armistice the Government of National Defense had the right to convoke at the city of Bordeaux a freely elected assembly which would decide whether to continue the war; if the decision was negative, the assembly would agree upon the terms of peace it would ask for. The assembly duly met at Bordeaux and sent commissioners to Versailles to negotiate a peace with the Germans. A treaty was signed at the end of February, and the assembly at Bordeaux ratified it shortly afterward. The terms were harsh: France was to pay an indemnity of five billion francs to Germany; Paris must submit to a triumphal parade of the Prussian army; all of Alsace and part of Lorraine were to be ceded to the conqueror. Meanwhile, with enormous insolence, Bismarck had had William of Prussia proclaimed Emperor of Germany in the palace at Versailles, where once the kings of France had received the homage of Europe.
To the people of Paris, the magnificent parade put on by thirty thousand German troops was particularly galling. Washburne’s description of the city on the day of the great insult, March 1, 1871, reveals their reaction:
Paris seemed literally to have died out. There was neither song nor shout in all her streets. The whole population was marching about as if under a cloud of oppression. The gas was not yet lighted, and the streets presented a sinister and sombre aspect. All the butcher and barber shops in that part of the city occupied by the Germans were closed, and if the people had not provided themselves for the emergency, there would have been an increase of suffering. The Bourse was closed. … No newspapers appeared on that day except the Journal Official. No placards were posted upon the walls of Paris. …
When the Germans were all gone, a few days later, the Parisians furiously scrubbed the streets along which the victors had marched.