- 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
Embittered by the fact that their four months of suffering had come to nothing, humiliated by the entry of German troops into their city, and dissatisfied because their government was in the hands of men unsympathetic to the republican ideal, the people of Paris soon rose up in revolt and proclaimed a municipal government—the leftist Commune. It was made up of a dozen political groups: Moderate Republicans, radical Republicans, Jacobins, Socialist members of the First International, and true Communists. Their aims varied from a wish to separate church and state to a genuinely socialist program communizing all property. In London, Karl Marx gave the movement his blessing.
The Communards were helped by the National Guard, which was sympathetic to them and which had not been disarmed by the Germans. By the end of March a state of civil war existed between the Commune and the official government, which had moved to Versailles. Once again Washburne was in the middle. The city that he saw on his trips between Paris and Versailles was a sorry contrast to the splendid metropolis he had written about when he had first arrived:
Fortune, business, public and private credit, industry, labor, financial enterprise, were all buried in one common grave; and all was devastation, desolation and ruin. The physiognomy of the city became more and more sad. All the upper part of the Champs Elysées and all that portion of the city surrounding the Arc de Triomphe continued to be deserted, through fear of the shells. On [May] 20th, in going from my residence to the legation, it seemed as if I were passing through a city of the dead. There was not a carriage, and hardly a human being in the streets. Immense barricades were going up. The great manufactories and the workshops were closed. The vast stores, where were to be found the wonders and marvels of Parisian industry, were no longer open. The cafes were closed at ten o’clock in the evening. The gas was extinguished, and Paris, without its brilliantly lighted cafes and with its thronging multitudes on the sidewalks, was no longer Paris.
But worse was to come. The Commune had taken hostages, especially nuns and priests. During the week of May 21-28, with the city under heavy bombardment, the desperate Communards began to execute the hostages. Typical was the fate of one group consisting of ten priests, a seminarian, a national guardsman, a police officer, a clerk, and three gendarmes. They were taken to an open lot and surrounded by a crowd that fired at them for twenty-five minutes, until all were dead. Altogether, some 480 people were massacred by the Commune, including the Archbishop of Paris, whom Washburne had interceded for without success.
Through it all Washburne continued to move about Paris helping where he could, attempting to save not only priests but the few Germans who remained. Then, on May 23, as government troops advanced to quell the uprising, the Communards set fire to Paris. By the time government forces had taken the city the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville, and other important buildings were in ruins; the Louvre with all its treasures had just barely been saved. The Commune had lasted seventy-one days.
The government troops took a terrible vengeance. By conservative estimate they killed 17,000 Parisians suspected of being Communards—including many women and children. One general ordered any man with a watch to be shot, because he must have been an official of the Commune. Washburne, no sympathizer with the revolution, was horrified at the government’s excesses.
In the middle of June, with Paris again calm, Washburne headed off to the spas of Bohemia—first to Carlsbad for the six weeks’ cure, afterward to Franzenbad to take, as he said, “the famous mud baths.”
In December of 1874, the German government let it be known that it wanted to give him some testimonial for the services he had rendered its citizens in Paris. Washburne had to answer that he was not allowed to accept gifts from a foreign government. It was arranged that the recognition would be made after his tour of duty was officially over. In September, 1877, the last month of his stay in Paris, he went to Berlin to visit an old friend from Illinois and received an invitation to have dinner with the Emperor at his palace at Babelsburg. “I sat by the side of the Emperor at table,” Washburne recounts with evident pride, “and found him very agreeable. He was, as was also the Empress, full of expressions of gratitude to me for all that I had done for the Germans in France during the Franco-German War.” The gratitude was tangibly expressed by the presentation to the retiring minister of portraits of the Emperor and of Bismarck.
Washburne reached America—after an absence of more than eight years—in the latter part of September. Upon his return Secretary of State Hamilton Fish said, “Washburne is entitled to all the honor his friends may wish to confer upon him. … No compliment can be paid him that I would not join in.” There was some reason to believe that the honor would be the 1880 Republican presidential nomination. President Hayes had stated at the outset of his term that he would not be a candidate for re-election, and the field was wide open. Although Washburne was decidedly a dark horse, he did have several advantages: he had avoided the scandals of the Grant administration, having declined the Treasury portfolio in 1874 to remain in France; he was now immensely popular with the German-Americans; and his vigorous though unsuccessful negotiations with the Communards to spare the life of the Archbishop of Paris had earned him the gratitude of American Catholics.