- Historic Sites
The ambassador from an infant republic spent five enchanted years in the French capital at a time when monarchy was giving way to revolution. Walking the city streets today, you can still feel the extravagant spirit of the city and the era he knew.
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
On the Quai de Conti, Jefferson became well acquainted with another Left Bank institution, the Hôtel de Monnaies (the Royal Mint), whose workshops had opened in 1775. Jefferson visited the mint to commission medals commemorating the American Revolution. The building, designed by Jacques-Denis Antoine, was one of the few new monuments free of the classical orders. It has changed little since Jefferson’s time, and today’s visitors can tour its Coin Museum as well as its workshops, where medals and collector’s pieces are still manufactured.
Jefferson’s appetite for music and drama took him to the newest places of entertainment—the Tuileries, the boulevards, the Palais Royal, and the Luxembourg quarter. Near the Luxembourg Palace, on August 4, 1786, he attended Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro in the new Théâtre Français (today’s Odéon). The building, by Charles de Wailly and M.-J. Peyre, burned in 1807 but was then replicated, so the theater we visit today is architecturally identical to the one Jefferson knew. Jefferson was an admirer of Beaumarchais’s politically provocative work and bought a copy for his library. He may even have met the author. Beaumarchais, a man of parts who was also an arms merchant, had provisioned the rebels during the American Revolution. When Jefferson arrived in Paris, his bill, an “immense” one, had still not been paid. Beaumarchais went in person to collect it at Jefferson’s house. No one knows if Jefferson was home, but in any event he paid the playwright.
Jefferson was reluctant to admit that the French political experiment might end in violence, although a mob confronted his own coach two days before the storming of the Bastille.
Jefferson’s ambassadorial residence was one of the new mansions on the Champs-Elysées, the Hôtel Langeac, designed by Jean François Chalgrin. Although this was a luxury dwelling built by a fashionable architect, Jefferson had to put his own stamp on the premises. He created a new room and took great care with the furnishings and cooking arrangements. With his daughters Patsy and Polly in a boarding school across the city, the widower Jefferson presided over a refined and convivial bachelor household, giving a temporary home to young Americans, such as his secretary William Short and the painter John Trumbull. On Sundays, when his daughters were home from the convent of Panthemont, friends would drop in for a “family supper.” But we also read of formal dinner parties where the American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Gouverneur Morris mixed with Parisian aristocrats, intellectual ladies, and men of science.
Like every man of fashion in Paris, Jefferson frequented the Palais Royal gardens. This teeming center of pleasure, commerce, and political discussion had opened the year he arrived in the city, and he enjoyed watching construction continue on the underground circus, beneath the present back garden. A successful real estate venture by the Duc d’Orléans, the Palais Royal inspired Jefferson the architect with dreams of a prosperous shopping and entertainment complex at Virginia’s capital, Richmond. As a consumer, Jefferson, like everyone else, would come to the Palais Royal to buy luxurious accouterments and furnishings for his house and to enjoy art exhibitions, concerts, and the theater.
To the scores of shops and eating places that lined the arcades of the Palais Royal gardens in Jefferson’s day, the only bona fide successor is the sumptuous restaurant Le Grand Vôfour, in the quarters of the Cafô de Chartres. But one still feels the extravagant spirit of his century in the merchants of these dusty arcades: the purveyors of medals and items of heraldry, the printers of calling cards emblazoned with family crests, the boutiques specializing in toy soldiers. There is a shop, brand new, that sells nothing but eighteenth-century gentlemen’s vests.
The film Jefferson in Paris places the ambassador in the Palais Royal just before his departure for home in September 1789. In the movie we witness an incendiary political speech in the gardens there. It is a historically fitting touch, a signal of the violence about to engulf Jefferson’s Paris, but there is no evidence that Jefferson himself was present. He was reluctant to admit that the French political experiment might reach such extremes, even though his own coach was confronted by a mob two days before the storming of the Bastille, caught in an exchange between the cavalry and angry citizens. He did not depart to flee the Revolution; he intended to return after a six-month leave of absence. Once back in America, however, he was asked to become Secretary of State in George Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson never saw Paris again.