Sunday, December 18, 2011

Benjamin Franklin in Paris

A bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin is the centerpiece of Square de Yorktown, adjacent to the southwestern wing of the Palais de Chaillot, just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. Rue Benjamin Franklin runs from here down to Rue de Passy. Métro: Trocadéro

I’ve often read that, if Benjamin Franklin had not been our ambassador to France in the years after he signed the Declaration of Independence, we’d all still be speaking with a British accent. As it turns out, that premise is understatement.

Franklin lived in Paris for more than seven years, making his home in Passy, then a village just west of Paris (now in the city’s 8th arrondissement, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower). He was wildly popular, and known as a ladies’ man, even though he was 70 years old when he first arrived in Paris. His signature fur hat was copied in the hair styles of prominent Parisian women. Franklin wisely took the time to learn the French language and the idiosyncrasies of French manners. He was also something of a celebrity, because of his famous lightning experiment.

While living in Paris Franklin fully integrated himself into the life of the city. He even took delight in writing anonymous letters to the editor of the Journal de Paris, suggesting moving clocks forward to save on candles (an expensive luxury item in those days), presaging daylight savings time.

Franklin was temperamentally well suited for France. The streak of irreverence that ran through his entire life found a congenial reception in Paris, as did his love of laughter and the desire to amuse. He did not shock the French, nor did his interest in women, which was deemed perfectly normal. He patiently courted the French aristocracy to his cause and even gained financial support from Spain, while he was at it. The American colonists did not have the financial or manufacturing means to equip themselves to fight the British. Through Franklin’s efforts in France, a solution was found. It helped that the French wanted revenge on England, after being humiliated in the French and Indian war a decade earlier.

On the 19th of October, 1781, at Yorktown, 8,800 Americans and 7,800 French defeated 6,000 British troops. When this news reached Paris exactly one month later, Franklin was giddy with joy, exclaiming, “There is no parallel in history of two entire armies being captured from the same enemy in any one war.” The American character thus rose to new heights, and the joy of all classes of people was excessive. Paris was brilliantly illuminated for three successive nights on that glorious occasion.

Franklin stayed in Paris for two more years to negotiate the subsequent treaties. He was frequently frustrated by the amateur skills of other Americans, whose acts were detrimental to a satisfactory resolution, particularly future president John Adams.

A few years later, France went bankrupt, an incipient cause of the subsequent French Revolution of 1789. That bankruptcy happened, in part, because of the earlier French support of America in its struggle against the English.

When Franklin died in 1790, the French National Assembly went into mourning for three days, making it the first political body in the world to pay homage to a simple citizen from another land.

At no. 56, Rue Jacob (in the St-Germain des Prés neighborhood) Franklin, along with John Jay and John Adams, signed the peace treaty in which the American colonies were formally recognized as an independent nation. A plaque on the side of the building makes note of it.
IN THIS BUILDING
FORMERLY THE YORK HOTEL
ON SEPTEMBER 3rd, 1783
DAVID HARTLEY,
IN THE NAME OF THE KING OF ENGLAND,
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN,
JOHN JAY, JOHN ADAMS,
IN THE NAME OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
SIGNED THE DEFINITIVE TREATY OF PEACE
RECOGNIZING THE INDEPENDENCE
OF THE UNITED STATES.


Today’s visitor to Paris can dine in the footsteps of Franklin at Le Procope, the oldest dining establishment in the city, dating from 1686. Le Procope was notable in introducing Paris to the exotic new beverage, coffee. This was also the principal hang out of Voltaire, who drank 40 cups of coffee (mixed with chocolate) a day – quite a serious habit; his desk is enshrined upstairs and can be seen to this day, off to the left, near the rest rooms. Other Americans who joined Franklin at Le Procope were John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson.


Le Procope
13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie (6th arrondissement)
Open 7 days a week, 10:30a to 1:00a.
Tél. : 01 40 46 79 00
Métro: Odéon
Observe Napoléon’s hat in a glass case near the restaurant's front door. He left it as collateral on the promise that he would return to settle his bill. They’re still waiting.

Aside: Robert Preston starred in a 1964 Broadway musical, “Ben Franklin in Paris,” which recounted these events. Music and lyrics were by Jerry Herman, of Mame and Hello Dolly fame. It played at the Lunt- Fontanne theater for 215 performances.

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