The American Revolution in France: Key Sites to Visit in Paris

Carl Wilhelm Anton Seiler, "Signing the Preliminary Treaty of Peace at Paris", 1904, depicting a key moment of the American Revolution in France.  Public domain.
Carl Wilhelm Anton Seiler, “Signing the Preliminary Treaty of Peace at Paris”, 1904. Public domain.

Especially since I became a dual Franco-American citizen, I’ve been fascinated by the “dialogic” nature of the American and French Revolutions. By that, I mean the way in which the two revolutions played out in intense dialogue with one another– even as the two Republics that eventually formed from them ended up looking very different, both ideologically and structurally. And while the American Revolution began nearly 15 years before its 1789 counterpart in France, most historians agree that they mutually influenced and informed one another.

Traces of the American Revolution abound in France, not least because many of its authors spent years there, especially in Paris, debating democratic and revolutionary principles with fellow philosophers, statespeople, and even with King Louis XVI (who, ironically, would perish at the guillotine following France’s own first revolution of 1789). .

Benjamin Franklin pleas with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette to recognize the US Declaration of Independence from the American colonies, 1778

Parisian cafes, salons, private mansions, and royal palaces were sites for vibrant discussions around “natural rights” for citizens, the principle of separating church and state, and other ideas that would form the foundations of both revolutions’ bold declaration of unprecedented rights for a greater tranche of the population.

(It’s important to remember/note that neither initially declared rights for all citizens— women, people of color, and others were blatantly left out; the fact that certain authors of the American Revolution, including Thomas Jefferson, enslaved African-Americans, should also not be forgotten or glossed over).

One of the American Revolution’s most important moments took place in Paris. And numerous monuments stands around the capital to commemorate key figures in the American Revolution, from Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Paine.

Keep reading for details on key places in the capital that bear the traces of these fascinating exchanges and historical moments.

Café Procope: Revolutionary Ideas Fueled by Coffee & Conversation

Cafe Procope, Paris, a key site for the American Revolution in France. Serge Melki/Creative Commons 2.0
Cafe Procope, Paris, a key site for the American Revolution in France. Serge Melki/Creative Commons 2.0

Claiming to be the world’s oldest café, the Procope— founded in 1686– is an important stop on a self-guided tour of sites related to American revolutionary history in Paris.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the cafe on Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie became a cauldron of philosophical and revolutionary ideas. Alongside French philosophers such as Voltaire (who was reputed to imbibe upwards of 40 cups of coffee a day to fuel his raucous debates), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the encyclopedist Denis Diderot, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson regularly dined at the cafe and restaurant during the late 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin plaque, Cafe Procope, Paris. Dorrenworld/Creative Commons 2.0
Plaque dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, Cafe Procope, Paris. Dorrenworld/Creative Commons 2.0

While historical records on their activities at the Procope are scant, two key plaques at the cafe– which was refurbished to resemble its 18th-century guise only in the late 1980s– attest to their mythical presence there.

One (shown above), states that it was within the walls of the restaurant that Benjamin Franklin’s “prepared a project of alliance” between French King Louis XVI and the “new Republic” of the United States: one that was still mired in a revolutionary war with England. This presumably references Franklin’s 1778 visit to Versailles (see more below).

Another plaque notes the historic presence of Thomas Jefferson, who in the post-revolutionary period served as United States Ambassador to France and was a frequent patron at the Procope.

Thomas Jefferson Plaque at the Café Procope/Wikimedia Commons

While the original cafe and restaurant closed for decades and operated under many different names– making the Procope’s claim to be the city’s oldest café in Paris a bit of a spurious one– it’s still amusing to have coffee or lunch here and imagine the dining room filled with be-wigged, overcaffeinated revolutionaries and philosophers, including Franklin and Jefferson.

Getting There: 13, rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 75006 Paris (6th arrondissement); Metro Odéon

The Palais de Versailles: Franklin Scores an Alliance With France

Benjamin Franklin is welcomed by the French royal court at Versailles, March 20, 1778. Library of Congress
Benjamin Franklin is welcomed by the French royal court at Versailles, March 20, 1778. Library of Congress

It seems deeply ironic. A revolutionary gaining favor– and a historic political alliance– with a royal court that only 11 years later would be the prime target of a (bloody) revolution itself. Yet the Palace of Versailles, built by absolutist monarch Louis XIV, is one of the most important sites in the history of the American project for independence.

{Related: France’s Bastille Day Once Celebrated Constitutional Monarchy, and Other Weird Facts}

Benjamin Franklin famously gained the favor of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette at the court in March 1778, when he came to ask for their support in the American bid to cut ties with England. The US signed its Declaration of Independence in 1776, but England still viewed it as a colony in revolt. The revolutionary war that had erupted in 1775 raged on.

France, seeing a strategic advantage against England in allying with the self-declared, nascent Republic, agreed to receive Franklin, Silas Deane– delegate to the 1775 Continental Congress that had formed following the Battles of Lexington and Concord– and diplomat Arthur Lee at the royal court.

The idea was to get the King to sign a Treaty of Alliance and Treaty of Amity and Commerce . Their bid was a success, and Louis XVI signed both on February 6th, 1778.

As a respected statesman, intellectual, scientist, and noted inventor, Franklin was reportedly beloved by the French– much to the annoyance of the British government and even to “frenemy” John Adams, some have claimed.

1778 Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Versailles portraitist Joseph Siffred-Duplessis/Metropolitan Museum of Art
1778 Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Versailles portraitist Joseph Siffred-Duplessis/Metropolitan Museum of Art

He became Ambassador and sole representative of the US in France thereafter, until he was replaced by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. He sat for his portrait at Versailles in 1778; the painting by now hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Getting There: See more in my full guide to easy day trips from Paris by train

The Former Hotel d’York: Site of the Signing of the Treaty of Paris

An unfinished 1783 painting by Benjamin West depicts the signing of the Treaty of Paris that same year/Public domain
An unfinished 1783 painting by Benjamin West depicts the signing of the Treaty of Paris that same year/Public domain

Although the Hotel d’York is defunct, a plaque where it once stood commemorates the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolutionary War– from French soil.

On September 3rd of that year, a representative of Britain’s King George III met with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay at the former hotel in Paris to formally ratify American independence from England, and end the eight-year conflict.

A plaque at 56, rue Jacob reads:

“In this building, formerly the Hotel d’York/on 3 September 1783/David Hartley, [representing] the King of England, [and] Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, [representing] the United States of America/signed a definitive peace treaty recognizing the independence of the United States.”

This little-noticed site can be easily visited during a longer exploration of the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés area. It’s nearby the aforementioned Café Procope, so I recommend visiting both in the same morning or afternoon.

Getting There: 56, rue Jacob, 75006 Paris (6th arrondissement); Metro: Saint-Germain-du-Prés or Rue du Bac

Benjamin Franklin Statue

Statue of Benjamin Franklin in Paris/John J. Boyle, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Benjamin Franklin in Paris near the Place de la Trocadero//John J. Boyle, CC BY-SA 3.0

While this bronze statue on the aptly named Rue Benjamin Franklin dates to the nineteenth century, it firmly reminds us of how strong a legacy Franklin left in France, and how much of a beloved figure the first US Ambassador continued to be in the decades following his years in the capital.

Unassumingly perched on a green patch of the bustling, enormous Place du Trocadero, the statue from sculptor John J Boyle is in fact a replica of a bronze that stands in Philadelphia, on campus at the University of Pennsylvania.

The replica was donated to the city of Paris in 1906, marking the bicentennial of Franklin’s birthday in 1706.

The pedestal is just as interesting as the striking likeness of Franklin. On it, you can see two bas-reliefs created by the French sculptor Frédéric Brou, depicting the two major events in the American Revolution that involved the statesman (and described above): his 1778 meeting with Louis XVI, and the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris.

A plaque affixed to the statue’s base reads «Ce génie qui affranchit l’Amérique et versa sur l’Europe des torrents de lumière ! Le sage que deux mondes réclament… » (This genius who stamped America, and poured onto Europe, torrents of light! The sage that two worlds claim {as their own}…)

Getting There: 38 Rue Benjamin Franklin, 75116 Paris; Metro: Trocadero

Monument to Thomas Paine at Parc Montsouris

Statue of Thomas Paine, Parc Montsouris, Paris, France.
Statue of Thomas Paine, Parc Montsouris, Paris, France.

This one is a bit remote both geographically and topically, but worth a visit for those interested in the life and thought of Anglo-American revolutionary Thomas Paine.

Paine, born in the English county of Norfolk, became an influential thinker in the American Revolutionary war after moving to the British American colonies in 1774, on the urging of his friend Benjamin Franklin.

He authored two texts considered crucial in spurring revolutionary elan in the colonies, Common Sense and The American Crisis, and following the success of the American Revolution he became a key player in the French Revolution. His 1791 text Rights of Man was a rigorous defense of revolutionary action, and a biting response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Paine also helped to author the 1791 French Constitution.

In 1792, after the British state issued a warrant for his arrest due to the radicalism of his writings (they notably advocated for the overthrow of tyrannical governments), Paine sought exile in France. He was quickly embraced by the Girondin faction in the French Revolution which was underway at the time, and elected to the National Convention.

But this earned him the mistrust of the Montagnards, led by the ruthless Robespierre. He was arrested and imprisoned at the Luxembourg Prison in Paris in 1793, where he reportedly continued to work on his most ambitious (and controversial) work, The Age of Reason.

The next year, he was released, after then-diplomat and future US President James Monroe advocated for him among connections in France.

Detail, statue of Thomas Paine, 1939-1948, Parc Montsouris, Paris. Wikimedia Commons
Detail, statue of Thomas Paine, 1939-1948, Parc Montsouris, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

The gold-plated bronze statue depicting Paine with a raised, animated arm and carrying a pamphlet in the other was created in 1939 and inaugurated in 1948. It’s the work of American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, most famous for conceiving Mount Rushmore in the US.

The statue was initially meant to be inaugurated in 1940 at the Parc Montsouris, across from the United States Foundation of the Cité International. But the Occupation of Paris by Nazi Germany and the outbreak of World War II delayed the inauguration.

The statue, celebrating a figure whose radical democratic principles would have been viewed as highly subversive by the Nazis, remained hidden at Alexis Rudier’s bronze foundry in Paris.

It would finally be inaugurated in January 1948, marking the 211th anniversary of Paine’s birth.

Getting There: Parc Montsouris (southeastern corner of the park), 75014 Paris (14th arrondissement); Metro: Maison-Blanche; Tramway stop: Cité Univeritaire

More Features on Noteworthy Americans in Paris

James Baldwin in Paris, circa 1962.

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