So, vacation time rolls around again and this year my family and I had an opportunity to travel to Paris, France for a few days. Riding into the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport, our taxi driver, by chance, took us past an old, green-corroded bronze statue, set in the middle of a little flowered square. From my vantage, I could only see the bottom portion of the statue; what appeared to be the lower portion of a man in buckled shoes, seated in a wooden chair, atop a marble pedestal. My wife happened to be in the right spot in the vehicle as we quickly drove by. “Looks like Benjamin Franklin, I think.” she said, and with those words, she sent me on a journey to find that statue again and, hopefully, other sites in Paris associated with Mr. Franklin.
Unlike his colleague from New England, John Adams, who was from good, plain Puritan stock, the pulse of a city like Paris, with its decadence, opulence and social intrigue, fit Benjamin Franklin like a glove. As ambassador to France after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was instrumental in helping to obtain for our fledging nation the financial and military support necessary for bringing our war for independence to a happy conclusion. To the people of Paris, he was somewhat of a celebrity, due to his experiments with electricity. He spoke French and endeared himself to the people by displaying, in his dress and speech, what they considered his “rustic” demeanor. In a word, they were charmed by Benjamin Franklin. The fur cap he was fond of wearing only added to his disguise of “homespun rusticity”. So, finding a monument to him in this city was not much of a surprise.
After a little research, I was rather easily able to locate the statue. It sits in the middle of what is known as the Square de Yorktown, a little park-like setting on Rue Benjamin Franklin. The square is located near the popular Jardins du Trocadero, just across the River Seine from the Eiffel Tower. Our rented flat, as it turns out, was fairly close. I made the walk one evening and, sure enough, there he was, in his chair, atop his pedestal, looking every bit the enlightened personage he was. After taking a few photos I headed back across the bridge but, just finding his statue really wasn’t enough. The man had lived in Paris for several years; he had to have left a trail. My first thought was to Passy, where Franklin lived much of the time when in Paris. My research, however, would lead me to something better, I think.
On the Left Bank of the Seine, the streets are narrow and the buildings are old, but quite charming. In the 1920’s, Americans of the “Lost Generation”, like writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived, worked, and drank here. Rue Jacob, not far from the famous Musee D’ Orsay, is an old street containing quaint shops and boutiques. A few of the old buildings here had once been thriving hotels. At 56 Rue Jacob, I had discovered, there still stands one such building. In the 18th century, it was known as the Hotel D’ York. This is what I came to find because it was here, on September 3, 1783, that Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay would sit down with British peace commissioner, Richard Oswald, to sign the Treaty of Paris, thus finally ending the American Revolution.
A painting, in commemoration of the event by artist Benjamin West, remains unfinished as the British commissioner, Oswald, refused to pose. I imagine there was still a bit of bad blood on the part of our, now former, enemies.
No longer the Hotel D’ York, the building is today an administrative facility for a French university. As I walked with my family along Rue Jacob, the building was so inauspicious that I nearly missed it. The sign on the front says “Typographie De Firmin Didot”. Surprisingly to me, there isn’t much there to commemorate the signing of the treaty; only a small plaque, in French, affixed to the front of the building. It was a reminder, in some cases, of how differently we view historic places here in the States and what the preservation of such historic buildings mean to us and to future generations of Americans. True, I was a visitor to a foreign country and a foreign city, but, by God, I wanted to enter that building and look around; I wanted interpretive markers and, perhaps, a tour (guided or self-guided) of the room where these iconic figures in American history sat to affix their names to the document that would end our eight-year struggle to be free. Sadly, though, it wasn’t to be. The building was closed.
Standing on the sidewalk outside, however, and looking up at the aging facade of the old hotel, I could still get a sense of what she used to be; and knowing who once walked through the doors of her front entrance, and what was accomplished within her walls on that September day in 1783, gave me that same old sense of pride that I’ve felt hundreds of times before back home. It wasn’t an American battlefield or the home of an American hero, and I had to travel 4,000 miles to find it, to boot, but American history was made here in Paris; whether it’s well-commemorated or not.
Paris is everything I’ve ever been told it was. We were charmed by her, to be sure. But, having an opportunity, so far from home, to walk in the footsteps of such a revolutionary and iconic American figure, was icing on the cake. I can’t help thinking what a lucky turn it was when that taxi driver took us past an old statue; a man in a chair, with buckled shoes, atop a marble pedestal. Benjamin Franklin, we are here!