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American History (and Americans) in Paris

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American History in Paris

France and America entertain diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations since 1776. France was the first ally of the new United States and its support proved decisive in the American victory over Britain in the American War of Independence (1775–1783).

It is not difficult to find bits of American History in Paris, just look at a map of Paris with street names such as Rue Benjamin Franklin, Avenue Franklin, Avenue du Président Kennedy, and many more. 

Below the list of top places and sights related to Americans in Paris and American history in Paris.

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George Washington Equestrian Statue

Place d’Iéna, 75016 Paris

George Washington Statue in Paris

George Washington (1732 – 1799) was the founding father of the United States who served as the first president of the United States from 1789 to 1797. Appointed Commanding General of the Continental Army (1775 – 1783), he commanded American forces, allied with France, in the defeat and surrender of the British during the Siege of Yorktown. He resigned his commission after the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Washington played a key role in adopting and ratifying the Constitution and was then elected president (twice) by the Electoral College. During the French Revolution, he proclaimed a policy of neutrality while sanctioning the Jay Treaty which angered France and bitterly divided Americans.

Despite President George Washington never stepped foot in Paris, the City honors this great American political leader, military general, and statesman with two sculptures, both located in Paris 16. This one at Place d’Iéna was donated by a committee of American women from high society and it was inaugurated on 3 July 1900. On the pedestal, we can read the following: “Offered by the women of the United States of America in memory of the fraternal help given by France to their fathers during the struggle for independence”.

Washington & Lafayette Statues

Place des États Unis, 75016 Paris

Lafayette and Washington - Place des États Unis, Paris

Located at Place des Etats-Unis, a place paying homage to our American friends, this sculptural group represents Lafayette and Washington.

The bronze monument, the work of Bartholdi (1895), is a gift from the United States to France as a token of gratitude for the installation of the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Place des Etats-Unis was constructed in 1881 on the site of large water reservoirs, each containing 9000 muids. These reservoirs were supplied with water from the Seine and then pumped by the Chaillot pumps.

The square’s previous name was Place de Bitche, but the name was changed following the establishment of the United States legation (we can understand). The statue of liberty offered to the United States by France remained in this square until 1888.

In Place des Etats-Unis we can find:

  • Thomas Jefferson Square
  • The monument in honor of Horace Wells
  • The bust of the American Ambassador Myron Timothy Herrick
  • The monument to Lafayette and George Washington
  • The monument to American volunteers of the First World War
  • A plaque commemorating the September 11, 2001 attacks

Place des États-Unis also houses the Embassy of Bahrain and that of Kuwait, the headquarters of Maison Baccarat with its Gallery-Museum and the headquarters of the company Pernod-Ricard.

Benjamin Franklin Statue

Square Yorktown, Paris 16

Benjamin Franklin - Square Yorktown Paris

Benjamin Franklin came to Paris in 1776 to call on the French to support the Americans in their War of Independence. Admired by the Parisian scientific and literary community, Franklin was seen as the embodiment of the humanist values ​​of the Enlightenment. At a meeting of the French Academy, Franklin and Voltaire befriended and kissed publicly expressing like this their mutual admiration.

Franklin remained in Paris until 1785 and in 1783 he signed the peace treaty which marked the act of independence for the United States. He was so beloved in Paris, that upon his death in 1790, the French National Assembly observed three days of mourning. This was the first time a political institution ever honored an “ordinary citizen” from another country.

Benjamin Franklin’s statue at Square Yorktown is a copy of a statue in Philadelphia, US. On the pedestal, two bas-reliefs by Frédéric Brou show on one side the reception of Benjamin Franklin at the court of Versailles in 1778 and on the other side the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Treaty of Paris Plaque at Hotel d’York

56 rue Jacob, Paris 6

Treaty of Paris Plaque at Hotel d'York

L’Hôtel d’Angleterre hosted in the past the former embassy of England (hence its name) during the preparation of the Treaty of Paris. With the Treaty of Paris, signed on 3 September 1783, England recognized the independence of the United States of America. The Treaty was signed at Hotel d’York (56 rue Jacob) because Benjamin Franklin refused to sign it on English soil.

The plaque which commemorates the event is written in French but translated to English it reads: “In this building formerly the York Hotel on September 3, 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, 56 rue Jacob is no longer Hotel d’York but serves as an administration building for Sciences Po, one of the premier universities in France and the alma mater of many of the French elite.

Hotel d’Angleterre (44 rue Jacob) became later a hotel for tourists (with the name of Hotel Jacob and then Hotel d’Angleterre again) quite popular amongst many American celebrities. The Hemingways, for example, spent their first nights in Paris in Hotel d’Angleterre and today visitors can still book room #14 where the Hemingways stayed.

Hotel d'Anglaterre Paris

Thomas Jefferson Statue

Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, Paris 7

At the end of the Léopold-Sédar-Senghor footbridge, on the Anatole France quay along the Seine, sits a majestic statue of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the most French of the Americans.

Thomas Jefferson was in fact ambassador of the United States in France from 1785 to 1789. He was the third president of the United States (1801-1809) and one of the most eminent Founding Fathers, who notably distinguished himself by the purchase of Louisiana from France for a mouthful of bread. Jefferson didn’t hesitate to declare that “Each man of culture has two homelands: his own and France”. In Paris, a quote like this deserves a magnificent statue!

The statue was inaugurated on 4 July 2004, and it was funded by the Florence Gould Foundation, which had also participated in the restoration of the Statue of Liberty on Ile aux Cygnes.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed spending time walking. Architecture lover,  he admired the building called Hotel de Salm, (today Musée de la Légion d’Honneur) which is how he has been depicted facing. Jefferson sketched the building many times in order to change his estate home in Virginia, USA, called Monticello. The statue is holding a drawing with Jefferson’s first project of Monticello.

Lafayette’s Tomb at Picpus Cemetery

35 rue de Picpus, Paris 12

Lafayette Grave - Picpus Cemetery

Picpus Cemetery is the final resting place of 1,306 headless bodies who lost their lives at the guillotine that was set up in former Place du Trône-Renversé (now called Place de la Nation). Today Picpus is a private cemetery and only descendants of those victims can be buried in this place.

In this cemetery we can find the tomb of Marquis de Lafayette. He chose to rest eternally with his wife, who was descendant of victims of the guillotine.

Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) was a Frenchman who fought in the American Revolutionary War under George Washington. In the French Revolution, he was part of the National Assembly and drafted the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen). He outlived both Revolutions (just barely) and dedicated his last years to travel widely as a statesman. He died in Paris in 1834 and was buried at the Cimetière de Picpus under soil from Bunker Hill in Boston – where the famous battle of Bunker Hill was fought.

Lafayette’s tomb is a very special place for Americans and an American flag marks permanently the Marquis’ grave. Marquis de Lafayette became an honorary citizen of the United States in 2002 for his exceptional merits. Until today, only 8 people have been so honored.  

Every year, on 4 July, a small ceremony is held at the foot of Lafayette’s tomb, attended by the main authorities of the United States in France.  

Texas Embassy in Paris

1 Place Vendôme, Paris 1

Texas Republic Embassy in Paris

In 1842-1843 this building of Place Vendôme in Paris 1 was the head office of the Texas Republic in Paris. By the France-Texas treaty signed on 29 September 1839, France was the first nation to recognize the Republic of Texas, an independent state from 1836 to 1845.

There’s a commemorative plaque on one of the facades of the building. However, this facade is currently under restoration and the plaque is hidden behind the scaffolding.

The Statue of Liberty in Paris

Statue of Liberty Paris

As most of us know, the Statue of Liberty in New York City was a gift to America from France to commemorate the centenary of the American Independence of 1776.

In turn, a quarter-size Statue of Liberty was given by the American community in Paris to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution, with the dates “IV Juillet 1776 – XIV Juillet 1789,” inscribed on the Statue’s tablet. This Statue of Liberty is located on Île aux Cygnes, in Paris 15-16. We still don’t understand why the dedication ceremony took place on 4 July rather than 14 July (date of the storming of the Bastille) but it was a nice thought by the Americans anyway.

In addition to the Statue of Liberty on Île aux Cygnes, Paris keeps some other replicas located in Luxembourg Gardens (Paris 6), Musée d’Orsay (Paris 8), and  Musée des Arts et Métiers (Paris 3).

Liberty's Flame - Pont de l'Alma, Paris

La Flamme de la Liberté, located at Pont de l’Alma in Paris 8, is a replica of the Statue of Liberty’s flame in New York. It was a gift to the French by the newspaper International Herald Tribune in 1987 to commemorate the American bicentenary. The flame is close to the point where Princess Diana had the traffic accident that cost her life and it has become a kind of unofficial memorial for the princess’ fans.

American Church in Paris

65 quai d’Orsay, Paris 7

The American Church in Paris was the first American church established outside the country, in 1814. The former building was located at 21 rue de Berri while the current building was dedicated in 1931 and it is located at 65 Quai d’Orsay, in Paris 7.

The American Church of Paris is today an interfaith association open to all the faithful adhering to the Christian historical tradition as expressed by the symbol of the Apostles. It is mainly used by American expatriates, but also by Anglophones from other countries and other religious communities. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Jesse Jackson both preached from the pulpit, and the first American Boy Scout Troop in Europe was created here.

The Left Bank and the Lost Generation in Paris

Latin Quarter, Saint-Germain, Montparnasse

La Closerie des Lilas Heminway Cafe
La Closerie des Lilas Heminway Cafe

The Lost Generation refers to the group of American artists who made their way to the French capital during the roaring twenties. This group of creatives believed that they had inherited values that no longer had a place in the postwar world, leaving them a lonely, misunderstood bunch (hence the name).

Amongst this group, outstands people like ERNEST HEMINGWAY, GERTRUDE STEIN, F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, and T.S. ELIOT.

This group of people spent their days making works, networking, and frequenting a range of hangout spots around Paris, especially in the Left Bank. Most of these spots are still open today and haven’t changed much since then.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY (1899-1961) and his wife Hadley arrived in Paris in 1921, where they lived for 6 years. Hemingway spent his earlier years in Paris trying to make a name for himself as a reported and later he dedicated his time to his personal works. His book Moveable Feast is one of the best recounts of these times in Paris, where “we were very poor and very happy”. You can follow Hemingway’s steps in Paris with this self-guided walking tour.

When African-Americans Came to Paris

Latin Quarter

Americans traveling to Paris will also find bits of African-American history in Paris. James Baldwin said that “when Americans come to Paris they discover the terms by which they want to define themselves”. This is true with people like Tanner, Chester Himes, or James Baldwin himself, who all found in Paris a second home.

HENRY OSSAWA TANNER (1859-1937) was the first African-American to achieve international status as a painter and artist. Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 to study and continued to live there after being accepted in French artistic circles.

His painting entitled Daniel in the Lions’ Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The French capital was a welcome escape for Tanner where within French art circles, the issue of race mattered little.

Tanner acclimated quickly to Parisian life and, except for occasional brief returns home, he spent the rest of his life in the French capital. His studio was located at 51 rue St. Jacques, Paris 5.

Henry Ossawa Tanner - Notre Dame
View of the Seine, looking toward Notre Dame (1896)

Current Relais Hôtel du Vieux Paris, in the heart of Quartier Latin, was the place where the writer CHESTER HIMES (1909-1984) made his literary career start.

By the 1950s Himes decided to settle permanently in Paris. Himes was the contemporary of the political fellow expatriate writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and William Gardner Smith.

Here, he wrote in 1956 the detective novel La Reine des Pommes, translated into English A Rage in Harlem. This book was a great success and meant the launch of his literary career. La Reine des Pommes won a literary prize in France and became the first book of a popular series of crime novels by Himes.

James Baldwin and Marlon Brandon in the Civil Rights March (1963)
James Baldwin and Marlon Brandon in the Civil Rights March (1963)

The Latin Quarter, and more specifically 6 rue Christine, was also home of JAMES BALDWIN (1924-1987).

Disillusioned by American prejudice against black people, as well as wanting to see himself and his writing outside of an African-American context, Baldwin left the United States in 1948 at the age of 24 to settle in Paris.

“I didn’t come to Paris, I left New York”, Baldwin said hoping to escape the hopelessness that many young African American men like himself succumbed to in New York. “There’s a whole continent between Africa and African-Americans and this continent is Europe”.

When he arrived in Paris, Baldwin was also leading with himself as homosexual and Paris was the place where James Baldwin fell in love for the first time.

In Paris, Baldwin was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. He started to publish his work in literary anthologies like Zero. Baldwin wrote his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) at Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Baldwin is seen not only as an influential African-American writer but also as an influential emigrant writer, because of his numerous experiences outside the United States (he also lived short periods in Turkey and Switzerland) and the impact of these experiences on his life and his writing.

Montmartre Harlem in Paris

Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker

In the years following WW1, African-American jazz musicians began arriving in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre and changed how French felt about music forever.

There was the saloon-keeper BRICKTOP, the scandalous star JOSEPHINE BAKER, the great clarinet and saxophone player SIDNEY BECHET, the jazz drummer and bandleader LOUIS MITCHELL, and an ambitious entrepreneur and nightclub owner EUGENE J. BULLARD.

Together with French musicians and club-owners, they became major figures in the nightlife of Paris. Paris was swept away by this music: Parisians were fascinated by black musicians and black American culture and they wanted more of it.

LOUIS MITCHELL and five players from New York formed the group called Mitchell’s Jazz Kings and they were playing in the Casino of Paris for four years. With Pathe Records, Mitchell’s Jazz Kings were behind the first jazz recording in Paris (1922) with the song Ain’t We Got Fun.

Then, Mitchell decided to go off on his own and he opened restaurants – lunch counters, kind of combination of Harlem and Paris with somebody playing jazz in the corner and all night breakfasts. All the people that had been hanging out in Montmartre then went to Mitchell’s to have eggs, bacon, and pancakes.

Y.M.C.A’s Basketball Court

14 rue de Trévise, Paris 9

YMCA Basketball Court Paris
YMCA basketball court Paris

The basketball court housed in the Y.M.C.A. in Paris is of historical significance for the basketball game. The organization claims it is the oldest one in the world, continuously functional since the building opened in 1893! This is less than two years after James Naismith invented the game at a Y.M.C.A. in Springfield, Mass.

This gymnasium located in the 9th Arrondissement of Paris feels like a walk-in time capsule or museum exhibit. The Y.M.C.A. in Paris was the game’s very first landing spot in Europe, a kind of slice of American life transplanted to France.

Harry’s New York Bar

5 rue Daunou, Paris 2

Harry's New York Bar - Paris

New York Bar was created in 1911 by a former American jockey, Tod Sloan. He had teamed up with a New York bar owner, Clancy, who, approaching prohibition in the United States, decided to dismantle the woodwork from his bar to transport it to Paris.

At that time, American tourists and artists began to flock to Paris, and Sloan intended to attract them to the New York Bar where he wanted them to find the atmosphere of the country. This is how New York Bar became the first bar to sell Coca-Cola in France, in 1919.

Sloan had to sell his bar, which was bought by Harry Mac Elhone, his former bartender. Mac Elhone added his first name to the bar and quickly, Harry’s New York Bar became a legendary meeting place for Americans – Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Aly Khan and eventually Coco Chanel or the Duke of Windsor – where famous cocktails like the Bloody Mary, Blue Lagoon, or White Lady or the French 75 were invented.

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