The Surprisingly American History of France
Since the United States was founded, France has always played a major role in its history. And America, for its part, has deeply influenced and enriched France. These two countries are profoundly connected and have been since the American Revolution.
To visit Paris isn’t just to witness the history of a single city or nation. It is also the chance for Americans to discover a part of their own story, one we’ll explore below.
The lead up to Revolution
Revolutions are like any fire. With the right conditions and a build up of fuel, a single spark can ignite a massive change.
The late 18th century kicked off a series of political upheavals that would forever change the world. And the two revolutions that made the biggest impact were in France and in the British colonies that would become the United States of America.
At the time, European civilization had run on the feudal system for millennia. This system made nobility the major holder of rights. This landowning class was in control, and the government was in the iron grip of monarchs.
While documents like the Magna Carta in Britain had experimented with promising more people legal rights that the monarch would be held to, the example was difficult to repeat in other countries.
The early industrial revolution brought newfound profits to a middle class of merchants who’d long played second fiddle to Lords. This middle class wrote extensively about the need for change, and they circulated these tracts widely.
Industrial production led to them amassing huge sums of money, but they still had little political power. New thinkers, responding to this change, began formulating ideas about political freedom.
This new philosophy, broadly called the Enlightenment, believed in the natural rights of human beings and the need for equality under the law.
In a coalition with serfs and the new industrial workers who flooded into cities to work in factories, the wealthy middle class organized a series of revolutions that continued through the 19th century and greatly informed the communist and anti-colonial revolutions that continued into the middle of the 20th century.
But in America, a different set of issues was emerging. They were already mostly free from the old European feudal system, but a lack of self-government and the distant King’s heavy taxation made independence a necessity.
Soon, both in America and in Europe, these issues would be resolved by war.
01 - The Americans Revolt
The American Revolution (also called the American War of Independence) is a story that cannot be told without France. In fact, without their assistance, the young country might have never won the war.
In 1778, the French monarchy recognized the United States as an independent country. After that, they dove headfirst into helping the cause. This wasn’t entirely for selfless reasons. France and Britain were battling for colonial supremacy at the time, and an American victory would prove a major blow to their most bitter rival.
During the war between colonists and Britain, France extended both military and economic aid. This proved decisive, helping the Americans begin their own country.
In fact, many French people were inspired to join the fight directly.
The Marquis de Lafayette, for example, made the voyage across the Atlantic to take up arms for the new country.
By the end of fighting, America had gained its independence. And while the French monarchy no doubt smiled at this bad turn for their rivals, they had no idea that the American Revolution would become an inspiration for insurrectionists in their own country.
02 - The French Revolt
Around the same time as the Americans founded their own country, the French were ready to recreate their own.
The monarchy had become increasingly unpopular — flagrantly displaying wealth while the poor in Paris could barely find bread. On top of the economic hardships, the demand for greater political freedom was reaching a fevered pitch. The rising middle class and the new industrial working class were ready to strike.
And with the victory in America, the pace of change began to quicken. For the first time, victory over the monarchy actually seemed possible.
Once the monarchy fell and the new French Republic was created, revolutionaries used the American Declaration of Independence as a blueprint for their own founding document: Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Of course, there were differences between these two countries. Being a new colony, America was free from many of the feudal systems that France suffered under. And while America overthrew a monarch an ocean away, the French had its ruling family and their allies in the midst.
Still, the two revolts were deeply connected, so much so that many of the same people show up in both.
American Revolutionaries in France
Just before and throughout the revolutionary period, many famous Americans were a major presence in France, seeing their revolution as kindred with their own.
When I give tours through the streets of Paris, we walk in the footsteps of great Americans in history. And for that reason, Americans are always excited to learn these stories.
For instance, Benjamin Franklin was the first ambassador to France — this was shortly before the monarchy fell. Ever the aesthete, Franklin actually fit in well with French high society. The incredible art and fine dining were certainly great perks of the job. And he negotiated an increase of French aid to young America, helping the country get on its feet.
Another notable ambassador to France was Thomas Jefferson. While his ability to secure better European relations was less successful than Franklin’s, his time spent in France made an enormous impact on him as a thinker and, later, as President.
Jefferson was not as comfortable around the aristocrats as Franklin, and he sought the advice of none other than Lafayette to help guide him in the intricate ways of the French court. Lafayette also served as an important, vocal supporter at Versailles where the King made his major decisions.
American hero Thomas Paine was perhaps the most involved in the French political scene after the revolution. He wrote the legendary Rights of Man in 1791 as a defense of the French Revolution. He became so popular that he was voted into the National Convention (France’s parliament at the time) without even knowing how to speak French!
Though his later rivalry with Robespierre led to his arrest — it was future US President James Monroe who negotiated his release. While he was in prison, he continued to work on Age of Reason.
The Louisiana Purchase
One cannot mention the connection between America and France without mentioning the Louisiana Purchase. This single deal basically doubled the size of the US and proved essential for the country’s rise to global prominence.
The deal was negotiated between President Thomas Jefferson and none other than First Consul of the French Republic Napoleon — he would proclaim himself emperor two months after the purchase was complete, ending France’s First Republic.
In 1800, just before the deal, Napoleon regained French control of Louisiana (a territory spreading from New Orleans up to modern day Montana) from Spain. He was hoping to expand his colonial empire there, but constant revolts in other territories and the potential of a costly war with the United Kingdom made him second guess this investment.
It had been Jefferson’s long-term goal to get ahold of this land, and when Napoleon became a willing seller, the President moved heaven and earth to get the deal passed through Congress.
France Gives America the Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is one of the most enduring symbols of the US — and it was a gift from none other than the people of France.
Designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, it embodied the popular idea at the time that the people of France and America were forever united in their fight for liberty.
The statue depicts the Roman goddess Libertas holding a torch (the light of reason so beloved by Enlightenment thinkers) above her head. In her other hand, she holds a book of law with the date that the Declaration of Independence was signed. At her feet is a broken shackle and chain, a sign of slavery’s end.
Its dedication ceremony came on October 28th, 1886, a decade late for the American Centennial that it meant to celebrate. Since its arrival, the Statue of Liberty has become a stand in for the greatest hopes and ambitions of America — hopes and ambitions France shares.
Today, the Friendship Continues
The 20th century continued this connection, perhaps most notably during the Liberation of Paris. It was here that Allied Forces including the US freed the City of Lights from Nazi occupation.
France and the US have remained important allies since World War II. Today as much as ever, there is a strong bond between these two countries, not just politically and economically, but culturally.
Interested in learning about the surprisingly American history of France? Come with me on a tour of Paris, and learn the amazing tales of French and American history that are still alive in these streets.