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What Thomas Jefferson did in Paris and where. Interactive map of sites Jefferson visited when he traveled in France.

Updated on January 26, 2011

Jefferson in Paris

There were two reasons Thomas Jefferson was sent to Paris in 1784. First, his beloved wife had just died after childbirth and his friends feared that he was so distraught that his health and career might be permanently damaged; a strong change of place was what he needed. Second, Benjamin Franklin who had marvelously represented the new United States in France was old and becoming more frail. There was much business to be done concerning such matters as attacks by Barbary (North African) pirates on American ships and the repayment of loans from the French government. Gruff and opinionated John Adams was not popular in Paris, so he could not replace Franklin. Whoever decided that Jefferson should go to Paris made the correct decision: he became immensely popular in that sophisticated city and, despite a dangerous love affair, his health and intellect greatly benefited from the experience.

Part of a 1740 Map of Paris including the Conciergerie

This famous map was made and hand colored (unfortunately the web only has a black and white) by order of King Louis XV in 1740. It is accurate down to the windows on the houses. In the 2nd half of the 18th century, Paris underwent a huge construction
This famous map was made and hand colored (unfortunately the web only has a black and white) by order of King Louis XV in 1740. It is accurate down to the windows on the houses. In the 2nd half of the 18th century, Paris underwent a huge construction

Jefferson's Love Affair

Four year before Jefferson went to Paris, his wife Martha died after a difficult childbirth. At her deathbed she had asked Jefferson to swear never to marry again and he promised not to. It is said that his wife did not want her children to have to live with a step-mother.

Jefferson was traumatized by his wife's death and lay paralyzed for some weeks. Then, in despair, he rode obsessively on his horse through the field and forest trails that surrounded his plantation. His ten-year-old daughter Patsy took it upon herself to ride with him to try to calm him down. After some months Jefferson did calm down but was still despondent and depressed over the loss of his wife.

Friends and neighbors such as James Madison had tried to send Jefferson as a representative of the United States to France some years earlier, but that had fallen through. Now Jefferson's important friends made a concerted effort to persuade Congress to send him to work on the treaty of peace with England, which was being hammered out in Paris. Jefferson was set to go when, in 1783, the treaty was signed before he left. Nevertheless he was sent to Paris and when Franklin, in ill health with gout, returned to America, Jefferson became the Minister Plenipotentiary or Ambassador to France. This was three years before the French Revolution began. Jefferson left France in 1789 as the Revolution was beginning. He was called back to America by George Washington to take the post of Secretary of State in the new American government.

Jefferson's love affair in Paris

It was in September, 1786, that Jefferson's young friend John Trumbull, who was becoming a noted artist, invited him to join a small party to look at a new architectural marvel, the Halles des Bleds or Grainery in the center of Paris (where Les Halles shopping center is now). It was noted for its great innovation, a huge wooden rotunda for its ceiling, which Trumbull thought would interest Jefferson as an engineering idea for the design of the Virginia statehouse that Jefferson was contemplating.

But something unexpected happened on that outing. Two other guests were artist friends of Trumbull's from London: Richard and Maria Cosway. Richard was one of the most famous miniaturist painters in Europe and his wife, whom he permitted only to paint portraits, was famous in her own right. She was  petite, pretty, musically talented and spoke with a charming Italian accent. Her English parents had run a small hotel in Italy and when her father died her mother brought her back to London. Her mother had looked for a marriage match for Maria with a wealthy man and had decided on Cosway, who was rich from his art work. He was not good looking, being small and sharp faced. Later, too, they learned that he led a wild life with the crowd of men associated with King George III's son, the Prince of Wales. But they had been married five years when Jeffersson encountered them at the Halles des Bleds

Jefferson took one look at Maria Cosway and fell in love. In France they call that a coup de foudre-a lighting bolt. He sent messengers to cancel his appointments at receptions that night, lying that Embassy duties had arisen. From then, until the end of of September, when her husband took her back to London, Jefferson and Maria saw each other entire days and many evenings. They went on carriage rides to palaces and pleasure parks on the outskirts of Paris (which was not as large then as it is now). Historians debate whether they slept together and it is an unanswered question. They had plenty of opportunity and visited a pleasure park noted as an attraction for lovers and which had an apartment tower shaped to look like a Roman ruin ideally available for brief encounters.

There is a sad ending to the story. While walking in the Tuileries park, according to Jefferson, he leaped a bush (showing off for Maria-to make the point that though forty he was still agile) and landed on right wrist, breaking it. Medicine being what it was at the time, the bones were badly set and his right hand remained painful and withered to the end of his days.

Soon after the accident Maria was whisked back to London by her husband. Jefferson, though suffering with pain from his hand, went with a friend to see them off at one of the gates of Paris. He returned home sad and depressed. He quickly wrote what has become a very famous letter, the Conversation between the Head and the Heart, an essay or debate on the contrast between rationality and the emotions. It raises good points on the power of each, but remains inconclusive as to which should be followed more. Maria returned to Paris several months later, but, mysteriously, was not eager to see Jefferson. They continued a slow correspondence for a while, which trailed off. Maria eventually left her husband and child and returned to Italy to found and direct a convent school. Jefferson, of course, went on to become the third president of the United States.



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    • Babblelot profile image


      9 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for *not* writing another trite article about what you MUST see in Paris. I think we all can figure that out for ourselves. This was very informative.

    • James Mark profile image

      James Mark 

      10 years ago from York, England

      A fascinating article - an angle on Paris I would never have thought of. I'm surprised you have so few comments! I looked up some of your sites, including the one on your visit to the Dordogne. I hope you don't mind me pointing out a sound-assocation mistake on that page, where you have "friends who don't speak friends" - you obviously meant to write French. I do this sort of thing often.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      thank you very much

    • Cloisters profile image


      11 years ago

      What a fascinating person...


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