An American in Paris: Benjamin Franklin at the Musée Carnavalet

The Carnavalet, like the Cluny, is one of Paris’s lesser-known museums. It is dedicated to the history of the capital and contains a unique collection (some say a hodgepodge, I call it a treasure trove) of objects related to life in Paris since prehistoric times. You won’t find any masterpieces there, but every Paris lover, and anyone interested in the Revolutionary period in particular, has to cherish the Carnavalet.

It doesn’t hurt either that the museum is located is two gorgeous mansions in the heart of the historic Marais district. One of them served as my inspiration for the home of Gabrielle’s dear friend the Duchess d’Arpajon in Mistress of the Revolution.

But last week-end my goal wasn’t to see once again the Carnavalet’s wonderful collection of ancient shop signs or the memorabilia of the royal family’s imprisonment during the Revolution. I went with a group of friends to visit the Franklin exhibition, titled Benjamin Franklin, an American in Paris, 1776-1785.
Benjamin Franklin Duplessis
Franklin has always been my favorite Founding Father. Scientist, journalist, statesman, diplomat, tireless advocate for democracy…

A section of the Carnavalet exhibition highlight Franklin’s friendship with the leading French scientists of the times, including Lavoisier and Condorcet. Franklin’s scientific works were translated into French and published in Paris during his lifetime. He shared the enthusiasm of the French public for the new invention of the Montgolfier brothers, the hot air balloon.

Another part of the exhibition highlights his crucial role in securing France’s military intervention in support of the American insurgents during the Independence War. Because of his prestige as a scientist and a writer, Franklin had been appointed ambassador to France.

And what an ambassador! His fame was not limited to scientific or diplomatic spheres. He was a genius at public relations as well. He showed up in the gilded salons of the aristocracy dressed in the plain clothes of a cultivateur Americain, “an American farmer,” writes Madame Campan, First Chambermaid to Marie-Antoinette and great memoirist. Madame Campan describes the striking contrast between Franklin’s bald pate and the powdered, pomaded, fragrant hairstyles of the French noblemen.

Did Franklin look like an oaf in his rustic attire? Far from it. He was all the rage in society. To the point where King Louis the Sixteenth, irritated by a lady’s infatuation with the great man, presented her with a chamber pot whose bottom was decorated with Franklin’s picture.

So Louis the Sixteenth had a sense of humor? asked my friend Anne. Oh yes, absolutely. He is usually depicted as an imbecile, as in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but he was in fact what we would call an intellectual, and spoke and read English quite fluently. But I digress. Louis the Sixteenth will get his very own post later. Back to Franklin.

I was saying that, thanks to his diplomatic skills, Franklin succeeded in securing the military backing of the French ground forces, fleet and treasury in the American Independence War. No need to dwell on the result. Displayed at the exhibition is the original 1783 peace treaty, signed in Paris between Great Britain and the United States, that sealed the birth of the new nation.

Franklin, even after he returned to the United States, remained in contact with French thinkers. In particular he was of one mind with French Revolutionaries on the abolition of slavery, which would be implemented in France a few years later.

The exhibition held a few surprises for me. Did you know that Franklin invented bifocals? I did not, and gazed at the spectacles he had crafted for himself. Next to his glasses sat a pretty, flowery porcelain teapot from a set he had purchased in Paris. Most surprisingly, the display included a pair of his fancy shoe buckles, made of silver decorated with fake diamonds. I suppose that Franklin could abandon the clothing of an American farmer and be quite dressy whenever the occasion called for it…

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