Benjamin Franklin Living in Passy, France

Benjamin Franklin living in Passy, France happened after he began serving as that country’s Ambassador from 1776 to 1785. He lived in France from March of 1777 to July of 1785 and for much of that time chose Passy, a rural area then located about three miles outside of Paris. However, today it is an area that is included within the realms of Paris. Passy was appealing partly because it was situated on a lofty hill on the Seine’s right bank and was an area known for its expansive gardens, beautiful parks, and numerous chateaux.

Benjamin Franklin living in Passy

Hôtel de Valentinois. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Also located in Passy was the Baroque Hôtel de Valentinois. It was a sumptuous building on a grand 10-acre estate named for the duc de Valentinois, later Honoré III, the Prince of Monaco. Valentinois had purchased the property in 1737. It was located at 62-70 rue Raynouard in the 16th arrondissement near the Chateau de la Muette where such events like the first humans in an untethered balloon took flight. In fact, Franklin was there for this momentous flight. Another reason Franklin may have wanted to live in Passy was that many eminent people resided in the area, such as the Princesse de Lamballe, whose home also has an interesting history.

Benjamin Franklin living in Passy with another View of Hôtel de Valentinois, Courtesy of Carnavalet

Another View of Hôtel de Valentinois. Courtesy of Carnavalet.

Before Franklin’s arrival in France, the duc de Valentinois’ estate came into the hands of an aristocrat and wealthy man — a jack-of-all trades — named Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont. He was one of the wealthiest and most powerful aristocrats in all of France having made a fortune in shipping. He also supported the American Revolution and later become an important supplier to the Continental Army. When Franklin arrived in Paris, Chaumont was probably not surprised by that great adulation that greeted him:

“[Franklin’s] arrival … was immediately published and circulated throughout Europe. His brilliant discoveries in electricity, thirty years before, had made him known as a philosopher wherever science was studied or genius respected. His writings on this subject had already been translated into many languages; and also his Poor Richard, and some other miscellaneous pieces, clothed in a style of surpassing simplicity and precision, and abounding in sagacious maxims relating to human affairs and the springs of human action, which are almost without a parallel in any other writer.”[1]

Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Chaumont befriended Franklin and convinced him to reside on his estate. Benjamin Franklin living in Passy meant that the new ambassador would obtain a fully staffed mansion for him and his family. Chaumont hoped that if the colonists won America’s War of Independence and Franklin lived rent-free on his Passy estate, Congress might grant him land in America after the war. On Franklin’s part, he liked the idea and the fact that Chaumont’s estate was conveniently located, as Passy was half way between the places he visited often — Paris and Versailles — and so he agreed to Chaumont’s offer.

Bejamin Franklin living in Passy with the Rue in Passy shown

Rue in Passy. Public domain.

The estate had multi-terraced gardens that overlooked Paris and two dwellings on the property. The main building had two wings on either side. Each wing ended with a “‘belvedere’ ornamented by stone balustrades, and supported by Tuscan columns. In the right wing was a salon, with statues and busts.”[2] The smaller of the two buildings was known as petit hotel and that is where Franklin eventually resided. It is also the spot where the inventive Franklin placed the first lightning conductor in France.

Benjamin Franklin “Drawing Electricity from the Sky,” by Benjamin West. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

While living in Passy, he also conducted several other experiments. These involved Charles Deslon, a disciple of the German doctor Franz Mesmer, who believed in an invisible, natural force exerted by animals that he called animal magnetism. In fact, Deslon used this animal magnetism upon Franklin “as well as upon the members of his family, who, notwithstanding … were ladies in delicate health, [but they] were found quite insensible to the whole ceremonial of magnetism.”[3]

“Animal Magnetism – The Operator putting his Patient into a Crisis.” Public domain.

There were more than just experiments happening with Benjamin Franklin living in Passy. That was because his house at Passy also contained a printing press. The idea for the press likely occurred because Franklin wanted to print government documents and legal blanks. Eventually, he also began printing limited or small numbers (a dozen to fifteen copies) of his essays and satires. The nineteenth-century American author, historian, and Unitarian minister, Edward Everett Hale, noted other things that were printed:

“Franklin also established in his own house at Passy a little printing establishment, from which occasionally a tract or handbill was issued. From this press the pretended ‘Independent Chronicle,’ with an account of Indian scalping, was issued, and the little books published here are among the treasures most desired by the connoisseurs.”[4]

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press. Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Franklin easily made friends in the area and supposedly he was so popular these friends vied with another in bestowing kindness upon him. For instance, there was the family of a Monsieur Brillon, who it was said entertained him “as one of the family than as a visitor, and where the charm of an affectionate welcome was heightened by the frankness, refinement, and intelligence of those from it was received.”[5] Visits to his friends in the area of Passy also resulted in him entertaining them by creating some of his most popular essays, such as The “Dialogue with the Gout,” “The Ephemera,” and the “Whistle.”

With Benjamin Franklin living in Passy many people wanted to come and visit him. Among his guests was an inventor that Franklin wrote about in a note dated 13 December 1778:

“A man came to tell me he had invented a machine, which would go of itself, without the help of a spring, weight, air, water, or any of the other elements, or the labor of man or beast, and with force sufficient to work four machines for cutting tobacco; that he had experienced it; would show it [to] me if I would come to his house, and would sell the secret of it for two hundred louis. I doubted it, but promised to go to him in order to see it.”[6]

Americans also visited and many claimed that with Benjamin Franklin living in Passy it meant he was living in the lap of luxury. They commented about the large staff that tended to his needs. It was true that Franklin was surrounded by numerous servants — a coachman, gardener, cook, maitre d’hotel, valet de chambre, femme de chambre, a coiffeuse, frotteur, and charwoman. However, in contrast to his numerous servants and grand surroundings, Franklin’s appearance was rather simplistic. He dressed in the most frugal manner — usually wearing “a chestnut-color cloth [coat], without any embroidery … his hair without dressing … [and] large spectacles.”[7] Perhaps, that is why nothing came of the complaints about Franklin leading a “life of luxury.”

Benjamin Franklin, Author's Collection

Benjamin Franklin, Author’s Collection

References:

  • [1] Franklin, Benjamin and Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 1, 1856, p. 419-420.
  • [2] Hale, Edward Everett, Franklin in France, Volume 2, 1888, p. 2.
  • [3] Prichard, James Cowles, A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind , 1837, p. 295.
  • [4] Hale, Edward Everett, Franklin in France, Volume 1, 1888, p. 96. 
  • [5] Franklin, Benjamin and Jared Sparks, p. 473.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 446.
  • [7] Hale, Edward Everett, Franklin in France, Volume 2, p. 2. 

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