Rarely does one hear of history enthusiasts searching French administrative buildings in the quest to discover American history. The connections between the 13 colonies and their most powerful European ally mean that taking the time to wander around Parisian streets can lead you to the foundation of a nation.
One such location is the former Hotel d’York, which now functions as a building in the elite Sciences Po university complex. To understand the importance of this location, one must first understand both the French Enlightenment and the American Revolution.
French thinkers of the 18th century developed a new way of thinking that modern-day researchers define as the “Age of Enlightenment,” which was based in scientific inquiry and observation. This was a time filled with, “the aspiration for intellectual progress, and the belief in the power of such progress to improve human society and individual lives.” In essence, working logically and scientifically would allow members of society to improve their standards of living. Enlightenment advocates rejected traditions based on superstition, unobservable phenomena, and the church which had governed their country until this point. They wanted to instead use newfound scientific discoveries to guide them to the future. To the left is an anatomy theatre, an example of traditional Enlightenment desires to use scientific investigation to learn and improve modern systems, such as medicine.
Enlightenment thinkers also began to reject the societal systems that governed most of the Western world, creating theoretical model institutions, which served as inspiration for several new nations, including the United States of America.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, American colonies were filled with unhappy settlers itching to break free of the British monarchical rule. Great Britain was ruled by a monarchy, religion, and a social hierarchy. The British government was dedicated to preserving ways of living maintained power structures and prevented implementation of evidence-based policy decisions that were characteristic of the Enlightenment.
This eventually led to the uprising that we now know as the Revolutionary War. This conflict, lasting from 1775 to 1783, was between Great Britain and the American colonies, ignited after the colonies declared their independence through the Declaration of Independence.
Enlightenment thought, particularly ideas of deism, liberalism, republicanism, conservatism, toleration and scientific progress, was a major motivating force behind the Revolutionary War. Both liberalism and republicanism, in particular, can be seen in the language of the Declaration of Independence and the construction of both the constitution and the development of American democracy. The Revolutionary War was also a period of great interest and development in science, religion, and government. The work of enlightenment writers and philosophers, particularly John Locke’s Social Contract Theory, helped leaders of the revolution to draft American democracy, especially in contrast to the British Government.
Ultimately, the British were forced to surrender at Yorktown, Virginia and the United States officially became an independent nation. Because France was the United States’s most important European ally during the American Revolution and because French was the international language used to sign peace treaties during the 17th and 18th centuries, Paris was chosen as the location to sign what became the Treaty of Paris.
Treaty of Paris
The Treaty of Paris is the document that ended the Revolutionary War and recognized America as a nation independent of Great Britain. The first suggested articles of the Treaty of Paris were signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Laurens as representatives of the United States, and Richard Oswald for Great Britain on November 30, 1782. The final Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, in the Hotel d’York, and the Continental Congress ratified this treaty in early 1784.
Through the Treaty of Paris, America gained recognition of their independence from Great Britain, the right to fish on the banks of the east coast and coasts off of Canada, and territory ceded by Great Britain from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. America agreed to stop the persecution of Loyalists in America and to return any confiscated property to Great Britain. Additionally, both countries would allow any creditors to be able to receive debts owed to them from people in the other country.
Modern Hotel d’York
Today, No. 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. The only trace of the building’s history is a plaque by the door, which detailed the historical significance of the site, in French. University officials stated that the decision to convert the former hotel into a branch of a French university was the product of quite a bit of discussion and thought.
To get there, take the M4 metro line to Saint-Germain-des-Pres. After exiting the Metro, travel north along Rue Bonaparte, then turn left on Rue Jacob. Walk along the Rue Jacob for less than a block. On the right side of the road, there is a building with the title “Typographie de Firmin Didot.” This is No. 56 Rue Jacob, which used to be the Hotel d’York.
There is no particular significance behind the Treaty of Paris being signed at the Hotel d’York specifically. Though Spain, Britain, and France usually signed treaties in Versailles, David Hartley, the representative of Great Britain, was required to sign with the Americans in Paris. Hartley was staying at Hotel d’York, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay met him at the hotel and signed the treaty in his room.
Though most people we talked to only knew the surface history of the building, the plaque out front hints at the seemingly small, yet incredibly important events that transpired between those walls.