1785 was a rare year in Paris—it was safely nestled between revolutions. The American Revolution had come to an official end right there in Paris one and a half years before, while the French Revolution was still four years off. And for the past 440 years—since the 1345 opening of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris occurred on the Île de la Cité island in the Seine River—Notre-Dame Cathedral had also witnessed its share of strife and turmoil.
But one particularly beautiful, but chilly day—April 1, 1785—had been set aside as a day of joyous celebration within the walls of Notre-Dame. A son, the Duke of Normandy, had been born to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette a few days before out at Versailles. To give thanks, the French King and Queen declared that a Te Deum (a traditional Latin Christian hymn) was to be sung at Notre-Dame Cathedral with most of the French nobility present. It was to be a happy day of magnificent fashion, grandeur, and royal pageantry.
Of course, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette had been invited to the event, along with his lovely wife—Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de LaFayette (who went by the rather conventional name of “Adrienne” to friends). It was decreed that each Royal invitee could also extend a Te Deum invitation to their own select guests, provided, of course, their choices were in good taste. (Besides, the Royal Couple also had a vested interest to make sure Notre-Dame was packed to the rafters for the occasion). So the Marquise de La Fayette invited some of the American delegation living in Paris, which included Thomas Jefferson and the four members of the Adams family—John, Abigail, daughter “Nabby” and son John Quincy.
The Adamses and Jeffersons Arrive in Paris
Ending lonely stretches abroad that John Adams endured during the Revolutionary War, and now with the conclusion of the peace treaty signing, by 1784 it was safe for John Adams to send for his family to be around him while he and Franklin were still completing American governmental business from Paris.
Abigail and daughter—Abigail the second, (Abigail Amelia Adams, nicknamed “Nabby”)—sailed to London in late June 1784, arriving July 21; with seventeen-year-old John Quincy arriving on July 30. (The other Adams children, Charles and Thomas, stayed behind in Haverhill, Massachusetts, with the family of Abigail’s younger sister—Elizabeth and Rev. John Shaw.) Arriving from his diplomatic business work in the Netherlands, John met up with his wife and two children in London in early August 1784. Together they all crossed the channel to Paris—settling in the western Parisian suburb of Anteuil.
Also in August 1784, Thomas Jefferson arrived in Paris accompanied by his daughter Martha (“Patsy”) and William Short, his personal secretary. Jefferson had been appointed by Congress as minister plenipotentiary to help Franklin and Adams negotiate treaties of amity and commerce. During this time in Paris, Jefferson would grow close to both John and Abigail Adams.
In late January 1785, Marquis de Lafayette also was converging upon his home town of Paris. He had just finished a four-month long visit to the new United States of America, which he had played a small part in creating. Just before leaving his adopted country, he received honorary American citizenship from Congress. His American departure had been tearful as he hugged goodbye to generals Knox, Hamilton, and Greene, knowing that they probably would never see each other again. The most poignant goodbye, though, had been between Lafayette and George Washington; the extent of the farewell had affected both men very deeply.
Parisian Royal “Rumours” Abound
The sound and spectacle of fireworks lit up the Parisian Sunday night sky on March 27, 1785. It heralded the announcement that Louis Charles de France, the Duke of Normandy had been born (he also would have been King Louis XVII if things had lasted that long). Using the dry sarcasm of his father, John Quincy recorded the event in his diary for that day, “at about seven o’clock in the evening the Queen, was delivered of a Son, who is Monseigneur le Duc de Normandie: this is one of the most important events that can happen in this kingdom; and every Frenchman has been expecting it, as if the fate of his life depended upon it.”
John Adams and David Humphreys had previously been invited to the annual “Ambassadors’ Day” at Versailles on Tuesday, March 29—which now fell two days after the Duke’s Sunday birth. So, the visit to the French court was also punctuated by the two Americans “where they were presented for the first time, to the new born Prince, who received them in bed,”“though only two days old.” It may have been the sarcastic, anti-monarchial side of John Adams who then wrote to a friend the next day, “last night on my return from Versailles and the Sight of the gallant young Duke of Normandy.”
Daughter Nabby Adams noted the event in her journal and included a rather sharp indictment of her own for the lack of female equality in the system:
29th. Papa went to Versailles, it being Ambassador’s Day; upon such an occasion there was much company. The young Duke of Normandy received all the ambassadors and ministers, though only two days old; he was lying on a bed, and attended by two or three ladies; if this had happened to have been a princess, she would have been scarce noticed.
Son John Quincy’s diary take on the situation focused on the political weaknesses in the same system: “Yet the Capital point is that the crown should pass down eternally from father to Son: insomuch that they would prefer being governed by a fool or a tyrant.”
On Monday, March 28, the day following the royal birth, John Quincy was dining at Lafayette’s house and some Royal Dirt gossip came to light once Lafayette arrived back from Versailles. It was prime filler material for J. Q.’s diary:
He told me a curious Circumstance. The Queen was so large, that it was suspected she might have twins, and Mr. de Calonne, the controuler general had prepared two blue ribbands, in case two Princes should be born, for the kings children must be decorated with those badges, immediately after they come into the world.
But the real bombshell that John Quincy was told was the eye-opening rumor that was being hushed up in the Versailles hallways. It was being whispered that the Duc de Normandie, whether one or two of possible twin babies, may in fact have been the offspring of Count Axel de Fersen, the Royal Swedish Regiment colonel commandant attached to the French army. Apparently, Queen Marie Antoinette and Count Axel may have been engaged in some amorous dangerous liaisons. Maybe. But it made for sensational “rumours” anyway.
Royal Te Deum Invitations Are Sent Out
Unfounded rumors aside, invitations for the Te Deum went out the week beginning March 28. The celebratory mass was going to be held Friday, April 1 at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and it was sure to be one of the grandest spectacles ever beheld, in the world center of all grand spectacles. Extended invitations filtered down to the guests of nobles by Thursday, March 31. John Quincy made this diary notation: “31st. Madame de la Fayette sent a Card to offer us places for the Te Deum, which is to be sung tomorrow at Notre-Dame, when the king is to be present.”
The Day of the Grand Event Arrives
Mme. Lafayette’s logistics plan as hostess for Friday, April 1—the day of the late afternoon gala event—was set. Everyone was to meet at Lafayette’s townhouse at 183 rue de Bourbon (called “Hôtel de La Fayette”) by 2:00 p.m. Confirmed attendees invited by Mme. Lafayette were the four Adams family members, Jefferson, Mrs. John Rucker, David Humphreys, Charles Williamos, and Benjamin West. Taking three to four carriages, Adrienne (Mme. Lafayette) would also ride in one of the carriages with her guests, since the Marquis de Lafayette “was with the King” and would already be at Notre-Dame.
Nabby recorded that to make it to the Lafayette’s Parisian townhouse from the countryside area of Anteuil by “two o clock; we dined early and went. From Auteuil to the Barrier we met a number of people.” The “Barrier” Nabby wrote of was an iron gate which surrounded Paris. The city back then was a much smaller place and at each city entrance gate (or “Barrier”) all entrants coming into the city selling goods were stopped and charged a toll. (The gate names live on today as the names of Metro stops: e.g. Porte de Passy, Porte Dauphine, Quai d’Issy).
Sitting next to Thomas Jefferson in their carriage, Nabby described the incredible crowds she saw alongside the streets for “at least three miles” toward Notre-Dame, and what Jefferson leaned over and said to her about the crowds:
every street was so crowded, that had it not been for the police, which upon every public occasion are as numerous as the people they are obliged to be very strict it would not have been possible for a carriage to have passed. I believe I may say with truth there were millions of people. Mr. Jefferson, who rode from the Marquis’ with us, supposed there were as many people in the streets as there were in the State of Massachusetts, or any other of the States. Every house was full every window and door, from the bottom to the top.
The next day in a letter, Thomas Jefferson himself kidded William Short, his private secretary, about missing the event (Short was twelve miles away in St. Germain learning the French language). Jefferson tongue-in-cheek guessed that the Notre-Dame event had larger numbers of dignitaries than Washington had soldiers in some battles:
You lost much by not attending the Te-deum at Notre dame yesterday. It bids defiance to description. I will only observe to you in general that there were more judges, ecclesiastics and Grands seigneurs present, than Genl. Washington had of simple souldiers in his army, when he took the Hessians at Trenton, beat the British at Princeton, and hemmed up the British army at Brunswick a whole winter.
The Arrival at Notre-Dame Cathedral
Passing along the “Quai des Augustins” and the “Pont Neuf,” the carriage finally arrived at Notre-Dame Cathedral. Nabby continued,
Before the Church there is a large square, which was lined with troops, drawn up in rows, and appeared very well. The Church of Notre Dame is of very ancient architecture; it is the most beautiful building I have seen. The churches have no pews, but are filled with chairs and benches. There are a variety of chapels in them, in which there always is a representation of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. On one side of the chapel there were seats, where all the judges were seated, dressed in crimson velvet robes, and large wigs. On the other side were lawyers in black habits; their dress is much the same as in our country, except that they wear their hair long behind, and without being tied, but waving, which is very graceful.
We were placed in a gallery that commanded the choir, and were in as good a place as any in the Church, which we owed to the Politeness of Mme. de la Fayette. On one side of the altar were a number of ladies of rank; on the other side, were the ambassadors and public ministers; before the altar were placed seats, and under a canopy was a crimson velvet cushion, and seats all round with each a crimson velvet cushion; this was for his majesty to kneel upon. There were the bishops with the archbishop at their head, dressed in purple robes, with skirts which came as low as their knees, of the richest lace. There were a number of others of a different order, dressed with cloaks, wrought with gold.
But apparently, one young man of the court in particular caught the eye of young, nineteen-year-old Nabby:
Among these was the Abbe de Bourbon, an illegitimate son of Louis 15th. He appeared to be about 27 years old, a very handsome man. I observed all the gentlemen of the court paid particular attention to him.
While Nabby was boy watching, John Quincy was observing the royal protocol unfolding from the seats of the gallery:
The Archbishop of Paris had a mitre upon his head. When the king came, he went out to the Door of the Church to receive him: and as soon as his Majesty had got to his place and fallen upon his knees, they began to sing the Te Deum, which lasted about half an hour, and in which we heard some exceeding fine music. The voices were admirable. The Archbishop of Paris sung for about a Couple of Minutes, near the end, that it might be said, he had sung the Te Deum. His voice seems to be much broken. As soon as the singing was over the king and the Court immediately went away.
I was however vastly pleased with the Ceremony; and should have been so, if it was only, that it gave me an opportunity to see so numerous an assembly of men, of the first rank in the kingdom. The king and all the court were dress’d in cloaths vastly rich but in no peculiar form.
Although J.Q. was “vastly pleased with the Ceremony,” Nabby wrote that hostess Mme. Lafayette didn’t care for the Notre-Dame gala: “Madame de la Fayette observed, she thought it was too magnificent, and there was too much noise and bustle for the Church; she said it was not peaceful enough.”
The Great Day Ends with an Ominous Warning
Finally the Te Deum was over. Nobility, dignitaries and guests filed out of Notre-Dame Cathedral en masse onto the large square in front of the church; and no doubt like an awards show of today—the celebrities were checking each other out while throngs of fans cheered nearby. And just like a post-awards show hassle, waiting for all of the transportation vehicles to pull up was a strict exercise in patience—or futility—even in 1785.
After the Ceremony was finished, we had to wait a long time for our Carriages and could not at last get them all; so that we were obliged to go away, five in one Charriot. We returned to the Hôtel de la Fayette, and drank tea with Madam.
But soon it was time to be getting back to Anteuil. John Quincy gives us one last account of a seemingly nondescript incident he noted from his carriage window near the riverbank park of Cours la Reine. It could be taken as just a historical example of impoverished peasants doing what they’ve always done. Or it could be taken as an omen of the simmering anger and discontent that was fuming between peasants and nobility, the underlying feelings of inequality that would erupt among the common people just a few years after this day and would explode into a full-scale revolution:
We returned home at about nine, and were more than half an hour getting over the Pont Neuf, such was the crowd of Carriages: in the passage of the Cours la Reine, we saw a number of fellows, throwing up the sand, to see if there were no 12 sols pieces remaining for upon these occasions, when the Mob cry out vive le Roi, he throws out of his Coach handfuls of small pieces of money, and is thereby the cause of many a squabble, and some broken heads, though the Police is so attentive that few such misfortunes happen.
Certainly below the surface, hidden social turmoil was festering. But for that brief, bright moment on that chilly spring day in April 1785, France was at peace and joyously celebrating a royal birth.
The other American delegation members invited and attended the April 1 Te Deum were Mrs. John Rucker, David Humphreys, Charles Williamos, and Benjamin West. I cannot find out exactly why Benjamin Franklin didn’t attend the event. He most certainly would’ve been invited. And the very next day, April 2, Nabby recorded, “April 2d. Mrs. Hewston and Mr. Franklin came and drank tea with us.” Franklin might not have attended the long event because at this time he was suffering from severe kidney stones and gout which would cause his departure back to America a few months later.
“27th.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0005-0023, accessed April 11, 2019.
“29th.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0005-0021, accessed April 11, 2019.
John Adams to C. W. F. Dumas, March 29, 1785, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-16-02-0341, accessed May 17, 2019.
“[March 27, 1785],” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0005, accessed April 11, 2019.
“28th.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0005-0020.
“31st.,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0005-0023, accessed April 11, 2019.
Now on Rue Bourbon le Chateau–6th Arrondissement. While the word “Hôtel” in French can mean a hotel in the traditional sense, it can also mean any large building like a hospital, city hall, or as in the case of the Lafayette townhouse, a “mansion.” Lafayette had purchased the townhouse in 1783 for 200,000 livres ($2 million).
Thomas Jefferson to William Short, April 2, 1785, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-08-02-0040, accessed April 11, 2019.
“Friday April 1st. 1785,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0006-0001, accessed April 11, 2019.