Notre-Dame and America’s Founding Generation: Part 1

Notre-Dame Cathedral and America’s Founding Generation: Part 1.

Paris was the center of the Western World during the 18th Century. It is thus not surprising that several of the founding fathers were very familiar with Notre-Dame, one of the most famous symbols of Paris. As described below, more than a dozen members of the founding generation were able to visit Notre Dame during their lifetimes, primarily while serving as ministers to France, during the formative years of American history.

Of course, one could argue that American independence is inextricably linked to France, which served as a critical ally for George Washington and the thirteen colonies. Indeed, American independence was first acknowledged by Britain in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, which was negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay and Henry Laurens.

The following post will survey the list of Americans who traveled to Paris during the 18th Century. A pending post, Notre-Dame: Part 2, will provide details of their travels, including ceremonies that they attended at Notre-Dame.

For example, Thomas Jefferson, John John Adams, Abigail Adams, and John Quincy Adams attended a Te-Deum service in 1785 to honor the birth of King Louis XVI’s son, the Duke of Normandy, Louis-Charles the XVII. In a letter to William Short, Jefferson described the service as defying description. Twenty years later, James Monroe witnessed the coronation of Napoleon as the Emperor of France at Notre-Dame in 1804.

Notre Dame at Sunset, © David Wells Roth, 1984, oil on canvas
American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain by Benjamin West, 1783. The painting was never completed as the British delegation refused to pose.

List of the founding generation to visit Notre-Dame: In addition to Ben Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, the American delegation who negotiated the Treaty of Paris, the list of founders and other 18th century Americans who likely visited Notre-Dame includes:

  • William Temple Franklin (grandson to Benjamin Franklin and secretary to Ben Franklin during the American diplomatic mission to France)
  • Arthur Lee (delegate to the Continental Congress who helped negotiate the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778 with Franklin, Adams and Silas Dean)
  • Silas Dean (delegate to the Continental Congress who helped negotiate the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778 with Franklin, Adams and Arthur Lee)
  • Thomas Jefferson (3rd President and Minister to France, 1784-1789)
  • Martha “Patsy” Jefferson (Jefferson’s daughter travelled to Paris at age 11 with Jefferson and 19 year old James Hemings in 1784)
  • William Short (Jefferson’s secretary and American diplomat)
  • Abigail Adams (Adams’ wife and future first lady)
  • John Quincy Adams (Adams’ son and future 6th President)
  • Gouverneur Morris (signer of the Declaration of Independence and “penman of the Constitution”, American ambassador to France from 1792-1794)
  • John Marshall (4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, U.S. envoy to Paris during XYZ Affair)
  • Elbridge Gerry (signer of the Declaration of Independence; delegate to the Constitutional Convention – one of three delegates who refused to sign; U.S. envoy to Paris during XYZ Affair; 5th Vice President of the U.S.)
  • Oliver Ellsworth (signer of the Constitution from Connecticut and 3rd Chief Justice of the Supreme Court)
  • James Monroe (Minister to France, 1794-1796; negotiated Louisiana Purchase; 5th President)
  • Robert Livingston (member of the “Committee of Five” that drafted the Declaration of Independence; minister to France 1801-1804; negotiated the Louisiana Purchase)
  • William Richardson Davie (signer of the Constitution from North Carolina and diplomat to the Convention of Mortefontaine)
  • William Vans Murray (American diplomat to the Convention of Mortefontaine)
  • Zephaniah Swift (jurist and statesman, secretary to the American delegation to the Convention of Mortefontaine)
  • Charles Pinckney (politician and diplomat; Minister to France, 1796-1797; U.S. envoy to Paris during XYZ Affair)
  • Thomas Pinckney (politician and diplomat, negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain)
  • John Armstrong (Minister to France, 1804-1810)
  • Albert Gallatin (Minister to France, 1815-1823)
  • John Trumbull (painter)
  • Thomas Paine (author of Common Sense)
  • Aaron Burr and his son Aaron Columbus Burr (was conceived during Burr’s exile from the U.S., was the “product of a Paris adventure”)
  • Angelica Church Schulyer (Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law)
  • John Church (husband of Angelica Church, American businessman and envoy to France from 1783-1785)
  • Catherine “Kitty” Church Cruger (daughter of Angelica Church and classmate of Jefferson’s daughters at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont school in Paris, married Bertram Peter Cruger, son of Nicolas Cruger who had hired young Alexander Hamilton in St Croix)
  • Dr. John Warren (co-founder of Harvard Medical School, brother of Boston leader of the Sons of Liberty, Dr. Joesph Warren)

Other Americans who likely toured Notre-Dame: It is unclear whether or not Sally Hemings (who travelled to Paris with Jefferson’s daughter Patty) ever visited the Cathedral while living in Paris with Jefferson. The same can be asked about James Hemings, Sally’s brother, who trained as a chef while living in Paris with Jefferson. After three years of study, James became the head chef at the Hotel de Langeac, Jefferson’s residence, which served as the American embassy in Paris. Whether or not proof can be ascertained that the Hemings siblings toured Notre-Dame, it is clear that they would have regularly seen it during the five years that Jefferson lived in Paris from 1784 – 1789.

Sometimes referred to as the “forgotten patriot,” Charles Carroll was the lone Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. His cousin, Daniel Carroll of Maryland, along with Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania, were the two Catholic signers of the Constitution. It is likely that both Carrolls visited Notre-Dame as teenagers, but additional research will be required to confirm same. Daniel and Charles studied in Paris at the Jesuit College of St. Omer, which had been established for the education of English Catholics.

At the time of the American Revolution, Charles Carroll was understood to be the wealthiest man in America. Charles became the last living signatory of the Declaration of Independence, after the death of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1826. Charles cousin, John Carroll, who also studied in Paris in his youth, became the first American archbishop. John Carroll would certainly have visited Notre-Dame during his years teaching in Paris before he founded Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic University in the United States, in 1789.

Overview of Notre-Dame: Construction of Notre Dame began in 1163 with the laying of the cornerstone in the presence of King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III. The intricate Gothic Cathedral, with its flying buttresses and rib vault construction, required a century to complete. More than eight hundred and fifty years later, Notre Dame remains the spiritual and physical heart of Paris.

To put Notre-Dame’s age in perspective, consider that when Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492, Notre Dame was already 329 years old. By comparison, the United States is only 243 years old, if measured from the date of the Declaration of Independence. Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in North America, was founded in 1607, 444 years after construction began on Notre Dame.

Notre-Dame at Night, © David Wells Roth, 1984, oil on board

Additional reading:

A July 4 Remembrance of America’s Catholic Founding Father, Mark Zimmerman, 2016

Treaty of Paris, primary documents (Library of Congress)

Silas Dean Embarks on Secret Mission to France

Jefferson’s letter to William Short, April 2, 1785

History of Georgetown (

Private Journal of Aaron Burr

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