European Affairs

Now a leading American historian has turned his attention to the importance of 19th-century Paris as a place where aspiring Americans went to learn about modernity on the eve of the industrial revolution. According to David McCullough , a two-time Pulitzer prize-winner whose books have had extraordinary success via much-praised, much-watched television adaptation, there was a third great period when France held thrall over aspiring Americans – the decades after 1830 (when Louis Pillippe came to power as a “bourgeois king”) and France experienced a period of progress that offered unique lessons in modern medicine, technology, urban planning, political thinking (including anti-racism) and the fine arts that ran far ahead of anything available in these fields in the U.S. These Americans came to Paris to learn and, almost without exception, they went home to become teachers and trail-blazers as accomplished practitioners in their own fields. As McCullough puts it, all of them, “almost without exception . . . came home to be teachers in one way or another. They themselves who went there to be taught, whether it was painting, medicine, whatever it was, came home to become teachers in their lives.”

At this moment – which is underplayed in French history of this era of dynamic entrepreneurship in France and similarly ignored in much U.S. history writing that has traditionally neglected the importance and insights provided by the fine arts and professions such as medicine – America simply lacked the requisite facilities for reaching the top of many professions that were becoming important as drivers of modernity. As McCullough explains, “if you wanted to know truly how to become a painter or an architect or a top ranked physician, you wanted to know anything about opera or the ballet, if you wanted to write in an atmosphere where literature and poetry and writers were taken very seriously, you went to Paris,” he said in explaining why so many ambitious and now-famous Americans made what he calls in his title “the greater journey” in the mid-1800s.

At that time, France led the world in art and architecture schools, public parks and opera houses. But it was not only the arts. Paris also offered opportunities that Americans could not find at home. America had nothing comparable to the advanced hospitals or the École de Médecine in Paris. There were many engineering and public works lessons for Americans to learn from Frenchmen as different as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (the designer of the sewers and wide boulevards that opened up 19th-century Paris as the world’s most modern city) and Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower is only the best-known of his extraordinary new engineering uses of steel. As a result, Americans in Paris could learn medicine to be a doctor or nurse tending real patients of the opposite sex.  “In America, most women would have preferred to die than have a physician – a man – examine their bodies…and as a consequence a great many American women did die [prematurely because] young men in medical training in America seldom had a chance to study the female anatomy other than in books,” McCullough recounts. In France, there was no such female squeamishness as young Americans accompanied French doctors and surgeons in hospitals and operating theaters. Also, France had an abundant supply of cadavers for dissection – in contrast to their short supply and high cost in the U.S. because of tight American restrictions on the handling of dead bodies.

Similarly, for artists trying to master advanced techniques there was no substitute for Paris in America, where “there were no art schools,” noted Samuel F. B. Morse at the time – a famous painter in the U.S. (known for his gigantic canvas showing Congress in session). He went to Paris to better his technique: he did, but he also returned with the idea for the telegraph (whose code bears his name).

The list of Americans who brought back skills and innovations from France in this period is an illustrious and fascinating roster: writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name Mark Twain); impressionist painter Mary Cassatt; key innovators like the great medical pioneer Oliver Wendell Holmes (whose son would become the renowned jurist) and lesser-known change agents in American life: Emma Willard, founder of the first American seminary for women and the first influential female to speak out publicly in favor of higher education for women in the U.S., and Senator Charles Sumner, whose exposure to French life as a young man enabled him to see that attitudes toward race in America were taught, not part of “the nature of things” –  a revelation that help pave the way for the Civil Rights movement.

Alongside the revelatory history, the book is compelling, partly because it draws brilliantly on wonderful diaries kept by key protagonists. The narrative makes fascinating reading about the people, about Paris and about the cultural and technological changes in this period of America – the book provides a vibrant, compellingly-told account (which draws heavily on good diaries). As this account makes clear, this period of personal cultural inter-action between France and the U.S. must now be accounted alongside the other two moments – of the Revolution and of the Lost Generation – as one of the most fruitful periods in this bilateral history of the two cultures and a highlight of transatlantic relations.


Nicolas Carter is an Editorial Assistant at European Affairs