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The French influences of Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C. you can find several things dedicated to or inspired by the French.

Fireworks Illuminate The Nation’s Capitol
Washington, D.C. itself is a symbol of French influence.
Photo by Shaun Heasley/Getty Images

Let’s continue French Week with something local. Instead, we’ll talk about their influence on places in Washington, D.C.

Washington is the capital of the United States. As you might expect, it is the definition of Americana. Since the city is the home of the federal government and organizations that support it, people from all over the country move here.

But as I mentioned last Tuesday, France is a country that shares a very close friendship with the United States dating back to the country’s beginnings. So in today’s piece, let’s talk about the French influence in the nation’s capital.

Lafayette Square

In 1824, this park just north of the White House was officially named after Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette. During the early years American Revolution, Lafayette, already a French military officer came to the United States and learned English while on a ship and became fluent soon after arriving in South Carolina. He met with General George Washington and the Continental Congress offered him an honorary officer’s commission in 1777.

Lafayette commanded American troops in several key battles, most notably the battles in Yorktown, Va. in 1781 which led to the American’s victory in the Revolutionary War. When he came back to France, Lafayette was a major figure in their revolution of 1789 where he co-wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Even Thomas Jefferson had a hand in it. And a few years before he passed away in 1834, Lafayette even had a chance to be France’s de-facto dictator in 1830 after another revolution. He declined.

In short, Lafayette is probably the most influential Frenchman in America’s earliest years. A park north of the White House is just one of many monuments in the U.S. named after him.

Washington’s basic plan was designed by a French American

When you step foot in downtown Washington, the city also has its own French flair to it. The basic plans were designed by Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant who designed the city’s downtown areas which are partly inspired by Versailles. L’Enfant was born in Paris but moved to the United States during the American Revolution where he served in the war for the Americans as a military engineer.

In 1791, L’Enfant presented a map to George Washington, now the first American President with a draft of that plan. Oddly enough, L’Enfant was fired by President Washington because of insubordination to other ideas. Downtown Washington looks much like L’Enfant’s plan but it was revised by Benjamin Ellicott, an American surveyor.

Ellicott worked with other surveyors including Benjamin Banneker who was an African American surveyor and astronomer who surveyed D.C.’s original landscape. He was also well known for his series of almanacs in the 1790s and even wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson questioning slavery and racism which was very risky at the time. Jefferson replied back but didn’t directly address Banneker’s questions. And there are accounts that Banneker drew up L’Enfant’s plans from memory after he was fired but it is disputed.

The White House’s South Portico: French inspired or just a coincidence?

The Château de Rastignac near Bordeaux has a resemblance to the White House.
MOSSOT , via Creative Commons license

The White House is a symbol of pure Americana. The President lives and works there. James Hoban, an American was the original architect. But it bears a striking resemblance to the Château de Rastignac near Bordeaux, France. The South Portico of the White House looks a lot like this building.

Thomas Jefferson, the first President to live in the White House went to Bordeaux, France in the late 1780s when he was the Minister to France. The Château de Rastignac was being built in that time though the French Revolution interrupted the project until the 1810s when it was completed. Meanwhile, the White House’s South Portico, which Jefferson wanted cake to fruition though it wasn’t completed until 1830.

It isn’t clear if the Château de Rastignac is the inspiration for the White House or vice versa. But it’s certainly possible!