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kottke.org posts about John Jay

An Enslaved American in Paris

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2021

In this excellent piece for the NY Times, African American historian Martha S. Jones travels to Paris to search for the signs of someone who came to France as part of a delegation to broker a peace to end the Revolutionary War, an enslaved woman named Abigail who was owned by Founding Father John Jay.

I’ve searched for Abigail a long time now, nearly 10 years. I first puzzled over her life and death as a newcomer to Paris when I stumbled upon the city’s many tributes to American founders. Exiting the Musée d’Orsay and heading to the Right Bank across the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, with the bateaux-mouches tourist boats passing below, I met up with a 10-foot-tall bronze likeness of Thomas Jefferson, another U.S. founder, plans for his Virginia estate, Monticello, in hand.

Hiking along the 16th arrondissement’s rue Benjamin-Franklin, I ventured to the tiny Square de Yorktown to discover that the figure seated high atop a stone plinth was Franklin himself. Fresh from people-watching from a sidewalk table at cafe Les Deux Magots, once the haunt of the 20th-century luminaries James Baldwin and Richard Wright, I made my way around the corner on rue Jacob. Pausing at number 56, I read the pink marble plaque that marks the site of the Hôtel d’York, where three of the men who shaped America’s independence — U.S. Peace Commissioners Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay — finalized the Treaty of Paris.

These fabled places are, I recognized, whitewashed. There is no mention of the enslaved people, like Abigail, who were bound to labor in the founders’ Parisian households. No site explains that during John Jay’s time in the French capital, while he brokered the new nation’s freedom, he also dealt in the unfreedom of others.

(thx, meg)