February 13, 1960 – France Tests its First Atomic Bomb

France conducted its first nuclear test on this day in history. The test, code-named Gerboise Bleue (Blue Desert Rat in English) was the first of four atmospheric nuclear tests in the Sahara Desert of Algeria. The explosive yield of Gerboise Bleue was around four times as powerful as the bomb detonated in Hiroshima by the U.S. in 1945. With Gerboise Bleue, France became the fourth nuclear power, after the United States, the USSR, and the United Kingdom.

Following the four atmospheric tests, France switched to underground testing, again in the Algerian Sahara for 13 tests, switching to the French Polynesian atolls from1968 to 1996. Later that year, France was one of the first countries to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), subsequently ratifying it on April 6. France also closed and dismantled all its test sites – the only nuclear weapon State to date that has done so.

In 2009, the French Senate passed a bill acknowledging the deleterious effects of its nuclear testing program and providing a compensation scheme for civilian and military veterans. This was followed a confidential military report obtained and exposed by the newspaper Le Parisien, detailing just how the French government had endangered both its own citizens and those of Algeria. You can read more on the effects of French nuclear testing here.

The site of Gerboise Bleue, the first French nuclear bomb test, on Feb. 20, 1960, a week after detonation.STF/AFP/Getty Images

July 7, 1783 – Thomas Jefferson Writes to James Madison, Goading Him to Attack Alexander Hamilton

In April, 1793, Edmond Charles Genêt, better known as Citizen Genêt, arrived in America to great fanfare as the newly appointed French minister to the United States.

Genêt’s mission, as recounted by Joel Richard Paul in Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times, was to persuade the U.S. to help France liberate Canada, Louisiana, and Florida from rule by Britain and Spain. If the Americans refused to enter the war on France’s side, Genêt was instructed to “germinate the spirit of liberty” by instigating a popular uprising in favor of France. He had other assignments as well, all of which were designed to advance the position of France in the U.S. to the detriment of Britain.

Engraving of Edmond-Charles Genêt

Genêt launched an immediate campaign to realize his goals, taking assertive actions that amounted to “an astounding breach of diplomatic protocol and international law” (per Paul, p. 73).

President George Washington wanted the U.S. to remain neutral in the war between France and Britain, much to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s chagrin. Jefferson, besotted with France as well as its revolution, fiercely opposed neutrality. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, strongly supported it.

Jefferson had already been meeting secretly with Genêt at Trump Tower, and was anxious for Genêt’s help to elect a republican majority in Congress in return for support for an alliance with France and a removal of tariffs on French imports. Paul writes:

Jefferson made clear that his enemies – the federalists [which included President George Washington], particularly Adams and Hamilton – were France’s enemies. . . . From these conversations, Genêt formed the misimpression that the president was irrelevant and that an appeal to Congress, or to the people directly, would be more effective.”

Genêt also confided his plans to arm regiments in South Carolina and Kentucky to attack Spanish holdings in Florida and Louisiana, and Jefferson helped put Genet in touch with people who could help him.

Paul writes:

Jefferson’s relationship with the French envoy was ill-advised, probably illegal, and certainly disloyal to Washington.”

The President ended up issuing a Proclamation of Neutrality. Republicans denounced the proclamation as exceeding the president’s constitutional powers. Using the pseudonym Pacificus, Hamilton wrote a series of essays in support of Washington’s authority to determine the country’s foreign relations. Jefferson, as was his usual modus operandi, remained silent in public while stealthily prodding his henchman James Madison to attack. [When Jefferson himself was president, he of course would feel differently about presidential authority.]

Thomas Jefferson

On this day in history, Jefferson sent a letter to Madison, bemoaning the fact that nobody was taking exception to the writings of Pacificus:

Nobody answers him, and his doctrine will therefore be taken for confessed. For god’s sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to pieces in the face of the public. There is nobody else who can and will enter the lists with him.”

The sniping over Genêt, Paul writes, would eventually lead to the spawning of two competing political parties. It seems that in terms of partisan squabbling; trying to get foreign help in undermining of the political opposition; and dirty tricks – both in secret and in the open – not much has changed, as evinced by the Trump Administration, et al.

February 21, 1916 – Beginning of German Assault at Verdun in WWI

The German assault in Verdun, France began on this day in history with the detonation of more than a thousand cannons.

The UK Imperial War Museum explains that the assault was originally planned by the German Chief of General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn to secure victory for Germany on the Western Front. The aim was to crush the French army before the Allies grew in strength through the full deployment of British forces. Without France’s ninety-six divisions the Allies would be unable to continue fighting in the west. 

French train horses resting in a river on their way to Verdun. (National Geographic Magazine/Wikimedia Commons)

Von Falkenhayn determined that the ancient fortress city of Verdun on the River Meuse was the perfect site to confront the French. By securing the heights on the east bank of the river, the Germans would dominate the surrounding area, and they could unleash artillery on the French while minimizing German casualties.

French General Philippe Petain had other ideas. Petain, the UK War Museum site explains, organized his forces to defend in depth by establishing a series of mutually supporting strongpoints, rather than pushing all his troops into the vulnerable front line trenches. He also regularly rotated his units and increased the number of artillery pieces.  

French troops manning a captured German Maxim MG 08 machine gun (mounted on a sledge) at Verdun, via UK War Museum

Ultimately, however, as a history of World War I in Smithsonian Magazine reports:

A Russian offensive against the Austrians in the east, followed by a French attack at the Somme in July, finally forced the Germans to disengage from Verdun. In October the French retook its most massive fort. The battle, the longest of World War I, finally ended on December 15. Then what? Mud, corpses, duckboards, trenches, broken trees. French and German casualties each exceeded 300,000 men.”

The Battle of Verdun, according to military history expert Kennedy Hickman, assumed an iconic place in French military history as a symbol of the nation’s determination to defend its soil at all costs.

October 25, 1415 – Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was a major English victory against the more numerous French that took place on this day in history during the Hundred Years War. The English, led by King Henry V, had between 6,000 and 9,000 men. The French army had between 12,000 and 36,000 men.

The Hundred Years War lasted from 1337 to 1453, and was fought over the ongoing struggle for succession to the French throne. Five generations of kings fought during this period. The conflict began when France’s King Carol IV died in 1328 without an heir. A cousin, Philip VI, declared himself King of France but the English king, Eduard III, Carol’s nephew, also laid claim to the throne.

Philip VI of France

As significant as this battle was at the time, we probably now remember it most because of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, in which Henry (the former “Prince Hal”) inspired his men before the battle by declaring them “a band of brothers.” Although the English were outnumbered five to one, they went on to defeat the French at Agincourt.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger . . . (Henry V, Act III, Scene I)

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . . (Henry V, Act IV Scene iii)”

Battle of Agincourt via UK Telegraph

Part of the reason the English won is said to have been superior leadership. Henry V is described by historians as “pious, athletic, chivalrous, acquisitive, ruthless and eager to gain honour on the field of battle.” He was also highly respected by his troops.

King Charles VI of France, on the other hand, also called “The Mad King,” was known for bouts of insanity. Thus he was absent from the battle, and his son was too young for a leadership position. Command of the French forces was given to Charles d’Albert, Constable of France, and the marshal Jean II le Meingre, called Boucicault. They were both experienced soldiers, but did not have a high enough rank to command respect from the French nobles in their command. The division of the leadership of the army was also a critical mistake as each of the men had his own personal plans for the battle, creating a confusion in the army.

In addition, the French wore heavy suits of armor, exhausting the soldiers who also had to trudge through muddy fields with all that weight. (The armor weighted up to 50 kg, or 110 pounds!) The English and Welsh archers who formed up to 80 percent of Henry’s army, on the other hand, were more lightly attired. The decimation of the French cavalry at their hands is regarded as an indicator of the decline of cavalry and the beginning of the dominance of ranged weapons on the battlefield. According to a UK Telegraph history of the battle, the English longbow had greater accuracy and killing power and a farther range than a crossbow. “A trained archer could shoot between 10 and twelve aimed arrows a minute which could wound at 400 yards, kill at 200 and penetrate armour at 100 yards.”

English longbow at Agincourt via Radio Canada International

October 21, 1805 – Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic War of the Third Coalition

The Battle of Trafalgar was a naval engagement fought on this day in history during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1806).

The Napoleonic Wars had gone on for some time. France had built the strongest army in Europe, and controlled much of the land. Britain had a strong Royal Navy and used this to blockade France, preventing French ships from leaving their ports. The French leader Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to invade and conquer Britain, but desired naval support. This meant he had to sink the British navy first.

The Vice Admiral of the British Fleet and Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean was Lord Horatio Nelson. The British knew that France might try to attack them, and had placed ships outside the important French ports, like Toulon.

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson

The French navy managed to avoid Nelson’s fleet, and left Toulon during a storm, meeting up with a group of Spanish ships. Spain at the time was an ally of France. This small fleet first sailed to the West Indies, then returned across the Atlantic Ocean to the Spanish port of Cádiz. The British chased them both ways across the ocean.

On September 16, Napoleon gave orders for the French and Spanish ships at Cádiz to put to sea at the first favorable opportunity and head to Naples to reinforce his troops there. The French and Spanish differed on the wisdom of this plan, and they remained in Cádiz for over a month. This gave Nelson’s fleet plenty of time to catch up.

On this day in history, the British were about 21 miles to the northwest of Cape Trafalgar, with the Franco-Spanish fleet between the British and the Cape. At around 6 a.m., Nelson gave the order to prepare for battle.

Via BBC News

French Admiral Villeneuve, in command of thirty-three French and Spanish ships of the line, ordered his ships to turn around and return to Cádiz. The inexperienced crews had difficulty with the changing conditions, and it took nearly an hour and a half for Villeneuve’s order to be completed.

By 11 a.m. Nelson’s entire fleet was visible to Villeneuve, drawn up in two parallel columns. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour.

Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned, the enemy totalling nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to his 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships of the line, and so could more readily combine their fire.

Nevertheless, the twenty-seven British ships of the line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated Villeneuve decisively. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships and the British lost none.

The victory confirmed Britain’s naval supremacy, with the battle’s fame now second only to Waterloo among the many clashes of the Napoleonic Wars.

It was also notable for Nelson’s departure from the prevailing tactical orthodoxy of the day about how to fight naval battles. Instead of engaging the opposing fleets in a single parallel line, Nelson arranged his ships into two columns that sailed perpendicularly into the enemy line.

During the battle, Nelson was shot by a French sniper and he died shortly before the battle ended. Controversy surrounds Nelson’s last words spoken to Captain Thomas Hardy, his flag captain. They have been reported variously as both “Kismet, Hardy” or “Kiss Me, Hardy.” The Royal Naval Museum weighs in with support for latter phrase.

Villeneuve was captured, along with his ship Bucentaure. He later attended Nelson’s funeral while a captive on parole in Britain. Admiral Federico Gravina, the senior Spanish flag officer, escaped with the remnant of the fleet. He died five months later from wounds sustained during the battle.

Nelson’s body was brought back to Great Britain and he was given a hero’s funeral.

The website of the Royal Naval Museum reports:

After the battle, his body was encased in a large casket called a leaguer. It was then filled with brandy as this has preservative qualities. At Gibraltar, where HMS Victory put in, the brandy that had not been absorbed by the corpse was replaced by spirits of wine for the journey home to Britain, which took four and half weeks due to bad weather.”

In 1843, the famous Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column were built in London to honor the victorious Vice Admiral.

A wonderful book about the battle is Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle that Changed the World by Roy Adkins (Viking, 2005). This very informative and entertaining book is not only about this one particular battle, but about sea warfare in general.


July 8, 1951 – Senator John Kennedy Responds to Criticism of His Call for Algerian Independence

As Ronald J. Nurse pointed out in “Critic of Colonialism: JFK and Algerian Independence,” The Historian, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Feb, 1977), pp. 307-326, John F. Kennedy, while serving in Congress from 1947 to 1960, “spoke early and often in opposition to Western colonial policies, particularly those of the French….” Furthermore, on numerous occasions, Nurse avers, Kennedy “spoke of the common ‘revolutionary tradition’ between America and the emerging nations of Africa and Southeast Asia.” His interest in them was always tied closely to a strong commitment to anticommunism. He thought flexibility more efficacious in countering the spread of communism than rigidity.

John F. Kennedy, 1957

On July 2, 1957, Senator Kennedy made a speech on the Senate floor publicly denouncing French colonialism in Algeria, as well as both Soviet and western imperialism, couching his remarks as a plea to President Eisenhower:

Mr. President, the most powerful single force in the world today is neither communism nor capitalism, neither the H-bomb nor the guided missile it is man’s eternal desire to be free and independent. The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is called, for want of a more precise term, imperialism – and today that means Soviet imperialism and, whether we like it or not, and though they are not to be equated, Western imperialism.

Thus the single most important test of American foreign policy today is how we meet the challenge of imperialism, what we do to further man’s desire to be free. On this test more than any other, this Nation shall be critically judged by the uncommitted millions in Asia and Africa, and anxiously watched by the still hopeful lovers of freedom behind the Iron Curtain. If we fail to meet the challenge of either Soviet or Western imperialism, then no amount of foreign aid, no aggrandizement of armaments, no new pacts or doctrines or high-level conferences can prevent further setbacks to our course and to our security.

Mr. President, the war in Algeria confronts the United States with its most critical diplomatic impasse since the crisis in Indochina – and yet we have not only failed to meet the problem forthrightly and effectively, we have refused to even recognize that it is our problem at all.”

He warned that the battle against communism would be lost unless the West assist the Algerian cause:

The time has come when our Government must recognize, that this is no longer a French problem alone; and that the time has passed, where a series of piecemeal adjustments, or even a last attempt to incorporate Algeria fully within France, can succeed. The time has come for the United States to face the harsh realities of the situation and to fulfill its responsibilities as leader of the free world – in the U.N., in NATO, in the administration of our aid programs and in the exercise of our diplomacy – in shaping a course toward political independence for Algeria.”

He then submitted a resolution outlining what he saw as the best hope for peace and settlement in Algeria.

Needless to say, the French were appalled, and the French Ambassador asked Secretary of State John Foster Dulles “to do something to mitigate the effects of the speech and not let it go unanswered.”

Paratroopers stop Algerians from demonstrating against French colonial rule in the European districts of Algiers (AFP)

The Department of State Office of the Historian relates:

At a press conference on July 2, Dulles defended France’s record and stated his opposition to U.S. involvement in the matter. (Department of State Bulletin, July 22, 1957, pp. 142–143) At a news conference on July 3, Eisenhower stated that U.S. policy would be impartial and helpful. (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, pp. 515–527)”

Meanwhile, Jackie Kennedy wrote her in-laws about the ruckus:

“Who cares if you never go to another ball at the French Embassy, and if Dior has you bounced out of the fitting room. We can always go and eat sheep’s eyes with the Arabs.” (Michael O’Brien, John F. Kennedy: A Biography, 2005)

On this day in history, July 8, 1957, Kennedy felt compelled to issue a statement replying to the criticisms of his speech. He observed:

The reaction to my remarks both at home and abroad has further strengthened my conviction that the situation in Algeria is drifting dangerously, with the French authorities refusing to seek a fresh approach and our American authorities refusing to recognize the grave international implications of this impasse.”

He conceded:

Of course Algeria is a ‘complicated’ problem. Of course we should not assume full responsibility for that problem’s solution in France’s stead. And of course, the Soviet Union is guilty of far worse examples of imperialism. But we cannot long ignore as none of our business, or as a French internal problem, a struggle for independence that has been and will be a major issue before the U.N., that has denuded NATO of its armies, drained the resources of our French allies, threatened the continuation of Western influence and bases in North Africa and bitterly split the ‘Free World’ we claim to be leading.”

He lost that battle, but only because he was ahead of his time. In March 1962, France granted independence to Algeria.

June 24, 1798 – The XYZ Affair: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.”

From 1778 to 1783, France and Britain were at war. Both countries exerted pressure on the U.S. to join the war on their side. President Washington urged the country to avoid “entangling alliances.” But there was no agreement in the country; as historian Joel Richard Paul explains in his book Without Precedent, “supporters of neutrality coalesced into the Federalist Party [led by Washington], and critics of the administration formed the Republican Party, led by Jefferson.”

In 1795 John Jay negotiated a [very unpopular] treaty with Britain, and in 1797 the new President John Adams sent a three-man commission overseas to negotiate a treaty with France. He chose the Republican Elbridge Gerry, and Federalists Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Marshall. The commissioners thought it would not take long. However, they did not count on the obstructionism of the French minister of foreign affairs, Marquis de Talleyrand.

What Talleyrand was most interested in from the Americans was money. Most notably, he wanted America to “lend” France more than four hundred million in 2018 dollars; and to pay a bribe of around 6 million in today’s dollars to Talleyrand himself.

Portrait of Talleyrand by Ary Scheffer

The commissioners had no authority to advance or promise any money to France even if they wanted to, which they did not. Or at least, the two Federalists did not. As Paul writes, the French were incredulous that the Americans thought they could obtain anything without forking over a lot of money, and Pinckney and Marshall insisted they would not lend money “under the lash & coercion of France.” The negotiations stalled, and in the meantime, French ships continued to assault U.S. merchant vessels. Moreover, the French threatened to close French ports to American ships.

Between the weather and the British blockade, it took months for dispatches from the commissioners to reach the President back in Philadelphia. When President Adams finally did hear what was going on, he was incensed. He asked Congress to appropriate funds to prepare for war. Congress demanded to know what was in the dispatches, and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering released them, but first replaced the names of Talleyrand’s agents with the letters “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” Thus the diplomatic episode became known as “The XYZ Affair.”

Back in France, Talleyrand said he would only negotiate with the Francophile, Gerry, and Pinckney and Marshall began the long journey back to the U.S.

John Marshall, by Cephas Thompson, 1809-1810. National Portrait Gallery

The country was now backing Adams for going to war against France. Congress appropriated funds to purchase armed ships and approved a trade embargo against France. Thus began the “Quasi-War,” against France, the first undeclared war in American history.

Marshall returned to the U.S. on June 17, 1798 and was hailed as a hero for standing up to the French. At a lavish banquet in his honor, Paul reports that there were toasts to Marshall, Pinckney, and the United States, including one toast by South Carolina Representative Robert Goodloe Harper that became enshrined in American history: “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” That slogan became a rallying cry against French aggression.

Robert Goodloe Harper

May 5, 1862 – The French are Repulsed at Puebla in a Stunning Victory for Mexico

Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for “Fifth of May”) celebrates the legendary Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, in which a Mexican force of around 4,500 men faced 6,000 well-trained French soldiers. The battle lasted four hours and ended in a victory for the Mexican army under General Ignacio Zaragoza.

The Spanish had ruled Mexico for centuries. In 1518, Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador, was selected to command an expedition from Spain that eventually brought about the fall of the Aztec Empire, bringing large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the Spanish King of Castile. In March, 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown.

Hernán Cortés

During the three centuries that followed, Mexico (called Espana Nueva or New Spain) grew to be the most important overseas province of the Spanish Empire.

In 1808, Spain was invaded by the Napoleonic armies, weakening Spanish control. (The Washington Post explains that “French Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of the famous general, rued his uncle’s decision to sell French holdings in North America to Thomas Jefferson more than 50 years earlier. He decided to topple the Mexican government and reestablish Parisian power in the Americas.”) On September 16, 1810, rebels in Mexico led by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla joined the French forces, and Mexico defeated Spain in 1821. Hidalgo became known as “the father of the country,” and September 16 is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day.

But internal dissension continued to roil the country, especially over the question of separation of church and state, and was exacerbated by war with the United States from 1846-1848. In 1858, Benito Juárez became President of Mexico until his death in 1872. Juárez identified as a “Liberal,” believing in the supremacy of civil power over the Catholic Church and part of the military; respect for law; and the de-personalization of political life.

Benito Juárez

In 1861, President Juárez issued a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for a period of two years, with the promise that after this time, payments would resume.

The English, Spanish, and French decided to invade Mexico in late 1861 and get payments immediately by whatever means necessary. The Spanish and English eventually withdrew, but the French refused to leave. Their intention was to create an Empire in Mexico under Napoleon III. According to the “National Geographic History Magazine” of May/June 2018:

French intentions [soon became] evident to all, and clearly had little to do with a default on a loan. Napoleon III wanted to topple the Juárez government to access Mexico’s resources and, in particular, to take advantage of the instability in the United States, then embroiled in its own civil war and unable to stop a French advance.”

Juárez created a new battalion commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, and ordered fortification of the city of Puebla, to protect Mexico City. As he predicted, French troops began advancing on Puebla by late April 1862.

General Ignacio Zaragoza

The French army was experienced, well-dressed and well-armed. The Mexicans, by contrast, had little combat experience, sparse supplies of weapons, and suffered from lack of rations. General Zaragoza had his men build trenches and breastworks, and placed them in strategic points throughout Puebla. The French were sighted on the morning of May 5.

The French began shelling the stone forts of the city, but they held up, and by midday half of their ammunition was gone, having made little impact. The French then advanced, but were repulsed by the Mexican fighters. An “Act of God” further aided the Mexicans: it started to storm. The French were forced to retreat, and Mexico had won the day.

Battle of Puebla

In spite of this astounding victory, the French took Puebla two years later, and the Mexican government was defeated. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church, upper-class conservatives, and some Indian communities welcomed and accepted the French, collaborating with them to install an Austrian archduke, Maximilian Ferdinand, as the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico.

It was not until June, 1867, with the help of funds from the United States, that Juárez was restored as president, and Maximilian was executed. In June 1867, Juárez also declared the date of the 1862 battle in Puebla a national holiday.

Along with Mexican Independence Day on September 16, Cinco de Mayo has become a popular time to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture, more so in the U.S. than in Mexico. As NBC news observed:

Recent Mexican immigrants are often surprised at what a huge thing Cinco de Mayo has become here [i.e., in the U.S.]. . . . . They do celebrate the holiday in Mexico, but it is only a big deal in Puebla.”

In fact, Los Angeles is host to what is routinely described as the largest Cinco de Mayo party in the world, a multiday event known as Fiesta Broadway. The scale of these festivities even dwarfs those in Puebla.

Cinco De Mayo parade ,May 5, 2013 in Chicago. (Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune)

Beginning in 2017, however, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo was curtailed in many places. In Philadelphia, for example, after immigration raids across the country and reports of White House deportation plans, the party was canceled. As the Washington Post reported:

Everyone’s pretty much afraid because they’re saying that, basically, ICE is just going to come in out of nowhere,’ resident Florencia Gonzalez told NBC 10 on a quiet, wet street that El Carnaval de Puebla used to fill in late April.”

An organizer, Edgar Ramirez, explained that up to 15,000 people have attended the festival in years past, but now, “We don’t want anything to happen to them.” Thus they unanimously decided to cancel. Similar cancelations plagued events in 2018.

February 28, 1787 – Thomas Jefferson Leaves Paris for a Three-Month Journey to Southern France and Northern Italy

Thomas Jefferson, serving as American Ambassador to France, lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789. While there, he sustained a broken wrist; according to the biographer Fawn M. Brodie, Jefferson was walking along the Seine on September 18, 1786 with Maria Cosway, a married woman with whom he was involved in an affair. For some reason, Jefferson tried to jump over a fence – ”whether to retrieve a blowing scarf in the wind or simply in sheer exuberant good spirits one can only guess,” writes Brodie – and he fell and apparently dislocated his right wrist. His doctors recommended the waters in Aix-en-Provence in France for healing.

Thomas Jefferson. London,1786. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;

In early 1787, when Mrs. Cosway was obliged to accompany her husband back to England, Jefferson took the opportunity to get his wrist treated and tour the area at the same time.

Thus on February 28, 1787, this day in history, the forty-four-year-old Thomas Jefferson left Paris for a three month, twelve-hundred-mile journey to southern France and northern Italy. As Jefferson wrote to James Monroe:

I am now about setting out on a journey to the South of France, one object of which is to try the mineral waters there for the restoration of my hand, but another is to visit all the seaports where we have trade, and to hunt up all the inconveniencies under which it labours, in order to get them rectified.”

The Monticello website reports that Jefferson traveled as a private citizen from Virginia, not as a diplomat. He paid his own way, traveled in his own carriage, and none of his Paris servants went with him. Preferring to travel alone and anonymously, he chose to hire valets in each town.

As Andrea Wulf observes in Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, Vintage Books, 2012:

Jefferson believed that every journey should be also educational, and for that purpose had compiled some instructions for American tourists in Europe. This included a list of ‘Objects of Attention for an American,’ with agriculture as number one.”

She writes further:

Following his own suggestions Jefferson had spent several months questioning farmers and gardeners along the way, trying to learn about their plants and agricultural methods. . ..After several months in France, Jefferson had gone on a three-week detour across the Alps to find out what kind of rice the Italians were growing, hoping that it would thrive in South Carolina. Under threat of the death penalty, he had smuggled ‘as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold.’”

In Italy, Jefferson sketched a machine for making macaroni

You can see Jefferson’s entire itinerary here.

You can also access his notes from his trip, online here.

December 3, 1368 – Birthdate of Charles VI of France

Charles VI was known both as “Charles the Well-loved” and later as “Charles the Mad,” since, beginning in his mid-twenties, he experienced bouts of psychosis. These fits of madness would recur for the rest of his life. Based on his symptoms, it is thought that he probably suffered from schizophrenia.


Charles VI’s reign was marked by the continuing war with the English known as the Hundred Years’ War. An early attempt at peace occurred in 1396 when Charles’ daughter, the not quite seven-year-old Isabella of Valois, was given in marriage to the 29-year-old Richard II of England. The marriage is known to have been “childless” but that assumes you don’t count the bride.

Today, we still have a remembrance of Charles VI in our daily lives, although most people aren’t aware of it. He gave sole rights for the aging of Roquefort cheese to the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and all Roquefort must still be aged in the caves there today.


And tell the truth: doesn’t it seem like, when you encounter Roquefort cheese, that it must date from around 1368?