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Enslaved to a Founding Father, She Sought Freedom in France

By December 5, 2021No Comments
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Martha S. Jones

Published in The New York Times.

Despite its many markers of memory there are some stories about the past that Paris does not tell. I am an African American historian who spends each summer in Paris with family. Last June, as pandemic shutdowns lifted, guests arrived, eager to discover city highlights and get beyond the guidebooks. Conditions weren’t ideal, but when they asked me to share something about the city’s history, I invited them to discover how France and the United States were long ago bound together in the brutality of trans-Atlantic slavery.

I introduced my visitors to an enslaved woman whom I know by only one name, Abigail. Brought from the United States to Paris by one of America’s founders, John Jay, she died there in a failed attempt to win her liberty.

The city’s markers of memory — lieux des memoires — readily tell the story of men like Jay who finalized the terms of freedom for the new United States there in 1783. He was among the men who famously signed the Treaty of Paris that September, settling the American Revolutionary War. Still, Abigail’s story until today remains easy to overlook.

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.

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Credit: Cedrine Scheidig for The New York Times

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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.

Abigail comes to us refracted through the concerns of those who conspired to keep her bound to the Jay family, and recovering her distinct voice is difficult to accomplish through records that she, as an enslaved woman, had little hand in constructing. Still, to give a fuller accounting of our nation’s founding and the many early Americans who contributed to it, I have collected small shards of the past that bring Abigail more clearly into view. As a historian, I worry that I won’t ever learn enough about her, and still am sure that Abigail along with John Jay must be remembered.

Much of what we know about Abigail’s fateful 18 months in Paris comes from the surviving letters of John Jay, Benjamin Franklin and their families as they worked to thwart her efforts to get free. Missives were passed between households in the villages of Passy and Chaillot, tiny enclaves bordering Paris. Letters carried news from Paris to London, where Jay attended to his health and family business.

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Credit: Cedrine Scheidig for The New York Times

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Abigail had been bound to the Jay family since at least 1776, though nothing in that year’s Declaration of Independence changed her status. The New York Slavery Records Index reports how John Jay’s father and grandfather invested in the slave trade to New York, and John Jay himself held at least 17 people over his lifetime. In 1779, Abigail found herself along on a journey that intersected with old slave-trading routes, accompanying the Jay household when it departed for Europe.

Their party stopped over in Martinique, a French Caribbean sugar colony driven by enslaved labor, where Jay purchased a boy named Benoit, who accompanied him to Jay’s diplomatic station in Madrid, the onetime capital of Spain’s slaveholding empire. By 1782, the Jays were on their way to Paris, the hub of an empire in which the slave trade and a ruthless plantation regime filled the coffers of families in French port cities. Slavery knit together the Americas and Europe with casual yet callous disregard in the 18th century.

When Jay headed to London in October 1783, his wife, Sarah, and nephew Peter Jay Munro managed the family’s affairs. Abigail attended Mrs. Jay, especially following her birth of three children far from home. Sarah Jay wrote appreciatively to her mother: “The attention & proofs of fidelity which we have receiv’d from Abbe, demand, & ever shall have my acknowledgments, you can hardly imagine how useful she is to us.”

In Paris, isolation imposed a special strain on Abigail. She was the only enslaved person to accompany the Jays from America, made too few friends, and longed for her own loved ones back across the Atlantic. Only later, in 1784, would James Hemings arrive in Paris, held enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. James’s sister Sally followed in 1787, but Abigail, having died in 1783, never had an opportunity to meet up with these American slaves who also lived in Paris.

In spring 1783, Mrs. Jay wrote tellingly to her own sister Kitty: “Abbe is well & would be glad to know if she is mistress of a husband still.” Abigail, we learn, was far from someone most dear to her, a husband, and she worried that those ties might have frayed during years spent apart.

Nothing in the surviving records describes Abigail; we’re left to imagine her. Was she tall or short, slight or round, dark or light? Did she walk with assurance, or was she wary much of the time? We do not know her age. Still, we can say how she felt. By summer 1783, Abigail was unwell. Mrs. Jay reported that a toothache and rheumatism kept her confined much of the time. But her troubles were not only those of the body. Abigail was unsettled in her mind. Perhaps it was too many years away from friends and family. Or, Mrs. Jay suggested, she might have become jealous of a French member of the household staff or been influenced by an “English” washerwoman who enticed her with the promise of wages in exchange for work. In Paris, slavery’s bonds loosened just enough to permit Abigail to rethink her future.

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Credit: Cedrine Scheidig for The New York Times

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It was late October when Abigail determined to test slavery’s hold on her and headed onto the streets of Paris not intending to return. At Mrs. Jay’s request, William Temple Franklin, companion to his grandfather Benjamin Franklin, sought the assistance of Paris’s Lieutenant of Police Jean-Charles-Pierre Lenoir by a lettre de cachet, a request sometimes used to discipline household members deemed out of step. The police soon found Abigail in the company of the same washerwoman who had promised to pay her wages, and they took her to the Hôtel de la Force, a city jail whose women’s quarters were called La Petite Force. Mrs. Jay wrote to her husband, worried about Abigail’s health were she to remain there. Lenoir assured she could be detained indefinitely if the Jays agreed to pay a modest amount for Abigail’s meals. Peter Jay Munro explained to his aunt that during his visits with Abigail, she refused to return to the family’s house unless she was promised passage back to America.

John Jay dismissed Abigail’s concerns and wrote to Munro, encouraging that she be coerced: “I think it would be best to postpone your visit to the Hotel de la Force for some weeks.” Jay believed Munro’s calls “would then probably be more gratefully received,” and then went on to belittle Abigail, remarking, “Little minds cannot bear attentions & to Persons of that Class they should rather be granted than offered.” Jay advised that the family should follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice and let Abigail remain in jail for a longer time; Franklin had suggested 15 to 20 days of confinement would have the desired effect. It was a form of discipline intended to bend Abigail’s will.

Over the coming weeks, winter approached while Abigail remained confined and her health took a grave turn. The young woman’s disposition “hardened,” and a physical malady sent her to the infirmary. Abigail then turned “penitent,” Peter Jay Munro reported, and she asked to return to the Jays’ home in France. William Temple Franklin arranged for her release and Mrs. Jay made a note that he had fronted 60 livres, likely the charge for Abigail’s meals, to secure her return. Back at the Jay residence, Abigail almost immediately took to her bed. “We hope she’ll recover,” Sarah Jay wrote to her husband. But within two weeks, Abigail was dead. What happened then, neither the Jay nor the Franklin family letters confess.

I hoped that signs of Abigail’s time in Paris had survived. Could I find anything like a monument to her? I started looking where she had lived, the villages of Passy and Chaillot. Perhaps she had been buried there. Today the area is fashionable, with streets lined by high-end boutiques. A rare-book shop, Anne Lamort Livres Anciens, on the rue Benjamin-Franklin, displayed a copy of Jean-Paul Marat’s 1792 “Les Chaînes de L’Esclavage” (“The Chains of Slavery”) in its front window, almost as if to encourage my quest. It’s just a short walk to the Trocadero, which is today a crossroads for six major boulevards, graced by fountains, manicured gardens and the neo-Classical Palais de Chaillot, built in 1937 to anchor the city’s Exposition Internationale. I glimpsed a postcard-perfect view of the Eiffel Tower in the openings between buildings erected during the era of Baron Haussmann, who remade the cityscape in the mid-19th century in his signature style.

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Credit: Cedrine Scheidig for The New York Times

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Perhaps Abigail was buried nearby. I headed to the site of Passy’s 18th-century cemetery, along the narrow rue de l’Annonciation where a few of the one- and two-story elite homes of Abigail’s time still stand, painted now in muted pastels and secured by walls and gates. The street is busy with cafe chatter and shoppers darting in and out on errands. Things quieted when I turned onto rue Lekain, where Passy’s residents were at one time laid to rest. There is no sign now of that early cemetery. Those buried there in the 18th century were long ago reinterred or had their bones stored underground in the city’s catacombs.

Perhaps there were clues about the weeks of Abigail’s detention in the records at the archives of the Préfecture de Police. A few summers ago, I searched through ancient lettres de cachet  including private requests for the detention of household members — preserved in rooms set aside in a working police precinct. It’s an imposing place, constructed from late 20th-century steel and iron, with small windows that heighten the penal feel. I sifted through hundreds of records that recount the lives of the many unfortunates caught in contests over their wayward conduct — husbands versus wives, parents against children and masters versus servants — many of whom landed in the cells of places like the Hôtel de la Force. Despite a day spent turning dusty, fragile pages from the 1780s, I found not a single document bearing Abigail’s name. Even that might have been a monument of sorts to her ordeal.

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Credit: Cedrine Scheidig for The New York Times

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Finding some trace of Abigail at the site where she was detained, La Petite Force, proved more promising. One wall of the jail remains standing where rue Pavée and rue Malher meet in the Marais neighborhood. I wended through the narrow streets, dodging the outdoor cafes that have taken over many sidewalks during the pandemic. Then, looking up, I recognized the outline of the wall that marked the northernmost boundary of the jail. I learned that the place had begun as the home of Henri-Jacques Nompar de Caumont, the Duke de la Force. When he gave it over to the city, it built there a model for penal reform with windows, separate quarters for women, and an infirmary, all of which Abigail came to know.

On one side of the jail’s 18th-century wall still stands the Hôtel de Lamoignon, today’s Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. I headed there to get a better look at its courtyard, only to meet up with a reference librarian who was happy to search their digital collection for images of La Petite Force. There it was, on her screen: three stories of stone and iron, a gated archway for an entrance. I sat for a long moment in the quiet reception area of the library, imagining Abigail: arriving there, insisting upon staying and finally falling fatally ill.

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Credit: Cedrine Scheidig for The New York Times

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Paris has no true monument to Abigail, no place that calls to mind an American slave who died there at the advent of American freedom. Nearly all signs of her short and precarious life were long ago lost or definitively erased. It’s a long walk, but I knew I had to make one final stop: the Jardin du Luxembourg, where the roses were in bloom.

There, just behind the meeting place of France’s national senate, stands a tribute to the enslaved people of France who lived and died in bondage, an experience that the nation declared a crime against humanity in the 2001 Law for the Recognition of the Slave Trade and Slavery, known by the name of its champion, Christiane Taubira, as the Taubira Law. At this site, each May 10, France pays tribute to the enslaved. Words etched in a granite monument, installed in 2011, credit enslaved people, by their struggle and quest for dignity, with laying a foundation for the French republic’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Here, enslaved people are honored as among France’s founders.

In Paris, for Abigail, and for others bound by American founders during their mission for freedom, a similar tribute feels long overdue. For now, this tour of Abigail’s Paris will have to suffice.

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