The United States was a brand new country in the 18th century. The country that just fought for independence and got it. In Europe, at least in the realm of ideas, the 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, Liberty, Progress, Tolerance, Fraternity, Constitution, all with a thick French accent.
Ben Franklin arrived in Paris as America’s first ambassador in December 1776. In Europe, everything from art and religion to science and mathematics was questioned. The architecture was no exception. When Franklin arrived, Paris was not the “city of light” of later years but a city of poverty, with narrow, crooked streets and open sewers running down the middle. At the palace of Versailles, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, presided over a world of luxury. Franklin’s goal was to obtain French aid for the United States ao he spent all of his time with the aristocrats and intellectuals. Ironically, the political ideals that Franklin and the American Revolution represented later paved the way for the French Revolution in 1789.
Leopold von Ranke, a leading German historian, wrote in 1848: “By abandoning English constitutionalism and creating a new republic based on the rights of the individual, the North Americans introduced a new force in the world. Ideas spread most rapidly when they have found adequate concrete expression… Up to this point, the conviction had prevailed in Europe that monarchy best served the interests of the nation. Now the idea spread that the nation should govern itself. But only after a state had actually been formed on the basis of the theory of representation did the full significance of this idea become clear. All later revolutionary movements have this same goal…. This was the complete reversal of a principle. Until then, a king who ruled by the grace of God had been the center around which everything turned. Now the idea emerged that power should come from below…. These two principles are like two opposite poles, and it is the conflict between them that determines the course of the modern world. In Europe the conflict between them had not yet taken on concrete form; with the French Revolution it did.”
When Franklin went home in 1785, the America’s new ambassador to France arrived. His name was Thomas Jefferson. Later he became the one translating Enlightenment ideas it into new American architecture.
Jefferson knew very well that in language, religion, and in temperament, American colonists were not much different from English. However, the founding fathers envisioned a country with a unique path, a new culture that would be entirely American. Jefferson aimed to make people think themselves as Americans, not a colonial Englishmen. He advocated for the new measuring system, a new State, the new currency and the new shape of things to come. And, he made the new American architecture his artistic declaration of independence.
Rococo buildings that dominated Europe at his time. But since childhood, Jefferson was inspired by symmetry, clean lines and mathematical preciseness of Greek and Roman buildings. Jefferson was under the influence of Andrea Palladio, Julien David Le Roy, Roland Fréart and Antoine Desgodet. Because of Jefferson’s aesthetic taste, classical structures of Antiquity became a basis for new American architecture. Now we call is the “Jeffersonian architecture”. It is embodied in the design of Jefferson’s homes Monticello and Poplar Forest, the University of Virginia he founded, and designs he created for the homes of his friends and political allies.
Over a dozen private homes bearing his personal stamp still stand today. Even after Jefferson’s style went out of vogue, it continued to have an influence on building designs on the East Coast until the mid-20th century.