In the late 1780s, Jefferson witnessed first-hand the beginnings of the French Revolution and what would become the eventual overthrow of King Louis XVI and the French monarchy. Monticello Guide Olivia Brown looks at Jefferson's reaction to this momentous event and the small but significant role he played in it.


Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Olivia Brown: On May 17 1784, the Confederation Congress of the United States appointed Thomas Jefferson as a Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles under the French King, Louis XVI. He was to travel to France where he would join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two men with whom Jefferson had worked closely on the Declaration of Independence. By July 5 of the same year, Jefferson had boarded the merchant ship Ceres and was bound for Europe. The next five years of his life, not only influenced much of his later politics, but also his views on art, music, food, and architecture. Jefferson's term as Minister to France also happened to coincide with the tumultuous years leading up to France's own revolution.

In the late 1780s, Jefferson witnessed first-hand the beginnings of the French Revolution and what would become the eventual overthrow of King Louis XVI and the French monarchy. Political unrest specifically escalated throughout 1788 when the seeds of revolution began to grow. Rapid population growth, paired with significant crop failures, led to widespread hunger, poverty, and social inequality. These factors combined to create a general distaste among the common French people for what was known as the Ancien Régime, or the "old rule."

With these realities surrounding him in France, Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively to his dear friend James Madison, and expressed his views on revolution and how it could convey the will of the people. In a letter from January 30, 1787, Jefferson wrote of three types of government: the first was no government whatsoever; the second was a government dictated by the will of the people; and the third was a government of force. Under the second type of government, one run by the people, Jefferson believed there could be a "precious degree of liberty and happiness." In reality, he also knew there wouldn't always be success. When the "evils," as he termed them, of a government became too much, it was the job of the people to overthrow it. Shays' Rebellion, an armed rebellion in Western Massachusetts in 1787 that stemmed from an increase in taxes intended to help pay the American debt, provoked Jefferson to muse further on the ideas of revolution. Having lived through the American Revolution when the American people were wholly unrepresented in England, and instead living in an absolute monarchy, Jefferson eventually responded to Madison, "I hold it that a little rebellion now, and then is a good thing and is necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." These words have been used for over 200 years and represent not just some of the events in the United States at the time, but also those happening around Jefferson in France.

The French Revolution was not, however, an insular event, developing on its own accord. Jefferson believed the American Revolution had helped to sow the seeds of discord among the French people. To George Washington, he wrote, "The nation has been awaked by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading, and they will not retrograde."

In words and often in sentiment, Jefferson supported the people of France and their goal for what he called a "moderate government in which the people will have a good share." In his political role, however, Jefferson was spending time among royals and aristocrats at the court of Versailles, though some of the nobles were committed reformers as well. In particular, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of Jefferson's close friends, turned to him as a sounding board for how to address the crises facing French society. Lafayette asked for Jefferson suggestions, and Jefferson drafted what he called "a charter of rights" that he hoped could exist as a compromise between the King and the people of France. Nothing came of this charter though, and he later referred to this as a "lamentable error."

It was after this, during the spring of 1789, when Jefferson attended sessions of the Estates General, an assembly of the three "estates" of France: the First Estate represented by the clergy, the Second Estate represented by the nobility, and the Third Estate represented by the common people. Jefferson witnessed debates among the three estates, calling those of the nobility "impassioned and tempestuous," while those of the common people were "temperately rational and inflexibly firm." In June 1789, the Third Estate separated itself and became the new National Assembly. Less than one month later, as the National Assembly aimed to create a new French Constitution, Lafayette presented the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He drafted this Declaration with the help of Thomas Jefferson, and it became a statement of values inspired by the Enlightenment and Jefferson's own Declaration of American Independence. The French Revolution accelerated after this, and debates from the Estates General and the new National Assembly began to move into the streets of Paris by the summer of 1789.

On July 14, 1789, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, a medieval fortress and political prison. The Bastille stood as a symbol of royal authority at the center of Paris. Three days after this pivotal moment, Jefferson expressed his own views in a letter to Richard Price, a Reverend and political reformer from Wales. He spoke of the "open insurrection" in Paris and deemed the storming of the Bastille and all that followed it an "astonishing train of events." His recollections of the unrest did not clearly lean towards support or rejection. As the summer months wore on and a return to the United States approached, Jefferson did begin to defend the actions of the common people of France who had risen up to establish their own government. In an early August letter, Jefferson wrote "I have been thro' it daily, have observed the mobs with my own eyes in order to be satisfied of their objects, and declare to you that I saw so plainly the legitimacy of them."

Jefferson hoped the French would be as successful as his own country. He wrote, "the National Assembly have now as clean a canvas to work on here as we had in America. Such has been the firmness and wisdom of their proceedings in moments of adversity as well as prosperity, but I have the highest confidence that they will use their power justly." The motto of the French Revolution, "Liberté, Unité, Egalité," translated as, "Liberty, Unity, Equality," were not all too different from the rights of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," or the words, "All men are created equal." Words that Jefferson had penned over a decade before.

After a tumultuous summer living in Paris in 1789, Jefferson returned to the United States in September, for what he believed was going to be a short trip, but on his arrival in Norfolk, Virginia, he read news of his appointment as first Secretary of State of the new United States under its first President George Washington. Jefferson never returned to France, and instead watched from afar as the "retrograde" he feared took hold in France.

Upon his 1789 return to the United States, there was initially widespread support for the French Revolution, but as the Revolution began to escalate, specifically with violence and mass executions, American support wavered as well. Jefferson's hope for forward progress was proving, unfortunately, too optimistic for the reality of what happened. Though the French Revolution took a radical turn, Jefferson at first stood by the cause and reacted angrily to others' criticism. He wrote, "My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would've seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." What continued - known today as the Reign of Terror perpetrated by Maximilien Robespierre - was months of massacre violence, and extremism. By 1794, Jefferson had renounced the violence of Robespierre and the Terror as a whole. From Monticello, he wrote, "I feel alive to nothing in that line but the success of the French Revolution. I sincerely rejoice therefore in the successes you announce on their part against their combined enemies and I cannot help hoping that the execution of Robespierre and his blood thirsty satellites is a proof of their return to that moderation which their best friends had feared had not been always observed."

His vested interest in French politics as Minister and then Secretary of State moved from support for rebellion, to the rejection of Robespierre's extremism, back to a hope for republican ideals. Alas, Jefferson's optimism once more did not prevail. France first began its retrograde into the Terror, but Jefferson would then live to see the reign of Napoleon, the continental war between the French and British, and an eventual reinstitution of the French monarchy, albeit with greater limitations than before.

 This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

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