Thomas Jefferson, as the American Minister to the Court of Versailles, witnessed the opening chapters of the French Revolution in the late 1780s. In September 1789, he returned to the United States, but, assuming the position of Secretary of State, he continued his involvement in American foreign policy. The French Revolution, continuing into the 1790s, would have an ongoing effect on Jefferson's career.
Thomas Jefferson had been living abroad for four years when political unrest began to heighten in France. Throughout 1788, he watched events unfold and described the state of affairs with optimism, noting the bond between America and its Revolutionary War ally, France: "the nation has been awaked by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading, and they will not retrograde." To James Madison, Jefferson expressed the cautious hope that the French were "advancing to a limited, moderate government, in which the people will have a good share."
Acknowledging his support for the revolutionary cause, Jefferson's French friends — the aristocratic reformers — turned to him for advice. In the spring of 1789, the Marquis de Lafayette suggested that Jefferson outline his recommendations for them in written form. The latter accordingly drafted a "charter of rights" that might be issued by Louis XVI. The proposal — an accommodation among the king, the nobility, and "the commons" — was intended as an introductory step toward a constitutional monarchy; but nothing came of Jefferson's suggested compromise, a "lamentable error" from his point of view.
Throughout the spring, Jefferson attended sessions of the Estates General and listened to the debates. "[T]hose of the Noblesse were impassioned and tempestuous," he remembered, and "the debates of the Commons were temperately rational and inflexibly firm." Early in July 1789, Lafayette presented the newly-formed "National Assembly" with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen — a document that he had produced with the help of his friend Jefferson. Events were moving at a rapid pace.
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.
When French revolutionaries violently stormed the "Bastille" in mid-July, Jefferson was taken aback by the "astonishing train of events." By August, however, he was ready to defend the actions of the mob, noting that he had observed their behavior daily "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." He was certain too that the French National Assembly had proceeded through adversity with "firmness and wisdom," and he maintained "the highest confidence" in the Assembly's ability to govern. Just as the revolutionaries were becoming more radical, Jefferson was becoming more radical as well.
Late in August, Lafayette made a desperate appeal to Jefferson: "I Beg for liberty’s sake You will Breack Every Engagement to Give us a dinner to Morrow Wenesday. We shall Be some Members of the National Assembly — eight of us whom I want to Coalize as Being the only Means to prevent a total dissolution and a civil war." Jefferson described himself as a "silent witness" to the discussions that took place in his own dining room. To the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he felt obliged to describe the circumstances: "I ... explained to him with truth and candor how ... my house had been made the scene of conferences of such a character...he earnestly wished I would habitually assist at such conferences, being sure I should be useful in moderating the warmer spirits, and promoting a wholesome and practicable reformation only."
Jefferson's direct "assistance" quickly came to an end. He left Paris in September 1789, returned to the United States for what he anticipated to be a short visit, and — to his own surprise — was appointed as George Washington's Secretary of State. He regretted leaving his French friends, but welcomed the further opportunity of "cementing the friendship" between his own country and theirs. "Be assured," he wrote to a French correspondent, "that to do this is the first wish of my heart...You have had some checks, some horrors since I left you. But the way to heaven, you know, has always been said to be strewed with thorns."
Jefferson returned to the United States when American support for the French Revolution seemed nearly unanimous. John Adams, the Vice President and one of Jefferson's good friends, was an exception and voiced early concerns with the progress of events in France. In 1791, Jefferson supported the publication of Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, a pamphlet supporting the Revolution; in the process, he offended Adams, whose own writings took an opposite point of view. The disagreement between two prominent men brought the ideological issues of the French Revolution into American politics.
When the execution of French aristocrats escalated in 1792, Jefferson remained committed to the cause of revolution: "My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is."
With the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793, and the French declaration of war against England ten days later, American politicians began openly to split into two camps — Federalists, who were horrified by the violence in France, and Republicans, who applauded the end of a despotic French monarchy. Later, as the French Reign of Terror progressed, Jefferson denounced the atrocities of Robespierre and other French radicals, but he continued his support for and remained committed to the success of the French Revolution.
In April 1793, Washington submitted to his cabinet a set of "Questions on Neutrality and the Alliance with France." The President was particularly concerned about treaties made between the United States and France in 1778. In the war between France and England, would the treaty of alliance bind the United States to the French cause? Noting that proceedings in France had been "sullied by crimes and extravagancies," Alexander Hamilton contended that the changed situation in France "would render a future connection detrimental or dangerous," and that, given the change in government, the United States had the right "to declare the connection dissolved." Jefferson argued that treaties made with France should be honored, though the French government had altered in form since the treaties were made. Both Hamilton and Jefferson favored a policy of neutrality, but differed on the way that neutrality should be handled: Hamilton favored a clear proclamation of neutrality; Jefferson preferred to reserve neutrality as a bargaining tool when dealing with foreign powers.
On April 22, President Washington issued the so-called "Neutrality Proclamation." Avoiding use of the word "neutrality," Washington pledged "a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers" in Europe. Simultaneous with the proclamation, Edmond Charles Genet, the new French minister to the United States, arrived in America. He landed in South Carolina to the delight of American Francophiles and was welcomed with fanfare from Charleston to Philadelphia. The acclaim went to Genêt's head and, from his earliest arrival, he proceeded to enlist American citizens in a variety of "unneutral" activities. Even Jefferson was appalled by Genêt's conduct: "Never, in my opinion, was so calamitous an appointment made, as that of the present minister of F. here. Hotheaded, all imagination, no judgment, passionate, disrespectful...urging the most unseasonable and groundless propositions, and in the most dictatorial style &c. &c. &c." By August, with pressure growing on multiple fronts, Secretary of State Jefferson demanded the recall of "Citizen" Genêt.
Even before the recall of Genêt, Thomas Jefferson had had enough of the ongoing arguments in Philadelphia. On July 31, 1793, he notified President Washington of his desire "to retire to scenes of greater tranquility." Jefferson remained in office until the end of the year and then returned to Monticello, where he said he had "settled at home as a farmer."
In later life, Jefferson concluded that the French people had not been ready for the leap from "despotism to freedom," and that if Louis XVI had issued a declaration of rights but been retained as a limited monarch, the French would have avoided "those enormities which demoralised the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy millions and millions of it’s inhabitants."
- Nancy Verell, 11/8/2018; rev. 1/3/19
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