On May 17, 1784, the Confederation Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson as a Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Versailles, directing him to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in Paris where he would eventually become the senior Minister in France. When Jefferson sailed for France on July 5, 1784, aboard the merchant ship Ceres, his task was to promote American interests, not only in France but throughout Europe. When he returned to America aboard the merchant ship Clermont on November 23, 1789, Jefferson’s service as Minister Plenipotentiary had been largely disappointing in its diplomatic impact. His time abroad, however, had had a profound impact on his approach to art, music, architecture, food, and wine, and the international experience had broadened his outlook on science and politics, expanded his friendships, and molded his manners. Jefferson returned home a man transformed from Jefferson the Virginian into Jefferson the man of the world, envisioning an America true to its founding principles of self-government while rivalling the artistic, scientific, and cultural achievements of Europe.
Following his appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary in May 1784, Jefferson spent the six weeks prior to his departure arranging his personal affairs and gathering information about America’s export products. Sailing from Boston with his daughter Martha and enslaved servant James Hemings, Jefferson left his daughters Maria and Lucy in the care of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Wayles Eppes, and his precarious finances in the hands of his friend Nicholas Lewis. Arriving in Paris on August 6, 1784, Jefferson added American diplomat William Short and maître d’hôtel Adrien Petit to his household. First settling at the Hôtel de Landron, Jefferson moved to the more accommodating Hôtel de Langeac.
Reunited with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, Jefferson devoted himself to his role in diplomacy and consular affairs, meeting his French and European counterparts, assisting Americans abroad, and developing a deep friendship with Abigail Adams who observed “he is one of the choice ones of the Earth.” In navigating the protocols and personalities at the Court of Versailles and Parisian salons, Jefferson benefited from the advice of old friends from the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette and Philip Mazzei, prompting Thomas Shippen, an American travelling in Europe, to remark, “I observed that although Mr. Jefferson was the plainest man in the room, and the most destitute of ribbands crosses and other insignia of rank that he was most courted and most attended to (even by the Courtiers themselves) of the whole Diplomatic corps—” Jefferson found himself impressed by the decorum of the international diplomatic corps he encountered and their ability, no matter the controversy at hand, to maintain civil discourse. Reflecting on the rough and tumble nature of American politics, Jefferson remarked, “I would wish [my] countrymen to adopt just so much of European politeness as to be ready [to] make all those little sacrifices of self which really render European manners amiable, and relieve society from the disagreeable scenes to which rudeness often exposes it.”
Despite his mastery of diplomacy and Lafayette’s unceasing support at the Court of Versailles, Jefferson’s five years as Minister Plenipotentiary produced only two treaties, one with Prussia in 1785 and one with Morocco in 1786, and a single consular agreement with France in 1789. America’s weak central government under the Articles of Confederation and its then novel idea of free trade as opposed to Europe’s powerful monarchies and their preference for mercantilist trade created an impasse Jefferson was unable to resolve. In France, the corrupt Ferme Générale monopolized trade with individual American merchants and had no interest in a broad trade treaty that would diminish their control over American exports. Complicating matters, the American government struggled to pay off French loans to fund the American Revolution, stopping interest payments in 1785 and defaulting on further installments in 1787, such that the Court of Versailles saw little to be gained from lowering trade barriers between the two countries. Jefferson and Adams both made attempts to deal with the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Lacking an ocean going navy and no longer protected by Britain, American ships and citizens were seized at will by the Barbary pirates who demanded ransoms and steep tribute to free them. Successfully negotiating a treaty with Morocco but meeting with no success with Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, Jefferson concluded that only war would stop their incursions. As President, he initiated the Barbary War of 1801-1805 leading to the defeat of the Barbary pirates by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
Undeterred by the lack of progress in formal treaty making, Jefferson sought other means to advance political and economic support for the new American nation. In his dealings with the French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes and his successor, the Comte de Montmorin, Jefferson forcefully promoted America’s commercial interests, advocating particularly for tobacco and whale oil, the primary export products of that time. In 1786, Jefferson convinced Vergennes to establish an American Committee to improve trade and diminish the influence of the Ferme Générale. Enlisting Lafayette and Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours to serve as members, Jefferson’s efforts opened the tobacco market to more American producers and ended the ban on imports of American whale oil.
Jefferson took the opportunity of his diplomatic posting in France to immerse himself in the sights, culture, and people of Paris and Western Europe, remarking, “Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words.” These experiences made a profound impact, transforming his thought and taste in virtually every subject that interested him, including:
Jefferson’s encounters with the women he met in Paris are well documented. His correspondence reveals that he met an intellectual equal in Abigail Adams and a horticulture enthusiast in Madame de Tessé, and that he developed a brief infatuation with Maria Cosway. Paris also marked the beginning of Jefferson’s connection with enslaved Sally Hemings, with whom he would father at least four children. A single father, his eldest daughter Martha accompanied him to Paris where she was educated at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont. Following the death of his youngest daughter Lucy in Virginia, Jefferson arranged for his daughter Mary to travel from Virginia to France in the company of Sally Hemings.
Throughout his tenure as an American diplomat in Europe, Jefferson maintained a keen interest in political events in the United States. In correspondence with James Madison, he closely followed the creation of the U.S. Constitution, offering his advice and opinions on crafting the document. Although generally supportive of Madison’s efforts, Jefferson expressed grave concern that, without a Bill of Rights, the Constitution was fatally flawed and that enabling the President and members of Congress to stand for reelection would risk the creation of officeholders for life. Over time Madison came around to Jefferson’s point of view and drafted the Bill of Rights, amending the Constitution to formally include guarantees of personal freedoms and rights.
Witness to the onset of the French Revolution, Jefferson enthusiastically supported the Marquis de Lafayette and the reform minded aristocrats who hoped France would evolve into a constitutional monarchy. Following the storming of the Bastille, Jefferson became directly involved in revolutionary activity, helping Lafayette draft a declaration of rights and offering his residence for meetings of revolutionary leaders. When Jefferson returned to America in the fall of 1789, he departed with the expectation that he would return to France and continue his efforts to support a peaceful transition of power from monarchy to republic.
Although his appointment as Secretary of State ended both his service representing America’s interests abroad and his foreign travels, Jefferson’s eventful five years as Minister to the Court of Versailles revolutionized his thinking in virtually all aspects of his life. The 86 crates of fine art, furniture, cooking utensils, dinner services, clocks, books, and scientific instruments Jefferson brought back from France found their way to Monticello, where Jefferson would remodel his home in the French neoclassical style and transform the mountaintop into an American version of an English pleasure garden.
- David Thorson, 6/13/20
Meachum, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
Nolan, Cathal J. Notable U.S. Ambassadors Since 1775: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport: Greenwood Publishing, 1997.
Perkins, Bradford. The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
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