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French Revolution

Fall of Bastille July 14 1789

After succeeding Benjamin Franklin as American minister at Versailles, witnessing the first chapter of the French Revolution[1], and conducting foreign affairs as Secretary of State, Jefferson could not escape the immediate effects the French Revolution had on his career. Like most Americans, when the French rebelled against Louis XVI, he generally praised their action, hesitated over it, and finally recoiled from it.

Some Americans, notably George Washington, never forgot that the motive of King Louis XVI in sending officers to serve in the American Revolution was not devotion to anti-monarchical principles but a plan to regain territory that had been lost to England after the Seven Years War. For this reason, Washington sought to keep America nonaligned between England and France by maintaining a policy of neutrality. French commercial losses suffered during the war strained diplomatic relations, but Alexander Hamilton's efforts to repay on a regular basis the debts incurred to France helped establish cordiality. Many Frenchmen found models for French social reform in American institutions. Lafayette was a pivotal figure in this enchantment with liberal ideals. In his library on the Rue de Bourbon, he displayed a picture frame, half of which contained the Declaration of Independence, and the other half empty. When asked about the empty half, Lafayette replied that it would hold the "French declaration of rights."[2]

Jefferson saw the stirrings of discontent with the established church and state as natural consequences of the example America had set in its state and federal constitutions. Even if Jefferson did not at first see America as the torchbearer of liberty to the world, his experience in France gradually convinced him of the world-ranging implications of the political creed he penned in the Declaration of Independence in 1776.[3] When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette-recognizing the indebtedness of the French Revolution to Americans-sent the key of that prison to Washington. Jefferson, who had recently returned from France to become Secretary of State (Lafayette was at this farewell dinner in Paris), was actually more enthusiastic about the revolution than was France's minister to America, Jean Baptiste de Ternant. Jefferson thought the French experiment would confirm the American one and possibly spread to other parts of the world. When the National Assembly in France, conscious of the model offered by the Declaration of Independence, issued Lafayette's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, it was supposed to be adaptable to any country. Jefferson's political advice at this time was to persuade Louis XVI to issue a charter of rights-a modest proposal that would have left the monarchy intact.

Only after his return to America in 1789 did Jefferson's rhetoric about the revolution become more heated, largely as a symbolic aspect of his larger domestic battles with Hamilton, whom Jefferson saw as an anglophile. Hamilton, like Jefferson, thought French republicanism would spread to other countries, but he thought the prospect to be destabilizing. He warned Washington that any new government in France would not have the same claim upon America as had the one that actually supplied help to America in its time of crisis. Jefferson argued that people can alter their form of government without giving up prior claims to other nations. Meanwhile, by 1790 a propaganda war had broken out over the future of the French Revolution. Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke's defense of ancient establishments in Reflections on the Revolution in France. Jefferson recommended Paine's book to its American publisher as an answer to the controversy that had arisen in America over the French Revolution. When Jefferson's recommendation was published, he had to apologize for what was taken to be an attack on Vice-President John Adams' Discourse on Davila, a work in which Adam's denounces France's experiments with freedom.

Because reports of events came slowly to America, there were great misunderstandings on all sides of the debate. In 1792, the news that France had declared war on the alliance of kings led Jefferson to believe that France had been forced to take pre-emptive steps. He was not aware that Lafayette had concluded that his government was out of control. While leading French troops against the Austrians, Marquis de Lafayette had defected from the army. His letters from jail posed delicate problems for an administration that wanted to help an old ally without committing America to either of the sides Lafayette had already taken. Jefferson pinned his hopes on Brissot de Warville, a leader of the Girondin faction, who spoke of "our" revolutions and republics (Washington deleted "our" from one of Jefferson's documents addressed to France, however.) The execution of aristocrats by popular tribunals led to nervous arguments in America and Jefferson's famous letter on which he falls into arguing that the revolution's glorious ends justified apocalyptic means: "My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to the cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & Eve left in every country, & left free, it would be better than as it now is."[4]

When Jefferson wrote these words, he did not know that Louis XVI had been executed on January 21, 1793. By the end of the year, Jefferson's feelings about revolutionary France had cooled, mainly because of the embarrassing efforts of Genet to undermine Washington's neutrality policy-efforts Jefferson thought might discredit him and his allies. Jefferson later denounced the atrocities of Robespierre; he wrote that he would have voted for removing the king but not for killing him. The notorious XYZ Affair, whereby Talleyrand and the French Directory attempted to exact tribute from American diplomats, further alienated him from the Jacobins' successors. Thomas Paine had even tried to arrange to have Louis XVI conducted into exile in America. Americans began to realize that revolution meant one thing in a country deposing its ruler and another in colonies seceding from an empire. The death of the king raised the stakes of this revolution, for its sympathizers as well as its participants. Jefferson concluded that the French people were not yet "virtuous" enough to accept a sudden republicanism after so many years of superstition and despotism and that Louis XVI could have been retained as a limited monarch, thus staving off "those enormities which demoralized the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy, millions and millions of its inhabitants."[5]


  1. This article is based on RLB, Monticello Research Report, December 1996.
  2. Olivier Bernier, Lafayette: Hero of Two Worlds, (New York: Dutton, Inc., 1983), 149.
  3. See this point cogently argued in Merrill Peterson, "Jefferson and the French Revolution," The Tocqueville Review 9(1987/1988):15-25.
  4. Jefferson to William Short, January 3, 1793. Peterson, Jefferson Writings, 1004.
  5. Thomas Jefferson, "Autobiography," Peterson, Jefferson Writings, 93.

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