Thomas Jefferson, as the American Minister to the Court of Versailles, witnessed the opening chapter of the French Revolution in 1789. Later that year, he returned to the United States, assumed the position of Secretary of State, and became directly involved in American foreign policy. The French Revolution, continuing into the 1790s, would have an inescapable effect on Jefferson's career.
When the French stormed the prison called the "Bastille" and rebelled against the monarchy, Thomas Jefferson — along with many other Americans — generally praised the action of the revolutionaries, then subsequently hesitated, and finally recoiled from the events taking place in France. Other Americans, notably George Washington, were hesitant to support the French Revolution from the beginning. Washington, on assuming the office of president, focused on a policy of neutrality, aligning the United States with neither France nor Great Britain, her foremost rival.
The Marquis de Lafayette, a friend to both Washington and Jefferson, was among French reformers who found inspiration in American liberalism. In his library on the Rue de Bourbon, he displayed a picture frame, half of which contained the American 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."1 When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette — recognizing the indebtedness of the French Revolution to the American example — sent the key of the former prison to President Washington.
Thomas Jefferson saw the French 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 1776.2 Jefferson thought that the French experiment would confirm the American revolution and possibly spread its ideals 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 of the Citizen, it was supposed to be adaptable to any country. Jefferson's political advice during this period was that Louis XVI should issue a charter of rights — a modest proposal that would have left the monarchy intact.3
Jefferson returned from France late in 1789 to become Washington's Secretary of State. He was at this time more enthusiastic about the French Revolution than was the current French minister to America, Jean Baptiste de Ternant. Jefferson's rhetoric soon became more heated, largely as a symbolic aspect of his domestic battles with Alexander 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'sDiscourse on Davila, a work in which Adams denounces France's experiments with freedom.
Because international news reports came slowly to America, great misunderstandings developed on all sides of the debate. In 1792, the news that France had declared war on a European 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, 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, however, deleted "our" from one of Jefferson's documents addressed to France.) The execution of aristocrats by popular tribunals led to nervous arguments in America and the famous letter in which Jefferson argued that glorious ends justified apocalyptic means: "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."4
On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed in France, to the shock of many supporters of the revolution. (Jefferson later denounced the atrocities of Robespierre; he wrote that he would have voted for removing the king but not for killing him.)5 By the end of the year, Jefferson's own feelings about revolutionary France had cooled, largely because of the embarrassing efforts of Edmond Charles Genet to undermine Washington's neutrality policy — efforts Jefferson thought might discredit him and his allies.
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 demoralised the nations of the world, and destroyed, and is yet to destroy millions and millions of it’s inhabitants."6
The notorious XYZ Affair, whereby Talleyrand and the French Directory attempted to exact tribute from American diplomats, further alienated Jefferson from the Jacobins' successors. Americans began to realize that revolution meant one thing in a country deposing its ruler and another in colonies seceding from an empire.