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.1 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.2 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 ma√Ætre d’h√¥telAdrien Petit to his household. First settling at the H√¥tel de Landron, Jefferson moved to the more accommodating H√¥tel 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.”3 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—”4 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.”5
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.”11 These experiences made a profound impact, transforming his thought and taste in virtually every subject that interested him, including:
Science and Technology. In Paris and London, Jefferson seized the opportunity to engage in scientific inquiry and observe advances in technology. He befriended the Marquis de Condorcet, Permanent Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences, who introduced him to the leading scientific figures of France. Engaged in scientific debate with the Comte de Buffon, Jefferson successfully disproved the French naturalist’s theory that North American climate caused degeneration of humans and wildlife by importing examples of American wildlife larger than their European counterparts.14 During his travels throughout France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and England, Jefferson devoted time to observing the latest developments in engineering and agricultural technology.15 To his friend John Page, he commented that the “mechanical arts in London are carried to a wonderful perfection.”16 From London firms, he purchased a vast array of astronomical, meteorological, surveying, engineering, and measuring devices.17
Fine Art. In the company of American artist John Trumbull, Jefferson toured the art academies and art salons of Paris, honing his appreciation of fine art and sparking a desire that American artists might rival those of Europe.18. Writing James Madison, he declared, “You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as it’s object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world & procure them it’s praise.”19 He engaged sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, commissioning works on behalf of the United States, for the state of Virginia, and for his personal use, including busts of himself, George Washington, and the Marquis de Lafayette. During his five years in Europe, Jefferson amassed a sizeable art collection intended for future display at Monticello.20
Food and Wine. Jefferson’s taste in food and wine evolved during his time in Paris, where he came to appreciate French table customs. James Hemings’s training in the art of French cooking and his familiarity with Virginia cooking provided Jefferson the opportunity to combine the best elements of both foodways to create a unique style. Rejecting the fortified wine of England, Jefferson developed a preference for the lighter wines of France, Germany, and Italy. Visiting vineyards throughout Western Europe, Jefferson made extensive field notes regarding viniculture in the hope that America might join Europe in producing fine wine. He adopted the informal “pell mell” seating arrangement typical of the French salon, abandoning the strict order of precedence typical of English table customs.21
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.23
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.24 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.25
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.26
7. For U.S.-French trade during Jefferson’s term as Minister, see Documents on the American Tobacco Trade, in PTJ, 12:76-93 (transcriptions available at Founders Online); Further Documents Concerning American Trade, in PTJ, 13:52-91 (transcriptions available at Founders Online); Observations on the Whale Fishery, November 14, 1788, in PTJ, 14:242-56 (transcription available at Founders Online); Proposal by Daniel Parker for Packets, November 20, 1788, in PTJ, 14:307-10 (transcription available at Founders Online).
8. For a concise discussion of the problem of Revolutionary War Debt, see Department of State, Office of the Historian, Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations, U.S. Debt and Foreign Loans, 1775-1795.
9. For an in-depth discussion of the problem, see Editorial Note: Reports on Mediterranean Trade and Algerine Captives, in PTJ, 18:369-416. Note available at Founders Online.
10. See Jefferson to Lafayette, February 20, 1786, in PTJ, 9:291-92n. Transcription and editorial note available at Founders Online. The editorial note to Jefferson's letter addresses the American Committee. For Jefferson’s success in promoting the whale oil trade, see Observations on the Whale Fishery, November 14, 1788, in PTJ, 14:242-56 (transcription available at Founders Online); Arr√™t Concerning Whale Oil, December 7, 1788, in PTJ, 14:268-69 (transcription available at Founders Online).
11. Jefferson to Charles Bellini, September 30, 1785, in PTJ, 8:568-70. Transcription available at Founder’s Online.
15. See, e.g., Notes of a Tour into the Southern Parts of France, &c., March 3-June 10, 1787, in PTJ, 11:415-64 (transcription available at Founders Online); Notes of a Tour through Holland and the Rhine Valley, March 3-April 23, 1788, in PTJ, 13:8-36 (transcription available at Founders Online).
16. Jefferson to Page, May 4, 1786, in PTJ, 9:444-46. Transcription available at Founder’s Online.
23. See Jefferson to Madison, December 20, 1787, in PTJ, 12:438-43 (transcription available at Founder’s Online); Jefferson to Madison, March 15, 1789, in PTJ, 14:659-63 (transcription available at Founder’s Online).
26. For the 86 crates, see the Grevin packing list, July 17, 1790, William Short Papers, Library of Congress. See also Short to Jefferson, November 7, 1790, in PTJ, 18:30-39n. The accompanying editorial note, available at Founders Online, includes extensive data on the 86 crates packed by Grevin.