American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson | Chapter 8 of 17

Author: Joseph J. Ellis | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 26461 Views | Add a Review

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PARIS: 1784–89

I am much pleased with the people of this country. The roughness of the human mind are so thoroughly rubbed off with them that it seems as one might glide thro’ a whole life among them without a justle.

PARIS, AUGUST 18, 1785

I am savage enough to prefer the woods, the wilds, and the independence of Monticello, to all the brilliant pleasure of this gay capital.


THE MAN ENTERING Paris in August 1784 was older and more complicated than the young Virginian who had ridden into history nine years earlier at Philadelphia. He was traveling in a phaeton again, but this one was a larger, sturdier carriage, handcrafted by his slaves at Monticello, with glass on four sides to protect the passengers. He was accompanied by his twelve-year-old daughter Martha, named after her mother but best known as Patsy, an uncommonly tall and long-limbed girl with her father’s bright eyes and angular bone structure. His other companion was James Hemings, a nineteen-year-old mulatto slave who had replaced Jupiter as a favorite servant. Hemings was also along to learn the fine art of French cooking. 1

The party required a full week to make the trip from Le Havre to Paris, following the Seine River through Rouen, where centuries ago Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake. “I understand the French so imperfectly as to be uncertain whether those to whom I speak and myself mean the same thing,” Jefferson confessed. The language problem meant that he was “roundly cheated” by porters at several stops. But nothing could spoil the wonder of the French countryside at the start of the harvest season. When they crossed the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly—Jefferson proclaimed it “the most beautiful bridge in the world”—then rolled onto the Champs-Élysées, he was clearly starting a new chapter in his career as America’s minister plenipotentiary to France. 2

We have a much clearer sense of how he looked because his ascending fame made him the subject of several portraits, engravings and busts during his five years in France. The skin on his face was now taut and tight, with a permanently reddish hue that made him always appear as if he had just finished exercising. His hair was now more sandy than red, but just as thick and full as ever, cut so that it covered his ears, then tied in the back so as to fall just below his collar. His frame remained angular but was now more muscled and less gangly, the product of daily four-mile walks and a vigorous regimen that included soaking his feet in cold water each morning.

In general, he had grown more handsome with age, like one of those gawky and slightly awkward young men who eventually inhabit their features more comfortably with the years. Time had also allowed him to occupy his height in more proper proportions and carry it with more natural grace. He remained a very tall man for his time. We know that when he made his first official appearance with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin at the French court at Versailles, the physical contrast struck several observers as almost comical, like watching a cannonball, a teapot and a candlestick announce themselves as the American trinity. 3

If aging had served him well physically—perhaps here was an underlying reason why Jefferson always thought that the future was on his side—it had also seasoned him psychologically. Many American lives had been caught up in the turmoil of the war for independence, then deposited on the other side of the historic conflict with scars and wounds that never went away. Though Jefferson never commanded troops or fired a shot in anger, his personal experience during and immediately following the war included two traumatic episodes that toughened him on the inside even more than his marathon walks and cold-water baths toughened his body.

The first incident occurred during his two-year term as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781. It was the worst possible time for a man who preferred the rarefied atmosphere of scholarship and the study to assume the duties of governor, since wartime exigencies generated massive economic, logistical and political problems that even the most adroit executive would have found daunting. Despite his best efforts, Virginia’s economy became a shambles and the state failed to meet its quota of men for the Continental Army. Then Jefferson approved an expedition that carried off Virginia’s best troops to a futile campaign against Detroit, just before a British invasion force under the command of Benedict Arnold swept in from the Chesapeake Bay and burned the capital at Richmond to the ground. To make matters worse, cavalry detachments from General Cornwallis’s army moved against Charlottesville and nearly captured Jefferson himself at Monticello. 4

Stories spread throughout the state of Jefferson’s ignominious last-minute escape on horseback, implying rather unfairly that he had behaved in a cowardly fashion or that he was derelict in his duty by allowing the state to become so vulnerable to British military occupation. The Virginia Assembly even passed a resolution calling for an investigation into his conduct. This was eventually dropped; a final resolution officially absolved him of any wrongdoing. But even though the wartime mishaps were probably beyond his or anybody’s control, they had happened on his watch. The stain of failure as an executive never wholly disappeared—all the stories resurfaced when he ran for the presidency in 1796 and again in 1800—and Jefferson himself learned that his refined sensibility was ill suited for the rigors of leadership during times of crisis. As for the emotional effects, Jefferson confided to a friend that the experience had “inflicted a wound on my spirit that will only be cured by the all-healing grave.” 5

The second incident came straight on the heels of the first and unquestionably constituted the most traumatic experience of his entire life. In May 1782 his wife Martha gave birth for the seventh time in their ten-year marriage. The daughter, named Lucy Elizabeth, was only the third child to survive, and Martha herself fell desperately ill after the delivery. Her delicate disposition had obviously been destroyed by the never-ending pregnancies. She lingered on through the summer, with Jefferson at her bedside nearly around the clock. Family lore, reinforced by reminiscences within the slave community at Monticello, described a melodramatic deathbed scene in which Martha extracted a promise from Jefferson that he would never marry again, allegedly because she did not want her surviving children raised by a stepmother. He never did. She died on September 6, 1782. 6

Jefferson was inconsolable for six weeks, sobbing throughout the nights, breaking down whenever he tried to talk. Word of his extended grieving leaked out from Monticello and caused some friends to worry that he was losing his mind. “I ever thought him to rank domestic happiness in the first class of the chief good,” wrote Edmund Randolph, “but scarcely supposed that his grief would be so violent as to justify the circulating report of his swooning away whenever he sees his children.” When he eventually emerged from seclusion to take long rides through the local woods, Patsy became his constant companion in what she later called “those melancholy rambles.” 7

He agreed to accept the diplomatic post in Paris as part of the effort to move past this tragedy and to escape from his memories of Martha at Monticello. But he was scarred in a place that never completely healed. God had seen fit to reach down into the domestic utopia that he had constructed so carefully and snatch away its centerpiece. (Jefferson did not seem to possess any sense of complicity in causing her pregnancies or any sense of warning as her health deteriorated after each new miscarriage or birth.) We cannot know for sure whether, as family tradition tells the story, he promised his dying wife that he would never remarry. The promise he made to himself undoubtedly had the same effect: He would never expose his soul to such pain again; he would rather be lonely than vulnerable.

If this, then, was how he looked and—as much as we can ever know—how he felt upon his arrival in Paris in the late summer of 1784, there remains the question of what he thought. His reputation as a political thinker, which did not yet benefit from his authorship of the Declaration of Independence since that achievement was not yet widely known, was based primarily on his legislative work in the Virginia Assembly and the federal Congress. From 1776 to 1779 he had almost single-handedly attempted the root-and-branch reform of the Virginia legal code, calling for the abolition of primogeniture and entail as the last vestiges of English feudalism, the reform of the criminal law so as to limit the use of the death penalty, the expansion of the suffrage to include more of the independent yeomen from the western counties, the expansion of the public school system of the state and, most important, the elimination of the Anglican establishment in favor of a complete separation of church and state.

This phenomenal effort at legislative reform proved too visionary for his colleagues in the Virginia Assembly, who defeated all his proposals save the abolition of primogeniture and entail, which was on the verge of dying a natural death anyway. But the thrust of his political thinking was clear: to remove all legal and political barriers to individual initiative and thereby create what he called “an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent.” It was in effect an attempt to implement the ideals articulated in the natural rights section of the Declaration. Just as clearly, his favorite ideas were several steps ahead of public opinion. He was more a prophet than a politician. 8

The same pattern held true in the federal Congress at Philadelphia. Throughout the winter and spring of 1784 he threw himself into the reform of the coinage system, successfully urging the dollar and decimal units in lieu of the English pound and shilling. He also tried but failed to replace the English system of weights and measures with metric standards. He wrote the Ordinance of 1784, which established the principles on which all new states would be admitted to the Union on an equal basis with existing states. The final provision required the end of slavery in all newly created states by 1800. But it lost by one vote, prompting Jefferson to remark later that “the fate of millions unborn [was] hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment!” It was the most far-reaching proposal to end slavery that Jefferson ever wrote but also the high-water mark of his antislavery efforts, which receded afterward to lower levels of caution and procrastination. 9

Throughout the spring of 1784 he expressed frustration with the paralyzing combination of indolence and garrulousness that afflicted the Congress. (It was barely possible to muster a quorum to approve the peace treaty ending the war with England.) Given his subsequent hostility to consolidated federal power in virtually every form, his impatience at this time with what he called “the petty justlings of states” stands out as an indication of his temporary willingness to accept federal power as a corrective to local and regional bickering. He confided to friends his conviction that the Articles of Confederation, in giving the federal government power over foreign affairs, had implicitly given it power over all trade and commerce. (This endorsement of the doctrine of implied powers came back to haunt him a decade later.) He wanted to see treaties of amity and commerce negotiated with European nations, in part for the economic benefits they would generate but mostly because, as he put it, “the moment these treaties are concluded the jurisdiction of Congress over the commerce of the states springs into existence, and that of the particular states is superseded. . . .” 10

To sum up, then, the man riding into Paris as America’s minister plenipotentiary was not the same young Virginian who had drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was more famous, more physically impressive, a more confident carrier of his natural assets and abilities. He was more seasoned as a legislator, though still and always an idealist with greater talent at envisioning what ought to be than skill at leading others toward the future he imagined. He was also more seasoned as a man, less vulnerable and sensitive because more adroit at protecting his interior regions from intruders by layering his internal defenses in ways that denied access at all check points. (This psychological dexterity was to serve him well as a diplomat.) Finally, he had managed to combine his utopian vision of an American society of liberated individuals, freely pursuing happiness once the burden of English corruption and European feudalism had been removed, with a more practical recognition that an independent America required some kind of federal government to coordinate its burgeoning energies and excesses. Without surrendering his youthful radicalism, he had also become a dedicated nationalist.


SETTLING HIMSELF and his entourage took much longer than he had expected. First there was the problem of his health, which, except for his recurrent migraine headaches, had always been excellent. But within a few weeks he came down with a severe cold that he could not shake for six months. “I have had a very bad winter,” he explained to his friend James Monroe back in Virginia, “having been confined the greatest part of it. A seasoning as they call it is the lot of most strangers: and none I believe have experienced a more severe one than myself. The air is extremely damp, and the waters very unwholesome. We have had for three weeks past a warm visit from the Sun (my almighty physician) and I find myself almost reestablished.” Though he eventually fell in love with the people, the wine and the architecture of France, the weather was another matter, causing him to speculate that there was a nearly permanent cloud bank over this section of western Europe that produced pale and anemic human constitutions. 11

Then there was the problem of the language. Jefferson was justifiably renowned for his facility with foreign languages, which included Latin, Greek, French and Italian. He even claimed that he had taught himself Spanish on the voyage to France by reading Don Quixote with the aid of a grammar book. (Years later, when he was president, Jefferson recalled the incident over dinner. John Quincy Adams, who was present at the dinner party with the president, recorded the claim in his memoirs, then added: “But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories.”) The truth seems to be that Jefferson was adept at learning how to read foreign languages but not to speak or write them. Even after five years in France his spoken French never reached a sufficient level of fluency to permit comfortable conversation, and he never trusted his written French sufficiently to dispense with a translator for his formal correspondence. 12

Finally there was the problem of where to live. He shuttled among a series of hotels for the first few months, then, in October 1784, signed a lease for a villa at Cul-de-sac Taitbout on the Right Bank. But this proved inadequate and inconvenient, so he moved the following year to the Hôtel de Langeac on the Champs-Élysées near the present-day Arc de Triomphe, then on the outskirts of the city. He rented the entire building, a fashionable and spacious three-story dwelling originally built for the mistress of a French nobleman. This became his Parisian Monticello, complete with several salons, three separate suites, stables, a garden and a full staff of servants, maids, cooks, plus a coachman and gardener. It was lavish and expensive—the rent and furniture exceeded his annual salary of nine thousand dollars—but what he required to feel at home abroad. 13

When all the arrangements were finally completed, Jefferson had constructed an extensive support system of servants, secretaries and acolytes that afforded him the same kind of physical and emotional protection that he had enjoyed on his Virginia plantation. At the center of the household stood Jefferson himself. (Patsy had been placed in a convent school, the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, which Jefferson was assured—and frequently felt the need to reassure himself—was renowned for its liberal attitude toward non-Catholic students. She was home only on special weekends.) The inner circle of defense was manned by James Hemings, who was Jefferson’s personal servant when not attending culinary classes, and Adrien Petit, the supremely competent overseer of all household affairs and employees. The next ring of protection handled political and diplomatic issues. It was managed by two secretaries: David Humphreys, the thirty-two-year-old Connecticut poet who had served on George Washington’s staff during the war and had now attached himself to Jefferson as the fastest-rising star in American statecraft, and William Short, a twenty-five-year-old law student, a graduate of William and Mary, Jefferson’s in-law, protégé and all-purpose political handyman. 14

The outer perimeter of counsel and comfort lay back in America, in effect a series of listening posts in Virginia and the Congress at Philadelphia from which James Madison and James Monroe delivered regular reports, often using a ciphered code to conceal sensitive information. Taken together, Madison, Monroe and Short represented that segment of the younger generation of political talent in Virginia that had come to regard Jefferson as its titular leader; each was almost old enough to be his younger brother and almost young enough to be his son. The correspondence with Madison proved to be the start of a fifty-year partnership, perhaps unique in American history, in which Madison was the ever-loyal junior member. (Madison succeeded Jefferson in the presidency; then Monroe succeeded Madison, thereby occupying the office with Jeffersonians for the first twenty-four years of the nineteenth century.) Jefferson cultivated all three of these young Virginians as his protégés, even envisioning the day when they would live next to him at Monticello. In February 1784 he shared the dream with Madison: “Monroe is buying land almost adjoining me. Short will do the same. What would I not give you could fall into the circle. With such a society I could once more venture home and lay myself up for the residue of life, quitting all contentions which grow daily more and more insupportable. Think of it. To render it practicable only requires you to think it so.” Part praetorian guard, part quasi-members of his extended family, these younger Virginians had already identified Jefferson as the heir apparent to Washington in the line of succession to state and national leadership. Much of Jefferson’s first year in France was spent establishing the communications network of this looming Virginia dynasty. 15

The settling process during that first year included one final variable of long-term historical significance, Jefferson’s relationship with the Adams family. When news reached John Adams of Jefferson’s appointment, he let out word that he was pleased: “Jefferson is an excellent hand,” he noted to friends back in New England. “You could not have sent better.” When some members of Congress expressed concern about Jefferson’s excessive idealism, Adams would have none of it: “My Fellow Labourer in Congress, eight or nine years ago, upon many arduous Tryals, particularly in the draught of our Declaration of Independence . . . , I have found him uniformily the same wise and prudent Man and Steady Patriot.” Adams’s wife, Abigail, and their daughter, called Nabby, had joined him and their son John Quincy the same week that Jefferson had arrived in France. For nine months, until Adams was dispatched to London as America’s first ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, the Adams quarters at Auteuil became Jefferson’s second home. 16

More than fifty years later, and after a phase of bitter political disagreements that seriously frayed their friendship, Adams still recalled this time with fondness. Upon John Quincy’s election as president in 1824, for example, Adams reminded Jefferson that “our John” had won. “I call him our John,” he explained, “because when you was at Cul de sac at Paris, he appeared to be almost as much your boy as mine.” The special relationship between Adams and Jefferson had its origins in their political partnership of 1776, but the deep emotional bonding between the two men occurred in France in 1784–85. 17

Abigail Adams played a crucial role. Jefferson’s first winter in Paris was one long and nearly debilitating illness. His recovery during the spring occurred under her watchful eye and then with the whole Adams family in their parlor, swapping anecdotes and opinions about the whole range of diplomatic and domestic subjects. Abigail was the link between questions of foreign policy and family priorities, probably the first woman Jefferson came to know well who combined the traditional virtues of a wife and mother with the sharp mind and tongue of a fully empowered accomplice in her husband’s career. Jefferson had always regarded these different assets as inhabiting distinct and separate spheres that God or nature had somehow seen fit to keep apart. In Abigail, however, they came together. She was Martha with a mind of her own. Transcripts of those afternoon conversations, needless to say, do not exist. But the character and quality of the free-flowing banter survive in the playful letters exchanged after the Adams family moved to London.

First there was the bond of mutual admiration and jocular courting. Abigail asked Jefferson to purchase several small replicas of classical beauty. Jefferson responded: “With respect to the figures I could only find three of those you named, matched in size. These were Minerva, Diana, and Apollo. I was obliged to add a fourth, unguided by your choice. They offered me a fine Venus; but I thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time.” Or Abigail requested Jefferson to survey the Parisian shops for black lace and evening shoes, apologizing at the end for “troubling you with such trifling matters,” which was “a little like putting Hercules to the distaff.” 18

Then there was the running joke about the inherent depravity of the English monarch and nation. Jefferson reported “a blind story here of somebody attempting to assassinate your king [i.e., George III]. No man upon earth has my prayers for his continuance in life more sincerely than him. He is truly the American Messias. . . .” Abigail observed that all stories originating in the English newspapers were lies: “The account is as false—if it was not too rough a term for a Lady to use, I would say false as Hell, but I would substitute one not less expressive and say false as English.” Jefferson asked her if there was anything he could do, in his official capacity, to improve English manners. Abigail informed him that “there is a want of many French commodities, Good Sense, Good Nature, Political Wisdom and benevolence”; Jefferson would “render essential service to his Britanick Majesty if he would permit Cargoes of this kind to be exported into this kingdom.” 19

Finally there was the matter of Jefferson’s parental responsibilities. The Adamses were still in Paris when Jefferson received word that Lucy, his youngest child and the daughter whose birth had led to Martha’s fatal illness, had herself died of whooping cough back in Virginia. Abigail helped console Jefferson—he went into a deep despondency—and they developed a special affinity as parents. When her own daughter, Nabby, announced her intention to marry Colonel Stephen Smith, the personal secretary to husband John, Abigail proposed a unique arrangement to Jefferson: “Now I have been thinking of an exchange with you Sir. Suppose you give me Miss Jefferson [Patsy], and in some [fu]ture day take a Son [her grandson] in lieu of her. I am for Strengthening [the] federal union.” 20 But most of Abigail’s maternal advice concerned Jefferson’s middle daughter, Maria, called Polly. Jefferson had left her with relatives back in Virginia—she was only four years old—and in part because of Abigail’s prodding, he decided to risk the Atlantic voyage and have her sent over to Paris to consolidate his family. Abigail was at the wharf in London when Polly arrived and immediately began to initiate Jefferson in the time-honored Adams tradition of brutal honesty.

Polly herself was an absolute charmer. “I never saw so intelligent a countenance in a child before,” Abigail wrote, “and the pleasure she has given me is an ample compensation for any little services I have been able to render her.” But Jefferson needed to face his failures as a father: “I show her your picture. She says she cannot know it, how could she when she could not know you.” When Jefferson wrote to say that official duties prevented him from crossing the Channel to fetch Polly, so he was sending Petit, his chief household servant, Abigail felt obliged to insist that Jefferson contemplate Polly’s reaction to this news: “Tho she says she does not remember you, yet she has been taught to consider you with affection and fondness, and depended upon your coming for her. She told me this morning, that as she had left all her friends in virginia to come over the ocean to see you, she did think you would have taken the pains to have come here for her, and not have sent a man [Petit] whom she cannot understand. I express her own words.” 21 As if this were not enough, Abigail wondered out loud how a man who professed to feel such affection for his children could then commit them to the care of Catholic nuns. The decision to place Patsy in the convent at Panthemont had always mystified her. Now that Polly had finally joined her father, “I hope that she will not lose her fine spirits within the walls of a convent too, to which I own I have many, perhaps false prejudices.” 22

Jefferson’s relationship with John Adams also mingled deep and mutual affection with a level of bracing honesty from the Adams side that frequently forced Jefferson to face the persistent gap between his ideals and the messier realities of the real world. Jefferson, for his part, provided Adams with an extremely thoughtful and hardworking partner in the business of representing America’s interest in Europe. Abigail claimed that Jefferson was “the only person with whom my Companion could associate with perfect freedom, and unreserve. . . .” Taken together, the two men were the proverbial opposites that attracted: the stout, candid-to-a-fault New Englander with the effusive temperament and the pugilistic disposition, and the lean, ever-elusive Virginian with the glacial exterior and almost eerie serenity. Each man seemed to sense in the other the compensating qualities missing in his own personality. In the amiable atmosphere created by Abigail at Auteuil, they found the leisured conditions that allowed them to appreciate the attractiveness of their respective other sides, “completing” each other, if you will, and creating a truly formidable diplomatic team in the process. 23

As distinctive products of the war for independence, they shared a bottomless commitment to the prospects for an independent American nation and an equally limitless mistrust of English policy toward its former colonies. Jefferson claimed that he had “an infallible rule for deciding what that nation [England] would do on every occasion.” It was a simple rule—namely, “to consider what they ought to do, and to take the reverse of that as what they would assuredly do. . . .” He claimed that, by adopting this formula, he “was never deceived.” Adams concurred completely. “If John Bull don’t see . . . a Thing at first,” he observed to Jefferson, “You know it is a rule with him ever afterwards to swear that it don’t exist, even when he does both see it and feel it.” Adams believed that the loss of the war with America, and with it a substantial portion of their overseas empire, had rendered most Englishmen incapable of fair-mindedness toward their former colonies. “They care no more for us,” he concluded, “than they do about the Seminole Indians.” There was even a dramatic, almost melodramatic moment, when their mutual Anglophobia was sealed in a symbolic blood oath. When Jefferson visited Adams in England in the spring of 1786, the two former revolutionaries were presented at court and George III ostentatiously turned his back on them both. Neither man ever forgot the insult or the friend standing next to him when it happened. 24

In addition to their mutual animosities toward England and their common sense of indignation at the insufferable arrogance of the king, the friendship worked because Jefferson deferred to Adams. After all, Adams was his senior and had been negotiating with the French and English for five years. Jefferson’s deferential pattern began as soon as he arrived in France: “What would you think of the enclosed Draught to be proposed to the courts of London and Versailles?” Jefferson inquired. “I know it goes beyond our powers; and beyond the powers of Congress too. But it is so evidently for the good of the states that I should not be afraid to risk myself on it if you are of the same opinion.” The proposal envisioned reciprocal rights for citizens of all nations, complete freedom of trade and a reformed system of international law. Yes, Adams replied, it was a “beau ideal” proposal, but unfortunately it was also completely irrelevant to the current, and cutthroat, European context: “We must not, my Friend, be the Bubbles of our own Liberal Sentiments. If we cannot obtain reciprocal Liberality, We must adopt reciprocal Prohibitions, Exclusions, Monopolies, and Imposts. Our offers have been fair, more than fair. If they are rejected, we must not be Dupes.” 25

The same pattern repeated itself in the dialogue over American policy toward the vexing problem of the Barbary pirates. Several Muslim countries along the North African coast had established the tradition of plundering the ships of European and American merchants in the western Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic, capturing the crews and then demanding ransom from the respective governments for their release. In a joint message to their superiors in Congress, Adams and Jefferson described the audacity of these terrorist attacks, pirates leaping onto defenseless ships with daggers clenched in their teeth. They had asked the ambassador from Tripoli, Adams and Jefferson explained, on what grounds these outrageous acts of unbridled savagery could be justified: “The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners. . . .” 26 Jefferson found such unmitigated blackmail beyond his comprehension and beyond any recognized principle of law or justice. He initially proposed that the United States refuse to pay ransoms and instead dispatch a naval force to the Mediterranean to teach these outlaws of the sea a lesson. Later he supplemented his proposal with a comprehensive scheme whereby the United States would organize an international task force comprised of all European nations whose shipping was being victimized. “Justice and Honor favor this course,” he exclaimed to Adams, and it would probably cost less in the long run to boot. 27

Adams agreed that it was impossible to negotiate with the Barbary pirates; as he put it, “Avarice and Fear are the only Agents at Algiers. . . .” But Jefferson’s accounting, Adams observed, grossly underestimated the cost. It would require at least £500,000 annually to sustain a naval force in the region. The Congress would never authorize such a sum. And the United States had nothing in the way of a navy to send over anyway. “From these Premises,” he apprised Jefferson, “I conclude it to be wisest for us to negotiate and pay the necessary Sum, without loss of Time. . . .” Adams insisted that Jefferson’s solution, while bold and wholly honorable in its own terms, was an idea whose time had not come. “Congress will never, or at least not for years, take any such Resolution,” he reminded Jefferson, “and in the mean time our Trade and Honour suffers beyond Calculation. We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.” Jefferson remained unconvinced but agreed that Adams’s opinion should be the basis for the official American position: “You make the result differently from what I do,” he wrote to Adams in London, but “it is of no consequence; as I have nothing to say in the decision.” 28

It is possible to detect in Jefferson an early undertone of resentment toward Adams’s realism, which consistently undercut his own grander vision. Jefferson even tried to go over Adams’s head by having his own proposal for an international naval force presented to Congress by a third party, a ploy that failed when Congress rejected the scheme outright, as Adams had predicted it would. If one were looking for early signs of the eventual clash between these longtime colleagues, one could find them in embryo here. But Jefferson’s momentary duplicities were more than overbalanced by his genuine admiration for Adams. The admiration went even deeper, to the recognition that Adams possessed a mental toughness, a capacity to flourish in the midst of innuendo and invective and high-stakes decisions. “Indeed the man must be a rock,” Jefferson wrote to Abigail, “who can stand all this.” He went on to confess his own sense of inadequacy in embattled situations and to hold up Adams as a mentor: “I do not love difficulties. I am fond of quiet, willing to do my duty, but irritable by slander, and apt to be forced by it from my post. These are weaknesses from which reason and your counsels will preserve Mr. adams.” 29


THERE WAS OF course a third American minister in France, more famous by far than the other two. Benjamin Franklin had been representing American interests abroad longer than any other diplomat, and his reputation in France had reached epic proportions. He was the visible embodiment of American values in their most seductively simple form. When Franklin and Voltaire had embraced before the multitudes of Paris, it created a sensation in the French press, the union of the two greatest champions of human enlightenment in history’s most enlightened century. Jefferson himself regarded Franklin as second only to Washington as the greatest American of the revolutionary generation, going so far as to observe that there was a discernible gap between Franklin and the next tier of American revolutionary heroes, a group in which he included Adams but modestly excluded himself. 30

Unofficial rumors had it that Jefferson had been appointed Franklin’s eventual replacement. (Franklin, who was nearing eighty, had let it be known that he wished to return to America in the near future.) When Jefferson was presented to the French court soon after his arrival, legend has it that Vergennes, the French foreign minister, asked him if he was intended to serve as Franklin’s replacement, to which Jefferson allegedly replied: “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.” Adams, for his part, was far from saddened to see Franklin leave. The two men had quarreled incessantly throughout the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Paris (1783) ending the war, Adams contending that Franklin left the bulk of the work for him, shared American negotiating secrets too freely with Vergennes and too often mistook flirtatious evenings with admiring French ladies for his main diplomatic duties. Franklin in turn regarded Adams as the kind of neurotic Yankee who gave hard work a bad name and who failed to appreciate the benefits of informal associations with France’s salon society, especially the sort of harmless flirtations of an old man with the lovely and once-lovely women who helped shape the values of Parisian culture. No one, not even Jefferson, could turn a phrase as deftly as Franklin; his characterization of Adams became famous in its own day, then with posterity, as the ultimate one-sentence evisceration: “Always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” 31

For the brief time that they were together as a ministerial team, Jefferson served as a valuable buffer between the two senior members, both of whom found him likable and dedicated. Indeed, it is possible to argue, without much fear of contradiction, that during the nine months Adams, Franklin and Jefferson represented American interests in France the United States enjoyed the greatest assemblage of sheer intellectual talent in the whole subsequent history of American diplomacy. Their chief problem, then, was hardly a lack of wisdom or skill; it was simply that there was very little for them to accomplish.

When all was said and done, there were very few European countries with much interest in signing treaties of amity and commerce with the recently established American republic. Franklin possessed the most exquisite sense of timing of any member of the revolutionary era; his departure in the summer of 1785 signaled the end of prospects for the American cause in Europe. (He arrived back in Philadelphia in plenty of time to participate in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention.) Adams complained that there was little for him to do in Paris or London. He spent the bulk of his time composing a massive three-volume study of political theory entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States. Although Jefferson was fully engaged by routine diplomatic duties throughout his years in France, the strategic situation in which fate and the American Congress had placed him virtually precluded any significant foreign policy achievements on his watch.

Although there were, in fact, several overlapping layers of insurmountable difficulty, the chief problem lay back in Philadelphia. To put it most concisely, the federal Congress created under the Articles of Confederation lacked sufficient authority to oversee American foreign policy. A typical letter from John Jay, who had responsibility for foreign affairs, reported the chronic condition of gridlock. “It has happened from various Circumstances,” Jay wrote to Jefferson, “that several Reports on foreign Affairs still lay before Congress undecided upon. The want of an adequate Representation for long Intervals . . . has occasioned Delays and Omissions which however unavoidable are much to be regretted.” Jefferson was particularly incensed when the Congress dismissed his plan for a naval force to destroy the Barbary pirates as impossibly expensive. “It will be said,” he wrote to Monroe, “there is no money in the treasury. There never will be money in the treasury till the confederacy shows its teeth. The states must see the rod.” But Madison informed him that the will to pass revenue bills was simply nonexistent. The current revenue in the treasury amounted to less than $400,000, which was not enough to pay off old debts, much less take on new ones. Madison agreed that it was a lamentable situation that would “confirm . . . all the world in the belief that we are not to be respected, nor apprehended as a nation in matters of Commerce.” The outstanding debt to France particularly grated on Jefferson, since he was constantly besieged by French veterans of the American Revolution for the back pay owed them. But apart from shaking his head in a gesture of consolation and disbelief, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. 32

Then there was the intractable problem of English arrogance. David Hartley, an English diplomat more disposed toward America than his colleagues, put the matter squarely to Jefferson: “An English proverb says Losers have a right to complain,” wrote Hartley. “After a storm the waves will continue to roll for some time.” In short, having lost half its empire in a long and unsuccessful war, England was not about to render one iota of economic assistance to its former colonies. During his visit with Adams in London in the spring of 1786 Jefferson confirmed this prevailing attitude: “With this nation nothing is done; and it is now decided that they intend to do nothing with us. The king is against a change of measures; his ministers are against it . . . ; and the merchants and people are against it. They sufficiently value our commerce; but they are quite persuaded they shall enjoy it on their own terms.” Sadly enough, English presumption was proving correct, since the British continued to control more than 80 percent of America’s foreign trade. Why should they negotiate new commercial treaties with the Americans when they already enjoyed a monopoly on their own terms? To make matters worse, the English were fond of raising awkward questions about the power of American diplomats to negotiate on behalf of the United States, asking rhetorically and mischievously if the federal government actually possessed sovereign power over the respective states. Meanwhile the English press kept up a steady stream of anti-American sentiment, suggesting that the former colonies were in a condition of near anarchy. (Jefferson was especially amused by false reports in the London papers that Franklin had either been captured by Algerian pirates on his return voyage or had been stoned by mobs upon landing in Philadelphia.) The dominant opinion among the English aristocracy in their private clubs, Jefferson observed cynically, was that America was poised to petition for readmission into the British Empire. One could hardly expect any cooperation from this quarter. 33

By all accounts, and certainly by Jefferson’s initial reckoning, France should have been different. France, after all, was America’s major European ally, its source of salvation in the war for independence, the inveterate enemy of England, and home for philosophes who shared Jefferson’s liberal faith in open markets and free trade. Jefferson drafted many lengthy memoranda designed to persuade the French ministry that if the United States and France could reach reciprocal agreements whereby all tariffs and duties were abolished between their respective countries, the net result would be a bonanza of cheaper raw materials for France and an equivalent cornucopia of cheaper manufactured goods for America. Moreover, the chief victim of this new arrangement would be their common enemy, England. But once again the theoretical beauty of Jefferson’s liberal vision ran afoul of mundane realities, this time in the court politics of Paris and Versailles and the entrenched bureaucracies of French provincial governments. Despite the rational appeal of Jefferson’s vision of open markets, he was forced to acknowledge that “it seems to walk before us like our shadows, always appearing in reach, yet never overtaken.” 34

The best example of the problem was the tobacco monopoly maintained by the highly organized and deeply entrenched agricultural lobby known as the Farmers-General, which insisted on high duties for foreign imports in order to protect its own domestic products, as well as line the pockets of its many customs officers. “The abolition of the monopoly of our tobacco in the hands of the Farmers General will be pushed by us with all our force,” Jefferson wrote in coded language to Monroe, “but it is so interwoven with the very formulations of their system of finance that it is of doubtful event.” John Jay wrote from Philadelphia to commiserate with Jefferson, recalling that during his own service in France he had heard the system of complex regulations and clandestine payoffs “censured by almost every Gentleman Whom I heard speak of it, and yet it seems so firmly fixed, perhaps by golden Rivlets, even of Sovereignty itself, as that the speedy Destruction of it seems rather to be wished for than expected.” 35

Even when Jefferson was able to persuade the French ministry to agree to modest reductions in the duties on tobacco, the political power of the Farmers-General blocked implementation. “I am unable to answer those agents,” Jefferson complained, “Who inform me that the officers of the customs and farms do not yet consider themselves bound to the new regulations.” The bureaucracy, not the government, seemed to be in charge. Throughout his tenure in Paris Jefferson continued to draft lengthy and elaborate proposals condemning the inherent irrationality of the established system and describing in considerable detail the mutual advantages of a free trade policy. But like a Socratic argument for justice made to representatives of the Mafia, it all came to nothing. His only success after five years of relentless effort was a slight reduction in the tariff on American whale oil. 36

The major diplomatic achievement of his stay in France was a $400,000 loan from Dutch bankers, done in collusion with Adams in the spring of 1787. The loan was significant because it allowed the American government to consolidate its European debts, thereby creating a source of funding to ransom American captives in Algiers and make regular payments to French veterans of the American Revolution. Jefferson took considerable pleasure in the deal, since it provided a semblance of fiscal responsibility for America’s European creditors. But he acknowledged that he was a passive accomplice in the negotiations, which were handled primarily by Adams. In fact Jefferson confessed that the intricacies of high finance, involving floating bond rates and multiple interest charges, left him feeling confused and uncomfortable. He trusted Adams’s judgment on such matters more than his own. 37

When Adams prepared to depart London for America, he passed along to Jefferson responsibility for the Dutch loan, warning him to be on guard against “the unmeasurable avarice of Amsterdam.” At just that moment the Dutch bankers threatened to increase the interest rates on the loan, and Adams worried out loud to Jefferson that they were doing so because they sensed that the American minister to France did not really understand the intricacies of the financing agreement: “I pity you, in your situation,” Adams wrote to Jefferson, “dunned and teazed as you will be, all your Philosophy will be wanting to support you.” Just remember one thing, Adams advised: “[T]he Amsterdammers love Money too well to execute their threats.” Jefferson listened to this advice; the loan was not renegotiated, and American credit in the capitals and markets of Europe improved. All the forward-looking Jeffersonian visions of a liberal international community, comprised of open markets and national cooperation, had foundered on the rocks of European intransigence. From a historical perspective, his lifelong recognition that American foreign policy was the one area requiring a strong federal government congealed at this time. It was also becoming clear that his own idealistic instincts worked best when surrounded by more realistic and tough-minded colleagues. Ironically, the major substantive success of his tenure was a hardheaded financial arrangement with the Amsterdam bankers that, as he freely admitted, he never fully understood. 38


OF COURSE diplomacy entailed much more than negotiating treaties. The departure of Franklin for America in the summer of 1785 left Jefferson as the ranking American minister at the court of Versailles. Like Franklin, Jefferson was the beneficiary of France’s apparently irresistible urge to project onto its premier American resident the Gallic version of the American essence. Jefferson’s reputation as a younger Franklin with a southern accent received a boost when the Marquis de Chastellux published an account of his travels in America that featured a romantic sketch of Jefferson at Monticello. “It seemed as if from his youth,” Chastellux wrote, Jefferson “had placed his mind, as he had done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.” Back in America he was only beginning to be known beyond the borders of Virginia. The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia seemed to confirm Chastellux’s estimate by electing Jefferson one of its members in 1786; Yale College followed suit by awarding him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree the same year. American visitors to Paris further reinforced his emerging reputation by describing Jefferson’s infinite composure and aristocratic bearing at court sessions in Versailles. 39

Whereas Franklin’s fame in France merely intensified his established reputation in America, Jefferson’s budding prominence in Paris served to create his image as a great American, which then migrated back to America with all the prestige of European recognition. He became the primary conduit for the Franco-American cultural exchange. The French had never seen wild honeysuckle or swamp laurel, so seeds should be sent over from Virginia for planting in French soil. The Americans, for their part, needed to know of French experiments in the new science of air travel or “ballooning,” to include the several calamitous failures when “at the height of about 6000 feet, some accident happened” and the unfortunate aviators “fell from that height, and were crushed to atoms.” Meanwhile the French reading public, which was so deprived of news from America that, as Jefferson put it, “we might as well be on the moon,” received the benefit of Jefferson’s editorial additions to the Encyclopédie Méthodique. There he corrected several factual errors in the French accounts of the American Revolution, predicted that the unfortunate institution of slavery was slowly but surely dying out, that emancipation “will take place there at some point not very distant” and envisioned the entire North American continent occupied by American settlers within forty years. 40

He saw to it that France’s premier sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, was dispatched to Mount Vernon to do the casts for the definitive sculpture of George Washington. He requested, in fact ordered, that all work cease on the new Virginia capitol at Richmond, so that the builders could work from an architectural model he was sending over. It was based on the Maison Corrée at Nîmes in southern France, what he called “the best morsel of antient architecture now remaining.” (When it came to architectural matters, Jefferson was utterly unambiguous.) The Richmond builders needed to tear down what they had constructed and start again, using the designs he was providing: “They are simple and sublime. More cannot be said. They are not the brat of whimsical conception never before brought to light, but copied from the most precious, the most perfect model of antient architecture remaining on earth.” The Virginia Assembly, acknowledging his discerning architectural eye and uncompromising tone, did precisely as it was told. 41

Finally, and rather comically, Jefferson decided to refute the leading French naturalist of the day, Georges de Buffon, who had argued that the mammals and plants of North America were inferior in size, health and variety to those of Europe. Buffon’s theory, silly as it sounds today, benefited from his reputation as France’s premier natural scientist; it also had the disarming implication of rendering the entire American environment as fatally degenerate, a kind of laboratory for the corruptive process. Jefferson launched an all-out campaign to gather specimens of American animals that were larger than anything in Europe. Sparing no expense, he commissioned an expedition into the White Mountains of New Hampshire to obtain “the skin, the skeleton, and the horns of the Moose, the Caribou, and the Original or Elk.” The hunters were ordered to “leave the hoof on, to leave the bones of the legs and of the thighs if possible in the skin with the horns on, so that by sewing up the neck and belly of the skin we should have the true form and size of the animal.” The expedition produced the desired specimens, but Jefferson was disappointed in their lack of size, especially the moose, which he had counted on as the trump card to play against Buffon’s puny European deer.

So another hunting party went out, another moose was killed, another carcass was shipped over to Paris, where Jefferson put it on display in the entry hall of his hotel, still somewhat frustrated that the moose was only seven feet tall and that its hair kept falling out. Buffon, who was himself a minuscule man less than five feet tall, was invited to observe the smelly and somewhat imperfect trophy but concluded it was insufficient evidence to force a revision of his anti-American theory. It was one of the few occasions when Jefferson failed to enhance mutual understanding along the Franco-American axis. 42

His unqualified success as the most visible American in Paris derived in great part from his outspoken affection for all things French. His abiding awkwardness with spoken French could be forgiven as the single stain on an otherwise spotless record of Francophilia. French wine, French food, French architecture and the discreet charms of French society were all obvious sources of pleasure for the American minister to the court at Versailles—his equally obvious hatred of England also helped the cause—and he let it be known throughout Parisian society that though he had been born a Virginian, France was his adopted home, just as the French people were his brethren in spirit, if not in blood. “I am much pleased with the people of this country,” he wrote in a typical expression of endearment, noting that their inherent civility and sophistication allowed one to “glide thro’ a whole life among them without a justle.” 43

This was a sincere sentiment, an authentic expression of genuine affinity between the urbane and cosmopolitan side of his character and the almost sensual seductions of the cultural capital of Europe. But it coexisted alongside its diametric opposite. In letters to friends and colleagues back in America, or in advisory notes to Americans traveling in Europe, Jefferson described France, and Europe more generally, as a hopeless sinkhole of avarice, ignorance and abject poverty. Indeed, what Buffon had said about the inherently degenerative conditions of America, Jefferson turned against Europe and, inverting Buffon’s prejudices, developed a formulaic argument about European inferiority.

The argument tended to take the familiar Jeffersonian form of a dichotomy between moral polarities. “The comparison of our governments [in America] with those of Europe,” he wrote typically, “are like a comparison of heaven to hell”; England served as a kind of limbo or “intermediate station.” When George Wythe wrote him in 1786 to report the good news that the Virginia Assembly had finally passed his bill guaranteeing religious freedom, Jefferson reacted by contrasting what was possible in America with European hopelessness: “If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudices . . . , a thousand years would not place them on the high ground on which our common people are now setting out. . . . If any body thinks that kings, nobles, or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send them here.” This became a common theme in his letters to American correspondents. “If any of our countrymen wish for a king,” he wrote to David Ramsay in South Carolina, “give them Aesop’s fable of the frogs who asked for a king; if this does not cure them, send them to Europe.” “The Europeans are governments of kites over pidgeons,” he reported to John Rutledge, adding cynically that “the best schools for republicanism are London, Versailles, Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, &c.” 44

In a privately circulated document entitled “Hints to Americans Travelling in Europe,” he criticized those tourists who were overly impressed with the art and monuments of European capitals, concluding that “they are worth seeing, but not studying” because they tended to distract attention from the real and deep social corruption of urban life throughout Europe. He urged young men who were embarking on some version of the grand tour to beware of the temptations and sexual traps they would encounter. (His own secretary, William Short, was engaged in a passionate affair with the beautiful young wife of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt.) The typical young traveler “is led by the strongest of all the human passions into a spirit for female intrigue destructive of his own and others happiness, or a passion for whores destructive of his health. . . .” Paris, he warned, was one huge fleshpot. 45

The psychological agility required to sustain a sincere and highly visible affection for all things French, especially while simultaneously denouncing European decadence with equivalent sincerity, depended upon mysterious mechanisms inside Jefferson that prevented his different voices from hearing one another. In his letters he could modulate his message to fit his different audiences. The publication of his Notes on the State of Virginia created some intriguing problems on this score because, unlike private letters, one could not control its distribution; it could be read by anybody and everybody. Part travel guide, part scientific treatise and part philosophical meditation, Notes had been written in the fall of 1781, just after his unfortunate experience as governor of Virginia and just before the tragic death of his wife. He permitted publication of a French translation, albeit without his name on the cover and in a limited edition of two hundred copies, in order to enhance French knowledge of America, and this only after he had learned that an unauthorized version was already in press. Indeed, despite his effort at anonymity, the fact that the American minister to France was the author of Notes quickly became an open secret throughout Parisian society and contributed significantly to his growing reputation as the dominant voice of America in Europe. Abigail and John Adams read it in their coach riding to Calais on the way to their new post in London: “I thank you kindly for your Book,” Adams noted, adding that “it is our Meditation all the Day long. I cannot now say much about it, but I think it will do its Author and his Country great Honour. The Passages upon slavery are worth Diamonds. They will have more effect than Volumes written by mere Philosophers.” 46

But Jefferson in fact was deeply worried about the effect his remarks on slavery might have on his reputation back in America, especially in Virginia. He confided to Madison that “there are sentiments on some subjects which I apprehend ought be displeasing to the country [and] perhaps to the [Virginia] assembly or to some who lead it. I do not wish to be exposed to their censure. . . .” Madison wrote back with a cautiously optimistic message and in a highly elliptical style designed to prevent snoopers at the respective postal offices, even if they managed to decode his cipher, from understanding what he was talking about: “I have found the copy of your notes . . . , looked them over carefully myself and consulted several judicious friends in confidence. We are all sensible that the freedom of your strictures on some particular measures and opinions will displease their respective abbetors. But we equally concur in thinking that this consideration ought not to be weighed against the utility of your plan.” 47

Actually, Jefferson’s personal belief that slavery was morally incompatible with the principles of the American Revolution was not cause for worry. He had made his position on that controversial subject known on several occasions in the Virginia Assembly and the federal Congress. What did merit worry was his insinuation that the planters of Virginia and the Chesapeake region were already moving inexorably toward emancipation. This was a piece of wishful thinking that defied the unattractive political realities. True, he had said much the same thing in his discussion of slavery in the Encyclopédie Méthodique, but those remarks were aimed at a French audience and were designed to put an optimistic gloss on a potentially damaging topic.

Most worrisome of all were those dramatic passages in Notes prophesying racial war in America and “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Indeed Jefferson seemed to say that if racial war should come, God was on the side of the blacks: “Indeed I tremble for my country. When I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with us in such a contest.” Jefferson was justifiably concerned that such apocalyptic sentiments would enjoy no supportive audience at all. French readers would be shocked; Virginians would be enraged. 48

As it happened, all the letters he received commenting on the antislavery passages of Notes were strongly supportive. David Ramsay, the South Carolina historian, even lectured him on not going far enough. Ramsay claimed that “in a few centuries the negroes will lose their black color. I think now they are less black in Jersey than Carolina.” So instead of racial conflict, one could look forward to the gradual assimilation of all blacks, who would achieve this worthy goal by actually becoming white. The Reverend James Madison, president of William and Mary, disagreed, saying that Jefferson’s formulation in Notes was being borne out by experience. The Indian population, Reverend Madison predicted, would eventually be integrated into American society. There were even reports of an Indian near Albany who had become almost fully white in a matter of only a few years. But there were no reliable reports of any black man changing color. “It seems,” observed Reverend Madison sadly, “as if Nature had absolutely denied to him the Possibility of ever acquiring the Complexion of the Whites.” Reverend Madison congratulated Jefferson for forcing his fellow Virginia slaveowners to recognize that unless something were done about slavery, their children or grandchildren would die in a genocidal war between the races. While indicative of the prevalent and deep-rooted racism present even within the more progressive circles of American society, the remarks of Ramsay and Madison also showed that Jefferson’s treatment of the forbidden subject had not isolated him as fully as he had initially feared. 49

Nevertheless, the worrying he did about the public response to Notes exposed his intense discomfort with any expression of his personal thoughts that he could not orchestrate or control. This is the likely reason why Notes became the first and last book he ever published. More significantly, the experience had a lasting effect on his posture toward the slavery question. From this time onward the characteristically Jeffersonian position emphasized the need to wait for public opinion to catch up with the moral imperative of emancipation. Instead of a crusading advocate, he became a cautious diplomat. “You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery,” he wrote to a French friend in 1788. “But . . . I am here as a public servant; and those whom I serve having not yet been able to give their voice against this practice, it is decent for me to avoid too public a demonstration of my wishes to see it abolished. Without serving the cause here, it might render me less able to serve it beyond the water.” He began to develop the argument—it became the centerpiece of his public position on slavery throughout his mature years until the end of his life—that the problem should be passed along to the next generation of American statesmen. These were the leaders born during the American Revolution and therefore “suckled in the principles of liberty as it were with their mother’s milk.” And so “it is to them,” he now claimed, that “I look with anxiety to turn the fate of this question.” Here was a political posture that possessed several strategic advantages, the chief one being that it allowed him to retain his moral principles while justifying inaction on the grounds of seasoned wisdom and practical savvy. He thereby kept his principles pure and intact by placing them in a time capsule; there they could stay until that appropriate moment in the future when the world was ready for them. 50

Meanwhile there were also capsules or compartments inside his own mind or soul that were being constructed at this time to keep certain incompatible thoughts from encountering one another. Perhaps the most graphic example of this capacity to keep secrets from himself dates from August 1786. A fellow American slaveowner traveling to France inquired about the French law prohibiting slavery and allowing any slave brought into the country to claim his freedom. “I have made enquiries,” Jefferson explained, “on the subject of the negro boy you brought, and find that the laws of France give him freedom if he claims it, and that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to interrupt the course of the law.” But there was a way around or perhaps over the law: “I have known an instance,” Jefferson observed discreetly, “where a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it, has not been disturbed in his possession.” If one simply avoids mentioning the subject, “the young negro will not probably . . . think of claiming his freedom.” The instance Jefferson was referring to almost certainly involved his own black servant James Hemings. It is almost equally certain that Jefferson felt no twinge of conscience about recommending a policy of secrecy, which merely mirrored the deeper secrecies he routinely practiced inside himself. 51

In sum, the considerable diplomatic experience Jefferson acquired during his years in France was accompanied by what we might call a diplomacy of the interior regions. Or perhaps the psychological dexterity he had always possessed became fully visible during his French phase. At the most obvious and well-intentioned level, this internal diplomacy derived from his genuine desire to tell different correspondents what they wanted to hear. Jefferson always regarded candor and courtesy as incompatible, and when forced to choose, he invariably picked courtesy, thereby avoiding unpleasant confrontations. This was what he meant by “taking the handle by the smooth end.” Letter writing was a perfect instrument for this diplomatic skill, in part because of Jefferson’s mastery of the written word and in part because different audiences could be independently targeted. A Frenchman would have been disconcerted to read the advice he was offering to young Americans about the snares and pitfalls of decadent Paris and might have plausibly concluded that Jefferson was a hypocrite. But Jefferson saw himself as modulating his message to suit his audience, adjusting his own views to accord better with the attitudes of his correspondents. This was not so much duplicity as politeness.

Pushed a bit further, however, and the harmless urge to avoid conflict could assume more sinister implications. Unlike Adams, whose heart and mind were wired together in a single network that carried ideas and urges along lines that linked them to a common power source, Jefferson had created separate lines of communication inside himself that were designed to prevent one set of signals from interfering with the other. Adams, as a result, could be most dangerous when most honest. Honesty for Jefferson, on the other hand, was a more complicated internal negotiation. He was most disarming when a morally resonant subject like slavery drove a wedge between his incompatible convictions, and he remained serenely oblivious of the disjunction.

What his critics took to be hypocrisy was not really that at all. In some cases it was the desire to please different constituencies, to avoid conflict with colleagues. In other cases it was an orchestration of his internal voices, to avoid conflict with himself. Both the external and internal diplomacy grew out of his deep distaste for sharp disagreement and his bedrock belief that harmony was nature’s way of signaling the arrival of truth. More self-deception than calculated hypocrisy, it was nonetheless a disconcerting form of psychological agility that would make it possible for Jefferson to walk past the slave quarters on Mulberry Row at Monticello thinking about mankind’s brilliant prospects without any sense of contradiction. Though it made him deaf to most forms of irony, it had the decided political advantage of banishing doubt or disabling ambiguity from his mental process. He had the kind of duplicity possible only in the pure of heart.


ONE OF JEFFERSON’S most distinctive voices, which became fully audible during his French years, was the voice he assumed toward women. As we have seen, Abigail Adams played a major role in helping him settle in Paris. She also provided him with what was probably his first exposure to a wife who was a full partner in her husband’s career, as well as a woman capable of conversation that moved naturally from questions of parental responsibility to matters of European statecraft. But even Abigail felt most comfortable offering Jefferson her sharpest-edged advice about his obligations as a father. In that sense she implicitly recognized the legitimacy of the borders separating the domestic domain of women and the traditional male province of politics. In effect Abigail provided Jefferson with a gentle introduction to an entire gallery of Frenchwomen who crossed the sexual borders with an impunity that seemed to cast doubt on all his traditional presumptions about gender.

One can conjure up some sense of what Jefferson experienced in an observation that John Adams made many years later, when he recalled his own initial encounter with the “learned Ladies” of the Parisian salons. “I have such a consciousness of Inferiority to them,” Adams remembered in his best self-effacing style, “that I can scarcely speak in their presence. . . . Very few of these Ladies have ever had the condescention to allow me to talk. And when it has so happened, I have always come off mortified at the discovery of my Inferiority.” 52

Adams was referring to the conspicuously cavalier style of the leading ladies of France’s salon society. Jefferson was more adept than Adams at negotiating such elegant obstacles. What distressed him was what occurred after the parties were over. He explained to George Washington that the informal but highly influential authority that wives and mistresses had over the decisions of government was the single most worrisome feature of French society: “The manners of the nation allow them to visit, alone, all persons in office, to sollicit the affairs of the husband, family, or friends, and their sollicitations bid defiance to laws and regulations. . . . [Few Americans] can possibly understand the desperate state to which things are reduced in this country from the omnipotence of an influence which, fortunately for the happiness of the sex itself, does not endeavor to extend itself in our country beyond the domestic line.” Especially when writing to American women, he liked to document his contrast of American virtue with European decadence by congratulating American women, “who have the good sense to value domestic happiness above all other,” with Frenchwomen, “who wrinkle their heads with politics.” It was, he concluded, “a comparison of Amazons and Angels.” 53

Jefferson was on the side of the angels. One of the reasons he went against Abigail’s advice and placed both his daughters in a convent school was that the arrangement, or so he thought, provided insulation from the vicissitudes of Parisian society. He was hard pressed to assure friends that Patsy and Polly were not being protected from the world at the risk of being indoctrinated in the values of Catholicism. He insisted that “not a word is ever said to them on the subject of religion. . . . It is a house of education only.” And Panthemont offered the kind of education appropriate for the fairer sex—that is, courses in drawing or painting, dancing, music, etiquette and Italian. 54

Though always eager to please her father, Patsy proceeded to demonstrate that neither the ladylike curriculum nor the high walls of the convent afforded the insulation Jefferson wanted for her. She reported that, while her French was nearly native, she was losing the ability to speak, write or even think in English. Then she revealed that not even the nuns could prevent adolescent girls from sharing stories of sexual scandal. “There was a gentleman,” she wrote her father, “that killed himself because he thought his wife did not love him. They had been married ten years. I believe that if every husband in Paris was to do as much, there would be nothing but widows left.” Then came the final straw, when Patsy announced that she had decided to become a nun. Family legend has it that Jefferson drove up to the gates of Panthemont the following day, said not a word to the nuns or to Patsy, escorted her into his carriage, then drove her home in silence. This happened in April 1789, and Jefferson immediately began to make plans for returning to America, in part to assure that his daughters would be raised in a safer, more domestically inclined environment. 55

It is possible to get glimpses of Jefferson’s interactions with his daughters that support the image of a loving and devoted father. One visitor to Jefferson’s quarters, for example, described an intimate family scene in which Patsy was playing the harpsichord while a doting father helped Polly write a letter to friends back in Virginia. This is the kind of sentimental scene that Jefferson always idealized. And it allows us to visualize the domestic sphere not just as a special place that women inhabit but also as the innermost chamber of Jefferson’s private utopia. In that sense his tendency to consign women to a more rarefied and less contentious domain was not an alienating act but rather an endorsement of feminine values and virtues as central fixtures in the Jeffersonian paradise. 56

But most of the available evidence about Jefferson’s relationship with his daughters comes from letters. And the letters exist because Jefferson chose to keep his daughters separate from his household throughout the vast bulk of his time in France. Moreover, both the major message and the abiding tone of the letters conveyed a willful distancing of parent from child, what might be called arm’s-length parenting in the patriarchal style. For example, Patsy had wanted to accompany her father on his tour of southern France in the spring of 1787. Jefferson declined the request, then sent back sermons: “Determine never to be idle. No person will ever have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing. And that you may always be doing good, my dear, is the ardent prayer of yours affectionately.”

From Aix-en-Provence he apologized for his infrequent letters, then continued in the moralistic mode: “No laborious person was ever yet hysterical. . . . It is part of the American character to consider nothing as desperate; to surmount every difficulty by resolutions and contrivance. . . . You ask me to write you long letters. I will do it my dear, on condition that you will read them from time to time, and practice what they inculcate.”

An earlier letter to Polly strung together the same homilies on hard work and then, in a particularly insensitive passage, seemed to say that his own love was conditional upon her measuring up. You must apply yourself, Jefferson lectured, “to play on the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to read and talk French and such things as will make you more worthy of the love of your friends. . . . Remember too as a constant charge not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much.” 57

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jefferson, who was so remarkably adept at crafting his literary persona to suit the audience, simply lacked the ability to convey affection to his own children. This does not mean that he was an unloving or uncaring father. His idealization of domestic bliss as the ultimate source of his personal happiness was certainly sincere, and his children were integral parts of that protected space where the ideal lived in his imagination. But in real life, in the day-by-day interactions with his flesh-and-blood daughters, he was incapable of sustained intimacy.

His relationships with mature women were decidedly different. If Jefferson tended to place women on a pedestal and then place that pedestal in the most cherished chamber of his mental Monticello, his letters to women friends combined conspicuous gallantry with a flirtatious, playfully intimate style. If his letters to his daughters have a lecturish, almost wooden tone and seem hurried and obligatory, his correspondence with women his own age is highly personal, soft to the point of sentimentality and carefully crafted.

For example, his letters to Angelica Schuyler Church, a renowned beauty and accomplished artist whose daughter was attending Panthemont with Patsy, suggest a kind of male coquette. “When you come again,” he apprised Church after her visit in Paris, “I will employ myself solely in finding or fancying that you have some faults, and I will draw a veil over all your good qualities, if I can find one large enough.” He then imagined Church visiting him at Monticello, the two of them gazing appreciatively all afternoon at the majesty of the Natural Bridge. He affected the same swooning style in correspondence with Madame de Tessé, an aunt of the Marquise de Lafayette’s whose estate at Chaville featured gardens in which Jefferson loved to stroll: “Here I am, Madam,” he wrote from Nîmes, “gazing whole hours at the Maison quarrée, like a lover at his mistress. The stock-weavers and silk spinners around it consider me as an hypochondriac Englishman, about to write with a pistol the last chapter of his history. This is the second time I have been in love since I left Paris.” The first, he noted, was occasioned by a statue of Diana he viewed in Beaujolais. 58

Actually, the statue of Diana had been preceded by a quite living and equally lovely woman by the name of Maria Cosway, the wife of the prominent miniaturist Richard Cosway. (Almost all of Jefferson’s female friends were married or widowed.) If ever Jefferson encountered the essence of femininity as he imagined it, Cosway personified the ideal perfectly. She was described by contemporaries as “a golden-haired, languishing Anglo-Italian, graceful to affectation, and highly accomplished, especially in music,” and the various portraits that survive depict a set of deep blue eyes, a tumble of blond curls, a beguiling blend of hauteur and vulnerability. When these were combined with an almost imperious pouting posture and the soft trace of a foreign accent—Italian was her native language—the total effect was usually devastating on men. Jefferson proved no exception. They met in early August 1786, introduced by the young American artist John Trumbull, who had accepted Jefferson’s invitation to join his household in Paris while he worked on his painting “The Declaration of Independence.” Within days Jefferson was head over heels in love. 59

For the next six weeks Jefferson and Cosway were together almost daily, touring every garden, viewing every distinctive building, statue, painting or ancient ruin in Paris and its environs. For Jefferson, the luxuriant beauty of a work of art activated the same deep pool of passion that a beautiful woman also tapped—aesthetic appreciation and femininity were closely associated primal urges within his soul—and the commingling of Parisian art and architecture with the seductive attractions of a beautiful young woman (Cosway was twenty-seven) generated an explosive combination that left him utterly infatuated. He ignored his diplomatic chores, often dispatching Petit to make his excuses for missed appointments.

The rhapsodic adventure reached a climax on September 18, 1786, when Jefferson, still very much under the spell of emotional exuberance, broke his right wrist while trying to vault over a large kettle or fountain—there is disagreement over which it was. Just where the accident occurred and whether Cosway was even with him at the time are not known. Jefferson’s most revealing comment on the incident came a month later: “How the right hand became disabled would be a long story for the left to tell,” he wrote to William Stephens Smith. “It was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may.” The injury incapacitated Jefferson for several weeks and put an effective end to the romantic frolics with Cosway. “It is with infinite regret,” he wrote her with his left hand, “that I must relinquish your charming company for that of the surgeon.” But two different French physicians botched the treatment—the wrist gave him trouble for the rest of his life—and Cosway left for London with her husband before another rendezvous could be arranged. He did manage to see her off, claiming that he turned away as she disappeared on the horizon, feeling “more dead than alive.” 60

We can never know with any certainty what transpired between Jefferson and Cosway during the fall of 1786. Historians, biographers and even filmmakers have lingered over the episode in loving detail and reached different answers to the “did-they-or-didn’t-they?” question. What is indisputable is that Jefferson spent several months in a romantic haze, which he described in terms reminiscent of the young lover in The Sorrows of Young Werther: “Living from day to day, without a plan for four and twenty hours to come,” he confessed to another woman friend, “I form no catalogue of impossible events. Laid up in port, for life as I thought myself at one time, I am thrown out to sea, and an unknown one to me.” Indeed, the Cosway affair is significant not because of the titillating questions it poses about a sexual liaison with a gorgeous young married woman but because of the window it opens into Jefferson’s deeply sentimental soul and the highly romantic role he assigned to women who touched him there. 61

The most self-revealing letter he ever wrote was sent to Cosway in October 1786, while he was still under the spell of their whirlwind infatuation and still recovering from the injured wrist, which itself served as a perfect metaphor for his wounded condition. Twelve pages and more than four thousand words long, Jefferson labored over the letter with the same intensity he had brought to the Declaration of Independence. The famous letter—it has been endlessly interpreted by several generations of scholars—takes the classic if somewhat contrived form of “a dialogue between the Head and the Heart.” Though the announced intention of the letter is to offer Cosway a problematic picture of the internal battle within Jefferson between reason and emotion, it is a love letter, and therefore the powers of the heart are privileged. The heart has the last word as well as the best lines (i.e., “Had they [philosophers] ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives . . .”). Jefferson even enlists the American Revolution in behalf of the heart’s side of the argument, claiming that victory in the war for independence was a matter of “enthusiasm against numbers” because it defied any rational measure of probability. So at one level the heart is the unequivocal winner of the debate. Despite the agony he felt at Cosway’s departure, the ecstasy of their time together was worth the pain. But at another level it is Jefferson’s head that is orchestrating the arguments and words of the dialogue. The act of crafting the letter allowed him to recover control over the powerful emotions that the relationship with Cosway had released. He kept a letterpress copy of the letter to record the emotions of the moment for posterity. In the long run the head prevails. 62

Jefferson’s subsequent correspondence with Cosway charts the gradual and perhaps inevitable cooling of the infatuation. It also bears witness to his urge to transport his palpable feelings for a real woman to a more imaginary region where perfect love could be more easily and safely experienced. In December 1786, still suffering from the wrist injury and the pain of separation, he recalled a magic cap he had read about as a child that enabled its wearer to fly wherever he wished. “I should wish myself with you, and not wish myself away again,” he wrote. “If I cannot be with you in reality, I will in imagination.” He reported his dream of the two of them in Virginia, visiting the Natural Bridge: “I shall meet you there, and visit with you all the grand scenes. I had rather be deceived than live without hope. It is so sweet! It makes us ride so smoothly over the roughness of life.” 63

In her early letters Cosway was able to match him with her own romantic imaginings. “Are you to be painted in future ages,” she wrote in February 1787, “sitting solitary and sad, on the beautiful Monticello tormented by the shadow of a woman who will present you a deform’d rod [presumably his wrist], twisted and broken, instead of the emblematic instrument belonging to the Muses. . . .” 64

But by the summer of 1787 Jefferson’s letters had become less frequent. Cosway fell back on her pouting and petulant poses, complaining about his lack of attention and threatening to cease writing until the number of Jefferson’s letters matched hers. She was now, however, locked into a war of words with one of the virtuoso prose stylists of the age. His long silence, he explained, was the result of a trip to southern France and northern Italy, where he “took a peep into Elysium” and realized that “I am born to lose everything I loved.” But the references were not to Cosway, at least explicitly; they were to the architecture of Italy and his failure to see Rome. “Your long silence is unpardonable,” she replied, then admitted that she did not know what else to say: “My war against you is of such a Nature that I cannot even find terms to express it. . . . But I begin to run on and my intention was only to say nothing; send a blank paper. . . .” 65

Jefferson’s response to Cosway’s impatience only increased her frustration: “I do not think I was in arrears in my epistolary account when I left Paris. In affection I am sure you were greatly my debtor. I often determined during my journey to write you; but sometimes the fatigue of exercise and sometimes a fatigued attention hindered me.” She had by now become a lovely memory that he could summon up and appreciate in the privacy of his imagination: “At Heidelberg I wished for you too. In fact I led you by the hand thro’ the whole garden. . . . At Strasbourg I sat down to write you. But for my soul I could think of nothing at Strasbourg but the promontory of noses. . . . Had I written to you from thence it would have been a continuation of Sterne upon noses. . . .” This last reference was to a passage in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy that describes an elongating nose, an unmistakable piece of sexual innuendo intended to be provocative. But the reference eluded Cosway, who was accustomed to leaving her male admirers in various European capitals wondering and wandering in her wake. (No less than James Boswell said she treated men like dogs.) Now, however, she herself was dangling, the femme fatale who had more than met her match. She was incensed: “At last I receive a letter from you, am I to be angry or not. . . . lett me tell you I am not your debtor in the least. . . . how could you lead me by the hand all the way, think of me, have Many things to say, and not find One word to write, but on Noses?” 66

During Cosway’s return visit to Paris the two former lovers managed to see each other only briefly and always in large social gatherings. During Jefferson’s return trip to America, he lay over in England for ten days while waiting for a ship but chose not to make the effort to visit her before sailing. She reciprocated by claiming that a bad cold made a trip to him impossible. In one of her last letters she acknowledged defeat in the verbal jousting match, along with a pervasive sense of personal inadequacy: “I wish always to converse with you longer. But when I read your letters they are so well wrote, so full of a thousand pretty things that it is not possible for me to answer such charming letters. I could say many things if my pen could write exactly My sentiments and feelings, but my letters must appear sad scrawls to you.” Jefferson, for his part, said good-bye in terms that recognized how the sizzling infatuation and then quarrelsome coquetry had now congealed into a cooler but more comfortable friendship. The more unmanageable emotions had long since been consigned to a cherished and safely insulated chamber of his soul. “Adieu my very dear friend,” he wrote. “Be our affections unchangeable, and if our little history is to last beyond the grave, be the longest chapter in it that which shall record their purity, warmth and duration.” While his customary discretion makes it impossible to know whether the affair with Cosway had an active and not just a suggestive sexual dimension, the abiding character of their lengthy correspondence makes it abundantly clear that Jefferson preferred to meet his lovers in the rarefied region of his mind rather than the physical world of his bedchamber. 67


BY THE MID-POINT of his time in France, then, Paris had come to mean many things to Jefferson: It was the diplomatic capital of Europe in which the political and commercial stature of the new American nation he represented remained marginal at best; the epitome of the Old World’s civilized seductions, as well as its urban corruptions; and the perfect place to fall in love. Paris also proved to be the ideal perch from which to observe two of the most significant political events in Western history. From afar it afforded Jefferson a conveniently detached perspective on the debate surrounding the creation and ratification of the new Constitution of the United States, a debate in which the combination of his distance and the quality of his chief source—James Madison—allowed him to accommodate himself to political ideas that violated his deepest ideological instincts. From close up it provided him with the unique opportunity to witness the coming of the French Revolution and, in the crucible of conversations with several of its staunchest supporters and ultimate victims, to work out the full implications of his truly radical vision of politics. As both a bird’s-eye observer of American developments and a ringside witness of French convulsions, in short, he fashioned what were to become enduringly Jeffersonian convictions about mankind’s tenuous relationship with government.

His ongoing correspondence with Madison and Monroe had kept him abreast of the growing dissatisfaction with the inherent weakness of the federal Congress in Philadelphia. “The politics of Europe render it indispensably necessary that with respect to every thing external we be one nation only, firmly held together,” he informed Madison, adding, “Interior government is what each state should keep to himself.” He wanted it known back home in Virginia and in Philadelphia that he favored reform of the Articles of Confederation to enlarge federal jurisdiction over foreign trade and foreign policy but preferred leaving control over all domestic concerns, including taxation, to the particular states. “To make us one nation as to foreign concerns, and keep us distinct in Domestic ones,” he wrote to Madison, “gives the outline of the proper division of powers between the general and particular governments.” 68

By 1786 Madison was already contemplating much more drastic changes in the structure of the federal government. Jefferson had inadvertently contributed to such thoughts by sending over two trunks of books, including the collected works of David Hume, which Madison then proceeded to study in preparation for the Constitutional Convention. (The historian Douglass Adair has called Madison’s intensive reading of Hume perhaps the most productive and consequential act of scholarship in American history.) But Madison did not initially share his more critical assessment of the American government with Jefferson. The established pattern of their political alliance was for Madison or Monroe to provide the information about congressional debates and for Jefferson then to dictate the directions to be taken. For example, when Monroe reported a congressional proposal to move the national capital from Philadelphia to New York, Jefferson told him to join with Madison to block the move since the interest of Virginia demanded a location on the Potomac. “It is evident that when a sufficient number of the Western states come in,” he apprised Monroe, “they will move it to George town. In the meantime it is our interest that it should remain where it is, and give no new pretensions to any other place.” Given the deference that Madison customarily displayed toward Jefferson’s commands, it is not surprising that Jefferson remained unaware of the root-and-branch reforms Madison believed essential until after the Constitutional Convention had completed its work. In this one all-important instance their roles were reversed; Madison was in the lead. 69

Meanwhile Jefferson was receiving reports from other quarters about an insurrection in western Massachusetts led by a veteran of the American Revolution named Daniel Shays to protest new taxes imposed by Boston. In the grand scheme of things Shays’s Rebellion was a tempest in a teapot, but prominent figures throughout the country interpreted it as a harbinger of incipient anarchy and a clarion call for a more vigorous and fully empowered federal government: “In short, my Dr. Sir,” John Jay wrote from Philadelphia, “we are in a very unpleasant Situation. Changes are Necessary, but what they Ought to be, what they will be, and how and when to be produced, are arduous questions.” From London Abigail Adams summoned up the scene of a looming apocalypse. “Ignorant, wrestless desperadoes, without conscience or principles,” she informed Jefferson, “have led a deluded multitude to follow their standard, under pretence of grievances which have no existence but in their own immaginations.” 70

In retrospect it is clear that both the Shaysites’ fear of tyranny and the corresponding fear of observers like Jay and Abigail Adams that America was on the verge of social disintegration were mutually reinforcing overreactions of near-paranoid proportions. Jefferson’s response to the entire display was especially revealing both for its clearsighted and even serene endorsement of popular resistance to government in almost any form and for its eventually famous phrasing: “I hope they pardoned them [i.e., the Shaysites],” he told Abigail. “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. . . . I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” He had first proposed a similar formulation of the problem two months earlier in a letter to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale. “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then,” he had written Stiles, “or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.” A month later he had written Madison in language almost identical to his message to Abigail. His boldest formulation came more months later, in November 1787, when he told William Stephens Smith that Shays’s Rebellion was actually a symptom of America’s political health: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two?” he observed. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Moreover, those alleged statesmen who wished to use Shays’s Rebellion as an occasion to justify more coercive political institutions, he warned, “are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.” 71

These were extremely radical statements, which, taken literally—or, for that matter, taken at all seriously—placed Jefferson far to the left of any responsible political leader of the revolutionary generation. For his remarks suggested that his deepest allegiances were not to the preservation of political stability but to its direct opposite. Given the radical and even anarchistic consequences of the ideas he seemed to be advocating in response to the Shays scare, one is tempted to put them down as hyperbolic occasions, or perhaps as momentary excesses prompted by his genuine aversion to the overreaction of those condemning the Shays insurrection, an aversion rendered more plausible and comfortable by his distant and safe location in Paris.

But there is reason to believe that Jefferson meant what he said, indeed that his entire way of thinking about government was different from that of any other prominent American leader of the time. In January 1787, while Madison was studying the classic texts of Hume and Montesquieu in preparation for the Constitutional Convention later that spring, Jefferson wrote him to share his own thoughts on the appropriate political models for American society. While Madison was grappling with questions about political architecture—how to configure federal and state power; how to design institutions so as to balance interest groups without replicating the gridlock of the current government under the Articles of Confederation—Jefferson was thinking much more grandly, about the very ground on which any and all political structures must be constructed. While Madison was struggling with arrangements of authority in three branches of the government, Jefferson was identifying three kinds of society in which human beings might arrange themselves.

There was European society, with governments that ruled by force, usually monarchical in form, what Jefferson described as “a government of wolves over sheep.” Then there was American and, to a slightly lesser extent, English society, with governments responsive to the populace as a whole, where “the mass of mankind enjoys a precious degree of liberty & happiness.” Finally there was Indian society, which managed itself without any formal government at all by remaining small and assuring the internalization of common values among all members. If forced to choose, Jefferson preferred the Indian solution, while admitting that it was “inconsistent with any degree of population.” He reiterated the point in a letter to Edward Carrington, a conservative Virginian planter and politician. “I am convinced,” he explained, “that those societies (as the Indians) which live without government enjoy in their gen’l mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.” 72

The Jeffersonian ideal, in short, was not a specific version of balanced republican government. It was a world in which individual citizens had internalized their social responsibilities so thoroughly that the political architecture Madison was designing was superfluous. Though prepared to acknowledge the need to make necessary compromises with his ideal for practical reasons—the size of the American population and the vastness of its territory obviously demanded some delegation of authority beyond the sovereign self—he did so grudgingly. And the elaborate reasoning about constitutional structure that so captivated political thinkers like Madison and the other delegates at the Constitutional Convention never animated the best energies of his mind, which drew its inspiration from a utopian vision of the liberated individual resisting all external coercion and regarding all forms of explicit government power as a necessary evil.

All this helps explain his initially hostile reaction to the news leaking out of Philadelphia about the shape of the new American Constitution in the summer of 1787. Madison had tried to prepare him for what was coming, suggesting that America needed an energetic federal government “with a negative in all cases whatsoever over the local legislatures.” But Jefferson resisted the suggestion and questioned the decision to make wholesale changes in the current, albeit inadequate, national government: “The negative proposal . . . on all acts of the several [i.e., state] legislatures is now for the first time suggested to my mind,” he told Madison. “Prima facie I do not like it. It fails in an essential character [by proposing] to mend a small hole by covering the whole garment.” He expressed the same apprehension to Adams, claiming that “the good of the new constitution might have been couched in three or four articles to be added to the good, old, and venerable fabrick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique.” Edward Carrington also tried to prepare him for a fundamentally new kind of federal government, not just a minor revision of the Articles of Confederation. “The Ideas here suggested,” Carrington wrote in June, “are far removed from those which prevailed when you was amongst us, and as they have arisen with the most able, from an actual view of events, it is probable you may not be prepared to expect them.” Jefferson’s location in Paris rather than Philadelphia proved a major advantage, by providing time to adjust to political ideas that ran counter to his own and that he would in all likelihood have opposed if present. 73

He concealed his worries about what was brewing in Philadelphia from all his European correspondents, preferring to play his customary role as America’s champion. “Our Federal convention is likely to sit till October,” he wrote a French friend, “and we may be assured their propositions will be wise, as a more able assembly never sat in America. Happy for us, that when we find our constitutions defective and unsufficient to secure the happiness of our people, we can assemble with all the coolness of philosophers and set it to rights, while every other nation on earth must have recourse to arms. . . .” Meanwhile Madison apologized for his inability to provide a detailed account of the ongoing deliberations. “I am still under the mortification of being restrained from disclosing any part of their proceedings,” he wrote in July. “As soon as I am at liberty I will endeavor to make amends for my silence and . . . give you pretty full gratification. I have taken lengthy notes of every thing that has yet passed. . . .” 74

Madison was as good as his word. His letter of October 24, 1787, provided Jefferson with a lengthy report on the wide-ranging deliberations at the Constitutional Convention and a truly remarkable appraisal of the constitutional issues at stake. He described how the delegates had tried “to draw a line of demarkation which would give to the General Government every power requisite for general purposes, and leave to the States every power which might be most beneficially administered by them.” This formulation blurred the relative powers of federal versus state authority, but in terms that clearly extended federal jurisdiction over domestic policy in ways that Jefferson staunchly opposed. Madison then went on to analyze the intricate and purposefully ambiguous layering of jurisdiction by the different branches of government and the different versions of representation. “Those who contend for a Simple Democracy, or a pure republic, actuated by a sense of the majority, and operating within narrow limits,” he observed, “assume or suppose a case which is altogether fictitious.” What Madison was terming “fictitious” was in fact the essence of Jefferson’s thinking about government. Jefferson acknowledged as much in his response to Madison. “I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government,” he confessed. “It is always oppressive. . . . After all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail.” Madison did not write back to explain that, at least as he saw it, the Constitution had been designed to subvert mere majority rule on the assumption that the chief threat to individual liberty in America was likely to come from that direction. Jefferson would have found such an argument unintelligible, since he found it impossible to regard popular majorities as dangerous or to think about the powers of government in positive ways. Madison’s entire emphasis on social balance was at odds with Jefferson’s commitment to personal liberation. 75

Here was the first significant occasion—it would not be the last—when the special relationship between Jefferson and Madison assumed a human version of the checks and balances principle. Despite deep reservations about an energetic federal government, especially a federal government empowered to tax, Jefferson decided to follow the advice of his most loyal lieutenant and endorse ratification of the new Constitution. At first he declared himself neutral, telling Carrington that “there is a great mass of good in it . . . , but there is also to me a bitter pill or two,” then directing him to confer with Madison for more specific information about his views. On all the specific provisions empowering the new national government to make laws for all the states, he decided to remain silent and let Madison speak for him. Over the course of the following months, as the ratification process went forward in the respective states, Jefferson worked out a responsibly critical posture: The new Constitution had his approval, even though he preferred specific limitations on the tenure of the president and an explicit bill or declaration of rights that defined those personal freedoms that no federal government could violate. 76

Even Adams concurred on the latter point, as did many of the advocates of the Constitution in the state ratifying conventions. As for his apprehensions about excessive executive power, Jefferson wrote to Washington to assure the man who was virtually certain to be elected the first president that his worries were about the future, after Washington had left the office. They were also intensified by his European experience. “I was much an enemy to monarchy before I came to Europe,” he apprised Washington, and was “ten thousand times more so now since I have seen what they [i.e., kings] are. . . . I can further say with safety there is not a crowned head in Europe whose talents or merits would entitle him to be elected a vestryman by the people of any parish in America.” He had expressed his worries more directly to Adams, claiming that “the President seems a bad edition of the Polish king.” But his preference for term limits—he favored one four-year term—did not place him outside the boundaries of respectable criticism. 77

Nevertheless, word leaked back to America that Jefferson’s support for the new Constitution was soft and perhaps even nonexistent. “Bye the Bye,” wrote Francis Hopkinson from Philadelphia, “you have been often dish’d up to me as a strong Antifederalist, which is almost equivalent to what a Tory was in the Days of the War, for what reason I know not, but I don’t believe it and have utterly denied the Insinuation.” During the ratification debate in Virginia both Patrick Henry and George Mason, who led the opposition, claimed that mutual friends assured them that Jefferson also opposed the creation of a strong central government with powers over the states. Madison, however, rose to contradict the claim and, as he explained it to Jefferson, “took the liberty to state some of your opinions on the favorable side.” 78

Precisely what Jefferson himself would have said if he had been present in Virginia for the ratification debate is impossible to know. Madison, perhaps the most able parliamentary maneuverer in American politics, carried the Jeffersonian flag with him to victory in the Virginia convention. Jefferson’s own remarks throughout the summer and fall of 1788 were inconsistent and contradictory. First he advocated support for the Constitution until nine states had ratified, then opposition so as to force amendments and acceptance of a bill of rights. Then he backed away from that position, endorsing ratification but only on the condition that a bill of rights be added once the new government was in place. When Carrington sent him a copy of the recently published Federalist Papers, Jefferson sent his compliments to Madison, one of the main contributors, praising the work as “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written” and conceding that “it has rectified me in several points.” In an earlier letter to Madison he had conceded that on the specific question of presidential term limits, “I readily therefore suppose my position wrong. . . .” But when asked by Hopkinson if he was a staunch Federalist, meaning supporter of the Constitution, he gave an equivocal answer that was rescued from its inherent ambivalence by the lyrical quality of its concluding line: “I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever. . . . Such an addiction is the last degredation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” 79

In a very real sense, this statement, albeit unintentionally, captured the essence of Jefferson’s ultimate position on the Constitution and indeed on all specific constitutional schemes. He found them excessively technical configurations of political power that did not speak directly to his own political creed, which transcended categories like “Federalist” and “Antifederalist” by inhabiting a more rarefied region where political parties, constitutional distinctions and even forms of government themselves were rendered irrelevant. His lifelong attitude toward the constitutional settlement of 1787–88 remained ambiguous and problematic. The trouble with most Europeans, he wrote to Hopkinson, was that they had been bred to prefer “a government which can be felt; a government of energy. God send that our country may never have a government, which it can feel.” Madison and most Federalists believed that the new American Constitution was admirable for precisely the energetic qualities Jefferson denounced. As for Jefferson, his mind and heart longed for a world where government itself had disappeared. Given the terms of the constitutional debate that raged in America in 1788, the one issue that best embodied his political convictions was the insistence on a bill of rights that transcended all the Madisonian complexities. That was pretty much what he chose to emphasize.


AT ALMOST THE same time that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were gathering in Philadelphia, the Assembly of Notables was convened by the French king, Louis XVI, in Versailles. The advantage of hindsight allows us to know that this gathering, rendered necessary by a financial crisis that threatened to bankrupt the French government, was actually the opening chapter in a bewilderingly complex and horridly bloody chain of events that tore French society to pieces and fundamentally altered the course of modern history. But neither Jefferson nor anyone else for that matter could be expected to recognize at the time that he was witnessing the start of the French Revolution, or that comfortably confident endorsements of “a little rebellion now and then” would take on such a very different meaning after the cataclysms of 1789. 80

Jefferson’s initial instinct was to see the Assembly of Notables as an inferior version of the Constitutional Convention, another illustration of his running argument about the inherent superiority of the American environment and the degraded condition of European politics. He kept up a standing joke with the Adams family in which the delegates at Philadelphia were described as demigods or modern-day Ciceros, while the French nobility gathered at Versailles were comic buffoons who delivered long soliloquies that bore only a tenuous relationship to the political issues at stake. (Lafayette, Jefferson’s closest French friend and himself a delegate to the Assembly of Notables, joined in the banter by wondering if his colleagues should be called “not able.”) By the summer of 1787 Jefferson could complain to Monroe that the latter’s reports on the Constitutional Convention were brimming with excitement and vigorous arguments, while “I have nothing to give you in return but the history of the follies of nations in their dotage.” 81

His early characterizations of the king’s behavior fitted into the same pattern of European corruption. “The king goes for nothing,” Jefferson wrote Jay. “He hunts one half the day, is drunk the other, and signs whatever he is bid.” His confidential and coded letters to Adams and Madison reiterated the image of a royal family drowning in wine and incapable of any form of political leadership, except serving as role models in the most advanced arts of sexual promiscuity. He was sufficiently confident that nothing significant would happen at Versailles—aristocratic bombast directed at a drunken monarch more resembled a political opera than an occasion for serious statecraft—that he went ahead with his plans to travel through southern France rather than remain in the capital. 82

Although the motif of European degradation never completely disappeared from his thinking or his correspondence, by the summer of 1787 Jefferson had begun to recognize the seriousness of the political crisis France was facing. The frivolous tone of his earliest letters receded, his critical and condescending attitude toward Europe’s hopelessly corrupt condition became a minor note and the major note became that of a respectful and cautiously optimistic witness to history in the making. His reports to Jay, who still retained overall responsibility for American foreign policy, emphasized the steady progress France was making: Representative assemblies had been created in the various provinces; the infamous corvées, requiring peasants to perform unpaid labor for feudal lords, had been abolished; some kind of parliamentary system of government seemed inevitable, albeit one in which the power of the king would probably remain greater than the English constitutional model. “All together,” he wrote Jay, these were impressive reforms that “constitute a vast improvement in the condition of this nation.” 83

His shift from irreverent criticism to guarded optimism reflected his growing conviction that “the contagion of liberty” released onto the world by the American Revolution was now spreading to Europe and that France was the first European country to experience its liberating consequences. As one who had been present at the creation of this revolutionary movement in America, he felt almost providentially privileged to witness its arrival as a liberating army of ideas marching through France and, he hoped, eventually all Europe. If the detailed work of constitution making did not engage his fullest energies, the contemplation of more overarching political trends and truths did so naturally.

All this explains his extremely—and as subsequent events proved, excessively—optimistic appraisal of the ongoing political drama in revolutionary France. “So that I think it is probable that this country will within two or three years be in the enjoiment of a tolerably free constitution,” he wrote Monroe in 1788, “and without its having cost them a drop of blood.” When Adams expressed his concern that the different factions in the Estates-General would find compromise impossible, Jefferson assured him that “her [France’s] internal affairs will be arranged without blood” because moderates in the new national legislature were in control. “In every event, I think the present disquiet will end well,” he told Washington, explaining that the people of France “have been awaked by our revolution, they feel their strength, they are enlightened, their lights are spreading, and they will not retrograde.” France looked to him like the America of Europe. It was struggling to create a new constitution; like America—echoes of Shays’s Rebellion in the background—the threat of violence had been faced “but as yet not a life has been lost,” and again like America, thoughtful leaders “are all employed in drawing plans of bills of rights.” 84

Later in his life, probably when he was reviewing his correspondence in preparation to write his autobiography in 1821, Jefferson was somewhat embarrassed at his unrelieved optimism in the late 1780s. For by then, of course, he knew that the Assembly of Notables would fail to reach agreement about a solution to the fiscal crisis, which would then lead to the calling of the Estates-General, which would fail to resolve the political crisis in a way acceptable to the nobility and bourgeoisie, which would then lead to mob action in Paris, bread riots throughout the countryside, mass executions, the Reign of Terror and eventually dictatorial rule by Napoleon. On at least one occasion toward the end of his life he doctored his correspondence, inserting a more cautionary statement designed to convince posterity that his affection for France had not blinded him to the possibility of unparalleled violence. “Should they attempt more than . . . the established habits of the people are ripe for,” he later added to one letter from 1787, “they may lose all, and retard indefinitely the ultimate object of their aim.” The undoctored correspondence, however, reveals no premonition of the looming convulsions and instead shows an abiding confidence that French political leaders would manage their way past trouble much as their counterparts in America were doing. 85

So much history happened in prerevolutionary France during the last two years of Jefferson’s ministry that it is not easy to summarize his shifting political positions, except perhaps to say that he presumed that France would emerge from the ferment as some kind of constitutional monarchy. Despite his earlier characterizations of the French king as a drunken sot, completely out of touch with the needs and frustrations of the French people, by the summer of 1788 he had come to regard Louis as an enlightened ruler who was anxious to play a crucial role in forging political alliances between the nobility and the members of the Third Estate. (In the end Louis XVI turned out to be like George III, fated to do precisely the wrong thing at just the right time, what Jefferson called “a machine for making revolutions.”) But his fondest hopes for the recovery of political stability rested with the group of moderate and enlightened aristocrats, led by his good friend Lafayette, called the Patriots or the Patriot Party. Although he was prepared to acknowledge that the situations were fundamentally different, Jefferson seemed to regard the Patriots in France as counterparts to the Federalists in America; they were “sensible of the abusive government under which they lived, longed for occasions of reforming it” and were dedicated to “the establishment of a constitution which shall assure . . . a good degree of liberty.” Lafayette was cast in the role of a French Madison, orchestrating the essential compromises among the different factions and thereby consolidating the energies of the revolution within a political framework that institutionalized the maximum gains that historical circumstances would allow. 86

Jefferson was prepared to recognize that those circumstances were not ideal. The deeply rooted class divisions of French society were on display during the debates within the Estates-General that he attended in May and June 1789, as were the still-powerful legacies of feudalism, which had all but vanished in America but in Versailles took on the highly virulent and visible form of costumed lords and courtly processions. Given these entrenched impediments to a fully flowered revolution along American lines, Jefferson advised his friends in the Patriot Party to settle for the English constitutional model, supplemented by one important American addition—that is, he recommended the retention of the French monarchy, though with vastly reduced powers, the creation of a bicameral legislature with the upper chamber reserved for the clergy and nobility and—the American contribution—the insistence on a declaration of rights that protected basic liberties from violation by kings, lords or even elected legislators. Characteristically, he devoted most of his time and energy to drafting the Charter of Rights, which called for the abolition of all pecuniary privileges and exemptions enjoyed by the nobility, civilian rule over the military, equal treatment under the law and a modified version of freedom of the press. With France as with America, his fondest political topic was not the artful arrangement of government power but rather the cordoning off of a region where no government power could exist. He conveyed his draft to Lafayette in June 1789; it served as the basis for the Declaration of Rights that Lafayette presented to the National Assembly the following month. 87

By that time Jefferson was confident that the danger of disintegration and violent revolution had been averted. “The great crisis being now over,” he wrote to Jay, “I shall not have a matter interesting enough to trouble you with as often as I have lately.” The Estates-General had not taken his advice and established a separate chamber for the clergy and nobility, but enough of the privileged classes had gone over to the Third Estate to make the newly established National Assembly a representative, if somewhat unwieldy, body. Nevertheless, as he explained to Tom Paine on July 11, 1789, the French Revolution was effectively over. “The National assembly (for that is the name they take) . . . are now in complete and undisputed possession of sovereignty. The executive and the aristocracy are now at their feet. The mass of the nation, the mass of the clergy, and the army are with them. They have prostrated the old government, and are now beginning to build one from the foundation.” 88

The following day Paris exploded in a series of riots and mob actions that have been memorialized in countless histories, novels and films on the French Revolution: the assault on the Customs House; the stoning and eventual massacre of the royal cavalry; the storming of the Bastille and subsequent beheading and dismemberment of its garrison. After five days of random violence and massive demonstrations, Jefferson described to Jay the scene as Louis XVI returned to the capital, with Lafayette at his side, to be greeted by “about 60,000 citizens of all forms and conditions armed with the muskets of the Bastille and . . . pistols, swords, pikes, pruning hooks, sythes, etc.” and all shouting “vive la nation.” 89

If one were to conjure up a scene designed to weaken Jefferson’s faith in the inherent benevolence of popular movements or to shake his apparent serenity toward popular rebellions, one could hardly do better. Therefore it is worth noting that, though shocked at first by the random and savage character of the mob violence, he never questioned his belief in the essential rightness of the cause or the ultimate triumph of its progressive principles. His letters to Jay and Madison described the carnage of July 1789 as an unfortunate but temporary aberration that in no way called into question the prospect for an enduring and peaceful political settlement. He seemed to regard the spasm of violence as the product of a misguided decision by the king or his ministers to increase the troop strength in the city rather than as ominous evidence of deep and irreconcilable class resentments. By early August, in fact, he was convinced that the storm (shades of Shays’s Rebellion) had passed and the future looked clear and bright: “Quiet is so well established here that I think there is nothing further to be apprehended. The harvest is so near that there is nothing to fear from the want of bread. The National assembly are wise, firm and moderate. They will establish the English constitution, purged of its numerous and capital defects.” 90

It was in this brave and buoyant mood that Jefferson sat down on September 6, 1789, to write what has subsequently proved to be one of the most famous letters in his vast correspondence. “The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society,” he explained to Madison, “has presented the question to my mind.” The question itself was not entirely new. It was “Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another,” which Jefferson claimed had implications that had not been sufficiently appreciated in either Europe or America. His answer to the question had the kind of unequivocal ring that he normally reserved for documents like the Declaration of Independence. “I set out on this ground,” he announced, “which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.”

Exactly what Jefferson meant by this proposition has been the subject of endless debate among historians for some time. In the letter itself Jefferson seemed to be advocating some version of generational sovereignty. “We seem not to perceive,” as he put it to Madison, “that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation is to another.” He produced elaborate calculations based on Buffon’s demographic tables to show that, on average, a generation lasted about nineteen years. It therefore followed from the principle—“the earth belongs always to the living generations”—that all personal and national debts, all laws, even all constitutions, should expire after that time. 91

Madison, always the gentle critic of Jeffersonian ideas, complimented Jefferson on his “interesting reflections,” then proceeded to demolish the idea of generational sovereignty, which was not really an idea at all, he suggested, but rather a dangerous fantasy. In the course of presenting his argument, Jefferson had asked Madison to imagine “a whole generation of men to be born on the same day, to attain mature age on the same day, and to die on the same day.” Here, Madison observed not so diplomatically, was the chief clue that Jefferson was engaged in magic more than political philosophy. For there is not, and never can be, a generation in Jefferson’s pure sense of the term. Generational cohorts simply do not come into the world as discrete units. There is instead a seamless web of arrivals and departures, along with an analogous web of obligatory connections between past and present generations. These connections are not only unavoidable but absolutely essential for the continuation of civilized society. 92

Madison did not say it, but the whole tenor of his response implied that Jefferson’s letter was an inadvertent repudiation of all the painstaking work that he and his Federalist colleagues had been doing for the past two years. For Jefferson’s idea (or, if you will, fantasy) struck at the very stability and long-term legality that the new Constitution was designed to assure. The notion that all laws, contractual obligations and hard-won constitutional precedents would lapse every nineteen or twenty years was a recipe for anarchy. Like Jefferson’s earlier remark about wanting to see “a little rebellion now and then,” which it seemed to echo, the generational argument struck Madison as an utterly irresponsible and positively dangerous example of indulged speculation and just the kind of abstract reasoning that gave French political thinkers a reputation for building castles in the air. 93

As usual, Jefferson listened to Madison’s advice. He never put forward his generational argument as a serious legislative proposal, and he refrained from ever mentioning the matter to Madison again. But whatever practical problems the idea posed, whatever its inadequacies as a realistic rationale for legal reform, he clung to it tenaciously, introducing it in conversations and letters for the rest of his life. If, as Madison had suggested, the core of the idea was incompatible with the way the world actually worked, it was compatible with the way Jefferson’s mind worked. Indeed, there is no single statement in the vast literature by and about Jefferson that provides as clear and deep a look into his thinking about the way the world ought to work. The notion that “the earth belongs to the living” is in fact a many-faceted product of his political imagination that brings together in one place his essential obsessions and core convictions.

It therefore behooves us to ask when and how Jefferson acquired the idea. One can detect the first inkling in an earlier letter to Madison, describing his impressions of the French countryside around Fontainebleau in 1785. His encounter with a peasant woman led him, he told Madison, “into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe.” These reflections then led him to the conclusion that “the earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed.” What seems to be driving Jefferson’s thinking here is a fresh appreciation of the entrenched poverty afflicting Europe’s peasant class and the discrepancy between that near-hopeless condition and “the fundamental right to labour the earth.” What seems to be the culprit are the accumulated inequities and inherited inadequacies, the dead hand of the Europeans past—in a word, feudalism. 94

The next installment of the idea appears in Jefferson’s correspondence with Lafayette between January and July 1789. The correspondence itself is an elliptical and elusive source per se, but its major topic, the drafting of a Declaration of Rights, prompted both men to think about what Lafayette called “the right of succeeding generations” (le droit des générations qui se succèdent), a phrase included in the proposed Declaration of Rights that Lafayette submitted to the National Assembly in July. At one level the phrase was designed to assure subsequent constitutional reform, in the form of either amendments or conventions of the sort pioneered by the new American states. At a deeper level the thinking behind the language suggested the need to anticipate posterity’s independent appraisal of its own best interests. After all, the current French political crisis had been prompted by fiscal problems that now required the present generation to assume the accumulated debts of its predecessors. Inherent in the French political situation, in other words, was a heightened sensitivity toward the burdens the past imposed on the present, especially in the form of debt but also in the form of legacies like clerical and aristocratic privileges. Jefferson and Lafayette seemed to be groping toward built-in constitutional mechanisms that would relieve future generations from the same burdens. 95

The final sighting of the idea—that is before it took its enduring form in the letter to Madison—occurs in August and early September 1789. On August 26, responding to Lafayette’s request, Jefferson hosted a working dinner for eight leading members of the Patriot Party, who gathered to debate a looming vote in the National Assembly over whether the king should have a veto over acts of the legislature. It was a far-ranging discussion, which Jefferson described as “truly worthy of being placed in parallel with the finest dialogue of antiquity, as handed to us by Xenophon, by Plato, and Cicero.” While there is no direct evidence that the subject of generational sovereignty came up, the gathering conveniently symbolizes the informal and ultimately untraceable way in which new ideas were circulating in revolutionary Paris. And though neither Tom Paine nor the Marquis de Condorcet was present at the dinner, both men were members of the Patriot Party and had proposed their own versions of the generational argument. Condorcet, France’s premier mathematician as well as an outspoken republican, advocated a version of the generational argument strikingly similar to Jefferson’s, complete with demographic tables and the same calculations about the life span of a generation. What’s more, Condorcet was friends with and a patient of Dr. Richard Gem, a physician who treated Jefferson for one of his recurrent migraine headaches during the first week of September. We know that Gem and Jefferson discussed the question of posterity’s rights and that Gem handed Jefferson a written statement on the matter that asserted the principle “that one generation of men in civil society have no right to make acts to bind another, is a truth that cannot be contested.” 96

Rather than become entangled in an endless argument about intellectual originality and primacy, it seems more sensible to bypass such unanswerable questions and conclude that Jefferson’s thinking about the present generation’s obligations to the future developed in revolutionary France, that his formulation of the idea was probably influenced by the specific dilemmas faced by the French government at the time and that the notion of generational sovereignty was “in the air” within the French salon culture, in much the same way that the core ideas of the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence were “in the air” in the summer of 1776. The question then becomes: Why did Jefferson pluck this particular idea out of the air in 1789 and give it the exalted status of a newly discovered self-evident truth?

Two different but overlapping answers suggest themselves. First, Jefferson’s enhanced apprehensions about the destructive potential of inherited debt had both a public and a private dimension that converged in his mind about this time. The outstanding debt of the United States had undercut his best efforts as minister to France and blocked his diplomatic initiative to negotiate treaties with other European powers. And the volatile political situation in revolutionary France had been triggered by a fiscal crisis created by a massive national debt. Moreover, his personal finances—the cost of his accommodations, clothing, furniture, horses and carriage, what he called his “outfit”—had far outdistanced his allotted salary and forced him into embarrassing exchanges with his superiors back in Philadelphia about the gap between his living costs and his ministerial stipend.

But the debt he was running up in Paris was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For by the late 1780s he began to become aware that the debts he had inherited from his father-in-law’s estate were compounding at a rate that he might never be able to repay. It first began to dawn on him that despite owning thousands of acres and about two hundred slaves, he owed his creditors such vast amounts that he might go to his grave a debtor. This realization was almost as much a burden as the debts themselves. “The torment of mind I endure till the moment shall arrive when I shall not owe a shilling on earth,” he wrote his overseer at Monticello in 1787, “is such really as to render life of little value here.” He was, in effect, both intellectually and psychologically primed to appreciate what debt does to nations and to individuals and therefore open to ideas designed to limit the damage. 97

Moreover, the doctrine of generational sovereignty was yet another version of his utopian radicalism. Madison was surely correct to declare the entire scheme wildly impractical and utterly incapable of implementation. But that was beside the point. For the vision of each generation starting from scratch, liberated from the accumulated legacies of past debts, laws, institutionalized obligations and regulations, allowed Jefferson to conjure up his fondest dream, a world where the primal meaning of independence could flourish without any restrictions, where innocence had not yet been corrupted. This was the world of the prefeudal Saxon settlers, the world of the prepolitical Indian tribes, the world of the independent yeoman farmer on the edge of the frontier, the world after a rightful rebellion has cleared the air. It was a wholly voluntary world, where coercion was unknown and government unnecessary. Though transient—history would begin to make its inevitable inroads almost immediately—the idyllic harmonies sustained themselves for that one brief, shining moment. It was therefore the proper place to house the memories of the affair with Maria Cosway (though not Cosway herself) and to preserve the feminine values she symbolized at the peak of their remembered perfection. The belief that “the earth belongs to the living,” in short, was another blow struck in behalf of Jefferson’s most cherished dream: a society devoid of contaminating institutions and laws; an effort to routinize their removal so that the deadening hand of history was regularly slapped away in order to make room for a pristine encounter with what he believed to be the natural order.


JEFFERSON HAD BEEN anticipating his return to America throughout the winter and spring of 1789. Even before Washington’s election as president, which everyone considered a foregone conclusion, Jefferson’s name had been bandied about as a prospective member of the new administration. In May Madison reported these rumors, adding that “the most prominent figures” (who presumably included Washington himself) were taking him aside to ask whether an appointment in the new government would be agreeable to the current American minister to France. “Being unacquainted with your mind,” Madison wrote in coded language, “I have not ventured on an answer.” Jefferson did not receive Madison’s letter until August, but he responded crisply and immediately: “You ask me if I would accept my appointment on that side the water? You know the circumstances which led me from retirement, step by step from one nomination to the other, up to the present. My object is to return to the same retirement.” The answer, in short, was no. He did want to return to Virginia to deposit Patsy and Polly back in the safer surroundings of their native land. And he wanted to put his personal affairs at Monticello in order. But after a few months at home he expected to return to his post in Paris—there is no reason to doubt his sincerity on this score—and then retire from public service. 98

His last letters from France are intriguingly contradictory on the question of the ongoing French political crisis. On the one hand, he reiterated his optimism. “Tranquillity is pretty generally restored in this country,” he explained, “and the National Assembly are going on well in forming their constitution. It will be difficult for them to form one which will appear the best possible to every mind but they will form a good one, in which liberty and property are placed on a surer footing than they are in England. I imagine they will be two or three months engaged in this business.” He was prepared to recognize the existence within the National Assembly of a mischievous faction “with very dangerous views.” But they should be easily overwhelmed because “the mass of the nation [is] so solidly united, that they seem to have abandoned all expectations of confusing the game.” 99

On the other hand, to a few correspondents he was more circumspect. “The crisis of this country is not yet over,” he wrote to David Ramsay of South Carolina. “Should the want of bread begin a tumult, the consequences cannot be foreseen, because the leaven of other causes will rise with the fermentation.” The mood of his letters to Jay was simultaneously upbeat and cautious. He expected the Patriot Party to dominate the National Assembly, thereby exerting a moderating effect on the extremists and leading France to stability as a constitutional monarchy. But there were some less attractive scenarios. If bread riots began in Paris, or the fiscal crisis worsened, or the king lost his nerve and attempted to flee Versailles, it would “be the signal of a St. Barthelemi [i.e., a massacre] against the aristocrats in Paris. . . .” With Jay at least, his official superior in charge of American foreign affairs, he was hedging his bets. 100

The long trek back to Monticello began on September 28, 1789. Bad weather trapped him at Le Havre for two weeks, long enough to attract the attention of one fellow traveler, who described an attractive scene in which Jefferson waited out the weather with Patsy and Polly gathered around him, reading out loud to their father while he helped Polly pronounce difficult words. As they waited for the ship that would carry them to England and eventual passage to America, three different correspondents were writing him with important news: Maria Cosway bade him farewell, saying a bad cold prevented a final rendezvous in England; William Short reported from Paris that bread riots had broken out there and a mob of five thousand women was marching on Versailles; and George Washington wrote to offer him the post of America’s first secretary of state. 101


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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