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Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson in France 1784-1789

1781-1784

1789-1793

Jeffersons duties in France involved the negotiation of commercial treaties with several European powers. Fortunately, he was not alone in this difficult task, having been preceded by elder statesmen John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, with whom Jefferson now joined ranks. Because of the decentralized federal government under the Articles of Confederation (See the Articles of Confederation SparkNote), even this most formidable American triumvirate could find little success in their skillful negotiations.

Many European powers viewed the United States as a rebellious splinter from the British Empire that was bound to fold before it ever prospered. Such an opinion was in part supported by the fact that fully 85 percent of goods for sale or trade in the United States continued to flow in from Britain. Nevertheless, Jefferson and company enjoyed a significant victory in 1785 when they secured a treaty with Frederick the Great of Prussia. This opened up the floodgates for further talks among lesser European sovereignties, such as Denmark and Tuscany.

Just over a year after arriving in Paris, Jefferson found himself as the sole remaining United States minister to France. Adams was given a new assignment in Britain, where an already tense relationship was flagging. Franklin, approaching eighty, had decided to retire after a long and illustrious decade in France. Jefferson was quite mindful of his debt to Franklin. When asked if he had been tabbed as Franklins replacement, Jefferson replied, No, sir, I succeed him; no one can replace him.

Though modest in dress, Jefferson was impressive in deportment, and quickly rose from an unknown diplomat to a much sought-after member of Parisian society. Despite his financial constraints, he eventually took up residence in a splendid villa on the Champs-Elysees, complete with stables and an extensive garden featuring American crops such as corn, sweet potatoes, and watermelons. He placed his daughter Patsy in a convent school, and arranged French cooking lessons for his slave James Hemings.

Even as social commitments occupied large spaces of Jeffersons time, there were also diplomatic matters to attend to. An especial frustration was found in the tyranny of the North African principalities such as Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis, who demanded exorbitant tribute monies just as they endeavored to imprison American sailors. While Jefferson saw this as an occasion to increase the naval power of the United States, Congress remained reluctant to centralize power in such an aggressive fashion. In time, Jefferson worked out a treaty with Morocco to free several prisoners and suspend all tribute demands. However, this success was not replicated in discussions with the other North African powers, who continued to plague the United States for decades.

To complicate matters, the British insurance firms insisted on steep premiums for American freighters bound for the Mediterranean, even after Jeffersons treaty with Morocco. And while Jefferson eventually worked out a commercial treaty with France, Adams continued to struggle in his efforts with Britain. Thinking to help Adams, Jefferson traveled to London in the spring of 1786, but both men were thoroughly spurned in their efforts to negotiate with King George III. For Jefferson, the trip was salvaged by an extensive tour of the English countryside, where he saw many of the most famous state mansions and landscape gardens of the day. These visits only served to reconfirm his commitment to the principles of classical architecture.

Upon returning to France, Jefferson found his standing much increased by the recent publication there of his Notes on the State of Virginia and Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, the latter only recently adopted by the Virginia Assembly. Together, these two tracts secured Jeffersons reputation as a leading Enlightenment thinker and reformer. Within the cultural wealth of Paris, he did much to cultivate his celebrity, embarking on projects ranging from a study of English prosody to an investigation of the natural history of North America to a French translation of his own Notes.

While right at home in the intellectual swirl of Paris, Jefferson was at times less comfortable with the social milieu. He professed to be scandalized by the lack of domestic morality among French aristocrats, and was highly disdainful of the offhanded manner with which many of his associates treated their liaisons. But down through history, Jeffersons biographers have debated as to whether his main objection was to a lack of decorum or a lack of discretion.

Whether consummated or not, it is clear that while in Paris Jefferson developed a romantic attachment to Maria Cosway, a young English painter raised in Italy, and fully possessed of the characteristic Mediterranean charms. Although unhappily married, she was formally committed to her spouse. This arrangement did much to frustrate the progress of what was clearly more than an innocent, uncomplicated affection between her and Jefferson. Ultimately, after an extended intimate association, the two were parted when Cosway returned to England with her husband.

Many of Jeffersons more staid biographers have assumed that Jefferson remained celibate during his final forty-five years. Others have conceded the likelihood that his tryst with Cosway was more than purely platonic. His lengthy love letter to her, which later gained the title A Dialogue Between the Head and the Heart, has been the study of much scrutiny and speculation. In any event, Cosway was the last woman whom Jefferson made a public show of ardor toward in his adult life.

To relieve the strain of his broken heart, Jefferson took an invigorating tour around the south of France and throughout Italy. While there, he studied classical Roman architecture on site, and explored various agricultural methods throughout the region. From his observations, he later contributed to the design of Virginias new capital at Richmond, and brought many new farming techniques to Monticello, including approaches to the cultivation of almonds, olives, oranges, and rice, and the production of ice cream and parmesan cheese.

Around the time that he returned to Paris, Jefferson was reunited with his ten- year old daughter Polly, who had been brought to Europe via London in the care of a teenage slave named Sally Hemings. The daughter of John Wayles and Betty Hemings, Sally Hemings was an attractive quadroon, and also the unacknowledged half-sister of Jeffersons late wife Martha. She bore with her ample news from Monticello, and was rewarded for her good tidings by being placed in the care of a French tutor. Over the next several months, her social polish increased in keeping with her wardrobe.

In 1787, Jefferson was re-elected to a second three-year term as minister to France. Through correspondence with James Madison, he was kept up to relative speed on the progress of the Constitutional Convention, which was proceeding at Philadelphia in that same year. Jefferson was of the conservative opinion that a mere revision of the Articles of Confederation was necessary in order to increase the role of the federal government. Others, Madison most prominent among them, were for a complete overhaul, the direction of which Jefferson observed with an aloof but vested interest. He raised his loudest objections at the absence of a Bill of Rights, which he did much to shape in conjunction with Madison, and which stands beside the Constitution as a bedrock of Americas present-day political system (See the Constitution SparkNote).

Sensing an increasingly revolutionary drift in the Parisian air, and wishing to remove his daughters from the influences of convent schooling, Jefferson applied for a six-month leave of absence in November 1788. His intention was to travel to America in order to settle his affairs at Monticello and to place his daughters in a comfortable and productive situation before returning to France to resume his duties as minister there. But in the bureaucratic backlog created by the Constitutional debates, Jeffersons request was put off for nearly a year.

In the ensuing period, several explosive events unfurled. The first involved Jeffersons eldest daughter Patsy, who threatened to run away to a nunnery. While Jefferson was eventually able to dissuade her from this course, such a traumatic episode must have left a mark on their later relationship. The second controversy involved James and Sally Hemings. By some source or other, the siblings had learned that as slaves they could obtain their liberty simply by electing to remain in France. As both of them had found the process of integration a smooth one, such an opportunity was doubtless appealing.

After some hard convincing, Jefferson was able to avert the loss of two of his finest slaves, and the Hemings siblings returned to Monticello with him. Many have speculated that this was accomplished by means of a bargain involving the eventual emancipation of various members of the Hemings family. In fact, many Hemings family members were emancipated toward the end of Jeffersons life, and several more were granted their freedom in Jeffersons will. Whether these were the terms of the promise or not, James and Sally Hemings were in tow when Jefferson returned to the United States in October of 1789 along with the rest of his entourage.

Just prior to his departure, the long-standing tensions that had enveloped Paris boiled over. The opening stages of the French Revolution were sparked by the storming of the Bastille on June 14, 1789. The bloody, convoluted push toward democracy had begun. While Jefferson refused to support the mob mentality of these early days, he stood behind the principles that sparked the chaos.

Although Jefferson resolved to remain neutral in the midst of the conflict, he found himself drawn to the cause of the Marquis de Lafayette and others who had supported Americas push for independence a few short years earlier. Upon request, he surreptitiously authored a charter of rights to be presented to King Louis XVI, and he later hosted a meeting of French revolutionary leaders to discuss plans for the new republican government.

Back in the United States, news of the French Revolution was met with grave concern. Although the New England and Tidewater aristocracies welcomed the deposition of monarchs, they also clung dearly to long-cherished ideals about social privilege and class distinction. If the fall of a king was to be encouraged, the rise of the people was not. Such patrician ideals were about to congeal under the Presidency of George Washington. And while Jefferson would fill an important role in the Washington administration, he would continue to hold fast to his radical ideal of democracy, even in the face of heated opposition.

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