Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson in France 1784-1789

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.