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Thomas Jefferson


Jefferson in France 1784-1789

Summary Jefferson in France 1784-1789

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.

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