Edmond-Charles Genêt to Thomas Jefferson, 1797: Weekend Reading
Ten Years Ago on Grasping Reality: July 9, 2008

I Never Knew That George Washington Had Saved the Life of Citizen Edmond-Charles Genêt from Robespierre....

stacks and stacks of books

Conor Cruise O'Brien's book about Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution suffers from the same flaw as the dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park and as Ronald Syme's superb The Roman Revolution: all take DNA from some place else and use it to fill in the gaps. In the case of The Roman Revolution, Ronald Syme takes Mussolini and uses him to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the man born Gaius Octavius Thurinus who became Augustus. In the case of Jurassic Park, they use frog DNA to fill out the dinosaur double helixes. In the case of The Long Affair, Conor Cruise O'Brien uses Kerensky, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin to complete his picture of the French Revolution and of Lafayette, Danton, Hebert, and Robespierre. This method produces a great book to read (or movie to watch). But it is not really history wie es eigentlich gewesen.

My view is that Jefferson believed in the French Revolution not because he wanted the Tree of Liberty to be watered by blood or because he wanted to see the U.S. Congress tamed by the New York or Philadelphia mob, but because he knew he was losing to Adams and Hamilton in the struggle over the future of America, knew that he desperately needed reinforcements, and hence the French Revolution had to succeed in order to provide them. The Long Affair, however, remains a great book—but not quite great history as much as a meditation on "revolutionary excesses" and motivated reasoning: Conor Cruise O'Brien (1996): The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago: 0226616533) (https://books.google.com/books?id=ABKA2MDozAQC: "Genêt, although recalled at Washington's request, remained in America, under Washington's protection...

...The new Jacobin Government demanded his arrest and deportation, but le vieux Washington, that miserable Fayettiste, refused because he knew that if Genet returned to France he would meet with the same fate as those who had given him the instructions that he had followed all to faithfully. So Citizen Genet, alone of the Girondin elite, survived the triumph of the Jacobins. He married his Cornelia and lived peacefully in America for the rest of his days, without ever returning to France. There is no record that he ever expressed any gratitude to the man he had defied and maligned, and who in return had saved his life. But then, according to Genet's ideas, it was Washington who had been ungrateful—to France, which had liberated him, along with the other Americans. France was wonderful, when contemplated from America. Genet and Jefferson could agree on that much...

A Thomas Jefferson quote I find very illuminating: Thomas Jefferson: To George Mason, 4 February 1791: "I am to make you my acknowledgements for your favor of Jan. 10. and the information had from France which it contained...

...It confirmed what I had heard more loosely before, and accounts still more recent are to the same effect. I look with great anxiety for the firm establishment of the new government in France, being perfectly convinced that if it takes place there, it will spread sooner or later all over Europe. On the contrary, a check there would retard the revival of liberty in other countries.

I consider the establishment and success of their government as necessary to stay up our own and to prevent it from falling back to that kind of Halfway-house, the English constitution. It cannot be denied that we have among us a sect who believe that to contain whatever is perfect in human institutions; that the members of this sect have, many of them, names and offices which stand high in the estimation of our countrymen. I still rely that the great mass of our community is untainted with these heresies, as is its head. On this I build my hope that we have not laboured in vain, and that our experiment will still prove that men can be governed by reason.

You have excited my curiosity in saying ‘there is a particular circumstance, little attended to, which is continually sapping the republicanism of the United states.’ What is it?—what is said in our country of the fiscal arrangements now going on? I really fear their effect when I consider the present temper of the Southern states. Whether these measures be right or wrong, abstractedly, more attention should be paid to the general opinion.

However all will pass. The excise will pass. The bank will pass. The only corrective of what is amiss in our present government will be the augmentation of the numbers in the lower house, so as to get a more agricultural representation, which may put that interest above that of the stock-jobbers.

I had no occasion to sound Mr. Madison on your fears expressed in your letter. I knew before, as possessing his sentiments fully on that subject, that his value for you was undiminished. I have always heard him say that tho you and he appeared to differ in your systems, yet you were in truth nearer together than most persons who were classed under the same appellation. You may quiet yourself in the assurance of possessing his complete esteem.

—I have been endeavoring to obtain some little distinction for our useful customers the French. But there is a particular interest opposed to it, which I fear will prove too strong. We shall soon see. I will send you a copy of a report I have given in, as soon as it is printed. I know there is one part of it contrary to your sentiments: yet I am not sure you will not become sensible that a change should be slowly preparing. Certainly whenever I pass your road I shall do myself the pleasure of turning into it. Our last year’s experiment however is much in favor of that by Newgate.

I am with great respect & esteem, Dear Sir, Your friend & servt...

Interesting that Edmund Burke saw the French Revolution as opening the floodgates to the rule of "sophists, calculators, and economists" while Jefferson saw the French Revolutionary spirit as the cure...

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