Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 3 January 1793: Weekend Reading
From Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 16 June 1792

Jefferson, Adams, Malone, and the French Revolution: Weekend Reading

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Thomas Jefferson was a great man and a small man. We know the great man well. Biographers like Dumas Malone however, try hard to keep us from knowing the small man: the one who was too approving of the Jacobins and the Terror; the funder of the first Journalistic Slime Machine; the owner of the sex-slave Sally Hemings:

Dumas Malone (1962): Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (New York: Little, Brown), pp. 45 ff.: "Early in the year, Jefferson, writing a private letter to William Short [TJ to Short, Jan 3, 1793; Ford, VI, 153-7], now at The Hague...

...in the paternal tone which he had not yet laid aside, chided his former secretary for the "extreme warmth" with which the latter had censured the proceedings of the Jacobins in recent letters. He did this at the injunction of the President [Washington], he said, expressing the fear that if Short's criticisms became known they would injure him at home as well as abroad, since they would not be relished by his countrymen. This private letter contains as fervid comments as Jefferson ever made on the French Revolution, and it has been widely quoted by later writers for just that reason.

Jefferson's proneness to express himself more vehemently in private letters and memoranda than in public papers and official pronouncements does not make him unique among human beings. Other responsible officers besides him have let themselves go in private while weighing their public words, though the reverse has often been the case with campaign orators—of whom he was never one. Whether the measured judgments of a responsible statesman or the unrestrained private language of the same man should be regarded as the better index of his true sentiments is perhaps an unanswerable question, and both must be taken into account by anyone seeking to arrive at truth. A statesman must be judged at last by his public policies and official acts, which represent the results of his sober deliberation, but private language affords an important clue to the state of his own mind and emotions.

The contrast was unusually sharp in the case of Jefferson, who imposed extraordinary restraint on himself as a public man.... To hostile interpreters this apparent contradiction has lent color to the charge of duplicity... [but] his friends could not have been unaware of his proneness to exaggeration when blowing off steam in private; and the persons most aware of it should have been his young friends [like Short]....

No saying can be fully understood out of its specific setting, and some of the most vivid of Jefferson's were pedagogical in purpose.... This letter to Short is a case in point. The essential and abiding truth embedded in it is that all human progress is costly, especially progress toward liberty and democracy; but much of its imagery is such as poets would use—not mathematicians or coldly calculating statesmen

Jefferson's defense of the Jacobins... need not detain us.... [H]is information... could not be up to date... To him the Jacobins were merely the republican element in the old party of the Patriots, and the Feuillants... the monarchical. His friend Lafayette had belonged to the latter group, and he himself had been far from unsympathetic....

But in the year 1793... he was convinced that the "expunging" of the King had become an absolute necessity....

[...]

Short needed comfort, however, more than logic. The personal cost of the revolution was mounting, and the human toll was being taken among the very people whom he and Jefferson had valued most during the latter's stay in France. Lafayette... in custody, and the liberal-minded Duc de la Rouchefoucauld... snatched from his carriage and killed before the eyes of his old mother and young wife... [this] affected Short the most... embitter[ed] him. Jefferson... was well aware of the general trend when he sought to bring philosophy to bear on these fearful developments:

In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as anybody, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle.... The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to the cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is...

In the last two sentences Jefferson indulged in hyperbole.... The record of Jefferson's reasoned and disciplined life gives every ground to suppose that he himself would have recoiled from [their literal application].... He would certainly have said no such thing in public, and he could hardly have been expected to anticipate that private words of his would be quoted to schoolboys in later generations, seized upon by political partisans, or exploited by reckless demagogues.

In writing to one he regarded as a son he let his poetic imagery run away with him.... He was saying that despotism had been overthrown in France... would eventually be overcome everywhere... in the light of this vast triumph for... human liberty the losses must be regarded as slight. He afterwards had to revise the casualty lists upward, but he was prepared for that... the abiding significance of his reflections lies in his frank recognition that the cost of liberty may be and frequently is exceedingly high...


John Adams (1813): To Thomas Jefferson, 13 July 1813: "The first time that you and I differed in opinion on any material question was after your arrival from Europe; and that point was the French Revolution...

...You was well persuaded in your own mind that the nation would succeed in establishing a free republican government; I was as well persuaded, in mine, that a project of such a government over five and twenty millions of people, when four and twenty millions and five hundred thousands of them could neither write nor read, was as unnatural, irrational, and impracticable as it would be over the elephants, lions, tigers, panthers, wolves, and bears in the Royal Managerie at Versailles….

When Lafayette harangued you and me and John Quincy Adams through a whole evening in your hotel in the cul de sac at Paris and developed the plans then in operation to reform France, though I was as silent as you was… I was astonished at the grossness of his ignorance of government and history, as I had been for years before at that of Turgot, Rochefaucault, Condorcet, and Franklin. This gross Ideology of them all first suggested to me the thought and the inclination which I afterwards hinted to you in London of writing something upon aristocracy. I was restrained for years by many fearful considerations.… I should make enemies of all the French Patriots, the Dutch Patriots, the English Republicans, Dissenters, Reformers, call them what you will; and, what came nearer home to my bosom than all the rest, I knew I should give offense to many if not all of my best friends in America and very probably destroy all the little popularity I ever had in a country where popularity had more omnipotence than the British Parliament assumed….

But when the French Assembly of Notables met and I saw that Turgot’s “Government in one center and that center the nation”--a sentence as mysterious or as contradictory as the Athanasian Creed--was about to take place; and when I saw that Shays’s Rebellion was breaking out in Massachusetts; and when I saw that even my obscure name was often quoted in France as an advocate for simple democracy; when I saw that the sympathies in America had caught the French flame: I was determined to wash my own hands as clean as I could of all this foulness. I had then strong forebodings that I was sacrificing all the honors and emoluments of this life; and so it has happened, but not in so great a degree as I apprehended.

In truth, my Defence of the Constitutions and “Discourses on Davila” laid the foundation of that immense unpopularity which fell like the Tower of Siloam upon me. Your steady defense of democratical principles and your invariable favorable opinion of the French Revolution laid the foundation of your unbounded popularity.

Sic transit gloria mundi…

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