Recognized in Europe as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson quickly became a focal point or lightning rod for revolutionaries in Europe and the Americas. As United States minister to France when revolutionary fervor was rising toward the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Jefferson became an ardent supporter of the French Revolution, even allowing his residence to be used as a meeting place for the rebels led by Lafayette. Jefferson maintained his support for the French Revolution, although he wavered during the most violent and bloody stages. This became a key policy of his opposition political party. A revolution led by blacks in St. Domingue (Haiti) proved to be a crucible for testing the Jeffersonian right of revolution. Jefferson did not applaud the successful revolt, though he did propose that black rebels and convicts from the United States be relocated to the new nation. Jefferson reached the limits of his influence when he attempted to intrude republican principles in Russia, Poland, Greece, and the emerging South American nations. Until his death Jefferson was convinced that “this ball of liberty . . . will roll round the world” aided by the beacon of the Declaration of Independence.
The French Republic
Commenting on the continuing revolutions in Holland and France, retired Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson predicted: “this ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light & liberty go together. it is our glory that we first put it into motion.”
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Jefferson's Passport 1789
Thomas Jefferson recalled his departure from France in his autobiography: “I cannot leave this great and good country without expressing my sense of its preeminence of character among the nations of the earth.” This is the passport signed by King Louis XVI and issued to Jefferson for his return journey.
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Thomas Jefferson In 1786
While in London in the spring of 1786, United States minister to France Thomas Jefferson sat for his first known portrait. Mather Brown (1761–1831), one of a group of young American artists in London, executed the portrait. A thoughtful Jefferson is portrayed with a statue of the Goddess of Liberty. Jefferson paid 10 pounds (about 25 dollars) for the painting, which he received in 1788.
Mather Brown. Thomas Jefferson. London,1786. Copyprint of oil on canvas. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Bequest of Charles Francis Adams (182)
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Marquis de Lafayette
Thomas Jefferson commissioned this copy of Joseph Boze's portrait of Lafayette. After serving with distinction in the American Revolution, Lafayette returned to his homeland. During the early stages of the French Revolution Lafayette's popularity and his moderate views enabled him to promote compromise between conflicting political factions. Lafayette, a personal friend and admirer of General Washington, became a friend and collaborator with Jefferson during Jefferson's time in Paris.
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Jefferson's house in Paris
Paris is the background for this view down the Champs-Elysees through the Grille de Chaillot. Thomas Jefferson's house, the Hotel de Langeac, was on the left at the near corner. Jefferson lived here while minister to France in the 1780's, and extensively remodeled the interior.
François Nicolas Martinet. In Description Historique de Paris, 1779. Copyprint of engraving. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale (187)
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Draft of Declaration of the Rights of Man
Thomas Jefferson often consulted with Lafayette during the drafting of this French declaration of rights in July 1789. Jefferson's immersion in the French Revolution and his influence on the Republican leaders can be seen in the surviving documents. In a July 9, 1789 letter to Jefferson, General Lafayette (1757–1834) asked for Jefferson's “observations” on “my bill of rights” before presenting it to the National Assembly.
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Sensing rising criticism of the excesses of the French Revolution in the letters of William Short (1759–1848), his handpicked chargé des affaires in Paris, Secretary of State Jefferson sharply chastised Short and praised the revolution despite its rising irrationality and violence: "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 this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. were there but an Adam and Eve left in every country, left free, it would be better than as it now is."
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St. Domingue (Haiti)
St. Domingue proposed as home for deported slaves and free blacks
In discussing the country which would be the “best receptacle” for deported slaves and free blacks, Jefferson thought the “West Indies offer a more probable & practicable retreat for them . . . the most promising portion of them is the island of St. Domingo, where the blacks are established into a sovereignty de facto, & have organised themselves under regular laws & government.” Jefferson, Monroe, and other political leaders were casting about to find a suitable place to relocate rebellious slaves in the aftermath of Gabriel's Rebellion in Virginia.
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“St. Domingo delays their taking possession of Louisiana”
To take advantage of France's problem with St. Domingue (Haiti) and begin the process of acquiring Louisiana, Jefferson sent Monroe to France. Jefferson sought to impress Monroe with the critical timing of his mission: “you cannot too much hasten it, as the moment in France is critical. St. Domingo delays their taking possession of Louisiana, and they are in the last distress for money for current purposes.” Monroe's mission resulted in the purchase of not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory.
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Pierre Touissant L'overture and St. Domingue's Independence
The slave insurrection on St. Domingue began on August 14, 1791 and reached its first victory defeating the French colonial forces, in 1801 under the leadership of Piere Touissant L'Overture, a former slave. In 1802, a new French army captured and imprisoned Toussant. His generals successfully completed the revolt in 1804 and proclaimed the independence of Haiti, restoring the name used by the island's original settlers. Haiti became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw slavery. Though Jefferson, fearing a French foothold too close to the U.S., had sent arms and supplies to the rebels, the successful revolt led to increased fears of slave insurrections and to tighten restrictions on blacks in the southern states.
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Hold-up on the highway of nations
In this satirical cartoon, “Intercourse or Impartial Dealings,” President Jefferson is depicted as being held up for money by Napoleon and King George. Critics of Jefferson believed that he had paid too much for Louisiana and was prepared to pay too much for the Floridas. This cartoon also satirizes the failure of Jefferson's use of the embargo and restrictions on trade as a curb on French and British depredations of American shipping.
Peter Pencil. “Intercourse or Impartial Dealings.” 1809. Copyprint of etching and stipple with sepia ink. Courtesy of Harvard University, Boston (199)
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Edges of Influence
Wishing the blessings of liberty for Greece
Thomas Jefferson had a particular affinity for Greece, not only because of its classical republican philosophy but also because of his studies of the origins of languages. He expressed his empathies with Greece revolting its Ottoman rulers. “No people sympathize more feelingly than ours with the sufferings of your countrymen, none offer more sincere and ardent prayers to heaven for their success. . . Possessing ourselves the combined blessing of liberty and order, we wish the same to other countries, and to none more than yours, which, the first of civilized nations, presented examples of what man should be.”
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Thomas Jefferson outlines “the state. of things in S. America”
In an intriguing letter to a frequent French correspondent, Madame de Staël (1766–1817), the famous French author, Thomas Jefferson analyzed the “state of things in S. America” with a hand drawn map. Despite his plea that “this is difficult to be understood even to us who have some stolen intercourse with those countries,” Jefferson sought to explain how Spain was in danger of losing her colonies.
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Jefferson to Tsar Alexander I on government and trade
Russian Tsar Alexander I (1777–1825) and President Jefferson exchanged ideas and books on republican constitutions , as well as plans for expanding trade between the two nations in a short series of letters, 1804–1808. These letters reflect the efforts of the national leaders to establish good relations between the two rising powers independent of the titanic struggle being waged between France and Great Britain.
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Kosciuszko's sketch of Thomas Jefferson
Thaddeus Kosciuszko (1746–1817) was a Polish volunteer in the American Revolution, who later led a failed rebellion in Poland. Jefferson and Kosciuszko met in 1797 and became firm friends. This is a copy of the aquatint portrait of Jefferson drawn by Kosciuszko's before his return to Europe in 1798.
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In a letter to Adams, Jefferson asserted that self-government in Europe and Spanish America would require a long and bloody revolution: “all will attain representative government, more or less perfect. This is now well understood to be a necessary check on kings, whom they will probably think it more prudent to chain and tame, than to exterminate. to attain all this however rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over.”
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