Jefferson’s Return From France in 1789
“His long residence in a metropolis had not freed his mind from some provincial prejudices.”
Man proposes, woman disposes. Such is often the way of this world.
In the summer of 1789, James Madison, who was the man of all others most solicitous for the success of the new Constitution of the United States, wrote to Jefferson asking him if he would accept an appointment at home in General Washington’s administration. “You know,” Jefferson replied, “the circumstances which led me from retirement, step by step, and from one nomination to another up to the present. My object is a return to the same retirement; whenever, therefore, I quit the present, it will not be to engage in any other office, and most especially any one which would require a constant residence from home.” A few months after these words were written, he was in New York, Secretary of State; and it was a maiden of seventeen that brought him to it.
His situation in Paris had become too interesting to leave, too pleasant to last. What man was ever more happily placed? In the most delightful city of the earth, he held a post which put all its noblest resources at his command. His mind was occupied with honorable duties which practice had made easy to him; and the circle of his friends was among the most agreeable the world has known since human beings first learned to converse politely with one another. In the houses which he most frequented, — that of the Lafayettes, for example, — he found all that was truly elegant and refined in the ancient manners, joined to the interest in knowledge and in the welfare of man that distinguished the new period. High thinking was, as it were, in vogue. Every man, woman, and child in Paris, Jefferson said, had become a politician; so that wherever he went he met people ardently desirous to listen to him as a master in the science of human rights. Nobles caught something of the new spirit and rose superior to their rank. Simplicity and sincerity were recognized as the true elevation of manner. Jefferson, without thinking of it, was quite in the fashion when he finished a letter to Lafayette by saying that in America people did not permit themselves to utter even truths when they had the air of flattery, and, therefore, he would say, once for all, “I love you, your wife and children.”
He was on happy terms, too, with the diplomatic corps. Little as he had cause to love the realm of Britain, it was nevertheless with the British ambassador, the Duke of Dorset, that he was most intimate; and his daughter struck up a girl’s friendship with the Duke’s daughter, that lasted beyond the term of their residence in Paris. The officers who had served in America were among the favorites in Paris society, and Jefferson’s house was their natural rendezvous. That prince of gossips and story-tellers, Baron Grimm, was among his familiar acquaintances. Madame de Staël, who was married during Jefferson’s second year in Paris, he knew only as the daughter of Necker and the brilliant young wife of the Swedish ambassador. Among the lions who flourished in Paris at the time was De la Tude, who had been confined thirty-five years for writing an epigram upon Pompadour. “He comes sometimes,” writes Jefferson, “to take a family soup with me, and entertains me with anecdotes of his five-and-thirty years’ imprisonment. How fertile is the mind of man, which can make the Bastille and the dungeon of Vincennes yield interesting anecdotes!” That “family soup” of his played a great part in his social life. He lived in the easy, liberal style of Virginia, that harmonized as well with the humor of the time as with his own character and habits. Few set dinners, but a well-spread table always open and generally filled; no grand parties, but an evening circle that lured and detained the people fullest of the prevalent spirit. He had already the habit of mitigating business with dinner. If he had a difficult matter to conclude or discuss, it was usual with him to invite the parties interested to one of his light, rational, refreshing “family dinners,” and, afterwards, under its humanizing influence, introduce the troublesome topic.
There were plenty of Americans in Paris even at that early day; that is, there were perhaps as many individuals as there are thousands now. “I endeavor to show civilities,” he once wrote, “to all the Americans who come here!” There might have been three or four in a month. Gouverneur Morris was there during the later ferments, shaking his knowing head at the French dream of a millennium, and arguing with Jefferson by the hour against everything that the plenipotentiary most believed; full of talk, self-confidence, and good-humor; apt to be right in his predictions because exempt from the longings to which the heavy-laden and anxious portion of the human race are subject. Hence, all his life as often as the millennium failed to come to time, he had the noble satisfaction of saying, “I told you so.” Poor Mazzei was much in Paris at this time, ruined by his endeavor to serve Virginia with Tuscan crowns during the Revolutionary War, and now often compelled to figure in Jefferson’s memorandum-book for French francs borrowed to supply his own necessities. Ledyard, the born traveller of Connecticut, came to the legation, poor and disappointed, incapable of remaining long in a place, plagued even from his boyhood with a mania to roam over the earth. He had sailed with Cook and revealed the tactless barbarity of that navigator; had seen in the western coast of North America the richest of all fur-bearing regions; and had come to Paris to set on foot the enterprise which Astor attempted twenty-five years after, when Astoria was founded. “But for the war of 1812,” Astor used to say, “I should have been the richest man that ever lived”; thus confirming Ledyard’s view. Failing in his object, he was helpless in Paris, and Jefferson chalked out a bold scheme for him worthy of his singular genius for travelling.
From his youth up, Jefferson had gazed westward from Monticello, wondering what there might be between his mountain-top and the Pacific Ocean. It was an inherited curiosity; for his own father had felt it, and, indeed, all intelligent Virginians, from the time when Captain John Smith sailed up the Chickahominy in quest of the South Sea. He now proposed to Ledyard to make his way through Russia to Kamtchatka; thence by some chance vessel to Nootka Sound; and so, by one means or another, to what we now call Oregon; and then strike into the wilderness, explore that vast unknown region, and endeavor to reach the western settlements of the United States.
It was an audacious scheme, only fit for Ledyard, only possible to just such a man. He jumped at it. Through Baron Grimm, who was Own Correspondent in Paris to the Empress Catherine, Jefferson tried to obtain the requisite permission, which she, knowing the perils of the route, humanely refused; and Ledyard started without it. Ragged, penniless, hungry, gaunt, undaunted, he kept on, “kicked,” as he wrote to Jefferson, “from town to town,” and hoping “to be kicked round the world” until he was within two hundred miles of Kamtchatka, where an order from Catherine arrested him. He was brought back and turned loose in Poland. It was reserved for President Jefferson to get our first knowledge of the boundless prairie world, through the explorations of his neighbor, friend, and secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis.
Mr. Hawthorne has told us, in his sly, humorous way, something of the odd projects and eccentric characters that solicit the notice of American representatives in Europe. Jefferson had his share of both. He saw, too, while living in Paris, how far-reaching the influence of the American Revolution was likely to be. He was among the first to hear of the agitation in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of America, that has since led to their deliverance from all their oppressors, except those twin despots of the tropical world, Indolence and Appetite. A mysterious note reached him in October, 1786, from which he only learned that the writer was a foreigner, who had “a matter of very great consequence” to communicate, and wished him to indicate a safe channel. The plenipotentiary complied with the request. The letter arrived. “I am a native of Brazil,” it began. “You are not ignorant of the frightful slavery under which my country groans. This continually becomes more insupportable since the epoch of your glorious independence.” The Brazilians meant to rise, the writer continued, and they looked to the United States for support; he had come to France on purpose to say so to the plenipotentiary of the United States, because in America he could not act in the matter without exciting suspicion. If Mr. Jefferson desired further information, the writer could give it him.
Meet me at Nismes, Mr. Jefferson replied, in substance, whither he would go “under the pretext of seeing the antiquities of that place.” They met and conversed long. Jefferson reminded the Brazilian that he could only give him his ideas on the subject as an individual, having no authority to utter a word on behalf of Congress. Those ideas were, that the United States were not in a condition to take part in any war, and that they particularly wished to cultivate the friendship of Portugal, a country with which they had an advantageous commerce. “But,” he added, “a successful revolution in Brazil could not be uninteresting to us”; and “prospects of lucre might possibly draw numbers of individuals to their aid, and purer motives our officers”; and citizens of the United States were free to leave their country whenever they wished. With this cold comfort the Brazilian was obliged to depart from Nismes, and leave Mr. Jefferson free to gaze with rapture upon the Maison Quarrée.
A similar series of mysterious approaches brought him, about the same time, face to face with a Mexican, whose country was also preparing to rise against its oppressors. in dealing with this gentleman, the minister showed that he had picked up in Paris or elsewhere a little of the diplomatist’s craft. “I was more cautious,” he reports, “with the Mexican than with the Brazilian”; and he threw cold water upon his hopes by saying that he “feared they must begin by enlightening and emancipating the minds of their people.” No revolutionist likes to be met with an observation of that nature. “I was led into this caution,” Jefferson explains, “by observing that this gentleman was intimate at the Spanish ambassador’s,” and that he was in the service of the Spanish government at the very time of making the communication. “He had much the air of candor,” adds the suddenly formed diplomatist; “but that can be borrowed, so that I was not able to decide about him in my own mind.”
All of which was reported at great length to Congress, with the additional intelligence that Peru, which had already lost two hundred thousand men in a failure to eject the hated Spaniards, could easily be roused to rebellion again. In one way, if in no other, Mr. Jefferson served Congress well; he provided them by every packet with long letters which, at that period, when journalism was but an infant art, must have been more interesting than we can now conceive, close packed as they were with information, curious, important, and new.
It was not in far-off Peru, Mexico, or Brazil that he saw the most memorable proofs of the mighty influence of the “glorious Revolution” of which had been a part. He witnessed the glorious part of the French Revolution, having been present at the Assembly of the Notables in 1787, and at the destruction of the Bastille in 1789. His sympathy with that supreme effort of France to escape the Oppression of outgrown institutions was entire and profound, but it was also considerate and wise. Living in the most familiar intimacy with Lafayette and the other leaders of the preliminary movements, he knew everything and influenced everything they did; for, at first, while as yet the king and the nation seemed in harmony, his official position was no restraint upon him; and, to the last, his constant advice was, Save the monarchy; France is not ripe for a republic; get a constitution that will secure substantial liberty and essential rights, and wait for the rest.
I suppose a good many of Mr. Carlyle’s readers were a little offended at Buckle’s sweeping assertion that no history of the French Revolution exists, and that no man had yet appeared who possessed the knowledge requisite for writing such a work. Mr. Carlyle’s French Revolution seems only to lack the form and cadence of poetry to rank with the great poems of all time, the “Iliad,” the “Inferno,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Faust.” Dickens might well call it a “wonderful work.” Its brevity and pictorial power are wonderful indeed, and a young reader who rises from its perusal penetrated and awe-struck may be pardoned for thinking that among his other acquisitions he has gained some insight into the French Revolution. He has gained everything but insight. Mr. Carlyle does not sacrifice the true to the picturesque: he gives us picture in lieu of truth. He has all a poet’s love for the picturesque, and is more guided in his selection of events for relation by their effectiveness than by their importance. Hence, as the antidotal Buckle remarks, we have a series of thrilling pictures, instead of that noblest and most difficult of all the products of the mind, a genuine history.
The narrative of events written by Jefferson in extreme old age, brief, cold, and colorless as it is, taken in connection with his numerous letters, official and private, written at the time, will be prized by the individual who will, at length, evolve the French Revolution from the chaos of material in which it is now involved. Unfortunately, Jefferson went too far in extirpating his egotism. He was not vain enough; he was curiously reticent concerning his own part in important events; he instinctively veiled and hid his personality. But for this, he might have found time, in his busy retirement, to compose a history of the Revolution down to the taking of the Bastille, which would have been of imperishable interest. It was not merely that he knew the men and witnessed the events, but he preserved his incredulity, accepted nothing upon mere rumor, and personally investigated occurrences. If a rumor reached him that “three thousand people had fallen in the streets,” he and his secretary, Mr. Short, would go to the spot, and, after minute inquiry, reduce the number to “three.” He was unwearied in sitting out the interminable sessions of the various assemblies, and thought little of riding to Versailles “to satisfy myself what has passed there, for nothing can be believed but what one sees or has from an eye-witness.”
Occasionally his part in events was conspicuous, usually it was unseen, always it was such as became the representative of the United States. On the gathering of the Notables in 1787, his advice to Lafayette was, Not to attempt too much; to aim at securing a recurrence of the Assembly; to vote the king ample supplies in return for irreclaimable concessions; to make the English constitution their model, not as the best conceivable, but the best attainable. “If every advance,” said he, “is to be purchased by filling the royal coffers with gold, it will be gold well employed.” In the interval between the Assembly of the Notables of 1787, and the National Assembly of 1789, he was guide, philosopher, and friend to the liberal leaders; giving them numberless dinners and sound instruction in constitutional government; furnishing them with American precedents and English law-books, as well as with summaries and elucidations of his own. One darling object of the Lafayette party was to introduce trial by jury. It was Jefferson who supplied them with a list of works on the subject, and added a brief discourse, in which juries were justified on two grounds: 1. Because in every branch of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, an infusion of the people was necessary to the preservation of purity; 2. The chance of getting justice from a biassed judge was not as good as from a cast of the dice, but from a jury the chance was something better than from a cast of the dice. Hence, trial by jury was a good thing.
The frightful winter of 1788-89, when the mercury in Paris fell to twenty below zero, and the government was obliged to keep vast fires burning in the streets to preserve the poor from freezing, and every family that had anything to spare was called upon for a weekly contribution for the purchase of food, and long queues of hunger-stricken women and children besieged every bakers shop, and on cards of invitation to dinner guests were requested to bring their own bread, and the king himself was self-limited to his proper number of ounces, — this fearful season Jefferson was so happy as to be the means of mitigating to the people of France. In the autumn of 1787 it became known to the government that the supply of food was insufficient, and M. Necker asked the American minister to make the fact known in the United States, in order to stimulate the exportation of grain to France. Jefferson wrote to Mr. Jay on the subject, and Mr. Jay caused the letter to be inserted in the newspapers. The result was that France received from America many thousand barrels of flour, — about thirty-five thousand, as it appears, — enough sensibly to lessen the distress, because the bulk of it arrived late, when the scarcity was extreme.
Wild Mirabeau, acting upon imperfect information, and eager to make a point against the Ministry, charged M. Necker, in one of his harangues, with having refused an offer of American flour made by the American minister. Jefferson hastened to defend the government, and contrived to set M. Necker right with the public, without offending Mirabeau. The orator read Jefferson’s exculpatory letter to the Assembly, and apologized for the error.
We have seen how susceptible Jefferson was to the spell of oratory, from the time when as a boy he had listened in rapture to the moonlight oration of an Indian chief in the Virginia woods, to the period when the eloquence of Patrick Henry charmed and amazed him in the House of Burgesses. And now in Paris he owned the resistless power of Mirabeau, of whose singular fascination he retained the liveliest recollection as long as he lived. William Wirt and Henry Clay both testified to having heard Mr. Jefferson speak of the peerless sway of that strange being over the minds of men of every class. “He spoke of him,” says Wirt, “as uniting two distinct and perfect characters in himself, whenever he pleased: the mere logician, with a mind apparently as sterile and desolate as the sands of Arabia, but reasoning at such times with a Herculean force which nothing could resist; at other times, bursting out with a flood of eloquence more sublime than Milton ever imputed to the cherubim and seraphim, and bearing all before him.”
At the supreme moment of the Revolution in July, 1789, the National Assembly paid unique homage, at once to the American people and to their representative. They appointed a committee to draft a constitution, the chairman being the Archbishop of Bordeaux; and this committee formally invited the American minister to assist at their sessions and favor them with his advice. But, as it was to the king that the plenipotentiary was accredited, he was obliged to decline. He was not, however, to escape so easily. When the constitution was under discussion in the Assembly, article by article, differences of opinion arose which debate could not reconcile, because the opinion of one powerful faction was prompted and supported by interest. Two questions rent the Assembly, at length, into hostile parties: 1. Shall the king have a veto? 2. Shall there be hereditary legislators in France? The nobility put forth all their energies and used all their arts to have both these vital questions answered affirmatively. The popular party were not united on either question; and hence there was widespread fear that the solid, small phalanx of the aristocracy would wrest the constitution to the perpetuation of their power.
In the midst of this alarm, Jefferson received a note from Lafayette, informing him that he should, the next day, bring a party of six or eight friends to dine with him. The hospitable Virginian replied that they would be welcome; and at the time named the party arrived, — just eight in all, including Lafayette. They proved to be leaders on the popular side, devoted to the cause, but unable to agree on the two dividing questions; and Lafayette, taking a hint from the usual tactics of Jefferson, and forgetting his official character, had brought them together in this way for a friendly conference. The dinner passed. The cloth being removed, wine, according to the custom of old Virginia, was for the first time placed upon the table. First eat, then drink, appears to have been the Virginian order. Lafayette introduced the subjects upon which an interchange of opinion was desired, reminded them of the state of things in the Assembly, and dwelt upon the deadly peril of the new-born liberty of France so long as the enemies of liberty were united and its friends divided. “I have my opinion,” said he, “but I am ready to sacrifice it to that of my brethren in the same cause.” Some common conclusion, he said, they must reach and stand to, or the nobility would carry all before them and whatever they might now agree upon, he pledged himself to maintain at the head of the National Guard.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when Lafayette ceased to speak, and it was ten in the evening when the conference ended. During those six hours, Jefferson says, “I was a silent witness to a coolness and candor of argument unusual in the conflicts of political opinion; to a logical reasoning and chaste eloquence, disfigured by no gaudy tinsel of rhetoric or declamation, and truly worthy of being placed in parallel with the finest dialogues of antiquity.” The expedient was successful. Under the happy influence of Jefferson’s early, rational dinner, not wholly vitiated by the light wines which he had personally sought among the vineyards of France and Italy, and with minds at once calmed and exalted by his silent, sympathetic presence, the deputies, at last, discovered ground upon which they could all stand. They agreed that the king should have a suspensive veto, and that there should be no hereditary legislators. France should be governed, thenceforth, by a constitutional king, and by one legislative body; the latter elected by the people. Rallying upon these two principles, the liberal party presented a solid front to the aristocrats, and thus controlled the Revolution as long as it was controllable.
During this conference the plenipotentiary had sat “silent” at the head of his table; nor had he had any part in causing the meeting to be held in his house. Nevertheless, he felt that the etiquette of his position had been violated; and, consequently, the next morning, he went to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and explained the circumstances. The information was superfluous. The minister, who, as Jefferson intimates, was in the confidence of the patriots, had already learned what had passed, and had approved the conference before it was held. He said that, so far from taking umbrage at the use to which Jefferson’s house had been put, he earnestly wished that he would habitually attend such conferences, because he was sure he would moderate the warmer spirits and promote attainable reforms only. Jefferson replied that he knew too well the duties he owed to the king, to France, and to the United States to meddle with the internal affairs of the country, and he should preserve carefully the attitude of a neutral and passive spectator, except that his heart’s desire would ever be for the prevalence of measures most beneficial to the nation.
During these intense weeks, Jefferson had a foretaste of what he was to experience soon in New York and Philadelphia. He discovered that a man might be an American, a patriot, and a person of great ability and worth, and yet not sympathize at all with this mighty and hopeful movement. Almost every day or two Gouverneur Morris dropped in at the legation for a dinner and a chat with the minister; differing from him in opinion, in sentiment, in sympathy, yet glad of the information he obtained from him, and well affected toward him personally. Mark the difference between the humane and the tory mind! Morris instinctively took sides with the hated aristocrats, associated chiefly with them, lamented their downfall, sympathized deeply with them in all their alarms and sorrows. When he saw the queen of France pass unsaluted by a single voice, he could not help calling upon the bystanders to give her a cheer, and only refrained himself from raising the cry because he remembered in time that he was not a Frenchman. He honestly bewailed the spectacle of the “high Austrian spirit” abased to the point of the queen’s bowing low in acknowledgment of one faint cheer. He exulted when the king showed for a moment the fierté which he deemed proper to “the Bourbon blood.” He sent a letter of advice to the queen; and, at a later day, pressed upon the exiled Duke of Orleans a loan of fifteen hundred pounds. Such men as he are so constituted that the brief and shallow distress of a wealthy and picturesque family brings tears to their eyes, while they can calmly accept as inevitable doom the desolation and hopeless anguish of whole provinces of unornamental people. Their sympathies are genuine and acute, but limited. Burke, doubtless, was sorry that France was unhappy; but the downfall and death of one picturesque woman tore his heart and unsettled his mind.
“What is the queen disposed to do in the present situation of things?” Jefferson supposes some one to ask in this same summer of 1789. He answers the question thus: “Whatever rage, pride, and fear can dictate in a breast which never knew the presence of one moral restraint.” Again he writes: “The queen cries and sins on.” That is, as Madame Campan explains, she had a woman’s passion for deep play, and there was no one in France who could stay her hand, no one who could keep her from squandering thousands at a sitting. Ministers lamented that, at such a crisis, France for the first time in ages should be cursed with a king who had the mania to live without a mistress, — a thing extremely inconvenient in a despotic court, because it makes the queen king. A virtuous man has no chance whatever with such a wife as that. Let him be neglectful, contemptuous, dissolute; let him put upon her the ignominy of an avowed mistress let him be a Louis XV., instead of a Louis XVI.; and she is as submissive as a lamb. This angel, as gaudily painted in the rhapsodies of Burke, wrote Jefferson, forty years after, with some smartness of fancy, but no sound sense, was proud, disdainful of restraint, indignant at all obstacles to her will, eager in the pursuit of pleasure, and firm enough to hold to her desires, or perish in their wreck. Her inordinate gambling and dissipations, with those of the Count d’Artois, and others of her clique, had been a sensible item in the exhaustion of the treasury, which called into action the reforming hand of the nation; and her opposition to it, her inflexible perverseness and dauntless spirit, led herself to the guillotine, drew the king on with her, and plunged the world into crimes and calamities which will forever stain the pages of modern history. I have ever believed that, had there been no queen, there would have been no Revolution. No force would have been provoked or exercised. He adds that he would not have voted for the execution of the sovereign. He would have shut the queen up in a convent, and deprived the king only of irresponsible and arbitrary power.
Morris, on the contrary, throws the blame of the subsequent horrors—including both Robespierre and Bonaparte—upon the destruction of the nobility; and in this opinion he lived and died. He wrote thus in his diary, after getting home one evening from Jefferson’s house: “Mr. Jefferson and I differ in our systems of politics. He, with all the leaders of liberty here, is desirous of annihilating distinctions of order. How far such views may be right respecting mankind in general is, I think, extremely problematical. But with respect to this nation, I am sure it is wrong, and cannot eventuate well. On the 4th of July, Mr. Jefferson entertained a large party of Americans at dinner, among whom and of whom were M. and Madame de Lafayette. Morris, after dinner, urged Lafayette to preserve, if possible, some constitutional power to the body of nobles, as the only means of preserving any liberty for the people.” Happy the Morris who records in his diary such a remark as this, on the eve of such a period as France was entering in the summer of 1789!
Placed in the midst of all this stir and effervescence, while as yet everything wore a hopeful aspect, — the Bastille in ruins, the people easily triumphant everywhere, and the aristocrats acquiescent, submissive, or in flight, — we cannot wonder that Jefferson found his situation, as he said, too interesting to abandon. He had no thought of abandoning it. Nevertheless, an event had occurred in his household which made it necessary for him to visit Virginia for a short time; and while the Bastille was tumbling, he was impatiently waiting for the arrival of a six months’ leave of absence for which he had applied. And there was a member of his family who was waiting for it, perhaps, more impatiently that himself.
When he left Virginia, in 1784, he had three children, — Martha, twelve years of age; Mary, six; and Lucy, two. The eldest he took with him to Paris, where he placed her at a convent school; and the two others he left in Virginia under the care of their aunt, Mrs. Eppes. A few weeks after his arrival in Paris, the intelligence reached him that his youngest daughter, Lucy, a strangely interesting child, had died of whooping-cough, after a week of acute suffering. After this cutting stroke he began to long for the coming of her sister, whom he wished to have educated in Paris. But she was one of the most clingingly affectionate of all children; resembling those vines that we sometimes find in the woods, which cast adhesive tendrils round every object they touch, and can scarcely be disengaged without breaking. She could not hear of leaving her Virginia home without such distress as made her aunt shudder at the thought of sending her away. Her father tried to accustom her mind to the idea of leaving; telling her that he and her sister Martha could not live without her, and that he would soon bring her back to her uncle, aunt, and cousins, whom she was so sorry to leave. “You shall be taught here,” he wrote, “to play on the harpsichord, to draw, to dance, to read and talk French, and such other things as will make you more worthy of the love of your friends.” To this he added a temptation more alluring: “You shall have as many dolls and playthings as you want for yourself, or to send to your cousins.” He concludes with all the good advice that tender and thoughtful fathers give, with some items less usual: “Never beg for anything,” and, “Remember, too, as a constant charge not to go out without your bonnet, because it will make you very ugly, and then we shall not love you so much.”
The little girl could not be tempted. She scrawled a brief reply, in which she said that she longed to see her father and her sister, but, “I am sorry you have sent for me. I don’t want to go to France; I had rather stay with Aunt Eppes.” In two postcripts she strove to impress the same lesson upon her father’s mind: “I want to see you and sister Patsy, but you must come to Uncle Eppes’s house.” The father, however, insisted, because, as he said, his reason told him that the dangers were not great, and the advantages to the child would be considerable. But she must not sail till just the right vessel offered, a good ship, not too new and not too old; nor until the right person was found to take charge of her. “A careful negro woman, as Isabel, for instance, if she has had the small-pox, would suffice under the patronage of a gentleman.” When he had mentioned every precaution that the most anxious fondness could suggest, he was still tormented with visions of new dangers. His long and fruitless negotiations with the Algerines called up the most horrible of all his numberless apprehensions. Suppose she were taken into captivity by those pirates, who had already driven the American flag from the Mediterranean, and menaced American commerce in every part of the ocean! The thought preyed upon his mind to such a degree, that he wrote one letter to Mr. Eppes for no other purpose than to beg him once more not to confide the child to an American ship, but “to a French or English vessel having a Mediterranean pass.” The possible peril of his daughter was a stimulant to his diplomatic exertions, and he told Mr. Eppes that if a peace were concluded with the Algerines, he should be among the first to hear it. “I pray you,” he added, “to believe it from nobody else.”
These precautions were not needless; for while the child was upon the ocean, in the spring of 1787, a Virginia ship going to Spain was attacked by a corsair. After an action of an hour and a quarter, the Virginians boarded and took her, bound the pirates with the shackles themselves would have worn if the battle had gone the other way, and so carried them to Virginia. Well might the father say, when he knew that she had sailed, “I shall try not to think of Polly till I hear that she has landed.”
He did think of her, however, constantly, and he endeavored to prepare his elder daughter for the duties which the coming of so young a sister would devolve upon her. “She will become,” he wrote to her, “a precious charge upon your hands. The difference of your age, and your common loss of a mother, will put that office upon you. Teach her, above all things, to be good, because without that we can neither be valued by others, nor set any value on ourselves.” In his advice to his children and nephews, this truth is often repeated: “If ever you find yourself in any difficulty, and doubt how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and you will find it the easiest way of getting out of the difficulty.” And, again, to his nephew, Peter Carr: “Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself, and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose that, in any possible situation or any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing.”
She was really coming at length, though to the last moment she clung with all her little heart to her home. No promises, no stratagems, availed to reconcile her to going away. The ship lay at anchor in the river. Her cousins all went on board with her, and remained a day or two, playing about the deck and cabins, and making the ship seem like another home. Then, using the device by which Pocahontas had been taken prisoner in the same waters a hundred and seventy years before, they all left the ship one day while she was asleep; and she awoke to find the sails spread, the familiar shore vanished, her cousins gone, and only her negro maid left of the circle of her home. Her affections then gathered about the captain of the vessel, to whom she became so attached that parting with him, too, was agony. Mrs. Adams received her in London, where she remained two weeks, and won the heart of that estimable lady. “A finer child of her age I never saw,” wrote Mrs. Adams. “So mature an understanding, so womanly a behavior, and so much sensibility united, are rarely to be met with. I grew so fond of her, and she was so much attached to me, that, when Mr. Jefferson sent for her, they were obliged to force the little creature away.”
It was a strange meeting in Paris between father and child, and between sister and sister. Martha, then a tall and elegant girl of fifteen, had a week’s holiday from the convent to meet her sister. The little girl did not know either of them, nor would they have known her. But they were both enchanted with her. Besides being a girl of singular and bewitching beauty both of form and face, she was one of the most artless, unselfish, and loving creatures that ever blessed and charmed a home. Her father was abundantly satisfied with “her reading, her writing, and her manners in genera”l; and he poured forth eloquent gratitude to Mrs. Eppes for the patient goodness which had borne such fruit in the character and mind of his child. During the week’s holiday, Martha took her sister occasionally to the convent, showed her its pleasant gardens and inviting apartments, familiarized her with the place which, as they all thought, was to be her abode for some years. At the end of the week the new-coiner went to the convent to reside, where as “Mademoiselle Polie” she soon became a universal favorite.
Both sisters learned to speak French almost immediately, and soon spoke it as easily as they did English; while the three adult members of the family, Humphries, Short, and Jefferson, when they had been two years in Paris, got on in speaking French not much better than when they landed. So, at least, Jefferson says in one of his letters. It does require about two years to begin to be at home in a foreign language; but when you have reached a certain point, familiarity seems to come all at once.
The parent who keeps a daughter at a good specimen of a convent school for more than two years, may count upon her having a fit of desire to become a nun; unless, indeed, the girl has much more or much less understanding than the average. These daughters of Mr. Jefferson were conscientious, affectionate, and sympathetic, lovers of tranquillity, of strong local attachments; but they were not exceptionally endowed with intellect. One day in the spring of 1789, he received a letter from Martha, in which she informed him of her wish to pass her days in the convent in the service of religion. At any time this would have been a startling announcement to such a father; but particular circumstances greatly increased its effect upon him.
Among the young Americans who had been studying in European universities during Jefferson’s residence in Paris, was a cousin of his own, Thomas Mann Randolph, known to the public in later years as member of Congress and governor of Virginia. In 1788 he left the University of Edinburgh, and, before returning to Virginia, made the usual tour of Europe, lingering several weeks at the legation in Paris, where he renewed his acquaintance with Martha Jefferson. The little playmate of his boyhood had grown to be a beautiful girl of sixteen; and she, on her part, saw the black-haired boy of her early recollections transformed into a tall, alert young man, fluent in conversation, and of distinguished bearing. From slight indications in Jefferson’s letters of this year, I infer that the youth proposed to the father for the hand of the daughter, and that Jefferson, while approving the match and consenting to it, had not disturbed the school-girl’s mind by making the offer known to her. Young Randolph sailed for Virginia in the fall of 1788, and the plenipotentiary, a few weeks after, applied for leave of absence, for the purpose of taking his daughters home. But at home the old government was going out and a new government was coming in; and this was the reason why the leave asked for in November, 1788, did not reach Paris till late in the summer of 1789. During this interval it was that Mr. Jefferson received the letter from his daughter which notified him of her desire to espouse the Church.
He managed this difficult case with prompt and successful tact. He allowed a day or two to pass without noticing the letter. He drove to the convent on the third morning, and after explaining and arranging the matter with the Abbess, asked for his daughters. He received them with somewhat more warmth and tenderness than usual. Without uttering a word of explanation, he simply told them that he had come to take them away from school. As soon as they were ready, they entered the carriage, and were driven home, where they continued their education under masters; and neither then nor ever did a word pass between father and daughter on the subject of her letter. The dream of romantic and picturesque self-annihilation was soon dissipated in the healthy air and honest light of her father’s house. She accepted her destiny with the joyous blindness of youth; and instead of the self-abnegation of the convent, so easy and so flattering, she led a life of self-denial which was not romantic nor picturesque, but homely and most real.
Late in August, 1789, the tardy leave of absence arrived, and the family hastened to conclude their preparations for the voyage. There was not much to do. Everything at the legation was to be left unchanged, in the care of Mr. Short, who was to be the official chargé till Mr. Jefferson returned. To the last hour of his stay, this most zealous, faithful, and vigilant of ministers continued to render timely and fortunate services to his country’s commerce with France, which had grown under his fostering touch from next to nothing to something considerable. It had been happy for him, perhaps, if he had not gone to America then. In Paris, he was in harmony with the prevailing tone. In Paris, his fitness for his place was curiously complete. In Paris, he was sole of his kind; admired, believed in, trusted, liked, beloved. In Paris, with an ocean between him and New York, he might have said No to the invitation the acceptance of which changed the current of his life. But it was in his destiny to go, and go he must.
His five years’ life in Paris had done much for his general culture, and more for his particular training as a public man. He had become a swift, cool, adroit, thoroughly trained, and perfectly accomplished minister; and this, without ceasing to be a man and a citizen, without hardening and narrowing into the professional diplomatist, without losing his interest or his faith in mankind. We have seen how deeply he was moved, on his arrival in Europe, by the condition of the people; nineteen twentieths of the whole population, as he rashly computed, being more wretched and more hopeless than the most miserable being who could be found in all the length and breadth of America. These first impressions were never effaced. When he had spent years in Europe, his disapproval of its political system—hereditary rank and irresponsible power—remained passionate and unspeakable. Whenever, in his letters or other writings of the time, he touches that theme, his style rises, intensifies, warms; his words become short and simple, his similes homely and familiar, every phrase betrays heart-felt conviction.
In his numerous contributions of material for the Encyclopédie and similar works, he had evidently tried to get into them as much of the genuine republican essence as the censor could be expected to admit. It had been his delight to explain the state of things in America, where, as he said, no distinction between man and man had ever been known, except that conferred by office; where “the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionnaire, and generally on a favored one whenever their rights seemed to jar”; where “a shoemaker or other artisan, removed by the voice of his country into a chair of office, instantly commanded all the respect and obedience which the laws ascribe to his office”; where, “of distinction by birth or badge, the people had no more idea than they had of the mode of existence in the moon or planets”; having merely heard there were such, and knowing they must be wrong. Hence, he said, that due horror of the evils flowing from that barbaric system could only be excited in Europe, where “the dignity of man is lost in arbitrary distinctions, where the human species is classed into several stages of degradation, where the many are crushed under the weight of the few, and where the order established can present no other picture than that of God Almighty and his angels trampling under foot the host of the damned.”
Such utterances as these—and they abound in his Paris letters—were penned before Buncombe County in North Carolina had been “laid off.” They grew from the native elevation of his mind. They attest his high-breeding, as well as his humanity and good sense. The gentleman speaks in them, as well as the citizen; for to be an American citizen and not feel so, is to be of the Vulgar.
But, in those days, no American could boast of his country’s freedom, without laying himself open to a taunt. Did Jefferson forget that the laborers of his own State were slaves, when he vaunted the equality of its people? Not always. He confessed the shame of it; he foretold the ruin enclosed within it. “What an incomprehensible machine is man!” he exclaims, “who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself, in vindication of his own liberty, and, the next moment, be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow-men a bondage one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose!” But, then, he threw the burden of delivering the slaves of Virginia upon that convenient resource of self-indulgent mortals, “Providence.” An “overruling Providence,” he thought, would at length effect what the masters of Virginia ought at once to do. When the measure of the slaves’ tears should be full, then, “a God of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or, at length, by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not left to the guidance of a blind fatality.”
To the moment of his departure from Europe, we find him still a warm lover of France, and devoted to the alliance between the two countries. The last letter which he wrote to Madison in Paris contains a passage on the alliance which, coming from the placid Jefferson, we may almost call fiery: —
“When, of two nations, the one has engaged herself in a ruinous war for us, has spent her blood and money to save us, has opened her bosom to us in peace, and received us almost on the footing of her own citizens; while the other has moved heaven, earth, and hell to exterminate us in war, has insulted us in all her councils in peace, shut her doors to us in every port where her interests would admit it, libelled us in foreign nations, endeavored to poison them against the reception of our most precious commodities, — to place these two nations on a footing is to give a great deal more to one than to the other, if the maxim be true that to make unequal quantities equal, you must add more to one than to the other. To say, in excuse, that gratitude is never to enter into the motives of national conduct, is to revive a principle which has been buried for centuries with the kindred principles of the lawfulness of assassination, poison, and perjury. … I know but one code of morality for men, whether acting singly or collectively.”
Such was his feeling with regard to France and England in 1789, before there were “Gallicans” or “Anglicans,” still less “Gallomaniacs” or “Anglomaniacs,” among his countrymen.
And since I am endeavoring to show what manner of mind Thomas Jefferson brought back with him to his native land in 1789, I must allude to another matter. He carried his view of the rights of the individual mind to an extreme which, in that age, had few supporters in his own country. His moral system was strict; his “doxy” was startlingly lax. The advice he gave his nephews on these points when they were college students might be summed up in words like these: Perfect freedom of thinking, but no other freedom! To do right and feel humanely, we are bound; it is an honorable bondage, and he is noblest who is most submissive to it; but in matters of opinion it is infamy not to be free. These sentences, among others, he addressed to Peter Carr in college in 1787: —
“Religion. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them on any other subject rather than that of religion. On the other hand, shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than of blind-folded fear. You will naturally examine, first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then, as you would Livy or Tacitus. For example, in the Book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still for several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature. You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: Of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the laws of nature at will, and ascended bodily into heaven; and, 2. Of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out with pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted, according to the Roman law, which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, and the second by exile, or death in furea. See this law in Digest, lib. 48, tit. 19, 28, 3, and Lipsius, lib. 2, de cruce, cap. 2. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you will feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by Heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness, of the decision.”
Such sentiments as these, which he cherished as long as he lived, were familiar enough then to the educated class of the United States, as of Christendom generally, but they were seldom stated with such uncompromising bluntness as in the passage from which these sentences are selected. He disposed of subtler questions in the same letter with equal abruptness: “Conscience is as much a part of a man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body.”
His long residence in a metropolis had not freed his mind from some provincial prejudices. He shared the common opinion of that age, that virtue was a product of the country, rather than the town, and that farmers were better citizens than mechanics or merchants. He spoke occasionally of mechanics as a class disposed to turbulence, as if he had derived his knowledge of them from Shakespeare’s Julius Cæsar, rather than from the workshops of his own time. He hoped the period was remote when many of his countrymen would be employed in manufactures; which he evidently regarded, with Franklin, as a kind of necessary evil, or last resource of an over-populated country. But his special aversion was merchants. “Merchants,” he wrote, “are the least virtuous citizens, and possess the least amor patriæ.” The reason why Rhode Island was so difficult, and Connecticut so easy, to be brought to consent to reasonable measures, he thought was this: In Connecticut there was scarcely a man who was not a farmer, and in Rhode Island almost every one was a merchant. All this, which savors of the country gentleman, seems to us of the present day crude and erroneous. Rhode Island might well pause, in 1787, before surrendering control over the business to which she owed her whole subsistence. Observe a one-eyed man, when splinters are flying, with what anxious vigilance he guards the organ which alone saves him from a lifetime’s darkness. Rhode Island’s commerce was like that last charge in David Crocket’s rifle, when he and the bear were eying one another across the brook.
Such a man was Thomas Jefferson on his departure from France. He had his limits, of course; he had his foibles; he had his faults. But the sum of his worth as a human being was very great, and he had more in him of that which makes the glory and hope of America than any other living creature known to us. American principles he more than believed in: he loved them, and he deemed their prevalence essential to the welfare of man.
What a plague it was to get across the sea eighty years ago! With trunks packed (and their trunks, as Jefferson intimates, were of American number and magnitude), the little family sat at home waiting a whole month for a ship; and, after all, they could do no better than charter one in London to take them in at the Isle of Wight. It was a month of alarm in Paris. The harvest had not relieved the scarcity of food; long queues of hungry people streamed still from every baker’s shop; and the government itself, perishing of inanition, was obliged to spare a million a week to keep down the price of bread in Paris. Even in that dire extremity, the Protective System shut the ports of France against the food for want of which Frenchmen were dying; and Jefferson spent his last days, and even his last hours, in Paris, in trying to persuade the Ministry to permit the importation of salted provisions from the United States! Salt beef, objected the Count de Montmorin, will give people the scurvy. No, replied Jefferson; we eat it in America, and don’t have the scurvy. The salt tax will fall off, said the minister. Jefferson could not deny that it might a little; but, on the other hand, it would relieve the government from the necessity of keeping the price of bread below its value. But, resumed the Count, the people of France will not buy salt meat. Then, replied Jefferson, the merchants won’t import it, and no harm will be done. And you cannot make a good soup of it, urged the Count. True, said Jefferson, but it gives a delightful flavor to vegetables. Besides, it will cost only half the price of fresh meat. He convinced the Count de Montmorin, who requested him to propose the measure to M. Necker. But, as he was summoned to join the ship, he could only argue it briefly in a letter to M. Necker, which he left for Mr. Short to deliver and enforce. August 26th, the day on which this letter was written, he and his daughters left Paris for Havre.
He might as well have waited awhile longer. They were detained at Havre ten days, during which he was so fortunate as to effect another practicable breach in the Protective System. American ships bringing cargoes to Havre found nothing to take from France, sometimes, except salt; but salt could only be bought “at a mercantile price,” at places on the Loire and Garonne, away round on the Biscay side of France, involving six or eight hundred miles of difficult and perilous coasting. He now obtained from the farmers-general a concession by which American ships could load with salt at Hon-fleur, opposite Havre, paying only mercantile rates. It made a nice finish to his diplomatic career, this valuable service to the merchants and mariners of his country.
Ten days’ further detention at Cowes gave the young ladies an opportunity to ride about the Isle of Wight, to peep into the deep well at Carisbrooke Castle, and stare at the window in the ruins out of which Charles I. looked when he was a prisoner there; perhaps, with comments on the character of the decapitated from their father. Mr. Pitt, it appears, had the politeness to send an order to Cowes exempting the baggage of the voyagers from search; an attention which Miss Jefferson remembered with gratitude, she being the member of the party who was most obliged.
Twenty-three days of swift sailing and perfect autumn weather brought the ship into a dense fog off the coast of Virginia. For three days the thick November mist clung to the shore, preventing the captain from getting a glimpse of either cape. At length, trusting only to his calculations, in which, doubtless, a mathematical plenipotentiary had taken part, he stood in boldly, and escaped into Chesapeake Bay, with only a graze and a scare, just in time to avoid a storm that kept some companion vessels a month longer at sea. This, however, was but the beginning of mishaps. In beating up to Norfolk against the rising gale, they were run into by a vessel rushing seaward before the wind, and lost part of their rigging. At Norfolk, two hours after the passengers had landed, and before any of their effects had been taken ashore, the ship caught fire. The flames gained such headway, that the captain was on the point of scuttling the vessel. But, at last, through the exertions of every sailor in port, the fire was got under, without damage to the papers of the minister or the daintier effects of his daughters. Nothing saved them but the thickness of the trunks, for the heat was so great in the state-rooms that the powder in a musket standing in one of them was silently consumed.
Norfolk, which had been burned to the last house during the war, was little more than a village of shanties, when Jefferson and his daughters landed there, November 18, 1789. They would have been puzzled to find shelter, as the only inn in the town was full, but for the generosity of its inmates, who insisted on giving up their rooms to them. On the very day of his landing Jefferson read in a newspaper that President Washington had appointed him Secretary of State. “I made light of it,” he wrote soon after to a lady in Paris, “supposing I had only to say No, and there would be an end of it.”
In all Virginia, there was scarcely such a thing at that time as a public conveyance. Friends, however, lent the party horses, and they journeyed homeward in the delightfully slow, easy, social manner of the time, stopping at every friend’s house on and near their road. They were ten days or more in getting as far as Richmond. The Legislature was in session, many of Jefferson’s old colleagues being present. They could not let him pass through the capital of his native State without some mark of their regard. On the 7th of December, 1189, the House of Delegates appointed a committee of THIRTEEN members, — sacred number! — with Patrick Henry for chairman, to congratulate him on his return, and to assure him of their esteem for his character and public services. The committee waited upon him and communicated the resolution of the House. His reply was in the taste of the period: —
“I RECEIVE, with humble gratitude, gentlemen, the congratulations of the Honorable the House of Delegates on my return; and I beg leave, through you, to present them my thanks and dutiful respects. Could any circumstance heighten my affection to my native country, it would be the indulgence with which they view my feeble efforts to serve it, and the esteem with which they are pleased to honor me. I shall hope to merit a continuance of their goodness, by obeying the impulse of a zeal of which public good is the first object, and public esteem the highest reward. Permit me, gentlemen, for a moment, to separate from my general thanks the special ones I owe to you, the organs of so flattering a communication.”
Resuming their journey, they arrived early in December at the mansion of Uncle Eppes in Chesterfield County, the happy home of Mary Jefferson’s childhood. Here they halted for many days. It was at this place that Jefferson received the official announcement of his appointment as Secretary of State. A gentleman from New York overtook him at Eppington, bearing his commission signed by the President; also a letter from the President cordially inviting him to accept the place, yet giving him his choice to return to Paris if he preferred to do so. It was evident that General Washington expected him to accept. Mr. Jefferson’s reply was such as became the citizen of a Republic. He told the President that he preferred to remain in the office he then held, the duties of which he knew and felt equal to, rather than undertake a place the duties of which were more difficult and much more extensive. “But,” he added, “it is not for an individual to choose his post. You are to marshal us as may be best for the public good.” Therefore, if the President, after learning his decided preference to return to France, still thought it best to transfer him to New York, “my inclination must be no obstacle.”
They were six weeks in reaching home. Two days before Christmas—a joyful time of year everywhere, but nowhere, perhaps, quite so hilarious as in the Virginia of that generation—all was expectation at Monticello. The house had been made ready. The negroes, to whom a holiday had been given, all came in from the various farms of the estate, dressed in their cleanest attire, and the women wearing their brightest turbans, and gathered early in the day about the house. Their first thought was to meet the returning family at the foot of the mountain, and thither they moved in a body, men, women, and children, long before there was any reason to expect them. As the tedious hours passed, the more eager of the crowd walked on, and these being followed by the rest, there was a straggling line of them a mile or two in length. Late in the afternoon, the most advanced descried a carriage at Shadwell, drawn by four horses, with postilions, in the fashion of the time. The exulting shout was raised. All ran forward, and soon the whole crowd huddled round the vehicle, pulling, pushing, crying, cheering, until it reached the steep ascent of the mountain, where the slackened pace gave them the opportunity they desired. In spite of the master’s entreaties and commands, they took off the horses and drew the carriage at a run up the mountain, and round the lawn to the door of the house.
It was no easy matter to alight. Mr. Jefferson swam in a tumultuous sea of black arms and faces from the carriage to the steps of the portico. Some kissed his hands, others his feet; some cried, others laughed; all tried at least to touch him. Not a word could be heard above the din. But when the young ladies appeared, when Martha, whom they had last seen a child of eleven, stepped forth a woman grown, in all the glorious lustre of youth, beauty, and joy, and when Mary followed, a sylph in form, face, and step, they all fell apart, and made a lane for them to pass, holding up their children to see them, and uttering many a cry of rapturous approval. The father and daughters entered the house at length; the carriage rolled away; the negroes went off chattering to their quarters and there was quiet again at Monticello. “Such a scene,” wrote Martha Jefferson, long after, “I never witnessed in my life.” As late as 1851, Mr. Randall heard a vivid description of it at Monticello from an aged negro who was one of the boys of the joyful crowd.
The merry Christmas passed. One of the first visitors from beyond the immediate neighborhood was James Madison, who was about starting for New York to attend Congress. General Washington, it seems, had requested him to call at Monticello and ascertain more exactly the state of Mr. Jefferson’s mind with regard to the appointment. “I was sorry,” Madison wrote to the President, January 4, 1790, “to find him so little biassed in favor of the domestic service allotted him, but was glad that his difficulties seemed to result chiefly from what I take to be an erroneous view of the kind and quantity of business.” To the foreign department alone he felt equal; but he dreaded the new and unknown duties which had been annexed to that. Upon receiving this information, the President wrote again to Jefferson. The new business he thought, would not be arduous, and if it should prove so, doubtless Congress would apply a remedy. The office, in the President’s opinion, was very important on many accounts, and he knew of no one who could better execute it. He added a remark sure to have great weight with Jefferson, as, indeed, it ought: “In order that you may be better prepared to make your ultimate decision on good grounds, I think it necessary to add one fact, which is this, that your late appointment has given very extensive and very great satisfaction to the public.” Still the President would not urge acceptance. He merely said, with regard to his own feelings, “My original opinion and wish may be collected from my nomination.” Jefferson yielded without further parley. “I no longer hesitate,” he wrote, February 11, “to undertake the office to which you are pleased to call me.” So Mr. Short had to break up the establishment at Paris, and send home the accumulated treasures of five years’ haunting of Paris bookstalls and curiosity-shops.
The day after accepting office, a committee of his old constituents of Albemarle arrived at Monticello, and presented an address of congratulation and commendation. It was unusually cordial and interesting. They sketched his whole public career with approval, and felicitated themselves upon the fact that it was they who had introduced him to public life. Above all his other services they extolled “the strong attachment he had always shown to the rights of mankind, and to those institutions that were best calculated to preserve them.” Much as they should like to enjoy his services again, they assured him that they were too much attached to the common interests of their country, and too sensible of his merit, not to unite with the general voice that called him “to continue in her councils.” In his reply, he again seized the opportunity to recall attention to first principles. The favor of his neighbors, he said, was indeed “the door through which he had been ushered on the stage of public life”; and, after becoming reference to this circumstance, he added these words, which contain the chief article of his political creed: —
“We have been fellow-laborers and fellow-sufferers; and Heaven has rewarded us with a happy issue from our struggles. It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to mankind; to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs; and that the will of the majority, the natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man. Perhaps even this may sometimes err; but its errors are honest, solitary, and short-lived. Let us then, my dear friends, forever bow down to the general reason of the society. We are safe with that, even in its deviations, for it soon returns again to the right way.”
The lovers, meanwhile, were improving their time. February 23. 1790, the wedding occurred at Monticello. The clergyman who performed the ceremony was Mr. Maury, son of Jefferson’s schoolmaster. Young Randolph was heir to large estates, and the pair, after living awhile at Monticello, settled on land in the neighborhood. For a single week Jefferson witnessed and shared the happiness of his children and then, in obedience to General Washington’s urgent desire, he set out for New York. The President had already kept the office six months for him; business was accumulating; he might well be a little impatient to see his Secretary of State.
What a journey Jefferson had of it in the wet and stormy March of 1790! Twenty-one days of hard travel, including brief rests at Richmond, Alexandra, Baltimore, and Philadelphia! Delightful as old-fashioned travel may have been to a home-returning plenipotentiary, leisure being abundant and the season propitious, it was misery to a Secretary of State overdue, in chill and oozy March, at a point four hundred miles distant. He sent his carriage round to Alexandria in advance, intending to go in it the rest of the way. At that ancient and flourishing port, where he paused one day, he received an address from the mayor and citizens; from which we learn that his labors in behalf of commerce had become known to parties interested. The Alexandrians, besides approving his exertions in “the sacred cause of freedom,” had a word of thanks for “the indulgences which his enlightened representations to the court of France had secured to their trade”; adding these words: “You have freed commerce from its shackles, and destroyed the first essay made in this country towards establishing a monopoly.” The last remark was aimed, probably, at British merchants and their resident agents, who still had a tight grip upon Virginia estates, and did not want any Virginia ships to go to Havre. Jefferson waived this compliment with his usual excess of modesty, but did not refrain from a sentence or two upon general politics: —
“Convinced that the republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind, my prayers and efforts shall be cordially contributed to the support of that we have so happily established. … It is, indeed, an animating thought that, while we are securing the rights of ourselves and our posterity, we are pointing out the way to struggling nations, who wish, like us, to emerge from their tyrannies also. Heaven help their struggles, and lead them, as it has done us, triumphantly through them!”
All this was cordial to the people of that day, who had scarcely heard, as yet, that there were Americans who felt otherwise. No one could say, in March, 1790, that it was the partisan who spoke such words.
During the night of his stay at Alexandria, a late winter storm covered the ground with snow to the depth of eighteen inches. He therefore left his carriage to be sent round by sea, and took a place in the stage, his horses being led and ridden after him by his servants. So bad were the roads that the lumbering vehicle, as he wrote back to his son-in-law, “could never go more than three miles an hour, sometimes not more than two, and in the night but one.” During the few hours of his stay at Philadelphia, he had his last interview with Dr. Franklin, who was then on the bed from which he was to be borne, a month after, to his coffin. The old man, whose mental faculties seemed to remain undiminished to the last, listened with flushed face to Jefferson’s narrative of all that had occurred lately in France. He asked eagerly what part his friends there had taken, what had been their course amid the torrent of events, and what their fate. Jefferson had volumes to impart to him, and Franklin was almost exhausted by the intensity of his interest in what he heard.
Sunday, March 21, 1790, “after as laborious a journey as I ever went through,” Jefferson reached New York. A paragraph of a line and a half in the principal newspaper of the town announced his arrival; but, as he attacked immediately the accumulated business of his office, his name soon begins to appear at the end of public documents below that of “G. Washington.” The amount of work in prospect was a little alarming. Finding no suitable house vacant in “the Broadway,” he hired a small one, No. 57 Maiden Lane, while he could look about him; for it was his habit and intention to keep house in comfortable style. Hamilton lived in Pine Street, where so many lawyers still labor, but not live; and Colonel Aaron Burr was plodding at the law in Nassau Street, near Wall, where he had a large garden and grapery. Jefferson appears to have startled mankind by continuing at first to wear his French clothes, even red breeches and red waistcoat, the fashion in Paris.