Jefferson in Paris: The Constitution, Part I

This is part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand. Jim is the Senior Registrar in the Exhibits Division.

“It is impossible to increase taxes, disastrous to keep on borrowing, and inadequate to merely to cut expense.”

This is not a quote from the 2012 American  elections or the current fiscal cliff debate.  These are the words of Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, finance minister of France, describing the financial conditions of his country in 1786 to his king, Louis XVI.

The French monarchy was deep in debt due to continuous war expenditures, most recently from the American Revolution, when France supplied monies, ships, soldiers, and arms to the the struggling United States, not to mention its own naval engagements with the British Navy. The French people were poor and hungry, and there was great inequality among the classes. Attempts at reform failed, setting the stage for the bloody civil rupture known as the French Revolution, beginning with democratic ideas and ending in Napoleonic despotism.

With his experience in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the Continental Congress, and as Governor of Virginia behind him, Thomas Jefferson continued his practical education in world affairs in pre-revolutionary France. Across the Atlantic, the fledgling American government had its own problems, which though different, were just as desperate.

With its independence from Great Britain dearly won, the 13 states were united in name only. The national government, or what was left of it, was barely functioning. It was unable to raise funds to pay its debts and current needs; multiple currencies circulated; and individual states pursued their own interests domestically and abroad.

Congress sent Jefferson to Paris to serve as a trade commissioner, but he would ultimately replace Benjamin Franklin as minister to France. After a few unsatisfactory locations, Jefferson moved to the Hôtel de Langeac at the corner of the Rue de Berri and the Champs-Elysées in October 1785. Before moving, he wrote to Abigail Adams, “I have at length procured a house in a situation much more pleasing to me than my present. It is at the grille des champs Elysees, but within the city. It suits me in every circumstance but the price, being dearer than the one I am now in. It has a clever garden to it.”

Plaque marking Jefferson's house in Paris. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons by Carcharoth.

In his autobiography written in 1821, Jefferson neatly summarized his duties: “My duties at Paris were confined to a few objects; the receipt of our whale-oils, salted fish, and salted meats on favorable terms, the admission of our rice on equal terms with that of Piedmont, Egypt & the Levant, a mitigation of the monopolies of our tobacco by the Farmers-general, and a free admission of our productions into their islands.” Of course, he leaves out mention of his personal and official correspondence, visits to court and other embassies, attending cultural events, and hosting American visitors.

Jefferson’s central task in Paris was to negotiate commerce treaties with European countries. In the following dispatch to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay, he reports on the continuing resistance of the British to any progress on trade matters: “To be respectable abroad it is necessary to be so at Home, and that will not be the Case until our public Faith acquires more Confidence, and our Government more Strength.” A strong, unified government was needed to give leadership in foreign affairs, and this could only be possible by replacing the Articles of Confederation with a new, more robust form of government.

In early 1786, John Adams invited Jefferson to join him in London for business pertaining negotiations with the Barbary States. Nothing came of it. On March 28, 1786, he was presented at court to George III. His memory of the event, written in his autobiography over three decades later, was vivid: “On my presentation as usual to the King and Queen at their levees, it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious than their notice of Mr. Adams and myself. I saw at once that the ulcerations in the narrow mind of that mulish being left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance.” Text from Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, April 23, 1786. Original is in the National Archives, RG 360, item 87, volume I, page 247.


With this country [Great Britain] nothing is done; and that nothing is intended to be done on their part admits not the smallest doubt. The nation is against any change of measures; the ministers are against it, some from principle, others from subserviency; and the king more than all men is against it. If we take a retrospect to the beginning of the present reign we observe that amidst all the changes of ministry no change of measures with respect to America ever took place. . . . Of the two months which then remained [on Jefferson and Adams commissions to treat], 6 weeks have elapsed without one scrip of a pen, or one word from a minister except a vague proposition at an accidental meeting. . . . [T]heir silence is invincible. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, April 23, 1786.  RED 17478.  Original is in the National Archives, RG 360, item 87, volume I, page 247. Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson  Papers.

Since March 1781, the Continental Congress had been organized under the Articles of Confederation. But it often could not obtain a quorum to conduct daily business, even when the issue was as fundamentally critical as the ratification of the Treaty of Paris—ending war with Great Britain and obtaining the ultimate goal of independence.

When peace was finally had, no longer would the war and the common enemy bind the states and their representatives together in Congress. The Articles did not allow for separate branches of government as we have today; Congress was legislature, executive and judiciary all in one. Congress was beholden to the states for money, and important decisions required unanimity. As a result, Congress found itself tied in knots, weak and powerless.

In Paris, Jefferson kept himself well informed of events at home, the bad and the good. He heard often from John Jay. In October 1786, Jay wrote to Jefferson, “The inefficacy of our government becomes daily more and more apparent. . . . Our credit and our treasury are in a sad situation, and it is probable that either the wisdom or the passions of the people will produce changes.” Jefferson recognized the need for a stronger American central government, but he put his hopes in the people and a largely agrarian society with the American continent’s bountiful resources.

Political disarray, poor economic conditions, credit shortages, and the state’s levy of higher taxes led to Shays’s Rebellion in central and western Massachusetts. The rebellion began in August 1786 under Daniel Shays and was ultimately beaten down the following February. However, it became a common subject of discourse as plans for the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were put into place in the winter and spring months of 1787.

As the Convention drew near, James Madison wrote his good friend Jefferson, “Nothing can exceed the universal anxiety for the event of the meeting. . . . The people . . . are said to be generally discontented.”

Jefferson had drafted the first great Charter of the United States, the Declaration of Independence. He had been a member of the Congress that prepared the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. However, when the momentous time came to bring together the greatest American politicians and statesmen to revise the failing Articles in 1787, Jefferson would be in Paris. But he would influence the debate through correspondence with key leaders, including fellow Virginians James Madison and George Washington during the lead up to the Convention and the subsequent ratification debates.

While the Constitutional Convention was being organized, Jefferson left Paris in February 1787 for a three-month tour of the south of France and northern Italy. He wrote his secretary William Short: “Architecture, painting, sculpture, antiquities, the condition of the laboring poor fill all my moments.” In this revealing letter to his good friend the Marquis de Lafayette, Jefferson expands on his thirst for knowledge, his methods, and observations on the people of France. In contrast to the poverty he saw in the streets of Paris, the people “are generally well clothed, and have a plenty of food.”

I am constantly roving about, to see what I have never seen before and shall never see again. In the great cities, go to see what travellers think alone worthy of being seen; but I make a job of it, and generally gulp it all down in a day. On the other hand, I am never satiated with rambling through the fields and farms, examining the culture and cultivators, with a degree of curiosity which makes some take me to be a fool, and others to be much wiser than I am. I have been pleased to find among the people a less degree of physical misery than I had expected.

They are generally well clothed, and have a plenty of food, not animal indeed, but vegetable, which is as wholesome. Perhaps they are over worked, the excess of the rent required by the landlord, obliging them to too many hours of labor in order to produce that, and where-with to feed and clothe themselves. . . . The soil [of Champagne and Burgundy], the climate, and the productions are superior to those of England, and the husbandry as good, except in one point; that of manure. . . .

This is, perhaps, the only moment of your life in which you can acquire that knowledge [of your country]. And to do it most effectually you must be absolutely incognito, you must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done, look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds under pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft. You will feel a sublime pleasure in the course of this investigation, and a sublimer one hereafter when you shall be able to apply your knowledge to the softening of their beds, or the throwing a morsel of meat into the kettle of vegetables. Letter from Thomas Jefferson, in Nice, to the Marquis de Lafayette, April 11, 1787. Text from the Digital Edition of the Thomas Jefferson Papers.

Jefferson returned to Paris on June 10, a couple of weeks after the Convention first began to meet in Philadelphia, but he would not know the final result until November. On June 6, Madison wrote to Jefferson and listed the names of delegates but explains, “It was thought expedient in order to secure unbiased discussion within doors, and to prevent misconceptions and misconstructions without, to establish some rules of caution which will for no short time restrain even a confidential communication of our proceedings.”

The risk of a major public blowup over slavery, representation, or other  tough issues  was too great.  Jefferson strongly objected to the Convention’s secrecy decision. On the other hand, he simultaneously acknowledged the extraordinary quality of the men.

I have news from America as late as July 19. Nothing had then transpired from the Federal convention. I am sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members. Nothing can justify this example but the innocence of their intentions, & ignorance of the value of public discussions. I have no doubt that all their other measures will be good and wise. It is really an assembly of demigods. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams,  August 30, 1787. Text from the Digital Edition of the Adams Papers. Emphasis added by the author of this post.

Jefferson did not hesitate to express himself on issues likely to come before the Convention. In this passage, he opposes giving Congress authority to veto laws passed by individual states. The Convention ultimately agreed, but Madison saw it as a great weakness. “The negative proposed to be given them [Congress] on all the acts of the several legislatures is now for the first time suggested to my mind. Primâ facie I do not like it. It fails in an essential character, that the hole and the patch should be commensurate. But this proposes to mend a small hole by covering the whole garment.” Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, June 20, 1787. Text from the Digital Edition of the Jefferson Papers.

The Constitution was signed on September 17, but it took until late November for a copy to reach Jefferson.  His initial reaction was decidedly cool, but warmed in the following months during the ratification debates and with Madison’s encouragement.

In the next post, we will take a look at Jefferson’s impressions of the new Constitution from his perch in Paris.

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