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‘A Very Human Portrait’

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

Jefferson’s Adoptive Son: The Life of William Short, 1759-1848. By George Green Shackelford. Kentucky. $33.00.

Professor Emeritus George Shackelford of Virginia Polytechnic Institute completed a substantial dissertation on the life of William Short in 1955. This valuable study had remained unpublished until now, nearly 40 years after the original research was conducted. Updated to reference the Princeton edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (which enterprise was still young in 1955) and incorporating recent scholarship on the French Revolution and Jeffersonian diplomacy, Jefferson’s Adoptive Son has emerged as a compact and very readable volume.

William Short is a compelling character for far more than once having been known as Thomas Jefferson’s “adoptive son.” He was a cosmopolitan Virginian bridging American and European sensibilities, a man of daring who, alone among American diplomats, witnessed the French Revolution from beginning to end. He was an embattled emissary to the Netherlands, Spain, and Russia, subject to slow and unreliable communications from home, who repeatedly found himself obliged to improvise. He was a sentimental traveler and the dashing suitor of a French duchesse. His papers and private correspondence over a long and active career make him a lively subject of study for any who wish to understand the emotional trials faced by publicly outspoken members of the early American elite. Professor Shackelford’s sensitive biography is founded on an exhaustive compilation of facts—from the logistics of Short’s comings and goings to his complex financial dealings—yet this effort does not overwhelm the narrative of an appealing young diplomat’s half-successful search for wider acceptance on the strength of his proven intelligence, candor, and conviviality.

Short was of an industrious family in Surry County, Virginia, who struggled to rise from indentured servitude in 1635 to wealth and respectability by the time of the sixth William Short’s birth in 1759. The reader follows William from a distinguished college career at William and Mary through his initial relationship with then-Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson, and his friendly rivalry with Jefferson’s other protege, James Monroe. Short visited Monticello often in 1782, during the last months of Mrs. Jefferson’s life, and he shared his mentor’s grief upon losing his own father not long after Jefferson’s bereavement. Prophetically, Short appears to have been drawn to follow Jefferson to Europe at age 25 after having been jilted by “a mysterious young woman of Richmond.”

The relationship with Jefferson is most curious, and not always what one expects. The minister to France under whom Short so long toiled, who raised two daughters but no sons, was a stern parent to Short. He commanded respect and devotion, but generally cramped his “son’s” style. Together at the genteel salons of Paris, Jefferson impressed the philosophic nobility with the range of his knowledge, and Short charmed the ladies with his naturally affectionate manner and his greater fluency in their language. He also formed lifelong friendships with such notables as the Marquis de La Fayette. But a series of disappointments also began at this time: though Short repeatedly proved himself an able negotiator on behalf of the newly independent United States, his country failed to note his hard, behind-the-scenes work at hammering out treaties or solutions to vexing problems of finance.

While Jefferson opened opportunities, in some ways he proved a hindrance to Short’s happiness in Paris, rather than a promoter of it. Attempting to inculcate his own restraint of passion toward available women, Jefferson urged Short to embark on a grand tour of France and Italy in 1788, much like his own of the year before, which may have been meant, at least in part, to divert Short’s attention from a budding love affair with the married duchesse he knew as Rosalie. At any event, diplomat-apprentice Short went on a quixotic adventure with two American companions and the contentious Anglo-American couple John and Lucy Paradise. Shackelford describes this journey in entertaining language reminiscent of Mark Twain. Short returned from Rome with the spaghetti mold that Jefferson would carry across the Atlantic some months later; typically, it was the latter who alone received credit for having introduced the popular dish to America.

Jefferson’s plan upon leaving France was to see his dutiful private secretary elevated in stature to “charge des affaires,” and a short time later to return home to Virginia where, in 1791, now Secretary of State Jefferson in essence promised to arrange for Short’s election to the U.S. Senate (one of Virginia’s Senate seats was then occupied by Monroe). But Short by this time found it hard to turn his back on the still unfolding French Revolution and was expanding his official duties to include negotiations to gain George Washington’s administration advantageous loans from Dutch bankers.

Despite ability and connections, the little-known Short was bypassed when Gouvernor Morris succeeded Jefferson in Paris. Though eminently qualified, he would never be minister to France. He was subsequently called to Spain to press for a treaty with respect to disputed territorial claims, a humbling experience that finally caused Short to revolt. Refused sufficient rank to gain the attention of the Spanish foreign minister, he languished in unhealthy Madrid for nearly three years and, when finally near a solution to America’s problems, was supplanted by newly arrived diplomat Thomas Pinckney—minister plenipotentiary and sole treaty commissioner. Again, Short was denied credit.

Jefferson had made it clear that, despite his proven record, Short ought to return home, refamiliarize himself with his native land, and hobnob with the political elite in order to receive the power, prestige, and office he warranted. But Short removed himself from the diplomatic service in 1794, patriotically holding on in Spain until Pinckney predictably upstaged him. He would have taken his mentor’s advice and sailed home had not his love for Rosalie tugged at him throughout this period. Because of her, he would be absent from America a total of 17 years, 1785 to 1802.

It is here, describing Short’s romantic impulse, that Shackelford’s narrative probes with uncommon eloquence and achieves a delightful clarity. Rosalie’s marriage to Louis-Alexandre, Due de la Rochefoucauld, was one of convenience. He was 30 years her senior, a benign presence and largely unperturbable. In 1790, on a cold and windy day some time before the French Revolution had turned on liberal nobles such as the due, William and his love were out canoeing on a pond by the Seine when Short dove overboard and nearly lost consciousness in saving a boy from drowning in rapids. The hero had then returned to the due’s chateau, dined, “quaffed old Malvoisie & other wines to a degree that astonished everybody,” and played chess “with great success,” before drifting into a sweet sleep. The due’s murder before Rosalie’s eyes in 1792 cast a grotesque pall over the lives of the surviving members of his circle. The gallant Short, so desperately in love, became Rosalie’s rescuer next, and cared as well for the due’s aging mother, whose salon Short had attended with Jefferson and who had always understood the magic that kept William and Rosalie bound in spirit.

The letters William and Rosalie exchanged during William’s trying times away were intensified in emotional expression after the due’s death and Rosalie’s mild imprisonment in a Paris convent. Before their long-awaited reunion late in 1795, Rosalie could write of the locks of each other’s hair they had cut and kept as a means to feel close, of the gold ring he had engraved with their initials intertwined, of the day he had taken her to a meadow and declared his undying love. “Why does heaven separate two hearts which are so true?” she pleaded. When she had felt her life to be in jeopardy, “the shadow of death inspired me with a desire to die worthy of you.” She vowed to him: “It is the will of providence that I shall recover my beloved.”

And she did. For seven years they lived as husband and wife, without the marriage contract, oblivious to others’ talk. Short remained with Rosalie in anticipation that, upon the death of her mother-in-law, she would marry him officially and go with him to America. Short obliged her as long as he could, more than once cancelling trips home at the last minute to please her. He had given up a promising career for love, and then, when he did finally cross the Atlantic in 1802, was, figuratively, cast adrift; by staying away too long, he lost his Rosalie to another French aristocrat. Jefferson was president when Short, now citified, resettled in Philadelphia rather than in Virginia. The two rekindled a friendship, on more nearly equal terms than in the past. In one final gasp of public commitment, a somewhat hardened Short accepted from Jefferson a secret mission to Russia in 1808, only to be recalled when Congress refused to ratify the appointment.

Thus William Short’s career was one of fits and starts and great embarrassments, frustrating a man who was in fact a shrewd diplomat. As the author demonstrates, Short was not permitted to advance his country’s interests as he might have done given the necessary tools. And yet, despite a long absence from America, he made wise investments and was able to retire a millionaire. He became active in the American Philosophical Society after 1804 and even contributed in 1826 to the fund which sought to save a dying, indebted Jefferson from the loss of Monticello.

One becomes convinced from Professor Shackelford’s thorough study that William Short might have become president. Had he allowed Jefferson to oversee his reemergence as a national political figure in the 1790’s, as Jefferson did with Monroe, this astute, cultivated, worldly, and personable Virginian would undoubtedly have gone far. He was, however, independent of mind and spirit to an extent that prohibited his advance. He knew his own worth and expected more parochial Americans to recognize this. But, alas, he would not play politics at home, and ultimately traded position for the love of a woman who would not marry him.

As insightful as Professor Shackelford’s treatment is, there are noticeable gaps in discussions of Short’s disposition toward the other dramatis personae—except in the outstanding case of Short’s disregard for his mentor’s closest ally, James Madison. Shackelford might have speculated more about how Short’s estrangement from American politics produced in him contradictory feelings toward the Washington and even Jefferson administrations. For example, Short does not appear to have shared Jefferson’s distaste for Alexander Hamilton. Did mentor and protege, both willful, even stubborn men, resolve this difference in perception? Simply insisting that Short in general adhered to republican notions of non-partisanship is not explanation enough when the author knows his subject so well. Shackelford does best, and is most entertaining, when he recounts the evidence hidden in obscure correspondence: there are the soap opera-like episodes that add spice to Short’s various and prolonged negotiations, such as that of the American courier John Blake who arrived in Madrid in 1793 and then took up with the wife or teenage daughter (it is never clear) of negotiator William Carmichael, who died before he could sail home.

Also, it is never quite clear at exactly what point Jefferson first began to refer to Short as his “adoptive son.” Shackelford does so throughout the book, and it is not until chapter nine that the reader sees, tucked away in a footnote, the passing reference in Jefferson’s letter to American painter John Trumbull in 1789. (In general, the footnotes do not elaborate as much as might be hoped.) Nor is it clear how confident the author is that both Jefferson and Short embraced the affectionate designation of father and son, or even what being a protege’ meant to the fatherless Short. Short had ample reason to feel abandoned by Jefferson and in a certain sense may have come to pity the financially embattled sage of Monticello. But beyond the written record, Shackelford does not pursue the psychological dimension of Short’s most important formative relationship in sufficient depth. These failures are minor, however, and would not present themselves except that the author has provided such a rich exposition of his subject’s history.

One other discrepancy deserves mention: the Library of Congress listing before the table of contents gives Short’s dates as 1759-1849, incorrectly adding a year to an already long life. But the long and short of it is, William Short as depicted by George Shackelford is a vital and multi-faceted personality who, we now know, belongs in the lineup of energetic early American leaders alongside some others who became more eminent than he largely because of their adeptness at self-promotion. Jefferson’s Adoptive Son is a very human portrait of a very worthy biographical subject.


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