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Innocent Abroad: Jefferson In Paris

ISSUE:  Summer 1998
The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. By William Howard Adams. Yale. $30. 00.

Is it not a self-evident truth that, despite the lure of his peripatetic life, the historical Jefferson is lost to us? William Howard Adams is certainly not about to give up the search, His new book, The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, intelligently explores the critical formative experience of that thought-filled, mild-mannered Virginian in the tumult of Paris society from 1784 to 1789. It takes the reader on an authoritative journey through the streets of the city and among the provocative characters in whose company the American diplomat thrived.

In vibrant prose, Howard Adams shows that Jefferson’s diplomacy was inseparable from his pursuit of cultural enlightenment. While negotiating commercial affairs, he sought a means of combining European views of the arts with American common sense. He figured on capturing the excitement of Paris and using it to stimulate, or jump-start, an impressionable American culture. He aimed to build temples on provincial streets after his return home, to improve Americans’ aesthetic environment while invigorating their political principles. Seeing with Thomas Jefferson’s eyes, Adams opens to readers a very visual world. That is, perhaps, the greatest strength of this copiously illustrated book.

The cause of liberty reverberated in France in the 1780’s. It was what one French count called “the sweet plebian philosophy” that fed Jefferson’s extraordinary spirit of optimism. This was a moment in history when the simplicity of American manners shone past the refinements of royal society. American independence had caught the popular imagination. Softening up the lumières for his comparatively shy successor as minister, the venerable Benjamin Franklin popularized his own wit and charm and made them symbolic of American vitality.

Yet, as much as he was stepping into an enviable situation, Minister Thomas Jefferson arrived wide-eyed and awe-struck. Adams describes the whirlwind tour of the Paris art world that Jefferson took in 1786 with Richard and Maria Cosway and their Bohemian entourage, noting Jefferson’s “critical innocence” which insulated him from the raciness—even the pornographic interests—of some of his companions. One has the sense that this prudish Virginian was getting in over his head, and that the romantically inspired letter to Mrs. Cosway, the famed dialogue between “my Head and my Heart,” was the urgent eruption of a confused spirit.

Jefferson appears so chaste at times as to be absent of wit, stern and pure and wooden next to his new friends. This is an odd but essential portrayal, given the desire of modern Americans to make Jefferson “cool.” How, after all, can democracy appear stiff and immobile? The historical imagination urges us to relate to the 19th-century incarnation of democracy. But Thomas Jefferson was most assuredly an 18th-century man. The first portrait for which he sat painted by Mather Brown in London in 1786, projects a bewigged and frilly 18th-century dandy. In even his most “democratic” of aphorisms, he did not envision the full social transformation that ultimately occurred. By later standards, Jefferson was “uptight.”

One need only compare Jefferson to a newfound companion, the self-styled “Baron” Pierre-Francois Hugues d’Hancarville, a connoisseur of antiquity like himself, to enter the curious realm of Jeffersonian sociability during this period. The starched American minister, who lectured his younger compatriots on the need to turn from enticements when touring Europe, apparently was unaware of the baron’s bizarre past as a thief, or his investigations of cults of phallic worship, or his having abandoned his pregnant mistress. The two men, equally smitten, shared a carriage, “like recruits for the Bastille,” on the day Jefferson bade a heart-wrenching farewell to Maria Cosway. In his fanciful characterization, Jefferson’s sobbing Heart termed its host “the most wretched of all earthly beings.”

The innocent quality that the widowed Virginian is shown to have possessed raises interesting questions about his sexual attitudes in these years of pronounced temptation. In 1787, rhapsodizing the unpretentious manner of the newly appointed French minister to the United States, Count Elie de Moustier, Jefferson termed that official’s sister-in-law and traveling companion “affable, engaging, placid, and withal beautiful.” It did not strike him as possible that the French pair were having an affair; Jefferson wrote James Madison that as madame’s husband was away in the army, she would remain “safer from seduction in America.” Madison advised his mistaken friend some months later that the count and his mistress had alienated all those they encountered, making their “illicit liaison” public before offended American eyes. “It is said,” wrote Madison, “they often neglect the most obvious precautions for veiling their intimacy.”

How does all this fit with Jefferson’s emphatic warmth toward the married French and touring English and American women he encountered in Paris, many of whom were clearly charmed by his attention to them? In the chapter entitled “The Women in His Life,” Adams examines the Parisian libido and the “softening” effect that the female imagination had upon Jefferson. While professing that an unhealthy urban environment did more than political upheaval to divert human affections from their proper position, Jefferson considered the women of France too strong, too public, even controlling, Yet he referred rarely to the prominent husbands of those women who seemed to thrive on his conversation. He delighted in the arts and the garden, which allied him to female tastes and helped inaugurate bright epistolary exchanges. But. . .mustn’t there be something to speculate about in an age such as ours? Less judicious analysts of Jefferson’s imagination than Howard Adams have asserted everything from incest to misogyny. Clearly Jefferson enjoyed the company of women. Adams chronicles these relationships while remaining agnostic as to the possibility of physical passion. There is much attraction, the author infers, but little daring.

The man of sentiment whom Adams rather dubs “the patriot aesthete,” found greatest interest and instruction among cultivators. In France he made particular notes in the vineyards of Bordeaux; in his relatively brief journey to England, a society he despised for its arrogance, he relished only the stylishly landscaped gardens. Attempting in his Parisian garden some of the vegetables he raised for his dining table at Monticello, Jefferson eagerly entered into a commerce of edible and non-edible plants with his European friends that would last decades. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” wrote the cosmopolitan, “is, to add an useful plant to its culture.”

Adams spells out Jefferson’s priorities with a wry insight. In 1780—81, as governor of a financially pressed Virginia unprepared for impending invasion, Jefferson had nonetheless labored on behalf of the state government to acquire the 28-volume Encydopédie at a cost of 15,000 pounds of tobacco. Fleeing British troops, Jefferson ordered the volumes spirited to safekeeping beyond the invaders’ reach, then took the books to Monticello as he readied his Notes on Virginia for conveyance to America’s French ally. In 1785, in Paris, Jefferson saw the first printing of his Notes, a mixed guidebook with prescriptions for moral government, that elevated the agrarian ideal while enlisting the author in the cause of the philosophes—that is, to advance a principled, self-disciplined statecraft. The Notes, as Adams explains, advertised the America Jefferson saw coming into existence; the work was meant to counter prior European assertions as to the natural weakness of American species. Adams also shows that there was something curiously “gothic” in Jefferson’s descriptions, as he highlights the diplomat’s efforts to develop the national myth of American exceptionalism.

Jefferson’s audience may have been the world’s bankers and leading statesmen, but he had a particular effect on (and was himself influenced by) a pallid, disheveled philosophe, the marquis de Condorcet, who was a romantic when it came to America. Adams writes with great effect about Condorcet, whom he terms a man with a “bottled-up fury.” In an especially illuminating section of the book, the author develops a conversation between Jefferson and the French liberal on the passionate issue of slavery. An uncompromising humanist, Condorcet was incensed with this grotesque theft of life and livelihood. While predicting slavery’s demise owing to Americans’ remarkable decency, he wrote that “enlightened men feel its shame.” His friend Jefferson, usually sanguine about simple formulas for social change, offered a pragmatic counter in this instance. Though he posed offended sensibility, as in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was too conscious of the web already woven in the South before his own birth to do other than state plainly that universal emancipation was unlikely. He opted, uncharacteristically, to wait patiently for a remedy to emerge, for “the workings of an overruling providence. . . . When the measure of [the slaves’] tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress.” In his persuasive analysis of this testy subject, Adams adds that Jefferson was moved enough by his European conversation to float the idea of transforming his Monticello field hands into tenant farmers. In what the author terms a “far-fetched scheme,” Jefferson thought he might import German peasants to pick up the slack as he led his slaves to a qualified freedom.

Jefferson examined his surroundings with the rigor of a scientist but often yielded to fanciful images of the future. He adored Paris but wrote longingly of America, appreciated the company of noble minds but praised above all else the simple nobility of the American yeomanry. He loved at once classical order and romantic prose, weaving unsystematically between creative extremes. Adams brings out his whimsicality in a letter he cites, which Jefferson wrote during his tour of the south of France in 1787. As “delicious” nightingales serenaded him, with songs “more varied, their tone fuller and stronger than on the banks of the Seine,” Jefferson breathed, “It explains to me another circumstance, why there never was a poet north of the Alps and why there never will be one. . . . What a bird the nightingale would be in the climates of America! We must colonize him thither.”

In this and other respects, The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson explores the still dusty corners of Jefferson’s internal architecture. At a time when America’s most controversial Revolutionary, after having so long stood unassailed, suffers in print from an army of unforgiving pundits and eager geneticists out to dissect his DNA, the agreeable musings and thorough descriptions of Howard Adams make the rediscovery of the Paris Jefferson knew as inspiring as it must have been to Jefferson himself. This is a book that can be digested easily, and whose subject, if not superhuman, is certainly sympathetic. Adams, editor of the earlier Thomas Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View, and onetime curator of the National Gallery’s Bicentennial Exhibition, conveys the etiquette of the French scene with effortless charm. But this is a book of sensations as well as manners, and that above all is what makes it a vital retrospective.


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