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Jefferson and Du Pont

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, 1798-1817. Edited by Dumas Malone and translated by Linwood Lehman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.00.

These letters reveal the minds of two of the most interesting men of the late eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, and Pierre du Pont, leader in the French revolution and senator and member of cabinets in the stormy era which followed. The friendship of the two men continued from the period of Jefferson’s ministry in Paris and it was interrupted only by the death of du Pont in 1817. Both men were true eighteenth century liberals, profoundly interested in the betterment of all men everywhere and were thoroughly acquainted with the currents of both European and American thought. Few men could have left a better picture of high aspirations than these unselfish leaders; and Professor Ma-lone has made a distinct contribution to the source literature of the time in making these documents available to scholars. The most painstaking care has been devoted to text and translation: there can be no doubt of the integrity of the work or the accuracy of the rendering by Professor Lehman.

It is a curious reflex of the most important views of these friends that they are in complete agreement as to objectives but differ widely as to the method of attaining ends. Du Pont never believed that all men should have the right to vote: in this he was a confirmed Girondist. Jefferson believed in manhood suffrage throughout his life, which allied him somewhat with the radicals, though he acquiesced in a freehold suffrage in Virginia, the administration of which during his lifetime was very liberal. Both men believed ardently in universal education as one means of preparing men for performing their parts in the social order, du Pont being willing to confer full citizenship after education and acquirement of property, Jefferson to confer full citizenship before either education or the possession of property: in the expectation that even illiterate men would not vote more foolishly than the self-seeking wealthy. Both were in a sense followers of Turgot, Jefferson as a student who outgrew his master, du Pont as something of a worshipper; and their interest in Turgot strengthened their faith in the political philosophy which assumes that agriculture is the sole productive activity of man, other activities being useful but not productive. Hence their profound belief in the early United States with its overwhelming farmer population.

One of the friends became president of the United States and hence was in a position to apply their common philosophy, while the other was ever at the mercy of the changing order in Paris. But du Pont was most reticent and reasonable in his relationship with his great friend when in high office. Jefferson himself endeavored to advance the ideas he held so dear, but was defeated by Europe. It was with a sense of frustration that both men renewed their correspondence in 1809, when Jefferson went to Monticello and du Pont found himself so deeply engaged in editing the works of Turgot that he must remain in Paris. One of his sons, however, settled in Delaware as an active powder manufacturer, for which the father thought to apologize more than once. When at last the Frenchman made his way painfully to Monticello, Jefferson happened to be in Bedford county and the friend of twenty-five years returned to Delaware sorely disappointed, while Jefferson was on his side deeply chagrined. The friends never met after the intimate relationships in Paris in 1784-89. Perhaps a quotation from each may serve to reveal to moderns the spirit of the correspondence:

Jefferson: “The inauspicious commencement of our war has damped at first the hopes of fulfilling your injunctions to add the Floridas and Canada to our confederacy. The former indeed might have been added but for our steady adherence to the sound principles of national integrity, which forbade us to take what was a neighbor’s merely because it suited us; and especially from a neighbor under circumstances of peculiar affliction.”

Du Pont: “But they [the workers] have not the right to consider themselves members of the sovereign power, so long as they have not bought lands. They have not the right to enter the assemblies of the district in which they are domiciled. . . . The municipal and sovereign rights, the right to sit and deliberate in political assemblies, that of voting, that of promulgating and executing the laws, belong exclusively to landowners, because these only are members of a particular republic, having a stretch of land and the duty of administering it.”


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