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Three Friends of Jefferson

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

For nearly a hundred years the great body of official and personal papers left by Thomas Jefferson has formed an almost bottomless mine of material for the historian dealing with political as well as with social questions. Although there have been four editions of his writings, they have emphasized mainly the public papers, and the wealth of the private letters has not yet been exhausted.

Trois amitiis francaises de Jefferson. By Gilbert Chinprd. Paris: Societe d’Edition “Les Belles-Lettres.” Henry s. Randall, in his “Life of Thomas Jefferson,” a biography that, despite its flamboyant style, has never been superseded, was the first really to make use of Jefferson’s private papers. He drew upon them lavishly to give animation and color to every incident in the life of the man he was describing, realizing that Jefferson’s letters are never casual, that he was unable to delete from anything he wrote the versatility of his interests or the benignity of his personality. In 1879 Sarah Nicholas Randolph, a granddaughter who had passed her girlhood at Monticello, published “The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson” in which she printed what are perhaps the most noteworthy of the personal letters that passed between Jefferson and his many friends.

The contemporary interest in Jefferson’s personal papers began in 1916 with the publication, by the writer, of the correspondence between Jefferson and Madame de Stael, which, singularly enough in view of the importance of the questions discussed, had hitherto been passed by. It was subsequently observed that many interesting documents in regard to Jefferson’s relations with some of his distinguished contemporaries, more particularly in France, still lay hidden in the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress and the Massachusetts Historical Society. A few years later Professor Chinard published “Volney at l’Amerique, d’apres des documents nouveaux ct sa cor-respondance inedite avec Jefferson.” This was followed by, “Les amities americaines de Madame d’Houdetot, d’apres sa correspondance inedite avec Benjamin Franklin et Thomas Jefferson,” “Jefferson et les Ideologues,” and others.

In his latest volume, “Trois amities francaises de Jefferson,” Professor Chinard has grouped together Jefferson’s correspondence with three French ladies of more or less distinction, Mesdames de Brehan, de Tesse, and de Corny. It is a book intended only for those who know their Jefferson literature well and who want to explore every nook and corner of it. The letters with the greatest claims to distinction have already been printed in Jefferson’s “Writings.” To these, however, have been added certain casual notes such as we all write and from which Jefferson was not exempt, thus making a pleasant little story of a not too significant chapter in Jefferson’s life. Professor Chinard has added a good general introductory chapter on “Jefferson en France” and another as he presents each of the ladies.

Madame de Tesse, the aunt of Lafayette, is probably the most well-known of these correspondents. Drawn together by a common love of gardening, she and Jefferson comfortably discuss horticulture and arboriculture through thirty years. He sends her seeds and samples and lists of i American plants, dutifully executing her “botanical com- | missions” in the most approved Garden Club manner. He writes her from Monticello in 1795: “I am now enjoying home, peace, peaches, and poplars, all of which I know you sufficiently prize.” But it was to Madame de Tesse, also, whose understanding for the arts and the classics he had come to know, that he wrote his much-quoted letter: “Here I am, Madame, gazing whole hours at the Maison quarree, like a lover at his mistress.”

Madame de Brehan and Madame de Corny come off rather less well. Madame de Brehan, the somewhat acid sister-in-law of the Comte de Moustier, French Minister to the United States from 1787 to 1790, accompanied her brother-in-law to Philadelphia “in order to improve her health, which is very feeble, and still more to improve her son in his education and to remove him from the seductions of this country. You will wonder to be told that there are no schools in this country to be compared to ours in the sciences.”

Although Jefferson had thus carefully explained the situation to Madison, more persons than one seemed to wonder at the want of suitable schools in France, and presently we find John Jay writing Jefferson: “Appearances (whether well or ill founded is not important) have created and diffused an opinion that an improper connection subsists between him and the Marchioness,” and demanding Moustier’s recall. The Moustiers, for their part, like most people who leave their native country, had found nothing to their liking in the United States. Instead of the simple, idyllic, hameau-like life they had expected, they found the formal society of Europe. Jefferson, who had foreseen this very difficulty, had written: “The Count of Moustier will find the affections of the Americans for France, but their habits with England.” Nevertheless, for fifty odd pages Madame de Brehan complains, and Jefferson, ever suave, continues to placate the friends for whom he seems to have had a very real affection.

Madame de Corny, to whom nearly half the book is devoted, along with Madame de Tesse, belonged to what might be called Jefferson’s coterie in Paris, a position she achieved by her natural charm and spirit. She did not fail to appreciate, however, that Jefferson was one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe. But the American Minister seems to have known how to take care of himself, even to the extent of leaving Paris without bidding her good-bye, sending his adieus from Cowes by post. A distracted note followed him across the sea and from New York he once more tries to say farewell forever: “Instead of greeting you personally in Paris, I am to write you a letter of Adieu. Accept then, my dear Madam, my cordial adieu, and my grateful thanks for all the civilities and kindnesses I have received from you. They have been greatly more than I had a right to expect. . . .”

Madame de Corny, however, was not so easily waved aside. After an interval of twelve years, her friend established as President of the United States, her husband dead, she recalls herself to Jefferson, and a pleasant enough correspondence ensues, one, though, that hardly justifies independent publication. A series of friendly letters follow each other until 1817, when Jefferson, a little weary, takes final leave of his friend.


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