Thomas Jefferson: American Jacobin?

The American revolutionary
on the French Revolution

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

On Independence Day, in anticipation of Bastille Day, here’s author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson on the French Revolution:

Dear sir,

The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France. I considered that sect as the same with the Republican patriots, and the Feuillants as the Monarchical patriots, well known in the early part of the revolution, and but little distant in their views, both having in object the establishment of a free constitution, and differing only on the question whether their chief Executive should be hereditary or not. The Jacobins (as since called) yielded to the Feuillants and tried the experiment of retaining their hereditary Executive. The experiment failed completely, and would have brought on the reestablishment of despotism had it been pursued. The Jacobins saw this, and that the expunging that officer was of absolute necessity, and the Nation was with them in opinion, for however they might have been formerly for the constitution framed by the first assembly, they were come over from their hope in it, and were now generally Jacobins. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is. I have expressed to you my sentiments, because they are really those of 99 in an hundred of our citizens. The universal feasts, and rejoicings which have lately been had on account of the successes of the French showed the genuine effusions of their hearts. You have been wounded by the sufferings of your friends, and have by this circumstance been hurried into a temper of mind which would be extremely disrelished if known to your countrymen. The reserve of the President of the US had never permitted me to discover the light in which he viewed it, and as I was more anxious that you should satisfy him than me, I had still avoided explanations with you on the subject. But your [letter] induced him to break silence and to notice the extreme acrimony of your expressions. He added that he had been informed the sentiments you expressed in your conversations were equally offensive to our allies, and that you should consider yourself as the representative of your country and that what you say, might be imputed to your constituents. He desired me therefore to write to you on this subject. He added that he considered France as the sheet anchor of this country and its friendship as a first object. There are in the US some characters of opposite principles; some of them are high in office, others possessing great wealth, and all of them hostile to France and fondly looking to England as the staff of their hope. These I named to you on a former occasion. Their prospects have certainly not brightened. Excepting them, this country is entirely republican, friends to the constitution, anxious to preserve it and to have it administered according to its own republican principles. The little party above mentioned have espoused it only as a stepping stone to monarchy, and have endeavored to approximate it to that in its administration, in order to render its final transition more easy. The successes of republicanism in France have given the coup de grace to their prospects, and I hope to their projects. — I have developed to you faithfully the sentiments of your country, that you may govern yourself accordingly. I know your republicanism to be pure, and that it is no decay of that which has embittered you against its votaries in France, but too great a sensibility at the partial evil by which it’s object has been accomplished there.

Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to William Short” (3 January 1793).
Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress:
Series 1, Reel 17.

Whatever Jefferson’s personal and presidential shortcomings — his ownership of slaves, his opposition to the Haitian revolution —  this is a timely reminder to those who seek to paint Jefferson as a harmless latter-day liberal. Especially today, as such widely-read “leftist” authors as Corey Robin (an author and vocal promoter of Jacobin magazine, no less)  have lately seen fit to tar the American Jacobin as an “American fascist.” Lest we forget.

Mather Brown, Portrait de Thomas Jefferson, 1786, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Mather Brown, Portrait de Thomas Jefferson (1786), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson: American Jacobin?

  1. True to view the larger impact of Jefferson and the age he came from. Thus, the responsibility of future revolutions and generations to carry the flag of social justice. My approach is to view it as a Historical Revolutionary Trajectory that began with the American Revolution. Who according to Arnold J. Toynbee in the 20th rejected Jefferson, et. al. initial steps to be carried on in Latin America and the Caribbean by L’Ouverture and Bolívar. Beginning and arriving full circle in the Windward Passage from L’Ouverture to Castro, CLR James monumental work the Black Jacobins presents a strong case for Haiti taking on the torch of social justice, the rest is history. Vive le Jefferson, vive le justice social! Un saludo revolucionario historico!!

  2. Pingback: Lenin on the bourgeois revolutions | The Charnel-House

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