Essay Defending Thomas Jefferson’s View of the French Revolution

Noah Caldwell
L4 AP US History
Topic 8. French Revolution- Jefferson

The American Revolution occurred over the course of roughly eight years, during which the Declaration of Independence was drafted, signed, and published, the new nation’s first federal government was created, reviewed, and scorned, men fought, killed, and died for their homes, their families, and their beliefs, and a precedent and new belief system was set down in history: the belief that all governments possess power only from the consent of the governed, that when the government does not derive its power from the people, the people have the right to tear down the institution and build one more suitable to their needs and rights; and the precedent of such a monumentally radical event actually occurring successfully. Not to downplay the many details skimmed over in the above rough summary of the core beliefs readily apparent now, but the French Revolution cannot be summarized so clearly morally or historically; there are many parallels, but as a whole, the products are distinctly American or French. Both Revolutions were inspired by the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the other philosophes, and both were undertaken with the determination of an oppressed people fighting for all they hold dear; the difference lies in the directors of the Revolutions, how they were conducted, and the geographic, economic, and educational differences.
Circa 1790, the United States had just been established under the magnificently written Constitution; now the only slightly less daunting task of running the new nation lay before its administration. The government was deeply in debt and had established zero credit with other nations, but it had bountiful land aplenty and profitable harbors. George Washington, prized hero of the Revolution, had been elected to President, and had the task of fixing the debt (which consisted largely of paying the veterans), keeping the Union together and relatively peaceful, and generally establishing precedent for every presidency to follow; summarily, he had the entire country’s expectations on his shoulders. He was a well-sized man, but it was obvious he would need aid; thus, the cabinet. (The following are the cabinet of Washington’s first term; throughout his presidency, two different men served as Secretary of the Treasury, and three men served separate appointments in the other positions; that is, a total of eleven men served on Washington’s cabinet.) Henry Knox, a reliable man Washington was familiar with from the Revolution, was appointed Secretary of War. He attempted to negotiate treaties with American Indians that respected their rights and land, regarding the peaceful, humane dealing of this problem as the first challenge for the new republic; these designs rapidly fell apart, though. Thomas Jefferson served as Secretary of State for most of Washington’s first term, though he actually resigned towards the end due to political disagreements, largely over his sympathy for the French Revolution (due most likely to his stint as United States Minister to France after Benjamin Franklin) (Presidents). Hamilton also served with Washington during the Revolutionary War; he witnessed firsthand what a weak congress can do (unintentionally) to its army and its people. That experience, once processed by Hamilton’s calculating, practical mind, led to his adamant support of the Federalist movement. Edmund Jennings Randolph served as his attorney general; he has little import on the topic at hand, and is only mentioned for completeness’ sake.
It was roughly when the American Revolution was ending that the French Revolution began. Inspired in part by our successful bid for independence and also by modern Enlightenment ideals, many of which originated in France, their Revolution was much shorter than ours, if longer in development. As expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, the two revolutions have many similarities and differences; France was “up against attacks from all Europe, without money, without credit, without allies, casting a twentieth of its population before its enemies… But what is new in the history of societies is to see a great people, warned by its legislators that the wheels of the government are stopping, turn its regard on itself without haste and without fear, sound the depth of the ill, contain itself for two entire years in order to discover the remedy at leisure, and when the remedy is pointed out, submit voluntarily to it without its costing humanity one tear or drop of blood.” (Democracy in America, de Tocqueville) De Tocqueville has eloquently summarized the situation, as always. As mentioned earlier, Jefferson served as diplomat and Minister to France before the French Revolution started; he witnessed the atrocities of the nobility, and felt deeply for the Third Estate, considering them in a parallel situation: parallel and brought on by the same European machine that had birthed and destroyed great nations. Thus, he initially supported the French Revolution; the causes and goals were, after all, apparently identical to that of the rebelling Americans. He also claimed that his views represent those of the majority of Americans (Letter to William Short). But as it progressed, the Revolution became bloodier and more gruesome, often for imagined reasons (French Revolution). Despite his love of the French people, it rose to a point where Jefferson seriously considered renouncing his support due to the violence and barbarism being displayed. But he never did. The Federalists understood the moderate phase of the Revolution to be similar to that of the Americans; but once the Reign of Terror started, and their king was beheaded, the Federalists were appalled, and feared the same sort of mob rule may occur in America. Many Federalists had simply wanted the fairly successful system of the British to be brought into America; their reason for independence was that Britain couldn’t effectively govern the colonies, due to the ocean between the two states. The Federalists had always favored the industrial nature of Britain; they deplored the acts committed in the name of freedom in France; thus, all their support and hopes for the future lay with Britain. Jefferson fought these policies, but he may not have won during the election of 1800 without the Federalists’ alienating Alien & Sedition Acts. Once in office, Jefferson was free to implement his policies; he slashed the whiskey tax, and other tariffs on goods; yet, he managed to reduce the national debt by a third. We will never know if Hamilton as President, or Adams in a second term, would have done better. We do know, however, that Hamilton advocated a permanent national debt; perhaps this means he did not believe he could reduce it by any significant amount? Then again, perhaps his system would have been more successful if the Federalists hadn’t dispersed around the turn of the century, dying of old age.
Permit me for a moment to change persons, as I am now describing someone I will represent. As a ‘Republican’, I will be more or less mirroring Jefferson’s view: initial support and praise, then uncertainty as the mob rule descends, and finally perhaps even outright disapproval at the Terror of Robespierre. The view of republicans changed over the years, but that is the generally feeling of the party over the course of the wayward Revolution.
The French Revolution has many intricacies behind it; Jacques Necker and Abbé Sieyès never worked their way into this essay, nor did the Directory or even Napoleon. It seems a fair statement to say that both Revolutions were of comparable complexity, full of parallels and contrasts. Living in the United States, however, bestows a great desire to learn about its Revolution, as opposed to those conducted in faraway places. Fortunately, the Revolutions are intertwined in a way; they occurred nearly simultaneously in the big picture, and one was heavily inspired by the other. Not just the Revolutions, but all of the world, most especially the Revolutions’ respective countries, were impacted by the others’ revolution.

1: United States Government. National Archives. The Constitution. Web. .

2: Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy In America. Paperback edition 2002. 1. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

3. United States Government. The White House. Presidents. Web. .

4. Nevins, Allan, and Henry Graff. “Retirement.” Encyclopedia Brittanica n.pag. Web. 18 Nov 2012. .

5. Jefferson, Thomas. “Letter to William Short.” n.pag. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Web. 18 Nov 2012. .

6. “French Revolution.” n.pag. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Web. 18 Nov 2012. .