Understanding Thomas Jefferson’s Reactions to the Rise of the Jacobins

Detail of Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1791. (Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia)

Upon the announcement of the convening of the Estates General in 1789, Thomas Jefferson, then the Minister to France, wrote to James Madison with little optimism for the proceedings. In an observation that proved far from prescient, he told his friend on the eve of the country’s impending revolution, “France will be quiet this year.”[1] The subsequent explosion of revolutionary fervor initially caught Jefferson by surprise. As he would later explain to his Parisian friend Le Comte Diodati in 1807, “I had no apprehension that the tempest, of which I saw the beginning, was to spread over such an extent of space & time.”[2] Yet, while Jefferson described the Revolution disparagingly as a “tempest” in 1807, he used very different language in the 1790s. During his time in the Washington administration, Jefferson came to understand both the American and French projects as symbiotic republican experiments. Upon his return to the United States and during his subsequent time as the first Secretary of State, engagement with the French Revolution underpinned the radicalization of Jefferson’s political thought, in both domestic and international terms. While Jefferson had certainly celebrated the early and moderate bourgeoisie Revolution led by Mirabeau and his own friend Lafayette, it was the emergence of the violent Jacobin phase between 1792-1793, culminating in the infamous Reign of Terror, which yielded his most enthusiastic and radical support.

Gouverneur Morris, member of the Federal Convention of 1787. Engraver: J. Rogers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jefferson’s thoughts on this critical period of the Revolution are best voiced in his correspondences with Gouverneur Morris, his successor as the Minister to France, and William Short, the Minister to the Netherlands and Jefferson’s friend and former personal secretary. In each case, believing that popular upheaval was a vital mainspring of virtue for a republic, Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the Revolution increased as the terror-filled observations of his correspondents became more prominent. Furthermore, as time progressed, he increasingly saw the French Revolution not merely as an extension of the American experiment, but also as an international parallel of his own personal and political struggles with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. Consequently, the rhetoric, language and tone that characterize his letters to Morris and Short suggest that Jefferson’s promotion of the French Revolution was intimately connected to a wider project to preserve the spirit of modern republicanism against the vengeful and regressive forces of monarchism, aristocracy, and centralization both abroad and at home.  Just as important, his Jacobin panegyrics to Short, and his struggle to act as a detached bureaucrat with Morris, uniquely reveal the extent to which being part of the “republic of letters” was at the same time an intellectual, political, pedagogical, and deeply personal experience for Jefferson, fundamentally tied to cultivating the proper sociability necessary for a republic to succeed.

In January of 1792, Jefferson informed Gouverneur Morris that he been approved by the Senate to serve as Minister Plenipotentiary to France in the midst of transformative change. In the span of just three years, the French revolutionaries had dismantled the Ancien Régime in favor of a constitutional monarchy, which King Louis XVI had accepted in late 1791. Yet this regime was obviously fragile; mob violence and riots dominated the cities, particularly Paris. At the same time, Louis XVI had attempted to flee in his infamous “Flight to Varennes” earlier in the year while, with the king’s secret encouragement, Austria and Prussia threatened war. Unlike Jefferson, Morris, a well-known and aristocratic-minded Federalist and friend of Jefferson’s archrival Alexander Hamilton, was horrified by the increasing turbulence. While both Morris and Jefferson were in France as the Revolution began, the two men’s perspectives could not have been more different. Consider their reactions to the violence that followed the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789. In his diary, Morris wrote with horror, “the populace [carries] the mangled fragments [of corpses] with a Savage Joy. Gracious God what a people.”[3] In contrast, Jefferson described the same events in a playful letter to Maria Cosway, telling her, “the cutting off of heads is become so much a la mode, that one is apt to feel whether their own is on their shoulder.”[4] While Jefferson did not directly advocate for such violence in his letter to Cosway, he saw it as no serious reason for concern. Morris’ anxiety only increased as time progressed, but Jefferson maintained this insouciance towards horrifying violence. This fundamental tension over how they understood the very early upheaval in France would characterize the tone of the two men’s correspondence as the French Revolution radicalized further.

Given this difference of opinion, it is unsurprising that Jefferson was apprehensive towards Morris’ appointment and made a point to warn against vocalizing anti-revolutionary views in his austere first letter informing Morris of the appointment:

With respect to their Government, we are under no call to express opinions, which might please or offend any party; and therefore it will be best to avoid them on all occasions, public or private. Could any circumstances require unavoidably such expressions, they would naturally be in conformity with the sentiments of the great mass of our countrymen, who having first, in modern times, taken the ground of Government founded on the will of the people, cannot but be delighted on seeing so distinguished and so esteemed a Nation arrive on the same ground, and plant their standard by our side.[5]

In response, Morris acknowledged Jefferson’s orders but openly rebuked his superior’s idealism, informing the Secretary that he followed his instructions not because France had “plant[ed] their standard by our side,” as Jefferson had claimed. Instead, Morris complied because “changes are now so frequent, and Events seem fast ripening to such awful Catastrophe, that no Expressions on the Subject, however moderate, would be received with Indifference.”[6] It is not hard to imagine that Jefferson would have bristled at such a sardonic admonishment of his faith in the French Revolution, setting the stage for the subtle hostility, and aloofness on Jefferson’s part, that characterized their correspondence until Jefferson resigned his cabinet position in late 1793.

Jefferson gave no similar warning to his friend William Short whom he had informed on the same day of his confirmation as Minister to the Hague. Using a much friendlier tone, he merely told Short, “your past experience … renders it unnecessary for me to particularize your duties … harmony with our friends being our object, you are sensible how much it will be promoted by attention to the manner, as well as matter of your communications.”[7] This dynamic would typify Jefferson’s correspondence with the two men for the next two years. A subtle tension characterized Jefferson’s letters with Morris as the two clashed and often secretly undermined each other’s efforts.[8] In contrast, Short, even as he became disillusioned with the French Revolution, became an audience for many of Jefferson’s most personal and radical statements of support for the Jacobins.

It did not take long for Morris and Jefferson to express their dislike for one another directly. In his private notes in March of 1792, Jefferson blamed Morris for the President’s lack of faith in the Revolution, calling him “a high flying Monarchy-man, shutting his eyes and his faith to every fact against his wishes, and believing every thing he desires to be true, [his influence] has kept the President’s mind constantly poisoned.”[9] This devastating assessment of the minister helps to explain why Jefferson engaged so little with the horrifying accounts of violence Morris sent him. Jefferson, already distrustful of the New York aristocrat, had become so committed to supporting the French Revolution that he believed that Morris was nothing more than a monarchical propagandist. Jefferson had legitimate reasons to be suspicious. Morris, without explicit approval from the State Department, had acted as an advisor to the king before his appointment and conspired with constitutional monarchists to devise a plan for the king’s escape in the summer of 1792.[10] Nevertheless, at the same time, Morris, clearly wary of Jefferson’s domestic influence on the issue of the Revolution, promised his friend Hamilton that he would “apprize [him] of what is doing on this Side of the Water confidentially which I will not do to every Body,” and requested that President Washington give him permission to withhold certain information from Jefferson.[11] If Jefferson believed Morris was a monarchist, Morris correspondingly thought that the Secretary of State was a dangerous radical whose utopian ideals promoted the anarchy and mob rule he saw unfolding in Paris first hand.

While neither Jefferson nor Morris fully understood the extent of the profound mutual personal distrust between them, it only grew more apparent as the French Revolution entered its most radical phase in the summer of 1792. Throughout the summer, Morris provided Jefferson with lengthy accounts of recent developments, dominated by his increasing anxiety over urban violence and a clear disdain for the ascendant Jacobin faction within the Legislative Assembly. On June 10 he described the ongoing social upheaval and incompetence of the new government in particularly stark terms, exclaiming, “the best Picture I can give of the French Nation, in this moment, is that of Cattle before a Thunder Storm. And as to the Government, every Member of it is engagd in the Defence of himself or the Attack of his Neighbor.” Furthermore, Morris, clearly attacking Jefferson’s belief in the Revolution as the “will of the people,” described the political system as being on the verge of collapsing into anarchy or military rule as “the great Mass of the French Nation is less solicitous to preserve the present order of Things than to prevent the Return of the antient Oppressions; and of Course would more readily submit to a pure Despotism than to [the present] Monarchy.”[12]  He was even more despondent on the seventeenth, claiming, in a statement that would have baffled Jefferson, that the Jacobins’ desire to “purge” the king’s ministers and form a “federal Republic,” was evidence they were seeking to destroy “the finest Opportunity which ever presented itself for establishing the Rights of Mankind throughout the civilized World.”[13] These reports plainly illustrate a profound divide between Jefferson and Morris. While Jefferson was encouraged that, regardless of the violence, the Revolution was the product of the will of the people and the triumph of republicanism, Morris recoiled at these very same facts with abject horror.

Morris’ anxiety reached a fever pitch as his fears became a reality following the journée of August 10, when the revolutionary forces stormed the Tuileries Palace and deposed the king, leading to the September Massacres: a hysteria-fueled wave of prisoner executions committed by enraged mobs of sans-culottes. He described the subsequent rise of the new Jacobin dominated republic as a “bloody” second revolution, and claimed that it resulted in “one Week of uncheck’d murders in which some thousands have perished in the City.” He consequently refused to recognize the new National Convention, declaring to Jefferson that he “had no Powers to treat with the present Government.”[14] In response to this newest wave of concerns, after four months of silence on the issue, Jefferson finally replied in November. He was unfazed by Morris’s accounts and provided clear instructions:

It accords with our principles to acknolege  [sic] any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation substantially declared. The late government was of this kind, and was accordingly acknoleged by all the branches of ours. So any alteration of it which shall be made by the will of the nation substantially declared, will doubtless be acknoleged in like manner. With such a government every kind of business may be done.[15]

Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, Storming of the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution (1793). (Agence photographique de la Réunion des musées nationaux via Wikimedia Commons)

As Jefferson would explain in simpler terms on December 30 of that year, upon hearing that the execution of the king seemed likely, “We surely cannot deny to any nation that right whereon our own government is founded … the will of the nation is the only thing essential to be regarded.”[16] While Morris and Jefferson continued to matter-of-factly discuss the state of France’s Revolutionary wars, treaty negotiations, and American, French, and other European political developments, this statement of foreign policy was effectively the final world on the legitimacy of the French Republic and the Revolution. Following his conservative account of the king’s trial in December of 1792 and execution in January, until he was recalled in the summer of 1794 just days before the arrest of Robespierre, Morris was conspicuously silent on the escalating Jacobin terror in his letters to Jefferson.[17]

Despite this change in his letters to Jefferson, Morris did not stop discussing the terror entirely as it reached its greatest heights in 1793. Instead, his correspondence with the President became increasingly dire as he reported in February of that year that France’s “prospects are [increasingly] dreadful … in short the fabric of the present system is erected on a quagmire.”[18] Most strikingly, by June he told Washington that while he would continue to follow Jefferson’s orders to recognize the National Convention, now entirely controlled by Robespierre’s radical Montagnards following the purge of the Girondins, he called these instructions the cause of “embarrassments [which] have arisen from inattention to the principles of free government.”[19] Collectively, these letters suggest that Morris had given up on both helping to reform the French cause from what he saw as runway radicalism and anarchy or persuading Jefferson to abandon it, realizing that it was in his best interest to simply manage affairs to the best of his abilities until the situation hopefully changed.[20] Meanwhile, Jefferson had effectively ignored Morris’s concerns completely and maintained his absolute faith in the Revolution as an extension of the American republican project. If anything, there is reason to believe that Jefferson, who had written only a few years earlier in reaction to Shays’ Rebellion that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” saw the popular violence against non-republicans as a sign of the strength and virtue of the French Revolution.[21]

Thomas Jefferson as Minister to France (1786). Mather Brown, Thomas Jefferson. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Jefferson was not even reading Morris’s accounts very closely. For example, in a letter to James Madison in summer of 1792 he, in complete contrast to what Morris had told him, claimed that the royal ministry “is of the Jacobin party [and thus] cannot but be favorable to us, as that whole party must be.” Yet, he felt completely confident in declaring to Madison, “notwithstanding the very general abuse of the Jacobins, I begin to consider them as representing the true revolutionary-spirit of the whole nation, and as carrying the nation with them.”[22] That he could confuse the radical Jacobins with the royal ministry they despised suggests that Jefferson cared little about what Morris had to say regarding the horrors unfolding in France and was happy to champion the Revolution based on his faith in the inevitable triumph of republicanism.[23] For Jefferson, learning that the Jacobins had now become radical republicans committed to eliminating royalist opposition by force only enhanced his faith further. In Jefferson’s mind, Morris was an aristocratic ally of Hamilton, so, as he had expressed plainly in March, his reports were nothing more than monarchist propaganda meant to support the Federalist agenda in America.

An even more fundamental cause of Jefferson’s lack of engagement with Morris was the role he thought the republic of letters played in developing the new nation and republican revolutions both domestically and internationally. While he continued to communicate with Morris periodically as bureaucratic duties demanded, his indifferent tone and infrequent responses suggest that this purely procedural correspondence was always a profoundly unnatural role for Jefferson, particularly on issues he was passionate about, none more so than the French Revolution. As Jefferson would explain to John Hollins in 1809, networks of correspondence were meant to be “a great fraternity spreading over the whole earth” that brought people closer together, a necessity for an ideal republican society, rather than pushing them farther apart.[24]

The intensely personal purpose of letter writing that Jefferson imagined to be essential for cultivating republican sociability and fraternity was thus impossible if not counterproductive with Morris due to the personal and political enmity between them, reaching its zenith as the Jacobin Terror intensified in 1792-1793. Jefferson evidently believed that Morris, or any aristocratic Federalist, could never be a true partner in building the new nation as they could not freely communicate and develop the bonds necessary for a republican society to flourish. If anything, Jefferson, already averse to conflict, believed that his unnatural and acrimonious correspondence with Morris alienated him from the sociability natural for a republican order and thus deliberately sought to avoid further communication.

Jefferson’s very different and contemporaneous correspondence with his close friend William Short supports this interpretation of the Secretary of State’s understanding of the French Revolution and his correspondence with Morris. Short, like his mentor and unlike Morris, had initially been an enthusiastic supporter of the bourgeoisie phase of the Revolution while serving as Jefferson’s secretary and then temporary replacement in Paris. Yet, by the time Short had taken up his new position as Minister to the Netherlands, as the Revolution rapidly radicalized, his views began to converge with those expressed by Morris.

In August of 1792, Short echoed the very same anxieties that his counterpart in Paris was reporting, telling Jefferson that “arrestations, massacre or flight” had become “friends and supporters of the late constitution.” He particularly chastised the Jacobins, claiming, “Robertspierre [sic] … and others of that atrocious and cruel caste compose the tribunal … we may expect [them to head] proceedings under the cloak of liberty, egalité and patriotism as would disgrace any chambre ardente that has ever existed.”[25] Short’s statement amounted to a complete rejection of the radical and violent form that the Revolution had taken under the Jacobins. Short rebuked the fundamental principle of Jacobin republicanism, as Robespierre described it in his infamous Report on the Principles of Political Morality (1794):

If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at the same time [both] virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue … a consequence of the general principle of democracy … subdue liberty’s enemies by terror and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.[26]

 As his dismissive comments reveal, Short, like many observers to follow, saw Robespierre’s argument as nothing more than a pretext for despotism.

Yet, in his remarkable and aggressive response to Short’s letter, Jefferson continued to justify the French Revolution on grounds that superficially seem uniquely Jacobin. In his January 1793 reply, he told Short that “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 consider that sect the same with the Republican patriots.” He proceeded to describe the Jacobins as virtuous republicans who had realized the failures of constitutional monarchy and agitated for reform with the best interests of the people in mind and the will of the nation behind them. He then turned to the most radical part of his letter:

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 … 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.[27]

This striking excerpt suggests that Jefferson had embraced Robespierre’s argument that violence and terror were a legitimate means, if not the ideal way, to create a revolutionary republic. While superficially uniquely Jacobin, Jefferson had been developing these very same ideas independently during his time as Minister to France in the late 1780s. As his aforementioned reaction to Shays’ Rebellion revealed, he thought popular violence was a sign of republican vigor rather than decay. It was thus, according to Jeffersonian thought, the violence of the Jacobin Terror, rather than the abolition of monarchy or any other political development, that allowed republicanism to prosper. While Jefferson likely did not yet appreciate the despotic tendencies of the Jacobin government, Short’s and Morris’s attempts to horrify him had only strengthened his faith in the French Revolution as a continuation, if not improvement on, the American project.

While certainly a statement in support of the French Revolution, historians often regard this letter as an early example of American exceptionalism.  As Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf argue, while Jefferson believed that “rivers of blood” were required in France before their revolution could equal the American achievement, in contrast, “the American Revolution had succeeded, patriots’ blood had stopped flowing and the nation was ‘left free.’”[28] However, this perspective is wide of the mark as Jefferson’s radical justification for the Revolution clearly connects to his anxieties over both domestic political developments taking place at the height of his inter-cabinet feud with Hamilton and the very foundations of the American Revolution itself.

The importance of this tension in motivating Jefferson’s support of the Revolution is most evident in the second half of his January 1793 letter to Short. He justified his enthusiasm for revolutionary France through a veiled, but obvious, attack on Hamilton and the Federalists: “there are in the U.S. some characters of opposite principles … hostile to France and fondly looking to England … [this] little party … [has] espoused [the constitution] only as a stepping stone to monarchy.”  He concludes this thought by remarking triumphantly, “the successes of republicanism in France have given the coup de grace to their prospects and I hope to their projects.”[29] This statement suggests that the motivations behind Jefferson’s support of the French Republic were not primarily a product of his foreign policy ambitions or an attachment to France as has often been supposed. Instead, his thoughts on the Revolution were telling projections of his anxieties surrounding American and particularly personal political disputes.

At a time when the anglophilic Hamiltonian economic, social, and political program seemed ascendant, Jefferson championed the “success” of the French Revolution as a vindication of the true principles of republicanism. While the American experiment was at risk of decaying into a British style autocracy under Federalist control, France was making true strides towards creating an ideal republic – a goal for which Jefferson clearly believed bloodshed was a modest cost.[30] Thus, for Jefferson, the American Revolution remained very much alive both at home and abroad, but, at the same time, increasingly in peril as the resurgent forces of British monarchism took on the even more insidious form of pseudo-republicans like Hamilton and his allies. Consequently, redeeming the American project required vigorous opposition to the two foundational tenets of Federalist schemes: Hamilton’s financial plan domestically, meant to corrupt the American republic from within, and, just as important, opposition to the French Revolution, meant to slow the inevitable collapse of monarchy and aristocracy internationally. The fact that the most powerful monarchical regimes of Europe – Austria, Prussia and Britain – sought to crush the Revolution only heightened the importance of the French Republic in Jefferson’s mind. Put simply, if the Federalists could convince Americans to abandon their fellow republican patriots in favor of the despotic monarchies of Europe, the American Revolution was over and it had failed.

This interpretation helps to explain the profound difference in tone, language, and subject matter between his correspondences with Morris and Short. According to Jefferson’s understanding, while both held official positions under his department, Morris was, unlike Short, a leading member of the monarchical Federalist cabal and thus better left isolated than reasoned with. Like all Federalists, Morris was too blinded by the rapid collapse of ancient and unnatural privileges to realize that the Jacobin Terror was a progressive rather than destructive development, eliminating and purifying the foundations of tyranny by force. Morris’s horror at this fact radicalized Jefferson because it illustrated where the American project had failed; fearful of anarchy and mob rule, Americans had become too conservative, imposing the husk of a republic without completely leveling the social and cultural norms that enabled autocracy in the first place. The Jacobins’ comparative success had proven that the unchecked pursuit of the simple egalitarian values of 1789 – liberty, equality, and fraternity – rather than the reactionary principles of 1787 was the ideal basis for reviving and fulfilling the republican zeitgeist that Americans had captured in 1776.

As the success of Hamilton’s financial plan revealed, as long as these attachments to the old order remained, decay was inevitable as monarchical corruption simply took new forms.  The inability of Morris to abandon his sympathies for aristocratic privilege, and embrace the triumphs of republican freedom occurring right in front of him, made it clear to Jefferson that the republican reform pursued thus far was not enough to annihilate these unnatural attachments. Instead, the Revolution had to completely purify society of its old corruptions if it was to succeed. In Jefferson’s view, the Jacobins had whole-heartedly pursued this goal, laying the roadmap for the Americans to eventually do the same. If the Federalists succeeded in making the French and American projects appear fundamentally irreconcilable, this opportunity for creating a true republican society would be squandered. This fear is why Jefferson supported the French Revolution with such radical enthusiasm in his January 1793 letter to Short. If Short, a true republican in the Jeffersonian sense, could be tricked by Hamiltonian sophisms and intrigues which had worked to obscure the remarkable achievements of the French Revolution, the Federalists had already succeeded in debasing the fraternity, virtue, and strength of the American republic.[31]

While these ideological and political disputes were a critical impulse for Jefferson’s letters to many individuals, his correspondence with Short discussing the French Revolution is uniquely intimate. Unlike his difficulty communicating with Morris, Jefferson’s correspondence with his close friend was a far more natural experience, enabling Jefferson to express his enthusiastic support for the French Revolution unabashedly. Jefferson certainly discussed these issues with other friends often with equal or even greater frequency. However, Short’s proximity to the unfolding Revolution made him the ideal individual for Jefferson to articulate his perspectives, likely with hopes of having them confirmed in response.

Beyond his proximity to the Revolution, Short’s personal connections to Jefferson exacerbated his importance. While Jefferson and Morris detested one another’s political and personal sensibilities, Jefferson’s relationship with Short was explicitly and reciprocally described through familial terms. In a 1789 letter to the famous painter John Trumbull, Jefferson called Short his “adoptive son.”[32] Similarly, at the height of their disagreement over the French Revolution, Short called Jefferson, while writing to the Duchess de la Rochefoucauld in July of 1794, “my father.”[33] It is not hard to imagine that Jefferson took his paternal role in Short’s life very seriously and thus sought to educate him through their correspondence. Even though Short held an official position under the State Department, in Jefferson’s mind they communicated as father and son rather than as bureaucrats or political enemies. This much friendlier dynamic meant that Jefferson’s correspondence with Short was compatible with the purpose he imagined the republic of letters playing in the age of republican revolutions despite their disagreements on the French Revolution. Transcending his petty and counterproductive political disputes with Morris and the Federalists, Jefferson’s correspondence with Short, even if typified by intense ideological and political differences, acted as an edifying experience for both parties that reinforced the natural sociability, in this case particularly paternal and fraternal bonds, which undergirded republican societies.

Jefferson’s time as Secretary of State coincided with the most explosive phase of the French Revolution. What started as an attempt to dismantle the Ancien Régime and institute a constitutional monarchy blossomed into a radical experiment in creating an entirely new republican society. As his correspondence with Minister to France Gouverneur Morris and Minister to the Netherlands William Short during the emergence of the Jacobin Terror reveals, Jefferson responded to the violent radicalization of the Revolution with enthusiastic support. His advocacy for the French Revolution did not signify his emergence as a disruptive insurrectionist in favor of purposeless violence, anarchy and unbridled populism. Instead, he advocated for recognition and support of the Jacobin government as a successful international analog to the republican project he wanted to pursue at home at the expense of the “monarchical” aspirations of Hamilton and the Federalists. In practice, the parallels he imagined between the ideal Jeffersonian and Jacobin republics were usually more apparent than real, as Jefferson often ignored the reports of Morris and Short in favor of fanciful idealizing of his French counterparts – a problem Jefferson would only come to grips with in retirement. Despite these dilemmas, Jefferson’s impassioned advocacy for the French Revolution proved effective, emerging as a cornerstone of the burgeoning Republican Party’s foreign policy and remaining important well into the early nineteenth century, until the Revolution ceased to be an important political issue.

At the same time, his very different letters with Morris and Short reveal the centrality of correspondence in Jefferson’s psyche as he sought to promote republican revolutions both abroad and at home. Correspondence was not merely a means to communicate information, but rather a fundamental part of developing the social bonds central to the vigor and virtue of any republic. The mutual ideological and personal distaste that characterized his relationship with Morris made cultivating these links impossible, as factional conflict and intrigue forced Jefferson to take on the unnatural role of an aloof bureaucrat. In contrast, despite their intense disagreement on the Jacobin Terror, his intimate friendship with Short enabled Jefferson to express his most radical statements of support for the French Revolution, hoping that discussion unrestrained by irrational fears and unnatural attachments would cultivate proper republican sociability in both participants. In many ways, his letters with Short are symbolic of the exact kind of discourse Jefferson hoped would predominate in the United States and among republics internationally. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, it was the faction and intrigue-fueled tensions of his correspondence with Morris, which he detested yet arguably did more than anyone to cultivate, that in many ways won out.


[1] Thomas Jefferson, “To James Madison, March 15, 1789,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings: Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 945.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “To Le Comte Diodati, March 29, 1807,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, ed. H.A. Washington (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 62.

[3] Melanie Randolph Miller, Envoy to Terror: Gouverneur Morris and the French Revolution (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), 26.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, “To Maria Cosway, July 25, 1789,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 15, 27 March 1789 – 30 November 1789, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 305–306.

[5] Thomas Jefferson, “To Gouverneur Morris, January 23, 1792,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, 1 January–31 May 1792, ed. Charles T. Cullen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 56.

[6] Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, April 6, 1792,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, 382.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, “To William Short, January 23, 1792,” in ibid., 58.

[8] For example, Morris actively worked with constitutional monarchists to undermine the National Convention even while Jefferson ordered him to support it. Similarly, he privately sent sensitive diplomatic information to his friend Alexander Hamilton and to President Washington in an attempt to circumvent Jefferson’s authority.  At the same time, Jefferson actively agitated against Morris’s appointment and actively petitioned Washington against his influence on policy regarding the Revolution.

[9] Thomas Jefferson, “Memoranda of Consultations with the President, [11 March–9 April 1792],” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 23, 260.

[10] Before his appointment, Morris had advised Louis XVI on the Constitution of 1791. He does briefly mention his participation in the royalist plot while minister to Jefferson through a veiled reference in his July 10, 1972 letter describing the plot as the King’s “New Career.”

[11] Gouverneur Morris, “To Alexander Hamilton, March 21, 1792,” in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 11, February 1792 – June 1792, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 162–163. Gouverneur Morris, “To George Washington, April 6, 1792,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 10, 1 March 1792 – 15 August 1792, ed. Robert F. Haggard and Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 224.

[12] Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, June 10, 1792,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 24, 1 June–31 December 1792, ed. John Catanzariti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 52, 55.

[13] Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, June 17, 1792,” in ibid., 93-94.

[14] Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, August 16, 1792,” in ibid., 301. Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, September 10th, 1792,” in ibid., 364. Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, August 30, 1792,” in ibid., 332.

[15] Thomas Jefferson, “To Gouverneur Morris, November 7, 1792,” in ibid., 593.

[16] Thomas Jefferson, “To Gouverneur Morris, December 30, 1792,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1002. Importantly, there are reasons to believe Jefferson never actually sent the December 30 letter to Morris. No record of the letter exists in State Department files, while Jefferson sent a very similar letter to Thomas Pinckney, the Minister to Great Britain, on December 30 that is recorded. Similarly, Jefferson used nearly the exact same language in a March 13, 1793 letter to Morris.

[17] In fact, their last correspondence was a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Morris on October 3, 1793, with no further letters exchanged before Jefferson resigned his post in late December.

[18] Gouverneur Morris, “To George Washington, February 14, 1793,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 12, 16 January 1793 – 31 May 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick and John C. Pinheiro (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005) 142–143.

[19] Gouverneur Morris, “To George Washington, June 25, 1793,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 13, 1 June 1793 – 31 August 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick and John C. Pinheiro (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005) 146.

[20] There is reason to believe that Morris was already arriving at this conclusion independently following the upheaval of August 10, even before he received Jefferson’s November response. Consider his August 22, 1792 letter to Jefferson. He remained largely negative in tone lamenting Lafayette’s failure to contain the radical Jacobins and his subsequent fall from grace and exile: “He, as you will learn, encamped at Sedan and official Accounts of last Night inform us that he has taken Refuge with the Enemy. Thus his circle is compleated. He has spent his Fortune on a Revolution, and is now crush’d by the wheel which he put in Motion. He lasted longer than I expected.” Yet, he now seemed resigned to remaining in Paris, rather than fleeing himself, and accepting the new National Convention as the legitimate government of France, surely anticipating that these would be Jefferson’s instructions: “Going hence however would look like taking Part against the late Revolution and I am not only unauthoriz’d in this Respect but I am bound to suppose that if the great Majority of the Nation adhere to the new Form the United States will approve thereof because in the first Place we have no Right to prescribe to this Country the Government they shall adopt and next because the Basis of our own Constitution is the indefeasible Right of the People to establish it.” Gouverneur Morris, “To Thomas Jefferson, August 22, 1792,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 24, 313–314.

[21] Thomas Jefferson, “To William S. Smith, November 13, 1787,” in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 911.

[22] Thomas Jefferson, “To James Madison, June 29, 1792,” in The Papers of James Madison, vol. 14, 6 April 1791 – 16 March 1793, ed. Robert A. Rutland and Thomas A. Mason (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 334.

[23] To further support this interpretation of Jefferson’s unwavering faith in the Revolution consider that he had embraced the Jacobins, even if he misunderstood who they actually were, just weeks after he praised their archrival Lafayette, and his long time personal friend, for “establishing the liberties of your country against a foreign enemy. May heaven favor your cause, and make you the channel thro’ which it may pour it’s favors. While you are exterminating the monster aristocracy, and pulling out the teeth and fangs of it’s associate monarchy.” Yet even after hearing of Lafayette’s exile from Morris and Jacobin despotism from both Short and Morris, his support for the Revolution only increased. Thomas Jefferson, “To Lafayette, June, 16, 1792,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 24, 85.

[24] Thomas Jefferson, “To John Hollins, February, 19, 1809,” in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 428.

[25] William Short, “To Thomas Jefferson, August 24, 1792,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 24, 322, 325. The “tribunal” Short mentions is a reference to the Revolutionary Tribunal set up by the National Convention in August 1792 at the encouragement of the Robespierre and the Paris Commune. Exactly as Short predicted, the Tribunal quickly became the main organ through which the Jacobins enacted the Reign of Terror, holding what were effectively show trials to justify the purging of royalists and moderates. At the height of the Terror, the Tribunal was entirely dominated by Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, which used it to eliminate conservative (Girondins) and moderate (e.g. Danton) Jacobins and those considered too radical (e.g. Hébertists). Short’s invoking of the chambre ardente is likely a sarcastic reference to the religious courts of the Ancien Régime, where heretics, particularly Huguenots, were subjected to cruel punishments. The implication being that even the absolutist Bourbon regime the republicans deposed would be embarrassed by the new government’s despotic tendencies.

[26] Maximilien Robespierre, “Report on the Principles of Political Morality,” in University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization,Volume 7: The Old Regime and the French Revolution, ed. Keith M. Baker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 374-375.

[27] Thomas Jefferson, “To William Short, January 3, 1793,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 25, 1 January–10 May 1793, ed. John Catanzariti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 14.

[28] Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (New York: Liveright, 2016), 193-194.

[29] Ibid, 15.

[30] An earlier articulation of this idea is evident in the aforementioned June 16, 1792 letter to Lafayette, where Jefferson celebrates French success while lamenting that in America there are “Eastward … champions for a king, lords, and commons,” and that “Too many of these stock jobbers and king-jobbers have come into our legislature, or rather too many of our legislature have become stock jobbers and king-jobbers.”

[31] For further support of this interpretation of his opinion of both Short and Morris see Jefferson’s March 23, 1793 letter to William Short where he wrote: “Be cautious in your letters to the Secretary of the treasury. He sacrifices you. On a late occasion when called on to explain before the Senate his proceedings relative to the loans in Europe, instead of extracting such passages of your letters as might relate to them, he gave in the originals in which I am told were strong expressions against the French republicans: and even gave in a correspondence between G. Morris and yourself which scarcely related to the loans at all, merely that a long letter of Morris’s might appear in which he argues as a democrat himself against you as an aristocrat.” Thomas Jefferson, “To William Short, March 23, 1793,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 25, 436.

[32] Thomas Jefferson, “To John Trumbull, June 1, 1789,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 15, 27 March 1789 – 30 November 1789, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958), 164.

[33] Marie G. Kimball and Alexandre de Liancourt, “William Short, Jefferson’s Only ‘Son,’” North American Review 223, no. 832 (1926): 481.

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  • A well researched and written piece on an interesting topic, Mr. Brown. Jefferson’s outright support for Jacobin terror was not something I had ever given much thought to. You make a compelling case for just how radical and consistent Jefferson’s thoughts on revolution were.

  • Great piece on an important topic. I am more intrigued by the influence of Jefferson on Lafayette and the Rights of Man. To date I have not seen research of the kind noted here on that topic which I believe is equally important.

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