Jefferson and Burke on Marat, Danton, and Robespierre

Critical Thinking

September 15, 2021
by Haimo Li Also by this Author


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Thomas Jefferson is well-known for his so-called “Frenchified” stance.[1] On the topic of the relationship between Jefferson and French Revolution, scholarly accounts often stop at depicting Jefferson’s “sympathy for the French Revolution and his aspirations for a democratic republicanism,”[2] merely focusing on Jefferson’s so-called “radicalism.”[3] Scholars tend to describe Jefferson’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution as “an enthusiasm that Bonaparte’s 1799 coup had not diminished.”[4] This kind of image presents a Jefferson who “remained a champion of the French Revolution to the end.”[5] Therefore, scholars often view Jefferson (as the supporter of the French Revolution) and Irish politician Edmund Burke (as the leading critic of the French Revolution) as if they were standing at two different poles of the same spectrum,[6] far away from each other. To quote Conor Cruise O’Brien, these two thinkers harbored “mutually antipathetic minds.”[7] Indeed, Jefferson had explicitly criticized the publication of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in 1791,[8] but later on, and particularly in his retirement years (1809-1826), Jefferson himself developed second thoughts on the French Revolution.

In this regard, Brian Steele’s analysis is quite accurate: “much has been made of Jefferson’s support of the French Revolution. But Jefferson’s enthusiasm for that event was late and short-lived.”[9] One very clear example is Jefferson’s comments on the political cabal of “Marat, Danton and Robespierre.”

In February 1815, Jefferson sent a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette explicitly criticizing the Hartford Convention. This convention was organized by New England Federalists,[10] who Jefferson basically called America’s Jacobins:

they have hoped more in their Hartford convention. their fears of republican France being now done away, they are directed to republican America, and they are playing the same game for disorganization here which they played in your country [France]. the Marats, the Dantons & Robespierres of Massachusets are in the same pay, under the same orders, and making the same efforts to anarchize us, as their prototypes in France were. I do not say that all who met at Hartford were under the same motives of money: nor were those of France. some of them are Outs, and wish to be Ins; some the mere dupes of the Agitators, or of their own party passions; while the Maratists alone are in the real secret. but they have very different materials to work on. the yeomanry of the US. are not the Canaille of Paris.

In the same 1815 letter, Jefferson also mentioned,

you differed from them [Jacobins]. you were for stopping there, and for securing the constitution which the National Assembly had obtained. here . . . you were right; and from this fatal error of the republicans, from their separation from yourself & the Constitutionalists in their councils, flowed all the subsequent sufferings and crimes of the French nation. the hazards of a second change fell upon them by the way. the foreigner gained time to anarchize by gold the government he could not overthrow by arms, to crush in their own councils the genuine republicans, by the fraternal embraces of exaggerated and hired pretenders, and to turn the machine of jacobinism from the change, to the destruction, of order: and, in the end, the limited monarchy they had secured was exchanged for the unprincipled and bloody tyranny of Robespierre, and the equally unprincipled and maniac tyranny of Bonaparte.[11]

From this letter we can detect several things; according to Jefferson: 1, the Jacobin cabal was a tyrannical cabal; 2, it spread “destruction” and “anarchy”; and 3, its followers were the poor people of Paris. The spirit conveyed in this letter very much coincided with Jefferson’s January 1815 letter to William Plumer, in which Jefferson outspokenly said:

the paradox with me is how any friend to the union of our country can, in conscience, contribute a cent to the maintenance of any one who perverts the sanctity of his desk to the open inculcation of rebellion, civil war, dissolution of government, and the miseries of anarchy. when England took alarm lest France, become republican, should recover energies dangerous to her, she employed emissaries with means to engage incendiaries and anarchists in the disorganisation of all government there. these assuming exaggerated zeal for republican government, and the rights of the people, crowded their inscriptions into the Jacobin societies, and, overwhelming by their majorities the honest & enlightened patriots of the original institution, distorted it’s objects, pursued it’s genuine founders, under the name of Brissotines & Girondists, unto death, intrigued themselves into the municipality of Paris, controuled by terrorism the proceedings of the legislature, in which they were faithfully aided by their co-stipendiaries there, the Dantons and Marats of the Mountain, murdered their king Septembrized the nation, and thus accomplished their stipulated task of demolishing liberty, and government with it.

Additionally, this was not at all the earliest complaint issued from Jefferson on this Jacobin cabal.  In as early as October 1794 Jefferson had penned this line in a letter sent to Henry Remsen: “I cannot help hoping that the execution of Robespierre and his bloodthirsty satellites is a proof of their return to that moderation which their best friends had feared had not been always observed.”[12] In a June 1795 letter to Tench Coxe, Jefferson again deplored: “What a tremendous obstacle to the future attempts at liberty will be the atrocities of Robespierre!”[13] Jefferson’s stance was quite peculiar compared to other fellow-travelers; for example, Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769-1798), a journalist who supported the Jeffersonian philosophy, spoke in favor of the group composed of Marat, Danton and Robespierre.[14]

In reality, perhaps quite counterintuitively, Jefferson’s comments on Marat, Danton and Robespierre brought him very close to Edmund Burke’s analysis. According to what Burke wrote in his Preface to the Address of M. Brissot to his Constituents(1794),

whilst they [the “party of Roland and Brissot”] appeared to gain the Convention, and many of the outlying departments, they lost the city of Paris entirely and irrecoverably: it was fallen into the hands of Marat, Robespierre, and Danton. Their instruments were the sans-culottes, or rabble, who domineered in that capital, and were wholly at the devotion of those incendiaries, and received their daily pay. The people of property were of no consequence, and trembled before Marat and his janizaries.[15]

Not only did Burke write this, in his Letters on a Regicide Peace, Letter IV (1796), he him once again used a derogatory and negative tone to describe this clique:

I could better bear the stench of the gibbeted murderer, than the society of the bloody felons who yet annoy the world. Whilst they wait the recompense due to their ancient crimes, they merit new punishment by the new offences they commit. There is a period to the offences of Robespierre. They survive in his Assassins. Better a living dog, says the old proverb, than a dead lion; not so here. Murderers and hogs never look well till they are hanged. From villainy no good can arise, but in the example of its fate. So I leave them their dead Robespierre, either to gibbet his memory, or to deify him in their pantheon with their Marat and their Mirabeau.[16]

John Adams, in criticizing Jefferson’s clear sympathy towards the French revolutionary cause, explicitly told his wife and son, Abigail and John Quincy, in 1793 that “Danton, Robertspiere, Marat, etc. are furies. Dragons’ teeth have been sown in France and will come up as monsters.”[17] Two decades later Jefferson largely adopted this earlier John Adams argument, even though Adams also criticized Jefferson. In the same 1793 letter, Adams explicitly said that “We have our Robertspierres and Marats whose wills are good to do mischief but the Flesh is weak. They cannot yet persuade the People to follow them.” Very likely, Jefferson was one of the people that Adams had in mind when he penned this line.

Even though Jefferson fiercely attacked Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1791, his subsequent comments on the growth and development of French Jacobinism (by the Insurrection of 31 May–2 June, 1793, it eventually seized the power) was not so different from Burke’s analysis of the same political group. They had plenty of overlapping consensus in their views. The real difference lies in the fact that Jefferson thought Marat, Danton, and Robespierre were largely “bought off” by the British government, that they effectively they sold their souls to British interests. This was probably the thing that Burke would never have agreed with.


[1]Nancy Isenberg et al, The Problem of Democracy (New York: Viking, 2019), 194-195.

[2]Lloyd S. Kramer, “The French Revolution and the creation of American political culture,” in Joseph Klaits et al (ed.), Global Ramifications of the French Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 31-32. See also Francis D. Cogliano, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

[3]See for example, Robert Westbrook, “Creative Democracy—the Task Still before Us,” in Democracy in Crisis: Civic Learning and the Reconstruction of Common Purpose, ed. Gregory E. Kaebnick et al., special report, Hastings Center Report 51, no. 1 (2021): S29– S35. See also Harold Hellenbrand, The Unfinished Revolution (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 121-122.

[4]Gordon S. Wood, Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (New York: Penguin, 2017), 340-341.

[5]Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 110, 217. See also Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Rousseau, Robespierre, Burke, Jefferson, and the French Revolution,” in Gita May et al, ed., The Social Contract: And, The First and Second Discourses (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 305-306. Joseph I. Shulim, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1989), 19-20.

[6]Allen Guttmann, The Conservative Tradition in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 47-48.

[7]Conor Cruise O’Brien, “Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson: Mutually Antipathetic Minds,” in Todd Breyfogle et al, ed.,Literary Imagination, Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999 ).

[8]The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 20, 1 April–4 August 1791, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 391–392.

[9]Brian Steele, Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 95-96.

[10]Benjamin Park, American Nationalisms (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 154-155.

[11]The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 8, 1 October 1814 to 31 August 1815, ed. J. Jefferson Looney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 261–268.

[12]The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 28, 1 January 1794 – 29 February 1796, ed. John Catanzariti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 183.

[13]The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 28:373–374.

[14]Marcus Daniel, Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 128-129.

[15]The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. V (New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2008), 81-82.

[16]The Works of the right honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. 9 (London: Rivington, 1812), 67-68.

[17]The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 9, January 1790 – December 1793, ed. C. James Taylor, Margaret A. Hogan, Karen N. Barzilay, Gregg L. Lint, Hobson Woodward, Mary T. Claffey, Robert F. Karachuk, and Sara B. Sikes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 378–379; See also Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (Vintage Books, 2002), 170-171.

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