The French Revolution
IN 1784 CONGRESS APPOINTED THOMAS JEFFERSON MINISTER plenipotentiary on a diplomatic commission with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with the European states. Returning to public service after his wife’s death, the Virginian had gone into Congress and there addressed himself to critical problems facing the new nation, among them the settlement and government of the transappalachian West and the expansion of foreign commerce. In the case of the latter, he had helped to draw up new guidelines for the European commission he would now join in Paris. The plan, which aimed at nothing less than the conversion of all Europe to the free commercial principles of the American Revolution, was a direct descendant of Adams’ “plan of treaties” adopted by Congress in 1776. Calculating that its commerce, no longer monopolized by Britain, would attract the peace and friendship of Europe, the United States raised the standard of free trade and opened its doors to all nations who would recognize American independence and enter into liberal trading arrangements. The plan failed of conspicuous success except with France in 1778, where, however, the treaty of commerce was coupled with a treaty of alliance entailing political obligations at odds with the “commerce only” principle of foreign relations, of which Adams was particularly jealous. Now, in 1784, there was a new urgency behind the undertaking. Hard times had set in. The country was weak and poor. The prospects of wealth and power depended upon the expansion of foreign commerce and navigation, the dissolution of mercantilism and the liberation of trade in a widening community of nations. Britain, while not the only obstacle, stood as the most formidable one. She had lost an empire in North America but seemed determined to hold the former colonies in economic vassalage by exploiting her old mastery of the American market and excluding American carriers and productions from the West Indies, previously the most profitable branch of American trade. Congress therefore appealed to the revolutionary spirit of free trade to open new channels to American industry. This was the formidable task that brought Jefferson and Adams (and Franklin) together again, and it remained a first concern during their years on the diplomatic scene in Europe.1
Adams was still the senior partner in the relationship. He had, after all, except for one brief interruption, been on assignment in Europe since 1778. On the whole, it had not been a happy experience. He had not got on well with Franklin, the presiding American genius at Versailles, had quarreled with the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, and generally had made himself obnoxious to the court. Wandering off to Holland in disgust, he had planted the American standard at The Hague, and with a treaty of commerce and a loan in 1782 scored a diplomatic triumph. He was still angry at the French court for its treatment of him and for what he believed was the subserviency of Franklin and of Congress to its influence over American affairs. Franklin was an indolent old roué, a liar, intriguer, and hypocrite, a man whose reputation for philosophy and statesmanship was “one of the grossest impostures … practiced upon mankind since the days of Mahomet,” Adams declared.2 Vergennes aimed to keep the United States weak, divided, and dependent on France. Seeing Adams as a threat to his plans, he had, with Franklin’s conniving, prevailed upon Congress in 1781 to revoke his original commission to negotiate peace and a treaty of commerce with Britain. On Adams’ accounting, Congress had meanly discredited the old leadership of the Adamses and Lees, the heart of the alliance of Massachusetts and Virginia that had brought about American independence, and fallen under the control of a pro-French faction, which, among its other sins, treacherously instructed the new peace commission to be guided by the advice of the French ministry. Adams felt humiliated and disgraced, not only by Congress but by his country. “It is enough to poison the life of a man in its most secret sources,” he confessed to an old friend.3 After the preliminaries of the peace were signed, Adams sent a heated protest to Congress. The only satisfaction for the personal insult to him, he suggested, would be appointment as the first American minister to the Court of St. James. He no longer spoke of France as “our natural ally,” Britain as “our natural enemy,” her friendship “lost forever”—his habitual language during the war—but argued that it had never been America’s interest to injure Britain more than necessary to secure independence and that the old friendship should now be restored as a means both of countering French influence and of securing American trade and prosperity.4 This, he said, not the French alliance, was “the cornerstone of the true American system of politics in Europe.”5 In modern diplomatic parlance, Adams was tilting toward Britain. As it happened, however, and despite all that Adams could do, Britain rejected the cornerstone, leaving the Franco-American alliance intact.
In 1784 Jefferson knew only a part of the story of Adams’ long ordeal in Europe. Virginians in Congress forewarned him that Adams had changed. James Madison, the congressman chiefly responsible for the revocation of Adams’ 1779 commission, portrayed the New Englander as vain, pompous, envious of Franklin, morbidly suspicious of France, and said he had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of Congress by drawing his own likeness for the proposed envoy to Great Britain. Jefferson was surprised. Adams’ want of taste he had observed, but vanity was “a lineament in his character” that had escaped him.6 (It had not escaped Adams. “The charge of vanity,” he wrote in his defense, “is the last resource of little wits and mercenary quacks, the vainest men alive, against men and measures they can find no other objection to.”)7 Jefferson idolized Franklin: the man, the scientist, the statesman. They were fellow philosophes; their temperaments were congenial; and they thought alike about France and the French alliance. While Adams, starting with the assumption of self-interested motives on the part of France, detected subserviency in every pleasing American gesture, Franklin, and Jefferson after him, supposed these gestures cost nothing but created a spirit of mutual confidence and goodwill at the French court which served American interests. Jefferson, who would later find himself accused of subserviency to France, thought the charge against Franklin without “a shadow of a foundation.” By his amiable and liberal disposition, he had, in fact, placed the French court “more under his influence, than he under theirs.”8
The issue was partly one of diplomatic tactics and style: Franklin and Jefferson cool, supple, amiable, gracefully sliding around rough corners without losing sight of the object, Adams aggressive, candid, direct, and unyielding. But it was more substantial than that. Adams thought that nations, like individuals, were governed by avarice and ambition and were never to be trusted to motives of generosity and benevolence. Jefferson, professing “but one code of morality for man whether acting singly or collectively,” thought the true interest of men and nations consistent with the dictates of morality. “I think, with others,” he wrote, “that nations are to be governed according to their own interest; but I am convinced that it is their interest, in the long run, to be grateful, faithful to their engagements even in the worst of circumstances, and honorable and generous always.”9 The moral question of gratitude to France for her assistance in the American Revolution was thus assimilated to a philosophy of higher self-interest; and since France alone gave the United States a place to stand from which to exert influence in Europe, he was a staunch advocate of the French alliance. Adams, on the other hand, while he usually recognized the expediency of the alliance, remained uncomfortable with it and resented any idea of moral obligation to France.
The composition of the Paris commission seemed a perfect recipe for discord, yet Adams was soon writing of “the wonderful harmony, good humor, and unanimity” of the three men. Perhaps this was owing to Jefferson’s presence, for both Adams and Franklin were happy with him. Some of the former’s friends had tried to plant suspicions of the Virginian in his mind, but without success. “He is an old friend,” Adams said, “with whom I have often had occasion to labor at many a knotty problem, and in whose abilities and steadiness I always found great cause to confide.”10 He discovered no reason to change his opinion or to doubt Jefferson’s partialities for any country but his own. After many months Jefferson reached a judicious assessment of Adams. Madison, to whom he wrote, was partly right. “He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This,” however, “is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the being which made him; he is profound in his views, and accurate in his judgments except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable, that I pronounce you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him.”11 Outside the line of official business, Jefferson saw little of Franklin, ailing and almost a recluse at Passy, but he became an intimate of the Adams family installed in an airy mansion at Auteuil. Abigail and the children, including young John Quincy, were charmed by the tall Virginian’s gracious manners and conversation. “He is one of the choice ones of the earth,” Abigail said.12 The circle of affection, which included Jefferson’s daughter Martha, strengthened the bond between the two men. They would be separated in the spring of 1785 when Congress at last appointed Adams minister to Great Britain and at the same time named Jefferson as Franklin’s successor at Versailles. The Adamses’ departure left Jefferson “in the dumps.” From London Abigail wrote of how loath she had been “to leave behind me the only person with whom my companion could associate with perfect freedom and unreserve.”13 But the two envoys, the only Americans of rank in Europe, were in constant communication as they labored for their country’s cause.
Although the European-wide commission continued for another year, it was obviously a failure, with only a Prussian treaty to its credit, and the American ministers focused their commercial diplomacy on Britain and France. They were in substantial agreement on the objectives: first, to relieve the agonies of American commerce by obtaining favors abroad; second, to forward the new ideal of “perfect liberty” of trade as in the ultimate interest of all nations; third, to strengthen the struggling confederation at home by means of treaties which would bring the foreign commerce of the states under the jurisdiction of Congress; and fourth, to steer clear of political entanglements with Europe. Variations of outlook appeared in the pursuit of these objectives, of course. Jefferson, installed in the liberal circle of Turgot’s disciples and the physiocrats in Paris, was the more philosophical and persevering, Adams the more immediately practical and easily discouraged by unpleasant realities. Jefferson decided that France held the key to America’s commercial problem and, eventually, to the wider free-trade system. If France would improve upon the existing treaty, abolish antiquated restrictions, open her ports freely to American ships and raw materials, and pay for them in manufactures, wines, tropical produce, and so on, the British monopoly would be broken and other nations must follow the course of liberation. While admiring his friend’s resourceful efforts at Versailles, Adams smiled at these grand hopes and worried over the political consequences of a Franco-American commercial axis. In the final analysis, however, Adams had no choice but to support Jefferson’s strategy. He found nothing but contempt for the United States in Britain and no disposition whatever to negotiate a commercial treaty when by her restrictive policy Britain commanded the American market and three-fourths of the navigation between the two countries. After Massachusetts retaliated with a navigation act in 1785, Adams applauded the move and hoped the other states would follow. Britain, with preternatural determination to reverse the outcome of the war, had commenced commercial hostilities and the United States had to defend itself. “We must not, my friend,” he wrote his philosophical colleague in Paris, “be the bubbles of our own liberal sentiments. If we cannot obtain reciprocal liberality, we must adopt reciprocal prohibitions, exactions, monopolies, and imposts.”14 Jefferson agreed, and both recognized that the states must become “one nation” commercially through a stronger federal union before economic retaliation could succeed. As to France, Adams reluctantly went along with Jefferson’s policy of multiplying connections “both commercial and political.”15
In March 1786 Jefferson joined Adams in London on several items of official business and came away with all his prejudices against the “rich, proud, hectoring, swearing, squibbing, carnivorous” English nation confirmed.16 Carried to court by his friend, who had been cordially received a year before, Jefferson was snubbed and humiliated by George III. Nor did he find much friendliness anywhere. “That nation hates us,” he concluded, “their ministers hate us, and their king more than all other men.”17 Pleasure mixed with business as Jefferson, Adams in tow, made a tour of the celebrated English gardens, the country style of which he infinitely preferred to the formal classical taste of the French. With the eyes of a connoisseur, who believed that America should have “the noblest gardens” and who meant to set an example at Monticello, Jefferson dutifully noted every slope of a lawn, drop of a cascade, size of a lake or pond, style of an arch, effect of a statue or temple, and cost of a grotto. Adams did not share his enthusiasm. Such luxury and magnificence could not be reconciled with virtuous republicanism. “It will be long, I hope, before ridings, parks, pleasure grounds, gardens, and ornamental farms grow so much in fashion in America,” he jotted in his diary.18 Jefferson understood the point, but he did not allow his chaste republicanism to drown his aesthetic sensibilities.
In their response to the Old World—“the vaunted scene of Europe,” Jefferson called it—the Virginian and the New Englander were almost stereotypically American. Indeed, they helped to create the stereotype. Yet their responses were qualitatively different, as their encounter with the English gardens suggests. Neither found any good in European governments. The opulence and tyranny of kings and nobles, the oppression and misery of the mass of people presented no other picture, said Jefferson, “than that of God almighty and his angels trampling under foot the hosts of the damned,” and, of course, made any idea of a revolution on the American plan virtually inconceivable. “My God!” he exclaimed to a friend at home. “How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself.”19 The revelation suggests how far Jefferson’s odyssey abroad led him into intellectual possession of that “American dream” born in Europe but destined to mature in America, partly under his auspices.
Adams made the same discovery, but it did not have the same impact on him. He was more accepting of the old regime in Europe, as if it were decreed by fate or history. (He thought it important to assure Lafayette that he was “no king-killer, king-hater, or king-despiser.”)20 An ingrained religious prejudice left him skeptical of republicanism in any country where Roman Catholicism held sway or, conversely, where atheism was so much in fashion as in France. European morals were, if anything, worse than European politics. On his initiation into Parisian society during the Revolution, Adams was shocked by the looseness of conversation and the spirit of female intrigue. Marital infidelity corrupted everything, including government. The manners of women were the best barometer of the state of morals in a nation, he reasoned, for the foundations of morality were laid in the family if they were laid anywhere. Jefferson was no puritan, but he too warned Americans against European debauchery and vice.21 The saving grace of Europe, of France in particular, for him was the civility of manners and the artistic splendor he found everywhere. “Here,” he wrote, “it seems that a man might pass a life without encountering a single rudeness.… Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words.”22 Adams conceded the elegance and the splendor. “But what is this to me?” asked this self-styled “stern and haughty republican.” “I receive but little pleasure in beholding all these things, because I cannot but consider them as bagatelles, introduced by time and luxury in exchange for the … hardy manly virtues of the human heart.”23 Jefferson was not assailed in his republican convictions by Europe’s civilizing arts. They were, rather, worthy of the emulation of the new nation. Thus he designed a noble capitol for Virginia based on a classical model, the Masion Carrée at Nîmes, thereby inaugurating the Roman style in the public architecture of the United States. “You see,” he wrote in this connection, “I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, and to reconcile to them the respect of the world and procure them its praise.”24 Adams thought Jefferson was putting the cart before the horse. “It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires,” he told Abigail. It was his duty as an American to study government to the exclusion of all other arts and sciences. “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy … in order to give their sons a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”25 This would prove to be good prophesy for successive generations of the Adams family; but Jefferson’s timetable and scale of values were different.
With his scale of values, and with a set of provincial prejudices his character could not conceal, Adams never felt at home in Europe, while for Jefferson the five years he spent there were among the happiest of his life. Already, before he left America, he was an infant philosophe, a disciple of the Enlightenment, that “mixture of classicism, impiety, and science,”26 headquartered in Paris, and he soon found himself placed in the best circles and salons. The Marquis de Chastellux, who had earlier encountered him at Monticello, introduced him in flattering colors to the philosophical public in his Travels. And with the publication of his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson attained a scientific and literary reputation second only to Franklin among Americans. He was not only an American but a cosmopolitan, one who cared as much for the commerce of ideas as the commerce of tobacco, and one to whom liberal Frenchmen naturally turned for instruction when they set out to reform their own government. Adams, although a man of the Enlightenment (more accurately of the earlier mid-century Enlightenment) in his political opinions, was neither of the mind nor the party of philosophes. Their naturalistic creed, he thought “neither more nor less than the creed of Epicurus set to the music of Lucretius,” and he read their books chiefly for the pleasure of denunciation.27 He had thus found himself an outsider in Paris for reasons that struck deeper than rigidity of personality and deficiency in the je ne sais quoi of fashionable society.28 Yet, paradoxical though it may seem, it was Adams, the Yankee provincial, who became the captive of European political fears and transferred them to America, while Jefferson, the cosmopolitan philosopher, matured a self-conscious American idealism from his perspective in Europe.
Central to this development was the French Revolution, but before that event Adams wrote a book which froze his politics into a system at odds with democratic aspirations in both Europe and America. His Defence of the American Constitutions, 1787, was a three-volume demonstration of the thesis that the “unum necessarium” of republican liberty and order is the tripartite division of the legislative power, each of the branches embodying a distinctive social and political principle—the one, the few, and the many; monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—and by a kind of Newtonian mechanics maintaining the equilibrium of the whole.29 Adams commenced the work, a disordered pastiche of the writings on European governments from ancient to modern interspersed with his own comments, in the fall of 1786. What set him off was the news of popular insurgency against the government in Massachusetts. But in Adams’ mind, Shays’ Rebellion (as it was soon named) was only the culmination of a course of degeneracy he had been observing in the United States for several years. Virtue had declined, the spirit of faction had appeared; class conflict reared its head, elections grew corrupt, and the people ran wild with false notions of liberty and equality. How else, except on some such hypothesis, was Adams to account for his country’s ingratitude to himself? America was going the way of Europe and would have to heed the uniform lessons of European experience. The dangers evoked by Shays’ Rebellion seemed to call for an urgent program of instruction, which Adams sought to provide. He was also motivated by gloomy forebodings over the course of events in Europe. The Defence had a European address as well as an American one. His Dutch friends were locked in struggle with prince and oligarchs. The Assembly of Notables was only four months away in Paris. “The fountains of the great deep were broken up in France,” Adams later recalled, “and the proud wave of democracy was spreading and swelling and rolling, not only through that kingdom, but into England, Holland, Geneva, and Switzerland, and, indeed, threatening an inundation over all Europe.” While in spirit on the side of the reformers, Adams was skeptical of their success and of one thing was absolutely sure: “that if they aimed at any constitution more popular than the English, they would ruin themselves, after setting Europe on fire and shedding oceans of blood.”30
Despite the work’s title, it was a defense of the American constitutions in only the most cryptic and roundabout fashion. The constitutions of two-thirds of the states were indefensible, Adams conceded to Jefferson. They were no better than those of the petty Italian republics of the late middle ages, to which Adams devoted his second volume, and they were destined to end the same way.31 The work was, in reality, a defense of the true theory of republican constitutions against an attack mounted by the late great philosophe, Turgot. Turgot had criticized the Americans for copying European (mainly British) forms and practices and thus failing to fix their governments on the principles of nature and reason. Instead of collecting all authority in one center as the logic of equality and popular sovereignty dictated, the new constitutions endeavored to create an equilibrium of power among different orders of men and principles of government in pale imitation of the English king, lords, and commons. The criticism tallied with Thomas Paine’s democratic opinions in 1776. Adams’ reply, a long one, was that the history of governments proved the tripartite balance of power to be, in fact, the fundamental principle of reason and nature, as infallible as the demonstrations of Euclid. It was realized most perfectly in the English constitution, which Adams pronounced “the only scientific government” in the world. Government ought to be founded on the laws of human nature rather than on philosophical visions of perfectibility. History is the vast storehouse of facts about human nature. Adams ransacked history. And what it showed was, first, that all men are creatures of passion, for fame or power or wealth; second, that they are always divided into the few and the many, the rich and the poor, the aristocrats and the commoners; and third, that these two great orders of society are constantly threatening to destroy each other. Having discovered this theory of behavior in history, Adams then read all history in terms of the theory. Because the nature of man does not change, neither does the nature of government. In the Defence the same dreary round of ambition and conflict, sedition and corruption, war and revolution is reported over and over again, relieved occasionally, however, in those states that find for a time the deus ex machina, the tripartite balance. This involves, above all, erecting a third power, a monarchical executive, to serve as an umpire or a balance wheel between the democracy and the aristocracy. It involves, in addition, the constitution of these two orders into separate and distinct representative assemblies. Neither alone nor in superiority can secure the liberties of the republic. The people are as despotic as kings and nobles: Adams was the first modern political theorist to speak of “the tyranny of the majority.” The aristocracy of birth, wealth, and talents, although it has limitless capacity for harm, is the best part of the state if it is properly managed. Allow it to mix with the people and it will subvert them, allow it any share of the executive power and it will bring down the constitution; but “ostracize” the aristocracy to one assembly and its vices may be curbed to the advantage of its virtues. The invidious competition between the two great classes of society is rendered useful when they are made to control each other and a monarchical executive is installed as the presiding genius over the whole. Such was the political science of John Adams.
Jefferson read Adams’ first volume just as the Assembly of Notables convened in Paris. Writing to the author, he praised “its learning and good sense,” thought it would do “great good” in America, and said he would arrange for a French translation.32 It would be wrong to conclude from these generous comments that Jefferson was therefore in fundamental accord with the doctrines of the Defence. He did not care to dispute philosophical differences with friends. Almost instinctively, he accommodated himself to the feelings of others without compromising his own opinions. He liked Franklin’s rule, “Never contradict anybody,” and tended to express personal approval or disapproval by varying degrees of assent. He never attempted to throw his own thought into a system, in part because he distrusted all theoretical systems. As a result, while Adams’ political science is readily identified, Jefferson’s remains formless and elusive. Undoubtedly, Jefferson felt greater sympathy for Adams’ system in 1787 than he would several years later, after its tendencies were more fully disclosed by the French Revolution and political developments in the United States. But even in 1787, though he agreed with the general idea of constitutional balance, Jefferson was seriously at issue with his friend on many points.
Jefferson did not share Adams’ fears of popular tumult and insurrection. Shays’ Rebellion had presented to him the not unpleasing picture of American liberty flexing its muscles. The “spirit of resistance to government” was always valuable, and infinitely perferable to European despotism. “I like a little rebellion now and then,” he told the Adamses. “It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”33 Adams’ appeal to history for the laws of nature, his vision of the political past as a timeless void, fixed and unchanging in its basic rhythms, his use of history to puncture the hopes of philosophers for the improvability and progress of mankind—all this ran against Jefferson’s mental grain. Adams’ portrayal of the English constitution must have appeared to him as a caricature of the real thing, while his advocacy of a monarchical executive flew in the face of America’s revolutionary experience. Making some exception for Massachusetts, every American constitution—those constitutions Adams was purportedly defending—stripped the executive office of monarchical features. But the greatest puzzle of all was the wide disparity between Adams’ theory of government by orders, allegedly founded in the nature of things, and the realities of American society. As Adams himself sometimes conceded, there was but one order in America; all men were commoners, yet he insisted on applying the Old World norms of the one, the few, and the many. These abstractions had troubled Jefferson too, as in his effort to find a quasi-aristocratic basis for the senate in Virginia; but, with other American Whigs, he had worked his way out of the difficulty. Recognizing that the people were all one, undifferentiated in their rights and sovereignty, he had replaced the traditional theory of balanced government with the newer functional theory of separation of powers, in which legislative, executive, and judicial powers, all derivative of the people, checked and balanced each other. As for the senate, it simply doubled the representation, and protection, of the people. This became the constitutional safeguard against the inherent tendency of power to corrupt and of every government to degenerate into despotism.34 Adams was still enthralled by the traditional theory. When confronted with American egalitarianism, he replied that it was a delusion, that real distinctions of rank persisted, that the semblance of three orders remained even if the things themselves did not, though in time the orders would mature and a hereditary chief magistracy and an aristocratic senate would probably become necessary to secure the republic against popular violence and corruption. America had discovered no new principles of society and government. There could be no new principles. “Our experience … corresponds with that of all ages and nations,” Adams wrote. And if only the names were changed, the future of Massachusetts or New York or the states collectively could be read in the history of Florence or Siena or Pistoia.35
Many of Adams’ friends would later look back to the Defence of the American Constitutions as the turning point in his politics, away from republican principles to monarchical and aristocratic principles; and he himself came to believe that this book, more belied than any since the Bible, he said, utterly destroyed his reputation. In 1787–88, however, the book was well received (there were three editions within the year) in the United States. Its appearance coincided with the new federal Constitution. Adams liked to think that it exerted an influence on the Constitution. This was not the case, but its high political tone suited the Constitution’s advocates, the Federalists.
The two American envoys held their own little debate on the Constitution. Jefferson confessed, on first reading it, that it staggered all his dispositions. The old system of the Articles of Confederation was too weak, but this new plan seemed too strong. The demigods at Philadelphia, he feared, had overreacted to the insurrection in Massachusetts: “they are setting up a kite to keep the hen yard in order.”36 Writing to Adams, he sharply criticized the Constitution for allowing perpetual reeligibility of the president. A president reeligible every fourth year might easily become a president for life, a king, albeit an elective one, like the king of Poland, and like him the center of foreign intrigue, bribery, and force.37 Adams’ principal objection ran to the opposite: the president was too weak and dependent. He rejoiced that the executive had been made part of the legislature, with at least a suspensive veto, but condemned the intrusion of the senate in matters of treaties and appointments to office. This would lessen the public responsibility of the president while at the same time exciting the insatiable ambitions of the senate. “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few,” he told Jefferson. “You are apprehensive of Monarchy, I, of Aristocracy.” As to the protest that a president once chosen would serve for life, so much the better. “You are apprehensive of foreign interference, intrigue, influence. So am I. But, as often as elections happen, the danger of foreign influence recurs. The less frequently they happen the less danger.”38 The more Jefferson studied the Constitution, the more he approved of it. He yielded his objection to presidential reeligibility, after learning that it aroused no fears in the United States, and concentrated instead on the attainable improvement, the addition of a bill of rights.39 Adams, meanwhile, expressing no concern for this addition, began to worry about the uncertain sovereignty of government under the Constitution. Unless it was “wholly national,” rather than a new experiment in divided sovereignty—“a fresh essay at imperium in imperio”—the Constitution would be a rope of sand.40 Jefferson, on the other hand, thought the ingenious mixing of two governments, state and national, each supreme in its sphere, the Constitution’s best feature. In the principle of federalism he found another, and thoroughly practical, safeguard of liberty, one which never entered into Adams’ system of political balance.
After eight years in Europe, Adams was preparing to return home. He was tired, of course, useless and virtually friendless in England, and neither his own honor nor that of Congress would permit him to remain minister to a court that treated the United States with haughty contempt. What the future held for him he did not know. Perhaps he would retire to his fireside and ruminate on the follies of mankind. At any rate, he would leave Europe with but two regrets: the loss of the opportunity afforded by a plentitude of books for researching questions in the science of government, and the interruption of his correspondence with Jefferson, which he called one of the most agreeable events of his life. Jefferson, upon whom the entire burden of American affairs in Europe would now rest, said he felt “bewidowed.” He had leaned on Adams’ judgment and was especially anxious about “the department of money,” long under Adams’ management. The Dutch bankers, whose loans had kept the confederation afloat, sent up distress signals for American credit just as the country moved toward a government intended to secure it. Adams had seen enough of “the unmeasurable avarice of Amsterdam,” but he met there with Jefferson early in the new year, and together they negotiated a loan to provide for American needs during the transition to the new government. In February 1788, Adams sailed for home.
For Jefferson, as he wrote to Abigail, it was the end of an epoch. It was the end of one epoch and the beginning of another in Europe too. The continent was turbulent from the Black Sea to the North. The Russians and the Turks were at war. In Holland, a bourgeois democratic revolution had been defeated and its leaders, who had been instructed in the American Revolution by John Adams, were cruelly suppressed or driven into exile by the Stadtholder, William V, Prince of Orange, in league with the old oligarchs and with the intervention of Britain and Prussia. Adams and Jefferson agonized for the Dutch Patriots, but felt that they had been betrayed by their own excesses as well as by their Bourbon ally. The fact that France, pledged to the Patriots, had not lifted a finger in their support offered a melancholy lesson for the United States. “In fact,” Jefferson wrote to his friend, “what a crowd of lessons do the present miseries of Holland teach us. Never to have an hereditary officer of any sort; never to let a citizen ally himself with kings; never to call in foreign nations to settle domestic differences; never to suppose that any nation will expose itself to war for us etc.”41 War was averted over the Dutch question, but France sank in the scales of power while Britain rose and might think the time propitious for regaining her lost American colonies. “Oh fortunate Americans, if you did but know your own felicity!” Adams wrote home.42 But they did not, and if they did would be unable to keep it. Jefferson’s “lessons” would be as little heeded in America as elsewhere. “The loss of paradise, by eating a forbidden apple, has been many thousand years a lesson to mankind; but not much regarded.” Resolutions never to have an hereditary officer would be kept until the Society of Cincinnati or some other blood-proud faction chose to violate them; resolutions never to allow a citizen to ally himself with kings only until some duke or dauphin demanded an American daughter in marriage; resolutions never to invite the intervention of foreign nations only until a serious domestic crisis arose. “I have long been settled in my own opinion,” he told Jefferson, “that neither philosophy, nor religion, nor morality, nor wisdom, nor interest, will ever govern nations or parties, against their vanity, their pride, their resentment or revenge, or their avarice or ambition. Nothing but force and power and strength can restrain them.”43 These reflections, which drew no response from Paris, were perfectly consonant with the doctrines of Adams’ book and also with his gloomy forebodings for the revolution in France that had already seized upon Jefferson’s sanguine heart.
Jefferson was a partisan of the French Revolution from the start. In the liberal circles of Paris, where American scripture was quoted like the Bible in Rome, he stood as the oracle of the revolutionary nation that inspired France. He could not have remained passive or silent even if he had wanted to. The revolution became, of course, much more than he or anyone envisioned in its early stages. For two and one-half years, while he remained minister to France, and then after he returned to the United States, Jefferson had repeatedly to adjust his thinking to a course of events always leaping ahead of him. He kept expecting the movement to come to rest, the revolution to stabilize itself at some reasonable point along the line of advance. When it did not but rolled dizzily onward with an egalitarian energy he had not suspected, Jefferson hurried to catch up and offer counsels of conciliation at the next favorable turn. Like some of his liberal friends, he hoped for a final settlement more on the terms of the English constitution than the American. A nation could not go from despotism to liberty all at once. A limited constitutional monarchy, with a regular parliament and guarantees of certain individual liberties, would be a great gain for the nation, and Jefferson doubted France was ready for more. In this he was not far from Adams’ opinion. But Jefferson, for all his apparent moderation, never hesitated to follow, then to cheer, the more radical course once it was chosen. Adams’ response to the French Revolution was to “rejoice with trembling,” as he said.44 And he turned increasingly against it as it veered from the conservative direction he thought it should follow. Jefferson went with the revolution, and as it grew more and more radical, so did Jefferson.
In the preliminary stage opened by the Assembly of Notables in 1787, Jefferson supported the aristocratic resurgence against royal absolutism in the belief it would yield needed reforms. He was especially pleased by the plan to introduce provincial assemblies, a reform advocated by Turgot’s disciples, which would circumscribe the power of the crown and give the people a voice. Moreover, the game had been so played in the assembly that the concession was obtained without paying the king’s price: consent to new taxes that would fall most heavily on the nobility. The evils of monarchical power loomed so large in Jefferson’s mind that he seemed to overlook the aristocratic animus of the entire movement. The noblesse, the parlements, and other aristocratic bodies had no intention of surrendering their privileged status, of agreeing to equal taxes, or, in fact, of allowing the provincial assemblies to be representative of the people. Had Adams been right when he told Jefferson, “You are afraid of the one—I, of the few”? So it sometimes appeared. Basically, however, the observation falsifies the political thought of both men. Adams feared aristocracy, but he also deemed aristocracy essential to the preservation of liberty; indeed he could assert that so far as liberty had been preserved in European states, it was the work of nobles operating between kings and peoples. Neither the one nor the few, Jefferson believed, could exist without the other. According to Montesquieu, nobility entered into the essence of monarchy, which had as its fundamental axiom, “No monarchy, no nobility; no nobility, no monarch.”45 If the two orders were often opposed, they were also mutually dependent; and in the end they would succor each other rather than succor the people, as European experience made plain during the age of democratic revolution. But where as in France there was no people in any meaningful political sense, Jefferson supposed that the nobility offered the only logical starting point for reformation, and that it must begin with the monarchy. He may have been right in this. The aristocratic revolt, narrowly conceived though it was, forced an appeal to the nation.
“The gay and thoughtless Paris has now become a furnace of politics,” Jefferson reported in the spring of 1788. “All the world is run politically mad. Men, women, children talk nothing else.”46 As the controversy widened, he saw with increasing clarity that neither of the centuries’ old contenders, king or nobility, was capable of acting for the good of the people. “The king and the parlement [of Paris] are quarreling for the oyster. The shell will be left as heretofore to the people.”47 Unfortunately, the people were not yet ripe for the blessings of liberty and self-government. They could not act for what they did not know. Jefferson doubted they would accept a habeas corpus law if it were handed to them. “The danger is that the people,” he said, “deceived by a false cry of liberty may be led to take side with one party, and thus give the other a pretext for crushing them still more.”48 Something like this had happened in Holland, Jefferson thought, and the fiasco of the democratic revolution there colored his counsels to the French. The monarchists and aristocrats had contested for monopoly, but when the Patriots frightened the latter with the loss of the common prey, they combined with the Stadtholder and left the people victims as before. Jefferson felt events would take a happier turn in France, however.49
His confidence centered on the historic convening of the Estates General. The Third Estate, the heretofore powerless people, was invited into the revolution; but whether it would have effective voice depended on the resolution of two issues with the privileged orders. Jefferson’s friends in the “patriot party,” including the Due de La Rochefoucauld, the Marquis de Condorcet, Pierre Samuel Dupont, and, of course, the Marquis de Lafayette, demanded that the Third Estate have as many deputies as the nobles and clergy combined, then called for voting by head rather than order in the assembly. The first demand prevailed over angry aristocratic opposition, while the second was left to the decision of the Estates General itself. The king was now virtually out of the contest, Jefferson reported to Adams at home in Braintree in December.50 A liberal constitutional reformation was within the grasp of the patriot leaders, provided they did not overreach themselves, shocking the conciliatory dispositions of the ministry and provoking the vengeance of the privileged orders. Jefferson grew bolder, siding unequivocally with the Third Estate, yet maintained his position as a prudent counselor of moderation.
When the Estates General convened in May 1789, a crisis at once occurred on the demand of the Third that the three orders coalesce in a single national assembly. Now for the first time, Jefferson said, the revolution “begins to wear a fearful appearance.” As the stalemate entered the fifth week, he proposed to his friends a “charter of rights” to be brought forth by the king and signed by every deputy of the three orders. The charter would grant the right of the Estates General to convene regularly, to raise and appropriate money, and to legislate with the king’s consent; it would provide for the abolition of fiscal privileges, and by a declaration of rights guarantee fundamental civil liberties.51 In its goals the plan marked still another advance in Jefferson’s conception of the revolution, one still grounded, however, in an accommodation of king, nobles, and commoners, more in the spirit of the English Revolution of 1688 than the American of 1776. Thirty years later, when he wrote his personal account of the coming of the French Revolution, Jefferson felt that events had vindicated his judgment and proved the “lamentable error” of those nameless Frenchmen responsible for rejecting the compromise. “For after thirty years of war, foreign and domestic, the loss of millions of lives, the prostration of private happiness, and the foreign subjugation of their own country for a time, they have obtained no more, nor even that securely.”52 Adams would surely have agreed. But Jefferson was right only if an amiable compromise such as he had advocated was politically feasible in 1789. And it was not. The revolution rapidly passed the stage of constitutional reformation arranged from above and became a vast social upheaval against order and privilege.
The immediate crisis was resolved by the submission of the clergy and nobility and the formation of a single national assembly. Jefferson still hoped for a peaceful revolution, with the establishment of a stable constitution, relying on moderate elements in the assembly backed by the king. If the king had sided openly with the revolution, the opportunity might have been realized. But Louis XVI, while honest and good, was weak, wholly dominated by the queen and the “Turkish despots” of the court; and as Jefferson put it succinctly, “the expediency of a hereditary aristocracy is too difficult a question for him.”53 The king rallied to the noblesse, resorted to force, provoked the violence of the populace, and dug the grave of the old regime. Jefferson was witness to the momentous events of July—the storming of the Bastille, the arming of the populace, the mobs and savage murders of obnoxious aristocrats—and said that he so clearly saw the legitimacy of these things that he was untroubled by them.54 By August he had embraced not only the radical goals of the French Revolution but the idea, at first inculcated by Americanists like Lafayette and philosophes like Condorcet, that it belonged to the same political universe as the American Revolution. The nation, Jefferson wrote, “has made a total resumption of rights, which they had certainly never before ventured even to think of. The National Assembly have now as clean a canvas to work on here as we had in America.”55
After the so-called abolition of feudalism and adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the National Assembly turned to the formation of a constitution; and here Adams returned to the scene as an important, if absent, figure in the debate. Jefferson, it may be recalled, had promised to arrange for the publication of the Defence of the American Constitutions in France. Translation was at once begun, yet to Adams’ chagrin nothing appeared until 1792 and that only an abridgment of his work. This was more than accidental. Jefferson soon learned, in 1787, that liberal philosophers and men-of-letters in Paris disapproved of the book. They were, for the most part, the disciples of Turgot, whom Adams attacked, and the friends of Jefferson—the same men who formed the nucleus of the Patriot party.56 The Defence, in their opinion, outdid Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois, whose political authority they were trying to dispel, in idolatry of the English constitution and advocacy of aristocratic institutions. There is no evidence that Jefferson conspired with his friends to prevent publication of the Defence, but it seems likely that under their prodding he became a conscious critic of Adams’ book, as he did also of Montesquieu’s, and lost interest in its publication. Condorcet replied to the Defence in his Letters of a Gentleman of New Haven … to a Citizen of Virginia (perhaps a disguise for Jefferson) in 1788. The following year he and Dupont brought out a French translation, with elaborate notes and commentary, of the American John Stevens’ Observations on Government, a vigorous attack on the Defence as a mockery of the popular governments of the United States.57 Many of Jefferson’s friends in Paris, wishing a government formed as closely as possible on the American model, were embarrassed by Adams’ book. They looked to Jefferson for support, and in the controversy surrounding the new French constitution, he came to see the retrograde tendencies of Adams’ politics for a reforming Europe as well as for America.
The controversy centered on two main questions. Should the king (and no party proposed to abolish the monarchy) have an absolute or suspensive veto of legislation? And should the legislature be in one or two houses? The American minister, setting aside the proprieties, presided over a dinner meeting at his house during which some of the Patriot leaders, themselves divided, discussed these issues at length. The decision favored a suspensive veto and a single assembly chosen by the people. “This concordate decided the fate of the constitution,” Jefferson later wrote. “The Patriots all rallied to the principles thus settled, carried every question agreeably to them, and reduced the aristocracy to impotence.”58 Meanwhile, from the United States, Adams advocated directly the opposite course: an absolute negative in the king and a bicameral legislature, reconstituting the two great classes in separate houses, nobles and commons, with the clergy divided between them.59 In the National Assembly the Defence was cited as authority for the latter position especially. In principle, Jefferson also favored two houses, but on the new American theory of checks and balances within a uniformly republican legislature, not on the theory of estates or orders. He recognized, however, that any upper house in France would become the asylum of aristocracy and raise havoc with the revolution. The safety of a divided legislature was perfectly compatible with democracy in America, whereas it would defeat democracy in France. Theory and practice were at variance, a variance Adams’ system could not admit.
Jefferson left France in the fall for what he supposed was a brief leave of absence at home. The revolution had made great strides and dragged him with it. A long and rocky road still lay ahead. Jefferson was prepared for setbacks. As he later philosophized to Lafayette, “we are not … to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.”60 But he returned home full of optimism. He felt he had witnessed, as twenty years before in America, the commencement of a new era in Europe. “I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government,” he declared, “that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force; and I will agree to be stoned as a false prophet if all does not end well in this country. Nor will it end with this country. Here is but the first chapter in the history of European liberty.”61 He was consumed by this cause. It was America’s, of course, but five years before, when he went abroad, he had had little idea of its becoming Europe’s. Experience had changed him in seemingly contradictory ways. Seeing his own country from the perspective of Europe, he had become more self-consciously American, an “apostle of Americanism” in the judgment of one biographer. But the French Revolution had also furthered his education in democracy, which he would mature into a political ideology, and extended his vision of America’s responsibility for advancing the freedom of mankind. America became a mirror for Europe. His friend Adams, on the other hand, had made Europe into a mirror of his anxieties for America. The two worlds became blurred in his mind. European political doctrine was applied to America; American doctrine was applied to Europe; and neither offered much hope for liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Early in 1790 the two Americans were reunited in New York, the temporary capital of the new government. Adams had been elected vice-president and Jefferson had become secretary of state at President Washington’s invitation. The New Englander was unhappy in his new position. The salary was beneath the station of the “heir apparent,” and the circumstances of his election, with just over half the electoral votes given to Washington, had been insulting. He had then made himself an object of ridicule by championing a high-sounding title for the president and official forms and ceremonies reminiscent of British royalty. Convinced that the new government was, or ought to be, a “monarchical republic,” he thought the president should have a title commensurate with the office. Nothing less than “His Majesty,” “His Most Benign Highness,” or, as a Senate committee recommended, “His Highness, President of the United States, and Protector of the Liberties of the Same” would do. His intent was not to make the president a king, but to lend honor and dignity to the government, draw forth the best talents, command the respect of foreign courts, and awe the wayward populace. “Neither dignity nor authority can be supported in human minds … ,” he told Washington, “without splendor and majesty in some degree proportioned to them.”62 Adams had learned this lesson in Europe. The titles, ceremonies, and shows of crowned heads, “the coup de theatre” of politics, might be condemned by philosophy, but they were the attractive force of every government, as of every religion, and all the more necessary in America because of the absence of hereditary rank and distinction.63 Indeed, an attack on titles and ceremonies was an attack on government itself. Jefferson, who prayed for the disappearance of all titles but “Mister,” heard of Adams’ campaign in Paris. It reminded him of Franklin’s characterization of the New Englander: “always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.”64 Mercifully, Congress settled on the simple title, “The President of the United States.” The portly vice-president was not so fortunate: he became “His Rotundity.”
Adams’ honest, if foolish, campaign for titles contributed to the growing opinion that he had changed his politics while abroad. Confronted with this charge by his old friend Benjamin Rush, he indignantly denied it. Yet in letters to Rush and other correspondents he did not disguise his belief that hereditary monarchy and aristocracy would eventually prove as necessary to the American republic as they had to every other. These were, he told Rush, “the only institutions that can possibly preserve the laws and liberties of the people, and I am clear that Americans must resort to them as an asylum against discord, seditions, and civil war, and that at no very distant period of time.… I think it therefore impolitic to cherish prejudices against institutions which must be kept in view as the hope of our posterity. I am,” he continued, “by no means for attempting any such thing at present. Our country is not yet ripe for it in many respects, and it is not necessary, but our ship must ultimately land on that shore or be cast away.”65 This is as fair a statement of Adams’ opinion as one is apt to find. He spoke of change in the future tense, and more with regret than rejoicing, yet his present tense was so condemnatory that no one could be blamed for questioning his commitment to the democratic republic. In 1790, as the congressional elections came on, Adams voiced old fears of intrigue, riot, and sedition, always associated in his mind with popular elections. The only remedy, he said, was another constitutional convention to secure life or hereditary appointment of senators and a hereditary chief magistrate.66 (He also called for amendments to make the veto power absolute and to strip the Senate of executive functions.) Adams was not one to keep his opinions to himself; on the contrary, he flaunted them, and as his friend Mercy Warren said, the subject of his apostacy from republicanism “was viewed as a kind of political phenomenon.”67 Since his opinions of the new government were backed by three stout volumes of political philosophy, it was impossible to dismiss them as capricious. He claimed he was misrepresented and misunderstood. Perhaps he was, but “words are things,” and if he meant to advocate only a dignified first magistracy and a high-toned senate, for instance, why did he use such volatile words as “monarchy” and “aristocracy” to describe them? Had he deliberately set out to make himself misunderstood, he could not have succeeded better than he did.
Jefferson, certainly, believed that Adams had changed his opinions, and he deplored the change. In his mind, it need not affect their friendship, however, and so long as Adams’ theories were encased in ponderous volumes few men had the fortitude to read, he was little concerned. But a faction of “monarchical federalists” centered in New York took up Adams and pushed him forward as the more or less innocent spokesman of their meditated designs.68 Arriving in New York in March 1790, the watchwords of revolution fresh on his lips, Jefferson was struck with “wonder and mortification” by the conversation in the best circles of society. “Politics was the chief topic,” he later recalled, “and a preference of kingly over republican government was evidently the favorite sentiment.”69 Falling in with this sentiment was a series of articles from Adams’ pen which began to appear in the Gazette of the United States.70 These Discourses on Davila, as they were named, continued the argument of the Defence. The historical analogies were drawn from a famous work on the French civil wars of the sixteenth century and pointed directly to the course of democracy in both France and the United States. The “passion for distinction” being the great spring of virtue and vice in human society, Adams said, the science of government might be reduced to the science of managing this passion for the public good. Ceremonies, ranks and titles compose one species of management, for the mass of mankind are children through life. But the fundamental principle of the science is the tripartite balance. Rejecting this principle, proceeding on “the wild idea of annihilating the nobility,” the revolutionary government in France is destined to pass through the awful cycle of sedition and anarchy back to despotism. Equality is an illusion; the first rule of a well-balanced state, Adams suggested, is “that every man should know his place and be made to keep it.”71 No merely democratic government can long endure. Adams did not advocate the importation of kingship and nobility into the United States, but the tone of his argument and his use of these galvanizing abstractions made him an easy target of democratic opinion.
In May 1791 Jefferson was unwittingly thrust on the stage as Adams’ political antagonist, setting off an American version of the great debate in England between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine on the French Revolution. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France appealed to conservative sentiments of order, tradition, religion, royalty, and privilege. It was read in the United States, of course, but so strong was the current of enthusiasm for the French Revolution that few men had the temerity to champion Burke’s cause. Adams did not. Though he was rumored to have praised the Reflections,72 he could not join Burke in mournful eulogy of the old regime or in hysterical denunciation of the revolution. The French were right in seeking to reform their institutions after the example of the Americans; Adams only regretted that they were so misguided in the attempt. Yet the spirit of the Discourses on Davila was not far removed from that of the Reflections. For Thomas Paine, Adams felt utter contempt. It is sometimes forgotten that Paine’s vigorous reply to Burke, the first part of The Rights of Man, was at least inferentially an attack on John Adams as well. Paine assailed the English constitution and the theory of balanced government, which he ludicrously styled “a government of this, that and t’other,” “a continual enigma,” from which the American republic was mercifully free.73 When Paine’s pamphlet reached American shores, it was rushed into print and appeared, to Jefferson’s chagrin, with a commendatory preface over his name in which he expressed pleasure “that something was at length to be publicly said against the political heresies which had of late sprung up among us, not doubting that our citizens would rally again round the standard of Common Sense.”74 The preface was, in fact, a letter Jefferson had written transmitting the English copy of The Rights of Man to the printer in Philadelphia. He was dumbfounded when this casual piece of courtesy, appearing at the head of the pamphlet, placed him, the secretary of state, before the public not only as the champion of the French Revolution but as the denunciator of his old friend, the vice-president. For there was no mistaking Jefferson’s veiled allusion to “political heresies.” He meant the Discourses on Davila, as he candidly acknowledged to Washington. “I tell the writer [Adams] freely that he is a heretic, but certainly never meant to step into a public newspaper with that in my mouth.”75
During the next two months the controversy between “Burkites and Painites,” with Adams and Jefferson cast in tutelary roles, simmered and then came to a boil in the press. After Adams went home to Braintree in July, Jefferson addressed him a long letter. He explained the painful episode of the preface and said that nothing had been further from his intention than to drag either of their names before the public. “That you and I differ in our ideas of the best form of government is well known to us both; but we have differed as friends should do, respecting the purity of each other’s motives, and confining our differences of opinion to private conversation.”76 Adams, in reply, credited Jefferson’s motives but recounted in detail how the preface, with the pamphlet, had been construed as an “open personal attack” on him, holding him up to “the ridicule of the world for his meanness” and libeling him as the partisan of kings and nobles. With respect to political ideas, Adams was not aware that the two men had ever had a serious conversation on the subject; but if Jefferson supposed that he wished to introduce hereditary aristocracy and monarchy in the United States, he was mistaken. “It was high time,” Adams concluded, “that you and I should come to an explanation with each other. The friendship that has subsisted for fifteen years between us without the smallest interruption, and until this occasion without the slightest suspicion, ever has been and still is, very dear to my heart.”77 Jefferson might better have left the matter there, but believing he was “as innocent in effect as … in intention,” he sought to absolve himself completely. It was not his opinion of Paine’s book that had set all the political tongues wagging, but the writings of one “Publicola,” who in coming to the vice-president’s defense had placed Jefferson in opposition to him.78 Since “Publicola” was, in fact, young John Quincy Adams, this could not have gone down very well with the father. Even worse was Jefferson’s denial that in alluding to “political heresies” he had had Adams in view. This little piece of mendacity, while meant to close the wound, had the opposite effect. Adams made no reply, nor would the two men correspond again for several years.
The friendship between Adams and Jefferson thus became a casualty of the French Revolution. Their little contretemps was part of a crowded political scene, but it accurately reflected the waxing ideological division in the American republic. Henceforth, though the problems of government might be as mundane as before, they were colored by the hopes and the fears, the affections and disaffections, the twin hysterias of exaltation and denunciation sent up in the progress of the French Revolution. Setting aside the personal embarrassment, Jefferson thought the controversy surrounding Paine’s book proved salutary. It helped “to separate the wheat from the chaff.”79 It reawakened the spirit of 1776, underscored the relationship of principles and ideals between the two revolutions, and dramatized America’s stake in the struggle for liberty abroad. In the office of secretary of state, Jefferson could not give full rein to his commitment to the French Revolution, but policy founded in the national interest, he believed, generally comported with that commitment. “I consider,” he wrote, “the establishment and success of their government as necessary to stay up our own, and to prevent it from falling back to that kind of half-way house, the English constitution.” He hoped “so beautiful a revolution” would “spread through the whole world.”80 And despite errors and excesses, despite the careers of exile and death that opened before many of his friends in Paris, Jefferson remained a champion of the French Revolution. Adams was astonished by the strength of Jefferson’s commitment as well as by his growing partisanship. “There is not a Jacobin in France more devoted to faction,” he wrote to Abigail in 1792.81 In later years he traced Jefferson’s lapse to two erroneous opinions: first, “that Britain was tottering to her fall,” and second, that France “would establish a free republican government and even a leveling democracy.”82 He had been taken in by the French philosophers, atheists all, madmen all—the true authors of the revolution, Adams thought—who preached liberty until they turned men into slaves, equality until they destroyed all justice, and fraternity until they cut each other’s throats.83
Crushed by the weight of democratic opinion, run down as an aristocrat and monarchist, deserted by many of his former friends, Adams abruptly put away his pen, withdrew into the recesses of the vice-presidency, and fell silent in 1791. Within the administration he conducted himself as a loyal Federalist, while Jefferson became the favorite of the mushrooming Republican opposition. Many had seen Adams and Jefferson as the natural political rivals in the government under Washington. The rivalry did not develop, however, in part because of Adams’ withdrawal, in part because of the old bond of friendship, but primarily because it was deflected by the conflict between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Since neither of the old friends liked the upstart secretary of treasury, the rift between them was less severe than it might otherwise have been. Jefferson, for his part, placed Adams’ heresies on a different plane from Hamilton’s. Years afterwards he recalled a conversation between these men on the English constitution. “Purge that constitution of its corruption,” Adams observed, “and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would be the most perfect ever devised by the wit of man.” Hamilton returned, “Purge it of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed.”84 This stated their differences exactly, Jefferson thought, with the addition that Adams was a monarchist in theory only, while Hamilton actually designed by corruption and force to transform the government after the English model. In the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton, the question of the French Revolution merged with other issues of principle, interest, and power around which the first national political parties formed. But that is another story, superseding, and for a time silencing, the dialogue between Jefferson and Adams.