Jefferson becomes a Chateau Reformer
Souper chez le prince de Conti by Michel-Barthélémy Ollivier (1766)
Pierre Cabanis introduced his untraveled American friend to the French concept of Progress during the spring and summer of 1785. As he did this, Cabanis acquainted Jefferson with France's most distinguished progressives. Aristocrats and members of the haute bourgeoisie, these privileged men and women had been linking together in exclusive associations for three decades when Jefferson encountered them. These associations allowed France's best people to be part of a highbrow, low-energy campaign to reform France's moribund economy and ameliorate the condition of their poverty-stricken inferiors. In the fall of 1785, Jefferson became part of this chateau reform movement.
The de facto leader of this enlightened enterprise was Louis Alexandre, duc de la Rochefoucauld. Louis held this honorary post because of his wealth and social prominence and because of his dedication to the mission of progress. His commitment was rooted in four considerations. The first was his obligation to uphold the honor of his family, which was one of the oldest and greatest in France. This led to the second, which was his noblesse oblige to join other great men of his time as a patron of the Arts and Sciences. This led to the third, which was his practical interest in modernizing methods of farming on his estate and elsewhere in France. The network of connections he developed while performing his duties in these departments of his life led to him to the fourth, which was his support for the cause of Liberty in America. This was more than a patriotic gesture. Support for America was an integral part of the social vision then current among the French intelligentsia. The seeds of this new vision had been blowing across the English Channel for decades. The "shot heard round the world" from Concord Bridge had been a call to action in France. France answered with money, men, and admiration. Frenchmen in the duke's class saw America's victory as the dawning of a new day for their own troubled country.
Louis became duc de la Rochefoucauld upon the death of his grandfather in 1762. With his title came responsibility for mana-
ging his family's large estate at la Roche-Guyon. Louis and his cousin, François-Alexandre-Frédéric, therefore went to England to familiarize themselves with the modern methods of its agriculture. Their companion on this first trip was Maximilien Lazowski, a friend of English agriculturalist Arthur Young. The travelers stayed with Young at Bradfield Hall in Suffolk. They inspected the farms Young had taken under management and those of his neighbors before continuing on through northern England and into Scotland where they met Adam Smith. The duke and his cousin returned to England in 1769. Since Louis was then a member of l'Académie des sciences, they attended a meeting of the Royal Society of London.
The duke's interest in improving French agriculture attracted him to the Tuesday evening discussions of physiocrat Marquis de Maribeau. The marquis began these gatherings in 1767. He would serve a light supper then read a paper on physiocratic economics. These readings were followed by discussions in which Francois Quesnay sometimes participated. Louis may thus have learned that agriculture is the foundation of France’s economy and the ultimate source of its wealth directly from the man who framed these ideas. The duke had ample opportunity to discuss the physiocratic plan for reforming the French economy with the lumieres who attended his mother’s salon. These included Turgot, Condorcet, Chastellux, Buffon, Morellet and many of the men with whom they communed. The Duchess d'Anville hosted these events at her son's city residence at the Hotel La Rochefoucauld on the Rue de Seine and in gatherings she arranged at La Roche-Guyon forty miles northeast of Paris.
By the time Benjamin Franklin reached Paris in December of 1776, the duke had come into his own. He had established a model farm on his estate at Le Roche- Guyon and was president of l'Académie des Sciences. The bond he formed with Franklin was mutually rewarding.
The Continental Congress had sent Franklin to France with the vaguest of instructions. It was clear, however, that the Americans needed assistance from France to withstand the coming British assault. This became a matter of the gravest urgency following the defeat of Washington’s army in the battle for New York late in the summer of 1777. The warm reception Franklin received from la Rochefoucauld meant that he would be welcomed by the most pow-
erful man in France. Indeed, on the 28th of December, Comte de Vergennes invited Franklin and his fellow commissioners (John Adam and Silas Deane) to meet with him at Versailles. The French minister was cordial but elusive. He chose not to reveal, for example, that the preceding May he had approved the proposal of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais to secretly arm and supply the struggling American army.
Operations of Beaumarchais’ trading company expanded rapidly between May of 1776 and September of 1777. Vergennes, however, gave no suggestion to Franklin that France would support the Americans in their war for independence. Franklin therefore promoted his country's cause among the cognoscenti of the Parisian salons. He found enthusiastic audiences in the salon of the Duchess d'Anville and those of her friends Madames Helvetius and d’Houdetot. When he discovered that the men and women who communed in these places believed constitutional government was the solution for their own country’s social and economic problems he became diligent in supplying them with information about the republican governments of the new American states.
The dramatic victory over Burgoyne at Saratoga, which the Americans won with arms supplied by Beaumarchais, opened the way for a formal treaty with France. On 6 February 1778 the document was signed in which France recognized the United States of America as an independent nation. The war now proceeded with active French support. As prospects improved for America’s success, Franklin encouraged popular support among the French people for the new American government with a masonic-like message in which he portrayed America’s new republican society a bastion of public virtue in which liberty engendered equality and fraternity.
This notion was enthusiastically accepted by the salon progressives, many of whom were Franklin's masonic brothers. As Freemasons, Rochefoucauld and his cousin Liancourt embraced principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The senior Maribeau was a Freemason as were many of the Frenchmen who helped America win political independence. Foremost among these was the Marquis de Lafayette who, with Rochefoucauld and Condorcet, became the center of Jefferson’s social circle in early 1786. By then the Treaty of Paris had been signed and la Rochefoucauld had translated the constitutions of the thirteen states for the book Franklin distributed
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
by Jean-Marc Nattier (1755)
to the king and the other officials present at the signing of the peace treaty.
Jefferson took Franklin's place when Franklin returned home in July of 1785. He soon discovered that the progressives in the salons Franklin frequented retained their fervent interest in constitutional government. This prompted him to tell Rochefoucauld that Virginia was planning to call a constitutional convention in which it would amend its original charter.
Rochefoucauld was delighted to receive from Jefferson a copy of the revised document (which was in reality a revised draft of Jefferson's own plan of government). This document spawned many hours of discussion between Jefferson and his new compatriots in the chateau reform movement. They wanted to understand the details of this perfected new plan for Virginia’s gov-
The Night of the 8th and 9th Thermidor, 27th to 28th July 1794
by Jean Joseph Weerts (undated)
Detail: Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes
by Antoine Francois Calle (c. 1780)
entirely conjectural. Indeed, the public process of politics had been of limited interest to him until he entered into his conversations with Rochefoucauld, Condorcet, and Lafayette, who knew even less about it than he did.
Following Condorcet, Rochefoucauld, Lafayette, and Jefferson, while communing in their narrow circle, came to agree that perfect societies recognize the natural rights of man and treat each other with complete equality. In their enlightened view, France's problems would be resolved by implementing a system in which equal laws would be applied equally to all her citizens. Jefferson was delighted to be treated as an éminence grise who could confirm this idyllic vision.
Fixated as they were on their utopian mission, neither Jefferson nor his progressive associates noticed what was happening in the clubs and coffee houses of the duc d'Orleans' masonic stronghold at the Palais Royal. Had they looked, they would have seen that activists from France's petty bourgeoisie were organizing a movement of their own. These men were not debating how to tune up the performance of France's oppressive monarchy or how to be equal with its aristocratic citizens. They were formulating a bottom-up plan to destroy it and institute a government run by their own people.
Vue du Chateau de la Roche-Guyon, home the duc de la Rochefoucauld
by Hubert Robert (c. 1780)
ernment as well as Jefferson's thoughts on the inherent right of the people to consent to the laws by which they are governed. Overwhelmed by the interest of his new friends in his thoughts on this matters, Jefferson added the supposedly revised version of Virginia’s constitution in an appendix to a new edition of his Notes on the State of Virginia. He completed the revisions for the second printing in the months after his fleeting romance with Maria Cosway.
It was not apparent and it may not have mattered to France’s enlightened cosmopolitans, but Jefferson’s view of the American Revolution was actually rather narrow. He had been born and spent his early years on the frontier of Virginia. After college at William & Mary and two years reading the law with George Wythe, he had taken his place as a member of the Old Dominion's hereditary oligarchy. Virginia's hierarchical agrarian society was nothing like the bustling mercantile society that produced Samuel and John Adams. The rebellion in the American colonies had been orchestrated by the political men of Boston, not the rising generation of Virginia's pseudo-aristocracy.
Jefferson had written the Declaration of Independence while serving in the Second Continental Congress. He drafted it alone his Philadelphia apartment at 7th and Market Streets while referring to a work by a fellow Virginian (George Mason) and his own rejected plan for the new government of Virginia. As he wrote it, he was also conducting a beyond-the-veil campaign to avoid election to a second term in the Congress. Succeeding in this private enterprise, he left the Congress and Philadelphia for good on 3 September 1776. He then returned to Virginia where he remained through the rest of the conflict. He sat for three months in the first Virginia assembly and was twice elected governor of the state, but most of the war he spent sequestered with his wife at his home atop Monticello Mountain. Most of this time he was revising Virginia’s outdated colonial code and devising a way to protect its new republican government from the usurpations of tyrants. Never was he directly connected to the people nor had he ever engaged in a process of politics where he heard them speak with an unobstructed voice. His understanding of this process was, in other words, almost
Samuel Adams lecturing Massachusetts' colonial governor,
Thomas Hutchinson, after the Boston Massacre
by Howard Pyle (c. 1898)
While the American revolutionary was a welcome addition to La Rochefoucauld's cabal of chateau reformers, it is unlikely he dominated it. That position was probably filled by the brusque and outspoken Marquis de Condorcet. Protégé of the great Turgot and (since 1777) Permanent Secretary of the Académie des Science, Condorcet dwelled at the top of France’s intellectual scale. Jefferson met him about the time of his marriage to beautiful Sophie de Grouchy. He was working then on a biography of his mentor and cultivating Turgot’s concept of Progress into the great principle he explicated during the weeks preceding his untimely death in 1794. He shared La Rochefoucauld's enthusiasm for the experiment in Liberty taking place in America. His conversation with Jefferson probably centered on the American's ability to confirm the broad vision he was formulating. Condorcet was no doubt the author of the idea that subsequently permeated Jefferson’s commentaries—France’s social and financial problems would be solved if it adopted a constitution with a properly formed bill of rights.
Marquis de Condorcet
Jean-Baptiste Greuze (c. 1790)