Unveiling of the Pont de Neuilly - Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet (1772)
explains Thomas Jefferson’s transformation from the political solipsist who wrote the Declaration of Independence during the first American Revolution into the leader of the political party that launched and won the “second American Revolution.”
French scientist and progressive Pierre Cabanis enlightens Jefferson during eight excursions through Paris and its surrounding areas. I precede my accounts of these outings with a summary of four intellectual events that wove together into the 18th century’s “Enlightenment”. The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century set the stage for them. This was followed by an English dawn in which the authority of Christian dogma came under attack. This was followed by an awakening in Scotland in which the authority of God in the affairs of men was rejected. This was accompanied by an eclairissement in France in which Reason was recognized as the tool of Progress. As these things were taking place in Europe, a small circle of insurgents rationalized and launched a political revolution in America.
I conclude this background section with two accounts of the man who became enlightened. In the first, I summarize Jefferson’s early political initiatives and explain why I call the Jefferson who wrote the Declaration of Independence during the first American Revolution a political solipsist. In the second, I discuss the problem Jefferson’s rebellion against the English Monarchy caused in relationship with his wife, why her death was so devastating for him, why he finally accepted the invitation of Congress to go to France, and what he intended to do there.
Alexandre-Jean Noël pictures le Place du Louis XV in an airy cityscape he painted in 1772. The grounds of the park had been outside the city's walls during the reign of Louis XIV, but the capital had grown so during the reign of his son a “gate”at the western end of le Jardin Tuileries. Edmé Bouchardon’s ornate equestrian statue of le bien aimé, as Louis XV was once known, forms the minute center of Noël's picture. Cabanis and Jefferson ended their first excursion inspecting this statue. Cabanis' begins his comments about the king and the statue by remembering the popular bon mot, "Vice on horseback, virtue on foot." Noël painted this picture twelve years before Jefferson arrived in Paris. Many areas in and around the city were then undeveloped. Even in 1784, quays had not been built along this section of the river, which is across from le Palais Bourbon.
This picture was painted by Howard Pyle. Its title is “Thomas Jefferson Writing the Declaration of Independence”. Pyle created it in a set of illustrations for “The Story of the Revolution” by Henry Cabot Lodge. Pyle scholar Ian Schoenherr explains that, “in order to capture the effect of candlelight - and still see what he was doing - Pyle placed his model in a tent set up in his studio. He most likely painted this in late November 1897.”
In the book's final section, I recount how Jefferson manifested his new persona as an agent of progress during his final years in France and how he was mortified upon returning home to discover that President Washington had surrounded himself by a circle of men whom Jefferson recognized as enemies of progress. I close by summarizing the role the new “Disciple of Enlightenment” played in organizing a political party and in launching America’s first national political campaign. Jefferson described it as the "Second American Revolution." Now a political leader, Jefferson won it and went on as President to prepare America to lead the great ongoing march of human progress.
Jefferson included this comment on the so called “Edgehill Portrait” in his 5 July 1819 letter to Henry Dearborn: "With respect to Mr. Stuart, it was in May, 1800 I got him to draw my picture, and immediately paid him his price, one hundred dollars. He was yet put the last hand on it, so it was left with him. When he came to Washington in 1805 he told me he was not satisfied with it, and therefore begged me to sit again, and he drew another which he was to deliver to me instead of the first, but begged permission to keep it until he could get an engraving from it.”
Readers who are familiar with Thomas Jefferson may not recognize the man pictured in this book. Not only is the man in the picture different, the picture itself is different. Thomas Jefferson's Enlightenment is a new kind of history. It does not describe something Jefferson did in France in 1785. It takes the reader along as Jefferson does it. You have heard that no man is a hero to his valet. This book shows the reader the Jefferson his valet would have seen—a man, not a monument. While accompanying Jefferson and Pierre Cabanis on a series of excursions through Paris in 1785, the reader sees how a real person reacted to real events. Jefferson discovered something during these outings that inspired him to become a political leader. With Cabanis’ help, he grasped the French concept of Progress and became its agent. Ten years later, as head of new political party, he sought and won election as the third President of the United States of America.
Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment