Thomas Jefferson & the French Revolution

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about Thomas Jefferson's view of the French Revolution. We will see that Jefferson was an early enthusiastic supporter of the revolution, but that as it spiraled out of control, he was forced to defend it.

Thomas Jefferson: America's Francophile

Thomas Jefferson is arguably America's most famous Francophile. Toward the end of his life, he reflected on his love of France, describing its ''preeminence of character among the nations of the earth.'' He went on to say that while his allegiance was to his own country if he had to live anywhere else, it would be France. Jefferson loved French culture and was inspired by it. From French Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire to French food and architecture, Jefferson was truly a Francophile in every sense of the word.

Jefferson was also all about the French Revolution. This is something some historians have judged him harshly for, considering how violent and chaotic the revolution became. But at the beginning of the French Revolution, Jefferson could not have foreseen that France would execute its king or that the ''Reign of Terror'' would take the lives of thousands. Even so, Jefferson's reluctance to renounce the French Revolution after it had taken a dark turn continues to be troubling to some. In regard to the French Revolution, Jefferson maintained his view that ''the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.''

Thomas Jefferson loved French culture and was a supporter of the French Revolution.
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What Was the French Revolution?

Before we explore Thomas Jefferson's view on the French Revolution, let's first make sure we understand exactly what the French Revolution was. The French Revolution took place between 1789-1799 and was a tumultuous period of time resulting in the overthrow (and execution) of King Louis XVI and the creation of the First French Republic. The revolution stemmed from the fact that the common people were not adequately represented in a so-called representative assembly known as the Estates General. The revolution went through many stages as infighting and factionalism caused it to turn increasingly barbaric. It only ended when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup.

Jefferson's Hope for the French Revolution

At the onset of the French Revolution, Jefferson likely perceived it as France's finest hour. He believed the French Revolution was directly inspired by the American Revolution, which ended only a couple years before. It is likely that Jefferson foresaw a similar end result: he hoped France would become a liberal democracy along the lines of the United States. This was not a far-fetched dream. After all, his Declaration of Independence was the inspiration for Marquis de Lafayette's Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This 1789 document declared a set of universal human rights that served as the philosophical foundation for the French Revolution. This list of human rights was intended to be relevant not only to France but to countries around the world. Indeed, Jefferson hoped that the spirit of revolution in France would spread throughout the world.

This artistic image contains the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
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Jefferson and the Ugliness of the French Revolution

The French Revolution is generally regarded dimly by most historians and most people due to its episodes of mass execution. By 1793 it had spiraled out of control. A radical faction known as the Jacobins unleashed mass murder upon the people. The Reign of Terror refers to a period of time between 1793 and 1794 when thousands upon thousands of people were arrested, rounded up, and executed (often by guillotine).

On many levels, the French Revolution was ugly. It had a bad reputation. As news of the Reign of Terror reached America, many Americans who had initially supported the French Revolution turned against it. While Jefferson's enthusiasm for the French Revolution waned, he generally continued to defend the revolution. He more or less argued that the ends justified the means. Arguing that the revolution was being waged in the name of liberty, Jefferson stated his position in a letter to a friend: ''My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to the cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & Eve left in every country and left free, it would be better than as it now is.'' Jefferson was generally willing to overlook the uglier, darker aspects of the French Revolution and chose instead to view it in an optimistic light.

The Reign of Terror resulted in the execution of thousands.
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