The Influence of the French Revolution on Thomas Jefferson


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, was strongly influenced by the French Revolution. He had been in France during the time when the Revolution exploded on the streets of Paris. The early excitement and enthusiasm that he had seen in the Revolution remained unabated even after he returned to America, and even in the face of the extreme violent turn that the Revolution took. Was this Revolution the source of his antagonism toward Alexander Hamilton?

The painting depicting the États-Généraux of 1789.
The French National Convention, the États-Généraux, in the spring of 1789, was the beginning of the French Revolution that excited Thomas Jefferson. (Image: Auguste Couder/Public domain)

It is entirely possible that Thomas Jefferson had never met Alexander Hamilton before the day Jefferson arrived in New York City to take up his task as Secretary of State. But it took him no time at all to conclude that Hamilton was the consummation of every political evil in Jefferson’s dictionary.

Hamilton’s principles, he told Washington at some length, were “adverse to liberty” and were: “ Calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.”

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Jefferson and the Revolution

Of course, Jefferson had been operating under an “influence” of his own. And while he was already disposed to greet the uprisings in France in 1789 favorably, that favor “had been aroused and excited by daily exercise”—and what an exercise. When Louis XVI became king of France in 1774, three months short of his 20th birthday, his sole qualification for exercising that exalted and absolute power was his birth. He was utterly unequipped by temperament, training, or simple intellect to comprehend the seriousness of the problems he had inherited.

France was on the edge of bankruptcy—not merely temporary financial bad times—but a deep-bottomed bankruptcy, which had been brewing throughout a century of reckless military and imperial adventures including the alliance with the Americans in the American Revolution. All of this had yielded France next to nothing in real profit. That combined with population pressure, agricultural failures, the mismanagement of the Treasury, the long-term wastage of French imperial opportunities, the truculence of the nobility—all of these failures came together in one shattering crescendo of crisis in 1789.

Learn more about the American Revolution.

Absolute Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy

In desperation, the king had called together a National Convention, the États-Généraux, in the spring of 1789 to force reforms down the throat of an unwilling aristocracy. The États-Généraux swiftly bolted ahead to declare itself a National Assembly with full governing powers for the nation. But the Assembly’s deliberations were themselves overtaken by bread riots in the streets of Paris in June and July, which climaxed on July 14 when the rioters stormed and captured the royal armory in Paris’s old Bastille.

Three days after the Bastille fell, Louis XVI paled before the hungry Parisian masses and the National Assembly and drove into Paris to put on the new national colors of the Assembly—a cockade of red and blue for the city of Paris ringing the traditional white of the French monarchy.

Ten days later, the Assembly began debate on a new constitution for France, beginning with a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which distilled into 17 pungent articles the whole of the Enlightenment’s notions of human society. In the four months between May and July 1789, France was transformed from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, with Louis XVI still as the figurehead ruler, but with real political power now belonging to the National Assembly.

The Enlightenment

A portrait of Voltaire.
Voltaire and other thinkers of the Enlightenment were seen as mere punsters by Jefferson. (Image: Francois Marie Arouet/ Public domain)

Until 1784, when he was posted to Paris as the chief American diplomatic representative, Jefferson’s Enlightenment had been a conventionally English one, dominated above all by John Locke. And Jefferson’s first impressions of America’s principal ally in the Revolution were not positive ones. “The nation,” he confided to Abigail Adams in 1787, “is incapable of any serious effort but under the word of command.”

The stars of the French Enlightenment—Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach—were frivolous and useful only for manufacturing “puns and bon mots; and I pronounce that a good punster would disarm the whole nation were they ever so seriously disposed to revolt.”

Jefferson’s Excitement

The events of the spring of 1789 soon changed all of that before Jefferson’s very eyes. “The National Assembly,” he excitedly wrote to Tom Paine, “having shewn thro’ every stage of these transactions a coolness, wisdom, and resolution to set fire to the four corners of the kingdom and to perish with it themselves rather to relinquish an iota from their plan of a total change of government” had excited Jefferson’s imagination as nothing before.

Even when the Paris mob seized the Bastille and beheaded the hapless officers of the Bastille, Jefferson shrugged it aside as a mere incident, since “the decapitations” had accelerated the king’s surrender. As Jefferson would write later, “in the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent.” But rather than seeing the French Revolution fail, “I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country and left free, it would be better than as it now is.”

Learn more about Jefferson’s political philosophy.

The Tree of Liberty

Jefferson’s admiration for the French Revolution seemed to increase in direct proportion to his distance from it. And once he returned to America at the end of 1789, one of his chief motives for taking the post of Secretary of State was to observe and encourage the French eruption, when the National Assembly seized and redistributed the lands of the Catholic Church, when the king foolishly attempted to flee France, only to be captured, placed on trial and executed.

And when a Committee of Public Safety began a national purge—the “reign of terror”—Jefferson continued to describe the French Revolution as part of “the holy cause of freedom,” and sniffed that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Common Questions about the Influence of the French Revolution on Thomas Jefferson

Q: What had influenced Jefferson’s idea of a republic?

Thomas Jefferson had been significantly influenced by what he had seen happen during the first year of the French Revolution in 1789. He was filled with excitement and hope.

Q: What was Thomas Jefferson’s view of the Enlightenment and its thinkers?

Until 1784, Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the Enlightenment had been a conventionally English one, dominated above all by John Locke. And Jefferson’s first impressions of the stars of the French Enlightenment—Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach—was that they were frivolous and useful only for manufacturing “puns and bon mots.”

Q: How did Thomas Jefferson react to the later “reign of terror” in France?

Thomas Jefferson’s reaction to the bloody events of the ‘reign of terror’ was that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

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