Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 21 The Sights and Sounds of Europe

THE duties of an American minister in a foreign Court were not exacting. Negotiations usually proceeded at a very leisurely pace, and there were long intervals during which there was nothing officially to do except wait in patience for the next move. Diplomacy, as then practiced, resembled nothing so much as a long-drawn-out chess game, in which both parties had ample time on their hands; and it was not sporting to complain if one's opponent took time out for lunch before contemplation of the ensuing gambit.

The negotiations with France, as we have seen, were of such a nature. The treaty with Prussia had been arranged with remarkable speed, and with little effort. There were certain explorations with Denmark and Tuscany through their representatives in Paris, but they amounted to very little; and the American commissioners had been in no hurry to press these comparatively unimportant countries. Indifference, it seemed, was the keynote of most of the other powers. To them, the new nation that now appeared on the scene offering them gifts was only a vague report of remote rebels who had proved successful in their rebellion, but of whose commerce and possibilities they knew nothing.1 It was agreed, therefore, that attention should be concentrated on major objectives and these were England, France and the Barbary States. But matters were in train in all these areas--and Jefferson had plenty of time on his hands.

He employed his leisure well. Paris, France and the scene of Europe opened to him large possibilities. If the masses, as he had written, were far behind the average American in scientific knowledge, at least the elite were a half dozen years ahead; and he worked hard at catching up with them. He relayed his findings home to other eager spirits in the States as rapidly as he obtained them; particularly to the members of the Philosophical Society, whose acquaintance he had made while in Philadelphia.

They were a surprisingly notable group. At one time it was the fashion to decry the state of the arts and sciences in early America, but that time had long since past. No young nation which could point to such figures as Franklin, Charles Thomson, David Rittenhouse, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Charles Wilson Peale, Benjamin Smith Barton, Francis Hopkinson, Tom Paine, John Trumbull, Ezra Stiles--and, later, Joseph Priestley--needed to blush in the company of its elders.

It was with men such as these that Jefferson hobnobbed and corresponded, and made one of their company. With them, with the Reverend

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