Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 26 Public Debts and Rhine Journey

WHILE events in America were thus pressing rapidly toward a beneficent conclusion, events in Europe were moving with equal rapidity toward a series of tremendous cataclysms whereby the revolutions of which Jefferson spoke were encompassed on a scale beyond anything he had ever imagined, and his tree of liberty was to be manured with so much blood of patriots and tyrants and of those who were neither that the tree itself eventually became choked in the process.

As a neutral diplomat in Paris, the heart of ensuing convulsion, Jefferson became both a favored spectator and almost a participant. Yet he could not lay claim to any prophetic vision. True, he had correctly assayed the misery of the people, the cruelty of the institutions and the heartless pomp of the courts; but he did not see the revolution moving up with seven-league boots, and it came upon him full force almost before he was aware that it had begun.

He was more interested for the moment in gaining from France certain advantageous commercial arrangements for America and in settling the complicated American debts with foreign creditors. The Comte de Vergennes, with whom he had been able to discuss, if not to settle, their points of dispute in the friendliest fashion, had died; and the Comte de Montmorin had taken his place as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Montmorin was an equally pleasant, though not an equally able individual.

Lafayette's ardent co-operation in everything that affected his second country proved of the utmost value. By the end of 1786, Jefferson was able to report home that he had overcome some of the hurdles which American commerce faced in French ports, and he hoped eventually to gain entry into the French colonies as well, especially for fish and flour.1 He was also trying to get Honfleur declared a free port of deposit for American goods and he envisioned it as a vast storage depot for American whale oil, rice, tobacco and furs; from which sales could be made to all parts of France and to neighboring countries.2

In July, 1787, he made a determined effort to come to an agreement with Montmorin on all moot points. The first, and sorest, point was the famous tobacco contract with Robert Morris. Jefferson recapitulated the history of this "double" monopoly and the decision of the French government not to renew the contract on its expiration date. Furthermore, Vergennes had ordered the farmers-general to purchase of others, on an equal basis with Morris, twelve to fifteen thousand hogsheads a year. Jefferson suspected

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