Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 28 French Revolution

THE French Revolution was now well under way. With notable reluctance the King had issued a writ convoking the States-General and, from February through May, 1789, all France was engrossed in a complicated system of voting. The composition of the Nobles and the Clergy was pretty well fixed; what attracted the most excitement was the Third Estate --the representatives of the people of France.

While the balloting was still going on, Jefferson expressed his satisfaction with the way the revolution was progressing. He was certain that it would be peaceful and that a fairly good constitution would result from the deliberations of the forthcoming States-General. True, he thought that the assemblage of 1,200 was entirely too numerous for a proper job of legislating, and that they "have indeed a miserable old canvas to work on, covered with daubings which it will be difficult to efface"; but he believed that "some they will efface, & some soften, so as to make a tolerable thing of it, perhaps a good one."1

In fine, to Jefferson the revolution was already accomplished--merely by the force of public opinion--and nothing remained but to put the result's into writing.

The States-General opened at Versailles on May 5, 1789, with considerable pomp and ceremony, and Jefferson journeyed daily from Paris to witness its proceedings. Though his interest was largely, by reason of his principles, concentrated on the Third Estate. he knew far more intimately many of the representatives of the Nobles. Among them were Lafayette, now thirty-two; his brother-in-law, the Vicomte de Noailles, similarly known to Jefferson from American days; the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, and others whom he had met in the Parisian salons. Among the Clergy he knew the Abbé Maury and had doubtless met the most famous of them all, the brilliant, unscrupulous Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun, though no one in the world could have been less properly cast in the role of an ecclesiastic than he. Among the representatives who crowded the benches of the Third Estate was a group of scientists and scholars with whom Jefferson was acquainted--notably Bailly and Volney. He did not know a small, precise, pallid lawyer who came inconspicuously from the provincial town of Arras one Maximilien Robespierre--and it was doubtful that he had yet encountered the dissipated nobleman Mirabeau who, rejected by his own Order, had triumphantly been returned to the States General by the Third Estate.

Jefferson harkened to the speeches in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs and

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