Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 27 Time to Return

Jefferson found Paris on his return in an even greater state of fermentation than when he had left. During his absence, after the surprising resistance of the Assembly of Notables, the government had dismissed it and sought to register various reform measures with the Parlement. Some were duly registered; but others, notably tax decrees, were turned down on the ground that a States-General was alone competent to authorize them. This, to the Court as well as to the Parisian judges who proposed it, seemed a bold, nay, a revolutionary step; for the States-General, composed of the three great orders of the realm--nobility, clergy and bourgeoisie, sitting separately--had last been convoked in 1614. But to the excited French people, it appeared only in the light of a delaying action and a reference to an obsolete and unenlightened body. They now clamored for a fixed constitution, with specific guarantees and limitations on the crown. In fact, hopeful, eyes were already being directed toward the various American documents cast in that form. To avoid the greater evil, the King finally agreed to call the States-General. setting the date for May 1, 1789.

Jefferson hailed these various events as evidence that a vast and peaceful revolution was already in progress. In his eyes, public opinion had become the new power, and had forced the King, most absolute of monarchs, to retrace his steps.1 Even Lafayette's disgrace--his deposition from command of the French troops in the south, significant evidence of the royal displeasure with his libertarian sentiments--was considered by Jefferson as a stroke of good fortune for his old friend. Under the present regime, he commented, Lafayette had nothing to expect; the degradation now established him in the national favor and would eventually serve him with any succeeding regime.2

While society was thus fermenting, and the shadow of things to come was casting a baleful gloom for those who had eyes to see, Jefferson quietly picked up the various threads of his life. He kept his friends at home informed of European affairs, though, as he acknowledged, he did not think they excited much interest there. "I know too," he admitted, "that it is a maxim with us, and I think it a wise one, not to entangle ourselves with the affairs of Europe. Still I think, we should know them."3 But, strangely, most of the news that flowed from his pen related to such distant matters as the Turks, the Austrians and the Russians and, as yet, related but little to the great revolution that was burgeoning under his very eyes. Not until it actually burst in all its fury did he wake up to its true significance.

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