I’m organizing a cultural tour of Jefferson’s France, so I have been reading about those amazing years, between 1784 and 1789. If ever we had a perfect ambassador to France, it was Thomas Jefferson. His oral French was never great, but he was precise and disciplined, and his command of French prose was excellent. He loved France almost as much as he loved America, but everything he did during those five years was to promote the interests and the reputation of the United States.
He was the least ostentatious and dandified diplomat at the court of Louis XVI, on the tightest diplomatic budget, but he was so thoughtful, dignified and informally elegant that he was a general favorite in court circles. He felt privileged to be witness to a second national revolution in one lifetime.
It is true that he misread the trajectory of the French Revolution pretty badly, especially the reign of terror, but that is because he believed in the human project, believed in the capacity of average people to govern themselves and let his congenital optimism get in the way of his geopolitical acumen.
Probably nobody in our national history has been as fully civilized as Thomas Jefferson. He knew seven languages. He was an extremely gifted amateur architect, America’s first great wine connoisseur, one of our greatest scholars, classicists and bibliophiles, a talented maker of music and an even more talented connoisseur of music. He had perfect penmanship and one of the most elegantly disciplined prose styles in American history. He cultivated not people of power and wealth but rather individuals who were savants in literature, philosophy and particularly science. He was exceedingly talented as an administrator, did countless small favors for Americans who were having difficulties in France and sent a steady stream of thoughtful letters to his superiors back in the United States.
Think of these amazing achievements in culture — things that would be greatest hits for anyone else, but that barely find space in most biographies of Jefferson. He initiated the classical revival in American public architecture after falling in love with a Roman temple in Nimes, the Maison Quarree. The Capitol of Virginia he helped design is one of the most beautiful in America. Jefferson expected no reward for the hundreds of hours he spent on this project except a more enlightened sense of taste among his fellow Virginians.
When Virginia asked Franklin and Jefferson to propose a sculptor who might fashion a full length statue of Virginia’s greatest man, George Washington, Jefferson threw himself into that project, too, discerned Jean-Antoine Houdon as the greatest living sculptor of his era, convinced Houdon to travel all the way to the United States to measure and draw the uncomfortable George Washington and then saw the whole project through to what might still be regarded as the greatest work of sculpture in American history.
While in Paris, Jefferson wrote one of the finest love letters of the English language — his 11-page dialogue, “My Head and My Heart ” — to Maria Cosway, perhaps the single-most alluring woman Jefferson ever met. He wrote the letter with his left hand, just weeks after breaking his right hand in what might be called a Freudian slip. He also convinced his friends in America, including former governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire, to send him the peltries and bones of a male moose, so that he could convince the greatest of French scientists that American flora and fauna were not inferior to their European counterparts. And he paid the fee for that expensive piece of whimsy out of his own pocket. His goal: vindicating the New World against its detractors in the Old one.
In 1787, Jefferson made an extensive wine tour of southern and western France, then crossed the Alps with maps and classical texts trying to ascertain the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s elephant trail into northern Italy. This was what he called his peep into Elysium — his one genuine glimpse into the world of the Roman republic — but he turned back before he got to Rome or even to the Palladian villas that had so inspired him in architectural folios. His sense of public service was that disciplined.
Meanwhile, he studied the manufacture of Parmesan cheese — and brought that recipe back to Virginia — discovered a species of upland rice that he smuggled out — a capital offense — so that the Carolinas could prosper under its cultivation — and brought pasta machines to Virginia. Pasta was, at the time, comparatively new to Italian cuisine.
I’ve been to Jefferson’s France several times before, but I cannot wait to lead this cultural tour, in the fall of 2019, in part because I agree with Jefferson that while everyone’s first country is his or her own, everyone’s second country must be France, in part because Jefferson’s French sojourn was one of the most interesting episodes in his amazing life and also because I believe it is vital that we re-center the Jefferson debate to celebrate his status as America’s greatest Renaissance Man.
Jefferson is our Da Vinci: writer, architect, paleontologist, archaeologist, linguist, classicist, naturalist, inventor, scientist, and, of course, revolutionary. Yes, he was a slaveholder and he was arguably a racist and apartheidist, but while these are very important problems in the life, achievement and character of Thomas Jefferson, they must not be permitted to cast a full or permanent eclipse on one of the greatest creative artists and statesmen in the history of life on Earth.
We must have a whole man analysis of Thomas Jefferson and every other great individual in history.
See you in Paris.