“Behold me at length on the vaunted scene of Europe!” wrote Thomas Jefferson from Paris on September 30, 1785. He had arrived the previous year as one of three American treaty commissioners, serving alongside John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and then was appointed United States minister to France upon Franklin’s retirement. (When the French foreign minister asked him, “It is you who replace Dr. Franklin?”, Jefferson replied, “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.”
While in France, Jefferson confronted several diplomatic challenges. The French government had supported the American cause in the Revolution and was in dire financial straits as a result. Tensions between France and its old enemy, the United Kingdom, threatened to involve Jefferson’s nascent republic. The storming of the Bastille, which ignited the French Revolution, occurred near the end of his tenure. Then and later, he expressed his support for the Revolution and was nonchalant about its violent turn. In this regard, he lacked the foresight of the Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who warned early on that the Revolution would end in chaos and dictatorship.
Like many before him and so many since, Jefferson succumbed to the romantic atmosphere of Paris. In 1786 he met the beautiful Maria Cosway, an Anglo-Italian artist, and the wife of famed miniaturist Richard Cosway. Jefferson, by then a widower of four years, was smitten by the charming and flirtatious young woman. He contrived to spend as much time with her as possible and wrote her long, affectionate letters. Their relationship was short-lived, but they maintained friendly correspondence for many years. Just before they parted, Jefferson wrote to her, “I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart.”
It also was during his time in Paris that Jefferson likely started a relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave who had traveled from Monticello with Jefferson’s daughter Lucy. Hemings, who had three white grandparents, was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, and there is ample evidence that she eventually bore him several children.
Not content merely to remain in Paris during his tenure, Jefferson embarked on a tour of southern France and northern Italy in 1787, traveling more than a thousand miles and making close observations and careful notes of the climate, soil, and culinary arts. He also lingered in legendary vineyards from Burgundy to Bordeaux, sampling the magnificent wines with which he would later keep the cellars of Monticello and the White House well stocked.
He savored the art and architecture of the Continent, and was utterly hypnotized by the exquisite Maison Carrée, an ancient Roman temple in Nimes. He wrote to a friend, “Here I am, Madam, gazing whole hours at the Maison Carrée, like a lover at his mistress.” His subsequent design for the new Virginia state capitol in Richmond was based on this chaste structure. Remarkably enough, this dedicated classicist turned around before reaching Rome, remarking that in Italy he “took a peep only into Elysium.”
Jefferson departed France in 1789 and sailed home to Virginia; upon landing in Norfolk, he learned that President Washington had appointed him the first secretary of state of the new government under the Constitution. He would later be elected the nation’s second vice-president in 1796, and in 1801, after the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, the third president of the United States. During his post-presidential retirement, from 1809 to 1826, Jefferson would receive visitors from all over the globe, found the University of Virginia, and recruit faculty from Europe. But he would never again cross the Atlantic, and his European travels would remain a treasured memory.
As George Green Shackelford, author of Thomas Jefferson’s Travels in Europe, 1784-1789 observed, “While Americans generally still consider Thomas Jefferson to be a veritable Apostle of Americanism, it was his foreign residence and travels that made him America’s most sophisticated national leader.” His cultural, aesthetic, and architectural contributions to his country were nearly as great as his political achievements, and it was during his half-decade in Europe that he refined his tastes and expanded his horizons.
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.