American expatriate Philip Mazzei (1730–1816) was Jefferson’s former neighbor and was living in Pisa at the time the letter was written. Mazzei’s motivation for revealing the content of the letter remains unclear, but the reason might have been simple carelessness or a lack of awareness that the letter could adversely affect Jefferson. The contents of the letter were intended to be confidential but Mazzei made several copies of relevant parts of the letter and sent them to friends. The letter was then published in a French newspaper along with an editorial that was highly critical of U.S. foreign policy. Several months later, Noah Webster, the Federalist editor of the New York Minerva, had the letter translated into English and then printed it in his newspaper. The letter proved highly embarrassing for Jefferson and encouraged Federalist criticisms that Jefferson and his emerging party were more loyal to France than to America. Jefferson was even accused of treason and the letter was interpreted as a vailed personal attack on George Washington. The incident taught Jefferson to use much greater caution in his personal correspondence but the letter continued to haunt Jefferson for the rest of his political career.
Source: “I. Thomas Jefferson to Philip Mazzei, 24 April 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-29-02-0054-0002.
My dear friend, Monticello Apr. 24. 1796.
. . . The aspect of our politics has wonderfully changed since you left us. In place of that noble love of liberty, and republican government which carried us triumphantly thro’ the war, an Anglican, monarchical and aristocratical party has sprung up, whose avowed object is to draw over us the substance as they have already done the forms of the British government. The main body of our citizens however remain true to their republican principles, the whole landed interest is with them (republican), and so is a great mass of talents. Against us are the Executive, the Judiciary, two out of three branches of the legislature, all the officers of the government, all who want to be officers, all timid men who prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty, British merchants and Americans trading on British capitals, speculators and holders in the banks and public funds a contrivance invented for the purposes of corruption and for assimilating us in all things, to the rotten as well as the sound parts of the British model. It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England. In short we are likely to preserve the liberty we have obtained only be unremitting labors and perils. But we shall preserve them [sic], and our mass of weight and wealth on the good side is so great as to leave no danger that force will ever be attempted against us. We have only to awake and snap the Lilliputian cords with which they have been entangling us during the first sleep which succeeded our labors. …
Your friend and servant
- 1. Here Jefferson alludes to two Biblical figures: Samson, a judge and military leader renowned for his superhuman strength, and Solomon, regarded as Israel’s wisest king. Both men were also famously susceptible to the wiles of beautiful women, and Samson (whose strength was symbolically linked to his vow as a Nazarene not to cut his hair) enabled both his own capture and the defeat of his people when he allowed the prostitute Delilah to cut his hair. This line was generally understood as an attack on outgoing president George Washington.
- 2. An allusion to the satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, in which the title character awakes to find himself bound on the shore of a far distant land after a shipwreck. In this land, known as Lilliput, Gulliver (an ordinary Englishman) is a giant; he easily snaps his captors’ diminutive ropes and regains his freedom.
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