Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to William Short

Why did Secretary of State Jefferson reprimand William Short? What points did Jefferson make in arguing for a patient approach to the French Revolution? Who did Jefferson believe was behind the effort to tarnish the reputation of the French revolutionaries? Jefferson compared the innocent deaths lost in the French Revolution to casualties of war. Does this strike you as a fair comparison?
Lives are lost in any revolution—arguably in any movement for change. Considering this, which argument do you find compelling in terms of Jefferson and Hamilton and the French Revolution (The Pacificus-Helvidius Debates and "Views on the French Revolution")?

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Thomas Jefferson served as the nation’s first secretary of state from March 22, 1790, to December 31, 1793. In this capacity Jefferson clashed with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton over almost every issue confronting the new government. Jefferson feared that Hamilton was trying to infuse powers into the federal government that the drafters of the Constitution and the delegates who ratified that document had not intended.

It may seem odd that foreign policy issues would prove to be so divisive at a time when the new republic was just finding its footing. But the question of the appropriate American policy toward the French republic and its monarchical neighbors proved as divisive as the Bank of the United States or any other domestic issue. “The affairs of France & England threatened to embroil us,” Jefferson later said, “and rendered consideration & discussion desirable. In these discussions, Hamilton & myself were daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.”

Jefferson was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and as early as 1790 noted that his goal was to cement the relationship between the United States and France. He wrote a correspondent in France that this was “the first wish of my heart.” Taking note of the reports of atrocities from France, he added, “you have had some checks, some horrors since I left you. But the way to heaven, you know, has always been said to be strewn with thorns.” In this letter written in 1793 Secretary of State Jefferson admonished William Short (whom Jefferson sometimes referred to as his “adopted son”), his longtime protégé and the current American envoy to Paris, for his critical comments regarding the tactics of the French revolutionaries. While deploring the loss of innocent life, Jefferson considered these losses to be essential to the success of a revolution upon which rested the “liberty of the whole earth.” The letter makes Jefferson’s zealous devotion to self-government abundantly clear.

—Stephen F. Knott

Thomas Jefferson to William Short, January 3, 1793, available at

… The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins1 of France. I considered that sect as the same with the republican patriots, and the Feuillants2 as the monarchical patriots, well known in the early part of the revolution, and but little distant in their views, both having in object the establishment of a free constitution and differing only on the question whether their chief executive should be hereditary or not. The Jacobins (as since called) yielded to the Feuillants and tried the experiment of retaining their hereditary executive. The experiment failed completely and would have brought on the reestablishment of despotism had it been pursued. The Jacobins saw this, and that the expunging [of] that officer was of absolute necessity,3 and the nation was with them in opinion, for however they might have been formerly for the constitution framed by the first assembly,4 they were come over from their hope in it, and were now generally Jacobins. In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as anybody and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is. I have expressed to you my sentiments, because they are really those of 99 in a hundred of our citizens….

There are in the U.S. some characters of opposite principles; some of them are high in office, others possessing great wealth, and all of them hostile to France and fondly looking to England as the staff of their hope. These I named to you on a former occasion. Their prospects have certainly not brightened. Excepting them, this country is entirely republican, friends to the constitution, anxious to preserve it and to have it administered according to its own republican principles. The little party above mentioned5 have espoused it only as a steppingstone to monarchy, and have endeavored to approximate it to that in its administration, in order to render its final transition more easy. The successes of republicanism in France have given the coup de grace to their prospects, and I hope to their projects. I have developed to you faithfully the sentiments of your country, that you may govern yourself accordingly. I know your republicanism to be pure, and that it is no decay of that which has embittered you against its votaries in France, but too great a sensibility at the partial evil by which its object has been accomplished there….

  1. 1. The members of the “Jacobin Club” were arguably the most important and most radical faction within the revolutionary movement. The Jacobins eventually were led by Maximilien Robespierre, considered to be the driving force behind the “Reign of Terror.”
  2. 2. Conservative members of the revolutionary movement who favored the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
  3. 3. Jefferson referred to removing King Louis XVI from office (the monarchy was abolished on September 21, 1792). Louis was tried in December 1792, convicted, and then executed on January 21, 1793.
  4. 4. The French established a constitutional monarchy in 1791.
  5. 5. Hamilton and his fellow Federalists, whom Jefferson described as “monocrats and aristocrats.”
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