Thomas Jefferson and his influence on the French Revolution

Pre-University Paper, 2004

10 Pages, Grade: 14 Points

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I. Introduction

II. Biography of Thomas Jefferson

III. Historical Background
III.1 American War of Indepandance
III.2 The French Revolution

IV. The philosophies of Thomas Jefferson
IV.1 “ A view of the rights of British America” (1774)
IV.2 “ Declaration of Independence” (1776)

V. Jefferson’s personal influence on the French Revolution

VI. My Opinion

VII. Sources

VIII. Declaration

I. Introduction

In my GFS I will deal with Thomas Jefferson and his influence on the french revolution. Therefore I will reveal his life, the historical background of his life, his philosophies and his personal influence on the French Revolution.

II. Biography of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at a farm in Virginia. His father Peter Jefferson was a landowner and slaveholder, his mother Jane Rudolph Jefferson belonged to one of the first families of Virginia and her ancestors were among the first settlers. Peter Jefferson died in 1757 and his mother became a widow, Thomas, as the oldest son herriated the land, called Monticello. Jefferson went to a public school, where he learned Latin, Greek and French, and later to the College of William and Mary, where he studied law (from 1760 –1762). In the year 1769, he was elected as representative in the Virginia House of Burgese. At the same time, he built a house on Monticello and married Martha Wales Skelton. But in these disturbed political times, he began to think about politics and his script“ A summary view of the rights of British America” made him popular in the colonies. Jefferson was elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, which was supposed to plan the future of the colonies and their behaviour to Great Britain. He was appointed the head of the committee of five in preparing the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was the main author of the popular declaration, which made him internationally known. Now he wanted to adopt the Declaration in practise and so Jefferson served in the House of Delegates in Virginia, where his aim was to liberalize Virginia’s Laws. He was successful in abolishing the primogeniture, but his bills to support elementary school education for all except slaves and to create public libraries were defeated by the other Delegates. In 1769, his bill on religious liberty was introduced and caused turmoil in Virginia, which was the first state in the world with complete religious liberty. In addition, in 1779, he was elected as Governor of Virginia, but he was not very successful because his performance as war governor was ineffective and so he had to retire in 1781. The death of his wife in 1782 added to his troubles, but he got again a seat in the Congress.

He started his bill of the abolition of slave work, although he was a slave owner himself, but Jefferson failed narrowly (there was one voter missing). From 1784 to 1789, he was sent to France as ambassador of the United States. When the French Revolution broke out, Thomas Jefferson had to leave France and began his new job as Secretary of State in the first administration of George Washington. In this time the conflict between Hamilton, the Secretary of Treasury, and him started. Jefferson suspected Hamilton to implant monarchist ideals and to be pro-british. Nevertheless, George Washington favoured Hamilton and so Jefferson retired in 1793 to care about his farm and his family. However, he was not satisfied with a life without politics and he returned to public life, when Washington retired in 1796. He became candidate of the Democratic- Republican party for president, but he lost against the federalist candidate John Adams and became only vice-president. In 1800, Jefferson got president himself. His president ship (1800 - 1808) was stamped by the coverage of the whole continent. After Jefferson’s retirement from public life, he founded the University of Virginia. On July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson died at Monticello, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence.

III. Historical Background

III.1 American War of Indepandance

In the time of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, the USA existed of 13 British colonies between Virginia and Georgia. 2,6 millions inhabitants and 466000 slaves lived their in a very balanced society, in which everyone had the chance to own land except of the slaves. This was a difference between the European societies, where the most people were not allowed to own land (Feudal system)[1]. Therefore, the standard of living was higher than in other nations, where only privileged people (aristocracy) were able to live in wealth. The inhabitants had the same rights as a free english man that meant that they were allowed to have a representation, which decided on political issues. Until 1763, the british government did not interfere in the domestic policies of the colonies, but after the British- French war[2] the colonies hoped for more self-sovereignty and the british government changed their policy. The British parliament started to decide about taxes of imports and exports to the colonies and made extraordinary taxations (Stamp act 1765) and they quartered British forces in the colonies. This was against the rights of the colonies and the inhabitants started to fight against it (boycott of british products, for example 1773: the Boston Tea Party) and to associate. Thomas Jefferson wrote a political pamphlet about this theme (“ A view of the rights of British America”, 1774). At the first continental congress 1774, the colonies decided to arm the population and to start war against the mother country. One year later, at the second continental congress a committee of five (Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams) developed the declaration of Independence, which was proclaimed in 1776. The colonies should be 13 sovereign states organized in a federal system. But the war continued and in the beginning, the colonies were inferior. However, the situation changed, when the French King started to support the colonies and so they were able to win. In 1783, the British government accepted the independence of the colonies (peace of Paris).

III.2 The French Revolution

The french society of the 18th century was stamped by privilege of birth and was divided in three orders, the clergy, the nobles and the common people. Although 90% of the population belonged to the third order, they had no say in political matters. The king was the “ state” („l'etat, c'est moi”, Louis IX) and had the power over all. However, in the end of the 18th century the absolute monarchy was not anymore able to hold back the new growing bourgeoisie and the enlightenment. In addition, Louis XI, the king, caused the insolvency of the French state, which deteriorated the financial situation of the population. They started to postulate more political rights, therefore the king had to call a meeting of representative of all three orders. At this meeting, in 1789, the third order fought for more influence, which was prevented by the king, the nobles and the clergy, but they didn’t capitulate and built the “ assembleé nationale” (national assembly) to develop a new constitution for the French state. Their parole was “ equality, liberty, brotherliness”. The king started to send his forces to Paris, but the Parisians attacked the “ Bastille”, a prison (14 July 1789). The new built government abolished the privilege of the nobles and declared the human and civil rights. Unfortunately, the revolution started to get more radical now and the reign of terror began. The government declared all other European nations war and executed political enemies, including the king and the royal family. During the period of 1793- 1795, over 40.000 people were killed.

In the year 1799, a Corsican general, named Napoleon Bonaparte, came to power and this was the end of the French revolution.

IV. The philosophies of Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s scripts were well known at this time in the whole world. They influenced other societies to think about their own situation and to change it. The USA was a example of a liberal and democratic society, in which everyone was free and had the same rights, and this was the merit of Thomas Jefferson’s famous scrip: “ Declaration of Independence”. In this chapter, I will demonstrate which scripts influence the most the French people and helped to start the French Revolution.

IV.1 “ A view of the rights of British America” (1774)

In this pamphlet claims Jefferson the liberty of every man. “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time”. He believed in the natural rights theory, that everybody is free as of his birth.

At his time, this fact, in which we believe too, was not took for granted, because the most people were not free and had not any rights. In France, the society was very unfair for the majority of the population because they had no political or human and civil rights. If a French man at this time were told that he was free as of his birth, this would cause a change of his mind. When I am a free French man since my birth, why are there the king, the nobles and the clergy, which suppress me? Like other famous writers, which believed in the natural rights theory, as John Locke Jefferson helped to enlighten the people of his time.

IV.2 “ Declaration of Independence” (1776)

This is the best-known work of Thomas Jefferson and it became an example for many other declarations of human and civil rights.

“ We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[3]

In these times, this declaration was absolute revolutionary; in no other nation had all men the same rights and were declared equal. For the French revolutionary leader this statement became a parole: égalité, liberté, fraternité! (Equality, liberty, brotherliness).

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”[4]

With this sentence Jefferson postulated to start a revolution in every state, where the people were suppressed. In addition, in such a state lived the French people, for them it must be a demand to revolution. In the declaration is also said, that the people should decide about the government and not contrary. This was a change to a democratic society, in which the population is the basis of political power and elects their representative. In a system with monarchy or even absolute monarchy, the people could not decide about their sovereignty. During the French Revolution, the revolutionary leader tried to change the political system to a republic, like in the United States, but they failed.

Furthermore worked the American society very well due to the Declaration of Independence and became so an example for the French and other European societies. The French officers, who served in the War of Independence, brought these ideas and the Declaration home to France.

At the end of the most revolution in Europe in the 19th and 20th century, there was a Declaration of human and civil rights and the example was Jefferson’s script. For example, in 1789 the new french revolutionary government declared the human and civil rights. After the German revolution, 1848 there was also a similar declaration based on Jefferson’s work.

Jefferson’ scripts were an important basis for the French Revolution and the new society, which should be established in France. However, the revolutionary leaders were not able to create this new society like in the USA, so the situation of the French people was not changed, and Napoleon came to Power.

Jefferson’s philosophies, but also other popular Philosophers, like Montesquieu or John Locke, influenced the educated and enlightened bourgeoisie, which mainly started the French Revolution. In this way Jefferson and his imagination of a society was modelled by the French revolutionists. Jefferson said about this: "The American Revolution seems first to have awakened the thinking part of the French nation in general from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk.”[5]

V. Jefferson’s personal influence on the French Revolution

Jefferson himself lived in France from 1784 to 1789. He spoke fluent French and took part in the social life of Paris. He was in contact with many popular European philosophers, scientist and politicians and shared in this way his principles with the European Intellectuals. Not only his scripts helped to spread out his ideas, it was also his personality.

His friendship to the Marquis de Lafayette, who served in the War of Independence and lived almost 10 years in the USA, became very important in the beginning of the French revolution. The Marquis was the General of the french forces 1789 and tried to prevent a civil war and turmoil. He corresponded with Jefferson, who came from a country with the same experiences. Jefferson and the Marquis agreed that France was not mature to become a republic but a constitutional monarchy, like in Great Britain. However, this was the decision of the national assembly, of which the Marquise was a member. Jefferson went daily to Versailles to inform himself about the decisions. During Jefferson’ s visits, they passed the following laws:

1. Freedom of the person by habeas corpus
2. Freedom of conscience
3. Freedom of the press
4. Trial by jury
5. A representative legislature
6. Annual meetings
7. The origination of laws

This totally fit to Jefferson’s principles. In addition, there was passed a bill, which was prepared by Lafayette and Jefferson and which abolish any title or rank to make all men equal.

Thomas Jefferson also helped his friend Lafayette to bring the different opinions in his party about the constitution to an agreement. France should become a constitutional monarchy.

However, after this, Jefferson recognized that he is not allowed to interfere in the French domestic affairs and that he should be neutral and represent his country. He left France in the thinking that the Revolution was over and that France would grow to a constitutional monarchy. Jefferson was proud of the achievements in France and after his return to USA he declared: “ So ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live? -- Certainly, in my own where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France." [6]

Jefferson’s influence in the beginning of the French Revolution was very important. His moderate counsels and ideas helped in the beginning to prevent a civil war. His opinion that France was not mature to become a republic is probably right, because after 600 years of monarchy and aristocracy they people were not used to have any rights or take part in political matters. Jefferson thought that a republic had to develop from a constitutional monarchy. When you look to the cruel end of the French Revolution, Jefferson’s assessment was right.

As the revolution started to become cruel, he, the supporter of a revolution, was an absolute adversary of the French Revolution and oft the French foreign policy (wars):” In this way, no void would have been created courting the usurpation of a military adventurer nor occasion given for those enormities which demoralized the nations of the world and destroyed, and is yet to destroy, millions and millions of its inhabitants."[7]

VI. My Opinion

I personally think that Jefferson’s influence to start the French revolution was immense. Although there were other popular philosophers who postulated freedom and equality and influenced the educated and enlightened bourgeoisie, this was only theoretical. Jefferson’s work had already proved that it would function very well. It was not a theoretical script, how a society should work, the declaration was adopted in the USA. Many of the revolutionists had served in the War of Independence and had seen the new American society growing. They had the hope that this would work in France too. Even if some of them had not been to the USA, they would have heard of it, because all leading revolutionist belonged to the educated persons. In the 18th and 19th century the American society had been the paradigm of a modern, liberal society and the most European Revolutions at this time had the aim to copy it. The French Revolution started first, because there were the basic conditions for a revolution: unfair society, social grievances, revolutionary leadership and the bourgeoisie. I do not think that Jefferson’s personal presence in France helped to start the revolution, but his counsels how to prepare a new constitution were very helpful. Because the French people were not used to democracy and to political issues, they needed to know, what they should do first and Thomas Jefferson advised them in the beginning. In the American Revolution, this was different, the inhabitants of the colonies were used to have representation and decide about domestic affairs. In France, there was no political experience and maybe this was the reason why the French Revolution failed in the end. I think Jefferson’s principles of a society could not work in a European society in the 18th and 19th century, because the European people were not able to change their mind from obedience to a king to a democratic system. As Thomas Jefferson said, they were not mature to be a republic.

Jefferson’s philosophies and the practical example USA helped to develop the idea of a democratic system and to start a revolution, but at this time the European states were not able to use his ideas in praxis. This happened in the 20th century.

Regardless Thomas Jefferson had an import influence to start the French Revolution.

VII. Sources

Microsoft Encarta


VIII. Declaration

Hereby, I declare that I have done this work by my own and that I did not use any other help than I have stated.

Stettfeld, 09/20/2004 Jana Schlichter


[1] Feudal system: a great landowner leases land to a farmer, which has to cultivate it for him.

[2] British-French war (1756-1763) about the Canadian and American colonies, which Britain and the British colonies won.





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Thomas Jefferson and his influence on the French Revolution
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Jana Schlichter (Author), 2004, Thomas Jefferson and his influence on the French Revolution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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