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Thomas Jefferson, the guy whose smirking mug graces the $2 bill, had the distinction of being around at the beginning of both the American and the French Revolutions. He was apparently very good at being in the right place at the right time…or else being a super-effective instigator.
After writing the Declaration of Independence, serving as Governor of Virginia, and being elected to Congress, Jefferson was appointed as ambassador to France in 1784…because, apparently, he was an over-achiever. He was a widower in his early forties and apparently so depressing to be around that his friends wanted to send him across an ocean. And Jefferson was just excited to have some quiet time away from American politics.
With friends like that who could blame him?
He moved to France with a few of his children and a few of his slaves... which is wrong on many levels. (It gets worse when one considers that while in France he started a relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, with whom he had several children.)
As the French Revolution was just on the horizon, Jefferson asked Congress for a leave of absence to visit the States. There are many reasons why Jefferson wanted out of France, even if only temporarily. First, he probably wanted to send his children and slaves back. He was concerned that his daughters, who were attending a convent school, wanted to convert to Catholicism, and his slaves had just figured out that if they stayed in France they would be free. He was also missing the Constitutional Convention that was rewriting the U.S. government, and he seemed to want to get back into politics.
As he waited for a response from Congress, Jefferson became close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, who was already a hero of the American Revolution and deeply concerned about how his country was plunging into a financial catastrophe. The two stayed up late and discussed Enlightenment ideas because that's what slumber parties were like in the 1700s.
Together they talked about how to change the French government to better represent the people. Jefferson helped Lafayette write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which was based on his own Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the American Bill of Rights which James Madison was simultaneously writing back in the United States.
Jefferson was supposed to be neutral on affairs of the French government, but he was obviously in the bag for the bourgeoisie revolutionaries. After the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted he even hosted a meeting to discuss plans for the new French Republic.
But they were getting way ahead of themselves.
Jefferson was shocked by the violence in the streets of Paris and the storming of the Bastille Prison. When Congress finally approved of Jefferson's leave he was getting out just in time to avoid the worst of the Revolution. Jefferson, with his slaves and daughters, returned to America in late 1789. The leave ended up being permanent when the new president, George Washington, asked him to be Secretary of State. He never returned to France, but argued for American intervention in the French Revolution.
Yeah. He lost that argument. The U.S. stayed out of the mess France had gotten itself into.
Jefferson's legacy is a mixed bag. He's undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the Founding Fathers and responsible for two countries most influential documents. However, he was also a slave owner, with complicated ideas about freedom and property. Both as ambassador and president he has a troubled record on international matters.
But hey: we still remember the man whenever we get a nickel back in change.