Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Short, 26 April 1791

From William Short

Paris April 26. 1791.

Dear Sir

Petit is now here and intends going by the French packet which will sail from L’Orient the 15th. of next month. He insisted on 100.livre tournois a month and seemed convinced from your letter that you would think it fully reasonable. Of course as far as the arrangement depends on me his wages are fixed at that rate. I had supposed from his letters written whilst I was in Holland that he would have been glad to have gone for less.

The commission with which you charged me in your letter of Jan 24. (the last which I have had the pleasure of recieving from you) is executed and I think will be fully to your satisfaction. I shall send you by Petit the part you desired as well as the details respecting it. I shall send you also your reveille.—Chanterot is making the clock. The price he asks is the same with that of the salle des ventes (15. guineas). Of course I thought it best to employ him. It will be done in three weeks and immediately sent to Havre. Houdon sent the dress some time ago.

I suppose you will have seen Paine’s answer to Mr. Burke on the French revolution. It has made much noise in England and pleases a good deal here. What surprizes me most is that he was not prosecuted for it, as he remained in London some time after its publication and it was the opinion of able lawyers that it was libellous in many parts and treasonable in still more. It is much in Paine’s style, that is to say incorrect—with strong expressions and bold ideas. Adieu. Yr. friend,

W: Short

RC (DLC); at head of text: “Private”; endorsed by TJ as received 23 July 1791 and so recorded in SJL. PrC (DLC: Short Papers).

There is irony in the fact that Short’s critical comment on Paine’s Rights of Man was written on the very day that TJ penned his famous note to Jonathan B. Smith commending it in terms which brought acute embarrassment to him (see note, TJ to Smith, following). Separated from TJ and looking upon the revolutionary scenes from a different geographical and philosophical perspective, Short at this time exhibited an increasing departure from the views of his mentor concerning the direction in which the revolutionists were moving. His comments on the revolution to his friend William Nelson were not only perceptive but also more frank than he had been in his letters to TJ: “As far as I may judge from some newspapers which I have seen printed at N. York, and from a few letters which I have recieved it is much less approved there than they suppose in France, for they really consider themselves as either treading in our footsteps or soaring beyond us. The truth seems to me to be that this revolution like all others has changed with time its original aim which was good, justifiable and praiseworthy, viz to limit the Royal prerogative, check the monstrous and insupportable privileges of the clergy, nobility, gens de finance and the Parliaments, and to take measures for preventing such abuses in future by establishing a permanent form of government. The people were willing in the beginning to have purchased this by paying all the immense debt previously contracted:—The court was imprudent enough to leave some matters of form unsettled, and one which was essential, the mode of deliberation among the several orders. To settle this begot ill blood amongst them. These skirmishes gave the commons an opportunity of trying their own strength, of feeling the weakness of the two other orders arising from their being haled by the people, of seeing the wavering timidity of the court. Their pretensions rose every day and for a long time were just because it was only asking for the restoration of a greater number of those rights which nature gave them and which no government has a right to take away. The court seeing this progress and fearing it would have no bounds determined imprudently to put every thing on one stake. They placed guards at the door of the assembly to keep out the members. These assembled in another place and bound themselves by oath not to separate until they had given a constitution to their country. This was what was desired by 23/24 of the kingdom. Mr. Necker’s disgrace and banishment was the signal which brought these unequal parties into conflict. You know the principal events which followed. As men and particularly large bodies of men become corrupted by power and love to domineer, the national assembly has by degrees lost sight of their original object and instead of considering themselves merely as the passive channels through which the organization of government was to pass, instead of a body intended merely to delegate the powers of government, they have found it more agreeable to exercise those powers themselves. And of course for eighteen months past they have concerted in their body all those of an executive, judiciary, administrative and legislative nature. Accustomed to be thus more powerful and more despotic than any individual could be because they suppose themselves immediately authorized by the national will, they can have no desire to descend from such an eminence, which ambition and avarice both conspire to render agreeable to them. No time is fixed for their duration no limits to their powers, and yet the French consider themselves as perfectly free under such a government. There is no act of injustice and tyranny that they have not committed, no contradiction of the first principles of free government into which they have not fallen, and still as they consult popularity, endeavour to please the canaille of Paris, and bear their rod of iron on the smaller number only, they are supported by the greater. … This is a black but as it appears to me a true picture of the present situation of France. Still I entertain firm hopes that definitively a free government will be established there one way or another. It may cost much blood perhaps, but it seems to me the principles of liberty are so generally diffused at present, that whenever a whole nation can be consulted fairly and quietly on the kind of government they chuse to live under they will adopt one which though more or less perfect in the beginning, will still have freedom for its basis, and the means of perfectibility. It is true the immense population of France, the great number of poor who have nothing to fear from disorder, their large army and their geographical position, are all principles which may vary the combinations on this subject, yet I think there are others which counterbalance them and which enable me to predict without pretending to the gift of prophecy, that France will acquire by this revolution the freest government in Europe” (Short to William Nelson, 21 Feb. 1791; RC in NjP).

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