Thomas Jefferson Papers
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To Thomas Jefferson from William Stephens Smith, 9 January 1788

From William Stephens Smith

London Jany. 9th. 1788.

Dear Sir

After sincerely wishing you many happy returns of the season, I take the liberty of introducing Mr. Thomas L. Shippen of Philadelphia. He has many interesting and not a few amiable lines of Character, and promises fair to make a shining and respectable Character. He has sometimes appeared to me rather exposed to step on slippery and dangerous ground and risk his usefulness in future life to the gratification of a little Vanity in the cultivation of the acquaintance of titled men and Ladies of birth; their names he soon gets and I am apprehensive will never forget, unless his friends check or disregard the conversations when leading to those points. However he pursues this line by the particular advice of his uncle Arthur. If he does not run wild after the tinsel of life, it will be fortunate for his Country and very pleasing to his friends. He now commences his Continental tour and I expect to see him on his return either a remarkable amiable improved Gentleman, or a sensible Coxcomb who has seen the world. Do my dear Sir, if you discover any points in which your advice and friendly observations may serve him, compliment him with them. I think he is capable of taking them as he ought. We begin to bustle and prepare for departure, which will be on the 25th. of February. I have been very sick, which will account for my silence. I sent by Mr. Littlepage your account. I hope he delivered the Letters. Remember me to Mr. Short and tell him that I really blush at being so much behind hand with him in our Correspondence. I send by Mr. S. his handkerchiefs and am with the greatest regard & respect Dr. Sir Your obliged Humble servt.,

W. S. Smith

RC (MHi); endorsed. There is a letter from John Adams of this date recorded in SJL Index, no copy of which has been found; the above letter from Smith is not entered in SJL Index; TJ may, therefore, have mistakenly entered Smith’s letter under the name of Adams.

Thomas L. Shippen, son of Dr. William Shippen, Jr., of Philadelphia and nephew of Arthur Lee (his uncle arthur), spent some weeks in Paris where he seems to have cultivated the acquaintance of titled men and ladies of birth but where he also came under TJ’s influence. In a long, discursive, affectionate letter to his father written at various intervals in Feb. and March 1788 (and carried to America by Smith), young Shippen provided a graphic account of TJ as a host and counsellor to young Americans travelling on the continent. “That best of men Mr. Jefferson,” he wrote on 14 Feb., “told me this Evening at Made. de Corny’s where Mrs. Church lives, that he was very happy to serve his Countrymen here in the article of their letters, and that he charges always the postage to Congress &c so that I shall hope a parcel from you directed to him at least by every French Packet‥‥ A great many people are kind to me here. Mr. Jefferson invites me to dine twice a week and I amuse myself vastly well in every way. Chastellux has treated me with the same neglect that he has shewn invariably to every American of my acquaintance.” A week later (20 Feb.) Shippen drew a picture of a typical “Versailles day” for the American minister and of the manner in which TJ presented his young friend at Court: “Yesterday was the finest day I ever saw, the brightest sun, the clearest air, the most delightful temperature. I improved it by going with my best friend Mr. Jefferson to Versailles. He had made choice of that day to present me to the Court, and he introduced me as nephew to the President of Congress. The etiquette of Versailles requires that all persons who are presented at Court shall have some pretensions to that honor from rank, and it has established, that in the case of Republics where there are no hereditary distinctions, those of office shall be substituted. Those therefore who have held high offices in Republics, or they who are nearly related to them, and those only are allowed to make their bow to the French Court. It seems to me a most unnecessary and absurd regulation, as a man who possesses the confidence of his Country in a sufficient degree to be entrusted with her affairs abroad, must be supposed adequate to the task of making choice of persons fit to be presented at the Court where he resides. It would not I think be leaving a great deal too much to his discretion. The ceremony is rather tedious, but carries through the whole of it so much of novelty to a stranger, and so much of Oriental splendor and magnificence, that it is certainly well worth seeing once. We arrived at Versailles at ½ past ten and were not done bowing until near 2. The carriage drove up to the Count de Montmorin’s (successor to Count de Vergennes in the department of foreign affairs,) where in a large saloon ornamented with pictures larger than life of the Royal family, stood the introductor and his secretary and several members of the Diplomatic Corps. To them I was first introduced, and some of them (particularly the Pope’s Nuncio) asked me some questions about my Country which however served to shew rather a desire to be attentive to me, than to be informed of what they did not know already. The Russian Ambassador was also very polite, and the Envoy of the Duke of Wirtemberg quite oppressive in his civilities. We had been there an hour when the Count de M. having ended a conference with the Imperial Ambassador came into our Hall and Mr. Jefferson introduced me to him. He invited me to dinner and took Monseigneux le Nonce with him into his audience chamber. He would have preceded the Imperial Ambassador had he been there at the same time. At 12 we left the Count M.’s and crossed the Court to the Salle des Ambassadeurs where coffee, chocolate and wine were offered to our acceptance. After waiting there long enough to read the papers of the day, we were taken successively into the apartments of the King Queen the Princess Victoire and Adelaide (the King’s Aunts,) Monsieur, the Count d’Artois, Madame and the Countess d’Artois and the Princess Elizabeth the King’s sister and the Arch Bishop or Ministre Principal of France. These personages have all separate households and distinct portions of the Palace allotted to them, and you may form some judgment of the manner in which they support their rank when you know that between them they expend 36,000,000 of livres a year without including any of the contingent expences of Ministers, their tables &c. All the departments of State have each of them a suite of rooms in the Palace. The situation of this superb building is worthy of its grandeur, and both well suited to the Court of a great Nation. Lewis the 14th. seems in this as in all his other works to have consulted nothing but the grandeur and glory which ought to shroud his person and adorn his reign. He did not once consider when he expended here 50,000,000 of Louis d’Or, how many thousands of his subjects were doomed to want and wretchedness, nor did he discover until exhausted nature had left him on his death bed, that the greatest glory of a Monarch consists in the happiness of his people. In his last moments he is said to have enjoined the dauphin to protect and comfort his people, and to do what he had never been able to do himself, in making them happy. The fact was that he had never made that his object, until it was in his power no longer to pursue it. The business of bowing being over, which any but a Scotchman would have been tired of, I left Mr. Jefferson at the C. de M. and went in search of your old pupil Walker who has retired to Versailles to study the French. I found him in decent apartments and in a kind family. We walked out together chapeau à la main and visited the unrivalled gardens of this enchanting paradise—What walks! What groves! What water works! But you have seen them all—and I must leave it to your memory to recal them to your imagination. Walker was pleased with my attention but mortified that we were to part so soon; I promised him to make a longer visit soon, and returned to Count M.’s at 3 oclock. Here I found about 30 long and hungry faces venting their malignity and ill nature in sour looks at each other, and with this agreable pastime we amused ourselves a quarter of an hour while the cloth was laying above stairs, and they were preparing the dinner. At the end of that time we went up stairs and passed thro the dinner room into that where Made. de Montmorin receives her company and only waited there long enough for the ambassadors to pay their respects to the ladies before dinner was announced. Such a general relaxation of muscles I had never seen—for besides the long time they had been in waiting and the late hour of the day there is something in the air of Versailles which begets ungovernable appetites. They were all hungry and appeared equally rejoiced at the very splendid and plentiful repast which the Count’s hospitality had provided. It was indeed a superb feast. After dinner I was introduced very formally with all my titles (which were by 3 out of 4 supposed hereditary) to Mde. La Comtesse and her 2 daughters both of whom are Comtesses also. We drank coffee and a very amiable and distinguished Chevalier who has a place at Court but whose name I do not know, made up to me and held me in an interesting conversation great part of which was in the hearing of the ladies until Mr. Jefferson beckoned to me that it was time to part. Upon the whole, I was well pleased with the day, and considering that I had not an acquaintance but Mr. J. when I went received very uncommon marks of politeness and attention. The night was as fine as the day and we enjoyed our ride thro’ it to Paris most amazingly. Mr. J. was communicative confidential and instructive beyond any thing I had ever experienced and left me at my Hotel impressed with every sentiment of respect admiration and gratitude. It has not been with less pleasure than that which I enjoyed in the transactions of this day that I have in this unreserved manner recounted them to you and I cannot close my relation without making the observations which have since as well as at the time occurred to me. When we were introduced to the King, it was after waiting 5 minutes in his antichamber into which we were brought by his direction being told that he was ready to receive us. How did he do it? He was just pulling on his coat, a servant was tying his hair in which there was no powder, while one of his attendants was arranging his sword belt, and when the file of ambassadors Envoys Ministers &c. in full dress, representatives of monarchs mighty as himself and of Republics more great because more virtuous, were prostrating themselves before him emulous of each other in demonstrating their obsequious adulation, he hitched on his sword and hobbled from one side of the room to the other, spoke 3 words to a few of the ambassadors and 2 to a German Prince who was presented with me, and left the room. I revolted at the insufferable arrogance of the King but I was more mortified at the suppleness and base complaisance of his attendants. I rejoiced that I was not a citizen of such a government, but that I belonged to a Country, and that she would always have a right to my services, where the people respect sincerity, and acknowledge no other tyranny than that of Honor.

I observed that although Mr. Jefferson was the plainest man in the room, and the most destitute of ribbands crosses and other insignia of rank that he was most courted and most attended to (even by the Courtiers themselves) of the whole Diplomatic corps—The king is bound up by etiquette to distribute his monosyllables among those of Ambassodorial rank—consequently he was an exception. This proved to me that substantial sense, extensive acquirements and unimpeached integrity command even among those who cannot boast of their possession, respect veneration and applause, and that they are preferred by all to empty ornament and unmeaning grandeur, when they give themselves time to weigh the intrinsic properties of each, and coolly to form the result. I observed too in the midst of all their splendor an uneasiness and ennui in their faces which did not be-speak content or happines: and this conspired with every thing I had seen before to convince me that a certain degree of equality is essential to human bliss. Happy above all Countries is our Country where that equality is found, without destroying the necessary subordination.”—TJ and Lafayette apparently cooperated in their attentions to young Americans as they did in their efforts in behalf of Franco-American trade relations, and in consequence young Shippen had the good fortune to receive from Lafayette “a ticket for the French Academy which was holding a séance publique for the reception of a new member.” The new member was Henri Cardin d’Aguesseau, councillor of state, descendant of Louis XV’s famous Chancellor, and relative of Madame de Lafayette, and he placed young Shippen in his tribune between his wife and sister. Shippen thought the spectacle a brilliant display of fashion, cultivated society, and eloquence; and he said that when Beauzée responded to the address of the récipiendaire and “in summing up his virtues called him worthy of the delightful spouse whose charms would be more than a sufficient reward for the most transcendant merit,” that “dear creature put 3 of her fingers into her mouth and bit them to conceal her confusion and leaned upon her father who sat behind her. How inimitable was the scene!” There followed the feast of Longchamp, which Shippen enjoyed from the carriage of “A young Nabob from the East who came here from London some weeks ago with the recommendations of Dr. Price and whose acquaintance I made at Mr. Jefferson’s.” Shippen concluded his long letter with a tribute to TJ that evidently proceeded from more than mere gratitude: “Mr. Jefferson is in my opinion without exception the wisest and most amiable man I have seen in Europe. He has had the goodness to favor me upon many occasions with his advice. He wishes me very much to travel thro’ Italy, and insists upon it that I must travel alone, and with my own horses. From the first, he says I shall have the best opportunity of making remarks and acquiring information which will be useful to me hereafter, that I shall be entirely free from interruption distraction &c and that the desagrement of travelling without a companion will become in 3 days habitual and agreable. From the second he promises me the most œconomical mode of travelling. He thinks that by purchasing 2 horses and a carriage here, I may travel by short days journeys thro’ Europe with very little additional expence and that at the end of my journey I may sell them again for nearly their original cost‥‥ It is my design to go to Holland in May, and Rutledge proposes to accompany me‥‥” He concluded: “If you will write a letter of thanks to Mr. Jefferson I will thank you. He has supplied to me the want of you better than I thought it could have been supplied, and if any one but yourself were the father, the son could not lose by the substitution” (Thomas Lee Shippen to William Shippen, 14. Feb.—26 Mch. 1788; DLC: Shippen Family Papers).

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