Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 21 June 1785

To Abigail Adams

Paris June 21. 1785

Dear Madam

I have received duly the honor of your letter, and am now to return you thanks for your condescension in having taken the first step for settling a correspondence which I so much desired; for I now consider it as settled and proceed accordingly. I have always found it best to remove obstacles first. I will do so therefore in the present case by telling you that I consider your boasts of the splendour of your city and of it’s superb hackney coaches as a flout, and declaring that I would not give the polite, self-denying, feeling, hospitable, goodhumoured people of this country and their amability in every point of view, (tho’ it must be confessed our streets are somewhat dirty, and our fiacres rather indifferent) for ten such races of rich, proud, hectoring, swearing, squibbing, carnivorous animals as those among whom you are; and that I do love this people with all my heart, and think that with a better religion and a better form of government and their present governors their condition and country would be most enviable. I pray you to observe that I have used the term people and that this is a noun of the masculine as well as feminine gender. I must add too that we are about reforming our fiacres, and that I expect soon an Ordonance that all their drivers shall wear breeches unless any difficulty should arise whether this is a subject for the police or for the general legislation of the country, to take care of. We have lately had an incident of some consequence, as it shews a spirit of treason, and audaciousness which was hardly thought to exist in this country. Some eight or ten years ago a Chevalier —— was sent on a message of state to the princess of —— of —— of (before I proceed an inch further I must confess my profound stupidity; for tho’ I have heard this story told fifty times in all it’s circumstances, I declare I am unable to recollect the name of the ambassador, the name of the princess, and the nation he was sent to; I must therefore proceed to tell you the naked story, shorn of all those precious circumstances) some chevalier or other was sent on some business or other to some princess or other. Not succeeding in his negociation, he wrote on his return the following song.

Ennivré du brillant poste Princesse, le roi mon maitre
Que j’occupe récemment, M’a pris pour Ambassadeur;
Dans une chaise de poste Je viens vous faire connoitre
Je me campe fierement: Quelle est pour vous son ardeur.
Et je vais en ambassade Quand vous seriez sous le chaume,
Au nom de mon souverain
Dire que je suis malade, Il donneroit, m’a-t-il dit,
Et que lui se porte bien. La moitié de son royaume
Pour celle de votre lit.
Avec une joue enflée La princesse à son pupitre
Je debarque tout honteux: Compose un remerciment:
La princesse boursoufflée, Elle me donne une epitre
Au lieu d’une, en avoit deux; Que j’emporte lestement,
Et son altesse sauvage Et je m’en vais dans la rue
Sans doute a trouvé mauvais Fort satisfait d’ajouter
Que j’eusse sur mon visage A l’honneur de l’avoir vue
La moitié de ses attraits. Le plaisir de la quitter.

This song run through all companies and was known to every body. A book was afterwards printed, with a regular license, called ‘Les quatres saisons litteraires’ which being a collection of little things, contained this also, and all the world bought it or might buy it if they would, the government taking no notice of it. It being the office of the Journal de Paris to give an account and criticism of new publications, this book came in turn to be criticised by the redacteur, and he happened to select and print in his journal this song as a specimen of what the collection contained. He was seised in his bed that night and has been never since heard of. Our excellent journal de Paris then is suppressed and this bold traitor has been in jail now three weeks, and for ought any body knows will end his days there. Thus you see, madam, the value of energy in government; our feeble republic would in such a case have probably been wrapt in the flames of war and desolation for want of a power lodged in a single hand to punish summarily those who write songs. The fate of poor Pilatre de Rosiere will have reached you before this does, and with more certainty than we yet know it. This will damp for a while the ardor of the Phaetons of our race who are endeavoring to learn us the way to heaven on wings of our own. I took a trip yesterday to Sannois and commenced an acquaintance with the old Countess d’Hocquetout. I received much pleasure from it and hope it has opened a door of admission for me to the circle of literati with which she is environed. I heard there the Nightingale in all it’s perfection: and I do not hesitate to pronounce that in America it would be deemed a bird of the third rank only, our mockingbird, and fox-coloured thrush being unquestionably superior to it. The squibs against Mr. Adams are such as I expected from the polished, mild tempered, truth speaking people he is sent to. It would be ill policy to attempt to answer or refute them. But counter-squibs I think would be good policy. Be pleased to tell him that as I had before ordered his Madeira and Frontignac to be forwarded, and had asked his orders to Mr. Garvey as to the residue, which I doubt not he has given, I was afraid to send another order about the Bourdeaux lest it should produce confusion. In stating my accounts with the United states, I am at a loss whether to charge house rent or not. It has always been allowed to Dr. Franklin. Does Mr. Adams mean to charge this for Auteuil and London? Because if he does, I certainly will, being convinced by experience that my expences here will otherwise exceed my allowance. I ask this information of you, Madam, because I think you know better than Mr. Adams what may be necessary and right for him to do in occasions of this class. I will beg the favor of you to present my respects to Miss Adams. I have no secrets to communicate to her in cypher at this moment, what I write to Mr. Adams being mere commonplace stuff, not meriting a communication to the Secretary. I have the honour to be with the most perfect esteem Dr. Madam Your most obedient & most humble servt.,

Th: Jefferson

RC (MHi: AMT). PrC (DLC); lacks the year in date-line. Letter not sent until early July; see TJ to Abigail Adams, 7 July 1785. See also Abigail Adams to TJ, 6 June 1785, for TJ’s outline of topics discussed in present letter.

On 31 May 1785 the Journal de Paris reviewed the first of four parts of Les Quatres Saisons Littéraires. The verses quoted by TJ are printed in full in that issue, and are prefaced by the following remarks: “Le Cahier qui paroît aujourd’hui est intitulé: le Printems. Il y a beaucoup de vieilles poésies. Une des meilleures Pièces est une Chanson attribuée a M. le Chevalier De * *, et intitulée: l’Ambassade. Elle court depuis sept ou huit ans au moins dans les Sociétés: mais elle n’étoit pas encore imprimée. Ceux qui ne la connoissent pas nous sauront gré de la rapporter ici. Air: De la Fanfare de S. Cloud.” TJ’s inability to recollect the name of the ambassador and other circumstances was obviously feigned. The ambassador was the Chevalier de Boufflers; the princess was Princess Christine of Saxony, sister of Joseph II of Austria; and the bold traitor was seized on the demand of the Count de Lusace, brother of Princess Christine. The Journal de Paris was suspended from 4 June to 27 June 1785 and M. de Corancez, the principal owner, issued a complaint at the end of June in which he referred to “cette malheureuse chanson, faite il y a plus de vingt ans, et que tout le monde sait par cœur. On ne peut nier que ce ne soit une grande sottise d’imprimer dans une feuille qu’on envoie à toute la famille royale des vers où l’on s’est permis de tourner en ridicule la tante de Sa Majesté: mais il n’est pas moins certain que ce n’est que par pure ignorance qu’on a commis une pareille faute; que la chanson est assez ancienne pour qu’on ait pu en oublier le véritable sujet, et qu’apres tout le rédacteur de l’article n’a fait que citer des couplets qu’on avait imprimés impunément avant lui dans un livre publié et vendu depuis deux mois, avec privilége et approbation” (Maurice Tourneux, Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique par Grimm, Diderot, &c., Paris, 1880, xiv, p. 162–4). The old countess d’hocquetout was, of course, the Countess d’Houdetot, who lived at “her country seat at Sannois, some ten miles from Paris. Here she lived amicably with her husband and her lover, St. Lambert, the poet and philosopher, and held court. Her salon was rivaled in importance only by those of the wellknown Madame Helvétius, the widow of the philosopher and the adored of Franklin, and of Madame Necker, wife of the financier and statesman, whom Jefferson admired. Here he met her brilliant daughter, Madame de Stäel, with whom he exchanged letters on European affairs” (Marie Kimball, Jefferson: The Scene of Europe, p. 101). At this time the “old Countess” was fifty-five years of age. In stating my accounts with the public, I am at a loss: Franklin himself was not always certain what constituted a public or private charge. On the day before this letter was written, he had supplied TJ with a complete statement of his own accounts as minister. In DLC: Franklin Papers there is a triplicate copy of these accounts, dated at Paris, 20 June 1785, signed by Thomas Barclay and endorsed (perhaps much later) by TJ: “Doctr. Franklin’s account as settled by Mr. Barclay and furnished by him to me for my government in my own accounts with the US.” With this is a letter from Franklin to Barclay of 19 June 1785 which concludes with the following: “If for want of knowing precisely the Intention of Congress, what Expences should be deem’d Public and what not public, I have charg’d any Articles to the Public which should be defray’d by me, their Banker has my order as soon as the Pleasure of Congress shall be made known to him, to rectify the Error by transferring the Amount to my private Account, and discharging by so much that of the Public.”

Index Entries