Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Madame de Tessé, 20 July [1786]

From Madame de Tessé

a Chaville ce 20 juillet. [1786]

Me. de Tessé presente à Monsieur jefferson l’hommage de son admiration et de sa Reconnoissance pour ce qu’il a daigné lui adresser hier. Si les opprimés de chaque contrée de l’europe pouvoient se faire entendre ils Reclameroient surement la publication d’un acte qui deploie les privileges de l’homme avec tant de noblesse et de simplicité. Le catalogue des plantes de la virginie ne quittera point Me. de Tessé, ce sera son encyclopedie. Elle desire bien que quelques affaires conduisent Monsieur jefferson à versailles, dans l’espoir que Châville en profiteroit.

RC (DLC); endorsed: “Tessé Mme. de.” The year in the date has been supplied from internal evidence. Not recorded in SJL.

This and the following are the first extant letters in the correspondence between TJ and Madame de Tessé and TJ and Madame de Tott; it is likely that both letters were in response to others by TJ, accompanied by the gifts here acknowledged, but no such letters from him have been found. The correspondence with Madame de Tessé extended, at intervals, until the death of the countess in 1814, but that with Madame de Tott, limited to the few letters written while TJ was in Paris, gives only a glimpse of this young woman. In TJ’s correspondence the names of the two women are coupled, as they are in the miniature of Madame de Tott painting the portrait of Madame de Tessé (see illustration in this volume). The relationship between the two women becomes clearer if it is realized at once that “Madame de Tott” was actually Mademoiselle de Tott; the “Madame” was only a courtesy title, probably assumed by her after her mother’s death, as the oldest woman in the family—a practice common among the nobility (for this reason, and because TJ himself referred to her by this assumed title, the form “Madame de Tott” will be used by the Editors).

Madame de Tessé (Adrienne-Catherine de Noailles) was but two years older than TJ; she not only shared his interests in horticulture, literature, and the arts, but was sympathetic with the liberal philosophy of the age. The editor of the memoirs of the Marquise de Montagu, sister of Madame de Lafayette and niece of Madame de Tessé, revealed both her appearance and some of these interests in his characterization: “Madame de Tessé was in every respect a remarkable person: small, piercing eyes, a pretty face marred at the age of twenty by small pox, which, it is said, was no worry to her thanks to her precocious mind; a fine mouth, but slightly misshapen by nervous tic which made her grimace when talking, and, in spite of all that, an imposing air, grace and dignity in all her movements, and above all, infinitely witty. She was one of those ladies of the Old Regime, captivated by the philosophical ideas of the century, and intoxicated by the seductive innovations which were to bring about, in their eyes, the regeneration and happiness of our country. In a word, she was a liberal and a philosopher. In philosophy, Voltaire, with whom she was closely connected, was her master; in politics, M. de La Fayette, her nephew, was her hero” (Anne-Paule Dominique de Noailles, Marquise de Montagu, Paris, 1889, p. 108–9). The reminiscences of the Marquise de Montagu also give a delightful and affectionate picture of Madame de Tessé during the Emigration. A good manager, the countess had succeeded in transferring some capital abroad, and thus was able to help others who had been less foresighted. She bought a farm at Lowemberg in the canton of Fribourg in Switzerland and later acquired the estate of Wittmold on Lake Ploen in Holstein, which became havens not only for herself and her husband, but for many others. Here, always surrounded by a sizable household and such old friends as the Marquis de Mun and his son, Madame de Tessé, a brilliant and tireless conversationalist, held court in the manner of her salon at Chaville in the days of the Ancien Régime. There were interminable readings at these evening sessions—Clarissa Harlow (which lasted a whole month), then Tristram Shandy, followed by Plutarch’s Lives, and occasionally an Oraison Funèbre of Bossuet. After the return from exile and installation in still another country place, at Aulnay, near Paris, the indomitable countess was again the center of a great circle of nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. Here she and her husband (who seems to have been a silent participant in her salon) celebrated their golden wedding anniversary at a memorable family gathering in 1805. The Count de Tessé died at Aulnay on 21 Jan. 1814, and Madame de Tessé’s death followed a week later (same, 288 ff., 328–9; a less flattering portrait of Madame de Tessé is that contained in the Souvenirs de la Marquise de Créquy de 1710 à 1803, Paris, Garnier, n.d., vi, 80–3, ed. Maurice Cousin; the Marquise de Créquy was aunt to the Count de Tessé).

The beginning of the relationship between Madame de Tessé and Madame de Tott occurred some years before TJ’s arrival in Europe and stemmed from another person, Charles de Pougens (1755–1833), a man of letters and of art, a “philosopher,” and at one time a bookseller and publisher. His reminiscences, published in 1834 when Madame de Tott was still living, and the letters exchanged in varying combinations of writer-recipient relationships among himself, Madame de Tott, Madame de Tessé, and the Count de Fortia, his friend and confidant, present all of the elements of a novel of sensibility by Samuel Richardson or Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Mémoires et Souvenirs de Charles de Pougens, commencés par lui et continués par Mme Louise B. de Saint-Léon, Paris, 1834). About 1777 Pougens, possessing talent for both literature and art, journeyed to Italy to pursue the study of painting in Rome. He visited the ruins of Herculaneum, wandered in the Coliseum by moonlight, and won admission at the age of twenty-two to the Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture of Rome for his picture, “Le Marchand d’Esclaves.” The Count and Countess de Tessé, who had no children, were then journeying in Rome and met Pougens. Presently, as a result of serious illness, Pougens became partially blind, and Madame de Tessé forthwith adopted him as her protégé and bestowed upon him the same maternal affection that she manifested toward her nieces and nephews, including Lafayette, who was the husband of her niece and namesake, Adrienne de Noailles. Returning from Rome, Pougens stopped for a time at Lyons, where he underwent treatment for his eyes by a doctor who evidently only aggravated the malady and produced total blindness. At Lyons the unfortunate young man met a family just returned from the Near East—the Baron de Tott, his wife, and their three daughters, the eldest of whom was Sophie-Ernestine (Madame de Tott). The baron, a soldier and amateur musician and painter, was born in France in 1733 but had spent some twenty-three years in the Near East before his return to France about 1779. His reminiscences, which appeared in 1784, contain grounds for supposing that the Baroness de Tott may have been of Greek origin, a fact that would explain TJ’s bantering references to the daughter, Madame de Tott, as a Greek (Mémoires du Baron de Tott sur les Turcs et les Tartares, Paris, 1785 edn., p. 44; see TJ to Madame de Tessé, 20 Mch. 1787). The De Tott family befriended the afflicted Pougens in Lyons. Soon after their return to Paris, the Baroness de Tott died, and, because of the connection with Pougens, Madame de Tessé not only offered hospitality to Baron de Tott, but also took the daughters under her care. Sophie-Ernestine was of marriageable age, but her family was “sans fortune” and the plans for a match proposed by her father were not suited to her inclination. She remained for a time in a convent, but made frequent visits to Madame de Tessé, who permitted her to call her “Maman.” Soon, perhaps early in 1781, a crisis arose which revealed the real reason for Sophie-Ernestine’s lack of enthusiasm for the various marriages proposed—she and Charles de Pougens were deeply in love. From Madame de Tessé’s viewpoint, this was impossible: neither of the young people possessed means, and, too, Pougens’ blindness posed an insuperable obstacle. Madame de Tessé reasoned with her protégé, and, at her insistence, he left Paris for a sojourn in Geneva; at the same time she exacted from the lovers a promise that they would not communicate during the separation. In an extraordinary and revealing letter to Pougens from Chaville, 27 Apr. 1781, and occupying some twenty-seven pages in Pougens’ Mémoires (p. 305–32), Madame de Tessé, in “gentleness mixed with much bitterness,” poured out to her “dear son” all the reasons and sentiments that rent her mind and heart, for she had discovered that the promise had been violated and that the lovers had been corresponding secretly. “Never,” she wrote in one of the several revealing passages, “until I came to love you and love Sophie, did my life have any meaning to me; I was useless until both of you made me necessary‥‥ All my thoughts are devoted to serving you; you will some day realize to what extent.” Pougens eventually returned to Paris from exile, but in 1783 Madame de Tessé informed him that “Ernestine no longer loves you.” For a time he continued his visits to the Hôtel de Tessé; then, when he had assurances from Madame de Tessé that she would provide for Madame de Tott’s future, he ceased his visits entirely. Thus, ultimately, Madame de Tessé gained her point by losing her adopted son, although Sophie-Ernestine remained with her. But by then Lafayette had returned from America and she extended her protective influence to him (see Madame de Tessé to TJ, 30 Mch. 1787). In his Mémoires, written late in life, Pougens concludes his own account of the love affair with Madame de Tott with these cryptic sentences: “Ernestine, if you are still alive and if this account falls into your hands, you may judge whether or not I have exaggerated the virtues of him who was once so dear to you. You were ungrateful to him, but were you not also ungrateful to your adopted mother? Search your soul, consult your memories, and if they do not bring remorse, then I pity you from the depths of my heart” (Mémoires, p. 113–14). From this and other hints, it is evident that Madame de Tessé and Madame de Tott parted at some time during the 1790’s and that this resulted from another love affair. There is no mention of Madame de Tott in the correspondence of TJ and Madame de Tessé after 1800.

The acte qui deploie les privileges de l’homme may have been the French text of the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which Démeunier translated and forwarded to TJ in his letter of 26 June 1786 and which TJ put into print in order to make the text available to various persons in Europe (see St. Lambert to TJ, 27 July 1786; TJ to St. Lambert, 8 Aug. 1786; Malone, Jefferson, ii, 103–4). If so, this is the earliest reference to the separate printing of the text; it is natural to suppose that Madame de Tessé would have been among the first to whom TJ would have addressed a copy. His letter of transmittal—one must have accompanied it—has not been found and is not recorded in SJL. If only the Act was sent to Madame de Tessé, this would suggest that he had already presented to her a copy of Notes on Virginia. This was almost certainly the case, though there seems to be no documentary evidence of such a presentation.

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