Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Volney, 16 November 1793

From Volney

paris 16 9bre 1793

J’ai l’honneur de rappeller à Monsieur jefferson le souvenir d’une personne pour qui le Sien est lié à des tems et à des événémens qui en ont consacré l’intérêt. Je le prie d’agréer un petit ouvrage qui du moins aura le merite de ne pas le distraire longtems de Ses occupations Multipliées. Si cette bagatelle obtenait son suffrage, Si des élémens de ce genre, developpés Sur plusieurs Sujets avaient des Succès en amérique, j’aurais doublement à regretter d’avoir vû M’echapper le Voyage philosophique que le conseil M’avait chargé d’y executer.

C. Volney

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 31 Mch. 1794 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: C. F. C. Volney, La Loi Naturelle; ou catéchisme du Citoyen Français (Paris, 1793).

Constantin François Chasseboeuf Volney (1757–1820), the noted French Idéologue, linguist, orientalist, historian, and geographer, became for a few years one of TJ’s close acquaintances and regular correspondents. Having acquired a lifelong interest in classical languages while attending the colleges of Ancenis and Angers, Volney moved to Paris in 1775 in order to study medicine, and through the friendship of Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, a fellow Idéologue whose work TJ later admired, became a member of the circles around Baron d’Holbach and Mme. Helvétius, whose philosophical materialism became one of the keynotes of his intellectual life. After making his mark with a short work on Herodotian chronology, Volney spent the years 1783–85 in Egypt and Syria, mastering Arabic and carefully observing the customs and habits of the people. On the basis of this experience he published Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte, 2 vols. (Paris, 1787), a work that made him famous throughout Europe and that TJ purchased in its second edition soon after publication (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 3950). Volney met TJ in Paris and later was instrumental in providing him with a plan by an unidentified author for the use of naval force against Algiers that favorably impressed the Secretary of State (Vol. 18: 406–7,416–22). Volney’s strong support of the French Revolution as a member of the States General and the National Assembly led to his most famous work, Les Ruines; ou Méditation sur les Révolutions des Empires, 2 vols. (Geneva, 1791), an eloquent attack on political despotism and revealed religion which so strongly impressed TJ that he later secretly collaborated with Joel Barlow in preparing an English translation of it (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 1277). Arrested for debt on the same day he enclosed in this letter the Petit Ouvrage that continued his attack on revealed religion and called for a scientifically-based system of morality, Volney was forced to postpone the Voyage Philosophique he had been planning under the aegis of the French government to observe conditions in the United States. It was not until October 1795 that Volney was able to begin a private visit to the United States, in the course of which he made an extended tour that included parts of the South and the cis-Mississippi West in 1796, spending three weeks visiting TJ at Monticello, a journey that led to the publication of his Tableau du Climat et du Sol des Etats-Unis d’Amérique, 2 vols. (Paris, 1803), a pioneering study of American geology and climatology (Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 4032). During his American sojourn Volney exchanged twenty letters with TJ, who suspended the correspondence after Volney, whom Federalists wrongly suspected of being a French agent, sailed for France in June 1798, fearing arrest under the Alien Act. TJ resumed the correspondence after his inauguration as President, exchanging fourteen letters with Volney on political and scientific subjects over the next five years, by which time Volney had become an influential figure in French intellectual and political life through his close association with Napoleon (DSB description begins Charles C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970–80, 16 vols. description ends ; Jean Gaulmier, Un Grand Témoin de la Révolution et de l’Empire: Volney [Paris, 1959]; Gilbert Chinard, Volney et l’Amérique d’après des documents inédits et sa correspondance avec Jefferson [Baltimore, 1923]).

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