Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Barbé Marbois, 14 June 1817

To Barbé Marbois

Monticello in Virginia June 14. 17.

I thank you, dear Sir, for the copy of the interesting narrative of the Complot d’Arnold which you have been so kind as to send me. it throws lights on that incident of history which we did not possess before an incident which merits to be known, as a lesson to mankind, in all it’s details. this mark of your attention recalls to my mind the earlier period of life at which I had the pleasure of your personal acquaintance and renews the sentiments of high respect and esteem with which that acquaintance inspired me. I had not failed to accompany your personal sufferings during the civil convulsions of your country, and had sincerely sympathised with them.   An awful period indeed has past in Europe since our first acquaintance. when I left France at the close of 89. your revolution was, as I thought, under the direction of able & honest men. but the madness of some of their successors, the vices of others, the malicious intrigues of an envious and corrupting neighbor, the tracasseri[es] of the Directory, the usurpations, the havoc, and devastations of your Attila, and the equal usurpations, depredations and oppressions of your hypocritical deliverers, will form a mournful period in the history of man, a period of which the last chapter will not be seen in your day or mine, and one which I still fear is to be written in characters of blood.   had Bonaparte reflected that such is the moral construction of the world, that no national crime passes unpunished in the long run, he would not now be in the cage of St Helena: and were your present oppressors to reflect on the same truth, they would spare to their own countries the penalties on their present wrongs which will be inflicted on them in future times. the seeds of hatred and revenge which they are now sowing with a large hand will not fail to produce their fruits in time. like their brother robbers on the high way, they suppose the escape of the moment a final escape, and deem infamy and future risk countervailed by present gain.1   Our lot has been happier. when you witnessed our first struggles in the war of independance, you little calculated, more than we did, on the rapid growth and prosperity of this country; on the practical demonstration it was about to exhibit, of the happy truth that Man is capable of self-government, and only rendered otherwise by the moral degradation designedly superinduced on him by the wicked arts of his tyrants.

I have much confidence that we shall proceed successfully for ages to come; and that, contrary to the principle of Montesquieu, it will be seen that the larger the extent of country, the more firm it’s republican structure, if founded, not on conquest, but in principles of compact & equality.2 my hope of it’s duration is built much on the enlargement of the resources of life going hand in hand with the enlargement of territory, and the belief [that] men are disposed to live honestly, if the means of doing so are open [to the]m. with the consolation of this belief in the future result of our labors, I have that of other prophets who foretell distant events, that I shall not live to see it falsified. my theory has always been that if we are to dream, the flatteries of hope are as cheap, and pleasanter than the gloom of despair. I wish to yourself a long life of honors, health and happiness.

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC); on reused address cover of James Monroe to TJ, 23 Apr. 1817; torn at seal; at foot of first page: “M. de Marbois.” Tr (ViU: TJP); posthumous extract in Nicholas P. Trist’s hand. Enclosed in TJ to Daniel Brent and TJ to Albert Gallatin, both 23 June 1817.

François, comte de Barbé Marbois (1745–1837), diplomat, was born in Metz, France, where he was educated before studying law in Paris. In 1768 he obtained his first position in the foreign office, and thereafter he enjoyed a long career in France and abroad as a diplomat and politician, including service in the United States as secretary to the French legation beginning in 1779 and as chargé d’affaires, 1784–85. During his time in America, Barbé Marbois circulated a questionnaire on behalf of the French government that sought information about the individual American states. TJ’s 1780–81 response was eventually published as Notes on the State of Virginia. They corresponded only rarely, but in 1783 Barbé Marbois helped TJ find a French tutor in Philadelphia for his daughter Martha Jefferson (Randolph). As minister of the public treasury, Barbé Marbois negotiated the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in 1803. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1780, serving as councillor, 1781–85, and he became a member of the Institut de France in 1816. Barbé Marbois authored works on subjects that included agriculture, geography, and history. He died in Paris (DBF description begins Dictionnaire de biographie française, 1933– , 19 vols. description ends ; Hoefer, Nouv. biog. générale description begins J. C. F. Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’a nos jours, 1852–83, 46 vols. description ends , 4:428–31; E. Wilson Lyon, The Man Who Sold Louisiana: The Career of Francois Barbe-Marbois [1942; repr. 1974]; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 40 vols. description ends , esp. 4:166–7, 6:373–4, 34:xli–xlii, 423–4n; Notes, ed. Peden description begins Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden, 1955 description ends , xii–xv; Philadelphia Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, 27 Jan. 1780; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 5 Jan. 1781, 2 Jan. 1784 [MS in PPAmP]; Miller, Treaties description begins Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts of the United States of America, 1931–48, 8 vols. description ends , 2:498–528).

The interesting narrative of Benedict Arnold’s plot was Barbé Marbois, Complot d’Arnold et de Sir Henry Clinton contre les États-Unis d’Amérique et contre le Général Washington. Septembre 1780 (Paris, 1816; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 4 [no. 138]). TJ’s copy in MoSW includes a handwritten, signed inscription by Barbé Marbois dated Paris, 30 Dec. 1816: “L’auteur aime à croire que Monsieur Jepherson a gardé de lui quelque Souvenir, Il lui offre cet opuscule et l’hommage de Son respect” (“The author, liking to believe that Mr. Jefferson has retained some memory of him, offers him this opuscule and the tribute of his respect”). Barbé Marbois also sent a copy of this work to James Madison some time before October 1817 (Madison, Papers, Retirement Ser., 1:139–40).

The personal sufferings Barbé Marbois experienced during the French Revolution included exile to French Guiana by the Directory in 1797 (Lyon, Man Who Sold Louisiana, 95–112). Montesquieu stated his principle that large republics could not survive in book eight, chapter sixteen of his Esprit des Lois (De l’Esprit des Loix [Geneva, 1748], 1:195–7).

1Tr begins here.

2Tr ends here.

Index Entries

  • Arnold, Benedict; works on search
  • Barbé Marbois, François, comte de; Complot d’Arnold et de Sir Henry Clinton contre les États-Unis d’Amérique et contre le Général Washington. Septembre 1780 search
  • Barbé Marbois, François, comte de; exile of search
  • Barbé Marbois, François, comte de; identified search
  • Barbé Marbois, François, comte de; letter to search
  • Complot d’Arnold et de Sir Henry Clinton contre les États-Unis d’Amérique et contre le Général Washington. Septembre 1780 (Barbé Marbois) search
  • Esprit des Lois (Montesquieu) search
  • France; Directory search
  • French Revolution; TJ on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Books & Library; receives works search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Montesquieu search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; French Revolution search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Napoleon search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; U.S. future search
  • Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat; Esprit des Lois search
  • Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat; TJ quotes search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; TJ on search
  • United States; future of considered search