It is fascinating to read the papers of the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and to see how the relations between America and the French developed during a very pivotal time for both countries. Clearly Jefferson was a Francophile and felt the French were our friends. However, this was the 1790’s and as we know things weren’t going all that well in Europe and France in particular.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things is so the French Revolution through contemporary eyes. I think for most people today we view the French Revolution from the perspective of Charles Dickens book “A Tale of Two Cities” where the French are hardly seen as sympathetic no matter how just their cause. Of course for those who are more oriented to history we have the advantage of hindsight and can see how the excesses of the French (Robespierre, Marat, and Danton) lead inexorably to the creation of a military dictatorship under Napoleon. But all of these things are after the fact and we have the benefit of knowing what happened next, a luxury denied Jefferson, Washington, and the new American Republic.
We tend to forget that the American Revolution was actually just one theater in a global war that had been going on prior to 1776 and raged off and on throughout the period. In fact this European War had been going on during the reign of Louis XV and then under Louis XVI as well. Wars cost money and this one was no exception and France was essentially bankrupt. Louis XVI was inept at almost everything and had no ability to see what was going on around him. Consequently the population was restive at first and then moved to rebellion. However, during this period our friends the French were leaning on the US for money owed. Obviously this was a legitimate debt but France typically approached this demand in their usual arrogant fashion.
However, Jefferson accepted this demand in good grace primarily because he really hated the British (an interesting historical footnote) and the French were (as usual) fighting the British (and the Dutch). This formed the background to the final upheaval that we know as the French Revolution. The correspondence between Jefferson and the American Envoys in Paris are interesting. To support the King and not support the Revolutionaries would be hypocritical since the Americans had just rebelled against their King. Still there was a lot of sympathy for Louis and the general feeling was that he should go into exile. No one was really in favor of executing the King. As the terror progressed the attitude of the Americans in Paris really turned against the Revolution but publicly they continued to support the Revolution. Jefferson supported the Revolution to the end but privately he made it very clear that he supported the Revolution but not the Revolutionaries. Furthermore, some of the American diplomats felt that the situation could only end in one way and that was the rise either of a new King (unlikely) or a strongman (Napoleon was unknown at the time).
The policy of neutrality between America and the European powers was orchestrated by Jefferson but as we know today it led inevitably to the problems of 1812. Jefferson was anti-war (and a founding Democrat) and the lesson here is the same lesson that the Democrats have never learned and that is while war may be ugly, sometimes a war now prevents a much greater war in the future. Siding with the British might have constrained the terror and prevented the rise of Napoleon. At the least it would have prevented the war of 1812. And as we see today, the Democrats continue to be anti-war – any war – and simply fail to understand that some people only understand naked power.