Printable Version

The Meaning of the French Revolution
Digital History ID 226

Author:   Thomas Jefferson


After receiving a history of the French Revolution, Jefferson reflects on the meaning and implications of that epochal historical event. During the early 1790s, Jefferson had been a strong supporter of the revolution, which he viewed as part of a broader struggle to overthrow monarchical tyranny. In 1793, the year Louis XVI was executed, Jefferson had gone so far as to write that he was willing to see half the earth drenched in blood if this was necessary to bring about human freedom. In retrospect, however, he expresses his misgivings about the revolution's outcome.

Pagenel, the author of the history book, was a member of the Committee of Public Safety and served as secretary to the National Convention. The first edition of his 1810 book was almost completely destroyed by Napoleon's censors. Later, Louis XVII exiled Pagenel, who died in 1826, the same year as Jefferson.


I received through Mr Warden the copy of your valuable work on the French revolution, for which I pray you to accept my thanks. That it's sale should have been suppressed is no matter of wonder with me. The friend of liberty is too feelingly manifested, not to give umbrage to its enemies. We read in it, and weep over, the fatal errors which have lost to nations the present hope of liberty, and to reason the fairest prospect of its final triumph over all impostures, civil & religious. The testimony of one who himself was an actor in the scenes he notes, and who knew the true mean between rational liberty, and the frenzies of demagogy, are a tribute of inestimable value. The perusal of this work has given me new views of the causes of failure in a revolution of which I was a witness in its early part, & then augured well of it. I had not means afterwards of observing its progress but the public papers, & their information came thro channels too hostile to claim confidence. An acquaintance with many of the principal characters, & their fate, furnished me groups for conjectures, some of which you have confirmed, & some corrected. Shall we ever see as free & faithful a tableau of the subsequent acts of this deplorable tragedy? Is reason ever to be amused with the hochets [disturbances] of physical sciences, in which she is indulged merely to divert her from solid speculations on the rights of man, and wrongs of his oppressors? It is impossible. The day of deliverance will come, altho' I shall not live to see it. The art of printing secures us against the retrogradation of reason & information, and the examples of its safe & wholesome guidance in government, which will be exhibited thro' the wide spread regions of the American continents, will obliterate in time the impressions left by the abortive experiment of France. With my prayers for the hastening of that auspicious date.…<

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Paganel

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