Jefferson on France and Britain
Digital History ID 229
Thomas Jefferson's life was filled with many paradoxes and contradictions. He was a great admirer of urban culture, yet he also denounced cities as sinkholes of corruption. He extolled the yeoman farmer who labored in the earth, yet devoted much of his own life to scientific investigation, politics, and architecture. But the central contradiction of Jefferson's life involved slavery.
Jefferson described slavery as an abomination and a curse that "nursed" the children of masters "in tyranny." His words in the Declaration of Independence were among the most important ideological forces undermining slavery, and yet Jefferson was also a life-long owner of slaves who harbored "suspicions" of racial inferiority.
In this letter, written three years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, Jefferson offers a vivid description of the differences between France and England, making his own pro-French views clear, despite his praise for England's mechanical ingenuity.
This letter offers a carefully-crafted expression of the revolutionary era's ideal of republican virtue. In this letter, Jefferson praises frugality and simplicity; yet he would die deeply in debt, debts acquired partly from the construction of his home at Monticello, and the purchase of books, wines, and other expensive luxuries.
I returned but three or four days ago from a two months trip to England. I traversed that country much, and own both town & country fell short of my expectations. Comparing it with this [France], I found a much greater proportion of barrens, a soil in other parts not naturally so good as this, not better cultivated, but better manured, & therefore more productive. This proceeds from the practice of long leases there, and short ones here. The labouring people here [in France] are poorer than in England. They pay about one half their produce in rent, the English in general about a third. The gardening in that country is the article in which it Surpasses all the earth. I mean their pleasure gardening. This indeed was far beyond my ideas. The city of London, tho' handsomer than Paris, is not so handsome as Philadelphia. Their architecture is in the more wretched style I ever saw, not meaning to except America where it is bad, nor even Virginia where it is worse than any other part of America, which I have seen. The mechanical arts in London are carried to a wonderful perfection. But of these I need not speak, because of them my countrymen have unfortunately too many samples before their eyes. I consider the extravagance which has seized them as a more baneful evil than toryism was during the war. It is the more so as the example is set by the best and most amiable characters among us. Would a missionary appear who would make frugality the basis of his religious system, and go thro the land preaching it up as the only road to salvation, I would join his school tho' not generally disposed to seek my religion out of the dictates of my own heart. These things have been more deeply impressed on my mind by what I have heard and seen in England. That nation hates us, their ministers hate us, and their king more than all other men. They have the impudence to avow this, tho' they acknowledge our trade important to them. But they say we cannot prevent our countrymen from bringing that into their laps. A conviction of this determines them to make no terms of commerce with us. They say they will pocket our carrying trade as well as their own. Our overtures of commercial arrangement have been treated with a derision which show their firm persuasion that we shall never unite to suppress their commerce or even to impede it. I think their hostility towards us is much more deeply rooted at present than during the war. In the arts the most striking thing I saw there, new, was the application of the principle of the steam-engine to grist mills. I saw 8. p[ai]r. of stones which are worked by steam, and they are to set up 30 pair in the same house. A hundred bushels of coal a day are consumed at present.<
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Thomas Jefferson to John Page
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