On Bastille Day

By Jeremy Dibbell

In honor of Bastille Day, a snippet of an interesting letter from our collections which speaks to the topic. Writing to John Adams on 11 January 1816, Thomas Jefferson looked back on the eighteenth century, agreeing with Adams that the period “witnessed the sciences and arts, manners and morals, advanced to a higher degree than the world had ever before seen.” But, he writes, at the end of the century, Europe fell back into its old ways: “How then has it happened that these nations, France especially and England, so great, so dignified, so distinguished by science and the arts, plunged at once into all the depths of human enormity, threw off suddenly and openly all the restraints of morality, all sensation to character, and unblushingly avowed and acted on the principle that power was right? … Was it the terror of the monarchs, alarmed at the light returning on them from the West, and kindling a Volcano under their thrones? Was it a combination to extinguish that light, and to bring back, as their best auxiliaries, those enumerated by you, the Sorbonne, the Inquisition, the Index expurgatorius, and the knights of Loyola? Whatever it was, the close of the century saw the moral world thrown back again to the age of the Borgias, to the point from which it had departed 300. years before.”

Going on to speak about France specifically, Jefferson admits that his initial impressions of the French Revolution had been mistaken: “Your prophecies to Dr. Price proved truer than mine; and yet fell short of the fact, for instead of a million, the destruction of 8. or 10. millions of human beings has probably been the result of these convulsions. I did not, in 89. believe they would have lasted so long, nor have cost so much blood.”

“But,” Jefferson continues, “altho’ your prophecy has proved true so far, I hope it does not preclude a better final result. That same light from our West seems to have spread and illuminated the very engines employed to extinguish it. It has given them a glimmering of their rights and their power. The idea of representative government has taken root and growth among them. … Opinion is power, and that opinion will come. Even France will yet attain representative government.”