What if Jefferson had not gone to France in 1784? What if he had never left the United States? How would things have been different? Jefferson had turned down two previous high-level government invitations to take up a diplomatic post in Paris. He finally made the journey in July 1784 because his wife Martha was dead, because he was still reeling from his frustrating and unsuccessful tenure as the wartime Governor of Virginia, and of course he wanted to see the Old World, especially France.
If he hadn’t gone to Paris he would never have met Maria Cosway, the lovely and talented Italian-British painter who captured and helped to heal Jefferson’s broken heart.
I’m not sure if Maria Cosway was the love of Jefferson’s life—surely he would protest stiffly that his wife Martha was, of course, the sole true love of his life. But Mrs. Cosway was quite likely the greatest romantic passion of Jefferson’s life. They met more or less by accident in August 1786. Jefferson’s wife Marth had been dead for almost four years. Jefferson was immediately smitten by the beauty, the style, the charm, the flirtatiousness, the aesthetic sophistication, and the sexual allure of Maria Cosway, with her lavender eyes, pouting mouth, big hair, and diminutive figure. She was what was then known as a coquette—a coy collector of admirers, a woman who sets out to make men fall in love with her without intending to reciprocate. It is a little surprising that the famously self-restrained Jefferson would fall in love with here—but he did, more or less instantly—and even more surprising that Mrs. Cosway soon fell in love with the earnest, learned, and culturally sophisticated Jefferson, who combined a New World innocence with exquisite manners. We don’t know whether their romance was consummated (she was married to Richard Cosway, himself a painter, and he was virtually always somewhere nearby), but it led to one of Jefferson’s greatest letters, the dialogue between My Head and My Heart, which he wrote after the Cosways departed for London in October 1786. In any list of the most revealing things Jefferson ever wrote, My Head and My Heart ranks high. It is also one of the most interesting, if slightly odd, love letters in the English language.
In 1784 the Virginia legislature informed Jefferson that they would like him to arrange for a European sculptor to make a full-length statue of George Washington for the new state capitol in Richmond. The folks back in Virginia reckoned that Jefferson would know what to do. They were right. He engaged the greatest European sculptor of the age, Jean-Antoine Houdon to do the work. Houdon felt he could not do justice to Washington without going to America to meet the great man, sketch him, and measure him. This was no easy business—crossing the Atlantic Ocean, traveling to Mount Vernon, and then dealing with the notoriously shy, reserved, and prickly Washington. The result was a piece of pure magnificence. The pedestrian statue of Washington in the capitol at Richmond is one of the greatest works of art in America. It was Jefferson who insisted on the very best and then pursued the project through to its amazing finish. I doubt that Dr. Franklin would have gone to such trouble, and Gouverneur Morris, who succeeded Jefferson, would have rejected the challenge.
If he not gone to France, he might not have taken up with Sally Hemings. She was, we think, his wife Martha’s half-sister. She traveled to France in 1787 as the chaperon to Jefferson’s younger daughter Maria. At the time Sally Hemings was just 14 years old. She was not the chaperon Jefferson requested. When Abigail Adams met her in London—before the two young women, one white, one black, one free, one enslaved—her moral radar began to beep and she said probably the best thing would be to return the slave girl to Virginia on the next ship. Jefferson was not only lonely in France, but he was essentially alone, and he was a very long way from America. He was, moreover, still at the height of his virility. If there had been no Sally Hemings in Paris—a vulnerable young woman far from home, probably equally lonely, and not in any position to say no to the distinguished diplomat and her master—perhaps they would never have become lovers. By the time he returned home in 1789, perhaps he would have felt more inhibited. From a larger perspective it doesn’t matter whether Sally Hemings ever lived or not. As far as we can tell, her relationship with Jefferson had no impact beyond the walls of their privacy, and the scandal, when it broke in September 1782, did not change the course of history, or of Jefferson’s life, except perhaps to make him even more secretive than he already was.
Dome at Monticello
If Jefferson had never gone to France, he might not have put a dome on Monticello. The first version of the house had one classical portico on top of another, but otherwise a traditional pitched roof. When Jefferson got settled in Paris he discovered the new Hotel de Salm, being constructed on the Left Bank of the Seine. Now the home of the French Legion of Honor, the Hotel de Salm was neoclassical in design and it was topped with a dome. Jefferson fell in love with the building. In fact, today’s Monticello bears a greater resemblance to the Hotel de Salm than to any other structure. In a letter to his aristocratic friend Madame de Tesse, 20 March 1787, Jefferson wrote, While at Paris, I was violently smitten with the hotel de Salm, and used to go to the Tuileries almost daily to look at it.” While he was still stationed in Paris, Jefferson determined to tear down Monticello the minute he got home and rebuild it with a dome. And that’s precisely what he did when he returned to Virginia, even though he already had a perfectly good and expensive house and now he began to spend money he did not have to create a dome that he could never thereafter figure out a way to make useful. Still, take the dome off Monticello and I doubt you’d find it gracing the nickel. Somehow it is impossible to think of Jefferson without his whimsical and magnificent dome. It was the Frenchman Chastellux who said, Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.
Importation of French Wines
Jefferson grew up drinking the fortified wines of the British Empire, but once he experienced true wine, French wine, he never went back to sherry, and port, and Madeira. During his five years in France he corresponded with wine makers and wine merchants, visited some of the celebrated vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and worked out the logistics and packing protocols to get true wine across the Atlantic Ocean to the Chesapeake Bay. This was much more complex and difficult than you might think. With his usual attention to detail, he worked out an elaborate and painstaking set of packing and shipping methods so that wine—which is a kind of liquid art form—could make the trip across the Atlantic without being ruined by heat or jostling. Jefferson can claim to be America’s first great wine connoisseur, the wine adviser to the other of the first five presidents, and the father of the American wine industry, not to mention the foreigner who helped to create the wine classification system still in use in Bordeaux. All American presidents until Bill Clinton served French wines at White House functions. As with so many other areas of Jefferson’s genius, this one barely registers in biographies, because there are so many other things that must be discussed in coming to terms with America’s da Vinci.
Capitol at Richmond
Jefferson is the father of the neoclassical revival in America. Our great public buildings—in particular our state capitols—are domed structures with classical columns and porticos because Jefferson designed the new state capitol at Richmond based on a building he regarded as the most precious morsel of antiquity, the Maison Quarree at Nimes. He set the new habit in motion in 1785, from 3000 miles away, and since then more than 40 states have followed with neoclassical capitols. Although he had studied Palladian and neoclassical architecture in the American colonies (through books!), he found both the domestic and public architecture in Virginia ugly and even barbaric, and it wasn’t until he arrived in Paris that he saw what neoclassical architecture can be. When he learned that Virginia had begun to build its new capitol in Richmond without waiting for the design he was carefully nurturing, he threw a little aesthetic fit, dashed off a letter of protest, and convinced his friend James Madison to have construction halted until he could get the plans and model of the Maison Quarree into the mail. So respected was Jefferson, and frankly so feared in the aesthetic arena, that the planners in Richmond halted construction. The result is the uniquely magnificent capitol at Richmond. Had Jefferson never gone to France we would probably have a neoclassical capitol in Virginia, but it would not be this one.
And finally, Thomas Jefferson was radicalized by what he witnessed in France. During his five years there, he saw the buildup to the French Revolution. He saw real poverty for the first time in his life in France, and real repression. He saw what it was really like to live under an absolutist monarchy. Before he went to France he was a book revolutionary and a treatise radical. When he returned after observing the first spasms of the Revolution, he was profoundly dedicated to keeping America a republic with as meager a class system as possible, and with a well-educated, skeptical, self-governing public. While he was gone, most of the Founders drifted towards the right. Jefferson hardly recognized them when he made his way to New York to take up his past as Secretary of State. He was the lone radical among the major Founding Fathers from 1789-1801. Above all else, he had learned what can go wrong when a great society is corruptly and ineptly governed. In France he had time to study the national tragedy of a failed state. When he returned to America, he was deeply determined to prevent that from happening here. Oh, how he would grieve for us.
“Vue de la nouvelle salle de l'Opéra prise de la rue de Provence,” from NYPL Digital Collections.