Jefferson on the French and Haitian Revolutions, 1792
A Spotlight on a Primary Source by Thomas Jefferson
When Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, three revolutions—the American, French, and Haitian—occupied the minds of these two renowned leaders. While the American Revolution had been won nearly a decade earlier, the US Constitution had been in effect for only three years and the survival of the United States as a republic remained in doubt.
The French Revolution had been in progress for three years and Jefferson congratulated Lafayette on "exterminating the monster aristocracy, & pulling out the teeth & fangs of it’s associate monarchy." But the radical Jacobins were becoming increasingly violent and unstable. Two months after this letter was written, King Louis XVI would be deposed and Lafayette would be imprisoned.
Closer to home for Jefferson, slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) had violently overthrown the plantation system, slave holders, and the government. In the letter Jefferson, as secretary of state, inquired about the policies of France’s new rulers toward the French colonists and the revolutionaries.
What are you doing for your colonies? They will be lost if not more effectually succoured. Indeed no future efforts you can make will ever be able to reduce the blacks. All that can be done in my opinion will be to compound with them as has been done formerly in Jamaica.
A full transcript is available.
Behold you then, my dear friend, at the head of a great army, establishing the liberties of your country against a foreign enemy. may heaven favor your cause, and make you the channel thro’ which it may pour it’s [sic] favors. while you are exterminating the monster aristocracy, & pulling out the teeth & fangs of it’s associate monarchy, a contrary tendency is discovered in some here. a sect has shewn itself among us, who declare they espoused our new constitution, not as a good & sufficient thing itself, but only as a step to an English constitution, the only thing good & sufficient in itself, in their eye. . . . what are you doing for your colonies? they will be lost if not more effectually succoured. indeed no future efforts you can make will ever be able to reduce the blacks. all that can be done in my opinion will be to compound with them as has been done formerly in Jamaica. we have been less zealous in aiding them, lest your government should feel any jealousy on our account. but in truth we as sincerely wish their restoration, and their connection with you, as you do yourselves.