(Sinclair-Stevenson: London, 1996), 367pp. (with index), ISBN (pb) 0-2266-1656-8; (hb) 0-2266-1653-3.
[ buy this book ]
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and third president of the United States (1801-9), was one of the warmest and most influential American supporters of the French revolution. He had also been a diplomat. In fact, he had joined the American mission in France in 1784, and replaced Benjamin Franklin as minister in the following year. He witnessed the outbreak of the revolution in 1789 and was then appointed secretary of state by George Washington. This scintillating book by Conor Cruise O’Brien, himself a former diplomat, analyses the blossoming and slow – very slow – fading of Jefferson’s love affair with the French revolution, and its implications for his domestic political manoeuvrings as well as his foreign policy.
For students of diplomacy this book is, of course, chiefly of interest for the light that it throws on diplomacy in a time of revolution. In this connection the chapters dealing with Jefferson’s Paris mission are interesting by way of prelude but most valuable of all is Chapter 5. Here O’Brien charts with his usual astuteness, forensic skills, and vigorous style, the swathe cut through the United States by Charles-Edmond Genet following his arrival at Charleston in April 1793 as the new minister plenipotentiary of the French Republic. The task of ‘Citizen Genet’ was nothing less than to export the French revolution to America, and his activities make modern-day exponents of ‘public diplomacy’ look as if they have taken vows of silence. Genet lasted less than a year, even Jefferson concluding in the end that he was an embarrassment. See also the pages dealing with James Monroe’s arrival in Paris in the turbulent days following the fall and execution of Robespierre in 1794 and his decision to present his credentials as the new American minister plenipotentiary to the National Convention rather than to the (non-existent) executive power, pp. 202-10.