Tag Archives: France

You have the yellow fever in France!

The account you give of the yellow fever, is entirely agreeable to what we then knew of it … facts appear to have established that it is originated here by a local atmosphere, which is never generated but in the lower, closer & dirtier parts of our large cities, in the neighborhood of the water: and that, to catch the disease, you must enter the local atmosphere. persons having taken the disease in the infected quarter, & going into the country, are nursed & buried by their friends, without an example of communicating it.
From Thomas Jefferson to Constantin François Chasseboeuf Volney,  February 8, 1805

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders heed empirical evidence.
Volney (1757-1820) was a French philosopher, author and politician. He met Jefferson  during the latter’s tenure as Ambassador to France. Volney visited America during the 1790s. Jefferson sponsored Volney’s membership in the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization. Both shared similar views on government and religion.

In a November 1803 letter to Jefferson, Volney said he nearly died in September from a “cruel illness … the fever…” He was heeding his doctor’s advice to relocate for the winter. Neither this letter nor his previous ones to Jefferson made specific reference to the “yellow fever,” but the President assumed it was the same malady in both countries.

Jefferson continued his theme that evidence pointed to the disease occurring only in dirty, densely populated, waterfront areas. That made it endemic to those areas. Afflicted people taken inland, whether they lived or died, did not give the fever to their care-givers. That meant it was not contagious.

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NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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What in the world does plenipotentiary mean?

Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America,
Greeting:      To
Reposing especial Trust and Confidence in Your Integrity, Prudence and Ability I have appointed Minister Plenipotentiary for the United States of America at the Court of His Britannic Majesty, authorizing you hereby to do and perform all such matters and things as to the said place or office do appertain … said office to Hold and exercise during the pleasure of the President of the United States for the time being, and until the end of the next Session of the Senate of the United States, and no longer.
Commission for Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, 18 April 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A plenipotentiary possesses his leader’s full confidence.
To this blank form, President Jefferson added James Monroe’s name with full authority as ambassador to act on behalf of the United States. From an earlier post, we learned Monroe was dispatched to Europe to help negotiate American rights to free shipping down the Mississippi River and through New Orleans. In a time when round-trip communication between London or Paris and Washington, D.C. was at least two months, a trusted diplomat had to have the legal authority to act on his own.

That’s what plenipotentiary means, having full authority to act independently.

The President left no room for doubt about Monroe’s status. This blank form to the British Court was the first of six completed for him. Another was to the French Court, two to Napoleon, and one each to King George III and Queen Charlotte of Britain.

(While my 50 year old Webster’s Dictionary divides that 14 letter word into just five syllables, modern online versions give it seven!)

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I am the boss. America needs you. You do not have a choice.

… the fever into which the Western mind is thrown by the affair at N. Orleans …threatens to overbear our peace. in this situation we are obliged to call on you for a temporary sacrifice of yourself … I shall tomorrow nominate you to the Senate for an extraordinary mission to France, & the circumstances are such as to render it impossible to decline; because the whole public hope will be rested on you … in the mean time pray work night & day to arrange your affairs for a temporary absence; perhaps for a long one.
To James Monroe, January 10, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, leaders have to demand sacrifices of trusted lieutenants.
“.. the affair at N. Orleans” concerning the “Western mind” was customs-free shipping through the port of New Orleans and open traffic on the Mississippi River. The first had been withdrawn by Spain; the second faced a threat from France’s pending takeover of Louisiana, giving her partial control over the river and full control of the port.

American Ambassador Robert Livingston had been in France for some time, hoping to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans or some other land at the mouth of the Mississippi for duty-free shipping. Under the best circumstances, round trip communication between the U.S. and Paris took two months. The President thought Livingston might need help and dispatched a trusted protege.

Jefferson usually left the decision whether to take an offered job up to the individual. Not this time! He called on Monroe “for a temporary sacrifice of yourself.” The importance of the task made it “impossible to decline.” Success might rest on him. He was to get his affairs in order and depart immediately. He might be gone a short time, maybe a long time.

Monroe sailed for France on March 9, but the day before he arrived in Paris, Napoleon’s government offered all of Louisiana to Ambassador Livingston. Monroe’s purpose in going was now moot, but the two ambassadors negotiated the terms of the massive land deal.

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Let us do this to avoid war.

I think therefore, that while we do nothing which the first nation on earth [France] would deem crouching, we had better give to all our communications with them a very mild, complaisant, and even friendly complection, but always independant. ask no favors, leave small & irritating things to be conducted by the individuals interested in them, interfere ourselves but in the greatest cases, & then not push them to irritation. no matter at present existing between them & us is important enough to risk a breach of peace; peace being indeed the most important of all things to us, except the preserving an erect & independant attitude.
To Robert Livingston, October 10, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders take pains to avoid giving offense to one’s adversaries.
While France had not yet taken possession of Louisiana, it was only a matter of time before she would influence shipping on the Mississippi River and control all goods flowing through the port of New Orleans. Jefferson foresaw the potential for great conflict with France and very likely, war.

While diplomatic efforts proceeded to eliminate that conflict, the President gave these pointers to his ambassador in France to minimize unnecessary aggravation:
1. While not acting in any way subservient, the U.S. should be calm, agreeable and friendly, but always independent.
2. Don’t put us in their debt by asking any favors.
3. Leave minor disputes to be worked out by those affected by them.
4. Concern yourself only with the largest disputes or issues.
5. Be diplomatic even in those great issues, giving no cause for irritation.
6. Nothing should jeopardize our greatest goal of peace, except this one thing, maintaining America’s unflinching independence.

Jefferson’s skilled diplomatic dance resulted the following year in acquiring Louisiana from France and eliminating the conflict that could have resulted in war.

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This single act changes FRIEND to FOE!

The cession of Louisiana & the Floridas by Spain to France works most sorely on the US … of all nations of any consideration France is the one which hitherto has offered the fewest points on which we could have any conflict of right, and the most points of a communion of interests … our natural friend … [yet] there is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural & habitual enemy. it is New Orleans, through which the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market … France placing herself in that door assumes to us the attitude of defiance.
To Robert Livingston, April 18, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders expect the unexpected.
Jefferson, a lover of most-things-French, was dealt a serious blow upon confirming that sleepy Spain was returning its holdings west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana) along with the Port of New Orleans to France. He foresaw the time when expansionist France could use its control of that port to strangle the sale of American goods from its western lands. Those goods had to pass down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers through New Orleans on their way to the east coast and Europe.

Livingstone was an American minister to France. Secretary of State Madison had already written him on this matter, the proper chain of command. So concerned was Jefferson about this matter that he wrote his own very long letter on the same subject.

France’s new ownership of New Orleans and Louisiana, coupled with other unforeseen events, soon led her to offer all of her new acquisition for sale to the United States. Thus, was the size of the new nation doubled. Lewis & Clark’s expedition two years later set the wheels in motion the for U.S. to extend its ownership to the Pacific Ocean.

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Louisiana, here we come. Do-da. Do-da.

With respect to Spain our dispositions are sincerely amicable & even affectionate. we consider her possession of the adjacent country [Louisiana, the land west of the Mississippi River] as most favorable to our interests, & should see, with extreme pain any other nation substituted for them: in all communications therefore with their officers, conciliation and mutual accomodation are to be duly attended to, every thing irritating to be avoided, every thing friendly to be done for them … temper & justice will be the best guides through those intricacies. Should France get possession of that country it will be more to be lamented than remedied by us, and will furnish ground for profound consideration on our part how best to conduct ourselves in that case …
To William C. C. Claiborne, July 13, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Far-sighted leaders begin signaling their intentions well in advance.
Claiborne was to be appointed governor of the Mississippi Territory, bordering Spanish-held Louisiana just across the river. Jefferson was insistent on maintaining the best possible terms with Spain, who was not a threat to American interests. France was a threat, and her possession of Louisiana would provoke a profoundly different response.

Jefferson knew of rumors that Spain had already ceded Louisiana to France. That was not common knowledge at this point. Chances are Claiborne didn’t know that, either. So, Jefferson, who was shrewd in his diplomacy, was starting to build his case for not wanting France as our next door neighbor, able to control traffic on the Mississippi River.

Jefferson’s guidelines for getting along with the Spanish could be his guidelines for getting along with anyone:
1. Be conciliatory
2. Look for areas of agreement
3. Avoid irritation
4. Be as friendly as possible
5. Hold your temper
6. Be just

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If you couldn’t live in America, your 2nd choice?

A more benevolent people, I have never known … Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled … Their eminence too in science … the politeness of the general manners, the ease and vivacity of their conversation, give a charm to their society to be found nowhere else … ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live? — Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders esteem kind, friendly, helpful people.
In 1789, after five years in France, Jefferson made plans to return home. His thought was to enroll his daughters in school and return for a time. President Washington had other ideas, and Jefferson remained in America as his Secretary of State.

Jefferson’s fondness for France and its people was probably magnified by two things not mentioned here:
1. France’s aid in America’s revolutionary war, with money and men, both essential to its success
2. A movement toward the republican rights of man that began during his time there. He thought America’s independence and the coming French abolition of the monarchy would fan the flames of republican government throughout the world.

He was wrong about the course France would take, and the effect it would have. Yet, 30 years later as he wrote this account, he still harbored the fondest thoughts toward his second home. Nor did he waver in his belief that ultimately, the freedom America had achieved and that France hoped for would be models for the world.

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Slippery & double-faced or The Golden Rule?

The Count de Vergennes had the reputation with the diplomatic corps of being wary & slippery in his diplomatic intercourse; and so he might be with those whom he knew to be slippery and double-faced themselves. As he saw that I had no indirect views, practised no subtleties, meddled in no intrigues, pursued no concealed object, I found him as frank, as honorable, as easy of access to reason as any man with whom I had ever done business …
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Servant leaders treat others the way they would like to be treated.
Charles Graves, Count de Vergennes, 1717-1787, was Frances’s Foreign Minister and an early advocate of French support for the American Revolution. He had been a French diplomat throughout Europe for over 40 years. As America’s Ambassador to France, Jefferson and the Count had regular contact.

Other nations’ diplomats found the Count “wary & slippery.” No doubt Jefferson knew about the French Minister’s reputation before they met. Jefferson could have approached him on that basis but chose to have an open mind, instead. In time, he suggested those nations’ diplomats were “slippery and double-faced” themselves and thus received like treatment in return.

Jefferson had no such difficulties with the Count. Why? Jefferson was straightforward with the French minister, had no hidden agendas and stayed out of matters that didn’t concern him. He was both honest and forthright with the Count, and received the same respectful treatment in response.

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Travel is not what it used to be!

On the 7th. of May Congress resolved that a Minister Plenipotentiary [Webster’s 7th New Collegiate: “a diplomatic agent invested with full power to transact any business”] should be appointed in addition to Mr. [John] Adams & Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin for negotiating treaties of commerce with foreign nations, and I was elected to that duty. I accordingly left Annapolis on the 11th … proceeded to Boston in quest of a passage. While passing thro’ the different states, I made a point of informing myself of the state of the commerce of each, went on to New Hampshire with the same view and returned to Boston. I sailed on the 5th. of July … after a pleasant voyage of 19. days from land to land, we arrived at Cowes on the 26th … On the 30th. we embarked for Havre, arrived there on the 31st. left it on the 3d. of August, and arrived at Paris on the 6th.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson was recalled to Congress in late 1782, an attempt by his friends to draw him out of his depression following the death of his wife in September. A year and a half later, he was appointed as a minister to France, to help negotiate commercial treaties. He used his travels from Annapolis to Boston to gain first hand information on the commerce of the states.

His journey to France required these times:
– 19 days from Boston to Cowes, on the Isle of Wright, off England’s south coast
– An overnight to sail 100 miles from Cowes to Havre, on France’s north coast
– Four days coach ride for the 100 miles from Havre to Paris

He spent five years in France, greatly broadening his leadership experience. He would return from that assignment to a much larger stage, Secretary of State for President Washington.


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What work do the women do?

The people here [Champagne, France] were ill clothed, and looked ill, and I observed the women performing the heavy labours of husbandry; an unequivocal proof of extreme poverty. In Burgundy and Beaujolois they do only light work in the feilds, being principally occupied within doors. In these counties they were well clothed and appeared to be well fed.
To William Short, March 15, 1787

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sensitive leaders look for clues to people’s well-being.
Jefferson was reporting to his personal secretary in Paris. He was two weeks into a three month tour that would take him through France and parts of Italy. The surface reason may have been to visit the healing hot water springs at Aix, to soothe the broken and poorly set wrist he suffered a few months earlier. The water’s healing effects availed little, yet Jefferson inquired about everything as he went.

Here, he contrasted two regions of France, one poor and one prosperous.
– In Champagne, people were “ill clothed and looked ill,” obvious malnutrition. Women did heavy, outdoor work, probably the same farm work as men. That was an undeniable sign of “extreme poverty” that afflicted all but the privileged classes
– In Burgandy and Beaujolois, however, people were “well clothed and appeared to be well fed,” presumably healthy. Women’s work was mostly indoors, domestic tasks, with “only light work in the fields.” Economic prosperity required heavy physical work from the men only while protecting the women from that fate.

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