Sold – Jefferson Praises the “Holy Enthusiasm for Liberty & Independence of Nations”

He assesses the American Revolution and echoes Washington, seeking to avoid foreign entanglements.

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Liberty was Jefferson’s highest value, and he dedicated his life to bringing it to his fellow-countrymen and promoting it around the world. In the Declaration of Independence, he stated liberty was so fundamental that the right to it could not be taken or given away, specifying as inalienable “Life, Liberty and the...

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Sold – Jefferson Praises the “Holy Enthusiasm for Liberty & Independence of Nations”

He assesses the American Revolution and echoes Washington, seeking to avoid foreign entanglements.

Liberty was Jefferson’s highest value, and he dedicated his life to bringing it to his fellow-countrymen and promoting it around the world. In the Declaration of Independence, he stated liberty was so fundamental that the right to it could not be taken or given away, specifying as inalienable “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He even went so far as to say that it was to “secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” And so inseparable from liberty was the concept of independence, that Jefferson began the Declaration by referring to “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle peoples.

Later, Jefferson indicated the primacy of liberty by characterizing it in sacred terms, speaking of “the holy cause of freedom” in his “Response to Address of Welcome by the Citizens of Albemarle”, February 12, 1790. “The preservation of the holy fire,” he said of liberty in a letter to Samuel Knox in 1810, “is confided to us by the world, and the sparks which will emanate from it will ever serve to rekindle it in other quarters of the globe.” Reiterating that liberty was holy and extending that characterization to independence, he wrote to John Wayles Eppes in 1813, “If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence.”

The minds of the aging Jefferson and his colleague John Adams often turned to that holy war, the American Revolution, in which each had played so critical a part. Jefferson wrote Adams of their common cause, “A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind. It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow-laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government.”- Letter of January 21, 1812. By then, quite naturally, both men were concerned with their own places in history, as well those of their contemporaries, and of the momentous events they had witnessed and in which they had participated.

When Jefferson replied to an Adams letter in 1815, he dealt with this preoccupation, saying “On the subject of the history of the American Revolution, you ask who shall write it? Who can write it? And who will ever be able to write it?” This was not merely a philosophical question, but a valid inquiry, as very few good books on the subject had yet been written. In this same letter to Adams, Jefferson indicated that he was aware of at least one, however.

Carlo G. G. Botta, a professor at the University of Turin, was involved in revolutionary politics and sympathized with the American Revolution. When France took over northern Italy after the French Revolution of 1789, he became part of the government, but was forced to retire after Napoleon was deposed. In 1809 he wrote Storia della Guerra dell Independenza d’America (History of the War of American Independence). Jefferson read this book in Italian, thought it excellent, and told Adams, “ The work is…more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true” than others. In 1820, George Alexander Otis, a Boston attorney and an editor of the Boston Gazette, translated Botta’s book from Italian into English. Jefferson read a copy of the translation; this book appears in Jefferson’s library catalog in the Library of Congress.

Jefferson wrote Otis to thank him for translating the book, and for a copy of another book that dealt with a topic Jefferson considered of the utmost importance. From 1756-1763, the American colonies were involved in war because of British/French geopolitical maneuvers. This was followed by two decades of crisis and war, again with European overtones, culminating in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which recognized American independence.

After a hiatus of but six years, the French Revolution in 1789 inaugurated twenty six more years of contention and war. This time European power politics had disasterous consequences for the U.S., as unlike in 1756, the American people were seriously divided between those favoring the French side and those favoring the British. All of the presidential administrations, from Washington (who learned of the upheaval in France just five months into his first term) to Madison (who was finishing his last term when the last war cloud passed), were almost fully taken up with the situation in Europe and the impact it had in the U.S.

The revered Washington had, in his parting message to his countrymen, warned against Americans becoming enmeshed in European politics. Yet seemingly unavoidably, America was dragged in; during the post-Washington years its economy was devastated, the War of 1812 was fought, Washington, D.C. was burnt, and the domestic scene was rife with anger and bitterness. So men of the Adams/Jefferson generation had spent sixty years coping with the consequences of entanglements with Europe, and Jefferson was determined to find a way to avoid them in the future. As he would write President Monroe in 1823, “Our first and fundamental maxim should be, never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe. Our second, never to suffer Europe to intermeddle with cis-Atlantic affairs. America…has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own.”

The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, held in the autumn of 1818, was a meeting of the four allied powers of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia to end the evacuation of France, make decisions about their alliance, discuss the governance of Europe, and consider the military measures, if any, to be adopted as a precaution against a fresh outburst on the part of France. The Abbe Dominique de Pradt was a chaplain and confidant of Napoleon who was well known for his political writings. His book After the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle dealt with how the political map of Europe was constituted in the wake of the Congress. Otis sent Jefferson a copy.

Thomas Jefferson Autograph Letter Signed, Monticello, July 2, 1820, to Otis, characterizing liberty and independence as holy, the American cause in the Revolution as the “better” one, and stating the need of the U.S. to understand the new face of Europe in order to “keep clear” of entanglements. “I thank you for De Pradt’s book on the Congress of Aix la Chapelle. It is a work I had never seen, and had much wished to see. Altho’ his style has too much of amphibology [complex grammar] to be suited to the sober precision of Politics, yet we gather from him great outlines, and profound views of the new constitution of Europe, and of its probable consequences. These are things we should understand to know how to keep clear of them. I am glad to find that the excellent history of Botta is at length translated. The merit of this work has been too long unknown with us. He has had the faculty of sifting the truth of facts from our own histories, with great judgment, of suppressing details which do not make a part of the general history, and of enlivening the whole with the constant glow of his holy enthusiasm for the liberty & independence of nations. Neutral as an historian should be in the relation of facts, he is never neutral in his feelings, nor in the warm expression of them, on the triumphs and reverses of the conflicting parties, and of his honest sympathies with that engaged in the better cause. Another merit is in the accuracy of his narrative of those portions of the same war which passed in other quarters of the globe and especially on the ocean. We must thank him too for having brought within the compass of 3 vols. everything we wish to know of that war, and in a style as engaging that we cannot lay the book down. He had been so kind as to send me a copy of his work, of which I shall manifest my acknowledgment by sending him your volumes as they come out. My original being lent out, I have no means of collating it with the translation; but see no cause to doubt exactness. With my request to become a subscriber to your work be pleased to accept the assurance of my great respect.”

The letter, with its address leaf in Jefferson’s hand still present, was formerly the property of the Natick, Mass. Historical Society. It was deaccessioned in 2004. Jefferson’s own “holy enthusiasm for the liberty & independence of nations,” expressed in his engagement in the service of the “better cause” in the American Revolution, defined his life, created a nation, and brought hope to peoples everywhere that they too could be free.

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