« PreviousContinue »
conferences were nearly over. Congress thought it wise to add to the commission a member fresh from America, acquainted at first hand with the condi. tions of the later years of the war; and their unanimous choice fell on Jefferson. The appointment reached him at Monticello, November 25, 1782, and he immediately accepted it, not only as a rare opportunity for public service, but as a relief from the brooding sorrow of his great affliction. His passion for art, music, science, and philosophy heightened the anticipation of companionship with the noted men of culture whose names graced the intellectual capital of the world in the latter days of the old régime in France. Paris was his Mecca.
Jefferson left Monticello for Philadelphia in December. The French minister, Luzerne, offered him passage on the frigate Romulus, on which Jefferson's friend and late visitor to Monticello, the Marquis de Chastellux,' was also to sail. But Jefferson's view of the towers of Notre Dame and the courts of the Louvre was destined to still further postponement. While the Romulus lay a few miles below Baltimore, blocked by the ice and fearful of the British cruisers that were reported off the capes of Chesapeake Bay, word arrived that the preliminaries of peace had been signed in Paris. There was, then, no further immediate need for Jefferson's services abroad, though he remained in Philadelphia, his mission “suspended” only, until Congress should have assurance that everything was proceeding smoothly toward the final peace. On April 1, 1783, Congress thanked Jefferson for the readiness with which he had undertaken “a service which from the present situation of affairs” they "apprehend can be dispensed with,” and by the middle of May he was back at Monticello.
1 De Chastellux (1734–88) was one of the French generals in the American Revolution, and a member of the Académie française. He published his Travels in the Southern States of America in 1788. We are indebted to Chastellux for one of the most charming descriptions of Jefferson in retirement at Monticello in the spring of 1782: “A man not yet forty, tall and with a mild and pleasing countenance, but whose mind and understanding are ample substitutes for every exterior grace. An American who, without ever having quitted his own country, is at once a musician, skilled in drawing, a geometrician
But not for long. Just three weeks after his arrival home he was elected by the Virginia legislature, with his friend James Monroe and three other colleagues, to serve for the next ensuing term of machinery either for the settlement of their quarrels with one another or the enforcement of their obedience to the central power. Foreign nations were naturally sceptical about reposing confidence in a government which could not win the confidence of its own States, and diplomats in Paris, London, and Madrid blandly asked whether they were expected to make treaties with thirteen American nations or one. The army was unpaid and mutinous. “They have swords in their hands," wrote Gouverneur Morris to Jay, “and you know enough of the history of mankind to know much more than I have said.” The dignified and pathetic appeal of Washington himself quelled the insubordination of the officers at Newburgh, in March, 1783, but a few months later eighty men of a Pennsylvania regiment, raw recruits whose pay was in arrears, marched on Philadelphia declaring that they would "have their rights” from Congress. They swaggered through the streets with a good deal of harmless bluster, which was turned into riot and ribaldry when they “found their unerring way to the wine-bottles and ale-casks of hospitable Philadelphia.” Congress protested against this insult to its dignity by withdrawing from the city and the State. It established itself first in Princeton, New Jersey, then moved to Trenton, and finally to Annapolis, Maryland.
ress. The impotence and ignominy of that body at the close of the Revolution were notorious. Our debt was huge, the continental currency was worthless, and Congress had no competency to lay taxes. The States were quarrelling over boundaries and tariff reprisals, while Congress had no adequate and astronomer, a natural philosopher, legislator, and statesman. A Senator of America, who sat for two years in that famous Congress which brought about the Revolution ...a Governor of Virginia, who filled that difficult station during the recent invasions of Arnold, of Phillips, and of Cornwallis. ... Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politics or the arts were the topics of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he had his house, on an elevated situation from which he might contemplate the universe."
It was at Trenton that Jefferson found Congress and took his seat, November 4, 1783. That same day the body adjourned to meet at Annapolis three weeks later. But so insignificant had Congress become that a majority of the States, necessary to constitute a house for any kind of business, were not represented in Annapolis before the middle of December. Jefferson sat only from December until the following May, but these five months were full of activity. His name was at the head of most of the important committees and his pen was in constant requisition. He wrote the reply which the president of Congress made to General Washington when the latter laid down the command of the army which he had so wonderfully led for eight years. He took up Gouverneur Morris's suggestion for a decimal system of coinage, substituting our dollar for Morris's absurd unit of 1-1440 of a dollar, and advocating the extension of the decimal system to all our tables of weights and measures-a service for which school children and teachers, clerks and merchants, “the mason, the shipwright, and the carpenter," the "butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker" will all gladly join in erecting a monument to him when the present complicated and stupid tables are abolished.
The treaty of peace with Great Britain came before Congress in December, 1783, but it was not until the middle of January that representatives from the nine States necessary for its ratification could be secured. Several members of Congress were in favor of ratifying by the vote of seven States only, trusting that the British Government might not detect the harmless fraud-an eloquent testimony both to the members' own regard for the sanctity of the law of their country and to their estimate of its importance in the eyes of foreign nations. Jefferson discountenanced this plan as “a dishonorable prostitution of our seal."1 Delegates from Connecticut and South Carolina arrived at last, and on January 14, 1784, Jefferson had the satisfaction of setting his name to the ratification of the treaty acknowledging the Declaration of Independence which he had drafted seven and a half years before. Other signers of the Declaration who were present in Congress to participate in the ratification were Roger Sherman, Elbridge Gerry, Robert Morris, and William Ellery.
By far the most important of Jefferson's many services, however, during the few months of his attendance at Congress was the drafting of a plan
1 Jefferson had been appointed on July 4, 1776, on a committee with Franklin and Adams to prepare a device for a seal for the United States. Each of the three members of the committee suggested a device, Jefferson's being the most elaborate. But Congress was too critical or too busy (although further designs were submitted in 1779 and 1780) to decide on the seal until the close of the war. On June 20, 1782, the great seal of the United States was adopted from a design sent over from England by our minister, John Adams, and furnished to him, it is said, by Sir John Prestwich, Baronet, who was a friend of America in the Revolution. A most interesting illustrated article in Harper's Magazine for July, 1856, describes the genesis of the great seal, and the reproductions show the great superiority of Jefferson's design to the one adopted.