Falling Short In The Pursuit Of Happiness

On Monday, according to Reuters:

President Barack Obama will kick off the state visit of French President Francois Hollande … with a visit to Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president and a one-time envoy to France.

“Monticello reflects Jefferson’s affection for the people of France, the long-standing relations between our two democracies, and the shared values we hold dear: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the White House said in a statement….

There is little new to be said here about one Thomas Jefferson. However, a much lesser known story is that of Jefferson’s private secretary while he was serving in Paris, William Short. It seems unlikely Mr. Short’s personal “pursuit of happiness” will merit much mention during the Hollande tour of Monticello.

Jefferson's home, Monticello. Photo by me, 2011.
Jefferson’s home, Monticello. Photo by me, 2011.

After Jefferson returned to America, Short remains in France. He serves briefly as chargé d’affaires. But as Monticello’s web site explains further:

….By 1792 Short had become horrified by the excesses of the French Revolution. Unlike Jefferson, he correctly predicted that the tyranny of the mob would be replaced by the tyranny of a despot. Regarding their disagreement over the course of the French Revolution, Short did not trust his mentor’s faith in democratic reform: “Jefferson’s greatest illusions in politics have proceeded from a most amiable error on his part; having too favorable opinion of the animal called Man.”….

Short had hoped to succeed Jefferson as Minister to France. Perhaps predictably, given his relative youth, he does not:

….Much to Short’s disappointment, President Washington …. promoted him to be minister to the Netherlands, not France.

The Netherlands is not where Short wishes to be. Why that might be so is not especially difficult to understand:

In 1785 Short had grown attached to Duchesse Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld, whose husband Duc Louis Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld (an uncle thirty years her senior), was assassinated during the Reign of Terror.

The major reason Short would sour on the French Revolution after Jefferson’s departure is due in all likelihood to what would happen to the family of that young married, aristocratic woman with whom he had fallen in love. Jefferson’s famous biographer Dumas Malone noted that earlier, during the later 1780s:

….[Short] enjoyed [the company] of the young Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld often enough to excite some comments among his friends. She was much too young for Jefferson’s distinguished friend and contemporary the Duke; and Short, who seems to have appealed to all the ladies, obviously appealed to her. Up to this point the affair appears to have involved no more than a few sighs and kisses, but it blossomed into a real romance after Jefferson had returned to America….

The future U.S. president had never been in favor of American young men temporarily in Europe getting themselves mixed up with – and, in Jefferson’s view, by – European women (probably because those women were likely to be aristocrats). Jefferson greatly likes Short, and is displeased as he discovers what is going on between Short and Rosalie.

In a January 1793 letter (interestingly, written from America just weeks before the guillotining of the deposed King Louis XVI, and with far worse to come not long afterwards), in carefully crafted and detached language, Jefferson politely berates Short. Essentially Jefferson warns his much younger colleague not to turn against the French Revolution for personal reasons (i.e. love for a woman and concern for her relatives). He cautions Short as well, being abroad as long as he has been, against embracing an alien mentality at odds with that of (as Jefferson chooses to interpret it) most Americans at home:

….The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is. I have expressed to you my sentiments, because they are really those of 99 in an hundred of our citizens. The universal feasts, and rejoicings which have lately been had on account of the successes of the French shewed the genuine effusions of their hearts. You have been wounded by the sufferings of your friends, and have by this circumstance been hurried into a temper of mind which would be extremely disrelished if known to your countrymen.

We might generously read that as a “second father” pulling up a “son” he considers to be losing the plot. Or, less generously, Jefferson’s words come across as those of an older man, from the safety of 3,000 miles away, telling off a younger man for having the nerve to have formed his own opinions while on the actual scene.

Immediately after, Jefferson adds, and this time not unreasonably given Short’s diplomatic position, that his biggest concern is President Washington’s having heard of Short’s loose talk. Washington does not want Short’s opinions possibly interpreted in France as reflecting U.S. policy:

The reserve of the Pres. of the U.S. had never permitted me to discover the light in which he viewed it, and as I was more anxious that you should satisfy him than me, I had still avoided explanations with you on the subject. But your [letter] 113 induced him to break silence and to notice the extreme acrimony of your expressions. He added that he had been informed the sentiments you expressed in your conversations were equally offensive to our allies, and that you should consider yourself as the representative of your country and that what you say, might be imputed to your constituents. He desired me therefore to write to you on this subject. He added that he considered France as the sheet anchor of this country and its friendship as a first object….

Nonetheless Jefferson continued to hold Short in high esteem, and Short in return still much admired Jefferson. However, by 1793, Jefferson’s influence in Washington’s cabinet was also ebbing. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Monticello.org also tells us:

Whereas Short hoped Jefferson’s influence could help secure his post in France, Jefferson never managed to do so (Gouverneur Morris received the appointment instead). In 1793 Short was appointed as minister resident to Spain. Charged with the mission of negotiating the first treaty between the U.S. and Spain, Short had to wait until 1795 for the Spaniards to begin to cede anything because they were preoccupied with war with France. Rumors that Short was not welcome in Madrid forced Washington to supersede him by appointing Thomas Pinckney to finalize negotiations.

Now Short finds himself in Spain. The second wrong country. That Short has no professional success in Spain can also hardly have helped his personal outlook:

Cheated of his triumph in Spain after years of negotiations, Short returned to Paris to live with Rosalie.

But there is no fairy tale ending:

Short decided to return to the U.S. to take care of business matters only when he realized Rosalie was reluctant to leave her native country….

Ultimately, the more practical Rosalie refuses to marry Short, and instead marries yet another older man – an elderly cousin. Wikipedia sums up nicely:

William and Rosalie’s love affair was recorded in hundreds of letters …. documenting the lovers’ pains of separation and their frustration with social norms. Likewise, their words of devotion are especially poetic and moving. The love letters are an authentic literary contribution, and offer delightful personal insights into a turbulent era of world history.

Indeed the language often used in upper-class romance letters in the 18th/ early 19th century seems, to our eyes, flowery and earnest to the point of embarrassing. What is curious, though, is we do accept, and much enjoy, for instance, “Mr Darcy” sharing his heart with “Elizabeth Bennet.” Short and Rosalie’s story is told in some detail in a 1926 article by Marie Kimball: William Short, Jefferson’s Only “Son”; and here is but a tiny excerpt from a real letter from her to him:

….I am desolated, my dear and treasured friend, by the length of our separation and yet I see no end to it. Since you have been reappointed to your present post there is nothing definite upon which I can fasten my slender hopes. Up to the present I had hoped that you would make a trip here on your way back to your first post, and this slight respite from suffering was necessary to a heart so oppressed as mine. But hope itself has been taken away from me since your new appointment. . . .

What is to be done? What are we coming to? Misfortune seems to overwhelm my unhappy days in every possible way….

….Without you, without the reassuring thought of your love for me, I should not have clung to life, which offered nothing but suffering….

As much as millions of us are fans of Austen, her fictional characters’ stirring declarations usually don’t hold a candle to what Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld and William Short were actually writing to each other for years.


UPDATE: July 17, 2017: For more, see here: Love Letters: Duchess And Diplomat.