That Wide Ocean

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America’s top official in France from 1785-1789, forty-something Thomas Jefferson, came to believe U.S. diplomats should not be overseas more than about eight years at a stretch. He felt if they (and they were then only men) were, they would lose touch with events and opinions at home. As a result, they would eventually be incapable of representing America properly.

He grew concerned also about young men “without attachment” becoming “involved” with European women, and felt their being overseas too long made such “intimacy” almost inevitable. The young women they encountered in diplomatic and social circles (and who, in France and elsewhere on the continent, could speak English) were overwhelmingly aristocrats. He believed “relationships” with those women could damage those “impressionable” young men’s “republican” sentiments and alienate them from the outlooks of most of their fellow Americans at home.

A few years before, a 16 year old future U.S. president became rather “enthralled” by young women he met while visiting Sweden. Yes, it’s a shocker: An American teenage boy loose in Scandinavia notices girls. Yet in that he demonstrated Jefferson’s concerns were perhaps not groundless.

Then lacking the television, internet, etc., that we take for granted, one could see Jefferson’s point about being too far removed from home as well. It took three months minimum for a letter to travel from Europe and to receive a reply from America; and that was usually during the summer months. Far fewer ships risked crossing the Atlantic between December and March – and even navies weren’t keen on it if they could possibly put it off until spring.

Sunset, Soulac-sur-mer, France, over the Bay of Biscay, which eventually becomes the Atlantic Ocean. [Photo by me, 2016.]
Sunset, Soulac-sur-mer, France, over the Bay of Biscay, which eventually becomes the Atlantic Ocean. [Photo by me, 2016.]

When widower Jefferson wrote home in 1785 to his late wife’s half-sister, who was caring for his now 8 year old daughter, Mary, explaining that he wanted Mary to join him and her older sister, Martha, in France, the woman was horrified. But in a letters’ exchange that took nearly a year, he insisted. His youngest daughter, Lucy, had just died of whooping cough there and Mary almost had too. He was adamant he wanted what remained of his family reunited after he realized he was going to be away much longer than the two years he had originally thought. He did not want Mary growing up considering her father and only surviving sibling “strangers.”

Plans for Mary’s trip took over a year to fall into place. Believing ships were often lost because the journey was too much for them, or because they were too old and worn out, Jefferson demanded his relatives find one that was no more than five years old and which had made the journey once. Naturally concerned about the weather too, he directed that she be placed on a ship that was sailing in only May, June or July. It wasn’t only the ship and the weather on his mind: the possibility of Barbary pirates seizing his daughter terrified him.

They could not get Mary across the Atlantic in 1786. It took until the next year for the combination of summer and the desired ship to be found. Even then the ship sailed from Virginia for England, not France, and his daughter ended up being looked after by Abigail Adams in London until Jefferson could manage to get her over to France.

In mid-1787, three years after leaving the U.S., Jefferson had both of his daughters with him in France at last. He, and a varying number of (male) twenty-something close aides, constituted our official presence in the country from 1785 until his departure in 1789. (Jefferson was not pleased as he began to notice one spending time whenever possible with the young, attractive wife of one of France’s liberal nobles – precisely what he did not want going on.) There were probably never more than three aides (at the most) at any given time, and often only one.

Today we Americans are accustomed to a gigantic State Department and finding U.S. embassies and consulates in most every country, and military bases around the world. But both of those developments are a relatively new thing in our history: they – the military presence especially – are mostly products of the Second World War (1939-1945). Americans of the 1790s would be stunned if they could see it.

America had no military worthy of the name as the eighteenth century closed, and diplomatically was perceived as relatively unimportant. The U.S. had diplomats permanently in just three countries besides France: Great Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands. (The U.S. needed loans after the war for independence and Amsterdam bankers had money to lend.) There were also “consuls” (often non-Americans without diplomatic immunity) at some ports in France, Britain and Morocco. It was little wonder that after he was back in the United States, Secretary of State Jefferson could handle most of his correspondence with U.S. diplomats abroad by writing the letters himself.

Side view of Thomas Jefferon's Monticello home. I was struck when visiting by the fact that it is actually not all that large a building. [Photo by me, 2011.]
Side view of Thomas Jefferon’s Monticello home. I was struck when visiting by the fact that it is actually not all that large a building. [Photo by me, 2011.]

Despite all our of media and the internet, I find I can feel a bit “out of touch” with U.S. domestic news at times. I haven’t been there since a brief visit to see my father in June. Yes, one can read about this or that on the net, or see reports on TV news here, but even so of course you just can’t quite grasp the depth of emotions and the feel of issues and happenings at a distance quite the same way as you can when you are actually there.

However, that can make for funny moments, too. I remember many years ago – iPhones were nowhere in sight, and before the net was nearly as all-encompassing in our lives as it is now – visiting my parents on Long Island and feeling like I’d just landed from Mars. And why? The whole country seemed transfixed over someone named Britany Spears. I had not the slightest idea who she was.

Presidential election years are now especially amazing times when outside of the U.S. For example, as the Voice of America tells us:

Monday’s first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump may draw, by some estimates, 100 million viewers, who will be able to take the measure of the candidates for the first time on the same stage together.

Voice of America radio (VOA) is the closest to an “official” broadcasting voice the U.S. government has. That “100 million” number is, one suspects, in the U.S. alone. By Tuesday much of the world beyond the U.S. will have seen that debate just as Americans do at home, and those abroad will certainly have their own opinions about what the candidates have to say.

George Washington's Mount Vernon. [Photo by me, 2011.]
George Washington’s Mount Vernon. [Photo by me, 2011.]

That global audience is vastly larger than Kennedy and Nixon had when debating on U.S. TV in 1960, when Americans saw it “coast to coast” but before worldwide live television was possible, let alone when compared to the few thousands present in lower Manhattan when General Washington was sworn in as President for the first time on April 30, 1789. No one in London or Paris even knew for a month or so afterwards that Washington was even officially president. When they found out few had any idea what the job was, most didn’t even really care, and many just assumed he would simply be crowned an American king within a few years.

Washington is also the only president we’ve ever had to be elected unanimously. (And he was again in 1792.) We certainly won’t have that this year. Seeing those outside the U.S. look on as an American presidential election campaign kicks into high-gear in a late September and October in the 21st century is always a fascinating experience.

This year, perhaps more so than recent others before. πŸ˜‰

Have a good Monday, wherever you are. πŸ™‚

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