The origins of the French Revolution were American.
Adams and Jefferson understood that the antecedents of the revolution in France were American. Because they were two of the most influential leaders of the American Revolution, they felt a certain responsibility regarding events in France.
When the French Revolution took a violent and reactionary turn; when the King and Queen were guillotined and many hundreds more followed them, and a devastating anti-revolutionary Civil War erupted in the Vendée, Adams and Jefferson no longer agreed about the Revolution in France. This would be the foundation of the disillusion of their friendship.
There were other revolutions occurring at the same time, some national and others more personal.
During Washington’s presidency the country was at first unified behind him then, by the end of his second term, a shrill political partisanship had arisen. It was into this maelstrom of strident political disagreements that Adams began his presidency after defeating his friend Jefferson in the bitter election of 1796. Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, became the vice president though the Adams administration would be a Federalist one. Entirely opposed to the Federalist administration and its policies and to Federalism in general the vice president’s position would be a difficult one. Eventually, Jefferson’s inner conflicts would result in extraordinary decisions and unpleasant and difficult controversies that linger with us still.
Jefferson eventually accepted as an essential truth something that Adams had known many years previously – that the Union itself was the key to the success of American democracy; it is the cornerstone upon which it resides. If the Union were to fall, American democracy could not survive.
Retaining the unity of the states, and a common identity as Americans, is the never-ending challenge of the ongoing American Revolution. In 1776 this concept of Union required a revolutionary shift in understanding the relationship of the individual states to the combination itself, it is a shift that some were late in making; to our great regret as a nation some never accepted it. Keeping this concept alive and valid remains a permanent and existential responsibility incumbent on all Americans. Our revolution never ended.
There are personal revolutions, too. Such a revolutionary invitation was delivered to Jefferson by his friend Edward Coles. That this revolution did not occur demands some challenging speculation into Jefferson’s character.
Historians scour the past for key moments, those events and actions or inaction that then resulted in something huge/fantastic/awful/stupendous/tragic/meaningful, or did not. These are “turning points.” When a turning point is known – but abandoned – it is then something else entirely. Such lost opportunities are the detritus left on the side of the road less traveled.
Sometimes, the actions of one man or woman can shake the world. When the world needs shaking and the key actor does not act – that is an opportunity lost and sometimes a tragedy, too.
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