“…[W]e are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty, in a feather-bed.”
This great expression suggestive of the sacrifices one must expect during reformist revolutionary times is found buried in a letter that for the most part reads like a chat between old friends, complete with the latest on the new job that he hates, gossipy complaints about the boss and a saccharine send-off: “Kiss and bless your dear children for me.”
In this instance the chums were Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, the new job is as the United States’ first Secretary of State, the boss he’s complaining about is George Washington and the note was is perhaps the first official governmental correspondence between the United States and the French National Assembly.
The quote has appeared in at least two textbook series* where it first caught my attention. I was initially startled by the tone of sentiment, because in both series’ the quote appears in discussions about the much bloodier Reign of Terror (1793–94). Scoffing at the discomfort of a few royals is in poor taste, after all, if the discomfort was caused by the fall of an 88.2 pound blade on the back of their neck.
This quote has also taken the form of a libertarian meme, of late, appearing on radically-themed posters. Try a Google images search for “Liberty in a Feather Bed” if you want to see, but be wary of the impact on your search history :}
Getting back to the story, I remembered the quote the way it’s portrayed on these posters as as evidence of Jefferson’s ominous radicalism, suggestive of the need to break eggs for omelettes and the ends justify the means. But I was surprised to find it in a letter written on April 2, 1790, which French History buffs know was well before revolution had turned into a bloodbath. I’m not suggesting Jefferson wasn’t a supporter of the revolution, but if you are teaching and portraying Jefferson as an apologist to slaughter, a close look at the source shows that this is not true.
From Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 2 April 1790
New York April 2. 1790.
Behold me, my dear friend, dubbed Secretary of state, instead of returning to the far more agreeable position which placed me in the daily participation of your friendship. I found the appointment in the newspapers the day of my arrival in Virginia. I had indeed been asked while in France whether I would accept of any appointment at home, and I had answered that without meaning to remain long where I was, I meant it to be the last office I should ever act in. Unfortunately this letter had not arrived at the time of arranging the new government. I expressed freely to the President my desire to return. He left me free, but still shewing his own desire. This, and the concern of others, more general than I had a right to expect, induced me after 3. months parleying, to sacrifice my own inclinations. I have been here then ten days harnessed in new gear. Wherever I am, or ever shall be, I shall be sincere in my friendship to you and to your nation. I think, with others, that nations are to be governed according to their own interest: but I am convinced that it is their interest, in the long run, to be grateful, faithful to their engagements even in the worst of circumstances, and honorable and generous always. If I had not known that the head of our government was in these sentiments, and that his national and private ethics were the same, I would never have been where I am. I am sorry to tell you his health is less firm than it used to be. However there is nothing in it to give alarm. The opposition to our new constitution has almost totally disappeared. Some few indeed had gone such lengths in their declarations of hostility that they feel it awkward perhaps to come over, but the amendments proposed by Congress, have brought over almost all their followers. If the President can be preserved a few years till habits of authority and obedience can be established, generally, we have nothing to fear. The little vaut-rien, Rhode-island will come over with a little more time. Our last news from Paris is of the 8th. of January. So far it seemed that your revolution had got along with a steady pace: meeting indeed occasional difficulties and dangers, but we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty, in a feather-bed. I have never feared for the ultimate result, tho’ I have feared for you personally. Indeed I hope you will never see such another 5th. and 6th. of October. Take care of yourself, my dear friend. For tho’ I think your nation would in any event work out her salvation, I am persuaded were she to lose you, it would cost her oceans of blood, and years of confusion and anarchy. Kiss and bless your dear children for me. Learn them to be as you are a cement between our two nations. I write to Madame de la fayette so have only to add assurances of the respect & esteem of your affectionate friend & humble servt,
The events of October 5th and 6th that Jefferson hopes he “will never again see” were what modern Americans would now call the first Women’s March. On October 5, 1789, numerous accounts describe a group of mostly women approximately 7,000-strong carrying crude weapons on a half-marathon march from Paris to Versailles to demand bread from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. This is the day when Antoinette apocryphally suggested that the mob be fed cake, or brioche to soothe their hunger. A member of the palace guard was killed on the 5th, but Lafayette interposed and helped the mob and the royal family settle into an agreement to return to Paris to view the famine for themselves.
The Women’s march was a turning point for the French Revolution, but the discomfort experienced by the reigning despots could be reasonably compared to being inconvenienced rather than slaughtered. Though they were taken prisoner and would never return to the comforts of Versailles, their fates were not sealed.
I would be careful about using the “feather-bed” quote to imply that Jefferson also supported of the latter violent phase of the French Revolution. A letter from 1794 expressing satisfaction with Robespierre’s execution, was more characteristic of Jefferson’s sense of justice.
“I cannot help hoping that the execution of Robespierre and his bloodthirsty satellites is a proof of their return to that moderation which their best friends had feared had not been always observed,” Jefferson to Henry Remsen October 30 1794.
My conclusion is that when Jefferson wrote, “we are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty, in a feather-bed” he was not making a grandiloquent point in support of the Reign of Terror. He was more literally describing a phase of the French revolution, that took the royal family out their feather beds… Writing in April of 1790 he would have no way of presaging the slaughter to come.
*Thomas A. Bailey’s, A Diplomatic History of the American People, 10th edition, Prentice-Hall, Page 70 in a discussion about the 1793 Reign of Terror; The Brief American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Volume I: To 1877 see inset. Bailey was an author on earlier editions of the Brief American Pageant series, explaining the similar context.