Object of the Month

“You know the balance of trade was always against me”: Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams Go Shopping

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 9 August 1786

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 9 August 1786

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  • by Sara Georgini, The Adams Papers

    In a letter to Abigail Adams written from Paris on 9 August 1786, Thomas Jefferson enclosed an account of purchases the two made for each other in Europe. "The balance of trade was always against me," Jefferson quipped to Abigail, adding that no further reimbursement from the Adamses was needed. [Please see images 1 and 2 within the sequence to view images of the letter, and see image 3 to view the account. Transcriptions of the letter and the account are available within the Adams digital edition.]

    An American in Paris

    On 14 February 1785, the Continental Congress commissioned Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with the nations of Europe and North Africa. In the following months, while on a brief tour of New England, Jefferson learned he had been appointed to serve as the American minister in Paris. "The succession to Dr. Franklin at the court of France, was an excellent school of humility," Jefferson later recalled. "On being presented to any one as the Minister of America, the common-place question, used in such cases, was 'c'est vous, Monsieur, qui remplace le Docteur Franklin?' 'It is you, Sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?' I generally answered 'no one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.'" Jefferson appreciated his predecessor's labor in charming the monarchy, and he, too, became an avid participant in the cultural life of the nation.

    Massachusetts lawyer John Adams, his ally in the Continental Congress and the Anglo-American peace negotiations, was delighted by Jefferson's appointment. Preparing to serve as the first American minister to Great Britain—while juggling a third commission to manage the Dutch loans and thereby consolidate American credit in Europe—Adams was glad to have a trusted colleague in nearby Paris. "He is an old Friend with whom I have often had Occasion to labour at many a knotty Problem," Adams wrote to James Warren, "and in whose Abilities and Steadiness I always found great Cause to confide." John's wife Abigail also looked forward to Jefferson's arrival. As Abigail knew, it had been a difficult period for the Virginian. His wife Martha died in 1782, and youngest daughter Lucy Elizabeth had followed two years later. During John and Abigail's time in Europe, the widower Jefferson was a frequent dinner guest and a great favorite of the Adams children. The young John Quincy Adams, as his elderly father reminisced to Jefferson in 1825, "appeared to me to be almost as much your boy as mine." And to Abigail, with whom he carried on an extensive correspondence, the cosmopolitan Jefferson was "one of the choice ones of the Earth." When Jefferson's younger daughter Mary ("Polly") traveled to Europe in the care of family slave Sally Hemings, it was Abigail who greeted the teenaged girls and watched over them in London.

    On 5 July 1785, Jefferson boarded the Ceres at Boston with his 11-year-old daughter Martha ("Patsy") and his enslaved servant James Hemings in tow. Favorable winds made for a pleasant ocean crossing, and Jefferson arrived in Paris on 6 August. The last leg from Rouen must have been tiring, with Patsy and James both ailing from fever and exhaustion. In Jefferson's memorandum books, where he faithfully recorded expenses great and small, the statesman itemized several purchases of coffee (and a coffee mill) made en route to the city. After a brief stay at the Hôtel Landron, in the Cul-de-sac Taitbout (now Rue du Helder, 9th Arrondissement), Jefferson settled into the Hôtel de Langeac, located at the corner of Rue de Berri and the Champs-Elysées, where he lived from 17 October 1785 to 26 September 1789. The two-story, twenty-four room edifice, which was demolished in 1842, featured indoor plumbing, mosaic-tile floors, an English garden, and stables. Though he had studied the French language back in Virginia (along with classical Latin and Greek), Jefferson worried that he understood it "imperfectly," so he hired a manservant to supervise domestic affairs. Jefferson enrolled both daughters at the Abbaye Royale de Panthemont, a prestigious convent that welcomed Protestant and Catholic students alike.

    Thomas Jefferson's Paris—a city on the eve of the French Revolution and constantly under construction as new bridges, buildings, and city walls all rose up—teemed with opportunities to explore. The American minister dove into the cultural scene. He attended concerts, read political tracts, and admired the lush landscape of the Tuileries Gardens. He hosted dinner parties for the Marquis de Lafayette and his new set of revolutionary friends. He bought artwork at public auctions, subscribed to local newspapers, and sampled a range of theatrical offerings. He befriended the "learned ladies" and salonnières. All the while, Jefferson kept a keen eye on Virginia politics, developing a transatlantic correspondence network that ferried news via James Madison, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe. Jefferson published his Notes of the State of Virginia, and sought out French translators for John Adams's A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (London, 1787-1788).

    When he needed a hiatus from city life and the press of diplomatic duty, Thomas Jefferson ventured to his "hermitage," a boardinghouse run by the monks of Mont Calvaire. He broke up his Paris obligations with briefer sojourns on the Continent—an English garden tour with Adams in April 1786, then on to French wine country and northern Italy in the winter of 1787, where he recuperated from a broken wrist. "I was alone thro the whole, and think one travels more usefully when they travel alone, because they reflect more," he wrote to a friend. Jefferson carried back a few souvenirs: smuggled rice from Italy; new vineyard techniques so that he could serve his Monticello visitors "a glass of Hock or Rudesheim of my own making;" and even a stray wood chip carved from William Shakespeare's chair.

    Auditing Jefferson

    Jefferson's travels in and around Paris, while educational and transformative, also proved costly. Though he tried to match the "certain stile of living" that Franklin had established, Jefferson lamented to Madison that such budgeting "called for an almost womanly attention to the details of the household, equally perplexing, disgusting, & inconsistent with business." As an American minister, Jefferson received an annual salary of $9,000. Life in Enlightenment-era Paris was expensive; renting and outfitting a series of homes quickly outstripped Jefferson's income. He worried, to secretary David S. Franks and others, that his "delicate" financial situation might send angry creditors to King Louis XVI with ugly complaints of debt. "These circumstances have not only reduced me to a rigid œconomy," Jefferson wrote in June 1785, "but render it impossible for me either to advance money or further hazard my credit." For, aside from servants, convent tuition, carriages, and his 9,000 livres yearly rent, Jefferson had plenty to pay for in Paris. He secured an apprenticeship for James Hemings to learn the art of French cooking. He indulged in new clothes for his daughters, and some lace ruffles for himself. He paid for a pedicure between bouts of book shopping, and purchased a "battledore & shuttlecock" for the children to play badminton.

    Across the English Channel, Abigail Adams also struggled to run a diplomatic household. To ease the burden, she and Jefferson often shopped for each other. As we can see from the enclosure of their accounts, he purchased and sent to Abigail silk shoes, Madeira wine, fine damask cloth, and French statuary. She mailed him shirts, buttons, and Irish linen. When he borrowed funds against his salary, Jefferson listed it, too. Take the insurance paid "on Houdon's life," which allowed artist Jean-Antoine Houdon to travel to Mount Vernon and sculpt George Washington for the statue displayed in the Virginia State Capitol at Richmond. Jefferson was a prodigious record-keeper. His Memorandum Books, pocket-sized lists of odd expenses and long-term debts, are one example of his accounting habits. He used his Garden Book to document agricultural improvements and technological experiments. In his Farm Book, the third president maintained a "Roll of Slaves" and noted down the many techniques he saw in his travels: new ways to grow peas, or to manufacture parmesan cheese. Reading between the lines of his ledger, we see how Jefferson made a second home in Paris, and imagined his future at Monticello. In his debits and credits, a fuller portrait of Thomas Jefferson emerges.

    The Private Jefferson: An Exhibition and Companion Volume

    On 24 January 2016 the Massachusetts Historical Society marked the 225th anniversary of its founding, kicking off a year-long celebration featuring a series of exhibitions, public lectures, seminars, and other programs. The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society will be on display at the Society's 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, headquarters through 20 May 2016. The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM–4:00 PM. The exhibition will travel later in 2016 to the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond and in 2017 to the New York Historical Society in New York City. Information on the companion volume can be found on our website.

    Further Reading

    Adams Family Correspondence, Vol. 7 (1786–1787), eds. Margaret A. Hogan, C. James Taylor, Celeste Walker, Anne Decker Cecere, Gregg L. Lint, Hobson Woodward, and Mary T. Claffey. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

    Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

    Bear, James A., Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, eds. Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. 2 vols.

    Cappon, Lester J., ed. The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1959. 2 vols.

    Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

    Founders Online features over 175,000 searchable documents, fully annotated, from the authoritative Founding Fathers Papers projects of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams (and family), Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.

    Rice, Howard C. Thomas Jefferson's Paris. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

    Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive presents digital images and searchable transcriptions of a selection of Jefferson's personal papers, including his Farm and Garden Books, the manuscript of Notes on the State of Virginia, his only full-length published work, and his handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence. The website also features digital images of Jefferson's architectural drawings and sketches of two of his library catalogs.