Canal du Midi in southern France.

Thomas Jefferson in France

America's First Ambassador to France

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in Paris.

Thomas Jefferson lived in France from 1784 to 1789, when he was the Minister to France for the newly formed United States of America. He returned to America in 1789, just before the French Revolution began. He really liked France, and the French people liked him.

This statue of Thomas Jefferson is on the Left Bank in Paris at the pedestrian bridge Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor near the Musée d'Orsay.

Jefferson served as Secretary of State under the President George Washington over the years 1790-1793. During that time he argued with Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, about financial policy. Jefferson came to consider Hamilton and the Federalists as associated with "Royalism". So, he and James Madison founded and led the Democratic-Republican Party. This nearly led Washington to dismiss Jefferson from his cabinet, but Jefferson left on his own and Washington never spoke to him again.

He retired for a time to his estate of Monticello, but then ran for the Presidency in 1796. He lost to John Adams but had enough electoral votes to become Vice President (1797-1801).

He then was elected as President in 1800 and 1804, serving 1801-1809. That period saw the major events of the Barbary Wars, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the Embargo Act of 1807 to maintain American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1819 he founded the University of Virginia, which opened to students in 1825.

In his autobiography he wrote about his time in France:

"Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled, and the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city. Their eminence, too, in science, the communicative dispositions of their scientific men, the politeness of the general manners, the ease and vivacity of their conversation, give a charm to their society, to be found nowhere else. In a comparison of this, with other countries, we have the proof of primacy, which was given to Themistocles, after the battle of Salamis. Every general voted to himself the first reward of valor, and the second to Themistocles. So, ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, in what country on earth would you rather live? — Certainly, in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France."

Jefferson traveled throughout France to learn as much as possible to guide the formation of the new nation of the United States of America.

His collected letters from his European travels record his curiosity and reporting. He was especially interested in France's excellent network of canals as they provided the best internal transportation before railroads were developed in the following century.

In the voluminous correspondence between Jefferson and Washington it seems that Jefferson wrote no letter to Washington without at least some mention of canal technology or operation.

He made the following notes during his 1787 trip through southern France and along the Canal du Midi, called the Canal du Languedoc in his day. The toise was a unit for length and area in pre-revolutionary France. One toise was exactly 6 pieds (about 1.949 meters) in length, or one square toise in area.

Rich plains in corn [meaning "grain" then]. St foin and pasture; hills at a little distance to the right in olives, the soil both of hill and plain is red, going from Agde to Bezieres. But at Bezieres the country becomes hilly, and is in olives, corn, St. foin, pasture, some vines and mulberries.

From Argilies to Saumal are considerable plantations of vines. Those on the red hills to the right are said to produce good wine. No wood, no enclosures. There are sheep and good cattle. The Pyrenees are covered with snow. I am told they are so in certain parts all the year. The Canal of Languedoc along which I now travel is 6 toises wide at bottom, and 10 toises at the surface of the water, which is 1 toise deep. The barks which navigate it are 70 and 80 feet long, and 17 or 18 feet wide. They are drawn by one horse, and worked by 2 hands, one of which is generally a woman. The locks are mostly kept by women, but the necessary operations are much too laborious for them. The encroachments by the men on the offices proper for the women is a great derangement in the order of things. Men are shoemakers, tailors, upholsterers, staymakers, mantua makers, cooks, doorkeepers, housekeepers, housecleaners, bedmakers. They coëffe the ladies, and bring them to bed: the women therefore, to live are obligated to undertake the offices which they abandon. They become porters, carters, reapers, wood cutters, lock keepers, smiters on the anvil, cultivators of the earth &tc. Can we wonder if such of them as have a little beauty prefer easier courses to get their livelihood, as long as that beauty lasts? Ladies who employ men in the offices which should be reserved for their sex, are they not bawds in effect? For every man whom they thus employ, some girl, whose place he has taken, is driven to whoredom. The passage of the eight locks at Bezieres, that is from the opening of the first to the last gate, took 1 hours 33 minutes. The bark in which I go i drawn by one horse, and goes from 2 to 3 geographical miles an hour. The canal yields abundance of carp and eel. I see also small fish resembling our perch and chub. Some plants of white clover, and some of yellow on the banks of the canal near Capestang; Santolina also and a great deal of a yellow iris. Met a raft of about 350 beams 40 feet long and 12 or 15 inches in diameter, formed into 14 rafts tacked together. The extensive and numerous fields of St. Foin, in general bloom, are beautiful.


From Saumal to Carcassonne we have always the river Aube close on our left. This river runs in the valley between the Cevennes and Pyrenees, serving as the common receptacle for both their waters. It is from 50 to 150 yards wide, always rapid, rock, and insusceptible of navigation. The canal passes in the side of the hills made by that river, overlooks the river itself, and its plains, and has its prospect ultimately terminated, on one side by mountains of rock overtopped by the Pyrenees, on the other by small mountains, sometimes of rock, sometimes of soil overtopped by the Cevennes. Marseillette is on a ridge which separates the river Aube from the Etang de Marseillette. The canal, in its approach to this village, passes the ridge, and rides along the front overlooking the etang and the plains on its border; and having passed the villages recrosses the ridge and resumes its general ground in front of the Aube. The growth is corn, St. foin, pasture, vines, mulberries, willows, and olives.

Opposite to Carcassonne the canal receives the river Fresquel, about 30 yards wide, which is its substantial supply of water from hence to Bezieres. From Bezieres to Agde the river Orb furnishes it, and the Eraut from Agde to the Etang de Thau. By means of the ecluse ronde at Agde ["ecluse" meaning "lock"] the waters of the Eraut can be thrown toward Bezieres to aid those of the Orb as far as the ecluse de Porcaraigne, 9 geometrical miles. Where the Fresquel enters the canal there is, on the opposite side, a waste, to let off the superfluous waters. The horse-way is continued over this waste by a bridge of stone of 18 arches. I observe them fishing in the canal with a skimming net of about 15 feet diameter, with which they tell me they catch carp. Flax in blossom. Neither strawberries nor peas yet at Carcassonne. The Windsor bean just come to table. From the Ecluse de la Lande we see the last olive trees near a metairee or farmhouse called le Lande. On a review of what I have seen and heard of this tree, the following seems to be its Northern limits. Beginning on the Atlantic, at the Pyrenees, and along them to the meridian of la Lande, or of Carcassonne up that Meridian to the Cevennes, as they begin just there to raise themselves high enough to afford it shelter. Along the Cevennes to the parallel of 45° latitude, and along that parallel (crossing the Rhone near the mouth of the Isere) to the Alps, thence along the Alps and the Appenines to what parallel of latitude I know not. Yet here the tracing of the line becomes the most interesting. For from the Atlantic so far, we see this production the effect of shelter and latitude combined. But where does it venture to launch forth, unprotected by shelter, and by the mere force of latitude alone? Where for instance does its northern limit cross the Adriatic? — I learn that the olive tree resists cold to 8° of Reaumur below the freezing point, which corresponds to 14° above zero of Farenheit, and that the orange resists to 4° below freezing of Reaumur, which is 23° above zero of Farenheit.

Canal du Midi in southern France.