Friday, May 9, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's Appointment

While Continental Congress was holding session in Annapolis in the Old Senate Chamber, the room inevitably bore witness to several significant events in our nation’s history. Visitors to the State House will undoubtedly hear about Washington's resignation and even the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, but sometimes overlook another event that occurred toward the end of the Congress’ time in the State House. A little over 230 years ago today, on May 7, 1784, Thomas Jefferson was appointed a trade commissioner in the Old Senate Chamber, making him the first official representative of the independent United States to a foreign government.

Thomas Jefferson painted by Mather Brown in London, 1786. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

This appointment was made by Congress after electing former trade commissioner, John Jay, who was already on a return ship bound to America, to the position of Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Jefferson would join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, forming a triumvirate intended to negotiate trade relations with foreign powers. At the time of his appointment, trade with the United States was still dominated by Britain. Several other countries, not trusting the stability of the new country, were hesitant to form treaties and war debts still hung heavy over America. However, Jefferson remained firm in his democratic ideals. The day after his appointment, Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “I am now to take my leave of the jostlings of states and to repair a field where the divisions will be fewer but on a larger scale. Congress yesterday joined me to Mr. Adams & Dr. Franklin on the foreign commercial negotiations. I shall pursue there the line I have pursued here, convinced that it can never be the interest of any party to do what is unjust, or to ask what is unequal.”[1]

Less than a year after Jefferson’s arrival, Adams was appointed minister plenipotentiary to England and 80-year old Franklin had retired from the post, leaving Jefferson to succeed Franklin as minister in France. During his time abroad, Jefferson was fascinated by the art and culture of Europe and wrote, “I have never yet seen a man drunk in France, even among the lowest of people. Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words. It is in these arts they shine.”[2] He interacted with many members of the French Revolution, including the Marquis de Lafayette, and largely supported their views. By the time Jefferson left in 1789, the storming of the Bastille had taken place and the French Revolution was underway.

The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houel, 1789. Image courtesy of the National Library of France.

Events, like Jefferson's appointment, that took place in the Old Senate Chamber help to remind visitors that a single room, such as this one, can have connections all over place and time. While we may view the State House solely as a piece of American history, its historical connections reach farther than the average visitor may realize. From influences of the British colonial past to Jefferson’s appointment to France, the Old Senate Chamber’s history encompasses an impressive scope.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 8 May 1784. Founders Online, National Archives, from The Papers of James Madison, vol. 8, 10 March 1784 – 28 March 1786, ed. Robert A. Rutland and William M. E. Rachal. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973, pp. 29–33.
[2] Thomas Jefferson to Charles Bellini, 30 September 1785. Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, vol.8 p.569.

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