Jefferson in Paris (1995)

 

 

Director:  James Ivory.

Starring:  Nick Nolte (Thomas Jefferson), Greta Scacchi (artist Maria Cosway), Thandie Newton (Sally Hemmings), Jean-Pierre Aumont, Simon Callow, Gwyneth Paltrow (daughter Patsy).

From Merchant Ivory Productions.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is the summary of the entire movie. 

This is a very interesting movie because it focuses on Jefferson's love life while he was in Paris serving as the U.S. ambassador to France (1785-1789) at the time of the buildup to the French Revolution.  

Madison Hemings (son of Sally Hemings) tells the story of the relationship between his mother and Thomas Jefferson.  His grandmother Betty Hemings was the daughter of an English sea captain and a black slave.  His mother was the daughter of master John Wales, who also was the father of the future bride of Thomas Jefferson, Martha Wayles (making the two daughters half-sisters).  Thomas Jefferson inherited Sally Hemings from his wife's father.    He has six children, four of whom survived into adulthood.  There were three boys and one girl.  Son Beverly looked physically like his father Thomas Jefferson. 

Jefferson (Nick Nolte) is in France with his eldest daughter Patsy.  His wife died three years earlier.  His two other daughters Poly and Lucy stay behind at Monticello.  Patsy attends a convent school of 55 girls, 15 of which are not Catholic.  Also with the Jeffersons is their slave James Hemings, brother of Sally.  Since he is now in France, he asks Mr. Jefferson for wages and gets 24 francs every month.

The political atmosphere is getting tense.  A group of protestors burn in effigy Mr. Calonne, the Minister of Finance.   

The English woman Mrs. Maria Cosway is married to a man who does not have sex with her.  She takes an almost immediate interest in Thomas Jefferson.  There is a scene of the two playing a word play game with the French aristocrats, which was a common occurrence at the French court.  Jefferson notes that the French King is socially awkward and the Austrian Queen feels isolated and lonely. 

Jefferson meets the famous American artist from Connecticut, John Trumbull.  Gen. Lafayette was present at the unveiling of Trumbull's painting of the American victory at Yorktown during the American Revolution. 

The Cosways head to London.  Bread riots break out in Paris. 

Jefferson's daughter Lucy dies.  He sends for daughter Polly to come to France.  Polly is accompanied by 15 year old slave Sally Hemings.

Mrs. Cosway comes back to France from England, but by this time Jefferson's youngest daughter has arrived with Sally.  And Jefferson has already began to be intrigued with the very flirtatious and playful Sally Hemings.  Patsy is upset when she finds out that her father has been sleeping with Sally and she considers telling Madame Conway.  Cosway gives up on Jefferson when she sees how close he has become to Sally. 

President George Washington wants Jefferson to return home to be his Secretary of State.  Before going home, James Hemings has Jefferson swear that both he and his sister (and her offspring) will be freed from slavery.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


Historical Background:

 

1743  -- born at Shadwell in what is now Albemarle County, Va. His mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, came from one of the first families of Virginia; his father, Peter Jefferson, was a well-to-do landowner, although not in the class of the wealthiest planters.

1760-62 --  Jefferson attends the College of William and Mary and then studies law with George Wythe.

1769 --   begins six years of service as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses.

1770  -- begins building Monticello, designing every detail.

1772  --   marries Martha Wayles Skelton.  They have six children, two of whom survive into adulthood.

1774  -- writes A Summary View of the Rights of British America.   Is elected to the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia.

1776  -- appointed to head a committee of five in preparing the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the primary author.  But Congress deletes a clause that censures the monarchy for imposing slavery upon America.

1776-1779  --   serves in the Virginia House of Delegates.

1779  --  governor of Virginia.

1781  --  retires from the governorship.

1782  --  death of his wife.

1783  --  in Congress again he proposes that slavery be excluded from all of the American western territories after 1800.

1784 --  provision banning slavery is narrowly defeated.

1784  --  goes to Paris as commissioner to help negotiate commercial treaties.

1785  --  succeeds Benjamin Franklin as minister to France. Witnesses the beginning of the French Revolution.

1789  --  Jefferson leaves Paris to become Washington's secretary of state. Fights with the Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton -- this representing the start of the two party system of today's Democrats  (representing first farmers then the working class) and Republicans (representing more well-to-do).

1793  -- Jefferson resigns as secretary of state.

1794  --  thinks Washington's expedition to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion an unnecessary use of military force.

1796  -- runner up to John Adams for the presidency, and as runner-up he becomes vice-president.

1796  --  James Hemings is given his freedom.  He went back to France, but returned to Monticello.  Later he became an alcoholic.  His sister Sally had six children. 

1800  -- wins the presidency.  There was a tie with his running mate, Aaron Burr, but Hamilton throws his support to Jefferson in the House of Representatives.

During his presidency, there were notorious newspaper scandals about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.  Sally was referred to as "Dusky Sally." 

Patsy Jefferson married her cousin, Thomas Man Randolph, and had twelve children.  She continued to live with her father.  She became his hostess in Washington and was in complete charge of his household at Monticello. 

1801  --  James Hemings commits suicide. 

1803  -- The Louisiana Purchase.

1804  --  Jefferson gets reelected, taking every state except two--Connecticut and Delaware.

1805  --  Gets a favorable settlement concluding the Tripolitan War (1801-05), in which the newly created U.S. Navy fought its first engagements.

1806 --  Lewis and Clark Expedition explores the Louisiana Territory.

1807  -- Chesapeake affair; in Napoleonic Wars Britain and France repeatedly violated American sovereignty. The Embargo Act unsuccessfully prohibits virtually all exports and most imports in order to coerce British and French recognition of American rights.

1809  --  he retires from the presidency.

1819  -- founds the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, which he designed, supervised construction, and helped hire the faculty.

1826  --  Thomas Jefferson dies at Monticello.  Sally Hemings lived with her son Madison and Eston. 

1835  --  death of Sally Hemings. 

 

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