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He Admired the Wine : The French Offer a Toast to Jefferson

May 22, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — A display case in the window of Lucien Legrand's wine shop, one of the oldest in Paris, honors Thomas Jefferson these days for his often-stated belief that "the inhabitants of a country where wine is sold at reasonable price can never become alcoholic."

In the case are a print of Jefferson, two Jefferson nickels, a host of French and American flags and the French translation of a letter written by Jefferson as President to his secretary of the Treasury in 1807. In the letter, Jefferson proposed a decrease in the tariff on inexpensive imported wines, thus encouraging Americans to drink them rather than whiskey--"a great gain to the Treasury and the sobriety of our country."

Wine dealer Legrand is paying tribute to Jefferson to complement recent celebrations by France's wine-producing region of Burgundy to mark the 200th anniversary of a visit there by Jefferson while he was the American minister, or ambassador, to France from 1784 to 1789.

Jefferson's Injured Wrist

The celebrations are doubtless so much ballyhoo, since Jefferson made the voyage mainly to soak an injured right wrist in the mineral waters of Aix-en-Provence, stopped en route in Burgundy for barely more than a week on a 3 1/2-month trip and may have preferred Bordeaux to Burgundy wine in any case. The French are eager to lure back the American tourists who last summer were frightened away by the threat of terrorism.

But, as part of the celebrations, the University of Dijon brought international scholars to France to discuss Jefferson. The combination of ceremony and scholarship has helped to focus attention on this little-known period of Jefferson's life, his five years in France when he witnessed the beginnings of the French Revolution, learned to appreciate great wine and cuisine and may have experienced the most important love affair--or perhaps two love affairs-- of his life.

Envoy at End of War

The assignment to France marked the only time that Jefferson ever left North America. He served as the American envoy after the end of the Revolutionary War, during the provisional period before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and the inauguration of George Washington as the first U.S. President.

The French adventure excited Jefferson, and the memories persisted.

"A more benevolent people I have never known," he wrote about the French 30 years after he left Paris, "nor greater warmth and devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled."

In a controversial biography published in 1974, Fawn M. Brodie, a professor of history at UCLA, concluded that Jefferson, during his stay in Paris, had an unhappy love affair with Maria Cosway, the wife of an English painter, and later took as his mistress Sally Hemmings, the teen-age, quadroon slave who escorted his 8-year-old daughter from America to Paris. Several children, according to Brodie, were born of Jefferson's relationship with Hemmings, which the biographer said lasted until his death in 1826.

Although much of Brodie's romantic evidence has a plausible ring, her conclusions, especially about the slave mistress, have not been widely accepted in the academic world. Frank Shuffleton of the University of Rochester, for example, a specialist on the 20,000 letters written by Jefferson during his lifetime, said recently that he believed Brodie exaggerated the significance of the romantic letters sent by Jefferson, a 43-year-old widower, to Cosway.

"You have to read those letters in the context of all the others Jefferson wrote," said Shuffleton, visiting Dijon for the university seminar on Jefferson. "He would write the same kind of letters to women that he obviously had no interest in. He may have wanted to have an affair with Maria Cosway. But I subscribe to the theory that Jefferson was sexually awkward. He didn't know how to get started in an affair.

"As for Sally Hemmings," Shuffleton went on. "I do not accept that at all."

Walk Along the Seine

Whether or not Jefferson had a love affair with Cosway, there is general agreement that he either dislocated or broke his wrist after falling while leaping over a fence to impress her during a walk along the Seine River in September, 1786. Five months later, Jefferson took his doctor's advice to travel to southern France and the waters of Aix-en-Provence. Brodie believes he only took this advice after he found out that Cosway was not returning to Paris from London that spring.

Despite his injured hand, Jefferson took copious notes and wrote many letters during the celebrated trip. He traveled alone as a private tourist and not as the American ambassador.

"Traveling incognito and writing to a few friends," Shuffleton said, "he opened himself up more."

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