BASTILLE DAY: A Jeffersonian Perspective

Written and Adapted from a presentation to the San Diego Chevaliers du Tastevin  by Jack C. Fisher and John Ahlering  (at Coronado, California on July 14, 1989) 

Storing The Bastille

Storming The Bastille, Painting by Claude Cholat

Thomas Jefferson petitioned his government in Nov.1788 for relief of all duties in Paris;

Personal affairs in Virginia required his full attention. But the uncertainties of maritime transport and distracted governance in America held up receipt of authorization until August, 1789. Without this delay, Jefferson would not have personally experienced the tumultuous events culminating in the French Revolution.

Bastille Day: Diaries inform us that Jefferson was visiting a “charming lady of means” on the historic night of July 14, The French Revolution of 1789, not Maria Cosway, his longstanding romantic interest in Paris,

Maria Cosway

Maria Cosway

but instead a Madame de Corney who informed him of astonishing events earlier that day.  A widower since the 1782 loss of his wife Martha, Jefferson enjoyed the company of women. So we might assume that political insurrection was not foremost in his thoughts that evening as it surely was the previous night for all those assembled at Café Le Prokope in St. Germain des Pres. In this favorite haunt of men of the enlightenment, Voltaire and Danton, Marat and Robespierre, the immediate concern was rumored mobilization of royal troops against the people. The time for action, they decided was upon them. Next day, violent scenes unfolded that were later immortalized in print by Victor Hugo and more recently on stage and screen by Cameron McIntosh.                                                                                                                                                                                                ***           

Five years before, Jefferson wrote to a friend from Monticello: “Congress has today added me to the commission for negotiating treaties of commerce with the European powers.” He would replace John Jay in Paris as this nation’s trade representative. One of his first decisions was to take his servant Jame along and apprentice

James Hemmings, Jefferson's slave

James Hemmings, Jefferson’s slave

him to one of the finest French chefs. The cuisine of France was already celebrated in America. During the war years, French army cooks melded their own culinary tricks with local fare; for example, adding molasses to baked beans and corn mush, seasoning roast turkey stuffing with truffles, topping desserts with whipped cream, and for the general staff, liberal use of cognac. Jefferson, who knew something about almost everything, wanted the delights of a French kitchen brought into his own household.

            Unlike Ben Franklin and John Adams before him, Jefferson elected to reside in central Paris instead of a more pastoral suburb. Wanting to observe every day life in Paris, he took rooms in the Hotel de Langeac on the Champs-Elysees where access to a garden appealed to Jefferson; he could experiment with plants bound for cultivation in America.

            Grapes and wine were priorities on his list. He had previously enjoyed the wines of France but only after prolonged ocean

Thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

passage in cask. On his present agenda were expeditions to the great vineyards he had read about. One of these journeys commenced in February, 1787. Traveling by carriage over primitive roads, he entered first the Province of Champagne.  Jefferson knew that wine had become a product of Champagne during the eleventh century reign of Pope Urban II, but it was nothing like the eighteenth century beverage. Carbon dioxide had been considered a contaminant of wine, but after technical advances served to control the effervescence, consumption of sparkling wine became high fashion. When he visited, the houses of Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot were already prospering. Nonetheless, champagne wasn’t Jefferson’s favorite libation: “ the wine not good” he wrote following one stop.

            Reaching Dijon and turning southward, he came to the vineyards of Chambertin, Romanee, Vosne, Nuits, and Beaune, the region’s center of commerce. Like Napoleon Bonaparte before him, Jefferson considered the wines of Chambertin his favorite, “because they are strongest and will bear transportation.” Reaching Meursault, he selected the delicious product of this village as the house white wine to be served at his Parisian residence.  

Without full understanding of the local market, Jefferson needed wise counsel, and he found it in Etienne Parent, tonnelier (cooper) and merchant working from his native village, Pommard.  Recognizing in him a man with many years of tasting expertise who could be depended upon for prudent choices, Jefferson established a business relationship that would flourish for decades.

By the time Jefferson learned of the acclaimed 1784 vintage, none could be found. Instructing Parent to purchase the 1785 Montrachet, he was warned of recent price inflation (sound familiar?). Reluctantly, he withdrew the order.

            Continuing down the Rhone Valley and into Provence, he savored a variety of wines all along the way, taking note of a recent Rhone Valley innovation: bottling wines prior to sale instead of shipping in cask and bottling closer to market. Jefferson extended into Italy and enjoyed wines of the Piemonte before returning to Paris.

            In wine orders later submitted to Parent he advised, “Be kind enough to inform me which Paris gate the carrier will enter and on which day so that I can give necessary orders to the customs agents.” Jefferson understood that a barricade surrounded Paris where authorities imposed taxes on alcohol. Within the city, fine wines sold at three times the countryside price. Predictably, Paris was surrounded by countless cabarets where alcoholic beverages were consumed untaxed. Jefferson’s reference to “necessary orders” likely meant a bribe rather than a duty, common practice among the elite of that day.


            Jefferson was not entirely surprised to learn from Madame de Corny that an angry mob had earlier broken into the Bastille, a prison designated for a better class of criminal, mostly dissident authors, publishers and booksellers.

He was perceptive of the rising political tension, calling it, “a state of high fermentation.” On July 12, he had witnessed a fractious crowd confront troops protecting the King’s transit. But in letters home to James Madison among others, he was contradictory, modifying his estimates from “the people are not ready for republican rule” to “this nation is now awakened…the light is spreading.” Just as he had taken in stride Shay’s rebellion in his own nation,  (“…a little rebellion now and then is a good thing),” he imagined for the French people a more tranquil change of rule but he was mistaken.

            One week before the Bastille fell, two wine merchants led a raid against one of the customs gates, burning it to the ground. In the fierce days that followed, similar destruction was inflicted at other gates. By July 12, the customs agents had all fled, and barrel-laden wagons entered Paris from every direction. Now there was ample beer and wine available for consumption without the hated taxes.

            Believing wrongly that the Bastille was a gunpowder repository for the royal troops, nearly a thousand angry men assembled there on the morning of July 14, mostly artisans, but also a few defecting soldiers, and at least twenty wine merchants.  Bernard Rene de Launey, Governor in command of the fortress, held a force of 80 including 32 Swiss mercenaries. Wanting to convey an impression of strength, he moved his largest cannon into full view of the mob. The King had previously ordered the evacuation of certain well-known prisoners, among them the Marquis de Sade, but de Launey had received no additional troops. Meanwhile the artist Claude Cholat stood nearby recording the scene on canvas, a graphic that is often reprinted today.

            Two delegates were allowed to enter and present their demand; they wanted the gunpowder, not the prisoners. There being little progress in negotiations by midday, they broke for what the crowd deemed a prolonged dejeuner. Suddenly, the sound of a nearby explosion was heard that triggered the crowd to seize the moment: “Give us the Bastille,” they shouted. A man climbed onto the roof of an adjacent building and cut the chain that released the drawbridge. It fell upon a bystander who became the first casualty of the day, his body crushed as the mob rush across and into the prison.

            The battle raged all afternoon with rebel casualties outnumbering those of the garrison. Nonetheless, de Launey saw the futility of further resistance. A handkerchief was raised, there being no white flag handy. Only seven prisoners of the crown were liberated that day. The mercenaries, before leaving, thought to remove their uniforms and don prison garments. Taken for prisoners, they too were ushered to safety, proving once again that the Swiss can take care of themselves wherever they are. Governor de Launey failed to survive the day, hacked to pieces by men wielding swords drawn from the Bastille armory.

            The far-reaching consequences of revolution in France are mostly beyond the scope of this essay. For the wine trade, confiscation of church-owned vineyards by the people was wholly transforming.  Subdivided ownership brought advantages like improved quality and forced appellation control, but competitive forces also brought diminished quality and fraudulent labeling, Following relief of all taxes and tariffs, wine

History Time-Line Courtesy of

History Time-Line Courtesy of

consumption increased sharply. In 1791, an attempted sale of the Clos de Vougeot and surrounding vineyards failed for lack of funds. After two Parisian bankers assumed control, the property was eventually purchased by former munitions dealer Gabriel Ouvrard. In 1899, it sold again to a consortium of wine negotiants. Ownership today is shared by more than one hundred growers. Chevaliers du Tastevin, an international trade organization, operates the Chateau Clos Vougeot for celebratory events.

            Jefferson spared no expense preparing for his return to America. In addition to a custom-built carriage, there was a harpsichord for daughter Patsy, multiple crates of books for friends and for his own library, several barrels of kitchen utensils including a pasta machine from Italy, and a bounty of cheeses, crates of olive oil and wine. Upon arrival, he learned of his appointment as Secretary of State under President Washington, newly inaugurated in New York City, the interim seat of government. Settling his financial affairs in Virginia would have to wait.  In fact, the historical record shows that habitually profligate Jefferson remained in debt for the rest of his political and post-political life.


Prior to the bicentennial of the French Revolution, New York Times wine critic Frank Prial traveled Jefferson’s route through Burgundy, stopping of course in Pommard. There he located the house of Jacques Parent, a descendant of Etienne, where he toured the 500 yr. old cave that Jefferson likely visited 200 yrs. before.

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