Edmund Burke remarked famously—and often—on those men, seized with grand theories, who busied themselves making, unmaking, and remaking the French Revolution. They were counting, he said, on “bungling practice [to correct] absurd theory.” For Burke, the sweeping proclamations on “the Rights of Man” were belied by a spirit of lawlessness; a passion to resist authority running so deep that it would finally detach itself from all manner of moral and legal restraints. But for Thomas Jefferson, viewing France from afar—delivered from the embassy in Paris, installed now as secretary of state in the administration of George Washington—the same record of mayhem did not produce the same impressions or inspire the same judgments. The French Revolution would lurch from confiscation to murderous violence, and yet nothing in this record would mar, for Jefferson, the beauty of the idea itself. The idea was, of course,...

 
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