I saw “Farewell My Queen,” a movie about the Court of Versailles during the first days of the Revolution. The movie strongly suggests that Marie Antoinette had an affair with the beautiful Duchess of Polignac. Before the Revolution there was an underground network in France that distributed anti-royalist literature. Much of this literature was border line pornography. A large public delighted in reading about court scandals. Whether Marie Antoinette actually slept with the Duchess of Polignac we will never know.
Robert Darnton has written much about these 18th Century. Some of the most notorious of this literature was written by disenchanted aristocrats. Many better educated Frenchmen believed that the ideas of the enlightenment were incompatible with an absolute monarchy. Of course these pre-revolutionary Frenchmen were influenced by the famous intellectuals of the day: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. Still, the influence of the anonymous pamphleteers must also have affected the revolutionaries. Picturing Marie Antoinette in bed with her girlfriend, while her impotent husband tries to rule the country, must have inspired some of the rage and contempt which fueled the revolution.
Thomas Callender was a Scottish émigré who wrote about the scandalous life of late 18th century rich and famous Americans. Did you know that Alexander Hamilton had an affair with Maria Reynolds, a lovely, young married women? Well, Thomas Callender published a pamphlet about this romance. Callender also happened to be a Federalist and an opponent to Jefferson.
For his loyal service to Jefferson’s faction, Thomas Callender believed he was entitled to a post office job. Jefferson said no. If he valued his historical reputation, Jefferson would never have refused Callender’s request. Callender was a gifted polemicist. In 1803 he published a pamphlet in that he alleged that Thomas Jefferson had a slave mistress and children with Sally Hemmings.
For two centuries almost all reputable historians refused to admit there was any validity to these allegations. In 1974, Fawn Brodie wrote a biography of Thomas Jefferson. She was the first academic historian to find the Sally Hemings story credible. She believed that Thomas Jefferson was a revolutionary, an heir to the same enlightenment that ruined the life of Marie Antoinette. At the same time, he could never acknowledge that his wealth and power was based on slave labor. In the late 1990s, DNA analysis of Sally Hemmings’ descendents proved conclusively that Thomas Jefferson did have children by Sally Hemmings.
There is a thin line between gossip and politics. Probably Marie Antoinette was not quite as decadent as her enemies believed. It didn’t matter. The old regime was so parasitic, the French revolutionaries believed, that only the most extreme remedy, the guillotine, could cure the ills of their society. Maybe they were right.
Thomas Jefferson was a contemporary of Marie Antoinette. After his death, Thomas Jefferson became like all the founding fathers, an American demigod. In the 1960s, I used to shop at the Jefferson bookstore on Union Square. The bookshop was owned by the American Communist Party. Naming a communist bookstore after Jefferson seems an odd choice. But don’t forget both Lenin and Jefferson were both members of the landed aristocracy and the radical intelligentsia. While he was organizing the Russian Revolution, Lenin collected a quarterly check from his family estates.
In 2014, the Belgium National film company is planning the release of a new film, “Thomas and Marie.” It’s an R rated historical romance. Can’t wait to see it.