Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

As I rest after completing my term papers, exploring the highlands and islands of Scotland with my dear friends, I find I have little time to write and even less time with good internet connection. So let me share some old things with you, friends, until I can write and record for O.P. again.

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, here are my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas from over the years:

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar, of just over two years ago

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I followed in the footsteps of Jefferson!

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

New Podcast Episode: Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty….

Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Mary Wollstonecraft!

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s birthday, April 27, 1759, I share two works about this great feminist thinker which I’ve published here at Ordinary Philosophy.

One is the Traveling Philosophy series in which I followed the life and ideas of Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson in Revolution-era Paris, France in 2015.

The second is the following essay:

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she writes, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the more moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up succeeding, ultimately, in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; but Americans were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, I’ll share my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas: my traveling philosophy / history of ideas series

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

and

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar, last year

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I follow in the footsteps of Jefferson!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

In honor of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 257th birthday (she was born on April 27, 1759), here’a piece I wrote about her last fall, following my history of ideas travel series following this great feminist and champion of human rights’ time in Paris. Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy


The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores…

View original post 2,185 more words

Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she writes, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the more moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up succeeding, ultimately, in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; but Americans were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.

Seventh Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

Former site of the Hotel d'Orleans at 17 rue Bonaparte, Paris

Front door of 17 rue Bonaparte, Paris, at or near the former site of the Hotel d’Orleans

Friday, August 21st, 2015

Today’s tale will be a shorter one, though the places I do make it to are wonderful and full of interest. It’s my last full day in Paris and I’m accompanied by my tired husband, so we take it easy. We visit Serge Gainsbourg’s house in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, enjoy some celebratory Paris-Brest pastries  from La Pâtisserie des Rêves on rue du Bac (considered by many to be the very best), take a boat ride on the Seine (a lovely way to see the city!), and otherwise just stroll around at a very leisurely pace, stopping here and there for a coffee or a cold drink.

On our way to the pastry shop, we swing by 17 rue Bonaparte, where, sometime in early to mid-August of 1784, Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Patsy moved from the smaller Hôtel d’Orleans on rue de Richelieu to more comfortable lodgings at this larger hotel, also named d’Orleans. This street was named the rue des Petits-Augustins in Jefferson’s time, and this time around, I have the address. The Hôtel would be Jefferson and Patsy’s home until he found the one that was supposed to be their permanent home in Paris on cul-de-sac Taitbout that October, and until he settled on a good school for Patsy. However, as we have seen, Jefferson ended up living the longest on Champs-Élysées.

Rown of shops and hotels including 17 rue Bonaparte, at or near Hotel d'Orleans site, Paris

Row of shops and hotels including 17 rue Bonaparte at or near the Hotel d’Orleans site where Thomas Jefferson lived for a short time in the fall of 1784

 Cour du Commerce Saint André behind Cafe Procope, Paris,

Cour du Commerce Saint André behind Café Procope, Paris

Next, we head east on Boulevard Saint-Germain, passing the beautiful medieval Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One of its chapels is the oldest surviving religious building in Paris, originally built in the 11th century, and I admire its spartan beauty.

We’re heading for Café Procope, which Jefferson frequented during his years in Paris in the company of Benjamin Franklin. Their time in Paris overlapped for a little less than a year, as Franklin left Paris in June of 1785, and Jefferson, as I have mentioned, arrived on August 6th, 1784. Franklin had already been a regular at Café Procope for many years, since 1776. The Café is located at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie in the 6th Arrondissement, just off Bd. St-Germaine at Odéon, though we first spot it from the charming little pedestrian street that runs behind it named Cour du Commerce Saint André.

Cafe Procope and its flags, Paris

Cafe Procope and its flags

Marble plaques at Café Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Café Procope is a large, cheery restaurant, whose front is bedecked with flowerpots and flags from around the world. It’s considered the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Paris, and started as a literary cafe centered around conversation and coffee. Many of Paris’s best minds and most influential movers and shakers were guests here over the centuries: Jefferson, Franklin, Jean de La Fontaine, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Napoleon Bonaparte, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, Anatole France, and perhaps Thomas Paine too, though I haven’t been able to verify the latter. After all, Paine was a great friend of Franklin’s, a sort of protege of whom Franklin took the trouble to introduce to his friends both in Paris and in the United States.

Central stairway in Cafe Procope

Central stairway at Café Procope

We approach the hostess and ask if they have a bar; we want to spend some time here and take in the atmosphere, but we have our picnic lunch with us already. It turns out it’s only a sit-down restaurant, no bar or coffee service. We pause and look around a bit, and a tall man with salt and pepper hair, in response to my inquiring expression, welcomes us very warmly and gives me permission take pictures. We have a little chat, and I tell him of my project, and though he appears pleased to hear it it’s clear I’m not the first visitor interested in the history of the place. He also invites us to go to the upstairs suite of dining rooms and explore those rooms as well, since they’re doing a little painting and it’s closed to diners at the moment. It appears that he manages the restaurant according to the wise principle that all press is good press, and the more people share stories and pictures of the place, the better for all.

Two interior views of upstairs dining rooms in Café Procope, Paris

Two interior views of upstairs dining rooms in Café Procope, Paris

Facsimiles of letters of famous diners over the centuries at Cafe Procope

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Thomas Jefferson plaque and upstairs dining nook at Café Procope

Painting of a hot air balloon ride at Café Procope, Paris

Painting of a hot air balloon ride at Café Procope, Paris

The restaurant has numerous dining rooms, upstairs and down, and has a sweet little back terrace dining area facing the passage we first spotted the restaurant from. They’re decorated in shades of gold and red, which coupled with the large and numerous windows, lend the rooms a warm and cheerful feeling. The walls are covered with portraits, plaques, facsimiles of personal correspondence, and many more artifacts pertaining to the great people who have sipped coffee, dined, and talked here over the centuries.

There’s a plaque dedicated to Jefferson on the wall of one dining room south of the central stairway, and a scene of a hot air balloon taking off with an adventurous couple in the basket in the hall. Jefferson was fascinated with this technology, the first by which people could travel by air, and Jefferson witnessed this marvel for himself in Paris for the first time, in the Tuileries Gardens. This place is a treasure trove for a person following history as I am, and next time I’m in Paris, this will certainly be the first on my list of restaurants to splurge on dinner.

Parc Montsouris, Paris, France

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum at Parc Montsouris, Paris

Two views of the pedestal of the statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, at Parc Montsouris in Paris

At a certain point late in the afternoon, my exhausted husband decides to return to his hotel in Saint-Quentin en Yvelines where his bike and luggage are, so he can get plenty of sleep before leaving early in the morning, and we say goodbye until we see each other at home. I plan to stay up late, however, since my flight leaves tomorrow afternoon. So I decide that my last historical site to visit for this trip will be Parc Montsouris at the southern edge of Paris in the middle. I plan to spend my last evening at the Seine, watching the sun go down over the Île de la Cité, and I figure that I have time to get to the park and back before sunset. I’m headed to Parc Montsouris because the only statue of Thomas Paine in Paris is there, and to get there, I take the metro to the Port d’Orleans station then head east on Boulevard Jourdan. The park is across from the Cité Universitaire, and the statue is just off the pathway that runs along Bd. Jourdan, nearer the west end of the park. It’s a lovely place for a stroll on this cooling late afternoon, a relief from this hot summer day.

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Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris

The statue is a gilded affair, sculpted by Gutzon Borglum in 1938, the same artist who conceived of and designed Mount Rushmore. He was a man of outsize personality, with a strange family history, overweening ambition, and a membership in the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a documentary about Mount Rushmore on PBS’s American Experience from which you can learn more about this most unusual character, and it’s really worth a watch. I’m pretty sure the egalitarian, anti-slavery, human-rights activist and critic-of-organized-religion Paine would disapprove of the commission for his statue going to this guy. It’s also just a middling portrait: not particularly evocative of Paine’s personality, as is the portrait by George Romney, nor particularly artful, interesting, or innovative in other ways. But it’s a serviceable one, and I’m glad this tribute exists in any case.

It’s likely Borglum painted it gold because of Napoleon Bonaparte. They first met at a dinner party in 1800, where Bonaparte invited Paine over to flatter him and get his support for his ambitious plan to invade Britain and ‘liberate’ them from their oppressive monarchy. (‘Liberate’ is in scare quotes because, in hindsight, it’s funny to think of Napoleon liberating people from monarchy as an institution. While he may have been sincere to begin with, over time, it became clear that he didn’t have a problem with monarchy per se so long as he was the monarch. He did, however, institute laws that promoted some of the best principles of the French Revolution including political equality, for men at least.) Paine had been advocating such a plan for years and continued to do so; however, his initial enthusiasm for Bonaparte rather quickly turned to disillusionment and then disgust. He recognized Bonaparte’s overweening arrogance, and accused him of freely shedding blood because of it and not out of a true concern for the people. Anyway, Bonaparte flattered Paine by telling him that he slept every night with a copy of The Rights of Man under his pillow, and that a golden statue of Paine should be erected ‘in every city in the universe’. Well, here’s one anyway.

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I’ve come to the end of my travel adventures following in the footsteps of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson in Paris, though not to the end of immersing myself in their ideas.

I’ve had a most wonderful and energizing time here in Paris, and I am very sorry it’s drawing to a close. I got to know the city in a way that I might never have done if I had come just for the food, the museums, and the scenery. My adventures led me to walk many, many miles a day up and down, back and forth across the city, and I got to know many of the neighborhoods very well. I didn’t make it to a few sites I would have liked to visit: the Bois de Boulogne, the woods where Jefferson liked to relax; Versailles, which Paine and Jefferson both visited on official business (I visited Versailles when I was here seven years ago, and decided not to go this trip because it gets absolutely mobbed by tourists in mid-August); and to search for the sites of Wollstonecraft’s Neuilly-sur-Seine cottage and Helen Williams’ salon which Wollstonecraft and Paine frequented (the latter two are way out in the suburbs and I can’t find records of the addresses). Through my research and my search for buildings of a particular era set among others of varying ages, I also developed much more of an understanding of how the city changed over time.

I had one main disappointment: I had hoped to find more sites associated with the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, and to find some sort of public tribute to her as well: a statute, a street named after her, even a little plaque marking any of the places she had been. No such luck. Even given the fact that Paine and Jefferson were appointed state officials whose movements in Paris would have been documented more thoroughly, the degree of the lack of evidence of places Wollstonecraft had bee been, and of public recognition of her contributions, was still a little surprising to me. Wollstonecraft was the first to publish a best-selling rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s screed against the French Revolution; she was an ardent supporter of the Revolution and championed its cause to the western world; she was close friends with Paine and many other leaders of the Revolutionary movement; she was a famous and highly respected intellectual; she was among the first to make a systematic, well-developed philosophical case in favor of women’s rights; she lived her life as unconventionally as she thought her thoughts; and by the way, she gave the world Mary Shelley. How, then, are her contributions still so overlooked in Paris? Perhaps for some of the same reasons I was so hard-pressed to find significant public recognition of the contributions of Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in New York City.

I learned so much about these three great thinkers and about this great city, what a joy this journey has been! And I’ll be continuing to immerse myself in their ideas and to think about much they still contribute to our lives and thought. Stay tuned…

Sources and Inspiration:

Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.

‘Café Procope.’ Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

‘French Revolution’. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication:  A Life of Mary WollstonecraftNew York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Gutzon Borglum‘, Biographical page on the American Experience website.

History of the Restaurant‘, Café Procope website.

Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography. New York: Grove Press, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Les Statues du Parc Monsouris: Thomas Paine, Citoyen du Monde’, Laparisienneetsesphotos.com

Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.

Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Zwerin, Mike. ‘Traveling In Style: With Jefferson In Paris’. Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1994.
http://articles.latimes.com/1994-10-16/magazine/tm-51199_1_thomas-jefferson
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