Corps de l’article

On November 16, 1793, the day he was arrested and imprisoned for debt at La Force prison in Paris on the orders of the Comité de sûreté générale, François-Constantin Volney started a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, whom he had met some eight years before and who was then serving as Secretary of State in the Washington administration. In the brief note, which he wrote in French (as he did all the subsequent letters he was to send to Jefferson), Volney begins with the following convoluted but warm declaration, evocative of past affinity: “I have the honor of reminding Mr. Jefferson of a person whose own memory of him stems from times and events which have for ever made its interest most sacred.”[2] The note was accompanied by a gift, a “small work”—a “bagatelle” in Volney’s words—called La Loi naturelle, ou Catéchisme du citoyen français, which had just been published in Paris and extolled, in the form of a Q&A, the necessity of developing the germ of virtue and perfection inherent in all individuals in the view of human happiness.[3] If the gift obtained Jefferson’s approval, Volney concluded, he would have had a second reason for wishing he had not let the “philosophical voyage” the French government had asked him to accomplish escape him. By that he meant that his imprisonment for debt had unfortunately impeded a diplomatic mission in the United States the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Citizen Deforgues, had assigned him.[4]

More letters and gifts would follow, and in 1795 Volney finally made the journey to the United States. During the three years that he stayed in the country, he paid several visits to Jefferson. Although the latter wrote less often—Jefferson wrote 11 times, Volney 23—the tone, frequency, and length of the correspondence suggest that the two men were on the friendliest terms and thought highly of one another.[5] The letters bring to light a great deal about their intellectual interactions, and about the circulation of information, books, portraits, and artefacts across the Atlantic. In particular, they reveal that, in the late 1790s, the two men secretly collaborated on a new English translation—the third, in fact—of Volney’s celebrated Ruines; ou, méditation sur les révolutions des empires. In November 1802, A New Translation of Volney’sRuins; or, Meditations [sic] on the Revolution [sic] of Empires: made under the inspection of the author was printed in two volumes for Levrault, quai Malaquais, in Paris.[6] A “preface of the translator” justified the new version, pointing out the necessity of “faithfully” rendering a work that had already become a classic and making sure that it suffered “as little as possible from a change of country.”[7] The preface was unsigned, but the use of the first-person plural indicated that more than one person ought to be credited for the translation. Although this remained confidential for more than a century, two translators had accomplished the task. Jefferson translated one half—the first 19 of 24 chapters—and Barlow completed the translation upon Volney’s request.[8]

The fact that Jefferson collaborated on a new English version of Volney’s revolutionary drama is an aspect of his career which, while it has been acknowledged, has often been ignored by scholars—and by Jefferson scholars in particular—with the result that up until today, Jefferson’s contribution to the translation has remained largely unknown.[9] Yet, the rendering of LesRuines in English was much improved by the undertaking to the extent that the 1802 translation seems to have become the standard translation.[10] Moreover, even before he set foot in the country, Volney was a celebrity in the young United States, where his Voyages en Syrie et en Égypte, published in 1787 and immediately translated into English, had been rapidly circulated. A first American edition of Voyages was issued in 1798, in the midst of the XYZ affair, a diplomatic dispute involving France and the United States, and just as Bonaparte was launching his Egyptian expedition, and then a second one appeared in 1801, in the first year of the first Barbary War.[11] What is more, his Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis d’Amérique, a penetrating and caustic ethno-geographic study of the United States published in 1803, attracted enough attention that it was translated into English a second time, by American novelist Charles Brockden Brown, who used the opportunity to reframe the work in nationalistic terms.[12] Although Volney has been integrated into the history of transatlantic networks by Pete Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, and, more recently, into the narrative of the early Republic by François Furstenberg, his influence as a writer outside of Europe has not yet been fully gauged.[13] More often than not, when his name is not simply ignored, it is just one on a list that includes Voltaire, Hume, Paine and Godwin—as, indeed, was already the case in the early years of the American Republic.[14] Volney, however, was an inspiration for many in the English-speaking world, well into the nineteenth century. By the late 1790s, Ruins had become, together with Paine’s Age of Reason, required reading among radicals and freethinkers in Britain and in the United States.[15] It was also influential among early Africanists.[16] One of its numerous erudite endnotes stated that Ethiopians were the inventors of astronomy and that consequently “the first learned nation was a nation of Blacks.”[17] William Thornton, an amateur architect and designer of the US Capitol, called Volney “a man of virtue and genius,” because Ruins supported “the cause of the Africans” and its author advocated “the reduction of all languages to one alphabet.”[18]

It was the French-American literary historian Gilbert Chinard who, in 1923, first brought Jefferson’s role in the translation of Les Ruines to public knowledge.[19] The fact that Chinard’s monograph was never translated into English no doubt prevented his discovery from becoming readily available to American readers. It is also likely that, at least until recently, a preference for English-language sources in academic usage impeded scholarly exploration of Jefferson’s connection to Volney. The oversight may be better explained, however, by historiographical issues. In France, the long neglect of the period between the years 1794 and 1799, separating the “heroic” Revolution from the 18 Brumaire coup, which brought Bonaparte to power, has led to a general lack of scholarly concern with Volney and his colleagues at the Institut de France.[20] In the United States, a tendency among religion scholars to argue for the limited influence of deism, free thought and skepticism on North American soil no doubt also explains the lack of curiosity about the translation.[21] When dealing with Jefferson’s deistic views, emphasis has been laid instead on his discussions about Christianity with some of his other correspondents, most prominently Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Rush, and, after 1812, John Adams, who were all native speakers of English.[22]

Jefferson himself, however, may bear the greatest responsibility for the persistent silence surrounding his participation in the translation. He had been president of the United States for over a year when he explicitly requested that his collaboration with the author of Les Ruines be kept off the record, as revealed by a letter he sent to Volney on April 20, 1802, in which he asked that the manuscript be burnt.[23] His position and ambition required a great deal of caution. The Louisiana Purchase, a project dear to Jefferson’s heart, was already in the works, and the Federalists, although shattered by their defeat in 1800, remained dangerous political opponents who had launched a merciless attack on his religious views. Les Ruines, which suggested that religion was a social construct and forcefully argued that religious disagreements were obstacles to the improvement of the human race, had a truly subversive quality. Like Thomas Paine, who since 1801 had been intensely demonized by the Federalists in a campaign aimed at impairing President Jefferson’s career, Volney had become a political liability, and this had been the case since he left the United States in 1798.[24] Hence, the question is, what prompted Jefferson to embark on the third translation of a 400-page book—probably as early as 1798—while he was still serving as John Adams’s vice-president and about to run for president? What was so compelling about LesRuines that in the late 1790s it became necessary for Jefferson, despite the risks entailed, to produce a new translation of a work by a French author whose engagement with heterodoxy was well known?

In this essay, I tell the story of this translation, a story which has never been told. First, I flesh out scholarly knowledge of Jefferson and Volney’s friendship, as well as of the extent of Volney’s notoriety in the early United States. I then trace the origins and production of the third translation of LesRuines, probing the reasons for the work’s relevance to Jefferson. I emphasize the contingent dimension of the transatlantic collaboration by highlighting its relationship to the partisan politics of the young American Republic, but I also underscore its transcendent purpose. I show that the scope of the enterprise went beyond the narrowness of the present to encompass visions of a transnational enlightened future, and I argue that the project was in itself conceived of as revolutionary both in political and religious terms. I address only in passing the roles of Jefferson and Barlow as translators. In particular, I do not provide a close textual analysis or examine the differences between the three translations and their significance. I am mostly interested in the correspondence between Volney and Jefferson, the way their collaboration unfolded, and the sustained and collective effort that this confidential and yet truly successful Franco-American editorial project required on the part of the various protagonists. This essay explores the close relationship between two influential men who regarded themselves as truly enlightened, and has two main goals. It first seeks to provide fresh insight into Jefferson’s participation in the public diffusion of a work destined to fuel religious skepticism. Secondly, it aims to underscore the long-term significance of Volney’s ideas in the history of the Enlightenment.


Volney and Jefferson probably met in 1785, sometime between the Frenchman’s return from Syria in April of that year and Benjamin Franklin’s departure from Paris in July. Jefferson had taken office as new commissioner and minister plenipotentiary in March, succeeding Franklin, and he had been in Paris since August 1784. Volney and Jefferson may have become acquainted at Madame Helvétius’s reputed salon in Auteuil, where Jefferson had been introduced by Franklin and where they mingled with, among others, Pierre-Jean Georges Cabanis, a close friend of Volney’s, Condorcet, whose Réflexion sur l’esclavage des nègres Jefferson partly translated, and the abbé Morellet, who offered to be the first translator of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.[25] It was thus in the lively company of men and women of letters that the two men realized that they shared interests in a wide variety of fields, ranging from politics and ethics to philology, comparative religion, anthropology, botany, agricultural science, medicine, climatology, and geology. Volney was reputedly bad-tempered, but at the same time he must have been an engaging person. He would have been likely to appeal to a learned Francophile like Jefferson, his senior by 14 years. Volney was just returning from the Middle East, where he had stayed for two years and gathered the material necessary to write his first published work, Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte, which was also the first occasion for him to use his penname.

Volney, whose real name was Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf, was a physiocrat interested in agriculture and in upholding property ownership. He often got involved in the political debates of his times. The editor of La Sentinelle du Peuple in Rennes in late 1788, he was, in March 1789, elected député of the Third Estate for the Haut-Anjou region to the Estates-General and then to the National Assembly. According to a contemporary, François-Yves Besnard, Jefferson was in the same room as Volney, La Révellière-Lépeaux, Cabanis, and others when these men rejoiced at the news that the Bastille had fallen.[26] Jefferson did not leave Paris until September of that year. In 1795, Volney taught history at the first École normale, founded in 1794, and was elected to the Institut de France in the Class of Moral and Political Sciences. Volney was one of the idéologues, who supported the Directory. The group, led by Antoine Destutt de Tracy, the inventor of the word “ideology,” sought to create a science of ideas grounded in rationalism and Lockean sensualism, which would end the turmoil of the revolution and establish peace and order in a true republican state.[27] Although moderate in their politics, the ideologues were the heirs of a radical tradition that emphasized the role of education, and they were influential in the development of positivism in the nineteenth century.

Volney and Jefferson met again a decade later at Jefferson’s residence at Monticello during the Frenchman’s three-year stay in the United States. On November 13, 1795, one month after he had settled in Philadelphia, Volney expressed his eagerness “to re-establish [his] inestimable relationship” with Jefferson, and soon arrangements were made.[28] More was at stake than mere friendship, and each expected the other to be like a window onto the state of his country. On April 10, 1796, Jefferson wrote:

Your favor of [March] 28. came by our last post: and flatters me with the hope of seeing you here. I shall certainly be at home all the month of May, and very happy to recieve [sic] and possess you here. I shall have a great deal to learn from you of what passed in France after I left it. Initiated as I was into the mysteries of the revolution, I have much still to learn which the newspapers never knew. In return I will give you all the information relative to our agriculture &c. which you as a traveller may wish to receive.[29]

On May 22, Volney announced to Jefferson that he was setting out from Georgetown on a journey which would take him to the mountains where he wished to spend the summer. On June 8, he arrived at Jefferson’s residence, where he stayed between two and three weeks. He then travelled west for several months, carrying letters of introduction from Jefferson. During his grand tour, which took him across the Alleghenies and then north, he collected primary data, which he relied on when writing his Tableau sur le sol et le climat des États-Unis; he also wrote Jefferson two long letters describing his observations in detail.[30] He returned to Monticello in the summer of 1797, on Jefferson’s invitation.[31]

The epistolary exchange between Volney and Jefferson lasted for over 10 years. Jefferson penned his letters in English, and Volney in French, an indication that neither felt comfortable enough in the other language to write in it, but also that they could both read the other language perfectly. On July 5, 1797, Jefferson expressed concerns about Volney’s financial means and health, and proposed to lend him some money.[32] Volney, who was then in Philadelphia, replied on the same day to thank and reassure his friend. He had been delayed for “other causes,” which he was desirous to discuss with Jefferson—and which might have concerned the new translation of LesRuines—and he asked if he could be received in the evening, from six o-clock on.[33] Several other instances underscore the degree of intimacy and trust between the two men. One of them is the way Jefferson shared with other correspondents his frustration at Volney’s sudden departure on board the Benjamin Franklin in early June 1798. The first Alien Act had already been brought into Congress at that point, and was to be passed on the 25th. To Jefferson, as he confided to James Madison as early as May 3, 1798, it seemed clear that the law intended to hurt Volney primarily:

The threatening appearances from the Alien bills have so alarmed the French who are among us that they are going off. A ship chartered by themselves for this purpose will sail within about a fortnight for France with as many as she can carry. Among these I believe will be Volney, who has in truth been the principal object aimed at by the law.[34]

In a letter to Thomas Mann Randolph, sent on the same day, Jefferson used the same wording, adding:

it suffices for a man to be a philosopher, and to believe that human affairs are susceptible of improvement, & to look forward, rather than back to the Gothic ages, for perfection, to mark him as an anarchist, disorganiser, atheist & enemy of the government.[35]

The Adams administration had accused Volney of being a spy and put him high on the list of the foreigners they wished to see deported. In 1798, Jefferson explicitly asked that Volney refrain from writing to him. Volney obeyed and the correspondence between the two men was interrupted until Jefferson wrote again in March 1801 after he had been sworn in as President.[36]

In December 1801, Jefferson asked John James Barralet to draw a portrait of Volney, “in Indian ink and black chalk,” for which he paid five guineas—“double the value of the performance,” according to the artist—and, when he received the portrait in March of the following year, he hung it in the parlour at Monticello.[37] In 1805, he had a miniature representation of himself delivered to Volney, who acknowledged the gift in a letter dated July 2, and rejoiced at his friend’s plumpness, which he saw as a sign of good health.[38] In a letter sent to Jefferson on May 10, 1803, Volney acknowledged receipt of two volumes, the latest Transactions of the American Philosophical Society and Jefferson’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which Volney described as “a revolutionary book.”[39] In the last letter they are known to have exchanged, dated February 11, 1806, Jefferson reiterates his wish to send Volney a “polygraph,” a letter-copying device he used daily, and gives him his “last news of Captn Lewis.”[40] The president had placed great hope in the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was by now on its return journey after reaching the Pacific Coast, and he knew how interested Volney was in exploration. Volney had actually wished he were part of the expedition, as he admitted to Jefferson on May 7, 1804.[41] As for Mr. Hawkins’s polygraph, which Jefferson had asked Charles Wilson Peale to provide, several letters to diverse correspondents refer to the president’s impatience for its delivery.[42]


Volney’s Ruines; ou, méditation sur les révolutions des empires provided an analysis of the social and political reasons for the state of the world. It revolved around an erudite critique of institutionalized religions, giving emphasis to natural laws and human agency. The times were imbued with a fascination with ruins, which the mid-century excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum had enhanced. A book about excavation, TheRuines delved into the processes of the distant past and re-enacted events of the past years arguing for the creation of a revolutionary dynamic for the future. It drew on Volney’s memories of his travel in the Middle East as well as on his own involvement in the French revolution.

Les Ruines artfully combines narration and drama. It begins in Palmyra with a melancholy narrator pondering the causes of the ruins of empires once prosperous. Soon it takes the form of a lecture delivered by a learned imposing supernatural being (“un génie”), who embarks with the young man on an aerial journey in the search for truth. In a chapter entitled “The New Age,” both the génie (“Genius” in Jefferson’s translation) and the narrator are interrupted and become the witnesses of a revolution.[43] What they see from above is the “great body” of a nation, “composed of farmers, artificers, merchants, all professions useful to society,” challenging a much smaller body, “made up of priests of every order, of financiers, of nobles, of men in livery, of commanders of armies; in a word, of the civil, military and religious agents of government.” They hear a dialogue between “the people” and “the indolent class,” or, as Volney puts it in a footnote, “men who do nothing, and who devour the substance of others.” The chapter ends with the victory of the multitude over the minority and a wish for peaceful resolution:

And then the little group said: We are lost; the multitude are enlightened. And the people said: You are safe; since We are enlightened, we will do no violence; we only claim our rights. We feel resentments, but we forget them. We were slaves, we might command; but we only wish to be free, and we are free.

Freed “from tyrants and parasites,” the people draws the “universal basis of all right and law” and debate. A general assembly of nations leads the people and its legislators to address the “search [for] truth.” After a thorough examination of the “origin and filiation of religious ideas” and the survey of the 13 “systems” of faith, the assembly reaches the conclusion that “all religions have a same object,” namely that the priests have encouraged the errors of a superstitious people in order to live “exempt from the burdens of other classes.” In the final chapter, the united nations (“l’universalité des nations”) call for a universal reform based on a separation, by an “inviolable barrier,” of “the world of fantastical beings” from “the world of realities.” In other words, they proclaim that the solution lies in secularism—“all civil effect must be taken away from theological and religious opinion”—and urge the legislators to be the “legislators of the whole human race.”[44]

Les Ruines shared similarities with Diderot’s 1767 essay on the “poetics of ruins” and certainly drew on Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1789.[45] More crucial sources, however, may have been two French-speaking authors interested in “origins,” d’Holbach and Charles-François Dupuis. Baron d’Holbach was the actual author of the posthumous work by Nicolas-Antoine Boulanger, Recherches sur l’origine du despotisme oriental, which was published clandestinely in 1761 and censured in 1763, and from which Volney may have borrowed the subtitle of LesRuines. In this comparative study of religions, the politicization of religion is deplored:

These signs of heaven were no longer the proclaimers of the last judgement, or of the life to come, but of the fortunes and revolutions of empires, and of the great political changes that were to happen.[46]

The research conducted by the astronomer Dupuis, a colleague of Volney’s at the Institut, was also influential. In the extensive endnotes to LesRuines, Volney cites Mémoire sur l’origine des constellations three times. In the chapter on “Origin and Filiation of Religious Ideas,” he points to Dupuis’s work as the explicit source of inspiration for an orator’s contention that “the worship of the stars” was established 17,000 years ago and that “the chronology of five or six thousand years in Genesis [is] little agreeable to this hypothesis.”[47] In 1794, the first three volumes of Dupuis’s Origines de tous les cultes; ou la religion universelle were published. Dupuis, like Volney, argued that all religions originated with the worship of the sun, stars, and other elements of nature, and that Jesus had not existed.[48] As George A. Wells had it, both Volney and Dupuis sought to demonstrate that “Christianity was but paganism reshaped.”[49]

Volney’s religious views are not easy to fathom, since no “profession of faith” is at our disposal, as in Thomas Paine’s case.[50] But, although neither the narrator nor the génie should be mistaken for Volney, LesRuines does suggest that all religious systems of belief are superfluous, including the deistic concept of an architect-creator, which is discussed in the examination of the Eighth system—“The World-Machine: worship of the demi-ourgos, or grand artificer.”[51] Interestingly, whereas positive religion is critically examined in LesRuines, belief in God is central to La Loi naturelle (Volney’s catechism and the sequel of LesRuines), since natural law emanates from God and teaches his very existence. Like other ideologues, Volney ceased to back Napoleon after the Concordat with Pope Pius VII, which recognized Catholicism as “the religion of the great majority of the French,” was signed in 1801, but he shared with his republican friends the utilitarian notion that some civil religion was necessary to society.

While its promotion of human agency and freedom of conscience reflected its author’s confidence in revolution, LesRuines also pressed for moderation and conciliation. In Britain and the United States, however, it was lambasted by many as an impious book and the work of an infidel. To others, it was an important text. In Britain in the 1810s, it influenced Mary Shelley, who had the creature in Frankenstein read Volney’s Ruines (in the London translation), and it also influenced her husband, the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of Queen Mab and A Revolt of Islam.[52] In the early United States, it was celebrated by Elihu Palmer, the founder of the New York Deistical Society, who in Principles of Nature, defined it as,

Holy Writ, which ought to be appointed to be read in Churches—not by his Majesty’s special command, but by the universal consent and approbation of all those who love nature, truth, and human happiness.[53]

In the 1830s, the painter Thomas Cole produced a five-painting allegory, The Course of Empire, depicting the rise and fall of an unnamed ancient empire in a way reminiscent of Volney’s Ruines.[54] Later in the century, Walt Whitman regarded LesRuines as one of the books on which he “may be said to have been raised.”[55] The copy that the poet owned, annotated and quoted from in his early notebooks, was the Jefferson-Barlow translation.

Little is known about the first American translation, but research in the library catalogues reveals that the 1799 Philadelphia edition was what was then called a piracy.[56]LesRuines had first appeared in English in 1792 in London, in a translation by James Marshall, a friend of William Godwin’s, under the title The Ruins: or a survey of the revolutions of empires, an American edition of which was issued in 1796 in New York. Dissatisfied with the first English translation, Volney had planned the publication in late 1795 of a new edition under the title The Ruins: Or, Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires. It was to be “corrected by the author, upon the spot, with considerable additions,” and printed for Thomas Stephens by Francis and Robert Bailey in Philadelphia, as shown by the title page deposit of its copyright.[57] The project was confirmed by several advertisements in December, but the edition never came out.[58] In a letter dated June 4, 1798, first published in Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser on June 6, and then reproduced in Porcupine’s Gazette on June 7 alongside William Cobbett’s scathing comments, Volney stated that he was about to leave the country and that the translation of LesRuines, “announced two years ago, and which [he] was to direct, [was] stopped, and [could not] take place.”[59] He warned that he “remained the sole proprietor of the copy and the copy right,” and that if a new edition appeared, it would be without his “authority and approbation.”[60] He also underlined the imperfection of the London translation and advised the reader to correct a regrettable error he had noticed regarding an omission in the fifteenth chapter, which had led the translator to paraphrase. A second translation appeared nonetheless the following year in Philadelphia. This unauthorized publication, for which the translator’s name remains unknown, came out from the press of James Lyon, a Francophile and radical printer who received financial support from Jefferson. The title was identical to that of the London edition, but it was revamped by the indication that it was a “New Translation from the French.” It was also flawed, with additional information and mistranslation. Volney had meanwhile secretly launched his own editorial project, namely the completion of a “correct and elegant” translation written in a refined English and faithful to his own phrasing and wording, which he would supervise and which would be published in Europe.[61]

The involvement of Jefferson in the 1802 translation and circulation of Volney’s Ruines is discussed in seven of the letters the two men exchanged. They display concern over confidentiality during Jefferson’s presidency, and only four letters explicitly refer to the translation work. In a letter written from Washington on March 17, 1801, Jefferson asks Volney if he received “the residue of the translation to the end of the [19th] chapter inclusive,” which had been “sent through mr. Mc.lure.”[62] On June 24, 1801, Volney confirmed that he had received what Jefferson had sent him through William Maclure, the geologist, but that he had not wanted to contradict his wish by acknowledging its receipt. In the same letter, he also announced that Mr. Barlow had taken responsibility for continuing the work and explained that he had transmitted a copy of the “Invocation” (the first lines of LesRuines) to Louis-Henri Pichon, the French ambassador, for publication. He then added,

I do not know whether he [Pichon] has done it. He does not suspect its true source. The manuscript remains at your disposition in my hands; I shall await your orders concerning it.[63]

It was only on April 20, 1802, that Jefferson mentioned the translation again, in a letter in which he congratulates Volney for “engag[ing] so fine a writer of English to translate [his] work” and makes the following request: “when you shall be done with the manuscript you recieved [sic] from mr Mc.lure it is desired that it may be burnt.”[64] Volney complied, as indicated in the letter he sent on March 21, 1803: “your order to cancel the handwritten pages was immediately carried out.”[65] Jefferson and Barlow did not revise previous translations; they started anew. The decision to split the translation of LesRuines between two translators may have been made at the outset of the project, and it is possible that Jefferson and Volney evoked Barlow’s name prior to Volney’s departure. Barlow lived in France between 1788 and 1793, and then again from 1797 to 1805 (before returning in 1811 as the American minister to France). He was the author of the Vision of Columbus, an epic poem in nine books published in 1787 which bears some resemblance to LesRuines in form and in content.[66]

Like Volney, Jefferson was sensitive to translation issues. He had already gone through the frustrating experience of the abbé Morellet’s unsatisfactory translation of his Notes on the State of Virginia. In January 1787, he had sent his translator a seven-page list of errors, later referring to the translation as a “blotch of errors.”[67] In 1810, he revised a translation of Destutt de Tracy’s Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, which came out in English in 1811 before it did in French in 1819. His letters to the author and to William Duane, the publisher, underline his concern for a faithful translation and indicate a degree of familiarity with strategies meant to circumvent censorship. Jefferson, who was well acquainted with the French language, was able to identify “sentences incomplete, false syntax, want of perspicuity, and sometimes a suspected mistranslation” in the French version he had received from Duane.[68] Most relevant to our understanding of his contribution to the diffusion of LesRuines is the way he satisfied Destutt de Tracy’s wish to have his translated work published anonymously in the United States. To that effect, Jefferson suggested that a letter be prefixed to the book, the object of which was “the concealment of the author.”[69]

It was not until 1828 that the Paris translation of LesRuines was published in the United States. It was by Dixon and Sickels, in New York.[70] The Paris translation, however, had circulated among American readers as soon as 1803. Within three months after its publication, in February of that year, Jefferson had expressed his impatience and suggested Volney get in touch with Nicolas Gouin Pougens, a French bookseller of Philadelphia he knew well: “we have been long expecting your petit format translation of the Ruines,” Jefferson noted, adding that Mr. Pougens had established “a commercial connection with Duane here, [and] might be a convenient agent in that business.”[71] But Volney had other contacts. As he explained to Jefferson on May 10, John Hurford Stone, a British radical publisher who collaborated with the Levrault brothers, had dispatched one thousand copies of the book in New York.[72] Jefferson received his own copy of the translation through William Thornton, who had been entrusted five copies by Joseph Curwen of Philadelphia on his way back from Paris.[73] The four other copies were for Thornton himself, James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Louis André Pichon.[74] Volney also sent a copy of the new translation to the naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton, with a note which revealed nothing about the identity of the translator.[75]

Soon the work was advertised in the newspapers, published, printed, and sold. On October 18, 1803, The Aurora announced that Hocquet Caritat, the Philadelphian bookseller and Frenchman, had published and was then selling a number of standard books “printed on good type and fine paper,” among which “a new translation of Volney’s Ruins of Empires [sic], made under his inspection.”[76] The “Invocation” had been quoted in American newspapers as early as 1801 to excite interest.[77] Barlow’s name surfaced in 1819 in two Philadelphia papers, The Democratic Press and the Franklin Gazette, as well as in the City of Washington Gazette, before it appeared in the 1828 print edition.[78] Much emphasis was laid on the fact that it was a “new” translation, made “under the immediate inspection of the author.” The advertisement inserted in the first pages of the New York edition quoted the three translations of the “Invocation” to underline the quality, “in regard to faithfulness and elegance,” of the “Paris translation.”[79]LesRuines was re-edited 15 times in the United States throughout the nineteenth century, twice in the 1799 unauthorized translation, and 13 times in the Jefferson-Barlow translation. A short statement by Whitman at the top of his annotated copy of the 1890 New York edition of The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires: and the Law of Nature confirms that at the end of the century, Jefferson’s contribution to the translation was still a well-kept secret, and that even Barlow’s was not established with certainty. According to Whitman, “this translation seems to have been made either by Joel Barlow, or supervised by him, in Paris, and favoured by Volney.”[80]


There has been little scholarly awareness of the popularity of LesRuines in the United States among historians of the Early Republic. LesRuines, however, was greatly disturbing to many. Its author was frequently berated and reviled in the Federalist press and regarded as a dangerous writer, together with Voltaire, Godwin, and Paine. In Porcupine’s Gazette, on June 22, 1798, during the XYZ affair and on the eve of the quasi-war with France, two weeks after Volney had left the United States, William Cobbett, who sided with the Federalists and was one of the prominent editorial combatants in the war waged by the partisan press, could write that

such a man [Volney] may with justice be classified with that merciless horde of infidels and cannibals that have destroyed the peace of Europe, spread desolation through the civilized world and entailed so much misery on human nature.[81]

To a certain extent, Volney did not fare better than Thomas Paine. In fact, for Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian English émigré, he was even worse than Paine, since unlike the author of The Age of Reason he claimed that “no such a person as Jesus Christ ever existed.”[82]

Indeed, what markedly differentiated Volney from other freethinkers was his marginalization of Jesus. A central human figure for Jefferson and a man with special powers given by God for Priestley, Jesus was only a “rumour” in LesRuines.[83] In Chapter XII, in the section entitled “Christianity, or the allegorical worship of the sun under the cabalistical names of Christ-en or Christ, and Yesus or Jesus,” a neutral protagonist explains:

the great mediator, the final judge was expected and desired. … This being was so much spoken of, that some person finally was said to have seen him; and a first rumour of this sort was sufficient to establish a general certainty. Popular report became an established fact: the imaginary being was realised; and all the circumstances of mythological traditions, being assembled around this phantom, produced a regular history, of which it was no longer permitted to doubt.[84]

Volney’s denial of the historicity of Jesus led Joseph Priestley to start a theological dispute with him in 1797. Priestley had great respect for Volney and had even quoted from Travels in his Discourses Relating to the Evidences of Revealed Religion delivered in Philadelphia in 1796, but he blamed him for the impact Ruines and such works might have on young minds.[85]

Volney wrote a 15-page tongue-in-cheek answer to Priestley, published by Benjamin Franklin Bache, in which he listed the reasons why he had made the decision to decline Priestley’s theological challenge.[86] A few weeks later, Priestley publicly responded in Letters to Mr. Volney.[87] Volney sent the pamphlet to Jefferson, noting: “the holy man will not get one more comma from me,” but Jefferson voiced his discomfort with seeing “the time of genius wasted in polemics.”[88] Jefferson and Volney disagreed about Jesus, but both shared the opinion, as Volney had phrased it in his answer to Priestley, that “no one has a right to ask of me my religious opinions: every inquisition of this kind is a pretention to sovereignty, a first step to persecution.” In 1803, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson claimed:

I am a Christian, in the only sense he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

In the same letter, however, he also admitted that he was “averse to the communication of [his] religious tenets to the public because it would … seduce public opinion to erect itself into that Inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed.”[89]

Jefferson’s contribution to the translation of Ruines and the concern over secrecy, which seems to have predated his presidency, must first be interpreted through the prism of the impassioned partisan politics of the times. In 1798, Jefferson, who was John Adams’s vice president, was already campaigning for the presidency and had to endure his opponents’ relentless attacks, which in large part targeted his religious views. It was a time of intense political agitation and polarization between two emerging parties, one leaning to France, the other to Britain. Jefferson, who was a political pragmatist, could not publicly approve of Volney’s Ruines by acknowledging a collaboration, but he could certainly translate half of it in the privacy of his home in Monticello. The war of words, which worked to polarize the nation over international alliances and conflicting interpretations of the American and French revolutions, extended to the booksellers’ catalogues, as well as to the numerous book reviews and excerpts published in the print media, or pamphlets and books reprinted as serial newspaper articles.

The story of the third translation of LesRuines sheds light on the painstaking care with which Volney, Jefferson, and Barlow, together with the publishers, handled its production, publication, and circulation. They all sought a flawless translation because their long-term goal was the patient education of mankind. Ruines had a fictional dimension aimed at stimulating the reader’s imagination. It was a provocative and empowering work, which encouraged critical thinking, broadened the notion of popular freedom, and provided powerful arguments against institutionalized religion. Moreover, its focus on the search for truth was in line with the requisites of free speech, popular sovereignty, and self-rule of republicanism. Jefferson may not have fully endorsed the content of LesRuines, but he was as eager as Volney and Barlow to make this work public for the benefit of his contemporaries and of generations to come. He too contended that “kings, nobles, and priests”—a recurrent trilogy in Jefferson’s lexicon—worked against human happiness. He was aware that a genuine search for truth implied a thorough examination of the religion of one’s own country and of the existence of God—as he pointed out to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787—and that such a process could embrace an examination of Jesus’s historicity.[90] Because society was not yet culturally prepared, Jefferson assumed that his own part as translator had to be done in the dark. On February 8, 1805, in response to some of Volney’s complaints about criticisms directed at his View of the Soiland Climate of the United States, he wrote:

The genus irritabile vatum could not let the author of the Ruins publish a new work, without seeking in it the means of discrediting that puzzling composition. Some one of those holy calumniators has selected from your new work every scrap of a sentence, which detached from its context, could displease an American reader. A cento has been made of these, which has run thro’ a particular description of newspapers, and excited a disapprobation even in friendly minds, which nothing but the reading of the book will cure. But time and truth will at length correct error.[91]

Jefferson knew what he was talking about. He, too, had been calumniated. In particular, he had been called an atheist by his political and religious opponents on the basis of one damaging remark from his Notes on the State of Virginia: “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[92]

In the early United States, voicing one’s doubts about the truths of Christianity remained a somewhat risky business and was subject to prosecution under blasphemy laws. Those were few and rarely enforced, but they may have hindered the desire of some to truly think and speak freely.[93] Volney in particular remained controversial. Thus, Recherches nouvelles sur l’histoire ancienne, published in three volumes in Paris in 1814 and 1815, was not published in the United States until 1858.[94] It had been made available to the Anglophone public in 1821, when an English translation, produced “under the superintendence of the author” according to the title page, was published posthumously in London.[95] In a letter he sent to Jefferson in 1817, the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe had praised Volney’s Recherchesnouvelles. He had also denied the rumour, publicized in several newspapers, that Volney had corrected some of his erroneous opinions in the fifth edition of LesRuines:

I have seen in the papers a notice, that Mr Volney has published a new edition of his ruins, with correction of such opinions as he had formed hastily in his Youth. The evident bearing of the notice was to insinuate that he had changed his religious sentiments. I find nothing in the “Recherches nouvelles” to authorize such a supposition, but rather the contrary.[96]

Jefferson declined his correspondent’s offer to send him Volney’s three volumes, explaining that he was certain that they had “the stamp of a genius” but that the work was “too bulky to come by mail, & not to be trusted to the stages.”[97] He conceded moreover that he had “never paid any attention to Oriental literature, antient or modern, and [was] therefore not qualified to recieve [sic] much edification or perhaps amusement from them.”

The Volney-Jefferson correspondence ended in 1806 with a friendly letter from Jefferson. Volney’s name appears several times in Jefferson’s correspondence after that year, and a few instances indicate that despite his disregard for Recherches Nouvelles, Jefferson consistently supported Volney’s notoriety and continued to recommend his works, in particular Law of Nature and Lectures on History. Volney’s name also crops up in a letter from John Adams, who, on January 23, 1825, complained of the non-reality of the much-touted liberty of conscience and referred to the blasphemy laws:

Now what free inquiry when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigation into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Volney’s Recherches Nouvelles? who would run the risk of translating Dupuis?[98]

Volney and Jefferson ceased to correspond for reasons that are difficult to elucidate. To assume that it was due to their differing views of the gospels would be in contradiction with the way they conceive of liberty of conscience and their refusal to scrutinize other people’s religion. Maintaining a correspondence with Volney, even after his presidency, was potentially dangerous for Jefferson’s long-term reputation, a fact to which Volney was certainly sensitive. Between 1806 and his death in 1820, Volney returned to his work on the simplification of language, a project essential to progress, which William Thornton had applauded in 1796.[99] In any case, none of them had any doubt about the power of the printed word. With Barlow, Jefferson and Volney had completed the task of making a dependable English version of LesRuines available. The subterranean educational work could follow its natural course.


Jefferson and Barlow’s exchange with Volney about the translation of TheRuines was one of the many intellectual transatlantic conversations which took place in the post-revolutionary period. One of the specificities of the Volney-Jefferson-Barlow connection is that it confirms that the radical Enlightenment paradigm applies to the United States, as Margaret Jacob suggested in 2007, while the story of the translation underscores the resistance to American critiques of institutionalized religion as well as to French conceptions of popular revolution.[100] With regard to Jefferson, full acknowledgment of his role in the collaboration allows us to revisit what prompted him to plan his idiosyncratic biblical compilations and to affirm the total humanity of Jesus—a bone of contention with Priestley, a millenarian for whom Christ was not divine but had received from God the power to perform miracles and to resurrect.[101] On April 23, 1803, Jefferson wrote a letter to Priestley to congratulate him on his Socrates and Jesus Compared, which he had received and perused.[102] Two days previously he had sent Rush his “Syllabus of an Estimate of the merit of the doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others,” acknowledging that he was a Christian “in the only sense he wished anyone to be,” and that he had been inspired by Priestley’s work.[103] But as we have seen, Jefferson’s reflection on the place of Jesus coincided with the diffusion of the third translation of LesRuines, a work that was also largely predicated on the comparative method and linguistic analysis, and to which he may have wished to respond. Furthermore, while LesRuines, contrary to Jefferson’s own views, questioned the historicity of Jesus, it exposed religious contradictions—including Christianity’s—and enhanced secular morality, and it was in that sense plainly in line with Jefferson’s philosophy. Hence, it can be argued that Volney’s work was as much an incentive as Priestley’s short essay—in which the author is mainly concerned with demonstrating the superiority of revealed religion over polytheism—when, later in his life, Jefferson considered cutting and pasting four different versions of the Bible in English, French, Greek, and Latin in order to finally issue an edited “Bible,” from which he had removed all miraculous events, including Jesus’s final resurrection.[104]

But LesRuines is not just a cogent critique of religious contradictions displaying hostility to organized religion. Its literary power lies elsewhere. It lies in the peculiar way Volney articulates his theory of universality, or, as Alexander Cook has argued, his powerful “vision of a transnational public sphere.”[105] In LesRuines, all religions are placed on equal terms and no Christocentrism comes to devalue Enlightenment calls for universal happiness. It ends with a hopeful call to the united nations and an insistence on the oneness of human nature. The book captures the idea of a global world, one whose plurality of cultures is connected by a common genealogy, history, problem, and purpose. This fact may explain, at least in part, the new scholarly interest in Volney, whose work is relevant to contemporary concerns regarding environmental and political challenges. Les Ruines may resonate, with a particular acuteness, with the growing awareness that what is deeply needed now is joined-up responses and expansion of national efforts to the level of the whole planet.