Jefferson in Paris (1995) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Widower Thomas Jefferson (3rd US president 1801-09) lives in Paris 1785-90 with his daughter. He has a pretty slave girl accompany his other daughter to France. He has an alleged affair with her resulting in kids.

  • One of the obsessive speculations in American history is whether Thomas Jefferson, in the years before he became president, had an affair with (and fathered a child with) his 15-year-old slave Sally Hemings. JEFFERSON IN PARIS follows Jefferson to France (as the U.S. ambassador to the court of Louis XVI), following the death of his wife his friendships and flirtations with the French, his relationship with his daughters and slaves from home (especially Sally), against the backdrop of the beginning of the French Revolution.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • An understated chronicle of events with a brilliant cast. American actor Nick Nolte portrays Thomas Jefferson during the five year period from 1784 to 1789 when Jefferson served as a diplomat stationed in Paris. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson became the United States Minister to France, at the dawn of the French Revolution.

    The story begins decades later in the Midwestern United States where a journalist has traveled considerable distance to interview Jefferson's wayward son Madison Hemings (James Earl Jones). Hemings reveals many details, primarily that Jefferson died bankrupt. His mother Sally and his uncle James were actually the half siblings of Jefferson's late spouse Martha.

    Although not depicted in film, Jefferson's father-in-law John Wales was a Virginia slave trader, attorney and statesman. Wales had bequeathed his estate and his slaves to Jefferson upon his death in 1773. Also not depicted, Martha and Thomas Jefferson had six children of which only two daughters survived to adulthood.

    Jefferson arrives in Paris with his eldest surviving daughter, Martha "Patsy" Jefferson (Gwyneth Paltrow) and enrolls her into the care of an academy for girls. The academy is part of the Catholic Church and as a Protestant, Jefferson's daughter Patsy is regarded among other Non-Catholic girls to remain of her own beliefs and free will.

    Jefferson's presence in Europe finds him representing the United States with an insolvent Congress and significant debt to the French military for their support and alliance during the American Revolution. He is introduced in time to many dignitaries including the adversarial Ambassador to Britain (Anthony Valentine), and the Monarchs of France, King Louis XVI (Michael Lonsdale) and Queen Marie Antoinette (Charlotte de Turckheim). Jefferson also appeals to Dutch bankers and requests substantial loans to keep the American Government viable.

    The costumes and pageantry of the French elite seem to be rather parody at times but the film supports the pivotal moments, of the one individual who achieved most of America's success in world history. This film would be superb viewing for high school and college students. A challenge of maturity to look beyond the prissy male aristocrats and search for the more important political victories and failures.

    The pageantry emphasizes stark contrast between the French elite and the common people. Most of the subjects of the French Empire are starving and frustrated peasants. The king and queen appear frequently at intervals, but appear to remain alive in France during Jefferson's tenure as a U.S. Ambassador. The common people also appear often while the French Revolution progressively gains momentum.

    James Hemings (Seth Gilliam) is an educated slave and manservant. He is assigned to work among scholar chefs in Jefferson's kitchen and home. His young French colleagues introduce him to distilled spirits which he rejects at first claiming to have no money, but is offered anyhow.

    As there are no slaves in France. James approaches Jefferson about being compensated and Jefferson agrees. James continues to indulge and soon has a reputation for spending all of his money. United States laws prohibit the education of slaves but James proves already to be highly learned. James follows his ears as his duties to and from the presence of Jefferson and other statesmen increase his knowledge that he is not a slave in France.

    Patsy becomes homesick and depressed like her father. She pleas for Jefferson to send for his younger daughter Polly. Patsy vows to care for Polly as would a sister and a mother. Polly (Estelle Eonnet) arrives in Paris with Jefferson's teenage slave and maidservant Sally Hemings (Thandy Newton).

    Nick Nolte performs a superb portrayal of Thomas Jefferson as a vibrant statesman and a passionate human being. He is attracted to and pursued by Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the wife of nobleman Richard Cosway (Simon Callow). Jefferson's flights of fancy with Maria result in his sustaining injury (broken wrist) while horseback riding.

    Director James Ivory brings the audience intimately into Jefferson's dreams, nightmares and human nature. Jefferson is a widower battling with depression who's physical and emotional pain are dynamically illustrated in cinema. Sally's loyal servitude and tenderness build an undeniable love and affection between these two human beings.

    Time and circumstance arise up toward confrontation among all the women in Jefferson's complicated life. As a motion picture, "Jefferson in Paris" is a strong, meaningful and amazing visual experience.

    Many viewers of this film may jump to the obvious conclusions of slavery, polygamy and children born out of wedlock, particularly the multi-racial children of American slaves. But Thomas Jefferson confronts everything from family to politics with courage and charisma.

    Jefferson's stature is invincible. When he is confronted with Sally's pregnancy by her brother James, he calls in the presence of his eldest daughter Patsy to hold the Holy Bible while Jefferson swears a solemn oath to eventually emancipate James and Sally in due time, after they return to Virginia.

    The film ends with printed credits about Jefferson's political future and his controversial relationship with Sally Hemings.

    The remainder of this synopsis is not depicted in film but is important to consider...

    Jefferson returned to Virginia in 1789 with his two daughters: Patsy and Pollly; and his two slaves Sally and James.

    Immediately upon his return, President Washington wrote to him asking him to accept a seat in his Cabinet as Secretary of State. Jefferson accepted the appointment serving from 1790 - 1793. Jefferson ran for President in 1796. As the Democratic-Republican presidential candidate, Jefferson lost to John Adams, but had enough electoral votes to become Vice President (1797-1801).

    A new revolution in 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Arron Burr were elected in a tied number of electoral votes. In February of 1801, after thirty-six ballots, the House elected Jefferson President and Burr Vice President. Jefferson owed his election victory to the South's inflated number of Electors, which counted slaves under the three-fifths compromise. Jefferson was sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall at the new Capitol in Washington DC.

    Unlike Washington, who arrived at his inauguration in a stagecoach drawn by six cream colored horses, Jefferson arrived alone on horseback without guard or escort. He was dressed in plain attire and, after dismounting, retired his own horse to the nearby stable.

    As president, Jefferson used his influence to bring Ohio into the Union in 1802, the first state under the Northwest Ordinance prohibiting slavery. In Congress, Jefferson had authored the Ordinance of 1787 in Congressional committee under the Articles of Confederation. He was therefore instrumental in prohibiting slavery not only to new territories, but in the new states to come beginning with Ohio.

    In 1803, Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase, a major land acquisition from France that doubled the size of the United States. His diplomatic and missionary duties to the United States of America while serving five years in Europe created a catalyst that solidified the new world.

    President for two four year terms. Jefferson was a peaceful leader, but as Commander in Chief he responded swiftly against the Ottoman Empire. He refused to pay the high tributes demanded by the Barbary states while they were seizing American merchant ships and enslaving the crews for high ransoms. It was the first declared war the United States fought on foreign land and seas. The United States Marine Corps conquest on the shores of Tripoli were under the command of President Thomas Jefferson.

    Jefferson rose up to many challenges for which he struggled financially both in government and in person. Standing nearly 6 foot 3 inches, Jefferson was a big, tall and compelling man who's physical presence and academic genius made him a powerful and respected acquaintance, friend and ally in the enlightened free world.

    Biographer James Parton said Thomas Jefferson could "calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance a minuet, and play the violin (which he does repeatedly in this film)." Actor Nick Nolte's cinematic image sustains well in everything ever wrote about Thomas Jefferson, the most incredible man of his time.

    Thomas Jefferson epitomized revolutionary ideals. The film "Jefferson in Paris" presents Thomas Jefferson as a very elegant yet simple man who's diplomacy and rhetoric, prevailed masterfully above and beyond his character imperfections.

    Thomas Jefferson was the most talented copywriter and calligrapher of his time... maybe of all time, considering his eloquently beautiful compositions. He was the principal author of The Declaration of Independence.

    One of the most amazing visualizations of the film "Jefferson in Paris" is his use of an ingenious linkage of hinged wood armatures, which accurately follows his writing on a second page, with a second pen and inkwell.

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