William Short (American ambassador)

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Portrait of William Short

William Short (1759–1849) was Thomas Jefferson's private secretary when Jefferson was a peace commissioner and then the United States Minister to France in Paris, from 1784 to 1789. Jefferson, later the third President of the United States, was a lifelong mentor and friend. In a 1789 letter, Jefferson referred to Short as his "adoptive son."[1] Short was an early member and president (1778–1781) of Phi Beta Kappa at the College of William & Mary, was elected to Virginia's Executive Council in 1783–1784, served as America's chargé d'affaires in France during the French Revolution from 1789–1792, was then appointed as America's Minister to the Netherlands and as a treaty commissioner to Spain. (The United States did not have ambassadors until 1893. Until that time, the highest ranking diplomats were known as ministers.[2]) Although his diplomatic career was not as celebrated or long as Short may have wished, and his love affair with a French noblewoman ended with her marrying another man, Short was a successful businessman and an opponent of slavery who died very wealthy in America.[3]


William Short was born in 1759 to William Short (the Fifth) and Elizabeth Skipwith at Spring Garden, Surry County, Virginia. He was the brother of Peyton Short, who became a land speculator and politician in Kentucky.[4]

During his time in Paris as Thomas Jefferson's private secretary, William Short served as charge d'affaires in Jefferson's absence. After Jefferson returned to America in 1789, Short continued as charge d'affairs, and since he was the highest ranking American diplomat in France he essentially served as the replacement U.S. Minister for three years. During this time, In what would become a life-long correspondence, Short provided Jefferson with detailed reports on the progress of the French Revolution. After 1792, Short became increasingly disillusioned with the excessive violence of the Revolution, which resulted in several friends being arrested or murdered.

From September 1790 until August 1794, Short also acted as the United States's fiscal agent in Europe, and in that capacity he refinanced America's foreign debt, negotiating a lower interest rate than any other country enjoyed—a service that greatly helped America's federal government in the 1790s.[5] In 1792, Short was appointed Minister to the Netherlands and then to be a treaty commissioner plenipotentiary to Spain.[6] Short's Spanish mission was frustrating, however, because France and Spain went to war in March 1793, making any Spanish-American treaty much more difficult. After working on negotiations for years, he was removed from his position just as the situation began to get better, and so did not get credit when a treaty was finally made. Short returned to Paris, but after finding that the woman he loved, the Duchesse Rosalie de la Rochefoucauld, was not willing to leave France, Short went back to the United States to take care of business matters in 1802. Immediately upon returning, Short visited Jefferson for a month at Monticello, Jefferson's home.[7]

A few years later, then-President Jefferson nominated Short via recess appointment to become Minister to Russia in 1808; however, after Short had arrived in Europe, the Senate decided not to have a diplomat sent to Russia at all, and Short never proceeded to the post. Short became angry at James Madison, who had succeeded Jefferson to the presidency, for not renewing his appointment and for sending John Quincy Adams instead in 1809.[8] Short also found out that Rosalie not only would not leave France to marry him, but had actually married an older, wealthy relative instead. Short left Europe for good, returning to America and spending the last years of his life managing his successful business dealings, supporting various philanthropic ventures, and keeping up his friendship with Jefferson through visits and letters.

Short was both an opponent of slavery and a believer in the natural equality of the races. In 1798, he wrote that further research into the societies of Africa were giving evidence that black people were capable of great civilizations, and—he hoped—news of this would undermine the racial prejudices many white people in America held toward black people. He advocated freeing slaves in America, giving them farmland and access to education, and supported racial intermarriage. Later in his life, he became a supporter of the American Colonization Society, believing that slaveowners would be encouraged by it to free their slaves.[9][10]

Love letters and romance with Rosalie De La Rochefoucauld[edit]

William Short never acquired the fame or political prestige he sought after in life, notwithstanding his charm and intellect, his diplomatic assignments in Europe, or through his close relationship with Thomas Jefferson, whom he considered a second father.

But Short developed an extraordinary romance with Alexandrine Charlotte de Rohan-Chabot, casually known as Rosalie, the Duchess de la Rochefoucauld. She was passionate and beautiful, a woman of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. Rosalie witnessed firsthand the violence during the Reign of Terror, including the assassination of her husband and the execution of her brother.

William and Rosalie’s love affair was recorded in hundreds of letters which detailed these events, documenting the lovers' pains of separation and their frustration with social norms. Likewise, their words of devotion are especially poetic and moving. The love letters are an authentic literary contribution, and offer delightful personal insights into a turbulent era of world history.[11]

Though their affair was long and storied, she would eventually marry a kinsman, Boniface Louis Andre, Marquis de Castellane in 1810.[12]


  1. ^ Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter to John Trumball". Founders Online. National Archives. Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  2. ^ "Who were the first U.S. Ambassadors?". United States Department of State. Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  3. ^ Shackelford, George Green (1993). Jefferson's Adoptive Son: The Life of William Short, 1759–1848. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky. pp. 4, 11, 42–43, 55, 178. ISBN 0-8131-1797-6. 
  4. ^ Shackelford, p. 3
  5. ^ Bowman, Rebecca. "William Short". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Monticello. Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  6. ^ Shackelford. Jefferson's Adoptive Son. p. 95. 
  7. ^ Bowman, Rebecca. "William Short". Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Monitcello. Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  8. ^ Shackelford. Jefferson's Adoptive Son. p. 157. 
  9. ^ Short, William. "Letter to Jefferson". Founders Online. National Archives. Retrieved 29 June 2015. 
  10. ^ Shackelford. Jefferson's Adoptive Son. p. 187. 
  11. ^ “William Short, Jefferson's Only "Son"” The North American Review, September 1926, pp. 471–486
  12. ^ Shackelford, p. 160

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Thomas Jefferson
U.S. Minister to France
Succeeded by
Gouverneur Morris
Preceded by
Charles W.F. Dumas
U.S. Minister to the Netherlands
Succeeded by
John Quincy Adams
Preceded by
William Carmichael
U.S. Minister to Spain
Succeeded by
David Humphreys