“No Nation is Drunken where Wine is Cheap”: Jefferson’s Famous Letter on Government and Wine
The retired founding father offers thoughts on the political economy of wine importation and foretells the future stability and prosperity of France after Napoleon: “her constitution, as now amended, gives as much of self-government as perhaps she can yet bear… No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”
THOMAS JEFFERSON. Autograph Letter Signed, to the Baron Hyde de Neville, December 13, 1818, Monticello. 2 pp., 7⅞ x 9⅝ in. #21189 $125,000
Monticello Dec. 13. 18.
I thank your Excellency for the notice, with which your letter favors me, of the liberation of France from the occupation of the Allied powers. To no one, not a native, will it give more pleasure. in the desolation of Europe to gratify the atrocious caprices of Bonaparte, France sinned much: but she has suffered more than retaliation. once relieved from the Incubus of her late oppression, she will rise like a giant from her slumbers. her soil and climate, her arts and eminent science, her central position and free constitution, will soon make her greater than she ever was. and I am a false prophet if she does not, at some future day, remind of her sufferings those who have inflicted them the most eagerly. I hope however she will be quiet for the present, and risk no new troubles. her constitution, as now amended, gives as much of self-government as perhaps she can yet bear, and will give more when the habits of order shall have prepared her to receive more. besides the gratitude which every American owes her, as our sole ally during the war of independence, I am additionally affectioned by the friendships I contracted there, by the good dispositions I witnessed, and by the courtesies I received.
I rejoice, as a Moralist, at the prospect of a reduction of the duties on wine, by our national legislature. it is an error to view a tax on that liquor as merely a tax on the rich. it is a prohibition of it’s use to the midling class of our citizens, and a condemnation of them to the poison of whisky, which is desolating their houses. no nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. it is in truth the only antidote to the bane of whisky. fix but the duty  at the rate of other merchandise, and we can drink wine here as cheaply as we do grog: and who will not prefer it? it’s extended use will carry health and comfort to a much enlarged circle. every one in easy circumstances (as the bulk of our citizens are) will prefer it to the poison to which they are now driven by their government. and the treasury itself will find that a penny apiece from a dozen is more than a groat from a single one. this reformation however will require time. our merchants know nothing of the infinite variety of cheap and good wines to be had in Europe; and particularly in France, in Italy, and the Graecian islands: as they know little also of the variety of excellent manufactures and comforts to be had any where out of England. nor will these things be known, nor of course called for here, until the native merchants of those countries, to whom they are known, shall bring them forward, exhibit & send them at the moderate profits they can afford. this alone will procure them familiarity with us, and the preference they merit in competition with corresponding articles now in use. Our family renews with pleasure their recollections of your kind visit to Monticello, and joins me in tendering sincere assurances of the gratification it afforded us, and of our great esteem & respectful consideration
Jefferson imported both wines and grape vines for cultivation from Europe. His cellar had vintages from France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, and Germany, and he advised other chief executives on the best wines to serve at federal functions. He concludes his letter to Jean-Guillaume, Baron Hyde de Neuville (1776-1857) by recalling the pleasure of their last visit together; an event at which fine wine was undoubtedly served: “Our family renews with pleasure their recollections of your kind visit to Monticello, and joins me in tendering sincere assurances of the gratification it afforded us, and of our great esteem & respectful consideration.”
Rather than a letter on prohibition, Jefferson actually extols the virtues of moderation, putting forth the idea that the consumption of wine is much more salubrious than whiskey drinking. “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.” Although the subject of Jefferson's letter may seem to change abruptly, he had in fact already mentioned France’s “soil and climate” as two of her great gifts, and the topic of wine duties was an appropriate one to discuss with the French minister. Thomas Madigan was projecting his own hostility to the eighteenth amendment when he described this letter as setting forth Jefferson’s “views on the prohibition question.” It is actually a carefully reasoned tribute to the health and economic benefits of wine, and one of the longest passages on oenology by America’s first great wine connoisseur. John Hailman’s book, Thomas Jefferson on Wine (University Press of Mississippi, 2006), notes that “One of Jefferson's favorite topics in later life was how wine promoted sobriety,” to which end he lobbied President Monroe and Treasury Secretary Alexander Dallas to lower import duties on French wine. Hailman cites a brief extract from this letter, lauding it because “it has so many quotable passages” (pp. 353–54).
An extraordinary and revealing letter, beginning with a warm encomium to France, “our sole ally during the war of independence,” at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Jefferson, in contrast, reveals his longstanding antipathy to England and discomfiture at America’s dependence on trade with England.
Provenance: Helen Fahnestock Hubbard (Parke-Bernet, March 27, 1956, lot 63). While the recipient of this letter is not indicated, the manuscript was purchased about 1930 by Thomas Madigan, who reveals in Word Shadows of the Great that “Among the papers of Baron de Neuville, French Minister to the United States…I came across a letter of Thomas Jefferson in which the great democrat set forth his views on the prohibition question.”