Americans Helping Americans Abroad

Volney’s Ruins of Empires

On March 26, Author Thomas C. Williams, a former member of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, presented “Volney’s Ruins” – why Jefferson translated it anonymously and how the book’s observations apply to the modern day.

Volney was a French philosopher at the end of the 18th century. He traveled throughout the Mid-East before the French revolution and was a member of the first National Assembly of the French Republic. While serving the Assembly, he was writing his book on the Ruins of Empires.

He knew the American ambassador to France during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, who introduced him to his replacement, the first United States Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson. Volney and Jefferson became good friends, enough for Volney to go to the United States when he fell into disfavor at home and Jefferson was the vice-president of the United States. He had already published "The Ruins; Or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires" in 1791 and it was already widely read in Europe. Jefferson undertook the translation into English.

Williams has collected the largest collection of Jefferson translations and he discovered the manuscript that confirms Jefferson's translation of Volney's "The Ruins; Or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires".

Jefferson did this translation of the first 20 chapters (out of 24) while he was vice-president and running for president. He chose to remain anonymous, most likely to avoid a connection with some of the more controversial aspects of the book. Some aspects supported the Whig tenets of "less government" and letting the individuals progress to their full possibilities. “Empires rise if government allows enlightened self-interest to flourish.” Other aspects were less politically tenable; Volney was an abolitionist and he insisted that church and state be strictly separate, which led to accusations of atheism. Jefferson was President when the translation was published in 1802 in Paris. “Volney’s Ruins” influenced many important 19th century figures in America, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman are known to have been influenced. During the meeting, it was suggested as highly likely that Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth" was influenced by Volney, as was, probably, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's writings in the campaign for women's rights.

Williams linked this 200-year-old best seller to the modern day: the rise of the United States and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the constant religious conflicts.

The slide of Volney contemplating the Palmyra ruins and of ISIS militants executing prisoners at those same ruins were perfect illustrations of his talk, linking the past to the present. The audience was thoroughly captivated by the presentation.

Williams recommended going to gutenberg.org to download the book. Take care to download the version that starts with the invocation translated as, "Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchres and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer." That indicates it is the Jefferson translation. Williams also recommended reading Volney's "the Law of Nature", written after "The Ruins", but it should be read first. The two are often published together.

Williams has written a historical novel, "English-Turn Volume I: Ruins of Empires", which, as its title indicates, is based on Volney's writing.

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