American Sphinx | Chapter 9 of 17

Author: Joseph J. Ellis | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 26469 Views | Add a Review

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He built for himself at Monticello a château above contact with man. The rawness of political life was an incessant torture to him, and personal attacks made him keenly unhappy. . . . He shrank from whatever was rough or coarse, and his yearning for sympathy was almost feminine.


History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson

From 1793 to 1797 I remained closely at home, saw none but those who came here, and at length became very sensible of the ill effect it had on my own mind. . . . I felt enough of the effect of withdrawing from the world then, to see that it led to an antisocial and misanthropic state of mind, which severely punishes him who gives in to it. And it will be a lesson I never shall forget as to myself.

MARCH 3, 1802

MONTICELLO WAS ALWAYS the preferred destination in Jefferson’s imagination, but the American Revolution intervened, then the diplomatic mission in Paris, then the secretary of state responsibilities in the Washington administration. But by January 1794, at long last, he was finally convinced that his public career was over. “I hope to spend the remainder of my days,” he declared, “in occupations infinitely more pleasing than those to which I have sacrificed 18 years of the prime of my life.” In truth, at fifty-one years of age, he believed that the prime of his life was over and that he was considerably closer to the end than the beginning. For more than a year he had been pleading with Washington to release him from political duties so that he might live out his time as a farmer: “I am every day convinced that neither my talents, tone of mind, nor time of life fit me for public life.” 1

Incantations of virtuous retirement to rural solitude after a career of public service were familiar and even formulaic refrains within the leadership class of eighteenth-century America, none more so than within the Virginia dynasty. Everyone knew the classical models of latter-day seclusion represented by Cicero and Cincinnatus and the hymns to pastoral splendor in Virgil’s Georgics. Declarations of principled withdrawal from the hurly-burly of political life to the natural rhythms of one’s farm were so commonplace that John Adams, an aspiring Cicero himself, but also an inveterate skeptic about anyone else’s pronouncements of rural virtue, had begun to doubt the entire Ciceronian syndrome. “It seems the Mode of becoming great is to retire,” he wrote Abigail. “It is marvellous how political Plants grow in the shade.” Adams was not referring specifically to Jefferson, but other Federalist critics were letting out the word in Philadelphia that the outgoing secretary of state was merely going home to lick his wounds, storing up his energies for the inevitable assault on the presidency, posturing as the retired farmer. 2

But Jefferson was not posing. He confided to the ever-discreet Madison—it was an uncharacteristically candid confession—that he had once felt “the little spice of ambition, which I had in my younger days,” but these internal urgings “had long since evaporated, and I set still less store by a posthumous than present fame.” All he wanted in the time that remained to him, he told Angelica Church, was “to be liberated from the hated occupations of politics, and to remain in the bosom of my family, my farm, and my books.” Until now Monticello had been a mirage that kept receding into the middle distance of his life. Now he was suddenly there himself. “I have my house to build, my fields to farm, and”—an intriguingly dutiful way to put it—“to watch for the happiness of those who labor for mine.”

One of his black servants, this time Robert Hemings rather than Jupiter, was dutifully waiting at Fredericksburg with fresh horses on January 12, 1794, and the two rode together toward the foothills of the Blue Ridge and home. “The length of my tether is now fixed for life between Monticello and Richmond,” Jefferson announced two weeks later. Ensconced on his mountaintop, he apprised Adams that the rural rhythms were already taking hold: “I put off answering my letters now, farmer-like, till a rainy day.” He claimed to have become “thoroughly weened from newspapers and politics” and was pleased to “find my mind totally absorbed in my rural occupations.” 3

Perhaps the most palpable source of his resolution to retire was age. Having crossed over to the far side of the half century mark, he could not reasonably expect his good luck with health would continue that much longer. The biblical “three score and ten” left him only slightly more than a decade, and he had no way of knowing that, unlike his father and mother, he would defy the odds and make octogenarian. The first dents in his cast-iron constitution had in fact begun to appear in the form of soreness in his joints, which progressed to a severe case of rheumatism by the summer of 1794 and kept him on his back for two weeks. “I begin to feel the effects of age,” he noted the following year, adding that this body was sending him signals “which give me to believe I shall not have much to encounter of the tedium vitae.” The reddish blond hair was still full, though graying; the lean and somewhat long face still had the burnished glow of an outdoorsman, though it was now more weathered and creased at the edges of the eyes; the body was still taut and athletic in a slender way, still carried itself in that ramrod-straight posture, though the joints in his wrists and knees now tended to flare up in damp or cold weather. All in all, he still looked younger than his years, still could keep his seat on the largest and most spirited horses, still rose at dawn and worked sixteen-hour days without naps or rest periods, still projected in his regimen the vigorous image of a young country whose future lay before it. But his personal future—he now literally felt it in his bones—had a more limited duration. He wanted to spend the time that was left to him in his own private pursuits of happiness. 4

All this would have been sufficient by itself to propel Jefferson out of public life, galloping with Robert Hemings down the road from Fredericksburg to Charlottesville and then up to his mountaintop. An essential part of him, as he himself acknowledged, never felt comfortable exercising political power or participating in the contentious debates that representative government seemed to require. Unlike Adams, who regarded an argument as the ideal form of a conversation, or Franklin, who had the capacity to float above the political infighting on the basis of seniority and wit, or Washington, who was already regarded as atop the American Olympus and therefore untouchable, Jefferson felt every criticism personally. Clashing opinions or arguments struck him as dissonant noise and therefore a crude refutation of the natural harmonies he believed in and heard inside himself. In a sense, his retirement to private life in 1794 was a long-delayed recognition that as a public figure he had always been miscast.

But no matter how sufficient these long-standing conditions might have been in theory, history had seen fit to double his dose of political anguish in practice by contriving to make the 1790s one of the most rancorous and disputatious decades in American history. From the time Jefferson assumed the duties of secretary of state in 1790 until he escaped Philadelphia in 1794, he was a central player in an ongoing political drama that proved to be more intense, almost to the point of paranoia, than any experience in his public life. He suffered psychic wounds during his time in the Washington administration that never completely healed. And he dispensed political invective of his own, or rather had surrogates do it in his behalf, that made him the chief symbol of opposition to the government in which he served. Whether the times changed him or merely marked him is an interesting question. But there is no question he emerged from the experience speaking a more distinctly partisan political language that was just beginning to be associated on a national level with his name. If we are to understand the heart and the head of the middle-aged man so eager to sequester himself at Monticello, we need to know a bit more about what had happened to him in the political world from which he was escaping. 5


JEFFERSON’S TENURE as secretary of state coincided with the most uncharted era in American political history. Precisely because the new national government was new, every major decision set a precedent and every initiative in domestic or foreign policy threatened to establish a landmark principle. The distinguishing feature of the new Constitution was its purposeful ambiguity about the relationship between federal and state jurisdiction and about the overlapping authority of the respective branches of the federal government. The Constitution, in short, did not resolve the long-standing political disagreements that existed within the revolutionary generation so much as establish a fresh and more stable context within which they could be argued out.

As Jefferson and all the other major participants in that debate understood it, nothing less was at stake than the true meaning of the American Revolution. And since Jefferson had been serving in France throughout the latter half of the 1780s, when the first battles to define the positive powers of the federal government were waged, he entered the debates of the 1790s with his revolutionary values more intact than most of his colleagues, who had already concluded that securing the Revolution required compromises with political power at the national level that he was ideologically and psychologically unprepared to make. 6

The most novel and wholly unforeseen development of the era was the emergence of political parties. Not that modern-day political parties, with their mechanisms for raising money, selecting candidates and waging election campaigns, were fully formed in the 1790s. (Full-scale political parties with all the institutional accouterments we associate with the term date from the 1830s and 1840s.) Nevertheless, what we might call the “makings” of political parties originated during Jefferson’s time as secretary of state, and he had a crucial role in their creation. The trouble was that the term “party,” and the very idea for which it stood, had yet to achieve any measure of respectability. A “party,” as the term was commonly understood, was nothing more than a “faction,” meaning an organized minority whose very purpose was to undercut the public will, usually by devious and corrupt means. To call someone a member of a political party was to accuse him of systematic selfishness and perhaps even outright treason. The modern notion of a legitimate organized opposition to the elected government did not exist. Indeed it would have struck most members of the revolutionary generation as a contradiction in terms. 7

All this presented enormous intellectual and emotional problems for Jefferson, because along with Madison he established the rudiments of the Republican party between 1790 and 1794 and thereby created a discernible and organized alternative to the Federalists. To repeat, there were as yet no rules for what they were doing, no neutral vocabulary even for talking about it. In the eyes and minds of their Federalist critics, Jefferson and Madison were traitors, especially Jefferson, who actually served in the cabinet of the government he was opposing. This helps explain the vituperative and highly personal attacks on his character in the public press during those years; there was as yet no available language or mentality for a more detached interpretation of his behavior.

Sustaining this posture of organized but unofficial opposition required considerable confidence in one’s political vision of what the American Revolution meant. It also required another quality that Jefferson had developed during his French phase, what might be called a cultivated tolerance for inconsistency that others might perceive as deception or hypocrisy. For as a titular party leader in an age when political parties were still anathema, Jefferson was forced to mislead and conceal on several occasions, and his success at doing so depended on his psychological agility, his canny manipulation of different voices and personae, on his capacity to play hide-and-seek within himself.

Finally, during the early 1790s the long-standing relationship between Jefferson and Madison reached a new level of collaboration, so much so that it is sometimes impossible to know where the thoughts of one end and the other begins. John Quincy Adams put it nicely when he observed that “the mutual influence of these two mighty minds upon each other is a phenomenon, like the invisible and mysterious movements of the magnet in the physical world, and in which the sagacity of the future historian may discover the solution of much of our national history not otherwise easily accountable.” The habits of confidentiality and the experience at communicating in coded letters that the two men had established when Jefferson was in France served them well in the 1790s, when they teamed up to oppose the fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton and began to develop the foundations for an opposition party. It is not quite fair to Madison’s intelligence and leadership skills to regard him as the junior partner or as Jefferson’s ever-willing surrogate in the political infighting that Jefferson found so offensive. In fact, during the early phases of the battle with Hamilton, from 1790 to 1792, Madison actually led the fight, especially against Hamilton’s funding scheme and proposal for a national bank. 8

But in general it seems fair to concur with those Federalists who considered Madison the “General” and Jefferson the “Generalissimo” of the emergent Republican opposition. Jefferson was the psychological superior and senior member of the team. He orchestrated the strategy and Madison implemented the tactics. Jefferson could afford to emphasize the broadest contours of a political problem because Madison was silently handling the messier specifics. (If God was in the details, so the story went, Madison was usually there to greet Him upon arrival.) The advantages of this arrangement were obvious: It placed an extremely talented spokesman at the point of attack while allowing Jefferson to remain behind the scenes and above the fray.

But there were also some less obvious disadvantages: It gave credence to the charge that Jefferson was a devious manipulator who played cowardly games with the truth. While his defenders could and did characterize his famous craving for personal privacy as a function of shyness or discretion, claiming that “the boldness of his mind was sheathed in a scabbard of politeness,” even Dumas Malone, his most admiring biographer, has been forced to acknowledge that during the party wars of the 1790s Jefferson frequently crossed that dim line between “courtesy and deception.” More critical commentators date his reputation as a mysterious and not-so-admirable version of the American Sphinx from this phase of his career. “He did not always speak exactly as he felt,” wrote Charles Francis Adams, “either towards his friends or his enemies. As a consequence, he has left hanging over a part of his public life a vapor of duplicity . . . , the presence of which is generally felt more than it is seen.” Despite Madison’s heroic efforts to shield him from criticism, indeed in part because those efforts raised questions about where Jefferson himself stood, most of the unfriendly assessments of Jefferson’s elusive personality originated in the superheated political climate of the 1790s. Here his character became controversial. 9

So were his priorities and policies as secretary of state. In the wake of Jefferson’s retirement James Monroe sent him a consoling letter, assuring his mentor that “notwithstanding the important and even turbulent scenes you have passed through [you have] not only the approbation of your own heart, and of your countrymen generally, but the silence and of course the constrained approbation of your enemies.” This seems a plausible if somewhat partisan appraisal. 10

Jefferson helped launch American foreign policy in a direction that served national purposes tolerably well throughout the next century. He shared with the other major figures, especially Washington, Adams and Hamilton, the fundamental recognition that the chief task facing the young republic was internal and domestic, stabilizing the freshly created political institutions and consolidating control over the North American continent. This meant steering clear of European conflicts at almost any cost and providing time and space for the emergent American national economy to develop its still-nascent potential. Despite bitter partisan fights over how to implement these foreign policy principles, not to mention the complete collapse of agreement over the relative threats posed by English or French challenges to American neutrality, the principles themselves remained a matter of consensus throughout the top reaches of the government. Jefferson was frequently accused, for good reason, of harboring pro-French sympathies that distorted his version of American neutrality. But the French minister, Pierre Adet, offered the most perceptive appraisal of Jefferson’s deepest sympathies. “Mr. Jefferson likes us,” wrote Adet, “because he detests England . . . , but he might change his opinion of us tomorrow, if tomorrow Great Britain should cease to inspire his fears. . . . Jefferson, I say, is American and, as such, he cannot be sincerely our friend. An American is the born enemy of all the European peoples.” This shrewdly accurate assessment provides the fairest gloss on his overall goals as secretary of state, which were to negotiate American interests forcefully while avoiding any version of partisanship that might lead to war. 11

That said, Adet’s observation that Jefferson truly detested England was also demonstrably true. Indeed Jefferson’s palpable hatred of all things English (except perhaps their gardens) colored his entire performance as secretary of state and on several occasions came perilously close to causing a breakdown in Anglo-American relations. In the Nootka Sound crisis of 1790, for example, when an incidental flare-up between England and Spain near present-day Vancouver threatened to provoke war throughout the entire trans-Mississippi West, Jefferson took an especially belligerent stand toward English designs on the region that risked war with England until the crisis fizzled away. In his negotiations with George Hammond, the British minister charged with resolving the long-standing differences over the terms of the Treaty of Paris, Jefferson was particularly wooden and unbending, almost constitutionally incapable of the kind of diplomatic demeanor that came so naturally to him in other contexts. And in 1793 his exhaustive report on American trade policy as a neutral nation recommended retaliatory tariffs against England that were economically suicidal and depended on a belief in American economic prowess vis-à-vis England that verged on sheer hallucination. The mere mention of England, it was clear, tapped some reservoir of hatred buried within the deeper folds of his personality that made diplomatic detachment almost impossible. 12

The deepest sources of that hatred must remain a matter of speculation. It is worth recalling, for example, that he had launched his national career by drafting a bill of indictment against George III and added a wholesale condemnation of the English people; these were so vitriolic that his colleagues on the Continental Congress had seen fit to tone down the former and wholly delete the latter. (What others regarded as justifiable propaganda had always seemed to him the literal, indeed self-evident truth.) Had not George III confirmed that the loathing was mutual by ceremoniously turning his back on him and Adams before the entire English court? Before that Cornwallis’s soldiers had burned his crops, carried off his livestock and slit the throats of those animals they could not take with them. During his Paris years he had also been exposed to the routinized arrogance of the English press, which seemed incapable of digesting the awkward fact that the American colonies had actually won their war for independence.

But English delusions were also symptomatic of what Jefferson saw as a palpable threat—namely, England’s willingness to use its formidable economic and military power to thwart and perhaps even reverse the larger process set in motion by the American Revolution. Were not those English troops still stationed on America’s western frontier an explicit statement of harmful intentions and England’s prevailing hope that its former colonies might one day be reconquered? Was not English commercial policy, so implacably resistant to Jeffersonian pleas for free trade and so smugly confident of its hegemony in the world markets, evidence of a blatant English attempt to recolonize their former American empire? Finally, to top it off and make it deeply personal, did not he, along with a sizable portion of Virginia’s planter class, still find himself deeply in debt to English and Scottish creditors, who were busy compounding the interest on those debts at rates that made personal independence increasingly problematic? It was a galling thought, but in fact was it not the case that he, Thomas Jefferson, who had done so much to make and shape the American Revolution, remained maddeningly subservient to British authority? 13

Any effort to disentangle the personal from the public reasons for his Anglophobia, or perhaps his psychological from his ideological motives, would be a frustrating and ultimately futile task. Perhaps the best way to put it is that England was one subject on which his head and his heart saw no reason for debate. At the level of foreign policy, history eventually proved him wrong, as the Anglo-American alliance and the protection of the British fleet substantially assisted the maturation of the fledgling American nation throughout the nineteenth century. And his presumption that England was already on the downslope of history took a decisive blow in the unparalleled projection of English values during the Victorian era. But his instinctive sense that there was still unfinished business between England and America was shrewd; it was confirmed by the War of 1812. And his fear that England still contemplated the recovery of its lost American empire, while exaggerated, was a plausible apprehension that appears less credible to us now only because we have the advantage of knowing it did not happen.

A similar mixture of personal and public reasons shaped his affection for France and frequently gave his definition of American neutrality a decidedly French accent. What Jefferson called “fair neutrality” meant an American foreign policy that recognized the crucial role France had played as America’s European ally during the American Revolution and the abiding obligations incurred in the Franco-American Treaty of 1778. He was successful in persuading Washington that American treaty obligations were made with the French nation, not with any particular government or individual, so that the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, then the bloody procession of shifting political factions that assumed power in revolutionary France, must not be used as an excuse to abandon the alliance. Though controversial at the time, and actively opposed by Hamilton and the so-called High Federalists, Jefferson’s judgment appears sound in retrospect. But his posture toward the French minister, Edmond Genêt, was the mirror image of his attitude toward England’s George Hammond, almost endlessly patient and infinitely forgiving, willing to tolerate Genêt’s brazen meddling in American domestic politics and his apparent delusion that he was actually empowered to overrule the president of the United States. Even when Jefferson eventually decided to break with Genêt in August 1793, his motives were explicitly political and domestic. “I saw the necessity of quitting a wreck,” he informed Madison, “which could not but sink all who would cling to it.” 14

Even Genêt’s hopelessly arrogant behavior failed to destroy Jefferson’s deep-rooted Gallic sympathies, which had their foundation in much more than his famous fondness for French cooking and Parisian architecture. These sympathies manifested themselves most tellingly in his almost casual endorsement of the horrific excesses then sweeping the French Revolution toward Jacobin rule and the Terror. “The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain,” he apprised William Short, who had written from Paris about the murderous behavior of the mobs and the complete breakdown of social order. Jefferson then delivered a lecture on the human cost that sometimes must be paid when history is on the march: “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than it is now.” 15 Such an extreme version of what might be called revolutionary realism, which conjures up comparisons to the twentieth-century radicals in the Lenin or Mao mold, exposes a chilling side of Jefferson’s character that seems so thoroughly incongruous with his temperament and so resolutely ideological. But his casual response to the atrocities of the French Revolution was in fact an integral part of a rather rarefied but deeply felt sense of where history was headed.

The main outlines of the picture he carried about in his mind’s eye had been congealing ever since his Paris years. It envisioned the American Revolution as merely the opening shot in a global struggle that was eventually destined to sweep over the world. “This ball of liberty, I believe most piously,” he informed one correspondent in a typical formulation, “is now so well in motion that it will roll around the globe.” American independence from England was only the initial political manifestation of a much broader and more thoroughgoing process of liberation that would follow naturally, though obviously not without violent opposition, as the last vestiges of feudalism and monarchy were destroyed and swept into the dustbin of history. The book that best captured the essence of the Jeffersonian vision was Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791), which Jefferson had enthusiastically endorsed in its American edition and which created a sensation for its verbal flair in describing “the spirit of ’76” and “the spirit of ’89” as twin expressions of the same liberal impulse. From Jefferson’s perspective, therefore, the rather striking differences between the American and French revolutions were insignificant incidentals—on this score Adams thought he was either blissfully ignorant or temporarily insane—when compared with their common purpose. Likewise, he believed that the random violence and careening course of the French Revolution were part of a lamentable but passing chapter in a larger story of triumphant global revolution. All specific decisions about American foreign policy needed to be informed by this overarching, almost cosmic pattern. In practice this meant, as it usually did for Jefferson, fitting the intricate complexities of foreign policy into a simple moral dichotomy. This one cast England in the role of counterrevolutionary villain and France in the role of revolutionary hero. 16

Meanwhile his international vision had a discernible domestic analogue. After about a year of reasonably congenial political cooperation within Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson began to articulate a view of American politics that was also moralistic in tone and populated with clearly delineated villains and heroes. The immediate cause of this change was Alexander Hamilton, or rather the combination of his offensive policies as secretary of the treasury and irritatingly imperial personality. Jefferson and Hamilton had quickly emerged as the dominant figures in Washington’s cabinet. (John Adams, who might have been expected to carry equivalent weight, was shuttled to the side because of his vice presidential duties in the Senate, prompting him to observe that he occupied “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” the first in a litany of colorful complaints by subsequent occupants of the post.) In what became known as “the dinner table bargain,” Jefferson and Hamilton joined together in June 1790—Madison was present too and actually the chief negotiator—in order to forge a compromise that gave Hamilton sufficient votes in the Congress for passage of his proposal to have the federal government assume all outstanding state debts. This policy operated against the interests of Virginia, which had already retired the bulk of its debt, so Hamilton offered his support for a commitment to locate the national capital on the Potomac ten years hence. But the dinner table bargain proved to be the last bipartisan agreement between the two cabinet leaders. Jefferson was soon confessing that he had been “duped” by Hamilton and “made a tool for forwarding his schemes, not then sufficiently understood by me; and of all the errors of my political life, this has occasioned me the deepest regret.” Throughout the remainder of their time in the government Jefferson and Hamilton were engaged in a bitter fight for the ear and mind of Washington and for what each man regarded as the very soul of the American republic. 17

Although the deeper sources of the conflict were profoundly ideological, it also had a decidedly personal edge. Hamilton was the kind of man who might have been put on earth by God to refute all the Jeffersonian values. Dashing and direct in his demeanor, Hamilton possessed all the confidence of a military leader accustomed to command, just the kind of explicit exercise of authority Jefferson found so irritating. While perhaps rooted in Hamilton’s military exploits as an officer on Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War (another heroic experience Jefferson could not claim), this palpable projection of authority called attention to its own brilliance in a style that was reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s oratory, which Jefferson also mistrusted for its ostentation. Like Henry, Hamilton was a youthful prodigy of impoverished origins—John Adams later called him “a bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar”—whose visible craving for greatness violated the understated code of the true Virginia aristocrat. To make matters worse, Hamilton as an opponent was equally formidable on his feet and in print. Jefferson recalled his clashes with Hamilton in cabinet meetings as a form of martyrdom and warned Madison to draft all newspaper attacks against Hamilton personally, claiming that Hamilton was “a host within himself. . . .” Capable of mastering massive amounts of detail and tossing off sophisticated political essays against a tight deadline, Hamilton’s mind projected relentless energy rather than Jeffersonian serenity. It also tended to begin with a palpable and practical problem—how to assault a British position, ratify a constitution or develop a national economy—then reason toward the overarching principles that provided the solution. Jefferson’s mind moved along the same arc but in the opposite direction, from principled ideals to specific contexts or problems. This meant that Jefferson’s disappointments occurred when reality failed to measure up to his expectations; Hamilton’s occurred when his realistic proposals struck others as totally devoid of principle. Jefferson appeared to his enemies as an American version of Candide; Hamilton as an American Machiavelli. 18

These mutual and highly personal animosities became matters of public record starting in 1792, when Hamilton and his followers, writing under several pseudonyms (i.e., Catullus and Scourge), attacked Jefferson in the press for his pro-French sympathies, his shifting position on the Constitution and the elusive core of his character: “Cautious and shy,” wrote Hamilton, “wrapped up in impenetrable silence and mystery, he [Jefferson] reserves his abhorrence for the arcana of a certain snug sanctuary, where seated on his pivot chair, and involved in all the obscurity of political mystery and deception . . . he circulates his poison thro’ the medium of the National Gazette.” The final reference was to an anti-Hamilton newspaper edited by Philip Freneau, whom Jefferson had hired as a translator at the State Department in order to subsidize his editorial efforts against the government, all the while claiming that the arrangement violated no conflict of interest principles known to him. Meanwhile the Hamiltonians kept blazing away at the so-called Generalissimo of the opposition party, in the process providing the most scathing attack on Jefferson’s career and character ever put before the public: “Had an inquisitive mind in those days sought for evidence of his Abilities as a Statesman, he would have been referred to the confusions in France, the offspring of certain political dogmas fostered by the American Minister, and to certain theoretical principles fit only for Utopia. As a Warrior, to his Exploits at Monticelli; as a Philosopher, to his discovery of the inferiority of Blacks to Whites, because they are more unsavory and secrete more by the kidnies; as a Mathematician, to his whirligig Chair.” 19

Apart from Freneau, Jefferson’s chief defenders were all Virginians: the ever-loyal Madison and Monroe, plus the young congressman William Branch Giles, whom Jefferson encouraged to launch an official, though trumped-up, investigation of Hamilton’s financial improprieties as secretary of the treasury. Jefferson himself never entered the public debate, always preferring to work through surrogates, and he was so skillful at covering his tracks that the extent of his involvement in the Giles investigation was not discovered for almost two hundred years. 20

Beneath the purely personal animus between the two different-minded and temperamentally incompatible cabinet members, Jefferson and Hamilton had become convenient symbols for a more fundamental ideological division. By 1792 Jefferson was referring to the Federalist leadership as “monarchists,” “tories,” “anti-republicans” and the supporters of Hamilton’s fiscal policies as “monocrats,” “stock-jobbers” and “paper men.” The story that was taking shape in Jefferson’s mind assumed the contours of a plot to reverse the course of the American Revolution, with the chief characters on the other side cast as villainous conspirators covertly commanded by the diabolical secretary of the treasury, whom he described to Washington as “a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has . . . heaped its honors on his head.” The hatred was palpable. 21

Historians who have studied this volatile moment in Jefferson’s career and in the political history of the early republic, searching for a way to render plausible what to the modern ear sounds obsessive and almost paranoid, have described it as a fresh application of the same Whig ideology he had brandished so successfully against the English ministry in the 1760s and 1770s. There is much to be said for this interpretation, which has the virtue of linking his earlier obsessions with English political corruption to his equally obsessive hatred of Hamilton’s financial program and the Hamiltonian vision of a proactive national government, which Jefferson purportedly regarded as the latter-day apparition of a political dragon he thought he had slain in 1776. This way of understanding Jefferson’s hyperbolic rhetoric in the 1790s—as a recurrence of the Country Party fears of the American Revolution—also has the virtue of undercutting criticism of his apparent extremism in the political crusade against Hamilton. For if one is going to question Jefferson’s sanity in the 1790s, does that not then cast aspersions on his equivalently polemical assaults on George III during the most gloriously patriotic moment in American history? 22

Jefferson was not—let us be clear and emphatic on this point—a mentally unstable person or a man with latent paranoid tendencies. The conspiratorial character of his political thinking in the 1790s, as all scholars of the Whig ideology have reminded us, was a common feature of the political literature of the time, and substantial traces of the same feverish mentality can be found in the private correspondence of the entire political leadership, including Adams, Madison and Hamilton. (Only Washington seems to have remained immune, but then he was immune to everything.) Unless one is prepared to make sweeping psychiatric charges against the vanguard members of the entire revolutionary generation, which is generally credited with being the most intellectually gifted group of political leaders in American history, then psychiatric appraisals of Jefferson himself should be recognized as both misleading and unfair. The leading scholar of the revolutionary era has also reminded us that conspiracy theories not only were prevalent ways of thinking and talking about political events by mainstream as well as marginal figures but also provided a secular way of explaining baffling social changes in terms that improved upon previous resorts to fate, providence or God’s will. 23

That said, Jefferson’s simplistic and highly moralistic rendering of what the Federalists and especially the Hamiltonians were doing merits a moment of meditation, if for no other reason than the Country Party interpretation does not do full justice to the way Jefferson’s mind actually worked. Perhaps the best way to put it is that because he began with a purer and more intensely idealistic conception of the levels of individual freedom possible in this world, especially after the final vestiges of kingly and clerical power had been blown away, Jefferson harbored a more acute sensitivity toward the explicit exercise of government power than any other member of the revolutionary generation. Because the primary colors of his political imagination were black and white, there were no shaded hues, no middle-range way stations where his apprehensions about the oppressive effects of political power could rest more comfortably once threats to his utopian goals materialized. Hamilton’s plans for a proactive federal government empowered to shape markets and set both the financial and political agendas were certainly not monarchical in character—if anything, they were more a precocious precursor of twentieth-century New Deal values than an archaic attempt to resuscitate the arbitrary authority of medieval kings and courts—but in Jefferson’s mind these distinctions made no appreciable difference. Energetic governmental power of any sort was intolerable because it originated outside the individual; it therefore violated his romantic ideal of personal autonomy. George III’s edicts and Parliament’s taxation policies, it is true, elicited the same fears back in the 1760s and 1770s. But Hamilton did not just conjure up bad memories of English oppression; he directly threatened the primal core of Jefferson’s wistful world. 24

In addition, Jefferson’s emerging sense of himself as the leader of the Country Party assumed a distinctively Jeffersonian flavor that was different from the original English meaning of the term, for the rather obvious reason that “Country” meant different things for him than for a resident of Walpolian England. When he was asked to describe the social composition of the two parties, for example, his list of “anti-republicans” consisted of former loyalists and tories, American merchants trading with England, stock speculators and banking officials, federal employees and other office seekers and—an all-purpose psychological category—“nervous persons, whose languid fibres have more analogy with a passive than active state of things.” The list of “republicans,” on the other hand, was much shorter but included the vast majority of American voters. It was comprised of “the entire body of landholders throughout the United States” as well as “the body of labourers, not being landholders, whether in husbanding or the arts.” Jefferson estimated that “the latter is to the aggregate of the former party probably as 500 to one.” 25

Here one gets an early whiff of the distinctively democratic odor with which Jefferson’s name would eventually be associated. In the traditional Whig formulation the Country Party was an elite group of landowners who opposed the policies of the Court Party, and the two competing elites offered different prescriptions for what was in the best interest of the public. But Jefferson had come to see himself as the leader of a popular majority doing political battle against an elite minority. This was a new way of thinking about politics in the late eighteenth century. True, it drew upon traditional notions of conspiracy long associated with Whig ideology. The “anti-republican” supporters of Hamilton’s policies, for example, though a mere minority, enjoyed “circumstances which give them an appearance of strength and numbers.” Their chief advantage, Jefferson thought, was that “they all live in cities, together, and can act in a body readily and at all times,” whereas his constituency was “dispersed over a great extent of country, [and] have little means of intercommunication with each other.” (The chief disadvantage facing the Country Party, in other words, was that it lived in the country.) But the novel feature of Jefferson’s formulation of American political life was that it was essentially a matter of numbers. He regarded himself as the spokesman for a latent majority of Americans who, if they could ever be mobilized, would assume their rightful place as true heirs to “the spirit of ’76.” And instead of talking about them as “the public,” he began in the 1790s to speak in the more democratic idiom of “the people.” These were prophetic tendencies. 26


VERY FEW LETTERS went out from Monticello during Jefferson’s first year of retirement, and the ones that did conveyed the impression that the former secretary of state had successfully completed the long-awaited odyssey from the purgatory of politics to his own pastoral paradise. He wrote to Washington not as the president but as a fellow farmer, recalling that both men were familiar with a scheme to manufacture “an essence of dung, one pint of which could manure an acre,” and that if any ingenious inventor could render it portable, Jefferson was now prepared to purchase a huge supply. To James Monroe, who was serving as the American minister in Paris, he apologized for the infrequency of his letters, blaming the long silence on “that sort of procrastination which so often takes place when no circumstance fixes a business to a particular time.” When word reached him that his old Parisian infatuation, Maria Cosway, had left her husband, abandoned her young child and sequestered herself in an Italian convent, he wrote her in the old sentimental style of times past: “I regret the distance which separates us and will not permit myself to believe that we are no more to meet till you meet me where time and distance are nothing.” But she was wrong to bury herself in a cloistered room where “the sun [is] ever excluded, the balmy breeze never felt. . . .” He had chosen the opposite direction for himself, spending his days out of doors like “a real farmer, measuring fields, following my ploughs, helping the haymakers, and never knowing a day which has not done something for futurity.” He assured his friends that his serenity, like a field of planted flowers, had germinated and was now bursting out inside his soul. It was the lifelong Jeffersonian domestic ideal, now at midlife and in the proper rural context: to be “living like an Antedeluvian patriarch among my children and grandchildren, and tilling my soil.” 27

Certain features in this idyllic scene, especially the family dimension, apparently did come together for Jefferson at least momentarily in the mid-1790s. Patsy, now a full-grown woman whom Jefferson addressed as Martha, had married Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., in 1790, soon after her return from France. When she was a young girl studying in Paris, Jefferson had worried out loud about the chances “that in marriage she will draw a blockhead,” but Randolph put those worries to rest. A Virginia gentleman of the finest pedigree, Randolph had been educated at Edinburgh and in fact modeled himself after his new father-in-law. Tall, sinewy, like Jefferson, but with black hair and a dark complexion, he was a splendid horseman, one of the few Virginians who could outride Jefferson; as a young man he possessed the dashing charm and beguiling eccentricities associated with other male members of the Randolph clan, like saluting nonchalantly as his horse cleared a formidable fence. By 1795 he and Martha had already produced two grandchildren for Jefferson. Nine more were on the way. In addition to substantial holdings at Varina on the James River below Richmond, in 1792 Randolph purchased Edgehill, a fifteen-hundred-acre estate only two miles from Monticello, so he and Martha could be regular presences in Jefferson’s domestic circle and full-fledged residents of Monticello throughout the summers. 28

In June of 1796 a visiting French nobleman, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who was one of the aristocratic refugees from the current bloodbath in France, described Jefferson supervising his wheat harvest in the fields with Randolph alongside him, commenting that “from, the affection he [Jefferson] bears him,” Randolph “seems to be his son rather than his son-in-law.” La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt then went on to describe the other member of Jefferson’s family unit at Monticello, the former Polly, now old enough to turn heads among all the eligible bachelors of Albemarle County and be referred to by her proper name: “Miss Maria constantly resides with her father; but as she is seventeen years old, and is remarkably handsome, she will, doubtless, soon find that there are duties which it is still sweeter to perform than those of a daughter.” A year later Maria fulfilled this prediction by becoming engaged to John Wayles Eppes, whom Jefferson described as just the young man he would have chosen for his stunningly beautiful daughter “if I had had the whole earth free to have chosen a partner for her.” Jefferson then explained to Martha how Maria’s looming marriage provided the final ingredient for his long-standing plan of domestic harmony: “I now see our fireside formed in a group, no one member has a fibre in their composition which can ever produce any jarring or jealousies among us. No irregular passions, no dangerous bias, which may render problematic the future fortunes and happiness of our descendants. We are quieted as to their condition for at least one generation more.” 29

Like many of Jefferson’s fondest and most heartfelt visions, this one proved too good to be true. Despite her father’s wedding gift of eight hundred acres within sight of Monticello, designed to keep her close, Maria preferred to live on her husband’s family lands at Eppington. And like her mother, she died prematurely during childbirth in 1804. Meanwhile Thomas Mann Randolph became afflicted with a mysterious nervous disorder soon after Jefferson took up residence as paterfamilias. Neither a tour through the cooler climate of New England nor several visits to the hot springs of Virginia produced the desired cure, leaving Jefferson himself to wonder what ailed his beloved son-in-law. Alcoholism became a problem in the ensuing years, and rumors began to circulate that young Randolph had inherited a streak of the eccentric behavior—enemies called it outright lunacy—that stalked the Randolph line. By 1802 he was confessing his feelings of inadequacy as a member of the Jefferson family, “like something extraneous, fallen in by accident and destroying the homogeneity,” the self-declared “silly bird” who could never feel at ease among the swans. 30

Indeed the only persevering portion of Jefferson’s domestic dream was Martha, who devoted herself to her father and her children in the selfless fashion in which she had been reared, never talked about her husband’s mounting emotional problems, in fact acknowledged in 1798 that her love for her husband had never really displaced “the first and best of nature,” meaning her feelings for her father. Whether this rather extreme version of daughterly affection had something to do with Thomas Mann Randolph’s slide into despair and eventual destitution is not clear. What is clear is that despite what must have been many idyllic moments soon after Jefferson’s retirement, expectations of an abiding form of domestic bliss on his mountaintop were forced to adjust themselves to the emotional rivalries that had infiltrated his domestic circle. 31

Jefferson’s attitude toward whatever psychological conflicts were steadily eroding those dreams was self-conscious silence. When Maria once mentioned the dilemma posed by the persistent alcoholism of a distant relative, Jefferson advised her to avoid discussing the subject. “What is the use of rectifying him if the thing be unimportant,” he asked rhetorically, “and if important, let it pass for the present. . . . It is wonderful how many persons are rendered unhappy by inattention to these little rules of prudence.” Such acts of prudent obliviousness also had the decided advantage of sustaining the imaginary ideal. In the Jeffersonian family code, one not only kept secrets from outsiders; one kept secrets from oneself. 32

Much like his domestic ideal, Jefferson’s agrarian ideal was utterly sincere, an honest expression of how he wished to see himself but set so far from the messy and mundane realities of plantation life in postrevolutionary Virginia that collisions between interior preferences and exterior limitations were unavoidable, in the end tragically so. One of his most famous utterances, trailing only his classic statement on human rights in the Declaration of Independence as an eloquent contribution to American prose history, is the following passage from Notes on Virginia: “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit of genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” As one modern-day scholar and farmer has observed, American agriculture has never quite recovered from this resounding compliment. Indeed the entire history of farming in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America can be written as a clash between the mythical status of the Jeffersonian tiller of the soil and the harsh realities of capricious weather and equally capricious markets. That long and often paradoxical story, it turns out, actually had its origins in the experience of Jefferson himself. 33

Reality came at Jefferson in several overlapping waves, but the most elemental fact was that he was not an independent yeoman farmer but an indebted Virginia planter. By the time of his retirement as secretary of state he owed about forty-five hundred pounds to English creditors in Bristol and another two thousand pounds to a Glasgow firm. The bulk of this debt had been incurred in the 1770s, when he inherited the burdened estate of his father-in-law, John Wayles. But what he called his “thralldom of debt” had been further complicated by the wartime inflation that rendered his efforts at payment valueless, by the declining productivity of his lands during his long absences from Monticello from 1784 to 1794, as well as by his apparently constitutional inability to live within a budget or deny himself books, fine furnishings, expensive wines or other essentials of the good life. During the latter phase of his ministry in France he had become increasingly aware of the growing gap between his income and his expenses, indeed almost obsessively aware that the interest on his debts was compounding at a faster rate than his payments on the principal. When he left public office in 1794, while he had sounded the familiar Ciceronian note about his craving for bucolic simplicity, he apprised Washington, more practically, that he had retired in order to rescue himself from debt and his lands from “the ravages of overseers [which] has brought on them a degree of degredation far beyond what I had expected.” 34

His financial predicament was serious. Comparisons in modern-day terms are notoriously tricky to calculate, but can conservatively be estimated in the range of several hundred thousand dollars. But they were also fairly typical for the planter class of postrevolutionary Virginia. In 1790 residents of the Old Dominion owed £2.3 million to English and Scottish creditors, and the most prominent families of Virginia were also the most prominent names on the list of more than thirty thousand delinquent debtors kept by British merchants. Jefferson was profoundly aware of the massive indebtedness afflicting his friends and neighbors, once even explaining to a French admirer that the debts of Virginia’s planters were “hereditary from father to son for so many generations, so that the planters were a species of property, annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.” He said pretty much the same thing to his younger daughter: “The unprofitable condition of Virginia estates in general leaves it next to impossible for the holder of one to avoid ruin. And this condition will continue until some change takes place in the mode of working them. In the mean time, nothing can save us and our children from beggary but a determination to get a year beforehand, and restrain ourselves vigorously to the clear profits of the last. If a debt is once contracted by a farmer, it is never paid but by a sale [of the estate.]” Given his own indulged habits of consumption and the eventual fate of his beloved Monticello, this proved to be a highly ironic statement. But in the middle years of the 1790s he could neither foresee the future nor appreciate irony. What he could do, or at least try mightily to do, was make his lands more productive and pay off his debts. Farming, then, meant making money. 35

His landed assets were impressive, but deceptively so. Jefferson owned nearly eleven thousand acres, about equally divided between estates surrounding Monticello in Albemarle County and western lands concentrated in Bedford County, about ninety miles away. He had sold off additional acreage lying along the James River to the southeast in Goochland and Cumberland counties, in part to pay off debts and in part to consolidate his holdings. Despite the sale, Jefferson remained one of the largest landowners in the state. One of the reasons he found it difficult to accept the full implications of his indebtedness was that he thought of wealth like an old-style Virginia aristocrat, in terms of land rather than money or more liquid forms of capital. For Jefferson, land was the best measure of a man’s worth and, as he put it, “that of which I am the most tenacious.” Despite the haunting presence of his English and Scottish creditors, he thought of himself as a landed and therefore a wealthy man. 36

He expected the land to rescue him from those creditors once he took personal charge of managing its cultivation. His plan was clear. He would abandon tobacco as his chief cash crop in favor of wheat. In his Notes on Virginia he had described tobacco growing as “a culture productive of infinite wretchedness,” in part because the noxious weed served no earthly purpose other than to feed a nasty habit, but also because the plant possessed an almost unique capacity to kill the land. Because his own lands were, as he put it, “as yet reclaimed from the barbarous state in which the slovenly business of tobacco making had left them,” he would insist upon the adoption of a seven-step long-term plan of crop rotation designed to permit the soil to recover its former fertility. Throughout the spring and summer of 1794 Jefferson focused the bulk of his considerable energies on the details of his seven-step rotation plan, giving it all the concentrated attention he had previously given to American domestic politics or foreign policy. 37

At least at the theoretical level, which was where Jefferson always did his most impressive thinking, his plan had much to recommend it. Wheat was becoming the crop of choice among Virginia’s more progressive planters (Washington had helped lead the way here) because it did less damage to the soil and enjoyed several market advantages over tobacco, the chief ones being that people needed to eat more than they needed to smoke and that the ongoing war between England and France presented a golden opportunity to capture the European market for foodstuffs. The elaborateness of his seven-step rotation program meant that it would take a long time, at least seven years, before his fields were fully ready for extensive wheat cultivation, but that seemed a price worth paying to do the job right. The plan provides additional evidence that Jefferson saw himself as remaining at Monticello for the duration. He was planning for the long haul.

Of all the reasons why the plan failed—and after some initial success it did fail in just about every way possible—perhaps the main culprit was the bane of all farmers: bad weather and bad luck. Droughts and early frosts damaged Jefferson’s wheat crop three years in succession. Heavy rains soaked his grain while it was being shipped by barge downriver. Later on the dreaded Hessian fly settled over his fields at regular intervals, consuming whatever had managed to survive the capricious elements. One cannot read through his Farm Book, where Jefferson recorded his seasonal encounters with the vagaries of the weather and the countless impediments to his best-laid plans, without concluding that however fortunate he was as a public figure, he was an extremely unlucky farmer. 38

Beyond bad luck, however, there were two elemental reasons why Jefferson’s plantations were not really capable of producing cash crops at a level sufficient to generate substantial profits. First, he simply did not have enough land under cultivation. When one conjures up the image of an eleven-thousand-acre plantation, it is difficult not to be influenced by the popular iconography of the huge agrarian factories of the antebellum South with their vast fields and gangs of slave laborers organized in quasi-military units. But Jefferson’s lands, and indeed most of Virginia’s plantations in the eighteenth century, did not look or function at all like that. Instead of one large tract stretching out to the horizon, Jefferson owned seven separate and disparate farms: Monticello, Shadwell, Tufton and Lego in Albemarle County; and Poplar Forest, Bear Creek and Tomahawk in Bedford. Moreover, only about a thousand acres of his total holdings were under cultivation. The rest was forest. In effect, Jefferson did not oversee a unified plantation in the familiar sense of the term so much as a series of modest-sized farms. Taken together, these scattered agrarian communities were capable of producing enough corn, oats, potatoes, rye, peas, barley and flax to support themselves and, in good years, to show a small profit. That in fact is what they managed to do year in and year out. But the acreage under cultivation was too small, and the organization of the enterprise too decentralized to permit much more. 39

Second, the land Jefferson owned lacked the nutrients and the corresponding fertility necessary to produce a bumper cash crop. Even if the weather and the fates had been kinder, they would have had a difficult time overcoming the geological realities. Jefferson liked to blame the poor quality of his soil on the exhausting effects of tobacco and the careless management of his lands by overseers during his absence in France and Philadelphia. This was true enough, but it failed to acknowledge the more elemental fact that his plantations were on the eastern slope of a mountain range. Aesthetically and visually this location could claim few equals, commanding a spectacular view from Monticello east toward the Tidewater. But though it looked down on some of the richest soil in Virginia, the very height that made the view so stunning also made the soil inferior for purposes of cultivation. (If he had had access to twentieth-century fertilizers and farming techniques, things might have been different. Modern farmers in the area earn their livings with livestock.) So while Jefferson preferred to believe that his lands had been worn out—this meant that proper care by means of a meticulous crop rotation system could reclaim their fertility—the less palatable truth was that the soil lacked the basic nutrients essential for a flourishing plantation economy. The ground around Monticello, for example, was clay-based and therefore excellent for making bricks, but even as one admires the distinctive dark-red hues of the mansion facade today, one is also looking at another underlying reason why Jefferson was not destined to be a successful farmer. 40

Although Jefferson never fully grasped the intractability of his economic predicament, he had a sharp sense of the need to generate income, presumably to tide him over until his lands recovered their productivity, so he decided early on to establish a nail-making business on the grounds of Monticello. He described his reasoning in a letter to a French correspondent in the spring of 1795: “In returning home after an absence of ten years, I found my farms so much deranged that I saw evidently . . . that it was necessary for me to find some other resource in the meantime. . . . I concluded at length to begin a manufacture of nails, which needs little or no capital, and I now employ a dozen little boys from 10 to 16 years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself and drawing from it profit on which I can get along till I can put my farms into a course of yielding profit.” He joked about his new occupation as manufacturer and factory foreman, claiming that “my new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe,” but he was deadly serious about supervising the operation personally and enforcing a rigid regimen for the teenage black slaves who constituted his labor force.

Every morning except Sunday he walked over to the nailery soon after dawn to weigh out the nail rod for each worker, then returned at dusk to weigh the nails each had made and calculate how much iron had been wasted by the most and least efficient workers. Isaac Jefferson recalled that his former master made it clear to all hands that the nailery was a personal priority and that special privileges would be accorded the best nailmakers. “[He] gave the boys in the nail factory a pound of meat a week. . . . Give them that wukked the best a suit of red or blue; encouraged them mightily.” Jefferson even added the nailery to his familiar refrain in the pastoral mode. “I am so much immersed in farming and nail-making,” he reported in the fall of 1794, “that politicks are entirely banished from my mind.” He also immersed himself in the business side of nail making, demanding cheaper prices from his nail rod supplier in Philadelphia, noting increases in the price of iron, keeping track of retail sales of his product at local stores and worrying when “a deluge of British nails” flooded the local market “with a view as is said of putting down my work.” (The fact that they were British nails meant that he took it personally.) 41

From a financial perspective the nailery made perfect sense. In fact, in terms of his struggle to make his plantations profitable, the nailery was the one success story, earning almost a thousand dollars in a good year. But seen in the context of Jefferson’s eloquent hymn to the bucolic beauties of the pastoral life, it was a massive incongruity. A historian with the ironic sensibility of, say, Henry Adams could have a field day contemplating the symbolic significance of a small factory, perched atop Monticello in the heart of Jefferson’s agrarian utopia, perhaps concluding that it was America’s original version of “the machine in the garden.” Or a novelist with the temperament of Charles Dickens might have taken delight in comparing the regimen of Jefferson’s nailery with the sweatshops and dawn-to-dusk drudgery of London’s satanic mills. Jefferson himself, it should be noted, had no comparable sense of irony or contradiction; he felt no need to apologize for bringing industry to Monticello. There is no evidence that it ever occurred to him that his daily visits to the nail factory, with its blazing forges and sweating black boys arranged along an assembly line of hammers and anvils, offered a graphic preview of precisely the kind of industrial world he devoutly wished America to avoid, or at least to delay for as long as possible. 42

At a more mundane level Jefferson’s dedication to the meticulous management of the nailery illustrates what compelled his fullest energies as master of Monticello. Both ex-slave Madison Hemings and former overseer Edmund Bacon, though recalling a later time in his life, claimed that Jefferson showed “but little taste or care for agricultural pursuits. . . . It was his mechanics he seemed mostly to direct, and in their operations he took great interest.” Though his first year of retirement in 1794–95 appears to have been an exception, his general rule was to pass little time in his fields, preferring to leave their cultivation to his overseers except at harvesttime. He spent no time at all behind a plow and almost no time watching others perform the routine tasks of farming. What most fascinated him and commanded his fullest attention were new projects that demanded mechanical or artisanal skill of his laborers and that allowed him to design and superintend the entire operation. The nailery was the first of such projects, but it was followed by construction of a new threshing machine, plans for a flour mill and an expensive canal in the Rivanna River. 43

But the biggest project of all was Monticello itself. He had in fact been contemplating a major overhaul of his mansion ever since his return from France in 1789. From a financial point of view the idea of renovating Monticello, unlike his plans for the nailery, made no sense at all. But when it came to the elegance and comfort of his personal living space, Jefferson’s lifelong habit was to ignore cost altogether, often going so far as to make expensive architectural changes in houses or hotels where he was only a temporary resident. His much grander plans for Monticello followed naturally from two idealistic impulses that seized his imagination with all the force of first principles: First, he needed more space, more than twice that of the original house, in order to accommodate his domestic dream of living out his life surrounded by his children and grandchildren; second, his revised version of Monticello needed to embody the neoclassical principles of the Palladian style that his European travels had allowed him to study firsthand. The conjunction of these two cravings had drastic implications, since the spatial expansion had to occur within severely constrained conceptions of symmetry and proportion dictated by the Palladian principles for beauty. The new structure could not just spread out like a series of boxcars, but neither could it rise vertically, since Palladian buildings must present at least the appearance of a one-story horizontal line, preferably capped by a dome. What this meant in effect was that the original house needed to be almost completely demolished and rebuilt from the cellar up. 44

Brick-making started soon after his return home in 1794, but throughout that year and the next Jefferson focused most of his energies on his fields and the nailery. Some construction work must have begun right away, since Jefferson reported to George Wythe in October 1794 that he was “now living in a brick-kiln, for my house, in its present state is nothing more.” But a year and a half later, in March 1796, he informed William Branch Giles that he had “just begun the demolition of my house,” adding that Giles should “not let this discourage you from calling on us if you wander this way in the summer” and joking that he could stay in one of the unfinished, open-air rooms. An Irish traveler passing through in May of the same year described Monticello as “in an unfinished state, but if carried to the plan laid down, it will be one of the most elegant private habitations in the United States.” Visits by two Frenchmen provide us with the only other direct testimony about the physical condition of life on the mountaintop at this time. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt tended to overlook the clutter and, like a good Jeffersonian, describe the promise: “His travels in Europe have supplied him with models; he has appropriated them to his design; and his new plan, which is already much advanced, will be accomplished before the end of next year. . . .” (He was off by twelve or twenty-six years, depending on how one calculates completion.) Count François de Volney, another refugee from the French Revolution who wished to visit, received a welcoming note from Jefferson that included more candid advice about the view that would greet him: “[T]he noise, confusion and discomfort of the scene will require all your philosophy and patience.” 45

Throughout the vast bulk of Jefferson’s sequestration, it seems clear, Monticello was a congested construction site replete with broken bricks, roofless rooms, lumber piles and, if some reports are to be believed, more than a hundred workmen digging, tearing and hammering away. The millions of twentieth-century visitors to the mansion are the real beneficiaries of Jefferson’s irrational decision to redesign and rebuild Monticello in the 1790s, though they would be mistaken to think the house in which Jefferson lived looked the way it does now. It was in some state of repair or improvement throughout Jefferson’s lifetime. More to our purposes, from 1794 to 1797 Monticello was part ruin, part shell and mostly still dream. Not only is it wrong to envision Jefferson’s estates as an integrated agrarian enterprise along the lines of Tara in Gone with the Wind, not only is it misguided to imagine Jefferson walking behind a plow or spending much time supervising others walking behind a plow, but it is also misleading to think of him residing in a palatial home shaped by his distinctive tastes and filled with his favorite curiosities. Monticello was an excavation rather than a mansion at this stage. It was also his largest and most all-consuming project, the activity that soaked up his best energies and provided him with a sense of purpose. While his inspirational hymn to the virtuous farmer was unquestionably genuine, the truth was that farming bored him. Retirement to rural solitude did not mean tilling the soil, but digging it up to build something new and useful on it.


ALMOST ALL THE WORK, whether in the fields, in the nailery or at the construction site for Monticello itself was done by slaves. The total slave population on Jefferson’s several plantations was a fluctuating figure, oscillating above and below 200 and divided between Albemarle and Bedford counties at the ratio of roughly three to two. Between 1784 and 1794, as Jefferson attempted to consolidate his landholdings and reduce his debt, he had disposed of 161 slaves by sale or outright gift. But natural increase had raised the slave population on all his estates to 167 by 1796, and that number was to grow gradually over the ensuing years. On his plantations in Albemarle County it would seem safe to estimate that Jefferson was surrounded by about 100 slaves during his three-year retirement. It is, on the other hand, by no means safe to estimate Jefferson’s thoughts and feelings about what in effect constituted the overwhelming majority of residents at Monticello. 46

Although Jefferson had made extended visits to Monticello during his years as secretary of state, his duties in Paris and before then in Philadelphia and Williamsburg meant that he was mostly an absentee slaveowner for the better part of fifteen years. During that time his views on the institution of slavery had fluctuated in much the same way as the size of his own slave population, oscillating between outright condemnation of slavery as incompatible with republican values and equally outright procrastination when pushed to offer practical remedies to end it. Of course the gap between “what ought to be” and “what the world allowed” constituted the central dilemma of Jefferson’s overall cast of mind on almost all political topics. But the problem of slavery exposed the gap more dramatically than any other issue; it also exposed his intellectual awkwardness in attempting to straddle what was in fact a moral chasm between what he knew to be right and what he could not do without. Even at the purely theoretical level, then, his thinking about slavery as a matter of public policy was deeply paradoxical and tinctured with personal considerations. The return to Monticello in 1794 and his apparently permanent encampment among “those who labor for my happiness” put an even sharper edge on the paradox by making the theoretical problem into a palpable, day-by-day set of personal interactions. 47

If Jefferson had a discernible public position on slavery in the mid-1790s, it was that the subject should be allowed to retire gracefully from the field of political warfare, much as he was doing by retiring to Monticello. This represented a decided shift from his position as a younger man, when he had assumed a leadership role in pushing slavery onto the agenda in the Virginia Assembly and the federal Congress. His most famous formulations, it is true, were rhetorical: blaming the slave trade and the establishment of slavery itself on George III in the Declaration of Independence; denouncing slavery as a morally bankrupt institution that was doomed to extinction in Notes on Virginia. His most practical proposals, all of which came in the early 1780s, envisioned a program of gradual abolition that featured an end to the slave trade, the prohibition of slavery in all the western territories and the establishment of a fixed date, he suggested 1800, after which all newly born children of slaves would be emancipated. To repeat, up through this stage of his political career, he was a member of the vanguard that insisted on the incompatibility of slavery with the principles on which the American republic was founded. Throughout this early phase of his life it would have been unfair to accuse him of hypocrisy for owning slaves or to berate him for failing to provide moral leadership on America’s most sensitive political subject. It would in fact have been much fairer to applaud his efforts, most of them admittedly futile, to inaugurate antislavery reform and to wonder admiringly how this product of Virginia’s planter class had managed to develop such liberal convictions.

Dating the origins of a long silence is an inherently imprecise business, but it would seem that Jefferson’s posture toward slavery began to shift in the mid- to late 1780s during his ministry to France. This is ironic, since during this same time he was telling his French audience misleadingly optimistic stories about the imminent demise of slavery in his native Virginia and playing the Parisian version of the American antislavery champion. But he was simultaneously beginning to back away from any leadership role in the American debate over slavery. “I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us,” he wrote in 1805, going on to reiterate his belief that slavery was an anomaly in republican America; but his abiding posture was that the current configuration of political forces blocked any meaningful reform at present, so that all one could realistically do was wait for the future to prepare public opinion for the inevitable. This more passive and fatalistic position, which he maintained for the remainder of his life, was the product of several different lines of thought that converged in his mind after 1785. It was in fact a more intellectually and psychologically complex view than it appears at first, and since it was the view he carried in his head to Monticello in 1794, its origins merit a moment of our attention. 48

First, as we have seen, Jefferson’s withdrawal from the antislavery vanguard followed directly upon publication of Notes on Virginia. The ringing denunciations of slavery presented there, which Jefferson had never intended for an American audience, made him a controversial figure, especially within the slave-owning class of Virginia, and the prospective leader of the still quite small group of progressive southern planters advocating some form of gradual emancipation. It was a prominent public role that ran against the grain of all his instincts for privacy. His deep-seated aversion to controversy actually caused him to exaggerate the expected personal criticism that Notes, or so he feared, would generate. But whether his apprehensions were mostly justified or mostly imagined was beside the point. He was simply not equipped temperamentally to stay at the cutting edge of the antislavery movement after he got a dose of the sharp feelings it aroused.

Second, the more pessimistic implications of the argument he had made in Notes began to settle in and cause him to realize, for the first time, that he had no workable answer to the unavoidable question: what happens once the slaves are freed? This was the kind of practical question that Jefferson had demonstrated great ingenuity in avoiding on a host of other major political issues. Indeed, one of the most seductive features of his political thinking in general was its beguiling faith that the future could take care of itself. Slavery, however, proved to be the exception to this larger pattern of calculated obliviousness. For one brief moment, in 1789, he seemed to entertain a bold, if somewhat bizarre, scheme whereby emancipated slaves would be “intermingled” with imported German peasants on fifty-acre farms where both groups could learn proper work habits. But even this short-lived proposal served only to expose the inherent intractability of the postemancipation world as Jefferson tried to imagine it. His fundamental conviction, one that he never questioned, was that white and black Americans could not live together in harmony. He had already explained why in Notes: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions that nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.” Here was the single instance, with the most singularly significant consequences, when Jefferson was incapable of believing that “the dead hand of the past” could not be swept aside by the liberating forces unleashed by the American Revolution. Blacks and whites were inherently different, and though he was careful to advance the view “as a suspicion only,” people of African descent were sufficiently inferior to whites in mental aptitude that any emancipation policy permitting racial interaction was a criminal injustice to the freed slaves as well as a biological travesty against “the real distinctions that nature has made.” The unavoidable conclusion, then, was that slavery was morally wrong, but racial segregation was morally right. And until a practical solution to the problem of what to do with the freed slaves could be found, it made no sense to press for emancipation. 49

Third, during the latter phase of his French experience Jefferson became more intensely aware how much his own financial well-being depended upon the monetary value and labor of his slaves. As the depth of his own indebtedness began to sink in, there were three ways to raise large amounts of capital to appease his creditors: He could sell off land, as he did somewhat reluctantly by disposing of holdings in Cumberland and Goochland counties; he could sell slaves outright; and he could rent or lease the labor of his slaves to neighboring planters. He expressed considerable guilt about pursuing the last two options, suggesting it was a betrayal of his paternal obligations to the black members of his extended “family.” He gave specific instructions that particular slaves who had been with him for some time not be sold or hired out unless they wished it. But much as he disliked selling his slaves or temporarily transferring control over them to others, he recognized that such a course constituted “my only salvation.” In short, once he grasped the full measure of his personal economic predicament, the larger question of emancipation appeared in a new and decidedly less favorable light. It was now a matter on which he could not afford to be open-minded; nor, as it turned out, were the exigencies of this debt-induced predicament to change over his lifetime, except to grow worse. 50

The net result of all these influences was a somewhat tortured position on slavery that combined unequivocal condemnation of the institution in the abstract with blatant procrastination whenever specific emancipation schemes were suggested. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt captured the essential features and general flavor of Jefferson’s slavery stance during his visit to Monticello in June 1796: “The generous and enlightened Mr. Jefferson cannot but demonstrate a desire to see these negroes emancipated. But he sees so many difficulties in their emancipation, even postponed, he adds so many conditions to render it practicable, that it is thus reduced to the impossible. He keeps, for example, the opinion he advanced in his notes, that the negroes of Virginia can only be emancipated all at once, and by exporting to a distance the whole black race. He bases his opinion on the certain danger, if there were nothing else, of seeing blood mixed without means of preventing it.” 51

If his position on slavery as a young man merits a salute for its forthright and progressive character, his position as a mature man invites skepticism for its self-serving paralysis and questionable integrity. But latter-day moral judgments are notoriously easy to render from the comfortable perch that hindsight always provides. And such judgments ought not become a substitute for recovering Jefferson’s own understanding, no matter how flawed, of what he was doing when he resumed his role as master of Monticello. He saw himself, even more than his slaves, as the victim of history’s stubborn refusal to proceed along the path that all enlightened observers regarded as inevitable. In that sense he and his African-American charges were trapped together in a lingering moment, a historical backwater in which nature’s laws would be sorely tested as both sides waited together for the larger story of human liberation to proceed. In this overly extended transitional moment, his primary obligation was to serve as a steward for those temporarily entrusted to his care and to think of his slaves, as in fact he listed them in his Farm Book, as members of “my family,” to be cared for as foster children until more permanent and geographically distant accommodations could be found. 52

Although the self-serving character of this paternalistic posture might have an offensive odor and fraudulent look to us, it had decided advantages for Jefferson’s slaves as well as for Jefferson himself. The major reason why his many returns to Monticello were always greeted by the black population on the mountain as cause for celebration was that it meant the temporary end of control by overseers and the resumption of Jefferson’s more benevolent and generous authority. His residence meant fewer whippings, more dependable food and clothing distributions and the assurance of a more fair-minded arbiter of work schedules. No reliable evidence exists to document any instance in which Jefferson personally flogged a slave or dispensed any physical punishment himself. On rare occasions, and as a last resort, he ordered overseers to use the lash, but his general policy was to sell off troublemakers, effectively banishing them from his extended family as recalcitrant children. He was extremely reluctant to sell slaves against their will. When forced by his creditors to sell eleven slaves in 1792, he ordered that they all be selected from his more remote Bedford plantations and that the sale itself be carried out in a distant location, acknowledging that he “did not like to have my name annexed in the public papers to the sale of property.” On the other hand, he tried to respect the wishes of those slaves who asked to be sold, usually to be united with their families. In 1792, for example, he approved the sale of Mary Hemings to Thomas Bell, a local merchant, studiously avoiding mention of the fact that Bell, a white man, was the father of Mary’s two youngest children and the sale “according to her desire” would allow them to live together as common-law husband and wife. 53

Jefferson’s own highly developed network of interior defenses also helped sustain his paternalistic self-image by blocking out incongruous evidence (like the Hemings-Bell relationship) or consigning it to some oblivious region of his mind that was cut off from communication with the conscious world, a kind of internal banishment of recalcitrant ideas. Just as he could look squarely at the most atrocious acts of mob violence in revolutionary Paris and see only a momentary excess of human liberty, or could put Philip Freneau on his payroll as a partisan in the party wars without acknowledging a conflict of interest, or not even admit that he and Madison were orchestrating the political tactics of an opposition party, Jefferson possessed the psychological dexterity to overrule awkward perceptions, including the day-by-day realities of slave life. He was the kind of man who would have been able to take an oath—and if the technology for a lie detector test had been available, to have passed it—certifying that his slaves were more content and better off as members of his extended family than under any other imaginable circumstance. And like a general ensconced at headquarters, he conveyed a clear signal to his overseers in the fields that unpleasant incidents should not filter their way back up the mountain.

Partly by geographic accident, partly by his own design, the organization of slave labor at Jefferson’s plantations reinforced this shielding mentality in several crucial ways. Recall, first of all, that his cultivated lands were widely distributed, half of them at Bedford, several days’ ride away. Until he built his second house at Poplar Forest during his final retirement, Jefferson seldom visited those remote estates. Recall too that, except for the temporary enthusiasm of 1794–95, he seldom ventured into his fields at Monticello or Shadwell except at harvesttime, leaving daily management of routine farming tasks to overseers. While he kept elaborate records of his entire slave population in his Farm Book, including the names and ages of all hands, his direct exposure to field laborers was limited. His cryptic notation on the division of slave labor is also revealing in this regard: “Children till 10 years of age to serve as nurses. From 10 to 16 the boys make nails, the girls spin. At 16 go into the ground or learn trades.” The ominous phrase “go into the ground” accurately conveyed Jefferson’s personal contact with that considerable majority of adult slaves who worked his fields. Except as names in his record books, they practically disappeared. 54

When Jefferson did encounter them, it was usually in the context of work on one of his several construction projects or as apprentices in the nailery. Most of his face-to-face contact with laboring slaves occurred in nonagrarian settings—the nailery, the sawmill, the construction site around the mansion—where he supervised them as workers doing skilled and semiskilled jobs. Even the nailery, with its overtones of assembly-line monotony and Dickensian drudgery, allowed him to think about the work of the slave boys as an apprentice experience providing them with a marketable trade. In explanation of Jefferson’s compulsive tendency to launch so many mechanical and construction projects at Monticello, it is possible that they not only served as outlets for his personal energies but also allowed him to design a more palatable context for interacting with his slaves as hired employees rather than as chattel.

Finally, all the slaves working in the household, and most of those living along Mulberry Row on the mountaintop, were members of two families that had been with Jefferson since the earliest days of his marriage to Martha. They enjoyed a privileged status within the slave hierarchy at Monticello, were given larger food and clothing rations, considerably greater latitude of movement and even the discretion to choose jobs or reject them on occasion. Great George and his wife, Ursula, referred to as King George (a joke on George III) and Queen Ursula, were slaves in name only and effectively exercised control over management of the household. (When Jefferson asked Thomas Mann Randolph to tell Little George, their son, to perform a particular task, Randolph claimed that “George I am sure would not stoop to my authority. . . .”) The other and larger slave family were all Hemingses, headed by the matriarch, Betty Hemings, whom Jefferson had inherited from his father-in-law, John Wayles, along with ten of her twelve children in 1773. It was an open secret within the slave community at Monticello that the privileged status enjoyed by the Hemings family derived from its mixed blood. Several of Betty’s children, perhaps as many as six, had most probably been fathered by John Wayles. In the literal, not just figurative sense of the term, they were part of Jefferson’s extended family. All the slaves he eventually freed were Hemingses, including Robert and James in 1794 and 1796 respectively. If what struck the other slaves at Monticello was the quasi-independent character of the Hemings clan with its blood claim on Jefferson’s paternal instincts, what most visitors tended to notice was their color. La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt left this account in 1796: “In Virginia mongrel negroes are found in greater number than in Carolina and Georgia; and I have even seen, especially at Mr. Jefferson’s, slaves, who, neither in point of colour or features, showed the least trace of their original descent; but their mothers being slaves, they retain, of consequence, the same condition.” 55

Since the members of the Hemings family were the front-and-center slaves at Monticello, most guests and visitors to the mountaintop experienced the Jeffersonian version of slavery primarily as a less black and less oppressive phenomenon than it actually was. As overseer Edmund Bacon recalled, “there were no Negro and other outhouses around the mansion, as you generally see on [other] plantations,” so the physical arrangement of appearances also disguised the full meaning of the slave experience. In short, Jefferson had so designed his slave community that his most frequent interactions occurred with African-Americans who were not treated like full-fledged slaves and who did not even look like full-blooded Africans because, in fact, they were not. In terms of daily encounters and routinized interactions, his sense of himself as less a slave master than a paternalistic employer and guardian received constant reinforcement. 56

By the same token, if slavery was a doomed institution whose only practical justification was to preserve the separation of the races until the day of deliverance arrived at some unspecified time in the future, Jefferson was surrounded by dramatic evidence that it was failing miserably at that task. Miscegenation at Monticello was obviously a flourishing enterprise, much more so than his wheat fields. Several of Betty Hemings’s grandchildren looked almost completely white, graphic testimony that whatever had begun with John Wayles had certainly not stopped back then. Jefferson’s stated aversion to racial mixture had somehow to negotiate its visible examples all around him. In a sense what he saw only confirmed his deepest fears about an amalgamation of the races, though his code of silence dictated that no mention of the matter be permitted in public. Despite his remarkable powers of avoidance, this is one topic we can be sure he brooded about, even if he never talked about it for the record. The eloquence of his silence provides the best evidence of what Monticello was like as a real place rather than an imagined ideal. If literary allusions afford the best mode of description, we need to dispense with Virgil’s pastoral odes and begin to contemplate William Faulkner’s fiction.


JAMES MADISON probably knew Jefferson as well as or better than anyone else alive, and he recognized from the very start of the sequestration at Monticello that two Jeffersonian truths needed to coexist peacefully for at least the foreseeable future: First, his political mentor and partner regarded his retirement from public life as final; his recovery of some measure of serenity therefore depended on sustaining the illusion that he was done with politics forever. Second, as time passed and his political wounds healed, Jefferson would find it difficult to remain on the sidelines, especially if the cause that had compelled their collaboration appeared at risk. So as he set out for the fall session of Congress in October 1794, the alleged “General” wrote to the putative “Generalissimo” that he would “always receive your commands with pleasure, and shall continue to drop you a line as occasions turn up.” 57

It was essentially a resumption of the old relationship of the Paris years, with Madison sending regular reports from the political cockpit in Philadelphia and Jefferson receiving them in a distant location that afforded him the tranquility to listen and respond in the meditative mode he preferred. For the first year Jefferson’s indifference to political news was nearly total. Madison’s detailed reports on the prospects for Republican candidates in various state elections produced only yawning silence from Monticello, along with the reminder that he did not really follow such matters anymore and had stopped subscribing to newspapers so as not to be bothered with the petty details. When Madison passed along diplomatic correspondence with queries about the proper course for American foreign policy, Jefferson expressed no interest: “Make any answer you please for me. If it had been on the rotation of my crops, I would have answered myself, lengthily perhaps, but certainly con gusto.” Or when Attorney General Edmund Randolph wrote asking if he might be willing to head up the American negotiating effort with Spain, Jefferson slammed the door defiantly: “No circumstances, my dear Sir, will ever more tempt me to engage in anything public. I thought myself perfectly fixed in this determination when I left Philadelphia, but every day and hour since has added to its inflexibility.” No matter what his friends in Philadelphia were secretly thinking, much less his enemies not so secretly saying, he was done with politics forever. 58

The first tiny cracks in this adamant position began to appear in the winter of 1794–95. During the previous summer a popular insurgency in four counties of western Pennsylvania had prompted Washington to call out the militia. The rebels were protesting collection of an excise tax on whiskey that Hamilton had advocated in order to pay for the federal assumption of state debts in 1791. Western farmers considered the tax unfair because it fell disproportionately on their most exportable product—whiskey was the most convenient way to market their grain—and a self-proclaimed army of seven thousand whiskey rebels had marched through Pittsburgh in a massive display of frontier protest. An even more massive display of federal military power, nearly thirteen thousand troops, had put down the rebellion quickly and with a minimum of violence. Jefferson tended to view the entire affair as a shameful repetition of the Shays’s Rebellion fiasco, in which an essentially healthy and rather harmless expression of popular discontent by ordinary American farmers had prompted a military response by the government vastly more repressive than the situation required. Nevertheless, he refrained from making any comment throughout the fall of 1794, despite overtures from Madison to condemn what he regarded as the government’s overreaction. 59

What drew him into the debate was a speech Washington delivered to Congress in the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion, denouncing “certain self-created societies” as subversive organizations that fomented discontent and defied the authority of the legitimate government. Washington’s attack on the so-called Democratic-Republican societies prompted Madison to sound an alarm designed to pierce the rural serenity surrounding his friend at Monticello. Washington’s speech was, Madison said, an “attack on the most sacred principle of our Constitution and Republicanism” and was artfully orchestrated, undoubtedly by Hamilton, to link the Republican critics of the Federalist government with whiskey and rebellion. Madison smelled a conspiracy of just the sort Jefferson had often warned against, the covert “monarchists” in the executive branch of the government scheming to subvert the liberties of “the people.” It was imperative that Jefferson rouse himself from his lair and join the fight: “If the people of America are so far degenerated as not to see . . . that the Citadel of their liberties is menaced by the precedent before their eyes, they require abler advocates than they now have, to save them from the consequences.” 60

Jefferson in effect budged, but he did not move. Madison’s assessment of what was afoot was obviously correct. “The denunciation of the democratic societies,” Jefferson agreed, “is one of the extraordinary acts of boldness of which we have seen so many from the faction of Monocrats.” Washington was just as obviously a prop for Hamilton’s political ambitions; the president’s speech reminded him of “shreds of stuff from Aesop’s fables and Tom Thumb,” clear evidence the president himself did not write it. But then came a sudden and, at least as far as Madison was concerned, an unexpected reversal:

Hold on then, my dear friend. . . . I do not see in the minds of those with whom I converse a greater affliction than the fear of your retirement; but this must not be, unless to a more splendid and efficacious post. There I should rejoice to see you. . . . But double delicacies have kept me silent. I ought perhaps to say, while I would not give up my own retirement for the empire of the Universe, how can I justify wishing one, whose happiness I have as much at heart as yours, to take the front of the battle which is fighting for my security.

This was an elegantly indirect way of refusing the invitation to end his own retirement, along with a clear invitation to Madison to assume complete command of the Republican cause and prepare himself for a run at the presidency. Though aroused by the news from Philadelphia, he wanted Madison to know that, like it or not, the torch had been passed to him. 61

Although Jefferson meant what he said, the debate over the Democratic-Republican societies stirred up the old juices. His letters during the first half of 1795 contained periodic bursts of political invective in the midst of longer and more languid conversations about his wheat crop and the weather. He wrote William Branch Giles that the use of federal troops “to retain the liberty of our citizens meeting together” had signaled a decisive shift toward tyranny “a full century earlier than I expected.” Even Washington, who had been spared direct criticism on the questionable supposition that Hamilton was manipulating his words and decisions, now came in for attack: Washington had provided the Hamiltonians with “the sanction of a name which has done too much good not to be sufficient to cover harm also.” But these political outbursts, to repeat, usually occurred within the context of more temperate and philosophical musings in the bucolic mode and firm resolutions of pastoral contentment. Letters to Madison probably best reflected the mixed state of Jefferson’s mind at this time; requests for copies of his previous correspondence as secretary of state with Edmond Genêt coming right before requests for the most recent pamphlet on crop rotation, news on the elections to the House of Representatives from Virginia districts followed by a lengthy exegesis on the marvelous curative power of vetch as a fallow crop in his old tobacco fields. The happily retired farmer-philosopher was doing battle with the reluctant but ready leader of the Republican party at some subconscious level of Jefferson’s personality. But he preferred to keep the conflict below the surface, invisible even to himself, all the better to sustain what remained the dominant impression: that he was still immune to political temptation. 62

If one were looking to find a precise moment when Jefferson’s political interests began to win the interior struggle, a good choice would be the day after Christmas 1795. On that date he mailed eight dollars to Benjamin Franklin Bache for a year’s subscription to Bache’s Aurora, a leading Republican newspaper. While not yet ready to enter the public debate, he had moved to the point of acknowledging that he wished to follow it. 63

But of course Jefferson’s evolution toward a resumption of his public career was a process more than a moment. The pace of his commentary on politics quickened in his letters in late 1795 and early 1796, which was also the time when the demolition efforts at Monticello went forward at full speed, suggesting that he was fully capable of juggling several versions of his future life without any sense of contradiction. Hamilton was in the news at this time: He had announced his decision to resign from the cabinet; a congressional investigation of accounting irregularities in his office was proceeding apace. Anything involving a prospective exposure of Hamilton caught Jefferson’s attention—he utterly loathed the man—and the investigation seemed to sanction Jefferson’s own, albeit surreptitious, efforts to catch Hamilton cooking the books three years earlier: “I do not at all wonder at the condition in which the finances of the U.S. are found,” he wrote Madison. “Hamilton’s object from the beginning was to throw them into forms which would be utterly undecypherable. I even said he did not understand their condition himself.” 64

Coming as they did from a man whose own meticulous accounting of his personal finances never seemed capable of producing a realistic rendering of the proverbial bottom line, Jefferson’s critical remarks on Hamilton’s financial confusion are richly ironic. They also call attention to yet another possible influence on Jefferson’s thinking about a return to the public arena, this time at a depth that not only eluded his conscious scrutiny but also puts a strain on our own limited knowledge about the irrational sources of human motivation in general.

For Jefferson’s congenital suspicion of Hamilton’s cavalier way with budgets merely hinted at his much deeper suspicion that Hamilton’s real intention was to increase the national debt in order to justify expanding federal power over the economy, including the power to tax, manipulate credit rates and establish all the accouterments of a modern nation-state along English lines. (On this score he was not entirely wrong.) Debt, then, was the key device that made the whole Hamiltonian scheme possible. So if Jefferson were to reenter the political arena, one of his highest priorities would be the reduction and elimination of the public debt. But his obsession with public debt rested cheek by jowl with his own cavalier way with his personal debt. Just how this intriguing disjunction between personal habit and public policy actually operated inside Jefferson’s character is difficult to capture confidently, though paradox is obviously at work. At the personal level Jefferson’s intricate record-keeping probably bolstered his false confidence that his own debt problem was under control. (It clearly was not, and the decision to rebuild Monticello helped assure that it never would be.) The looming decision to end his retirement and reenter politics could be seen, then, as a flight from the apparently intractable problem of his personal indebtedness; he would solve publicly what he could not solve privately. Whatever the interactive pattern might have been, it seems fair to say that the problem of debt haunted him at both levels, that his hatred of Hamilton was fueled by personal demons he did not fully understand himself and that the process of thinking about returning to public life involved a complex blend of emotional and ideological considerations. 65

The decisive event in that process was much more explicit and readily identifiable—namely, the passage of the Jay Treaty, which was simultaneously a landmark in the shaping of American foreign policy, a decisive influence on the constitutional question of executive power in foreign affairs and the occasion for Jefferson’s resumption of leadership in the Republican party. If Jefferson was already leaning toward returning to the political wars in Philadelphia, claiming all the while that his retirement was forever and meaning every word, the battle over the Jay Treaty pulled him all the way over and ended all pretenses of remaining a Ciceronian presence in American politics. The passage of the Jay Treaty was a great victory for the Federalists, but it was Jefferson who understood, more than anyone else, that it was a victory from which his enemies would never fully recover. It turned out to be the launching site of his eventually successful campaign for the presidency. 66

The story had its origins in the early months of 1795. Madison sent reports to Monticello that the terms of the treaty that John Jay had negotiated with England were still secret but that Federalists with inside information “do not assume an air of triumph,” from which “it is inferred that the bargain is much less in our favor than ought be expected. . . .” It would be wrong to prejudge, he cautioned, “but I suspect that Jay has been betrayed by his anxiety to couple us with England, and to avoid returning with his finger in his mouth.” At this early stage of the story Jefferson refused to rise to the bait. His letters back to Madison did not mention the ominous implications of the Jay Treaty at all, preferring instead to discuss a somewhat bizarre proposal to transfer the University of Geneva to Virginia, request delivery of a letter to a prospective fresco painter for Monticello’s new walls and wax eloquent on vetch as the ideal rotation crop. 67

Madison’s fears about the terms of the treaty seemed more than justified, as knowledge of its contents leaked out from the special session of the Senate called to vote on it in the summer of 1795; it then spread, as Madison put it, “with an electric velocity to every part of the Union.” The initial public reaction was almost wholly negative. John Jay later claimed the entire eastern seaboard of the United States was illuminated each evening by the fires from burning effigies of his likeness. Popular opinion rallied around the Republican charge that Jay had betrayed American honor as well as American interests in return for a few scraps of English patronage. In New York Alexander Hamilton was struck in the head by a rock and forced to withdraw while attempting to address a rally against the treaty, and the local militia proposed a mock toast to Jay and Federalist Senator Rufus King: “May the cage constructed to coop up the American eagle prove a trap for none but Jays and Kingbirds.” 68

Jefferson’s initial response combined outrage with exhortation. He began giving orders again. Madison must take on Hamilton, who was already heating up the public presses with editorials in behalf of the treaty. “Hamilton is really a collossus to the antirepublican party. Without numbers, he is a host within himself. They have got themselves in a defile, where they might be finished, but too much security on the Republican part, will give time to his talents. . . . We have had only midling performances to oppose him. In truth, when he comes forward, there is nobody but yourself who can meet him.” Monticello soon began to function as headquarters for the Republican campaign against the treaty. Madison paid an extended visit to the mountaintop in October 1795 in order to plan strategy for opposing the treaty in the Virginia legislature, a kind of dress rehearsal for the projected debate in the federal Congress later that year. He left with Jefferson the only copy of his “Notes on the Debates at the Constitutional Convention,” a clear signal that Jefferson needed to bone up on the constitutional questions at issue, which would form the centerpiece of the Republican position in the congressional debate over ratification. What has come to be called “the great collaboration” was now back in operation and functioning in its familiar fashion. A steady stream of correspondence began to flow from Monticello throughout the fall, rallying Republican support around the position that the Jay Treaty was “really nothing more than a treaty of alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislature and people of the United States.” 69

Indeed, if the gods had seen fit to conjure up a single statement about American foreign policy that was designed to inflame all of Jefferson’s deepest fears and most abiding hatreds, they could not have done better than the Jay Treaty. It accepted the fact of English commercial and naval supremacy and thereby endorsed a pro-English version of American neutrality, just the opposite of Jefferson’s pro-French version of “fair neutrality.” It repudiated Jefferson’s efforts as secretary of state to place duties on English imports while accepting England’s right to retain tariffs on American imports. Finally it committed the United States to compensate British creditors on outstanding prerevolutionary debts, most of which were owed by Virginia’s planters. Its sole positive feature from the Jeffersonian perspective was the agreement to abide by the promise made in 1783 to evacuate British troops from their posts on the western frontier, but even that concession merely reflected a willingness to implement what the Treaty of Paris had long ago required. What’s more, the chief supporters of the treaty were the merchants and bankers of America’s port cities. And, a clinching condemnation, its major advocate was Alexander Hamilton. In effect, as Jefferson saw it, the Jay Treaty was a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence, the Franco-American alliance, the revolu-tionary movement sweeping through Europe and all the political principles on which he had staked his public career as an American statesman.

Subsequent generations of historians, with all the advantages of hindsight, have not seen the same picture that Jefferson saw. The more balanced consensus of posterity is that the Jay Treaty was a realistic bargain that avoided a war with England at a time when the United States was ill prepared to fight one. It effectively postponed the Anglo-American conflict that Jefferson felt in his bones to be inevitable until 1812, when America was economically stronger and politically more stable. In the even longer view it linked American security and economic development to the British fleet, which provided a protective shield of incalculable value throughout the nineteenth century. It bet, in effect, on England rather than France as the hegemonic European power of the future. It therefore repudiated the Jeffersonian presumption that England was an inherently counterrevolutionary force on the downward slope of history. 70

None of these historical insights of course was available to Jefferson, who was caught up in an ongoing controversy that put his most cherished political convictions at risk and made all the promises of pastoral seclusion he had made to himself seem like quaint vestiges of a bygone era. Madison had already tried to warn him of what destiny was arranging for him: “You ought to be preparing yourself to hear truths, which no inflexibility will be able to withstand.” Loosely translated, this meant that Jefferson, not Madison, was the consensus choice of the Republican party to succeed Washington in the presidency. Now that the Jay Treaty had given the Republicans a popular issue on which to discredit the Federalists, and now that Washington’s retirement after two terms was a virtual certainty, Jefferson’s reentry into the political arena had massive implications. Writing in coded language to Monroe in France, Madison explained that “the republicans knowing that Jefferson alone can be started with hope of success mean to push him.” By the early spring of 1796, whether he knew it or not, he had become the standard-bearer for the Republican party. 71

This did not mean that Jefferson formally declared his candidacy for the presidency; no self-respecting statesman of the day did that. It meant that he merely neglected to make a public statement declaring his withdrawal. But since Jefferson did not permit the perception of his candidacy to gain access to his conscious mind, even though it was being bandied about throughout the Republican network and in several newspapers, he really had no reason to declare his withdrawal. Madison understood the elaborate system of internal valves that Jefferson could turn off and on so deftly. He therefore understood—it was a critical dimension of their remarkable collaboration—that Jefferson’s willingness to reenter the political arena depended upon sustaining the fiction that it would never happen. Although Madison spent the entire summer and early fall of 1796 at Montpelier only a few miles from Jefferson, he chose not to visit his mentor at Monticello for fear of being drawn into conversations that upset Jefferson’s denial mechanisms. “I have not seen Jefferson,” he wrote Monroe in coded language, “and have thought it best to present him no opportunity of protesting to his friend against being embarked on this contest.” 72

This psychological minuet enjoyed the advantage of allowing Jefferson to dance back into public life without quite knowing it was happening. On the downside, since he did not yet acknowledge to himself that his remarks were anything but those of a private citizen, he did not feel accountable to anyone but himself or internalize any need to be guarded in his correspondence. His most damaging statement came in a letter to his Italian friend Philip Mazzei, in April 1796, that effectively ended his cordial relationship with Washington when it was picked up in the American press the following year: “It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their head shaved by the harlot England. . . . We have only to awake and snap the Lilliputian cords which they have been entangling us during the first sleep which succeeded our labors.” 73 If, as everyone at the time assumed, Samson was George Washington and the reference to shaved heads was a comment on his support for the Jay Treaty, Jefferson’s letter was both grossly unfair and extremely impolitic. Characteristically, he claimed that the version printed in American newspapers was a distortion of his meaning produced by a bad translation from the Italian papers, where it originally appeared. But the simple truth was that his sentiments had not been garbled in translation, nor were they a temporary aberration, as some latter-day biographers have claimed. This was how he genuinely saw his political opponents at the time, as apostates and heretics and traitors to the cause of American independence. The moral dichotomies were clear and pure. The colors were black and white. There was no room in his mental universe for the notion that honest and principled men could disagree on a landmark issue like the Jay Treaty and make mutually compelling claims to the truth.

He also made some loose comments on the constitutional issues posed in the debate on the Jay Treaty that he would almost certainly have avoided if his guard had been up. Madison had lent him his personal copy of “Notes on the Debates at the Constitutional Convention” in the fall of 1795 because it was clear by then that the Republican strategy to block passage of the Jay Treaty depended upon throwing the question into the House of Representatives, where the Republicans enjoyed a majority; this required a good deal of constitutional ingenuity because the power to make treaties rested with the president and the Senate. (Indeed, a review of Madison’s “Notes on the Debates” revealed that Madison himself had been one of the staunchest opponents of infringements on executive power over foreign policy at the Constitutional Convention.) Jefferson’s bold and bald solution to this dilemma was to declare that “the true theory of our constitution” allowed the elected representatives in the House an equal share of power over treaties with the president and the Senate. Because he regarded the House of Representatives as the most democratic branch of the government with the closest ties to popular opinion, “the representatives are as free as the President and the Senate were to consider whether the national interest requires or forbids their giving the forms and force of law to the articles over which they have a power.” Indeed, Jefferson claimed that to deny the House a role was to transfer control from the American people to “any other Indian, Algerine or other chief.” He even went so far as to tell Monroe that he had no problem in shifting the main responsibility for approving all the treaties to the House and “in annihilating the whole treaty making power [of the executive branch], except as to making peace.” 74

These were radical prescriptions that, if taken seriously, would have thrown American foreign policy into the cauldron of domestic politics on every controversial occasion. They contrast with Madison’s more narrow and careful constitutional argument, which became the official Republican position, that the House could block passage of the Jay Treaty because certain provisions required funding for their implementation and the House was the proper branch to decide all money bills. Madison’s more careful argument made no frontal assault on executive power but still achieved the desired goal of allowing the Republican majority in the House to hold the Jay Treaty hostage. Jefferson’s more extreme position reflected his more cavalier attitude toward constitutional questions in general. Unlike Madison, who had a deep appreciation for the Constitution as an artful arrangement of juxtaposed principles and powers with abiding influence over future generations, Jefferson tended to view it as a merely convenient agreement about political institutions that ought not to bind future generations or prevent the seminal source of all political power—popular opinion—from dictating government policy. His casual remarks in the spring of 1796 during the height of the debate over the Jay Treaty were uncharacteristic only in the sense that Jefferson customarily left constitutional questions in Madison’s capable hands. But precisely because he did not feel the obligation to filter his opinions through Madison, his statements more accurately reflected his greater willingness to bend constitutional arguments to serve what he saw as a higher purpose, which in this case was defeat of the counterrevolutionary alliance with England. Upsetting delicate constitutional balances or setting dangerous precedents did not trouble him in such moments. 75

Madison served as the floor manager for the Republicans during the debate in the House of Representatives—it was the first instance when they met in caucus as an opposition party—and the humiliation fell on him when the Republican majority melted away. John Adams observed that “Mr. Madison looks worried to death. Pale, withered, haggard.” When the final vote came in late April 1796, Madison attributed the narrow Federalist victory to an urban conspiracy led by “the Banks, the British Merchts., the insurance Comps.” In truth, the swing votes had come from western representatives, whose constituents had decided to support the treaty because the removal of British troops from the frontier promised to open up the Mississippi Valley for settlement. Madison apprised Jefferson that “the exertions and influence of Aristocracy, Anglicism, and mercantilism” had combined to “overwhelm the Republican cause, [and] has left it in a very crippled condition. . . .” The disaster was so total and so unexpected that, as Madison explained his dismay to Jefferson, “my consolation . . . is in the effect they have in riveting my future purposes.” He was played out and ready for retirement. 76

Jefferson, who had the advantage of viewing the devastation from Monticello, had a fundamentally different and more politically astute appraisal. The primary reason for the Federalist victory, he told Monroe in France, was the gigantic prestige of Washington, “the one man who outweighs them all in influence over the people” and whose support for the Jay Treaty proved in the end too much to overcome. Jefferson’s conclusion was shrewdly prophetic:

The Anglomen have in the end got their treaty through, and so far have triumphed over the cause of republicanism. Yet it has been to them a dear bought victory . . . and there is no doubt they would be glad to be replaced on the ground they possessed the instant before Jay’s nomination extraordinary. They see that nothing can support them but the Colossus of the President’s merits with the people, and the moment he retires, that his successor, if a Monocrat, will be overborne by the republican sense. . . . In the meantime, patience. 77

Jefferson was usually even more disposed than Madison to regard any Federalist success as the result of corruption and conspiracy. After all, if the vast majority of the citizenry allegedly opposed a particular policy, and it nevertheless kept winning victories, the only logical explanation must be conspiratorial. What Jefferson saw clearly in the wake of the Jay Treaty debate, and Madison was simply too closely involved to notice, was that the resolution of the questions raised by the treaty had been reached by a new kind of politics in which both sides acknowledged that success depended upon an appeal to popular opinion. Washington’s nearly unassailable popularity had given the Federalists a decided edge in this particular contest. But once the game had been defined in these terms—that is, once republicanism became more democratic in character—the Federalists were doomed. 78


IN SEPTEMBER 1796 Fisher Ames, the oracular champion of the Federalist cause, observed that Washington’s Farewell Address was “a signal, like dropping a hat, for the party races to start.” In fact the Republicans had been organizing for several months. Jefferson’s candidacy had been a foregone conclusion for almost a year; as early as May 1796 Madison had apprised Monroe that the presidential election was likely to pit “Jefferson the object on one side [and] Adams apparently on the other.” Neither man was expected to campaign. The emergence of an early form of democratic politics had not yet reached that stage of development. It was still considered unbecoming for a serious statesman to prostitute his integrity by a direct appeal to voters. 79

This lingering aristocratic code fitted Jefferson’s mood perfectly, for it allowed him to remain sequestered at Monticello throughout the summer, publicly oblivious of the campaign that Madison was waging in his behalf and even privately capable of sustaining the pretense that he would live out his life in retirement. Madison was the complicitous partner in this psychological game, never corresponding with Jefferson about the looming election until it was over. Even then, when he finally wrote Jefferson in December 1796, his political report studiously avoided mention of Jefferson’s candidacy. “It is not improbable that Pinckney will step in between the two who have been treated as the principals in this question,” he observed, a reference to efforts by Hamilton to run a third candidate, Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, who might displace Adams as the Federalist choice for president. “This Jockeyship is accounted for by the enmity of Adams to Banks and funding systems,” Madison went on, “and by an apprehension that he is too headstrong to be a fit puppet for the intriguers behind the skreen.” Adams, in other words, was not a loyal Hamiltonian—the truth was that Adams disliked Hamilton almost as much as Jefferson did, and after learning about this Pinckney scheme, he loathed him even more—so the next occupant of the presidency was going to be either Jefferson or a man the Republicans could tolerate. 80

Jefferson’s first acknowledgement of his own candidacy came in response to Madison’s letter. While not attempting to affect complete surprise, Jefferson maintained the posture that Madison had always remained his preferred choice: “The first wish of my heart was that you should have been proposed for the administration of government. On your declining it I wish any body rather than myself. And there is nothing I so anxiously hope as that my name may come out second or third. These would be indifferent to me; as the last would leave me at home the whole year, and the other [the vice presidency] the other two thirds of it.” Jefferson then informed Madison to put out the word that if the election ended in a tie, he wished it known that Adams should be declared the winner. “He has always been my senior from the commencement of our public life,” Jefferson observed with becoming modesty, a circumstance “that ought to give him preference,” adding as a final thought that he had “no confidence in myself for the undertaking.” 81

Over the ensuing weeks, as the results of the electoral vote in the fourteen states became clear, Jefferson sustained a public posture of personal reluctance and political deference to Adams. Even before the votes had been counted, he wrote to his old colleague from Philadelphia and Paris days, regretting “the various little incidents [that] have happened or been contrived to separate us” and disavowing any competitive urges. “I have no ambition to govern men,” he confided. “It is a painful and thankless task.” He was obviously paying close attention to press reports on the voting, since he was one of the first to predict that Adams would win by three electoral votes (71–68), which turned out to be the exact result. But he wished to squelch all rumors that he had any objection to serving under Adams: “I was his junior in life, was his junior in Congress, his junior in the diplomatic line, his junior lately in our civil government.” Besides, Adams was “perhaps the only sure barrier against Hamilton’s getting in.” The office of the vice presidency was a “tranquil and unoffending station” that would effectively allow Jefferson to remain in semiretirement. He expected to spend “philosophical evenings in the winter, and rural days in the summer.” 82

Beneath such expressions of reluctance and deference, which accurately reflected a genuine feeling at one layer of his personality, there existed another, much more realistic assessment of the political situation. While reiterating his political innocence, claiming that “I never in my life exchanged a word with any person on the subject, till I found my name brought forward generally, in competition with that of Mr. Adams,” he also offered a shrewd analysis of what was in store for the winner. “The second office of this government is honorable and easy,” he explained; “the first is but a splendid misery.” The chief problem was the long shadow of George Washington. In an uncharacteristically mixed metaphor, he offered Madison this uncanny insight: “The President is fortunate to get off just as the bubble is bursting, leaving others to hold the bag. Yet, as his departure will mark the moment when the difficulties begin to work, you will see, that they will be ascribed to the new administration, and that he will have his usual good fortune of reaping credit from the good acts of others, and leaving to them that of his errors.” In short, whoever followed Washington was virtually assured of failure, and “no man will bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.” The Republicans had been lucky to lose. 83

Neither Madison, who was too busy trying to diagnose the likely course of an Adams presidency, nor Adams himself, whose combination of vanity and obsession with public duty never permitted such political detachment, was capable of seeing things so clearly. To his credit, Jefferson’s first reaction was to share this political appraisal with his long-standing friend from Quincy. He assumed the Ciceronian posture of the retired farmer; he was living, as he put it to Adams, in a secluded canton where “I learn little of what is passing; pamphlets, I never see, papers but a few; and the fewer the happier.” Though disingenuous, it was a posture Adams understood for what it was and in keeping with the somewhat contrived civility that both men had assumed toward each other in recent years. After congratulating Adams on his victory and assuring him that he “never one single moment expected a different issue,” Jefferson tried to warn him of the storm into which he was riding. First, there was “the subtlety of your arch-friend of New York”—Hamilton’s duplicity was a sure source of complete consensus—who “will be disappointed as to you” and “contrive behind the scenes” to manipulate his protégés in the cabinet. More generally, both the foreign and domestic affairs of the nation were victims of partisan squabbling: “Since the day on which you signed the treaty of Paris our horizon was never so overcast.” He concluded with a reference to earlier and better days, “when we were working for our independence,” and a vague promise to renew the old partnership. 84

Instead of posting the letter directly to Adams, Jefferson decided to run it past Madison first, just to assure its propriety. Madison counseled against sending the letter, offering six reasons why its sentiments might be misconstrued. The last and most politically significant reason was telling: “Considering the probability that Mr. A’s course of administration may force an opposition to it from the Republican quarter, and the general uncertainty of the posture which our affairs may take, there may be real embarrassments from giving written possession to him, of the degree of compliment and confidence which your personal delicacy and friendship have suggested.” In other words, Jefferson’s well-known affection for Adams was admirable, but it must not be allowed to become an impediment to the Republican cause. If Jefferson were correct about the political earthquakes about to shake the Adams presidency, best to keep one’s distance. 85

This was excellent political advice that Jefferson immediately recognized as such, but it came at a price. For the bond Jefferson felt toward Adams was palpable. “Mr. A. and myself were cordial friends from the beginning of the revolution,” he explained to Madison, and although they had parted company on several issues in the early 1790s, these differences had “not made me less sensible of the rectitude of his heart. And I wished him to know this. . . .” What’s more, Adams was no hard-line Federalist of the Hamiltonian stripe. He had in fact opposed Hamilton’s banking and funding schemes and offered only lukewarm support for the Jay Treaty. Furthermore, Jefferson knew that Adams mistrusted the English as much as he did. (The problem was that he mistrusted the French even more.) In short, Adams did not fit the Federalist stereotype that both Jefferson and Madison carried around in their heads. Indeed Adams’s first instinct as president-elect was to ask if Madison would be willing to head the American diplomatic delegation to France and if Jefferson would consider serving in the cabinet rather than waste his talents in the Senate. It was a clear bipartisan gesture designed to offer the Republicans a significant role in the new administration. 86

Jefferson’s decision to distance himself from Adams, then, was both personally poignant and politically fateful. At the political level one can only speculate about the prospects of a bipartisan government headed by the Adams-Jefferson tandem, which would have enjoyed at least a fighting chance of inhabiting Washington’s massive legacy. But such speculation is idle, not just because of Jefferson’s decision but also because the Federalists whom Adams unwisely chose to retain in his cabinet were just as opposed to a vigorous Jeffersonian presence in the new administration as was Madison; they threatened to resign en masse if it occurred.

At the personal level Jefferson was effectively forced to choose between his long-standing loyalty to a friend and his responsibility to the Republican agenda. He was psychologically incapable of seeing himself as a party leader, but that in fact was what he once again had become. In his own mind he was taken off the hook in March 1797, when, after a cordial dinner at Washington’s house in Philadelphia, he and Adams walked home together along Market Street and Adams apprised him that his Federalist associates had vetoed the bipartisan initiative as preposterous. As Jefferson remembered it later, the two old allies took different directions, “his being down Market Street, mine off along Fifth, and we took leave; and he never after that said one word to me on the subject or ever consulted me as to any measure of the government.” Adams too, when forced to choose, had opted for party over friendship. 87

Neither man, it should be noted, saw his decision in quite those terms. Adams regarded himself as the American version of “the patriot king,” the virtuous chief magistrate who would oppose all factions on behalf of the public interest, even if it meant repudiating his own Federalist colleagues, as it eventually did. Jefferson, on the other hand, saw himself as head of the government-in-exile, again placed in the anomalous position of serving officially in the administration he opposed. At his swearing-in ceremony he joked about his rusty recall of parliamentary procedure, a clear signal that his time in Philadelphia would be spent in the harmless business of monitoring debates in the Senate. Three weeks later, on March 20, he was already back at Monticello, waiting for the inevitable catastrophes to befall the Federalists and, all in good time, deliver the full promise of the American Revolution into its rightful hands. 88


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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