American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson | Chapter 10 of 17

Author: Joseph J. Ellis | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 26461 Views | Add a Review

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WASHINGTON, D.C., 1801–04

We are all republicans—we are all federalists.


I shall take no other revenge, than, by a steady pursuit of economy and peace, and by the steady establishment of republican principles, in substance and in form, to sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection of it.

OCTOBER 25, 1802

LEGEND HAS IT that he rode to his inauguration as president in splendid isolation and with becoming modesty. According to the apocryphal account, which was based on the fraudulent report of an English tourist, at just before noon on March 4, 1801, Jefferson proceeded down a dusty Pennsylvania Avenue in a scene that subsequent image makers ought to have entitled “Mr. Jefferson Comes to Washington”: “His dress was of plain cloth, and he rode on horseback to the Capitol without a single guard or even servant in his train, dismounted without assistance, and hitched the bridle of his horse to the palisades.” He then entered the Senate chamber, so the story goes, and gave his Inaugural Address in an unassuming style and in a voice that one witness, Margaret Bayard Smith, described as “almost femininely soft.” Indeed his delivery was so subdued that very few members of the audience could hear what he said. Then, after taking the oath of office, he left quickly and without fanfare and rode back alone to his lodgings at Conrad and McCunn’s boardinghouse. There he placed himself at the far end of the table away from the fireplace—his customary location—and looked to all the world like just another ordinary citizen of the American republic breaking bread with his equals. 1

The democratic themes of individualism and equality come marching, or perhaps riding, right at us in this legendary rendering. And since Jefferson’s ascendance to the presidency is so closely associated with the emergence of a more democratic American society in the early years of the nineteenth century, it seems perfectly plausible to fit him into the trappings of democratic mythology. Jefferson himself inadvertently contributed to this interpretation when, several years after the event, he referred to his election as “the revolution of 1800,” then went on to explain that it was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” 2 But what Jefferson actually meant by these words, and what most of his contemporaries thought his election meant at the time, do not rest very comfortably within the mythical imperatives of a democratic culture. Perhaps the best way to dramatize the difference between the democratic legend and the more historically correct reality is to begin with a detached description of what we know about the actual events of March 4, 1801.

There is no horse in the picture. It was only a short distance from his rooms at Conrad and McCunn’s to Capitol Hill, only a few hundred yards, so he walked. But he was not walking alone. Ahead of him marched a detachment of militia officers from neighboring Alexandria with drawn swords, followed by a delegation of marshals from the District of Columbia. Behind him was a small parade of dignitaries led by a cadre of Republican congressmen and two members of the outgoing cabinet, whose presence was intended to illustrate continuity with the Adams presidency. Adams himself was conspicuously absent, having taken the four o’clock stage out of town that morning.

There was nearly unanimous recognition among witnesses that the relative simplicity of this “little parade” was intended to make a political statement. Most commentators emphasized the relative lack of pomp and pageantry and contrasted Jefferson’s modest entourage with the coach and sixes used by Washington and Adams at their respective inaugurations. But the operative word was “republican” rather than “democratic.” No one at the time was disposed to describe Jefferson’s election as the coming of the common man. The only observers willing to characterize him as a “democrat” were a few diehard Federalists; and they used the term as an epithet (i.e., “dangerous democrat”). Jefferson himself had seldom used the word “democracy” in his public statements or private letters prior to 1800, and he did not start doing so once elected. In a letter to Maria a few weeks before the inauguration, he adopted his most familiar formulation of the Jeffersonian sense of what was happening: “I feel a sincere wish, indeed, to see our Government brought back to its republican principles, to see that kind of government firmly fixed to which my whole life has been devoted.” He saw himself as the instrument for a recovery of “pure republicanism,” by which he meant the political principles forged in the crucible of the American Revolution, principles that had then been corrupted by the Federalists (i.e., “Anglomen,” “monarchists”) since 1776. 3

In both his own mind and the minds of his supporters, then, Jefferson’s elevation to the presidency did not symbolize the ascendance of the ordinary so much as the restoration of revolutionary austerity. The studied simplicity of his clothing and the unassuming demeanor of his “little parade” as it marched up Capitol Hill was seen as a backward-looking statement about “the spirit of ’76.” In Jefferson’s mind great historical leaps forward were almost always the product of a purging, which freed societies from the accumulated debris of the past and thereby allowed the previously obstructed natural forces to flow forward into the future. Simplicity and austerity, not equality or individualism, were the messages of his inaugural march. It was a minimalist statement about a purging of excess and a recovery of essence.


IF THIS WAS what “pure republicanism” meant to Jefferson and his contemporaries, their intended message enjoyed a perfect natural habitat in the new national capital. For Washington, D.C., in 1801 was the ideal location in which to launch a crusade against excesses. It would have been impossible to imagine courtiers scheming in corridors or conspirators plotting behind locked palace doors, since there were no courts, no palaces, in truth very few buildings at all. Congressmen who tried to caucus in the corridors of the unfinished Capitol had to compete with the frequent sound of rifle fire from hunters shooting quail and wild turkeys within a hundred yards of Capitol Hill. Washington was the perfect republican city in the awkward sense that it was not really a city at all. The stumps still protruded in several spots up and down Pennsylvania Avenue (perhaps another reason why Jefferson was not conveyed to his inauguration in a coach), and several travelers who stopped to inquire where the new capital of America was located were informed that they were standing squarely in its center. It was doubly appropriate that the first president to take up residence was on record as believing that cities were sores on the body political, since Washington struck most observers as more bucolic than urban, an open wound bleeding into the Potomac River. 4

Jefferson had long regretted “the dinner table bargain” that led to the southern location of the national capital on the banks of the Potomac; he called it the most misguided decision of his entire public career. But he was referring to Hamilton’s crafty diplomacy in seducing him to accept federal assumption of the state debts, not the unlikely placement of the capital in the Chesapeake marshland. Washington himself had made the key decisions about the swampy site and ungainly size of the place. He had selected a natural depression with saucerlike sides that efficiently captured and trapped heat and humidity while serving as an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. The surrounding hills were just high enough to impede the movement of air and just low enough to preclude the presence of vistas. Washington had also fused together both urban plans proposed to him, thereby expanding the borders of the city. As a result, instead of beginning with a concentrated population center and spreading out, the city that bore his name began as an expansive but almost empty space that only gradually filled in. European and American tourists were invariably confused upon entering the American capital because the city managers had published elaborate maps and prints showing the layout of the envisioned streets and buildings without explaining that it would take decades for reality to catch up with the vision. Washington’s last words on the project, eerily accurate as usual when it came to essential matters, predicted that the vacant spaces would allow the national capital to grow into greatness “in about a century.” 5

That made Washington a model Jeffersonian city in yet another sense—namely, it was a bold, some would say preposterous, promise about the nation’s latent potential, as if a young man just starting out in life were to draw up a plan for his dream house and then wait confidently for the future to fulfill his expectations. Foreign visitors routinely recorded their disapproval of the presumptuous neoclassical style of the President’s House and the Capitol—the only public buildings standing in 1801—which were plopped down in the midst of a marshy field. “The streets are filled with mud in winter, and with dust in summer,” ran one comic account, “and instead of splendid edifices you can see nothing but cornfields, and plains, dry canals and dirty marshes, where frogs make love in a most sonorous and exquisite strain, and bellow forth their attachments as if they were determined to make no secret of it.” Renaming Goose Creek the Tiber served as a source of many jokes about the ridiculousness of an American Rome. A young Irish poet, Thomas Moore, captured the caustic mood in verse, even taking a swipe at Jefferson himself in the process:

This fam’d metropolis, where fancy sees

Squares in morasses, obelisks in trees.

Which second sighted seers e’en now adorn

With shrines unbuilt and heroes yet unborn.

Though now but woods and J—— they see,

Where streets should run and sages ought to be. 6

Whatever deficiencies such doggerel displayed as poetry, it correctly called attention to the obvious disjunction between the physical reality of Washington as a motley collection of villages and the rather presumptuous claim, which over the long stretch of time miraculously turned out to be nearly true, that this pseudometropolis was the epicenter of a political earthquake destined to topple all the monarchs and despots on the planet. But at the time this remarkable paradox looked more like a simple contradiction. The unfinished state of the Capitol made the point graphically. What Jefferson saw as he completed his “little parade” was a construction site. The center of the Capitol was missing altogether, and the columns designed to support the front facade were lying flat on the lawn. The north wing, where the House of Representatives met, was still a shell with an unfinished roof; congressmen referred to it as “the oven.” Jefferson had chosen to be sworn in as president in the Senate chamber primarily because it was the only public building available. 7

Of course urban and architectural symbolism can carry us only so far in recovering the original sense of Jefferson’s inauguration. Once inside the Senate chamber we enter an interior region in several senses of that term. All the seats on the Senate floor were filled, and the gallery was crowded to capacity. Reporters estimated the audience at about a thousand people. If we can be sure that they had not come to hear about the arrival of Jeffersonian Democracy but rather about the restoration of “pure republicanism,” it was by no means clear what that meant. Some sense of the drama and tension lying beneath the surface of the scene greeted Jefferson as he approached the small stage at the bottom of the well of the Senate floor. Waiting to meet him were Vice President Aaron Burr, who had been sworn in earlier that morning, and Chief Justice John Marshall, who was present to administer the oath to Jefferson.

Any gathering that included Burr possessed the potential to look like a conspiracy. He was, by the lights of his contemporaries, the most mysterious and mercurial member of the revolutionary generation. John Adams believed that Burr was the only man capable of edging out Hamilton in the race to become an American Napoleon. He was dashing and brilliant in the Hamiltonian style, and his singular advantage over Hamilton, and indeed all competitors, was a total disregard for any moral or political principle that obstructed his path to power. “As to Burr,” wrote Hamilton in December 1800, “his private character is not defended by his most partial friends,” adding that “Mr. Burr [is] the most unfit man in the United States for the office of President.” Hamilton seemed to sense in Burr a more virulent version of his own throbbing political ambition, just as Burr seemed to sense in Hamilton the only American statesman with the audacity to challenge his own pretensions. The very similarity of their respective temperaments defined their rivalry in life-and-death terms. If only in retrospect, it seemed eminently predictable that the two antagonists would face off with pistols on the plains of Weehawken three years later and that Burr, unburdened by any quaint code of honor, would coolly send a bullet into Hamilton’s spinal column. 8

Why was such an un-Jeffersonian character standing there in the Senate chamber, greeting Jefferson as his second-in-command? The short answer is that Burr was primarily responsible for Jefferson’s election. In the presidential campaign of 1800 Jefferson had once again been matched against Adams. Although Republican candidates for Congress and state office won sweeping victories, Adams ran ahead of the other Federalist candidates at the top of the ticket. In all states except New York, Adams actually matched or exceeded his electoral votes in the 1796 contest, which he had won by a narrow margin. But New York had gone decisively for Jefferson, providing his slim margin of victory. And the man who had delivered the electors of New York to Jefferson’s camp was the irrepressible Aaron Burr, whose price for this important contribution was a place on the ballot alongside Jefferson. 9

An all-important epilogue to this political story occurred during the weeks following Jefferson’s victory. It then became distressingly clear that because of a quirk in the electoral system that prevented electors from distinguishing between votes for president and vice president (subsequently corrected by the Twelfth Amendment), Jefferson and Burr had received the identical number of electoral votes. This threw the election into the House of Representatives, where the Federalists were able to block the majority necessary for Jefferson’s selection for six days and thirty-six ballots. Even though everyone acknowledged that the American electorate had intended to choose Jefferson as its president, Burr had done nothing to indicate his willingness to defer. (Altruistic acts of deference were alien to Burr’s style.) So the man greeting Jefferson as he entered the Senate chamber was an infamous political schemer who only a few weeks earlier had passively given himself to a Federalist conspiracy designed to cheat Jefferson of the very office he was coming to claim. 10

Then there was John Marshall. By all rights Marshall should have been a Jeffersonian disciple. A fellow Virginian, even a distant cousin via the ubiquitous Randolph clan, Marshall was a contemporary of Madison and Monroe who had somehow wiggled through the net that usually gathered Virginia’s talented young men into Jefferson’s political family. By the time of the Jay Treaty he had become one of the most prominent of the Federalists; Jefferson wrote him off as a man of “lax lounging manners . . . and a profound hypocrisy,” Jefferson’s way of designating Marshall a traitor to Virginia’s version of republicanism. Marshall’s talents attracted Adams’s attention by 1797, and he was appointed a member of the all-important American delegation to France, then secretary of state, and finally, during Adams’s last weeks as the lame-duck president, chief justice of the United States. 11

To say that Jefferson and Marshall hated each other would be going too far in 1801; hatred came later with greater exposure. In a curious way Marshall presented difficulties that were a mirror image of those represented by Burr, for Marshall always managed to cloak his personal feelings toward Jefferson behind an elaborately constructed screen of impartial-sounding arguments that invariably ended up leaving him no choice but to align himself on the other side. Just as Hamilton’s dislike of Burr was rooted in the recognition of their overlapping ambitions and their common affinity for a flamboyant brand of decisiveness, so Jefferson’s mistrust of Marshall was exacerbated by their mutual preference for a more subtle and indirect style that probably had its origins in the Virginia code of politeness. If Hamilton came at you with a saber, Marshall preferred the stiletto.

On the other hand, Marshall’s massive probity was powered by a mind that worked in ways fundamentally different from Jefferson’s, which tended to filter and fit experience through primal categories of right and wrong. Marshall worked in more shaded hues and colors in the middle of the spectrum and, much like Madison, was more intellectually agile in a lawyerlike way in making distinctions that broke down the Jeffersonian dichotomies into smaller components. He was a genius at what Jefferson later called “twistifications”—that is, intricate arguments that seemed to be headed in the proper Jeffersonian direction but then somehow doubled back and landed decisively on the other side. Much like Hamilton’s dexterity with account books and complex fiscal figures, Marshall’s reasoning usually appeared to Jefferson like the diabolical maneuvers of an evil wizard. He was also extremely adroit at doing the greatest damage to one’s cause by apparently attempting to defend it. In the weeks before the inauguration, for example, he had admitted to having “insufferable objections” to Jefferson’s election and to believing that Jefferson’s political prejudices made him “totally . . . unfit for the chief magistracy of a nation which cannot indulge these prejudices without sustaining deep and permanent injury.” But despite these reservations, he wished it known that some Federalist critics of the president-elect were unfair. If the Jeffersonians were divided between “speculative theorists and absolute terrorists,” Jefferson himself did not strike him as a member of the latter category. 12

At a more political but less personal level, the man waiting to administer the oath of office to Jefferson in the crowded Senate chamber was especially offensive because he stood as the ultimate embodiment of “the midnight judges.” That phrase did not originate with Jefferson, though he quickly adopted it as a way of referring to the judicial appointments that Adams had made, allegedly during his last hours in office. The phrase itself was somewhat misleading, since it conjured up an image of Adams spending his last night in the presidential mansion furiously signing appointment letters beneath the midnight oil in a last-ditch spasm of political vindictiveness before catching the early-morning stage out of town. In fact Adams had made the vast majority of his judicial appointments, including that of Marshall as chief justice, several weeks earlier, soon after the passage of the Judiciary Act in February 1801. What was true, however, was that all of them, including Marshall’s, had occurred after the results of the presidential election of 1800 were known, so in that sense they constituted a partisan action designed to force Federalist judges on the incoming Republican president. Adams could claim, as he did, that he was simply doing what Washington had done during his last weeks in office; but that precedent was rather weak because Jefferson’s election represented a fundamental repudiation of the incumbent Federalist administration, whereas Adams had represented a continuation. 13

To make matters worse, Marshall’s appointment had no term. It was a lifetime seat that could be vacated only if Marshall committed “treasonable acts” or was found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This made him a kind of unmovable Trojan horse placed squarely in the middle of the Jefferson presidency, the official commander of a Federalist judiciary apparently impervious to executive influence or popular opinion. Nor was Marshall unaware of his truly singular position and his nearly open-ended opportunity—he saw it as a duty—to make trouble. On inauguration day, just before he walked over to the Capitol, he wrote a reassuring letter to a Federalist colleague. “Of the importance of the judiciary at all times, but more especially the present I am fully impressed,” he explained, “and I shall endeavor in the new office to which I am called not to disappoint my friends.” Jefferson of course did not know about this letter, but he knew enough to suspect perpetual mischief from Marshall’s protected corner. The preceding day, anticipating that Marshall might show up late for the ceremony as a way of spoiling the serenity of the proceedings, Jefferson sent him a terse note reminding him to be present at twelve o’clock sharp. Marshall wrote back to reassure the president-elect that he was always punctual. 14

Whatever mutual dislike and distrust the awkward trio of Burr, Marshall and Jefferson harbored toward one another, it could be dismissed as a merely private or personal drama. At the larger public level the tension present in the Senate chamber derived from two overlapping apprehensions: First, the ascendancy of Jefferson and the Republicans to power was unprecedented in the sense that the Federalists had controlled the federal government since its inception in 1789; second, Jefferson’s dominant political message throughout the 1790s had been almost entirely negative, in the sense that he had led the opposition to Federalist versions of federal power and objected to the creation of an energetic national government on the ground that it violated the original intentions of the American Revolution. Taken together, these two conditions raised serious questions about the very survival of a federal government the incoming president had threatened to dismantle. 15

The answer to the first set of questions seemed clear and reassuring and was essentially inherent in the very inaugural ceremony itself. Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of the editor of the pro-Jefferson National Intelligencer and a member of the audience, put it most succinctly: “The changes of administration, which in every government and in every age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this happy country take place without any species of distraction, or disorder.” More elemental than the ostentatious simplicity and republican symbolism of the inaugural parade was the fundamental fact that it had occurred at all. The peaceful transfer of political power from one regime to another, a problem that had haunted European governments of all sizes, shapes and forms from time immemorial—and indeed continues to bedevil some of the most powerful nations of the modern world—had happened in a remarkably matter-of-fact fashion. The defeated Federalists were bitter, to be sure, but they had deferred to the will of the electorate. During the protracted debate and balloting in the House of Representatives in February, Thomas McKean, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, had threatened to call out twenty thousand militia if the Federalists tried to cheat Jefferson of his victory. Another Pennsylvanian, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, had advised Jefferson to seize power and convene the government without waiting for the House of Representatives to resolve the impasse with Burr. Several Virginians had recommended calling for a new constitutional convention to restructure the federal government in anticipation of Federalist skulduggery. But all such alarmists had gone unheeded, and their sense of foreboding had proved exaggerated. Although it was not what Jefferson meant by the phrase “the revolution of 1800,” the most revolutionary feature of his elevation to the presidency was its routine character. To put it differently, the most significant events were those that did not happen. 16

The answer to the second set of questions—about Jefferson’s political agenda as president—was much more problematic. No one knew for sure what he meant by “pure republicanism,” except perhaps that it entailed reducing the size and scope of the federal government. “Mr. Jefferson is well calculated to pull down any political edifice,” wrote one Virginia Federalist, “and those will not be disappointed who have feared he would employ himself . . . in taking to pieces the national building . . .”; he warned that “even the foundation will be razed in less than four years.” The reference to “the foundation” hinted at the chief Federalist fear, which was that Jefferson intended to disavow the constitutional settlement of 1788. He had, after all, been elected as the leader of a political party whose central premise had been hostility to any exercise of power by the federal government in domestic affairs. What Jefferson referred to admiringly as “the antient Whig principles” were entirely oppositional in character, having developed in England as the dissenting tradition against the accumulated power of king and court, then in America as the ideological basis for opposition to both royal and parliamentary power over the colonies. Clearly Jefferson and his Republican supporters regarded the Federalist policies of the 1790s, especially the Hamilton fiscal program, as a betrayal of “pure republicanism.” But given the inherently oppositional logic of Jeffersonian thought, it was not just plausible, it seemed almost obligatory, that he also reject as excessive the powers vested in the national government under the Constitution. This meant turning the clock back past the 1790s and into the 1780s, when the powers of the national government under the Articles of Confederation were extremely weak. Indeed, considering Jefferson’s deep-seated aversion to political coercion of any sort and his long-standing commitment to a dissenting tradition that regarded all government power as inherently arbitrary and corruptive in character, it was difficult to know where he drew the line that separated the legitimate exercise of political authority from the oppressive and abusive infringement of personal freedom. How could he take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, the Federalists asked, if his primary goal as president was to dismantle the federal institutions created by that very document? 17

The answer he seemed to leak out to his Republican supporters in the months preceding his inauguration was that his intention was not to dismantle the federal government but to shrink it. “The true theory of our Constitution,” he told Gideon Granger, is that “the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.” This sounded very much like the position he had taken in the 1780s, when the Constitution was being drafted and before Madison had persuaded him to support its ratification. It was also consistent with his view in 1798, when he and Madison had worked together to draft the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in order to block implementation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the one significant act of his vice presidency. There Jefferson had gone considerably further than Madison in recognizing the right of a state to nullify a federal law within its own borders, even describing federal intrusion in state matters as interference by a foreign government. In October 1801 he had also let it be known that he supported a proposal being circulated in Virginia by John Taylor and Edmund Pendleton that called for a one-term presidency with reduced executive power, shorter terms for senators, federal judges removable by a vote of Congress and constitutional limits on the borrowing power of the federal government. Whether one characterized these hints as “shrinking” or “dismantling,” they lent credibility to the Federalist rumors that Jefferson meant to destroy the current foundation of the central government and thereby allow the United States to become, like Europe, a series of separate nation-states in the manner of France, Italy and Austria. 18

If there was a consensus within both Republican and Federalist circles that Jefferson’s election meant a radical reduction in the powers of the federal government, the only question being how much and the only political disagreement being that the Republicans were overjoyed and the Federalists were terrified, the one dissenting voice belonged to none other than Alexander Hamilton. Acknowledging that “it is too late for me to become his apologist” and that he “did not really have any disposition to do it” anyway, Hamilton went on to offer a backhanded defense of Jefferson’s political principles: “I admit that his politics are tinctured with fanaticism, that he is too much in earnest in his democracy, that he has been a mischievous enemy to the principal measures of the past administration, that he is crafty and persevering in his objects, that he is not scrupulous about the means of success, nor very mindful of truth, and that he is a contemptible hypocrite.” But despite all these personal weaknesses, indeed in part because of them, Hamilton predicted that Jefferson “is as likely as any man I know to temporize . . . ; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it.” Like everyone else, Hamilton conceded, he was only guessing, but he did not believe that Jefferson had the disposition to sustain the kind of pressure required to dismantle the federal government. “To my mind,” Hamilton concluded, “a true estimate of Mr. J’s character warrants the expectation of a temporizing rather than a violent system.” 19

These, then, were the personal or private vibrations as well as the larger political speculations present in the Senate chamber when Jefferson turned to the audience and began to read his Inaugural Address. One feature of the legendary account is absolutely correct—his voice was so soft and inaudible that few listeners beyond the first row could hear what he said—but he had worked on his address with the same diligence he had once given to the Declaration of Independence. And this time the words were all his, unedited by intrusive committees or meddling delegates. What’s more, he had finished making his revisions in time to have the final draft available for the printers and the National Intelligencer on the day of its delivery, so it is possible that some members of the audience had advance copies that allowed them to follow his speech despite the poor projection of his voice. What they heard, or perhaps read, turned out to be one of the two or three most significant inaugural addresses in American history and, apart from the hallowed Declaration, the most artful and eloquent public document that Jefferson ever crafted.20


LIKE ANY SEMINAL statement in American history, though unlike the vast majority of inaugural addresses by other American presidents, Jefferson’s speech of March 4, 1801, can be read with profit on several levels. At the highest and most rarefied level, a place where Jefferson’s stylistic skills felt most comfortable and functioned with near-poetic felicity, his speech contained several passages that echo across the ages with memorable phrasings. As an eloquent statement of the becoming modesty joined with panoramic wisdom that we look for in a new president, for example, none has said it better:

I have learned to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it. . . . I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask for your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional; and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. 21

Or if one were searching for a classic rendering of the principle of free speech, no American statesman had ever put it so succinctly: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Or to take a final illustration out of several equally eloquent entries, there is this concise formulation of America’s domestic and foreign policy goals: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship, with all nations—entangling alliances with none.” It was Jefferson, not Washington, who coined the term “entangling alliances.” 22

But the most oft-quoted words, which can also reach across time as a lyrical expression of transcendent truth, are in fact fully comprehensible only when seen within the context of American politics in 1801. Apart from the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence, this is probably the most famous political statement that Jefferson ever made: “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans—we are all federalists.” This was also the passage that virtually all the reporters and interested observers fastened upon at the time because it seemed to represent Jefferson’s clear, indeed grand, statement of conciliation and moderation. It signaled that the bitter party battles of the 1790s would not continue in the Jefferson presidency, that the incoming Republicans would not seek revenge for past Federalist atrocities like the Alien and Sedition Acts and, most significant, that Jefferson’s understanding of “pure republicanism” did not mean a radical break with Federalist policies or a dramatic repudiation of the governmental framework established in the Constitution. Hamilton spoke for the relieved Federalists who viewed the address as “a candid retraction of past misapprehensions, and a pledge to the community that the new President will not lend himself to dangerous innovations, but in essential points will tread in the steps of his predecessors.” 23

But Jefferson did not really mean what Hamilton and all the other commentators thought they heard him say. Part of the problem was actually a matter of translation. In the version of his address printed in the National Intelligencer and then released to the newspapers throughout the country, the key passage read: “We are all Republicans—we are all Federalists.” By capitalizing the operative terms, the printed version had Jefferson making a gracious statement about the overlapping goals of the two political parties. But in the handwritten version of the speech that Jefferson delivered, the key words were not capitalized. Jefferson was therefore referring not to the common ground shared by the two parties but to the common belief, shared by all American citizens, that a republican form of government and a federal bond among the states were most preferable. Since one would have been hard pressed to discover a handful of American citizens who disagreed with this observation, his statement was more a political platitude than an ideological concession. The impression that Jefferson had publicly retracted his previous statements about the party conflict as a moral struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness was, as it turned out, badly mistaken.

There were several suggestive passages that provided clues to Jefferson’s truly visionary version of “pure republicanism,” but most commentators were too transfixed by the apparent message of moderation to notice. John Marshall, who was presumably close enough to the podium to hear the speech as delivered, went straight back to his home and recorded his impression: “I have administered the oath to the President. . . . It [the Inaugural Address] is in direct terms giving the lie to the violent party declamation which had elected him; but it is strongly characteristic of his political theory.” Marshall was right, though he did not specify what he meant by “political theory.” But this was hardly the chief justice’s fault. A crucial component of Jefferson’s genius was his ability to project his vision of American politics at a level of generalization that defied specificity and in a language that seemed to occupy an altitude where one felt obliged to look up and admire without being absolutely certain about the details. 24

One such passage in the Inaugural Address occurred when Jefferson was enumerating the natural advantages enjoyed by American citizens, who were “separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe” and had the good fortune to possess “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation.” Then he concluded the list of assets with what he called “one thing more”: “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to regulate their pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.” This was Jefferson’s clearest statement of his minimalist theory of government. While Federalists were listening nervously for clarifications of his position on executive authority, the role of the judiciary and the proper jurisdiction of federal versus state law, Jefferson framed his answer at a level where all such distinctions dissolved. The very notion of government itself was the core problem. In that sense he remained true to the Whig tradition, which stigmatized all forms of political power as inherently corrupt, as well as to his own ideal of personal autonomy, which regarded any explicit exercise of authority that was not consensual or voluntary as inherently invasive. Though an old and venerable political tradition and a long-standing Jeffersonian conviction, this perspective assumed a novel shape in the Inaugural Address because it meant that Jefferson was declaring that his primary responsibility as president was to render ineffectual and invisible the very government he was elected to lead. On the face of it, this seemed to put him in a strange and anomalous position, much like naming Luther to head the Catholic Church. 25

The obvious question that followed logically from this disavowal of a positive role for government was not lost on Jefferson himself. He raised it midway through his speech and made at least a glancing attempt at an answer:

I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong; that this government is not strong enough. But would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm, on the theoretic and visionary fear that this government, the world’s best hope, may possibly want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest government on earth. I believe it is the only one where every man, at the call of the laws, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. 26

This is both the richest and most elusive passage in Jefferson’s Inaugural Address. It acknowledged, at least implicitly, that his election had prompted widespread apprehension about the dismemberment of the federal government and the resulting dissolution of the national union. But then Jefferson inverted the argument, claiming that his critics had been seized by a “theoretic and visionary fear.” This in fact was precisely the accusation being leveled against him—namely, that he was a naive visionary who lacked a realistic understanding of how much national stability depended upon an energetic federal government that he (not his Federalist critics, as he seemed to say) had pledged to dismantle. Jefferson had somehow transformed himself into the defender of a national government as “the world’s best hope”—a phrase Abraham Lincoln was to pick up and improve upon as “last, best hope” in his own First Inaugural—and consigned his critics to the role of skeptics who lacked his republican faith.

But the truly creative transformation, again more implied than asserted, was Jefferson’s suggestion that the true, indeed only source of energy in a republic was not the government per se but the voluntary popular opinion on which it rested. The traditional presumption, which was a bedrock conviction among all Federalists, was that an active federal government was necessary to embody authority and focus national policy. In the absence of such governmental leadership, it was assumed that the American republic would spin off into a series of factions and interest groups and eventually into separate regional units. Without a strong central government, in short, one could not have a coherent American nation. In Jefferson’s formulation, however, which must have seemed counterintuitive to the Federalists, the release of national energy increased as the power of government decreased. Whereas the Federalist way of thinking about government concerned itself with sustaining discipline, stability and balance, the Jeffersonian mentality bypassed such traditional concerns and celebrated the ideal of liberation. Lurking in his language about what makes a republican government strong was a belief in the inherent coherence of an American society that did not require the mechanisms of the state to maintain national stability.

In the weeks following the delivery and distribution of his Inaugural Address, Jefferson made a point of writing to surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as other colleagues from the Continental Congress who had also been “present at the creation,” to share his celebratory sense that the version of “pure republicanism” he had professed in his speech was a recovery of what they all had intended back in 1776. Whatever new and ideologically experimental ideas were lurking within the rhetorical recesses of the Inaugural Address, Jefferson was absolutely certain that his message represented a restoration of the vision shared by the original revolutionaries as “the antient and sacred truths” on which American independence had been based. He explained to Benjamin Rush, the old revolutionary gadfly in Philadelphia, that “these sentiments have been long and radically mine,” and Rush concurred that Jefferson’s address gave poetic expression to the values they all had thought they were fighting for in the glory days. Something magical and spiritual had happened at the founding moment, a kind of primal encounter with political purity that all the original participants experienced as a collective epiphany. Jefferson’s first instinct was to share with his fellow survivors and sharers of that experience—outsiders and the younger generation could not understand—that the true “spirit of ’76” was back. The sinners had at least been cast out of the temple, and the saints were once again in control. 27

His emphasis on austerity and simplicity, both in the inaugural ceremony itself and in his prescriptions for a stripped-down federal government, represented his core conviction about the recovered meaning of what the American Revolution had been about and what his own election to the presidency had reestablished. Much like his fondness for “a little rebellion now and then” or for “sweeping away” the accumulated debris of history every generation, Jefferson regarded his ascendance to power as a mandate to purge the American government of all the excess institutional baggage it had acquired since its pristine birth a quarter century earlier. While his Federalist critics and even some of his moderate Republican supporters worried out loud how far Jeffersonian reform would go (did it include eliminating the national bank? the federal judiciary? the navy?), Jefferson’s own mind simply did not work at that level of specificity. His thinking about his presidential agenda, like his lyrical language in the Inaugural Address, hovered above such particulars. As he explained to John Dickinson, another of the revolutionary “band of brothers,” the American government was like a ship that had passed through some very rough seas: “We shall put her back on her republican tack, and she will show by the beauty of her motion the skill of her builders.” Once the nation was put on its proper course, in short, forces as natural as the wind and tide would take over and carry America toward its destiny. God was not in the details for Jefferson; he was in the sky and stars. If one could just align the ship of state with them again, all those minor squabbles about executive power or federal jurisdiction would become irrelevant and sink from sight. Those who kept raising nettlesome questions about such items were inadvertently confessing that they lacked the pure republican faith. 28


WHEREVER ONE might wish to locate God’s abiding presence, its political manifestation was very much on Jefferson’s side at the start of his presidency. As it turned out, Adams had been the perfect predecessor. His irascible and all too human executive style had contrasted unfavorably with the Olympian presence of the godlike Washington, thereby making Adams unpopular and lowering expectations for his own successor. What’s more, the most unpopular and unilateral act of the Adams presidency, to send an American delegation to Paris with instructions to negotiate an end to the “quasi war” with France, had proved to be a brilliant success. The terms of the new peace treaty arrived too late to help Adams in the presidential election of 1800 but in time to end the “quasi war” before Jefferson took office. And not only was America at peace with the European powers, but France and England had agreed to what was in effect an armistice in their seemingly perpetual struggle for the domination of Europe. Jefferson inherited the most stable and peaceful international scene since the United States had declared its independence.29

On the home front, providence proved just as kind. The much-despised Alien and Sedition Acts, which had allowed the Federalists to prosecute their most outspoken Republican opponents for treason, had in fact backfired, helping mobilize popular support for Republican candidates in the congressional elections of 1800. In the new Congress coming to Washington with Jefferson, the Republicans enjoyed a two-to-one majority in the House and a smaller but decided majority in the Senate. What’s more, the legislation that had created the Alien and Sedition Acts was due to lapse in the early months of Jefferson’s presidency, so he needed to do nothing on that score but wait. Add to this happy set of circumstances the resumption of a flourishing West Indian trade now that peace with France was restored, an overall expansion of American commerce with a now-peaceful Europe and an agrarian economy that was humming along at unprecedented levels of productivity, and Jefferson’s vision of a minimalist federal government—pursuing what he described as “a noiseless course . . . , unattractive of notice”—began to look like a sensible act of hands-off statesmanship. With history dealing out cards like this, who would not want to stand pat? 30

As it turned out, even the most invisible and unobtrusive federal government required executive leadership, if for no other reason than to implement the principle of republican austerity. Here again Jefferson was the beneficiary of the Adams administration, but this time as a graphic example of how not to do it. “My wish is to collect in a mass around the administration all the abilities and the respectability to which the offices exercised here can give employ,” Jefferson explained, adding that he was determined to “give none of them to secondary characters.” Adams, not certain about how much discretion he possessed as incoming president, had felt obliged to retain Washington’s cabinet as his own. It proved to be the most disastrous decision of his presidency and the chief source of his political frustrations, since he inherited the “secondary characters” Jefferson was referring to, as well as a cabinet more loyal to Hamilton and to memories of Washington than to Adams himself. (Jefferson later recalled that Adams became so frustrated by the recalcitrance of his own cabinet that he ended up convening it in order to scream obscenities at its advice while stomping around the cabinet meeting room and “dashing and trampling his wig on the floor.”) The cabinet choices Jefferson made were governed by two criteria: proven ability and complete loyalty to the Jeffersonian version of republicanism. On this score he was extremely shrewd as well as blessed. His cabinet proved to be one of the ablest and the most stable collection of executive advisers in the history of the American presidency. 31

The two most prominent and invaluable members were James Madison and Albert Gallatin. Madison had long been a foregone conclusion as secretary of state. He was Jefferson’s lifetime lieutenant and protégé, a fellow member of the Virginia dynasty, a battle-tested veteran of the party wars of the 1790s and the shrewdest student of the Jefferson psyche ever placed on earth. Gallatin was a Swiss-born émigré to America who had settled in Pennsylvania and quickly risen in the Republican ranks on the basis of his deft way with both words and numbers. He was short, balding and hawk-nosed, but his unimpressive appearance and lingering Genevan accent belied intellectual powers second to none among the rising generation of Republican leaders. Gallatin was only forty, and he was the one man in America capable of going toe-to-toe with Hamilton in debate over fiscal policy and comfortably holding his own. Since Jefferson’s considerable experience in foreign policy meant that—no offense to Madison’s extraordinary competence—he could and often would serve as his own secretary of state, Gallatin as secretary of the treasury was the most invaluable and strategically positioned member of the cabinet. 32

The other members, if not “secondary characters,” were lesser figures. Levi Lincoln, the attorney general, was a respected lawyer from Massachusetts. Along with Henry Dearborn, secretary of war, who was from the Maine district of Massachusetts, Lincoln was that singular phenomenon, a New England Jeffersonian whose Republican credentials had proved themselves by surviving in the homeland of Federalism. “Both are men of 1776,” observed Gallatin, “and decided Republicans.” The same could be said of Gideon Granger, who as postmaster general was not officially a member of the cabinet but had important responsibilities dispensing patronage. Granger was that rarest of species, a Republican from Connecticut, where rumor had it that a Yale degree was a prerequisite for success in politics or the pulpit, and a vow of eternal hostility to the infidel from Monticello was a mandatory part of the Yale commencement ceremony. The eventual choice as secretary of the navy, after much unsuccessful lobbying of other candidates, was Robert Smith, a prominent Baltimore lawyer. Jefferson joked that he “shall have to advertise for a Secretary of Navy,” because of the widespread presumption, which proved correct, that the main mission of the job was to scuttle much of the infant American fleet in order to implement the Jeffersonian goal of republican austerity. 33

Most students of the Jefferson presidency explain his leadership style in terms of the positive lessons he had learned from Washington and the negative ones learned from Adams. It is true that Jefferson himself referred to these obvious and opposing models as his guides, with the Adams model (i.e., sulking patriarch) less personally appealing and politically effective than Washington’s model (i.e., military commander-in-chief surrounded by staff officers). In one sense Jefferson’s organization of the executive branch represented an adaptation of the Washington scheme. All business had to go through the appropriate department heads first. On every working day each department head sent Jefferson a written summary of all decisions or issues in his area. Jefferson responded in writing, if possible on the same day, and also made himself available for individual conferences before his daily horseback ride at one o’clock. Unlike Washington, Jefferson preferred not to schedule regular meetings of the full cabinet, convening the entire group only when difficult decisions or a looming crisis required it. This arrangement made the president, as Jefferson put it, “the hub of a wheel” with the business of the nation done at the rim, conveyed through the departmental spokes but all supervised at the center. It was a system that maximized control while simultaneously creating necessary distance from details. 34

Washington’s example certainly loomed large for Jefferson, but it is more correct to understand his executive style as a projection of his own experience and personality. After all, the symbolic significance of Jefferson’s inauguration was intended as a republican repudiation of courtly pomp and monarchial affectations, which were all a piece of the Washington model. And the military framework that Washington carried over from his experience as commander of the Continental Army was too explicitly authoritarian to fit with Jefferson’s temperament, which preferred a more indirect expression of authority and attempted to create a consensual context within which all decisions had at least the appearance of being voluntary. He had in effect been practicing this more indirect leadership style in different ways throughout his mature life. It was the diplomatic style of the elegantly elusive American in Paris. It was the political style of the invisible but effective party leader who honestly claimed to despise political parties. It was the paternalistic style of the plantation master who had designed Monticello so as to make slavery almost invisible. It was the domestic style of the benevolent patriarch surrounded by an extended family bonded together in seemingly perfect harmony by unalloyed affection. It was, finally, the republican style of the president-elect, declaring that his chief duty was to render the federal government over which he was to assume control unobtrusive and politically impotent. The common ingredient in all these contexts was Jefferson’s urge to cloak his exercise of power from others and from himself.

His own characterization of cabinet meetings, for example, emphasized the harmonious atmosphere; it borrowed from the sentimental language he customarily used to describe family gatherings. “There never arose, during the whole time,” he recalled in 1811, “an instance of an unpleasant thought or word between the members. We sometimes met under differences of opinion, but scarcely ever failed . . . to produce an unanimous result.” The consensual character of Jefferson’s cabinet meetings was real enough, in great part deriving from the fact that Jefferson had selected men who shared his views. But he also orchestrated events to prevent conflict. One reason he kept full meetings of the cabinet to a minimum was to avoid argumentative debates. “The method of separate consultations,” he explained, “prevents disagreeable collisions.” When a heated exchange occurred in one meeting, he asked Madison to maneuver behind the scenes and let his colleagues know that such unbecoming conduct would not be tolerated in the future: “Will you be so good as to endeavor, in an unsuspected way, to observe to the other gentlemen the advantages of sometimes resorting to separate consultation? To Mr. Gallatin may be remarked the incipient indisposition which we noted in two of our brethren on a late consultation; and to the others may be suggested the other important considerations in its favor.” Full-throated debate within the cabinet struck him as uncivil. He wanted his department heads to work out their disagreements in private so as not to contaminate cabinet meetings with a contentious spirit. If the democratic ethos welcomed a wide-open, deuces-wild brand of political jostling, Jefferson’s version of republican serenity was incompatible with it. 35

He seemed to want the operation of the federal government to be noiseless, invisible and completely collegial. Soon after he formed his cabinet he instituted the practice of scheduling three dinner parties each week at the presidential mansion in order to bring together members of Congress and their wives with representatives of the executive branch and foreign diplomats stationed in Washington. Some of the most vivid physical descriptions of President Jefferson come from personal reminiscences of guests at these intimate (twelve to twenty people) social occasions. Edward Thornton, the British chargé, was struck by Jefferson’s almost theatrical effort “to inculcate upon the people his attachment to a republican simplicity of manners and his unwillingness to admit the smallest distinction, that may separate him from the mass of his fellow citizens.” Margaret Bayard Smith read his spare and unassuming social style as a mark of true humility. Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy, saw it as an aristocrat’s clumsy effort to affect ordinariness. The most talked-about incident occurred in 1803, when the newly arrived British minister, Anthony Merry, raised a huge fuss about the awkward evening he and his wife spent at a presidential dinner. In his famous History Henry Adams made the episode into a delectably malicious set piece in which the courtly expectations and insufferable affectations of Mrs. Merry run hilariously into the Jeffersonian “pêle mêle” rules of etiquette, which struck her as a barbaric free-for-all for seating. 36

But the contrasting descriptions of Jefferson’s social demeanor were merely another measure of how richly enigmatic Jefferson’s self-conscious republican style appeared to observers with different political agenda. The truly significant fact about the dinners was their underlying purpose. They imposed a huge social obligation on Jefferson, especially during the months when Congress was in session. He continued them throughout his presidency because they enhanced the prospects for creating personal bonds and emotional attachments that might help override political disagreements. If people sat down to dinner together and were obliged to observe the customary civilities, they were less likely to be at one another’s throats on the floor of Congress the next day. But the laudable intentions behind the presidential dinners were greatly diluted by the very motives that inspired them. Early on Jefferson established the rule, which must have struck some congressmen as bizarre, that explicitly political conversations were prohibited at the table. And after attempting to mix Federalist and Republican guests for a short while, he abandoned the experiment in order to avoid the threat of volatile exchanges or politically edged jokes about his French wine. Thereafter invitations were sent out strictly according to party affiliations. Even more than the cabinet meetings, the much-desired harmony of the dinner parties was highly orchestrated. 37

The dinners served another purpose that needs noticing, especially because our modern-day assumptions about instant access to the images and sounds of our elected officials impedes a faithful recovery of the way it was back then. To put it simply, the dinners represented the primary occasion for seeing President Jefferson. (This was the chief reason why so many of the visual descriptions of Jefferson that survive came from dinner guests.) Apart from his daily horseback rides through the woods and on the bridle paths of semirural Washington, Jefferson made no public appearances whatsoever. This constituted a break with precedent, since both Washington and Adams had delivered periodic public addresses before crowds and had appeared before Congress at least once a year to deliver their annual messages. Jefferson discontinued the practice of presenting his Annual Message as a speech, claiming that a written version was more efficient. It also eliminated the spectacle of the presidential entourage parading up Capitol Hill in conspicuous imitation of European royalty, then placing the members of Congress in the position of subjects passively listening to his proclamation. Jefferson believed that a republican president should be inconspicuous. He wanted to institutionalize a self-consciously nonimperial presidency. As far as we know, the only two public speeches he delivered throughout his eight years in office were his two inaugural addresses. 38

The chief business of the executive branch under Jefferson was done almost entirely in writing. Indeed, if we wish to conjure up a historically correct picture of Jefferson as president, he would not be riding or walking toward Capitol Hill for his inauguration but would be seated at his writing table about ten hours a day. He usually rose before daybreak, around five o’clock, worked at his desk alone until nine, when cabinet officers and congressmen were permitted to visit. He went riding in the early afternoon, returning in time for dinner at three-thirty. He was back at his desk between six and seven o’clock and in bed by ten. As he explained to a friend, he was “in the habit, from considerations of health, of never going out in the evening.” Apart from the months of August and September, when the heat and humidity of Washington drove him back to his mountaintop at Monticello, he was desk-bound. In his first year as president he received 1,881 letters, not including internal correspondence from his cabinet, and sent out 677 letters of his own. This reclusive regimen made him practically invisible to the public. He even seemed determined to obliterate any traces of his written record as president, insisting that all his public correspondence be filed under one of the other executive departments “so that I shall never add a single paper to those constituting the records of the President’s office.” 39

It was all of a piece. A minimalist federal government required a minimalist presidency. Political power, to fit the republican model, needed to be exercised unobtrusively, needed neither to feel nor to look like power at all. Jefferson’s notoriously inadequate oratorical skills were conveniently rendered irrelevant or perhaps made into a virtuous liability. The real work of the job played right into that remarkable hand, which could craft words more deftly than any public figure of his time, and into Jefferson’s preference for splendid isolation, where improvisational skills were unnecessary, control over ideas was nearly total and making public policy was essentially a textual problem.

Indeed one might most aptly describe Jefferson’s self-consciously unimperial executive style as the textual presidency. The art of making decisions was synonymous with the art of drafting and revising texts. Policy debates within the cabinet took the form of editorial exchanges about word choice and syntax. When Jefferson prepared his first Annual Message to Congress, for example, all the department heads were asked to submit memoranda suggesting items for inclusion. He composed a draft based on their written advice and then submitted that draft for their comments. He asked Madison to pay special attention to language: “Will you give this enclosed a revisal, not only as to matter, but diction. Where strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to in complaisance to the purists of New England. But where by small grammatical negligences the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt.”

Gallatin tended to make more editorial suggestions than any other cabinet member, often writing out revisions more than twice as lengthy as the original Jeffersonian draft and infusing his remarks with a critical edge that would have been unacceptably argumentative in a full cabinet meeting but became palatable when offered in the privacy of written prose. “As to style,” he wrote in 1802, “I am a bad judge, but I do not like, in the first paragraph, the idea of limiting the quantum of thankfulness due to the supreme being; and there is also, it seems, too much said of the Indians in the enumeration of our blessings in the next sentence.” 40

This extraordinary reliance on the written word had some ironic consequences. On the one hand, it allowed Jefferson to remain one of the most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history. On the other hand, it produced a paper trail that has made the decision-making process of his presidency more accessible and visible to historians than any other—that is, until the installation of electronic recordings under John Kennedy and the sensational revelations produced by the White House tapes of Richard Nixon. And because Jefferson’s annual messages were polished documents designed to be read for content—and because his mastery of language was unmatched by any subsequent American president save Lincoln—they present a remarkably cogent and peerlessly concise statement of what, in fact and not just in theory, he thought “pure republicanism” meant.


ABOVE ALL, it meant eliminating the national debt. During the nerve-racking days when the electoral vote tie between Jefferson and Burr was thrown into the House of Representatives, several Federalists had tried to elicit a promise from Jefferson that he would honor the obligation to retire the federal debt, implying that the Jeffersonian version of republicanism was incompatible with fiscal responsibility. Little did they know how unnecessary such worries were. As Jefferson later explained to Gallatin, “I consider the fortunes of our republic as depending, in an eminent degree, on the extinguishment of the public debt . . . ,” adding that failure to discharge the debt would send America careening down “the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution.” Redeeming the national debt, for Jefferson, was truly a matter of national redemption, a matter “vital to the destinies of our government. . . .” He informed Gallatin that it was the highest priority of his presidency and that it was unlikely that America would “ever see another President and Secretary of Treasury making all other objects subordinate to this.” 41

He was not exaggerating. In 1801 the national debt stood at $112 million, most of which had accrued as a result of Hamilton’s program to assume the state debts. (Jefferson always regarded this decision as a political version of America’s original sin, for which he was forever doing penance because of his own complicity.) Following Jefferson’s instructions, Gallatin came up with a plan to retire the debt within sixteen years at the rate of $7 million a year. Since the annual income of the federal government, mostly from customs duties and the sale of public lands, was about $9 million, this left only slightly more than $2 million to fund the annual expenses of the entire government. But that was precisely what Jefferson proposed to do. 42

In an ironic sense, both Jefferson and Hamilton regarded the national debt as the cornerstone of national policy. For Hamilton it was a national blessing because it created the need for taxes, banks and federal fiscal policies that amplified the powers of the national government. For Jefferson it was a national curse; it conjured up all the demonic images associated with European monarchies, especially the layered levels of consolidated corruption represented by the political juggernaut that was the English government. It was also, however, a blessing in disguise, because it defined and disciplined the core mission of his administration. The central impulse of Whig ideology, as we have noted earlier, was oppositional; it required a “clear and present danger” to focus its energies. The debt gave Jefferson his essential enemy. Gallatin’s program to retire the debt required reductions in the size of the number of federal employees, shrinking the army and significant cuts in the navy. The debt, in this sense, was a godsend because it became the budgetary tool for enforcing austerity and reducing the size of the government. It defined, in an eminently practical way, how a president used executive power to limit governmental power.

It is difficult for us in present-day America to appreciate, for that matter to understand at all, Jefferson’s obsession with a national debt that looks so comparatively small. The number of federal employees in Washington in 1801 totaled 130, and the national debt of $17 million is considerably less than the hourly interest payments that accrue on the current national debt of several trillion dollars. Moreover, the accumulated wisdom of economists and economic historians has taught us to realize that we ought not to think about the national debt in the same straightforward way we regard personal and family debt, as an unalloyed burden to be eliminated with as much deliberate speed as possible. Hindsight also suggests that even for those disposed to reject the Hamiltonian vision of an integrated and expansive commercial republic, the national debt Jefferson inherited should have been viewed as a wholly plausible investment in America’s future development, a prudent loan, if you will, more than covered by the collateral of prospective economic growth. In all these present-minded ways Jefferson’s fixation on the national debt looks simplistic and silly. 43

In a certain sense it was, even in its own time. The single-minded passion he brought to the subject was extreme. Several of his more moderate Republican colleagues and a good many Federalists thought his debt-driven fiscal policy was excessively austere. Adams sequestered in Quincy and licking his political wounds while preparing to settle scores in his autobiography, worried most about the dismantling of the navy, which might one day prove shortsighted. (The War of 1812 proved him right.) But Jefferson’s attitude toward the debt must be comprehended on its own Jeffersonian terms. This means recognizing the deep pools of ideological and psychological conviction from which it drew its nonnegotiable character. 44

Public debt was the unmistakable engine of government corruption according to “the antient Whig principles.” It set off all the trip wires and blew all the fuses of the Jeffersonian ideological circuitry, which then exploded in a flashing vision of Anglomen, monarchists and scheming bankers conspiring among the ruins of the American republic. This, it is true, was a conspiratorial mentality; it was misguided in its pathological association of debt with corruption and with its virulent version of Anglophobia. But it had been hallowed as a central article of the republican faith during the American Revolution, and Jefferson embraced it with all the heartfelt intensity of a true believer.

Psychologically, debt set off another kind of chain reaction inside Jefferson. Not only had he watched a disarming number of Virginia’s planter class spend and borrow themselves into bankruptcy, but he knew personally what it felt like to remain one short step ahead of his creditors, even to experience the sickening sense that they would eventually hunt him down too. In his personal life, of course, we know that the looming specter of crushing debt had no discernible effect on his indulgent habits of consumption. (The wine bill alone for his first term as president approached ten thousand dollars, and the expensive and apparently eternal renovations of Monticello continued apace throughout his presidency.) Perhaps the soundest way to put it is that just as an extended exposure to slavery seemed to give Jefferson a particularly intense appreciation of individual freedom, so his private habits of indulgence gave him a peculiarly powerful appreciation of government austerity. In both cases his public fervor grew directly out of his experience of private failure. 45

In Jefferson’s personal life as an indebted planter the elaborate plans for financial recovery never quite worked; the numbers never added up. As president, however, the flow of history (as well as the managerial competence of Gallatin) was on his side. The exponential growth in American exports increased federal revenues even faster than Gallatin had predicted, allowing for an even more rapid retirement of the debt. The chief opposition to the austerity budget came from Federalists in the Senate, who warned that cuts in the military put American security at risk. But the Republican majority easily overrode the dissenting Federalists, and the extended European peace made Jefferson’s gamble on a reduced navy look prescient. In his first Annual Message to Congress in December of 1801 Jefferson felt sufficiently confident to recommend the abolition of all internal taxes. He made the classic republican analysis: “Sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not perhaps happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure.” Armies and navies did not deter wars; they usually caused them. Meanwhile the elimination of internal taxes further reduced the public visibility of the federal government in the most sensitive area of popular opinion, tax collection. By the end of his first term Jefferson was able to ask the rhetorical question: “What farmer, what mechanic, what laborer ever sees a tax-gatherer of the United States?” 46

All the while the budget constraints imposed by the commitment to debt reduction served as a purring engine steadily eating away at what Jefferson devoutly regarded as a bloated federal bureaucracy. “We are hunting out and abolishing multitudes of useless offices,” he reported enthusiastically to his son-in-law, “striking off jobs, lopping them down silently. . . .” He apprised William Short, still based in Paris, that he and Madison were giving serious consideration to letting all foreign treaties lapse and closing down American embassies in Europe. (This idea was eventually abandoned.) Gallatin was able to persuade him that the national bank and the customs collectors should be spared; they actually facilitated debt reduction; in modern parlance, they were “cost-effective.” Jefferson reluctantly agreed. “It mortifies me to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious,” he complained, but Gallatin was probably right “that we can never completely get rid of his [Hamilton’s] financial system.” Nevertheless, the abiding commitment must be to simplify financial records, hack away at the entrenched layers of accountants, civil servants and—the core Republican agenda—“bring things back to that simple and intelligible system on which they should have been organized at first.” 47

Leading the battle of the budget came to him naturally and drew from deep personal resources that all flowed together in the same direction. But the comparatively mundane task of distributing patronage bedeviled him from the start of his presidency. He wrote more letters and expressed more contradictory opinions on this subject than any other. His most colorful statement—that Federalist incumbents in government jobs prevented the creation of vacancies, that “those by death are few; by resignation none”—was made when he was in the mood for “a sweep,” meaning a wholescale removal of Federalists to make room for loyal Republicans. On other occasions he adopted a more conciliatory line, claiming he would leave Federalists in most government jobs and replace them only as vacancies arose; at times he sounded an even more benevolent note, suggesting that rank-and-file Federalists should be appointed and only the most diehard Federalist leaders, “whom I abandon as incurables,” should be excluded. “If we can hit on the true line of conduct,” he wrote to Horatio Gates, “which may conciliate the honest part of those who were called federalists, and do justice to those who have so long been excluded from it, I shall hope to be able to obliterate, or rather unite the names of federalists and republicans.” This sounded like the most generous reading of the “We are all republicans—we are all federalists” line in his Inaugural Address. For several months he oscillated back and forth among these different positions. 48

Jefferson’s patronage dilemma grew out of the unprecedented political situation created by his election. He was the first leader of an opposition party elected to the presidency and the first recognized party leader to face the “loaves and fishes” problem with all the middle- and lower-level federal offices still occupied by the outgoing administration. In subsequent years it became common practice and a matter of mutual understanding that victory in a presidential election meant a wholesale changing of the guard along party lines. Nothing terribly principled or massively moral was at stake. Patronage was a simple by-product of political power. But the victorious Republican party had come to power believing in its own virtue and claiming to represent a restoration of principles that dispensed with politics as usual. As Henry Adams put it, “Such a state of things could never occur again, for only a new country could be inexperienced in politics.” It was awkward for Jefferson to start behaving like a party leader after a decade of denying that the Republicans were a political party at all. 49

The practical resolution of this dilemma is less significant per se than for what it revealed about Jefferson’s inherently moralistic mentality. Throughout the 1790s he had described the Federalists as an evil faction of cryptomonarchists and closet-tories who had commandeered the original purpose of the American Revolution and carried the government to the brink of irreversible corruption. This highly charged diagnosis had never been factually accurate. Very few of the Federalists were outright monarchists. Indeed, if one were searching for such creatures, the top candidate would have been Burr, who was a Republican and Jefferson’s vice president to boot. The underlying issues separating Federalists and Republicans were not really moral so much as constitutional and strategic: The Federalists preferred a more consolidated federal government in which more power was allocated to the executive and judicial branches and America’s primary European ally and role model was England. The Republicans wanted a smaller and weaker federal government in which the House of Representatives was the dominant force; they looked to France as our chief European friend. While these were hardly incidental differences—they had their origins in fundamentally juxtaposed ideas about the proper allocation of political power in a republican government—they did not really translate into the kind of moral imperatives that Jefferson’s mind required to mobilize its political energies. Yet for Jefferson to mean what so many readers of his Inaugural Address thought he meant—that the differences between Federalists and Republicans were eminently negotiable—would have required him to acknowledge that his moral crusade of the 1790s had been misguided.

By the summer of 1801 Jefferson had reached his conclusion: There were Federalists and there were federalists. The former were unredeemable monarchists, “incurable monocrats” and “the desperadoes of the quondam faction.” He claimed to “wish nothing but their eternal hatred,” and if that were to cease, “I should become suspicious to myself.” The latter were misguided followers, who preferred a somewhat stronger executive but in their heart of hearts were really republicans and therefore “entitled to the confidence of their fellow citizens.” The beauty of this simplistic distinction was that it allowed Jefferson to retain his moral categories, indeed to focus his hatred even more intently on the surviving pockets of recalcitrant Federalist influence, especially in New England, while simultaneously adopting a conciliatory posture elsewhere and encouraging mass defections to the Republican party. In Connecticut, for example, he claimed that most citizens remained mesmerized by the vilest version of the Federalist persuasion: “Their steady habits exclude the advances of information and they seem exactly where they were when they separated from the Saints of Oliver Cromwell.” They were, he believed, willing to “follow the bark of liberty only by the help of a tow-rope.” Connecticut therefore demanded a “general sweep” of Federalists from office. Appointing a Federalist there was “like appointing an atheist to the priesthood.” Massachusetts was only slightly better, though Jefferson held out the hope that “as the Indian says, they are clearing the dust out of their eyes there also,” so that eventually “the republican portion will at length arise, and the sediment of monarchism will be left as lees at the bottom.” Until then, however, “a clean sweep” was necessary in Massachusetts too. 50

Jefferson’s moral distinctions were lost on most Federalists, who regarded the mass removals in New England as a betrayal of his inaugural promise. “The truth is,” noted the editors of the New York Evening Post, “it has become ridiculous in Mr. Jefferson and his supporters to pretend that, in the present system of hunting the Federalists like wild beasts, they are governed by any principle or principles which will bear avowal or can be for a moment supported under any pretence whatsoever.” The real truth was that pretense was very important to the Republicans; they did not want to think of themselves as typical politicians who traded their principles for raw power upon entering office. As for Jefferson himself, the messy matter of patronage exposed how his mind was capable of moving on parallel tracks, one side fiercely vindictive and merciless, the other accommodating and charitable. It all depended on where one landed in the inherently moral world that was Jefferson country. 51

The patronage episode also revealed how alien Jefferson was to the pluralistic ethos so central to modern-day political liberalism, which accords respect to fundamentally different values and defines integrity as a civil, if spirited, dialogue among opposing ideas. His was the more traditional and universalistic conviction: There was one truth, not many. He could be endlessly patient and pragmatic about minor differences, but once it was clear your views lay on the other side of the line, it was war to the death. What saved the bulk of the Federalists, it turned out, was not generosity of spirit so much as the fervent hope that they were really latent Republicans primed for conversion.

It was a characteristically Jeffersonian outlook, and it contributed to his paradoxical reputation as an extremely cool and serenely civil man of considerable grace who periodically unleashed sudden torrents of anger and hostility at his enemies. At the private level it gave his otherwise smooth and soft demeanor a dangerous edge, especially for those who mistook his reticent style for indifference and blundered into one of the deeply felt subjects. At the semipublic level, such as cabinet meetings or one-on-one sessions in the presidential office, it enhanced his authority by suggesting a subterranean region forever concealed from view and inhabited by fearful forces that, if inadvertently unlocked, would take no prisoners. At the public level the New England Federalists triggered the moral explosions, much as George III and then the Hamiltonians had done in previous years. But the most dramatic display of this Jeffersonian syndrome during his presidency, which also had the greatest consequence on domestic policy and subsequent American history, occurred in his treatment of Native Americans.

Jefferson’s attitude toward the Indian population of the United States has always seemed as profoundly paradoxical as his attitude toward slavery. On the one hand, he devoted an entire chapter in his Notes on Virginia to a celebration of the indigenous culture of America’s original inhabitants, recalling the impressive oratorical skills of tribal chiefs, recommending the serious study of the different Indian languages and dialects, even going so far as to contrast Indians favorably with blacks in terms of their mental and physical aptitude and their capacity for assimilation into white American society. As president he greeted visiting Indian delegations with becoming graciousness and visible respect. On several occasions he went out of his way to describe the Indian people of North America as a noble race who were the innocent victims of history: “Endowed with the faculties and rights of men, breathing an ardent love of liberty and independence,” as he so eloquently put it, “and occupying a country which left them no desire but to be undisturbed . . . they have been overwhelmed by the current, or driven before it.” One senses in so many of Jefferson’s observations on Indians an authentic admiration mingled with a truly poignant sense of tragedy about their fate as a people. 52

On the other hand, it was during Jefferson’s presidency that the basic decisions were made that required the deportation of massive segments of the Indian population to land west of the Mississippi. In the language of the leading scholar on the subject, “the seeds of extinction” for Native American culture were sown under Jefferson. The essence of Jefferson’s thinking about Indian removal was expressed in a letter to the territorial governor of Ohio in 1803:

In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States or remove beyond the Mississippi. The former is certainly the termination of their history most happy for themselves, but, in the whole course of this, it is essential to cultivate their love. As to their fear, we presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them, and that all our liberalities to them proceed from motives of pure humanity only. 53

This is a striking statement in several senses: its casual sense of assurance about what history intended; its eerie mixture of charity and cruelty; its presumptive and paternalistic tone. In Jefferson’s mind the Indians occupied the same problematic space as the Federalists. They were a doomed species. Their dooming had not been his doing, but he had no compunctions or doubts about serving as the instrument of their destruction. And just as the rank-and-file Federalists should recognize that their political survival depended on embracing the central tenets of republicanism (as defined by the Republican party), so the Indians should recognize that their cultural survival depended upon abandoning their nomadic hunting societies—these required too much land—and adopting an agricultural way of life, eventually the English language, and gradually assimilating into white American society. In short, Indian culture could survive by ceasing to be Indian, just as the Federalists could survive by ceasing to be Federalists. 54

Those Indians who resisted assimilation, again like the recalcitrant Federalist leaders in Connecticut and Massachusetts, deserved nothing less than extermination or banishment. Like the Federalist ideologues in New England, Indian leaders who clung tenaciously to tribal mores and insisted on inculcating “a sanctimonious reverence for the custom of their ancestors” must be shown no mercy. Jefferson believed that banishment to the currently unoccupied lands west of the Mississippi was only a temporary solution since the white migration would eventually overflow these lands too and pose the same questions at a later date. But he was not burdened by any doubts about what constituted the right answer. When James Monroe, in his capacity as Virginia’s governor, wrote him to raise the possibility of creating a western reserve for emancipated slaves, Jefferson opposed the idea on grounds that boded ill for Indians as well as blacks: “[I]t is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will . . . cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface.” Just as he found it impossible to imagine a pluralistic American politics in which competing convictions about the meaning of the American Revolution coexisted, he had no place in his imagination for an American society of diverse cultures in which Native Americans lived alongside whites while retaining their own Indian values. 55


THERE WAS ALSO a sharp line running through Jefferson’s constitutional thinking between foreign and domestic policy. Actually, to speak of “constitutional thinking” is a bit misleading since Jefferson’s mind preferred broader moral categories that hovered over the more conventional constitutional distinctions. In his own Jeffersonian way, however, he believed that the House of Representatives had primary responsibility for domestic policy and the executive had equivalent responsibility over foreign affairs, though he seemed to have embraced a somewhat fuzzy caveat during the debate over the Jay Treaty that gave the House veto power over foreign treaties. At any rate, it would be fair to say that Jefferson did not think that the office of president should be as inconspicuous or invisible to foreign nations as it should to American citizens. 56

Only two months after his inauguration the Barbary pirates on the North African coast put this theory to the test when the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. (The pasha was incensed upon learning that the tribute he was receiving from the Americans was less than that which was being paid to Algiers.) This was an old story to Jefferson, who had argued unsuccessfully with Adams in their Paris years that paying bribes to these seafaring terrorists of the Muslim world was dishonorable. Now, as president, he was in a position to implement his long-standing preference for military action. “I am an enemy to all these doceurs, tributes and humiliations,” he explained to Madison, and “I know that nothing will stop the eternal increase from these pirates but the presence of an armed force. . . .” Fortunately, and with an irony that only Adams could have fully appreciated, the buildup of the American navy that Adams had insisted on during his presidency, despite the opposition of Jefferson and the Republicans, meant that a fleet of frigates was available for Jefferson to dispatch to the Mediterranean. With the consent of his cabinet—only Gallatin, whose job was to worry about the budget, objected on cost grounds—Jefferson ordered a naval squadron to patrol the North African coast. 57

Throughout his first term, then, and well into his second, the United States was engaged in a small-scale naval war in the Mediterranean that never achieved the decisive conclusion that Jefferson wanted. He revived his old scheme of creating an international task force comprised of European and American warships to police the region—perhaps a forerunner of the United Nations peacekeeping force—but it never materialized. At least at the symbolic level, however, the ongoing conflict with the Barbary pirates became America’s first “splendid little war” by generating patriotic rallies throughout the country. These reached a crescendo in 1804, when Stephen Decatur, an American naval officer, brazenly sailed into the Bay of Tripoli to rescue American prisoners of war on board the captured Philadelphia and then proceeded to revenge his brother’s death by killing his Muslim murderers in hand-to-hand combat. (No less an authority than Lord Nelson of the British Admiralty called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.”) Decatur’s exploits were memorialized in verse and dramatic productions as the North African version of Bunker Hill; he became America’s first nineteenth-century military hero. 58

The Jefferson administration benefited from this nationalistic surge, though Jefferson was careful to remind all concerned that the naval operation in the Mediterranean was a mere sideshow and would not deter his plans to dry-dock a hefty portion of the American fleet. In the grand scheme of things the centerpiece of his foreign policy remained the avoidance of war at almost any cost. Retiring the debt and sustaining republican austerity had to take precedence. In that sense the campaign against the Barbary pirates was perfect: It was a safe and limited projection of American power abroad, it displayed Jefferson’s resolve as president, it produced convenient heroes to celebrate and it cost very little. It was, if you will, the ideal miniature war for Jefferson’s minimalist presidency. 59

There was nothing miniature about the American West, nothing less than grandiose about Jefferson’s vision of its future role in American history and nothing but extraordinary presidential leadership, matched with even more extraordinary good fortune, that produced the Louisiana Purchase. When word reached Washington in 1803 (on July 4 no less) that France had agreed to the sale of the Louisiana Territory for fifteen million dollars, the American republic doubled in size overnight. Even compared with the legendary purchase of Manhattan from the Indians for a pittance, the acquisition of half a continent for about three cents an acre was a bigger steal. It was unquestionably the greatest achievement of the Jefferson presidency and, with room left for scholarly quibbling about Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and Harry Truman in 1945, one of the most consequential executive actions in all of American history. 60

It was fashionable for many years to tell the story of the transaction primarily as a meditation on the influence of dumb luck. “Napoleon threw the province, so to speak, at Livingston, Monroe, Madison and Jefferson,” wrote one historian, “and they share between [sic] them—equally—whatever credit there was in catching it and holding it—that is all.” This interpretation represented a continuation of Federalist explanations at the time. “[T]he acquisition has been solely owing to a fortuitous concurrence of unforeseen and unexpected circumstances,” said an editor in the New York Evening Post, “and not to any wise or vigorous measures on the part of the American government.” The fairer judgment would seem to be that Jefferson was both more fortunate and more prescient than anyone realized at the time. And his nearly mystical sense of the American West made him more flexible in the implementation of his political principles than at any other time in his public life. To seize an empire, it turned out, required an imperial president. 61

Although he himself had never been west of the Shenandoah Valley, Jefferson’s proprietary attitude toward the Mississippi Valley and beyond was long-standing. In the 1780s, when rumors spread that John Jay was negotiating the surrender of American navigation rights on the Mississippi to Spain, both Jefferson and Madison expressed outrage. They consistently described the Mississippi as the major artery of the American body politic, “the Hudson, the Delaware, the Potomac, and all the navigable rivers of the Atlantic, formed into one stream.” While secretary of state, most pointedly during the Nootka Sound crisis of 1790, Jefferson had been prepared to risk war in order to prevent either England or France from displacing Spain as the European presence in the trans-Mississippi West. From that time forward Jefferson regarded Spanish ownership of the vast western region of North America as essentially a temporary occupation that conveniently bided time for the inevitable American sweep across the continent. Of all the European powers, Spain, the chronically weak “sick man of Europe,” was, as Rufus King put it, “the most proper to possess a great empire with insignificance.” When rumors reached Washington in 1802 that Spain had ceded its rights in North America, including the all-important control over the Mississippi, to Napoleon and France, Jefferson immediately recognized the French presence as a fundamental shift in the strategic situation; it both threatened American security and blocked westward American expansion. Without quite shouldering Madison to the sidelines, Jefferson assumed personal control over the diplomatic initiative to remove this unacceptable intrusion of a major European power onto the American continent. 62

His instructions to Robert Livingston, the newly appointed American ambassador to France, minced no words. He apologized for temporarily displacing the secretary of state but explained that he “cannot forbear recurring to it personally, so deep is the impression it makes in my mind.” The sale of the Louisiana region to France was a major disaster that “completely reverses all the political relations of the United States and will form a new epoch in our political course.” It constituted, he believed, the greatest challenge to American independence and national integrity since the American Revolution: “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy,” he explained to Livingston. That epicenter of American national interest was New Orleans. Despite past friendship with France and despite his own personal affinity for the Franco-American alliance, the moment France occupied New Orleans the two nations must become mortal enemies. “From that moment,” he concluded ominously, “we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” Given his deep and lifelong hatred of England, Jefferson was effectively describing French control of the Mississippi as the equivalent of an international earthquake that moved all the geological templates into a new pattern. 63

Though eminently capable, Livingston possessed the singular disadvantage of not being a Virginian. Jefferson wanted someone on the ground in Paris whom he could trust implicitly. So he in effect ordered James Monroe, a Jefferson protégé currently serving as governor of Virginia, to become a special envoy to France. “[T]he circumstances are such as to render it impossible to decline,” Jefferson observed dramatically, because “on the event of this mission, depends the future destinies of this republic.” Monroe’s instructions authorized the purchase of New Orleans and as much of the Mississippi Valley as possible—the geographic boundaries of the French acquisition from Spain were fuzzy—for up to ten million dollars. Even the paramount domestic goal of debt reduction was subordinated to recovering control over America’s interior. 64

During the winter and spring of 1803, while the outcome of the Monroe mission remained up in the air, Jefferson’s management of the prospective crisis was deft and shrewd. He saw to it that du Pont de Nemours, an old French friend, was provided information about America’s deadly serious intentions that could be leaked in the proper corridors at Versailles. When the Spanish official still governing New Orleans abruptly closed the port to American commerce, Jefferson came under considerable pressure to launch a unilateral military expedition to seize both the city and the Floridas, thereby abandoning diplomacy in favor of war with both Spain and France. Hamilton, writing as Pericles, endorsed the military solution, arguing that “in an emergency like the present, energy is wisdom.” Despite an authorization from Congress empowering the president to raise eighty thousand volunteers for a military campaign, Jefferson remained calm. Even if the ongoing negotiations in Paris failed, he explained—and of course they did not—outright war was both unwise and unnecessary. Time and demography were on the American side, justifying a patient policy “till we have planted such a population on the Mississippi as will be able to do their own business, without the necessity of marching men from the shores of the Atlantic 1500 or 2000 miles thither. . . .” 65

Jefferson was also extremely fortunate, in some ways ironically so. Napoleon’s decision to sell not just New Orleans but also the entire Mississippi Valley and modern-day American Midwest was prompted by the resumption of the Anglo-French war in 1802. Ambassador Livingston had earlier complained that negotiating with France was impossible: “There is no people, no Legislature, no counsellors. One man is everything. He seldom asks advice, and never hears it unasked.” This, of course, was the essence of the Napoleonic all-or-nothing style. But once Napoleon decided to cut his losses in America in return for money that would subsidize his European army, the same style worked to Jefferson’s advantage; Napoleon sold all his North American possessions for practically nothing. The early Federalist attempts to undercut Jefferson’s coup in acquiring the Louisiana Territory emphasized the impulsive character of Napoleon’s decision, which had nothing to do with Jefferson’s diplomatic maneuverings and everything to do with the shifting European context and the unpredictable Napoleonic character. 66

The deeper truth was that Louisiana was a providential gift from the insurgent slaves and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). The immediate cause of Napoleon’s decision to abandon his dreams of a French empire in America was the disastrous failure of a twenty-five-thousand-man expeditionary force headed by Charles Leclerc, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, that had been dispatched to Santo Domingo to suppress the slave insurrection there under the charismatic leadership of a black man named Toussaint L’Ouverture. Believing that a show of American support against the revolutionary government of Toussaint might win Napoleon’s favor, Jefferson had informed the French government that “nothing would be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything, and to reduce Toussaint to starvation.” As it happened, Leclerc’s troops were decimated in the savage fighting against the slave insurrectionaries before American aid could arrive, and the mosquitoes killed off the rest. The virtual extinction of the French expeditionary force, which had been scheduled to proceed to New Orleans after dispatching the blacks of Santo Domingo, was the immediate cause of Napoleon’s decision to cut his losses in the Western Hemisphere. In that sense, Jefferson was not only extraordinarily lucky but also beholden to historical forces that he had actually opposed. 67

If, then, one ever wished to construct a monument in New Orleans memorializing the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson would have to be a central figure, but he would also need to be flanked by busts of Toussaint and his fellow black insurrectionaries, plus perhaps a tribute to the deadly mosquito. And the most appropriately eloquent quotation would come from Talleyrand, that ubiquitous and famously unscrupulous French foreign minister. “I can give you no direction,” he said to Livingston, “you have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.” Talleyrand was referring to the imprecise and therefore controversial borders of French Louisiana, but his statement accurately described Jefferson’s presidential style in the immediate aftermath of the sale. He violated his most cherished political principles several times over in order to guarantee the most expansive version of the “noble bargain,” and he temporarily made himself into just the kind of monarchical chief magistrate he had warned against. “It is incumbent on those who accept great charges,” he explained afterward, “to risk themselves on great occasions,” adding that “to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written laws, would be to lose the law itself. . . .” 68

With regard to the borders question, Jefferson had acted preemptively, even before knowing whether Napoleon would sell all or part of Louisiana. He commissioned his private secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to organize an expedition comprised of “ten or twelve chosen men” to explore the trans-Mississippi region and discover the most direct water route, if any existed, to the Pacific. Since France and Spain still owned the huge tract Lewis would be exploring, Jefferson obtained authorization from Congress on the pretense that this was a scientific venture or “a literary pursuit” and that it would go no farther west than the Mississippi basin. This official explanation “satisfied curiosity,” he informed Lewis, “and masks sufficiently the real destination.” News of the Louisiana Purchase arrived just as what history has come to know as the Lewis and Clark Expedition departed Washington, so from the very start they knew themselves to be a covert reconnaissance team exploring the western borders, and beyond, of America’s newest possession. 69

Once Lewis was launched into the vast and unmapped interior of the trans-Mississippi West, Jefferson turned his attention to the Gulf Coast. Back at Monticello during the late summer of 1803 he studied old maps and determined to his own satisfaction that the southeastern border of French Louisiana was the Perdido River, near present-day Pensacola. Subsequent scrutiny of the maps also satisfied him that the southwestern border was the Rio Grande. This meant that the United States had acquired all the land west of modern Florida along the Gulf Coast through present-day Texas. France had no objections to this somewhat expansive interpretation of the treaty. As Talleyrand had indicated, France was washing its hands of the entire American business, and no one in France knew the location of the Perdido or Rio Grande from the Hudson or Potomac anyway. 70

Spain, however, took a somewhat less charitable view of the American claims, insisting that neither the Gulf Coast (called West Florida) nor any land southwest of New Orleans was included in the purchase. Jefferson instructed Monroe to leave Paris for Madrid and there make a modest effort to buy West Florida from Spain. “We scarcely expect any liberal or just settlement with Spain,” Jefferson observed, but it made little difference since “whatever may be the views of Spain, there will be no difficulty . . . in getting thro’ with our purposes.” In short, Spain being Spain, it should be regarded as a mere holding company for the United States, “and if, as soon as she is at war, we push them strongly with one hand, holding out a price in the other, we shall certainly obtain the Floridas, and all in good time.” Though it required another fifteen years, plus the military adventurism of Andrew Jackson, that is exactly what happened. 71

Finally, and most famously, there were the constitutional questions raised by the acquisition of so vast a tract, whatever the borders. Although Madison and Gallatin tried to persuade him otherwise, Jefferson remained convinced that the enlargement of the Union required an amendment to the Constitution: “The constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory . . .” he acknowledged. “The Executive in seizing the fugitive occurrence, have done an act beyond the Constitution.” As Jefferson explained to Senator John Breckinridge of Kentucky, he had been placed in the awkward position of a guardian who, presented with an unprecedented investment opportunity, had decided to act without obtaining the consent of his clients, saying in effect, “I thought it my duty to risk myself for you.” But he was now under moral obligation to request a constitutional amendment from the Congress at the same time he forwarded the treaty for ratification. 72

By the time the special session of Congress convened in October 1803, however, Jefferson had changed his mind. Reports from Paris indicated that the ever-impulsive Napoleon was having second thoughts; at the same time the Spanish were threatening to challenge the entire treaty on the ground that no one really knew the proper boundaries of Louisiana. Fearing that any delay might put the purchase at risk, Jefferson concluded that “the less that is said about my constitutional difficulty, the better; and that it will be desirable for Congress to do what is necessary in silence.” If the choice was between sustaining his strict interpretation of executive authority or losing half a continent, he chose the more pragmatic course, all the while expressing the hope that “the good sense of our country will correct the evil of [broad] construction when it shall produce ill effects.” 73

The constitutional embarrassments became worse over the succeeding months. The huge Republican majority in Congress ratified the Louisiana Purchase, as one senator put it, “in less time than required for the most trivial Indian contract,” then passed enabling legislation that delegated to the president nearly autocratic power over decisions about a provisional government in the Louisiana Territory. John Quincy Adams, one of the few senators to oppose the legislation, observed that Jefferson would possess “an assumption of implied power greater . . . than all the assumptions of implied powers in the years of the Washington and Adams administrations put together.” The old enemy of George III now wielded more arbitrary power over the residents of Louisiana than any British king had wielded over the American colonists. 74

Moreover, Jefferson chose to use that executive power to propose a blatantly nonrepublican territorial government. His outline for a proposed constitution was accompanied by a cover letter to Senator Breckinridge, swearing him to secrecy. “You must never let any person know that I have put pen to paper,” he warned, “and should destroy the original” immediately after making a copy. “I am this particular,” Jefferson explained, “because you know with what bloody teeth and fangs the federalists will attack any sentiment or principle known to come from me, and what blackguardisms and personalities they make it the occasion of vomiting forth.” 75

The chief reason for Jefferson’s apprehension was that the provisional government of the territory he proposed consisted of a governor appointed by the president and a nonelected council or senate, which Jefferson called the “Assembly of Notables.” This was precisely the kind of constitutional arrangement one might have expected from John Adams, who was more comfortable with aristocratic entrustments of authority, preferred ornate titles and might have argued that the predominantly French residents of Louisiana would appreciate a familiar political framework reminiscent of the ancien régime. But this was also precisely the kind of government Jefferson had condemned the Federalists for preferring, since it deprived the residents of any elective rights and, as Madison privately admitted, “will leave the people of that District for a while without the organization of power dictated by the Republican theory.” 76

During the debate over Jefferson’s proposal in the Senate, John Quincy Adams, undoubtedly enjoying the irony and fully aware the Republicans would vote whatever Jefferson wanted, attempted to add a provision protecting the rights of the Louisiana residents against being taxed without their consent. The following year a delegation of three agents from the territory came to Washington to present a remonstrance, protesting the violation of their rights and their de facto status as colonists. “Do the political axioms on the Atlantic become problems,” they asked rhetorically, “when transplanted to the shores of the Mississippi?” Jefferson avoided any contact with the delegation or conversation about their remonstrance. In his private correspondence he explained that “our new fellow citizens [in Louisiana] are as yet incapable of self-government as children, yet some cannot bring themselves to suspend [republican] principles for a single moment.” The suspension was only temporary, he promised, until he could be assured that the political temperature had sufficiently lowered to avoid the risk of insurrection. 77

From the long-term historical perspective, and with all the advantages of hindsight, Jefferson’s controversial decisions about the Louisiana Territory can be—most of them indeed should be—defended as wise. The decision to bypass the constitutional issue was unquestionably correct, for the practical reason that the debate over a constitutional amendment would have raised a constellation of nettlesome questions—about slavery and the slave trade, Indian lands, Spanish land claims and a host of other jurisdictional issues—that might have put the entire purchase at risk. The hard-boiled and dismissive attitude toward Spanish arguments about borders, especially in West Florida, followed naturally from a realistic assessment of Spanish impotence and American demographic destiny. Even the decision to install an essentially arbitrary and despotic provisional government over the Louisiana Territory to carry it through the early years of assimilation cannot be condemned outright, since both the sheer size of the region and the ethnic diversity of the Creole population posed governance problems that justified a firmer hand at the start. 78

The issue, then, is not whether Jefferson’s policies toward Louisiana were right or wrong but rather how he managed to implement decisions that defied in so many ways his long-standing commitment to limitations on executive power and the near-sacred character of republican principles. Two of the more conventional answers to this question do not ring true: First, Jefferson was not simply seized by power-hungry impulses once he assumed the presidency, since in a broad range of other policy areas he exhibited considerable discipline over the executive branch and habitual deference to the Congress; second, he did not suddenly discover a pragmatic streak in his political philosophy, since on issues like the debt and, later on, the embargo he clung tenaciously to Jeffersonian principles despite massive evidence that they were at odds with reality. The pragmatic interpretation fails to explain why he was capable of putting his belief in “pure republicanism” aside in this instance and not in others.

The answer would seem to be the special, indeed almost mystical place the West had in his thinking. When history presented him with an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to eliminate forever the presence on America’s western border of any major European power (Spain did not count here), it triggered his most visionary energies, which then overrode his traditional republican injunctions. For Jefferson more than any other major figure in the revolutionary generation, the West was America’s future. Securing a huge swatch of it for posterity meant prolonging for several generations the systemic release of national energy that accompanied the explosive movement of settlements across the unsettled spaces. (The Indians, like Spain, did not count in this calculus.) What Frederick Jackson Turner later called a safety valve was for Jefferson more like a self-renewing engine that drove the American republic forward. The West was the place where his agrarian idyll could be regularly rediscovered, thereby postponing into the indefinite future the crowded conditions and political congestions of European society. Jefferson liked to think of the West in much the same way that some modern optimists think of technology, as almost endlessly renewable and boundlessly prolific. It was the secret weapon that made the American experiment in republicanism immune to the national aging process, at least for the remainder of the century. It was America’s fountain of youth. 79

As a result, any issue involving the fate of the American West possessed the potential to trump his other political convictions. Jefferson’s visionary sense of what the West meant for America also made him virtually immune to the doubts, prevalent among Federalists and even shared by some of his Republican colleagues, about the country’s capacity to assimilate the vast Louisiana Territory. After all, when such a massive area had come under British control after the French and Indian War in 1763, it had led directly to political problems that eventually resulted in the American Revolution and the dissolution of the British Empire in America. While easterners, especially New England Federalists, worried that their influence would erode as more western states entered the Union, the predominant fear was fragmentation, that the expanded version of the United States would split up into several regional units in the European mode. Jefferson’s reaction to such fear was almost cavalierly dismissive: “Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this.” 80

This was a remarkable statement since it conveyed an almost ostentatious nonchalance toward the preservation of national union, the dominant political issue of the next half century. Jefferson did not worry about the integration of the West into the United States because he thought about the process more dynamically and as part of a larger transformation. From his perspective, the United States was not just integrating the West into the Union; the West was actually integrating the older United States into a newer and ever-changing version of America. In spirit, if not in fact, Jefferson was a westerner, captivated by the apparently endless horizons and the exciting unknowns that Meriwether Lewis might bring back to nourish the present with news of the future. It also helped that the vast majority of westerners were likely to prove staunch Republicans.


IF THE WEST was that future place where the creative juices of the expanding American republic flowed most freely, then New England was the past, where, as Jefferson saw it, Federalism stewed in its own poisonous juices while adjusting to its abiding irrelevancy. Unfortunately for Jefferson, whose impressive intellectual range did not extend to an appreciation of the compressed energies of New England Puritanism, his declaration of war to the death against the “incurables” of Federalism alienated some of the most formidable figures among the best-educated population in the country. Jefferson was an excellent hater and a skillful polemicist, but he more than met his match in the Federalist press and pulpit, where the expiring condition of Federalism as a viable political movement only intensified the desperation of its defenders. Later in life, after Jefferson and Adams had reconciled and resumed their correspondence, they kept up a running joke about which one could assemble the larger volume of vindictive criticism directed at him during his presidency. This was one area of playful competition where Jefferson was the indisputable winner. The assaults on his character were unparalleled in the history of the early republic. 81

That does not mean they were unprecedented. During the presidential campaign of 1800 Adams had been subjected to several attempts at character assassination, the chief blow coming from Hamilton, who published a lengthy indictment of the president’s explosive personality. The gist of the charge was that Adams was mentally deranged and fully capable of destroying the infant American republic during one of his spasms of lunacy. Even the godlike Washington had become a target of abuse during his second term, when he was accused of senility as well as pro-Hamilton favoritism that derived from the groundless but sensational allegation that Hamilton was secretly his illegitimate son. Hamilton himself was charged with a variety of indiscretions, the most scandalous being that his sexual affair with a married woman exposed him to blackmail by the woman’s husband, who demanded political favors for his silence. Ever the master of audacity, Hamilton took out newspaper space to announce that the charges of infidelity were sadly true but that, despite this personal failure, his public virtue as a government official had never been compromised. The line of demarcation that he attempted to draw between his private life and his public integrity was precisely the line that newspaper editors and political pundits refused to recognize. By the time Jefferson ascended to the presidency, then, the private lives of public figures were clearly regarded as fair game by the press, and Jefferson, who had been active behind the scenes in paying off hired character assassins in the party wars of the 1790s, knew perfectly well that he could expect the same treatment. “They say we lied them out of power,” he observed in reference to the Federalists, “and openly avow they will do the same by us.” 82

The Federalist barrage started right away, though the earliest shots tended to be aimed to wound rather than kill, poking fun at such targets as the distinctive Jeffersonian literary style, with its fondness for exalted phrasings and frequent alliterations. “Man is, by nature, a mighty megalonyx,” wrote one Federalist in mock imitation of the Declaration of Independence, “produced purposely, in a philosophical view, to prowl, pillage, propagate, and putrify.” The publication of five new editions of Notes on Virginia in 1801, presumably an effort by publishers to cash in on Jefferson’s new visibility as president, offered Federalist editors a broad range of easy targets. For some reason they tended to fasten upon Jefferson’s claim that huge, hairy prehistoric beasts called mammoths still lived on in the unexplored American West, one of those pre-Darwinian ideas Jefferson found attractive because it supported his anti-Buffon contention that the American environment produced large animals. Federalist wits ridiculed his “mammoth theory” over and over again, and the motif became a centerpiece of opposition sarcasm toward Jefferson’s pretensions as a scientist. In the same quasi-playful mode, Jefferson’s defenders countered the mammoth onslaught by presenting him with a “mammoth cheese” weighing 1,235 pounds, reputedly from the milk of nine hundred cows, “not one of them a federalist.” 83

The truly serious assaults on his character first came on the religious front. In his Notes on Virginia Jefferson had presented an argument for religious freedom that concluded with a clever comment on his own open-mindedness: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The Federalist clergy of New England seized on this remark as conclusive evidence that Jefferson was some combination of pagan, infidel, atheist and heretic. Editorials throughout New England played on the theme that the most Christian country in the world was now headed by a man who denied the central tenets of Christianity. While Jefferson does not appear to have been personally hurt by the charge, he recognized the political damage it was doing to his party; so he composed a brief essay on the merits of Jesus as a role model, which was actually based on a similar essay by Joseph Priestley, the English deist, that compared Jesus and Socrates as splendid embodiments of humanistic values. Jefferson saw to it that his essay was leaked to Republican friends in order to counter what he called “the anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.” Yes, he explained to Benjamin Rush, he did reject “the corruptions of Christianity,” but not “the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.” 84

Such distinctions were wasted of course on his Federalist critics, who were looking for ammunition rather than truth. Jefferson provided them with more than they could have hoped for when, only two weeks after his inauguration, he offered passage on a government ship to Tom Paine, who was attempting to return to America from France after barely escaping the guillotine. Jefferson’s letter to Paine was picked up by the American press from the Paris papers, where Paine himself had probably planted it to publicize the honor of Jefferson’s testimonial. “I am in hopes,” Jefferson wrote to Paine, “you will find us returned generally to sentiments worthy of former times. In these it will be your glory to have steadily laboured and with as much effect as any man living. That you may long live to continue your useful labours and reap reward in the thankfulness of nations is my sincere prayer. Accept assurance of my high esteem and effectionate attachment.” 85

From Jefferson’s perspective Tom Paine was an authentic American hero, a charter member of “the band of brothers” that had made the American Revolution happen and had then carried “the spirit of ’76” to France, where it had produced more collateral damage than either man had anticipated, true enough, but where the future would surely recover the original ethos. Unfortunately for Jefferson, Paine’s reputation in America had not aged well. When he landed in Baltimore, the local newspaper caught the mood by observing sarcastically that “our pious President thought it expedient to dispatch a frigate for the accommodation of this loathsome reptile.” Paine’s chief offense was not that he was a practicing alcoholic with the social graces of a derelict, though that was true, but rather that he had written The Age of Reason, which was as full-throated an attack on Christianity as Common Sense had been on monarchy. By publicly associating with Paine, Jefferson exposed himself to the full-broadside blasts of the Federalist press as an “arch infidel,” “a defiler of Christian virtue” and “a companion of the most vile, corrupt, obnoxious sinner of the century.” All Americans who took Christianity seriously now had to make a choice, said one editor, between “renouncing their savior, or their president. . . .” The attacks were relentless and unequaled in the early history of the young nation for their polemical intensity. As Henry Adams put it, if Jefferson had decided to congratulate Napoleon for his despotic seizure of power in France, “he could not have excited in the minds of the New England Calvinists so deep a sense of disgust by seeming to identify himself with Paine.” It was, in a real sense, one of Jefferson’s finer moments, since he was fully aware of Paine’s notoriety but stuck by him to the end, even inviting him to live and dine at the presidential mansion for several weeks. Federalist editors had a field day describing “the two Toms” walking arm in arm, allegedly comparing notes on the ideal way to promote atheism or their past successes in despoiling Christian virgins. 86

“The circle of our President’s felicities is greatly enlarged,” observed the editor of the Federalist Port Folio, “by the indulgence of Sally the sable, and the auspicious arrival of Tom Paine the pious.” The reference to “Sally the sable” was a casual insertion of the most sensational accusation made against Jefferson, a charge of sexual (and in its own day racial) impropriety. Virtually every Federalist newspaper in the country picked up the story, which first appeared in the Richmond Recorder in September 1802. “It is well known,” the story began, “that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years past has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is SALLY. . . . The name of her eldest son is TOM. His features are said to bear a striking, although sable resemblance to those of the President himself.” For several months the Federalist press printed editorials disclaiming knowledge as to whether the allegations were true, but then proceeding to provide readers with colorful variations on the provocative gossip, some even set to verse:

Of all the damsels on the green

On mountain or in valley

A lass so luscious ne’er was seen

As Monticellan Sally.

Editorials referred to “Dusky Sally,” “Black Sal,” the “African Venus” and the “mahogoney colored charmer.” The Boston press was especially interested in how the fifty-nine-year-old president managed to make love with a much younger (Sally was thirty-one or thirty-two) woman. The answer was her African features:

Thick pouting lips! how sweet their grace!

When passion fires to kiss them!

Wide spreading over half the face,

Impossible to miss them.

And so on. 87

It was a publicist’s dream at the time because it gave the Federalists, who were growing more desperate with each Republican victory in the ongoing state elections, the kind of small but sharp-edged piece of scandal that cut across all party or policy disagreements and straight into the core question of Jefferson’s character. It has been a publicist’s dream ever since, because the charges could not until recently be conclusively proved or disproved and because advocates on each side of the debate possessed just enough evidence at their disposal to block a comfortable verdict for the opposition. (See “A Note on the Sally Hemings Scandal” at the end, for a concise summary of the evidence.) John Adams had one of the shrewdest reactions to the charges when they first surfaced. Adams was still in his anti-Jefferson phase, so his response was not conditioned by their former friendship. As a victim of similarly venomous vendettas Adams claimed to empathize with Jefferson. On the other hand, the allegations were “a natural and almost inevitable consequence of a foul contagion in the human character, Negro Slavery.” Jefferson was not only contaminated by that contagion, but also not above suspicion because “there was not a planter in Virginia,” Adams observed, “who could not reckon among his slaves a number of his children.” The charge of sexual impropriety therefore placed “a blot on his Character” that was not completely implausible. It possessed a certain moral truth because it raised to relief the inherently immoral condition in which all slaveowners, Jefferson included, lived their lives. 88

What Adams did not say for the record, but almost surely thought, was that there was an analogous sense of poetic justice about the allegations, because they originated with a former Republican scandalmonger named James Callender, whose previous career had been spent vilifying Jefferson’s opponents, Adams among them, in much the same truth-be-damned fashion and with Jefferson’s support and approval. Callender had been the reporter to break the story of Hamilton’s shady escapades in 1797 and the following year had slandered Adams as “the corrupt and despotic monarch of Braintree” in a pamphlet entitled The Prospect Before Us. Jefferson had endorsed and helped pay for Prospect, but Callender, whose only consistency was a perverse flair for treachery, turned against him when Jefferson refused to reward his labors with the postmaster’s job in Richmond. According to one Federalist account, probably apocryphal, Callender lingered outside the presidential mansion for several days hoping for a personal interview. When he spotted Jefferson at an upstairs window, he shouted out his threat: “Sir, you know that by lying I made you President, and I’ll be d———d if I do not unmake you by telling the truth.” Jefferson denounced Callender as “a lying renegade from Republicanism,” then had Monroe, still governor of Virginia at the time, release statements denying that Jefferson had ever befriended or salaried Callender or had anything to do with his earlier diatribes against Adams. But Callender had saved his copies of Jefferson’s incriminating letters and immediately distributed them to the Federalist press. “I thank you for the proof-sheets you enclosed me,” Jefferson had written to Callender in reference to Prospect; “such papers cannot fail to produce the best effect.” 89

The duplicity that was exposed in his dealings with Callender was wholly in character for Jefferson. It was the Freneau deception and the Mazzei mischief all over again, with Jefferson denying to himself and then to the world his complicity in behind-the-scenes political skullduggery, then being genuinely surprised when the truth came out. Now, with the publication of his ill-considered correspondence with Callender, he was caught in a lie, which was bad enough, but the lie also enhanced the credibility of Callender’s other charges about more titillating behind-the-scenes escapades with Sally Hemings.

There was one additional reason that Callender’s charges disturbed Jefferson’s quite remarkable powers of deception and denial. Namely, they were essentially true. While we cannot know with any degree of certainty what the emotional character of Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings may have been, we can be reasonably sure that it was long-standing, most probably dating from his last two years in Paris. It was also most probably consensual, at least to the extent that any inherently unequal relationship between master and slave can permit mutual consent. It clearly satisfied basic biological needs that Jefferson was unable or unwilling to deny himself, since the liaison continued for several years after the Callender exposé.

Mostly, however, it was covert, secret in several senses of the term. Not a trace of evidence about the relationship ever found its way into Jefferson’s vast personal correspondence. (So adept at covering his tracks was Jefferson that it required nearly two centuries and the most advanced genetic detective work of modern science to establish the case for his paternity of Sally’s children.) Moreover, within the interior world of Monticello, which Jefferson always described in his most heartfelt fashion as an idyllic haven of domestic serenity, there must have been a veritable labyrinth of sealed-off physical and psychological spaces.

Martha Jefferson Randolph, his eldest daughter, lived with her growing brood of children at Monticello throughout the duration of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. How she could have avoided knowing the truth strains even our most sophisticated understanding of the human capacity for denial. But Martha went to her grave insisting the Callender accusations were untrue, defending her father’s reputation, somehow convincing herself in the process of persuading others. And then there was Jefferson himself, dutifully recording the names of Sally’s children in his Farm Book as slaves, treating them as such while they grew up, as if there were no connection between them and him, indeed as if the man who fathered them and the man who owned them were different people.

At the public level the consequences of the Callender accusations did not linger so poignantly, while the scar on Jefferson’s reputation never went away, and the New England Federalists did their best to keep the accusations alive in the public press, even going so far as to put the matter of Jefferson’s character on the official agenda of the Massachusetts legislature, the political damage to his presidency proved less serious than the lingering stigma that attached itself to his image with posterity. The damage control teams in the Republican press helped the cause, Jefferson’s posture of total silence on the matter prevented any prolonged debate from feeding on itself and, most significant, the steady string of Republican successes—the debt was being retired, taxes were being eliminated, the economy was humming along nicely, half a continent was peacefully acquired—simply crowded out the bad news. At the height of the Sally stories, John Quincy Adams suggested that the Federalists were forced to resort to such scandalmongering because their political program had been “completely and irrevocably, abandoned and rejected by the popular voice.” Whatever alarm Jefferson’s supporters felt, he observed, would prove short-lived. “What they take for breakers,” Adams noted, “are mere clouds of unsubstantiated vapour.” 90 This became Jefferson’s public position as well. The frantic behavior of the Federalist press was symptomatic of its utter desperation, he insisted, as its cause slid beneath the surface of American politics forever. The Federalists were simply clutching at dirt as they went under.

But the experience took its toll on Jefferson’s view of the American press. His eloquent statement in the Inaugural Address—“let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it”—implied that complete freedom of the press was both inviolable and self-correcting. Now he was not so sure. “Our newspapers, for the most part, present only the charicatures of disaffected minds,” he concluded in 1803, and what he called “the abuses of the freedom of the press” had generated a scatological political culture “never before known or borne by any civilized nation.” Jefferson actually had a point, since his presidency coincided with an exponential increase in the sheer number of American newspapers, as well as the abiding sense—left over from the 1790s—that there were no official or unofficial rules of conduct governing what would or should be printed. 91

Jefferson wanted the press to be free, but he had also presumed that a free press would maintain some measure of respect for the truth. The free-for-all mentality and ricochet style of the multiplying newspapers allowed him to persuade himself that the very principle of freedom of the press was being destroyed by its own excesses. “This is a dangerous state of things,” he explained to Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania, “and the press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible.” He did not have anything so heavy-handed as the Sedition Act in mind. Instead he suggested that Republican governors in selected states target the most offensive Federalist editors for libel: “And I have therefore long thought,” he apprised McKean, “that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution [i.e., the Federalist approach with the Sedition Act], but a selected one.” Governors McKean in Pennsylvania and De Witt Clinton in New York took the suggestion as a command to release their lawyers on the most recalcitrant Federalist editors. As Jefferson saw it, he was not violating a principle so much as rescuing it from its own abusive and self-destructive tendencies. But it was clearly at least a half step backward from his earlier incantations to unbridled freedom of speech. 92


THE SAME LINE in his mind that separated salvageable Federalists from “incurables,” good Indians from bad, also separated responsible journalists from loathsome liars. Until that line was crossed, he could be the essence of tolerant amiability. On the other side of the line, however, there could be no mercy, since the moral issues at stake were not susceptible to negotiation or compromise. Within this powerful moralistic scheme, one group was permanently planted on the far side of the Jeffersonian divide and in fact served as the most visible symbol of the institutionalized evil that still managed to defy the “pure republicanism” Jefferson wished to restore. These were the judges of the federal courts, especially the so-called midnight judges Adams had appointed during his lame-duck phase. Soon after Jefferson named Levi Lincoln as his attorney general, he told him that “the removal of the excrescences from the judiciary is the universal demand.” William Branch Giles, his Virginian protégé who was elected to the Senate in the Republican avalanche of 1800, reminded Jefferson that “the revolution is incomplete, so long as that strong fortress is in possession of the enemy.” Since the Jeffersonian mentality actually required discernible enemies in order to unlock its dynamic energies, one could argue that Adams had done him a backhanded favor by his judicial legacy. But if the federal judiciary was a convenient target that mobilized all the Jeffersonian firepower, it was also, as the editor of the National Intelligencer put it, “the Gibraltar” of Federalism, sitting squarely and impregnably in the midst of Republican waters. Jefferson spent much of his first term circling this Federalist fortress, sending his most devoted soldiers, like Giles, against it, but never breaching its formidable defenses. 93

It is important to distinguish between Jefferson’s animosity toward the midnight judges as political appointments and his more general hostility toward the federal judiciary as an institution. In 1804, as part of an unsuccessful effort to resume friendly relations with John and Abigail Adams, he explained to her that “the one act of Mr. Adams’ life” that had genuinely upset him and struck him “as personally unkind” was the appointment of Federalists to the federal courts. “They were among my most ardent political enemies,” he complained, “and from whom no faithful cooperation could ever be expected. . . . It seemed but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own Choice.” The most offensive appointment, of course, was John Marshall’s selection as chief justice, which was especially loathsome for several reasons: first, because it was a lifetime appointment, second, because it placed a Federalist atop the entire national judiciary system and third, because Marshall himself was, in his own different way, more formidable an adversary than Hamilton. Marshall was that rarest of creatures, a Federalist with a Jeffersonian style. He was the one man whom Jefferson did not believe he could outduel in behind-the-scenes political fighting: “When conversing with Marshall,” he confessed, “I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good, no matter how remote from the conclusion he seeks to establish, you are gone. So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why if he were to ask me if it were daylight or not, I’d reply, ‘Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.’ ” 94

Beyond the personal hatred and the understandable bitterness at being saddled with the Adams appointments lay Jefferson’s more tortured sense of hostility toward the entire federal judicial system per se. Part of the problem with recovering his mentality in this area is that it does not fit neatly into the logical and legal categories that constitutional scholars, who have done the best work on the general subject, have tended to bring with them. Questions about federal versus state jurisdiction, for example, or the highly controversial question about judicial review did not engage his full attention except as specific episodes in a larger political drama about the true meaning of the American Revolution. And the simple truth was that the original American revolutionaries had not envisioned a national judiciary at all. At times Jefferson seemed to believe that to be true to the original “spirit of ’76” all federal courts should be abolished completely and the judicial decisions left to the states. But such thoughts did not emerge out of specific legal arguments so much as a grander sense of “sweeping away” the institutional residue that had built up since the Revolution.

Similarly, Jefferson did not have a consistent or cogently constructed position on the ultimate questions of constitutional sovereignty. In his more radical moments he seemed to believe that all fundamental constitutional questions should be settled by a popular referendum, since the doctrine of popular sovereignty empowered only the people at large to render such judgments. This was obviously burdensome, if not completely impractical, but it drew inspiration from the same visionary impulse that welcomed a “sweeping away” of all laws every generation. In his first Annual Message to Congress he proposed a more moderate idea that each branch of the federal government was sovereign and therefore empowered to interpret the Constitution for itself. Gallatin and Madison, recognizing the confusion inherent in such a position, persuaded him to delete the paragraph. 95

To be fair, Jefferson was hardly alone in grappling unsuccessfully with the proper role of the federal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. The judicial institutions were still congealing as integral parts of the national government. Nor had there been any clear consensus at the Constitutional Convention about the role of the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning. Hamilton had made the clearest case on behalf of the principle of judicial review in Federalist 78, but it was part of the genius of the constitutional settlement of 1788 to leave such controversial questions blurry and unresolved. In that sense Jefferson’s confusion accurately mirrored the crisscrossing currents of constitutional opinion prevalent at the time. 96

But Jefferson’s mind preferred to operate at a higher altitude, where the details and technicalities disappeared from sight and the larger moral patterns assumed a clear shape. From that perspective, he saw the federal judiciary and its capstone in the Supreme Court as a source of unmitigated danger. If the West for Jefferson was the dynamic engine of expansion and national liberation that continually vitalized the American republic with its energy, the federal judiciary was the engine of centralization and consolidation that sucked the energies of the new nation into a stifling sinkhole. The fact that all the crucial offices were filled with Federalists was obviously bad enough, but the federal judiciary itself embodied counterrevolutionary tendencies fundamentally at odds with the deepest impulses of “pure republicanism” as Jefferson understood it. Jefferson’s views were distinctive and radical on this score. Both Adams and Madison recognized the need for a judicial counterpoise to majority rule. The fact that federal judges served for life and were least accountable to popular opinion was, as they saw it, an important asset, for such requirements helped balance the democratic excesses of the more directly elected branches of government. Jefferson, however, saw no need for such balancing mechanisms. For him, the American Revolution was about release, not restraint. In addition to being a Federalist Gibraltar occupied by his most devoted enemies, then, the national judiciary was a permanent brake placed on the wheels of the ongoing American Revolution. 97

The battle over the judiciary took the form of three distinct skirmishes. The first, in the winter of 1802, occurred in the Congress, where the Republicans used their majority to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801. Jefferson had launched the attack in his first Annual Message. “The judiciary system . . . and especially that portion of it recently erected,” he declared, “will of course present itself to the contemplation of Congress.” He was referring specifically to the Judiciary Act of 1801, which was offensive to Republicans for several reasons: It was a partisan measure passed by the lame-duck Congress in February, when the Federalists were scrambling to shore up their control over the court system before Jefferson took office; it established a separate circuit court with sixteen new judges, essentially creating a new layer of federal jurisdiction between the Supreme Court and the district courts; and most of the midnight judges appointed by Adams filled these new circuit court posts. Although Jefferson was active in mobilizing the Republican forces behind the scenes, he made a point of maintaining a distance from the congressional debates, which were heated, and attempted to present his opposition to the circuit courts in the most innocuous terms, claiming that there were simply not enough cases to justify the new layer of federal judges. Rather than raise the controversial constitutional or ideological issues about the entire judicial system, he preferred to cast the issues in terms of republican austerity. Given the Republican dominance in the Congress, victory was a foregone conclusion. Gallatin had already prepared the budget estimates for 1802 on the presumption that the circuit court judges would be eliminated. 98

The second skirmish occurred in 1803 in the unfriendly arena of the Supreme Court, where Marshall’s influence and intellectual agility worked its customary magic to produce an embarrassing defeat for Jefferson. The matter at issue was unquestionably trivial: the appointment of William Marbury to a low-level post as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. The subsequent historical significance of Marshall’s decision was just as unquestionably massive; it became the landmark precedent for the principle of judicial review and for the Supreme Court’s sovereign right to interpret the meaning of the Constitution. But in the historical context of the time Marshall’s celebrated opinion in Marbury v. Madison occupied an inherently middle ground, neither trivial nor dramatically principled. It provided the occasion for Marshall to lecture Jefferson for failing to uphold the law by refusing to appoint Marbury. The message was clear to all the interested parties of the day: The Republican assault on the federal judiciary may have been successful at eliminating the circuit courts, but the Supreme Court was off-limits. The Federalist fortress on Gibraltar could fire back. 99

The legal genius of Marshall’s opinion, what Jefferson described as “sophistry” and later as Marshall’s “twistifications,” derived from the chief justice’s rearrangement of the questions presented to the Court, which allowed him to rule against Marbury’s petition only after lecturing the president and ruling on the constitutionality of an act of Congress, the Judiciary Act of 1789. If he had taken up the questions in the order in which they were presented, there would have been no need to address the broader issues. The political genius of Marshall’s opinion was double-barreled: He enhanced the power of the Supreme Court by denying its jurisdiction, and he patronized the president while deciding the case in his favor. It was vintage Marshall at his most maddeningly covert. It also revealed that Marshall, much like Jefferson, preferred to avoid a direct confrontation on the abiding role of the federal judiciary, since he had masked his assertion of judicial review under the veil of impotence and had ruled that Jefferson, though in violation of the law, did not need to appoint Marbury after all. Having sallied forth from his fortress, Marshall had returned quietly to the safety of Gibraltar.

The third skirmish came at the end of Jefferson’s first term, when the Republicans in Congress, at the president’s instigation, unsuccessfully attempted to impeach Justice Samuel Chase. Next to Marshall, Chase was the most formidable Federalist presence on the Supreme Court, a white-maned giant who preferred to play the role of Jehovah with all Jeffersonians who had the misfortune to land in his courtroom. He had attracted sharp criticism for his strenuous support of the Sedition Act, most especially (and ironically for Jefferson himself) because of his intemperate conduct in dispatching James Callender to a Richmond jail during Callender’s anti-Federalist phase. If Marshall was the master of stealth and guerrilla tactics, Chase preferred to lead cavalry assaults. In May 1803, after reading about Chase’s inflammatory charge to a Baltimore jury, Jefferson wrote to a Republican leader in the House: “Might this seditious and official attack on the principles of our Constitution . . . go unpunished? And to whom so pointedly as yourself will the public look for the necessary measures. I ask these questions for your consideration. For myself, it is better that I should not interfere.” This was the equivalent of a command to his Republican lieutenants in Congress to launch impeachment proceedings against Chase. 100

But impeachment, as Jefferson readily acknowledged, was a clumsy instrument, requiring as it did evidence of “treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors.” Though the Republicans attempted to wrap themselves in the trappings of legality, the trial in the Senate had a distinctly partisan flavor that struck several observers as a Republican version of the Sedition Act. Jefferson followed the proceedings closely; he kept a running tabulation of the votes on each count for conviction but maintained official silence. Chase was eventually acquitted on all the charges. His Federalist defenders enjoyed the advantage of the narrow requirements imposed by the Constitution for removing judges; they could plausibly describe Chase as a political target and victim; and they particularly relished the opportunity to remind Jefferson that the principle of an independent judiciary had been a rallying cry in 1776 as well as one of the sacred truths that Jefferson had once accused George III of violating. 101

Over the subsequent course of American history several presidents also attempted to take on the Supreme Court, and all came away with a similar sense of frustration as Jefferson. But these latter-day challenges to the judicial branch all occurred after the Supreme Court had achieved quasi-sacred status as the one American political institution that was presumed to receive its instructions directly from God rather than from the electorate. Jefferson’s campaign against the judiciary predated the public enshrinement of federal courts, most especially the Supreme Court, as the designated Olympian element in the government. Indeed Jefferson’s campaign was driven by the conviction that, as he put it, “independence of the will of the nation is a solecism, at least in a republican government. . . .” What appears almost sacrilegious to us was then still in the process of carving out its place in American political theology. 102

For Jefferson the religious wellspring that inspired his vision of the sacred remained the “pure republicanism” of the American Revolution. The federal judiciary had no prominent place in that vision, indeed no place at all, and Jefferson went to his grave believing that Marshall and his colleagues on the Supreme Court were an evil conclave, a gang of “sappers and miners” sabotaging the republican experiment from within. But if his ideological convictions were clear and unwavering, his reluctance to declare unlimited war on the federal judiciary stands out as the defining feature of the conflict. Perhaps at some level he recognized that a national government required some kind of national system of laws, that those moderate Republicans who regarded the Constitution and the constitutional settlement of 1787–88 as the sacred corollary to the revolutionary magic of 1776 had at least half a point. If so, he never acknowledged this concession publicly or privately. (It might have been one of those silent occasions when Madison’s invisible influence proved decisive.) Or perhaps Hamilton was right after all: that Jefferson’s aversion to conflict dictated a policy of caution for purely personal reasons, in spite of his moral certainty that the federal judiciary was a blot on the face of “pure republicanism.” Or perhaps his own belief in the inherent limitations that republicanism imposed on the executive branch—the unimperial presidency—made more decisive action impossible for him. One cannot be sure of the right answer here, or even be sure that Jefferson himself knew what it was, if it existed at all. For it was in this context, after all, that Henry Adams composed his most arresting portrait of Jefferson’s elusive character: “Almost every other American statesman might be described in a parenthesis,” Adams observed. “A few broad strokes of the brush would paint the portraits of all the early Presidents with this exception . . . , but Jefferson could be painted only touch by touch, with a fine pencil, and the perfection of the likeness depended upon the shifting and uncertain flicker of its semi-transcendent shadows.” 103


AT SOME POINT during the year before his elevation to the presidency Jefferson wrote an uncharacteristically personal note to himself under the title “Memorandum of Services.” “I have sometimes asked myself whether my country is the better for my having lived at all,” he mused to himself. “I have been the instrument of doing the following things; but they would have been done by others; some of them, perhaps, a little better.” He then went on to list a curious version of his public accomplishments, placing the dredging of the Rivanna River alongside the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, importing olive plants from France beside the efforts to end the slave trade. An updated version of the list composed at the end of his first term as president would surely have added appreciably to his achievements. The two presidential accomplishments that gave him the most satisfaction were the Louisiana Purchase and the retirement of a substantial portion of the national debt. Although pockets of Federalism held out in parts of New England, as a viable national party the Federalists were finished. Except for the ongoing naval action against the Barbary pirates, a limited affair, America was at peace with the world. And that symbol of government’s unwelcome reach into private lives, the tax collector, had been banished, along with the circuit court judges, much of the army and navy, a boatload of civil servants and several tribes of recalcitrant Indians. He had no way of knowing it, of course, but Jefferson’s first term was to go down as one of the two or three most uniformly successful in American presidential history in achieving its stated objectives. 104

In more personal terms, the Federalist attacks on his character had taken an emotional toll. But he claimed that it was precisely “the unfounded calumnies of the federal party” that persuaded him to run for a second term. He had always presumed, he explained to Elbridge Gerry, that he would retire after four years, but the lingering presence of Federalist propaganda in the press, though like letters from the dead, needed to be silenced completely. “They force my continuance,” he claimed. “If I can keep the vessel of state as steadily on her course another four years, my earthly purposes will be accomplished, and I shall be free to enjoy”—then the familiar refrain—“my family, my farm, and my books.” His reelection, if he chose to run, was a foregone conclusion. 105

But something had gone out of him even as he decided to prolong his presidency. The burdens of the office undoubtedly accumulated with time. The Federalist assaults on his personal honor also inflicted wounds that never completely healed. His physical constitution, though still remarkably robust for a sixty-one-year-old man, was now bedeviled by recurrent bouts of diarrhea that periodically sapped him of energy. The most devastating blow, however, came in April 1804, when Maria died from complications in childbirth, much as her mother had done. “Others may lose of their abundance,” he wrote to John Page, his lifelong soul mate, “but I of my want, have lost even the half of all I had.” His prospects, he believed, “now hang on the slender thread of a single life.” This was Martha, the only one left to populate the family circle from the original Jefferson dream, which he now described as “fearfully blighted.” He was never really the same after Maria’s death, less exuberant and more fatalistic, and history was already preparing a series of unpleasant surprises on the international scene that were destined to make his second term as president a headlong fall from grace. 106


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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