President #3, C-SPAN Historians ranking #7
Embargo! O grab me!
In this biography of the Third President, UCLA professor Joyce Appleby begins the seventh chapter of the book with this sentence: “Americans’ most pressing history assignment is coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson.”
And speaking as someone who was taught by Professor Appleby at UCLA, this woman can give out tough assignments. (Do you want to read a good paper on the importance of mob action prior to the American Revolution? If so, don’t read the one I wrote for her class.)
Thomas Jefferson is someone that nearly everyone would like to be. For starters, he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He also designed his own home, Monticello, one of the nation’s architectural jewels (and for many years on the back of the nickel.) He was an inventor. He was an author. He was an intellectual. He was a civil libertarian. And he was tall (reportedly 6’3″, making him something of a Yao Ming of that era.)
But, there is also the Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves. The Thomas Jefferson who quite likely fathered a child or children from one of his slaves, and still kept them as slaves. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in liberty for all, as long as you were a white male. There is the Thomas Jefferson who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution, unless it got in the way of something he really wanted to do. There is the Thomas Jefferson who was not afraid to get revenge on his political enemies.
Thomas Jefferson was a definitely a man of his time. But is he a man for our time? Appleby tries to make the case for Jefferson. Her task is difficult because her book concentrates almost exclusively on the eight years Jefferson served as President, which were not his best years. However, this is a presidential biography series, so it’s those eight years we have to look at.
Jefferson had been one of the major political figures in the U.S. since 1776 because of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Later, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, although he was accused of cowardice after fleeing into the Virginia hills in the face of oncoming British troops.
In 1782, Jefferson’s wife, Martha, passed away, likely of complications from the numerous pregnancies (seven) she went through in their 10 years of marriage. Martha gave her husband two daughters before she passed away. Thomas Jefferson would destroy all his correspondence with his wife, which is about all the writings of his that he didn’t save. Jefferson’s complete papers still have not been completely published and may not be for another 40-50 years.
After the Revolutionary War ended, Jefferson served for a time in the Continental Congress, where he helped to draft the Northwest Ordinance, one of the few accomplishments of the pre-Constitution version of Congress. In 1784, Jefferson was sent to Paris as a U.S. representative, serving alongside John Adams for a period.
While Jefferson was in Europe, the United States adopted the Constitution. While Jefferson was returning home in 1789, George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of State.
Soon after joining the new government, Jefferson realized that Washington’s ear and mind belonged to Alexander Hamilton, a man whom Jefferson disagreed with. A government that was not supposed to have parties or factions quickly devolved into one with two of them: Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans. The battle between the two men would be over the nature of American politics. Would it be a government run by an aristocracy or a government dominated by “the common man.”
The party structure first showed up in the election of 1796, which John Adams won by just three electoral votes over Jefferson. Under the terms of the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became Vice President as the second place finisher.
The political climate grew even more rancorous during the Adams administration. Tensions from the French Revolution spilled over to the United States. Jefferson and his supporters backed France, while Adams and the Federalists feared the radical ideas of the French government.
By 1800, the political tide of the country had shifted just enough to give Jefferson the presidency. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the most electoral votes with 73 and Adams finished in third place with 68.
With a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives had to choose between Jefferson and Burr. However, the House was still controlled by Federalists. And they were in no hurry to choose a President. It took five days and 35 ballots before the deadlock was broken. Hamilton ended up being the kingmaker. While Hamilton despised Jefferson, he despised Burr twice as much.
Jefferson was upset that Burr, whom he had considered an ally, did not concede the Presidency to him. For the rest of his political career, Burr was shut out by Jefferson. Burr would eventually end up killing Hamilton in a duel. Although, he avoided prosecution for that crime. Also, Burr would be tried for treason in 1807 for trying to foment a separatist rebellion in the West. However, Burr was acquitted.
In his Inaugural Address in 1801, Jefferson struck a conciliatory tone by stating, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” The spirit of bipartisan cooperation lasted about as long as the speech. As soon as he got to work, Jefferson appointed a new Cabinet, and also began to replace Federalists who held various government jobs through the country.
Jefferson also had one Federalist judge impeached, and then took aim on a Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase, for another impeachment. While the first judge was often drunk and possibly insane, Chase had committed no crime bigger than being obnoxious.
Chase’s impeachment trial ended with the Republicans failing to get the necessary 2/3 majority to remove Chase from the bench. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of John Marshall, would remain as the last Federalist bastion in American government.
Appleby writes that Jefferson had a hard time finding people to serve in government. Most people with an inclination toward serving in government at the time were Federalists. Jefferson’s supporters didn’t want to leave their current ways of life to work in Washington. Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, suggested that Jefferson appoint women to some of the offices. Jefferson nixed that idea, as his world view didn’t include women working in government. (Or voting. Or doing much of anything other than having children. The only state where women could vote in Jefferson’s time was New Jersey, and that was only for single, white women who owned property. That law was repealed in 1807.)
Not long after taking office, Jefferson lucked into his greatest accomplishment as President: the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson had found out that Napoleon had reacquired the Louisiana Territory for France from Spain in a secret treaty. He dispatched ministers to France to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans. Napoleon counteroffered with the whole territory, which proved to be difficult to govern. Jefferson, who at first was worried that there was no provision in the Constitution for a President to acquire new territory, decided that he could live with the idea of doubling the size of the country. Ultimately, Jefferson decided the Louisiana Purchase was a “treaty revision.”
Jefferson was incredibly popular during his first term. He was sent a 1,235 pound wheel of cheese in his honor. At the time, it was the biggest wheel of cheese ever made. (Subsequent wheels of cheese have been bigger.)
The clergy feared Jefferson because they assumed he would completely remove religion from public life in the United States. Jefferson was asked to speak to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1802 or, alternatively, to declare a national day of fasting. Jefferson’s reply was famous (emphasis mine and if you count the ampersands as words, the first sentence has 83 words in it):
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
It seemed that for Thomas Jefferson, his political philosophy had caught on. His approval ratings, if such a thing had existed in 1804 when he was up for reelection, were through the roof. But, the good times would not last.
In 1802, Scottish immigrant James Callender, who had run afoul of the government under the Alien and Sedition Acts of the Adams Administration, printed a story that Jefferson had fathered a child with one of his slaves. While the story may have seemed to have been nothing more than a scurrilous acussation, it was also not entirely dismissed. And Jefferson did not deny the allegation. Nor did he confirm it.
Callender was not the first person to notice that Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, seemed to have close relationship. Abigail Adams had noted a closeness between Hemings and Jefferson back in 1787 in Paris.
Appleby gives a balanced presentation of the evidence that would link Hemings to Jefferson. First, Jefferson did not list the names of the fathers of any of Hemings’ children in his ledger, which was unusual for a fastidious recordkeeper like Jefferson. Second, DNA evidence from 1998 confirmed that there was some male from the Jefferson family who fathered a child with Hemings. However, because Jefferson had no sons (only two daughters, one of whom passed away in 1804), there is not enough evidence to positively assert whose DNA it is in the Hemings gene pool.
There is no “smoking gun” that conclusively links Jefferson and Hemings, but Appleby leans to the side of Jefferson being the father of at least some of Hemings’ children. Appleby notes that Jefferson petitioned the Virginia Legislature to allow the Hemings family (who were received their manumission after Jefferson’s death) to remain in the state. Virginia law at the time, which Jefferson supported, did not allow free blacks to live in the state for more than one year.
The Federalists would try to use the Hemings story as a campaign issue in 1804, but it didn’t have much effect. The Federalists had few good candidates available, especially since Burr had murdered the party’s leader, Hamilton. Jefferson won all but two states, besting Charles Pinckney by a 162-14 margin in the Electoral College. The Vice President was elected separately and George Clinton took over that task.
Jefferson’s second term was marred by international problems. In particular, the Napoleonic Wars slopped over on to the shores of the U.S. British ships preyed on American merchant ships looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. France wouldn’t allow American ships to trade with Britain. Britain wouldn’t let American ships trade with France.
What was Jefferson’s solution to this? An embargo. Jefferson, hampered by a greatly reduced navy and a reluctance to take on either Britain or France, ordered a complete cessation of overseas trade. Jefferson hoped that Britain and France would feel the pain of not receiving American goods.
However, the result was that the British and French continued what they were doing. Furthermore, American port cities lost millions of dollars in revenues. Enforcement of the ban was a nightmare and was about as successful as Prohibition would be over 100 years later.
Jefferson could have run for a third term in 1808, but opted not to, following the example set by Washington. He seemed quite burnt out by the job. After James Madison was elected in December of 1808, Jefferson did almost no government work. He spent the time boxing up materials to send home to Monticello. The Federal Government was essentially paralyzed.
In his retirement, Jefferson spent his time with various tasks. He founded the University of Virginia, primarily to establish a college for Virginians that would not be dominated by the Presbyterian Church. He also spent much of his time writing letters to his old adversary, Adams. And, he spent time trying to avoid creditors, as he lost much of his money in the Panic of 1819. Jefferson, who was a profligate spender, understood government finance much better than his own finances.
One major problem remains though in evaluating Jefferson: slavery. How could a man who wrote such eloquent words about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” spend his life owning slaves. And not just owning slaves, but most likely using them for his own sexual gratification. And buying and selling them like they were livestock.
Jefferson had his view of the world. And it was a view born out of growing up in comfortable surroundings in Piedmont Virginia, where his wealth derived from slaves. Jefferson could not escape his heritage. His racial attitudes were instilled in him from birth.
But why didn’t he change as he got older? American history is filled with people who changed their attitudes about slavery or racial equality through time. But, Jefferson is not one of those men. It is an unescapable fact.
Also, did Jefferson, a firm believer in states rights, lay the foundation for the secessionist movement in the South? That too seems to be true.
Is Jefferson still an admirable figure? In Appleby’s view, the answer is yes. Jefferson was responsible for carrying out the first peaceful change in power in world history in 1801, when his Republicans took over control of the government. Jefferson and his followers would hold on to the Presidency for all but eight years from 1801 through 1861.
Jefferson believed in a government where the common people ruled, not the aristocracy. However, Jefferson’s common people were just white males. He hadn’t been able to make the mental leap to include all parts of society. Was it that Jefferson was not ready, or was America not ready? There lies the dilemma in evaluating the life of Thomas Jefferson.
Appleby concludes that Jefferson’s greatest contribution to American history is his belief that an aristocracy was not preordained. Jefferson believed that the people could make themselves better.
If you look at Jefferson’s presidency from what the country was like when he assumed office in 1801, the changes were dramatic. But over 200 years have passed, and the country has changed even more dramatically, and, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson is not all what he thought he may have been. But for his time, he was a giant, both physically and metaphorically.
Other stuff: Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is run by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. The National Park Service operates two facilities dedicated to Jefferson. One is the Thomas Jefferson National Memorial in Washington. The other is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is underneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Jefferson is buried at Monticello, with a small obelisk on his grave.
Jefferson’s portrait has been on the rarely-used $2 bill since 1929. Jefferson has appeared on the nickel since 1938 and, in 2006, his portrait was changed so he faced forward instead of in profile.
For those not scoring at home, this is biography #13.
I’ve been to Monticello!
My favorite part was the copy machine contraption thingie. You’d write with your pen, which was connected to an arm-like thing with two more pens attached to it. The arm would follow your arm movements, such that whatever you wrote would be traced by the other pens as well. Thus, you could (for example) produce two extra copies of whatever it was you were writing, more or less written in your own handwriting.
On a more somber note, the stone foundations of the slave quarters are still visible on the property, and the structures were apparently very small.
These aren’t the dorids you’re looking for ….
Terrific piece, Bob. Though maybe to the book’s detriment as now I feel like I’ve gotten so much out of reading your take on it I don’t need to read the book. Sorry Professor Appleby!
More importantly though, why does he not look more like Nick Nolte? Or Stephen Dillane.
1. Was dueling illegal at the time? Even if it was, can a dueling death really be called “murder”?
2. Weren’t there peaceful changes of power in England before 1801? They had elections and stuff, didn’t they?
1. Dueling was not legal in New York. It was supposed to be legal in New Jersey, but Burr was indicted for murder there anyway. But he was never tried.
2. It’s a matter of interpretation.
Isn’t trying to judge an historical figure like Jefferson through the lense of our times (heavens, do we even live up to the “values” of our times?) akin to asking what would have been the results at Waterloo if Napolean had been equipped with B-52s? One might imagine that if Jefferson had held different views on slavery, he never would have become president. Your question about why he stuck with those views later in life seems more relevant.
I think Jefferson kept his slaves after he left office because he needed them to make money. He didn’t have the wherewithal to know how to make money any other way. Well, he knew two ways to make money: 1) slave labor and 2) inheriting a lot of money.