Thomas Jefferson : Popular Sovereignty – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders by John Lord
Preliminary Chapter : The American Idea
Benjamin Franklin : Diplomacy
George Washington : The American Revolution
Alexander Hamilton : American Constitution
John Adams : Constructive Statesmanship
Thomas Jefferson : Popular Sovereignty
John Marshall : The United States Supreme Court
John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders
Birth and early education
Successful, but no orator
Enters the House of Burgesses
Marries a rich widow
Member of the Continental Congress
Drafts the Declaration of Independence
Enters the State Legislature
Governor of Virginia
Appointed minister to France
Hails the French Revolution
Services as a diplomatist
Secretary of state
Rivalry with Hamilton
Love of peace
Founds the Democratic party
Contrasted with Hamilton
Inaugurated as president
Policy as president
The purchase of Louisiana
His brilliant career and treasonable schemes
Arrest and trial
The Non-importation Act
Strained relations between France and the United States
The peace policy of Jefferson
Triumph of the Democratic party
Results of universal suffrage
Private life of Jefferson
Retirement to Monticello
Vast correspondence; hospitality
Fame as a writer
Friend of religious liberty and popular education
Founds the University of Virginia
His great services
Thomas Jefferson : Popular Sovereignty
This illustrious statesman was born April 13, 1743, at “Shadwell,” his father’s home, among the mountains of Central Virginia, about one hundred and fifty miles from Williamsburg. His father, Peter Jefferson, did not belong to the patrician class, as the great planters called themselves, but he owned a farm of nineteen hundred acres, cultivated by thirty slaves, and raised wheat. What aristocratic blood flowed in young Jefferson’s veins came from his mother, who was a Randolph, of fine presence and noble character.
At seventeen, the youth entered the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, after having been imperfectly fitted at a school kept by a Mr. Maury, an Episcopal clergyman. He was a fine-looking boy, ruddy and healthy, with no bad habits, disposed to improve his mind, which was naturally inquisitive, and having the entrée into the good society of the college town. Williamsburg was also the seat of government for the province, where were collected for a few months in the year the prominent men of Virginia, as members of the House of Burgesses. In this attractive town Jefferson spent seven years,–two in the college, studying the classics, history, and mathematics (for which he had an aptitude), and five in the law-office of George Wythe,–thus obtaining as good an education as was possible in those times. He amused himself by playing on a violin, dancing in gay society, riding fiery horses, and going to the races. Although he was far from rich, he had as much money as was good for him, and he turned it to good advantage,–laying the foundation of an admirable library. He cultivated the society of the brightest people. Among these were, John Page, afterwards governor of Virginia; Dr. Small, the professor of mathematics at the college, afterwards the friend of Darwin at Birmingham; Edmund Randolph, an historic Virginian; Francis Fauquier, the lieutenant-governor of the province, said to be a fine scholar and elegant gentleman of the French school, who introduced into Virginia the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot–as well as high play at cards; George Wythe, a rising lawyer of great abilities; John Burk,–the historian of Virginia; and lastly, Patrick Henry,–rough, jolly, and lazy. From such associates, all distinguished sooner or later, Jefferson learned much of society, of life, and literature. At college, as in after-life, his forte was writing. Jefferson never, to his dying day, could make a speech. He could talk well in a small circle of admirers and friends, and he held the readiest pen in America, but he had no eloquence as a speaker, which, I think, is a gift like poetry, seldom to be acquired; and yet he was a great admirer of eloquence, without envy and without any attempts at imitation. A constant reader, studious, reflective, inquisitive, liberal-minded, slightly visionary, in love with novelties and theories, the young man grew up,–a universal favorite, both for his accomplishments, and his almost feminine gentleness of temper, which made him averse to anything like personal quarrels. I do not read that he ever persistently and cordially hated and abused but one man,–the greatest political genius this country has ever known,–and hated even him rather from divergence of political views than from personal resentment.
As Jefferson had no landed property sufficiently large to warrant his leading the life of a leisurely country gentleman,–the highest aspiration of a Virginian aristocrat in the period of entailed estates,–it was necessary for him to choose a profession, and only that of a lawyer could be thought of by a free-thinking politician,–for such he was from first to last. Indeed, politics ever have been the native air which Southern gentlemen have breathed for more than a century. Since political power, amid such social distinctions and inequalities as have existed in the Southern States, necessarily has been confined to the small class, the Southern people have always been ruled by a few political leaders,–more influential and perhaps more accomplished than any corresponding class at the North. Certainly they have made more pretensions, being more independent in their circumstances, and many of them educated abroad, as are the leaders in South American States at the present day. The heir to ten thousand or twenty thousand acres, with two hundred negroes, in the last century, naturally cultivated those sentiments which were common to great landed proprietors in England, especially pride of birth.
It is remarkable that Jefferson, with his surroundings, should have been so early and so far advanced in his opinions about the rights of man and political equality; but then he was by birth only halfway between the poor whites and the patrician planters; moreover, he was steeped in the philosophy of Rousseau, having sentimental proclivities, and a leaning to humanitarian theories, both political and social.
Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767, after five years in Wythe’s office. He commenced his practice at a favorable time for a lawyer, in a period of great financial embarrassments on the part of the planters, arising from their extravagant and ostentatious way of living. They lived on their capital rather than on their earnings, and even their broad domains were nearly exhausted by the culture of tobacco,–the chief staple of Virginia, which also had declined in value. It was almost impossible for an ordinary planter to make two ends meet, no matter how many acres he cultivated and how many slaves he possessed; for he had inherited expensive tastes, a liking for big houses and costly furniture and blooded horses, and he knew not where to retrench. His pride prevented him from economy, since he was socially compelled to keep tavern for visitors and poor relations, without compensation. Hence, nearly all the plantations were heavily encumbered, whether great or small. The planter disdained manual labor, however poor he might be, and every year added to his debts. He lived in comparative idleness, amusing himself with horse-races, hunting, and other “manly sports,” such as became country gentlemen in the “olden time.” The real poverty of Virginia was seen in the extreme difficulty of raising troops for State or national defence in times of greatest peril. The calls of patriotism were not unheeded by the “chivalry” of the South; but what could patriotic gentlemen do when their estates were wasting away by litigation and unsuccessful farming?
It was amid such surroundings that Jefferson began his career. Although he could not make a speech, could hardly address a jury, he had sixty-eight cases the first year of his practice, one hundred and fifteen the second, one hundred and ninety-eight the third. He was, doubtless, a good lawyer, but not a remarkable one, law business not being to his taste. When he had practised seven years in the general court his cases had dropped to twenty-nine, but his office business had increased so as to give him an income of £400 from his profession, and he received as much more from his estate, which had swelled to nearly two thousand acres. His industry, his temperance, his methodical ways, his frugality, and his legal research, had been well rewarded. While not a great lawyer, he must have been a studious one, for his legal learning was a large element in his future success. At the age of thirty-one he was a prominent citizen, a good office lawyer, and a rising man, with the confidence and respect of every one who knew him,–and withal, exceedingly popular from his plain manners, his modest pretensions, and patriotic zeal. He was not then a particularly marked man, but was on the road to distinction, since a new field was open to him,–that of politics, for which he had undoubted genius. The distracted state of the country, on the verge of war with Great Britain, called out his best energies. While yet but a boy in college he became deeply interested in the murmurings of Virginia gentlemen against English misgovernment in the Colonies, and early became known as a vigorous thinker and writer with republican tendencies. William Wirt wrote of him that “he was a republican and a philanthropist from the earliest dawn of his character.” He entered upon the stormy scene of politics with remarkable zeal, and his great abilities for this arena were rapidly developed.
Jefferson’s political career really dates from 1769, when he entered the House of Burgesses as member for Albermarle County in the second year of his practice as a lawyer, after a personal canvass of nearly every voter in the county, and supplying to the voters, as was the custom, an unlimited quantity of punch and lunch for three days. The Assembly was composed of about one hundred members, “gentlemen” of course, among whom was Colonel George Washington. The Speaker was Peyton Randolph, a most courteous aristocrat, with great ability for the duties of a presiding officer. Among other prominent members were Mr. Pendleton, Colonel Bland, and Mr. Nicholas, leading lawyers of the province. Mr. Jefferson, though still a young man, was put upon important committees, for he had a good business head, and was ready with his pen.
In 1772 Mr. Jefferson married a rich widow, who brought him forty thousand acres and one hundred and thirty-five slaves, so that he now took his place among the wealthy planters, although, like Washington, he was only a yeoman by birth. With increase of fortune he built “Monticello,” on the site of “Shadwell,” which had been burned. It was on the summit of a hill five hundred feet high, about three miles from Charlottesville; but it was only by twenty-five years’ ceaseless nursing and improvement that this mansion became the finest residence in Virginia, with its lawns, its flower-beds, its walks, and its groves, adorned with perhaps the finest private library in America. No wonder he loved this enchanting abode, where he led the life of a philosopher.
But stirring events soon called him from this retreat. A British war vessel, in Narragansett Bay, in pursuit of a packet which had left Newport for Providence without permission, ran aground about seventeen miles from the latter town, and was burned by disguised Yankee citizens, indignant at the outrages which had been perpetrated by this armed schooner on American commerce. A reward of £500 was offered for the discovery of the perpetrators; and the English government, pronouncing this to be an act of high treason, passed an ordinance that the persons implicated in the act should be transported to England for trial. This decree struck at the root of American liberties, and aroused an indignation which reached the Virginian legislature, then assembled at Williamsburg. A committee was appointed to investigate the affair, composed of Peyton Randolph, R.C. Nicholas, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson,–all now historic names,–mostly lawyers, but representatives of the prominent families of Virginia and leaders of the Assembly. Indignant Resolutions were offered, and copies were sent to the various Colonial legislatures. This is the first notice of Jefferson in his political career.
In 1773, with Patrick Henry and some others, Jefferson originated the Committee of Correspondence, which was the beginning of the intimate relations in common political interest among the Colonies. In 1774 the House of Burgesses was twice dissolved by the royal governor, and Jefferson was a member of the convention to choose delegates to the first Continental Congress; while in the same year he published a “Summary View of the Rights of British America,”–a strong plea for the right to resist English taxation.
In 1775 we find Jefferson a member of the Colonial Convention at which Patrick Henry, also a member, made the renowned war speech: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” Those burning words of the Virginia orator penetrated the heart of every farmer in Massachusetts, as they did the souls of the Southern planters. In a few months the royal government ceased to exist in Virginia, the governor, Dunmore, having retreated to a man-of-war, and Jefferson had become a member of the Continental Congress at its second session in Philadelphia, with the reputation of being one of the best political writers of the day, and an ardent patriot with very radical opinions.
Even then hopes had not entirely vanished of a reconciliation with Great Britain, but before the close of the year the introduction of German mercenaries to put down the growing insurrection satisfied everybody that there was nothing left to the Colonies but to fight, or tamely submit to royal tyranny. Preparations for military resistance were now made everywhere, especially in Massachusetts, and in Virginia, where Jefferson, who had been obliged by domestic afflictions to leave Congress in December, was most active in raising money for defence, and in inspiring the legislature to set up a State government. When Jefferson again took his seat in Congress, May 13, 1776, he was put upon the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence, composed, as already noted, of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, besides himself. To him, however, was intrusted by the committee the labor and the honor of penning the draft, which was adopted with trifling revision. He was always very proud of this famous document, and it was certainly effective. Among the ordinary people of America he is, perhaps, better known for this rather rhetorical piece of composition than for all his other writings put together. It was one of those happy hits of genius which make a man immortal,–owing, however, no small measure of its fame to the historic importance of the occasion that called it forth. It was publicly read on every Fourth-of-July celebration for a hundred years. It embodied the sentiments of a great people not disposed to criticism, but ready to interpret in a generous spirit; it had, at the time, a most stimulating effect at home, and in Europe was a revelation of the truth about the feeling in America.
From the 4th of July, 1776, Thomas Jefferson became one of the most prominent figures identified with American Independence, by reason of his patriotism, his abilities, and advanced views of political principles, though as inferior to Hamilton in original and comprehensive genius as he was superior to him in the arts and foresight of a political leader. He better understood the people than did his great political rival, and more warmly sympathized with their conditions and aspirations. He became a typical American politician, not by force of public speaking, but by dexterity in the formation and management of a party. Both Patrick Henry and John Adams were immeasurably more eloquent than he, but neither touched the springs of the American heart like this quiet, modest, peace-loving, far-sighted politician, since he, more than any other man of the Revolutionary period, was jealous of aristocratic power. Hamilton, Jay, Gouverneur Morris, were aristocrats who admired the English Constitution, and would have established a more vigorous central government. Jefferson was jealous of central power in the hands of aristocrats. So indeed was Patrick Henry, whose outbursts of eloquence thrilled all audiences alike,–the greatest natural orator this country has produced, if Henry Clay may be excepted; but he was impractical, and would not even endorse the Constitution which was afterwards adopted, as not guarding sufficiently what were called natural rights and the independence of the States. This ultimately led to an alienation between these great men, and to the disparagement of Henry by Jefferson as a lawyer and statesman, when he was the most admired and popular man in Virginia, and “had only to say ‘Let this be law,’ and it was law,–when he ruled by his magical eloquence the majority of the Assembly, and when his edicts were registered by that body with less opposition than that of the Grand Monarque himself from his subservient parliaments.” Had he shown any fitness for military life, Patrick Henry would doubtless have been intrusted with an important command; but, like Jefferson, his talents were confined to civic affairs alone. Moreover, it is said that he was lazy and fond of leisure, and that it was only when he was roused by powerful passions or a great occasion that his extraordinary powers bore all before him in an irresistible torrent, as did the eloquence of Mirabeau in the National Convention.
Contemplative men of studious habits and a philosophical cast of mind are apt to underrate the genius which sways a popular assembly. Hence, Jefferson thought Henry superficial. But in spite of the defects of his early education, Henry’s attainments were considerable, and the profoundest lawyers, like Wirt, Nicholas, and Jay, acknowledged his great forensic ability. Washington always held him in great esteem and affection; and certainly had Henry been a shallow lawyer, Washington, whose judgment of men was notably good, would not have offered him the post of Chief-Justice of the Supreme Court,–although, as Jefferson sneeringly said, “he knew it would be refused.”
Jefferson declined a re-election to the third Continental Congress, and in September, 1776, retired to his farm; but only for a short time, since in October we find him in the Virginia House of Delegates, and chairman of the most important committees, especially that on the revision of the laws of the State. His work in the State legislature was more important than in Congress, since it was mainly through his influence that entails were swept away, and even the law of primogeniture. Instead of an aristocracy of birth and wealth, he would build up one of virtue and talent. He also assaulted State support of the Episcopal Church–which was in Virginia “the Established Church”–as an engine of spiritual tyranny, and took great interest in all matters of education, formulating a system of common schools, which, however, was never put into practice. He was also opposed to slavery, having the conviction that the day would come when the negroes would be emancipated. He had before this tried to induce the Virginia law-makers to legalize manumission, and in 1778 succeeded in having them forbid importation of slaves. Dr. James Schouler’s (1893) “Life of Jefferson” says that the mitigation and final abolishment of slavery were among his dearest ambitions, and adduces in illustration the failure of his plan in 1784 for organizing the Western territories because it provided for free States south as well as north of the Ohio River, and also his successful efforts as President to get Congress to abolish slave importation in 1806-7. His warnings as to what must happen if emancipation were not in some way provided for are familiar, as fulfilled prophecy.
After two years at State law-making Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as governor of Virginia, in the summer of 1779. But although his administration was popular, it was not marked as pre-eminently able. He had no military abilities for such a crisis in American affairs, nor even remarkable executive talent. He was a man of thought rather than of action. His happiest hours were spent in his library. He did not succeed in arousing the militia when the English were already marching to the seat of government, and when the Cherokee Indians were threatening hostilities on the southwestern border. Nor did he escape the censure of members of the legislature, which greatly annoyed and embittered him, so that he seriously thought of retiring from public life.
In 1782, on the death of his wife, whom he tenderly loved, we find him again for a short time in Congress, which appointed him in 1784, as additional agent to France with Franklin and Adams to negotiate commercial treaties. On the return of Franklin he was accredited sole minister to France, to succeed that great diplomatist. He remained in France five years, much enamoured with French society, as was Franklin, in spite of his republican sentiments. He hailed, with all the transport his calm nature would allow, the French Revolution, and was ever after a warm friend to France until the Genet affair, when his eyes were partially opened to French intrigues and French arrogance. But the principles which the early apostles of revolution advocated were always near his heart. These he never repudiated. It was only the excesses of the Revolution which filled him with distrust.
In regard to the Revolution on the whole, he took issue with Adams, Hamilton, Jay, and Morris, and with the sober judgment of the New England patriots. England he detested from first to last, and could see no good in her institutions, whether social, political, or religious. He hated the Established Church even more than royalty, as the nurse of both superstition and spiritual tyranny. Even the Dissenters were not liberal enough for him. He would have abolished if he could, all religious denominations and organizations. Above all things he despised the etiquette and pomp of the English Court, as relics of mediaeval feudalism. To him there was nothing sacred in the person or majesty of a king, who might be an idiot or a tyrant. He somewhere remarks that in all Europe not one king in twenty has ordinary intelligence.
With such views, he was a favorite with the savants of the French Revolution, as much because they were semi-infidels as because they were opposed to feudal institutions. The great points of diplomacy had already been settled by Franklin, and he had not much to do in France, although his talents as a diplomatist were exceptional, owing to his coolness, his sagacity, his learning, and his genial nature. There was nothing austere about him, as there was in Adams. His manners, though simple, were courteous and gentlemanly. He was diligent in business, and was accessible to everybody. No American was more likely to successfully follow Franklin than he, from his desire to avoid broils, and the pacific turn of his mind. In this respect he was much better fitted to deal with the Count de Vergennes than was John Adams, whose suspicious and impetuous temper was always getting him into trouble, not merely with the French government, but with his associates.
And yet Adams doubtless penetrated the ulterior designs of France with more sagacity than either Franklin or Jefferson. They now appear, from the concurrent views of historians, to have been to cripple England rather than to help America. It cannot be denied that the French government rendered timely and essential aid to the United States in their struggle with Great Britain, for which Americans should be grateful, whatever motives may have actuated it. Possibly Franklin, a perfect man of the world as well as an adroit diplomatist, saw that the French Government was not entirely disinterested; but he wisely held his tongue, and gave no offence, feeling that half a loaf was better than no loaf at all; but Adams could not hold his tongue for any length of time, and gave vent to his feelings; so that in his mission he was continually snubbed, and contrived to get himself hated both by Vergennes and Franklin. “He split his beetle when he should have splitted the log.” He was honest and upright to an extraordinary degree; but a diplomatist should have tact, discretion, and prudence. Nor is it necessary that he should lie. Jefferson, like Franklin, had tact and discretion. It really mattered nothing in the final result, even if Vergennes had in view only the interests of France; it is enough that he did assist the Americans to some extent. Adams was a grumbler, and looked at the motives of the act rather than the act itself, and was disposed to forget the obligation altogether, because it was conferred from other views than pure generosity. Moreover, it is gratefully remembered that many persons in France, like La Fayette, were generous and magnanimous toward Americans, through genuine sympathy with a people struggling for liberty.
In reference to the service that Jefferson rendered to his country as minister to France we notice his persistent efforts to suppress the piracy of the Barbary States on the Mediterranean. Although he loved peace he preferred to wage an aggressive war on these pirates rather than to submit to their insults and robberies, as most of the European States did by giving them tribute. But the new American Confederation was too weak financially to support his views, and the piracy and tribute continued until Captain Decatur bombarded Tripoli and chastised Algiers, during Jefferson’s presidency, 1803-4. As minister, Jefferson also attempted to remove the shackles on American trade; which, however, did not meet the approval of the Morrises and other protectionists and monopolists in the tobacco trade.
But it was by his unofficial labors at this time that Jefferson benefited his country more than by his official acts as a negotiator. These labors were great, and took up most of his time; they included sending information to his countrymen of all that was going on of importance in the realms of science, art, and literature, giving advice and assistance to the unfortunate, sending seeds and machines and new inventions to America, and acquainting himself with all improvements in agriculture, especially in the culture of rice. He travelled extensively in most of the countries of Europe, always with his eyes open to learn something useful; one result of which was to deepen his disgust with the institutions of the Old World, and increase his admiration for those of his own country. He doubtless attached too much importance to the political systems of Europe in producing the degradation he saw among the various peoples, even as he too impulsively considered republicanism the source of all good in governments. He was on pleasant terms with the different diplomatic corps, and lived in the easy and profuse style of Virginia planters,–giving few grand dinners, but dispensing a generous hospitality to French visitors as well as to all Americans who called on him. The letters he wrote were innumerable. No public man ever left to posterity more of the results of his observations and thought. Interesting himself in everything and everybody, and freely communicating his ideas in correspondence, he had a wide influence while living, and his ideas have been suggestive and fruitful to thoughtful students of the public interest ever since.
After five years’ residence in France, he returned home, a much more intelligent and cultivated man than when he arrived in Paris, which never lost its charm for him, in spite of its political convulsions, its irreligion, and its social inequality. He came back to Monticello as on a visit only, expecting to return to his post. But another destiny awaited him. Washington required his services in the first Cabinet as Secretary of State for foreign affairs,–a part for which his diplomatic career had admirably qualified him, as well as his general abilities.
The seat of government was then at New York, and Jefferson occupied a house in Maiden Lane, while Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, lived in Pine street. Jefferson’s salary was $3,500 a year, five hundred more than Hamilton received; but it is not to be supposed that either lived on his official income. The population of the city was then but thirty-five thousand, and only a few families–at the head of which were the Schuylers, the Livingstons, the Van Rensselaers, and the Morrises–constituted what is called “Society,” which was much more ceremonious than at the present day, and more exclusive. All the great officers of the new government were aristocratic and stately, even inaccessible, except Jefferson; and many of the fashions, titles, and ceremonies of European courts were kept up. The factotum of the President signed himself as “Steward of the Household,” while Washington himself rode to church in a coach and six, attended by outriders. Great functionaries were called “Most Honorable,” and their wives were addressed as “Lady” So-and-So. The most confidential ministers dared not assume any familiarity with the President. He was not addressed as “Mr. President,” but as “Your Excellency,” and even that title was too democratic for the taste of John Adams, who thought it lowered the president to the level of a governor of Bermuda, or one of his own secretaries.
Only four men constituted the Cabinet of Washington; but the public business was inconsiderable compared with these times, and Jefferson in the State Department had only four clerks under him. Still, he was a very busy man, as many questions of importance had to be settled. “We are in a wilderness without a footstep to guide us,” wrote Madison to Jefferson in reference to Congress. And it applied to the executive government as well as to Congress. Neither the Executive nor the Legislature had precedents to guide them, and everything was in a tangle; there was scarcely any money in the country, and still less in the treasury. Even the President, one of the richest men in the country, if not the richest, had to raise money at two per cent a month to enable his “steward of the household” to pay his grocer’s bills,–and all the members of his Cabinet had to sacrifice their private interests in accepting their new positions.
The head of a department was not so great a personage, in reality, as at the present day, and yet very few men were capable of performing the duties of their position. Probably Alexander Hamilton was the only man in the country then fit to be Secretary of the Treasury, and Jefferson the only man available to be Secretary of State, since Adams was in the vice-presidential chair; and these two men Washington was obliged to retain, in spite of their mutual hostilities and total disagreement on almost every subject presented to their consideration. In nothing were the patience, the patriotism, and the magnanimity of Washington more apparent than in his treatment of these two rival statesmen, perpetually striving to conciliate them, hopelessly attempting to mix oil with water,–the one an aristocratic financier, who saw national prosperity in banks and money and central power; the other a democratic land-owner, who looked upon agriculture as the highest interest, and universal suffrage as the only safe policy for a republic. Between the theories of these rivals, Washington had to steer the ship of state, originating nothing himself, yet singularly clear in his judgment both of men and measures. He was governed equally by the advice of both, since they worked in different spheres, and were not rivals in the sense that Burr and Jefferson were,–that is, leaders in the same party and competitors for the same office.
In regard to the labors and services of Jefferson in the Department of State, he was cautious, conciliatory, and peace-loving, “neither a fanatic nor an enthusiast,” enlightened by twenty-five years of discussion on the principles of law and government, and a practical business man. It required all his tact to prevent entangling foreign alliances, and getting into hot water with both France and England; for neither power had any respect for the new commonwealth, and each seemed inclined to take all the advantage it could of American weakness and inexperience. They were constantly guilty of such offences as the impressment of our seamen, paper blockades, haughty dictation, and insolent treatment of our envoys, having an eye all the while to the future dismemberment of the States, and the rich slices of territory both were likely to acquire in the South and West. At that time there was no navy, no army to speak of, and no surplus revenue. There were irritating questions to be settled with England about boundaries, and the occupation of military posts which she had agreed to evacuate. There were British intrigues with Indians in the interior to make disturbance, while on the borders the fur-trade and fisheries were unsettled. There were debts to be paid from American to English merchants, which were disputed, and treaties to be made, involving all the unsettled principles of political economy, as insoluble apparently to-day as they were one hundred years ago. There were unjust restrictions on American commerce of the most irritating nature, for American vessels were still excluded from West India ports, and only such products were admitted as could not be dispensed with. Such articles as whale oil, salt fish, salt provisions, and grain itself, could not be exported to any town in England. In France a new spirit seemed to animate the government against America, a disposition to seize everything that was possible, and to dictate in matters with which they had no concern,–even in relation to our own internal affairs, as in the instructions furnished to Genet, whose unscrupulous audacity and meddling intrigues at last exhausted the patience of both Washington and Jefferson.
But the most important thing that happened, of historical interest, when Jefferson was Secretary of State, was the origination of the Republican, or Democratic party, as it was afterwards called, in opposition to the Federal party, led by Hamilton, Jay, and Gouverneur Morris, Of this new party Jefferson was the undisputed founder and life. He fancied he saw in the measures of the Federal leaders a systematic attempt to assimilate American institutions, as far as possible, to those of Great Britain. He looked upon Hamilton as a royalist at heart, and upon his bank, with other financial arrangements, only as an engine to control votes and centralize power at the expense of the States. He entered into the arena of controversial politics, wrote for the newspapers, appealed to democratic passions, and set in motion a net-work of party machinery to influence the votes of the people, foreseeing the future triumph of his principles. He pulled political wires with as much adroitness and effect as Van Buren in after-times, so that the statesman was lost in the politician.
But Jefferson was not a vulgar, a selfish, or a scheming politician. Though ambitious for the presidency, in his heart he preferred the quiet of Monticello to any elevation to which the people could raise him. What he desired supremely was the triumph of democratic principles, since he saw in this triumph the welfare of the country,–the interests of the many against the ascendency of the few,–the real reign of the people, instead of the reign of an aristocracy of money or birth. Believing that the people knew, or ought to know, their own interests, he was willing to intrust them with unlimited political power. The Federalist leaders saw in the ascendency of the people the triumphs of demagogy, the ignoring of experience in government, the reign of passions, unenlightened measures leading to financial and political ruin, and would therefore restrict the privilege, or, as some would say, the right, of suffrage.
In such a war of principles the most bitter animosities were to be expected, and there has never been a time when such fierce party contests disgraced the country as at the close of Washington’s administration, if we except the animosities attending the election of General Jackson. It was really a war between aristocrats and plebeians, as in ancient Rome; and, as at Rome, every succeeding battle ended in the increase of power among the democracy. At the close of the administration of President Adams the Federal party was destroyed forever. It is useless to speculate as to which party was in the right. Probably both parties were right in some things, and wrong in others. The worth of a strong government in critical times has been proved by the wholesome action of such an autocrat as Jackson in the Nullification troubles with South Carolina, and the successful maintenance of the Union by the power-assuming Congress during the Rebellion; while Jackson’s autocracy in general, and the centralizing tendency of Congressional legislation since 1865, are instances of the complications likely to arise from too strong a government in a country where the people are the final source of power. The value of universal suffrage–the logical result of Jefferson’s views of government–is still an open question, especially in cities. But whether good or bad in its ultimate results, the victory was decisive on the part of the democracy, whose main principle of “popular sovereignty” has become the established law of the land, and will probably continue to rule as long as American institutions last.
The questions since opened have been in regard to slavery,–in ways which Jefferson never dreamed of,–the comparative power of the North and South, matters of finance, tariffs, and internal improvements, involving the deepest problems of political economy, education, and constitutional law; and as time moves on, new questions will arise to puzzle the profoundest intellects; but the question of the ascendency of the people is settled beyond all human calculations. And it is in this matter especially that Jefferson left his mark on the institutions of his country,–as the champion of democracy, rather than as the champion of the abstract rights of man which he and Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams had asserted, in opposition to the tyranny of Great Britain in her treatment of the Colonies. And here he went beyond Puritan New England, which sought the ascendency of the wisest and the best, when the aristocracy of intellect and virtue should bear sway instead of the unenlightened masses. Historians talk about the aristocracy of the Southern planters, but this was an offshoot of the aristocracy of feudalism,–the dominion of favored classes over the enslaved, the poor, and the miserable. New England aristocracy was the rule of the wisest and the best, extending to the remotest hamlets, in which the people discussed the elemental principles of Magna Charta and the liberties of Saxon yeomen. This was the aristocracy which had for its defenders such men as the Adamses, the Shermans, and the Langdons,–something new in the history of governments and empires, which was really subverted by the doctrines of Rousseau and the leaders of the French Revolution, whom Jefferson admired and followed.
Jefferson, however, practically believed in the aristocracy of mind, and gave his preference to men of learning and refinement, rather than men of wealth and rank. He was a democrat only in the recognition of the people as the source of future political power, and hence in the belief of the ultimate triumph of the Democratic party, which it was his work to organize and lead. Foreseeing how dangerous the triumph of a vulgar and ignorant mob would be, he tried to provide for educating the people, on the same principle that we would to-day educate the colored race. The great hobby of his life was education. He thus spent the best part of his latter years in founding and directing the University of Virginia, including a plan for popular education as well. To all schemes of education he lent a willing ear; but it was the last thing which aristocratic Southern planters desired,–the elevation of the poor whites, or political equality. Though a planter, Jefferson was more in sympathy with New England ideas, as to the intellectual improvement of the people and its relation to universal suffrage, than with the Southern gentlemen with whom he associated. Hamilton did not so much care for the education of the people as he did for the ascendency of those who were already educated, especially if wealthy. Property, in his eyes, had great consideration, as with all the influential magnates of the North. Jefferson thought more of men than of their surroundings, and thus became popular with ordinary people in a lower stratum of social life. Hamilton was popular only with the rich, the learned, and the powerful, and stood no chance in the race with Jefferson for popular favor, wherever universal suffrage was established, any more than did John Adams, whose ideas concerning social distinctions, and the ascendency of learning and virtue in matters of government, were decidedly aristocratic.
It is hard to say whether Jefferson or Hamilton was the wiser in his political theories, nor is it certain which was the more astute and far-reaching in his calculations as to the future ascendency of political parties. Down to the Civil War the Democrats had things largely their own way; since then, the Republican party–lineal descendant of the Federals, through the Whigs–have borne sway until within very recent years, when there has developed a strong reaction against the centralizing tendency compacted by the rallying of the people about the government to resist disunion in 1860-65.
Jefferson became Vice-President on the final retirement of Washington to private life in 1797, when Adams was made President. The vice-presidency was a position of dignity rather than of power, and not so much desired by ambitious men as the office of governor in a great State. What took place of importance in the political field during the presidency of Adams has already been treated. As Vice-President, Jefferson had but little to do officially, but he was as busy as ever with his pen, and in pulling political wires,–especially in doing all he could to obstruct legislation along the lines laid down by the Federal leaders. Of course, like other leaders, he was aiming at the presidency, and I think he was the only man in our history who ever reached this high office by persistent personal efforts to secure it. Burr failed, in spite of his great abilities, as well as Hamilton, Calhoun, Clay, Benton, Webster, Douglas, Seward, and Blaine. All the later presidents have been men who when nominated as candidates for the presidency were comparatively unknown and unimportant in the eyes of the nation,–selected not for abilities, but as the most “available” candidates; although some of them proved to be men of greater talent and fitness than was generally supposed. The people accepted them, but did not select them, any more than Saul and David were chosen by the people of Israel. Political leaders selected them for party purposes, and rather because they were unknown than because they were known; while greater men, who had the national eye upon them for services and abilities, had created too many enemies, secret or open, for successful competition. An English member of Parliament, of transcendent talent, if superior to all other members for eloquence, wisdom, and tact, is pretty certain of climbing to the premiership, like Canning, Peel, Disraeli, and Gladstone. Probably no American, for a long time to come, can reasonably hope to reach the presidency because he has ambitiously and persistently labored for it, whatever may be his merits or services. In a country of wide extent like the United States, where the representatives of the people and the States in Congress are the real rulers, perhaps this is well.
But even Jefferson did not inordinately seek or desire the presidency. The office quite as earnestly sought him, as the most popular man in the country, who had proved himself to be a man of great abilities in the various positions he had previously filled, and as honest as he was patriotic. He had few personal enemies. His enemies were the leaders of the Federal party, if we except Aaron Burr, in whose honesty few believed. The lies which the bitter and hostile Federalists told about Jefferson were lost on the great majority of the people, who believed in him.
Jefferson was inaugurated as president in 1801, and selected an able Cabinet, with his friend and disciple James Madison as Secretary of State, and Albert Gallatin, an experienced financier, a Swiss by birth, as Secretary of the Treasury. He at once made important changes in all matters of etiquette and forms, introducing greater simplicity, abolishing levees, titles, and state ceremonials, and making himself more accessible to the people. His hospitality was greater than that of any preceding or succeeding president. He lived in the White House more like a Virginian planter than a great public functionary, wearing plain clothes, and receiving foreign ministers without the usual formalities, much to their chagrin. He also prevailed on Congress to reduce the army and navy, retaining a force only large enough to maintain law and order. He set the example of removing important officers hostile to his administration, although he did not make sweeping changes, as did General Jackson afterward, on the avowed ground that “spoils belong to victors,”–thus increasing the bitterness of partisanship.
The most important act of Jefferson’s administration was the purchase of Louisiana from France for fifteen millions of dollars. Bonaparte had intended, after that great territory had been ceded to him by Spain, to make a military colony at New Orleans, and thus control the Mississippi and its branches; but as he wanted money, and as his ambition centred in European conquests, he was easily won over by the American diplomatists to forego the possession of that territory, the importance of which he probably did not appreciate, and it became a part of the United States. James Monroe and Robert Livingston closed the bargain with the First Consul, and were promptly sustained by the administration, although they had really exceeded their instructions. Bonaparte is reported to have said of this transaction: “This accession of territory strengthens forever the power of the United States. I have given to England a maritime rival that will sooner or later humble her pride.”
By this purchase, which Jefferson had much at heart, the United States secured, not only millions of square miles of territory, but the control of the Gulf of Mexico. This fortunate acquisition prevented those entangling disputes and hostilities which would have taken place whether Spain or France owned Louisiana. Doubtless, Jefferson laid himself open to censure from the Federalists for assuming unconstitutional powers in this purchase; but the greatness of the service more than balanced the irregularity, and the ridicule and abuse from his political enemies fell harmless. No one can question that his prompt action, whether technically legal or illegal, was both wise and necessary; it practically gave to the United States the undisputed possession of the vast territory between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. Moreover, the President’s enlightened encouragement of the explorations of Lewis and Clarke’s expedition across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, led to the ultimate occupancy of California and the west coast itself.
The next event of national interest connected with the administration of Jefferson in his long term of eight years (for he was re-elected president, and began his second term in 1805), was the enterprise of Aaron Burr, with a view of establishing a monarchy in Mexico. It was fortunately defeated, and the disappointed and ambitious politician narrowly escaped being convicted of high treason. He was saved only by the unaccountable intrigues of the Federalists at a time of intense party warfare. Jefferson would have punished this unscrupulous intriguer if he could; but Burr was defended by counsel of extraordinary ability,–chiefly Federalist lawyers, at the head of whom was Luther Martin of Maryland, probably the best lawyer in the country, notwithstanding his dissipated habits. Martin was one of those few drinking men whose brains are not clouded by liquor. He could argue a case after having drunk brandy enough to intoxicate any ordinary man, and be the brighter for it. Burr also brought to bear the resources of his own extraordinary intellect, by way of quiet suggestions to his counsel.
This remarkable man was born at Newark, N.J., in 1756, and was the son of the Rev. Aaron Burr, president of Princeton College. He was a grandson of the celebrated Jonathan Edwards, the most original and powerful metaphysical intellect known to the religious history of this country, who confirmed Calvinism as the creed of New England Puritans. The young Burr, on the death of his father and grandfather, inherited what was then considered as a fortune, and was graduated at Princeton in 1772, with no enviable reputation, being noted for his idleness and habits bordering on dissipation. He was a handsome and sprightly young man of sixteen, a favorite with women of all ages. He made choice of the profession of law, and commenced the study under Tappan Reeve of Elizabethtown. After the battle of Bunker Hill he entered the army at Boston, but, tired of inactivity, joined Arnold’s expedition to Quebec, where he distinguished himself by his bravery. Ill-health compelled him to leave the army after four years service,–the youngest colonel in the army. He was no admirer of Washington, regarding him as “a farmer and Indian-fighter rather than a soldier.” He favored the cabal against him, headed by Gates and Conway. Washington, while ready to acknowledge Burr’s military abilities, always distrusted him, and withheld from him the rank of brigadier.
On leaving the army, at the age of twenty-three, Burr resumed his studies of the law, and was admitted to the Albany bar after brief preparation. Conscious of his talents, he soon after settled in New York, and enjoyed a lucrative practice, the rival of Alexander Hamilton, being employed with him on all important cases. He had married, in 1782, the widow of an English officer, a Mrs. Provost, a lady older than he,–with uncommon accomplishments. In 1784 he was chosen a member of the New York Legislature, and was on intimate terms with the Clintons, the Livingstons, the Van Rennselaers, and the Schuylers. In 1789 he was made Attorney-General of the State during the administration of Governor George Clinton. His popularity was as great as were his talents, and in 1791 he was elected to the United States Senate over General Philip Schuyler, and became the leader of the Republican party, with increasing popularity and influence. In 1796 he was a presidential candidate, and in 1800, being again a candidate for the presidency, he received seventy-three votes in the House of Representatives,–the same number that were cast for Jefferson. He would, doubtless, have been elected president but for the efforts of Hamilton, who threw his influence in favor of Jefferson, Democrat as he was, as the safer man of the two. Burr never forgave his rival at the bar for this, and henceforward the deepest enmity rankled in his soul for the great Federalist leader.
As Vice-President, Burr was marked for his political intrigues, and incurred the distrust if not the hostility of Jefferson, who neglected Burr’s friends and bestowed political favors on his enemies. Disgusted with the inactivity to which his office doomed him, Burr pulled every wire to be elected governor of New York; but the opposition of the great Democratic families caused his defeat, which was soon followed by his assassination of Hamilton, called a duel. Universal execration for this hideous crime drove him for a time from New York, although he was still Vice-President. But his political career was ended, although his ambition was undiminished.
Then, seeing that his influence in the Eastern and Middle States was hopelessly lost, Burr looked for a theatre of new cabals, and turned his eyes to the West, opened to public view by the purchase of Louisiana. In the preparation of his plans he went first to New Orleans, then a French settlement, where he was lionized, returning by way of Nashville, Frankfort, Lexington, and St. Louis. At the latter post he found General Wilkinson, to whom he communicated his scheme of founding an empire in the West,–a most desperate undertaking. On an island of the Ohio, near Marietta, he visited its owner, called Blennerhasset, a restless and worthless Irishman, whom he induced to follow his fortunes.
The adventurers contracted for fifteen boats and enlisted quite a number of people to descend the Mississippi and make New Orleans their rallying-point, supposing that the Western population were dissatisfied with the government and were ready to secede and establish a new republic, or empire, to include Mexico; also relying on the aid of General Wilkinson at St. Louis. But they miscalculated: Wilkinson was true to his colors; the people whom they had seduced gradually dropped off; the territorial magistrates became suspicious and alarmed, and the governor of the Territory communicated his fears to the President, who at once issued a proclamation to arrest the supposed conspirators, who had fled when their enterprise had failed.
Burr was seized near Natchez, and was tried for conspiracy; but the trial came to nothing. He contrived to escape in the night, but was again arrested in Alabama, and sent to Richmond to be tried for treason. As has been said, he was acquitted, by a jury of which John Randolph was foreman, with the sympathy of all the women, of whom he was a favorite to the day of his death. The trial lasted six months, and Jefferson did all he could to convict him, with the assistance of William Wirt, just rising into notice.
Although acquitted, Burr was a ruined man. His day of receptions and popularity was over. His sad but splendid career came to an inglorious close. Feeling unsafe in his own country, he wandered abroad, at times treated with great distinction wherever he went, but always arousing suspicions. He was obliged to leave England, and wandered as a fugitive from country to country, without money or real friends. At Paris and London he suffered extreme poverty, although admired in society. At last he returned to New York, utterly destitute, and resumed the practice of the law, but was without social position and generally avoided. He succeeded in 1832 in winning the hand of a wealthy widow, but he spent her money so freely that she left him. After the separation he supported himself with great difficulty, but retained his elegant manner and fascinating conversation, until he died in the house of a lady friend in 1836, and was buried at Princeton by the side of his father and grandfather.
Our history narrates no fall from an exalted position more melancholy, or more richly deserved, than his. Without being dissipated, he was a bad and unprincipled man from the start. He might have been the pride of his country, like Hamilton and Jefferson, being the equal of both in abilities, and at one time in popularity. The school-books have given to him and to Benedict Arnold an infamous immortality, comparing the one with Cain, and the other with Judas Iscariot.
The most important measure connected with Jefferson’s long administration was the Non-importation Act, commonly called the Embargo. It proved in the end a mistake, and shed no glory on the fame of the President; and yet it perhaps prevented a war, or at least delayed it.
The peace of 1783 and the acknowledgment of American independence did not restore friendly relations between England and the United States. It was not in human nature that a proud and powerful state like England should see the disruption of her empire and her fairest foreign possession torn from her without embittered feelings, leading to acts which could not be justified by international law or by enlightened reason. Accordingly, the government of Great Britain treated the American envoys with rudeness, insolence, and contempt, much to their chagrin and the indignation of Americans generally. It also adopted measures exceedingly injurious to American commerce. France and England being at war, the Americans, as neutrals, secured most of the carrying trade, to the disgust of British merchants; and, declaring mutual blockade, both French and English cruisers began to capture American trading-ships, the English being especially outrageous in their doings. Said Jefferson, in his annual message in 1805: “Our coasts have been infested and our harbors watched by private armed vessels. They have captured in the very entrance of our harbors, as well as on the high seas, not only the vessels of our friends coming to trade with us, but our own also. They have carried them off under pretence of legal adjudication; but not daring to approach a court of justice, they have plundered and sunk them by the way, or in obscure places where no evidence could arise against them, maltreated the crews, and abandoned them in boats in the open sea, or on desert shores without food or covering.” In view of these things, the President recommended the building of gunboats and the reorganization of the militia, and called attention to materials in the navy-yards for constructing battleships. The English even went further and set up a claim to the right of search; sailors were taken from American ships to be impressed into their naval service, on the plea–generally unfounded–that they were British subjects and deserters. At last British audacity went so far as to attack an American frigate at Hampton Roads, and carry away four alleged British sailors, three of whom were American born. The English doctrine that no man could expatriate himself was not allowed by America, where immigrants and new citizens were always welcome; but in the case of native Americans there could be no question as to their citizenship. This outrage aroused indignation from one end of the country to the other, and a large party clamored for war.
But the policy of Jefferson was pacific. He abhorred war, and entered into negotiations, which came to nothing. Nor, to his mind, was the country prepared for war. We had neither army nor navy to speak of. It was plain that we should be beaten on the land and on the sea. Much as he hated England, he preferred to temporize, and build a few gunboats,–which everybody laughed at.
Nor did the French government behave much better than the English. It looked upon the United States as an unsettled and weak country, to be robbed with impunity. At last, driven from the high seas, the Americans could rely only on the coasting-trade. “One half the mercantile world was sealed up by the British, and the other half by the French.”
Jefferson now appealed to Congress, and the result was the Non-importation Act, or Embargo, forbidding Americans to trade with France and England. This policy was intended as a pressure on English merchants. But it was a half-measure and did not affect British legislation, which had for its object the utter annihilation of American commerce. Neither France nor England was hurt seriously by the Embargo, while our ships lay rotting at the wharves, and our merchants found that their occupation was gone. The New England merchants were discouraged and discontented. It was not they who wished to see their ships shut up by a doubtful policy. They would have preferred to run risks rather than be idle. But Jefferson paid no heed to their grumblings, feeling that he was exhibiting to foreign powers unusual forbearance. It is singular that he persevered in a policy that nearly the whole body of merchants censured and regarded as a failure; but he did, and Congress was subservient to his decrees. No succeeding president ever had the influence over Congress that he had. He was almost a dictator. He found opposition only among the Federalists, whose power was gone forever.
At last, when the farmers and planters joined with the shipping interests in complaining of the Embargo, Jefferson was persuaded that it was a failure, and three days before his administration closed it was repealed by Congress. But even this measure did not hurt the party which he had marshalled with such transcendent tact; for his friend and disciple, James Madison, was elected to succeed him in 1809.
The Embargo had had one result: it deferred the war with Great Britain to the next administration. That conflict of 1812-15 was not a glorious war for America except on the ocean. It was not entered upon by the British with any hope of the conquest of the country, but to do all the harm they could to the people who had achieved their independence. On the part of the United States it was simply a choice between insult, insolence, and injury on the one hand, and on the other the expenditure of money and loss of life, which would bear as hard on England as on the United States. Both parties at last wearied of a contest which promised no permanent settlement of interests or principles. The Federalists deprecated it from the beginning. The Republican-Democracy sustained it from the instinct of national honor. Probably it could not have been avoided without the surrender of national dignity. It was the last of our wars with Great Britain. Future difficulties will doubtless be settled by arbitration, or not settled at all, in spite of mutual ill-will. England and America cannot afford to fight. Our late Civil War demonstrated this,–when, with all the ill-feeling between the two nations, war was averted. The interests of trade may mollify and soften international jealousies, but only forbearance and the cultivation of mutual and common interests can eradicate the sentiments of mutual dislike.
However, it was not the Embargo, nor the meditated treason of Aaron Burr, nor the purchase of Louisiana, important as these were, which gives chief interest to the eight years of Jefferson’s administration, and made it a political epoch. It was the firm growth and establishment of the Democratic party, of which Jefferson was the father and leader, as Hamilton was the great chieftain of the Federalist. With the accession of Jefferson to power, a new policy was inaugurated, which from his day has been the policy of the government, except in great financial emergencies when men of brain have had the direction of public affairs. Democratic leaders like Jackson and Van Buren, representing the passions or interests or prejudices of the masses, it would seem, have been generally unfortunate enough to lead the country into financial difficulties, because they have conformed to the unenlightened instincts of the people rather than to the opinions of the enlightened few,–great merchants, capitalists, and statesmen, that is, men of experience and ability. And when these men of brain have extricated the country from the financial distress which men inexperienced in finance and ignorant of the principles of political economy have brought about, the democratic leaders have regained their political ascendency, since they appealed, more than their antagonists, to those watchwords so dear to the American heart, the abolition of monopolies, unequal taxation, the exaltation of the laboring classes,–whatever promises to aggrandize the nation in a material point of view, or professes to bring about the reign of “liberty, fraternity, and equality,” and the abolition of social distinctions.
It cannot be doubted that the policy of Jefferson, while it appealed to the rights and interests of “working-men,” of men who labor with their hands rather than by their brains, has favored the reign of demagogues,–the great curse of American institutions. Who now rule the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cincinnati, and Chicago? Is it not those who, in cities at least, have made self-government–the great principle for which Jefferson contended–almost an impossibility? This great statesman was sufficiently astute to predict the rule of the majority for generations to come, but I doubt if he anticipated the character of the men to whom the majority would delegate their power. Here he was not so sagacious as his great political rivals. I believe that if he could have foreseen what a miserable set the politicians would generally turn out to be,–with their venality, their unscrupulousness, their vile flatteries of the people, their system of spoils, their indifference to the higher interests of the nation,–his faith in democracy as a form of government would have been essentially shaken. He himself was no demagogue. His error was in not foreseeing the logical sequence of those abstract theories which made up his political religion,–the religion of humanity, such as the French philosophers had taught him. But his theories pleased the people, and he himself was personally popular,–the most so of all our statesmen, not excepting Henry Clay, who made many enemies.
Jefferson’s manners were simple, his dress was plain, he was accessible to everybody, he was boundless in his hospitalities, he cared little for money, his opinions were liberal and progressive, he avoided quarrels, he had but few prejudices, he was kind and generous to the poor and unfortunate, he exalted agricultural life, he hated artificial splendor, and all shams and lies. In his morals he was irreproachable, unlike Hamilton and Burr; he never made himself ridiculous, like John Adams, by egotism, vanity, and jealousy; he was the most domestic of men, worshipped by his family and admired by his guests; always ready to communicate knowledge, strong in his convictions, perpetually writing his sincere sentiments and beliefs in letters to his friends,–as upright and honest a man as ever filled a public station, and finally retiring to private life with the respect of the whole nation, over which he continued to exercise influence after he had parted with power. And when he found himself poor and embarrassed in consequence of his unwise hospitality, he sold his library, the best in the country, to pay his debts, as well as the most valuable part of his estate, yet keeping up his cheerfulness and serenity of temper, and rejoicing in the general prosperity,–which was produced by the ever-expanding energies and resources of a great country, rather than by the political theories which he advocated with so much ability.
On his final retirement to Monticello, in 1809, after forty-four years of continuous public service, Jefferson devoted himself chiefly to the care of his estate, which had been much neglected during his presidential career. To his surprise he found himself in debt, having lived beyond his income while president. But he did not essentially change his manner of living, which was generous, though neither luxurious nor ostentatious. He had stalls for thirty-six horses, and sometimes as many as fifty guests at dinner. There was no tavern near him which had so much company. He complains that an ox would all be eaten in two days, while a load of hay would disappear in a night, Fond as he was of company, he would not allow his guests to rob him of the hours he devoted to work, either in his library or on his grounds. His correspondence was enormous,–he received sixteen hundred and seven letters in one year, and answered most of them. After his death there were copies of sixteen thousand letters which he had written. His industry was marvellous; even in retirement he was always writing or reading or doing something. He was, perhaps, excessively fond of his garden, of his flowers, of his groves, and his walks. Music was, as he himself said, “the favorite passion of his soul.” His house was the largest in Virginia, and this was filled with works of art, and the presents he had received. But his financial difficulties increased from year to year. He was too fond of experiments and fancy improvements to be practically successful as a farmer.
One of his granddaughters thus writes of him: “I cannot describe the feelings of veneration, admiration, and love that existed in my heart for him. I looked upon him as a being too great and good for my comprehension. I never heard him utter a harsh word to any one of us. On winter evenings, as we all sat round the fire, he taught us games, and would play them with us. He reproved without wounding us, and commended without making us vain. His nature was so eminently sympathetic that with those he loved he could enter into their feelings, anticipate their wishes, gratify their tastes, and surround them with an atmosphere of affection.”
Thus did he live in his plain but beautiful house, in sight of the Blue Ridge, with Charlottesville and the university at his feet. He rode daily for ten miles until he was eighty-two. He died July 4, 1826, full of honors, and everywhere funeral orations were delivered to his memory, the best of which was by Daniel Webster in Boston.
Among his papers was found the inscription which he wished to have engraved on his tomb: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” He does not allude to his honors or his offices,–not a word about his diplomatic career, or of his stations as governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, or President of the United States. But the three things he does name enshrine the best convictions of his life and the substance of his labors in behalf of his country,–political independence, religious freedom, and popular education.
The fame of Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence is more than supported by his writings at different times which bear on American freedom and the rights of man. It is as a writer on political liberty that he is most distinguished. He was not an orator or speech-maker. He worked in his library among his books, meditating on the great principles which he enforced with so much lucidity and power. It was for his skill with the pen that he was selected to draft the immortal charter of American freedom, which endeared him to the hearts of the people, and which no doubt contributed largely to cement the States together in their resistance to Great Britain.
His reference to the statute of Virginia in favor of religious freedom illustrates another of his leading sentiments, to which he clung with undeviating tenacity during his whole career. He may have been a freethinker like Franklin, but he did not make war on the religious beliefs of mankind; he only desired that everybody should be free to adopt such religious principles as were dear to him, without hindrance or molestation. He was before his age in liberality of mind, and he ought not to be stigmatized as an infidel for his wise toleration. Although his views were far from orthodox, they did not, after all, greatly differ from those of John Adams himself and the men of that day who were enamoured with the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau. At that time even the most influential of the clergy, especially in New England, were Arminians in their religious creed. The eighteenth century was not a profound or religious epoch. It was an age of war and political agitations,–a drinking, swearing, licentious, godless age among the leaders of society, and of ignorance, prejudice, and pharisaic formalities among the people. Jefferson’s own purity and uprightness of life amid the laxity of the times is an unquestionable evidence of the elevation of his character and the sincerity of his moral and religious beliefs.
The third great object of Jefferson’s life was to promote popular education as an essential condition to the safety of the republic. While he advocated unbounded liberty, he knew well enough that it would degenerate into license unless the people were well-informed. But what interested him the most was the University of Virginia, in whose behalf he spent the best part of his declining years. He gave money freely himself, and induced the legislature to endow it liberally. He superintended the construction of the buildings, which alone cost $300,000; he selected the professors, prescribed the course of study, was chairman of the board of trustees, and looked after the interests of the institution. He thought more of those branches of knowledge which tended to liberalize the mind than of Latin and Greek. He gave a practical direction to the studies of the young men, allowing them to select such branches as were congenial to them and would fit them for a useful life. He would have no president, but gave the management of all details to the professors, who were equal in rank. He appealed to the highest motives among the students, and recognized them as gentlemen rather than boys, allowing no espionage. He was rigorous in the examinations of the students, and no one could obtain a degree unless it were deserved. While he did not exclude religion from the college, morning prayers being held every day, attendance upon religious services was not obligatory. Every Sunday some clergyman from the town or neighborhood preached a sermon, which was generally well attended. Few colleges in this country have been more successful or more ably conducted, and the excellence of instruction drew students from every quarter of the South. Before the war there were nearly seven hundred students, and I never saw a more enthusiastic set of young men, or a set who desired knowledge for the sake of knowledge more enthusiastically than did those in the University of Virginia.
Although it is universally admitted that Jefferson had a broad, original, and powerful intellect, that he stamped his mind on the institutions of his country, that to no one except Washington is the country more indebted, yet I fail to see that he was transcendently great in anything. He was a good lawyer, a wise legislator, an able diplomatist, a clear writer, and an excellent president; but in none of the spheres he occupied did he reach the most exalted height. As a lawyer he was surpassed by Adams, Burr, and Marshall; as an orator he was nothing at all; as a writer he was not equal to Hamilton and Madison in profundity and power; as a diplomatist he was far below Franklin and even Jay in tact, in patience, and in skill; as a governor he was timid and vacillating; while as a president he is not to be compared with Washington for dignity, for wisdom, for consistency, or executive ability. Yet, on the whole, he has left a great name for giving shape to the institutions of his country, and for intense patriotism. Pre-eminent in no single direction, he was in the main the greatest political genius that has been elevated to the presidential chair; but perhaps greater as a politician than as a statesman in the sense that Pitt, Canning, and Peel were statesmen. He was not made for active life; he was rather a philosopher, wielding power by his pen, casting his searching glance into everything, and leading men by his amiability, his sympathetic nature, his force of character, and his enlightened mind. The question might arise whether Jefferson’s greatness was owing to force of circumstances, or to an original, creative intellect, like that of Franklin or Alexander Hamilton. But for the Revolution he might never have been heard of outside his native State. This, however, might be said of most of the men who have figured in American history,–possibly of Washington himself. The great rulers of the world seem to be raised up by Almighty Power, through peculiar training, to a peculiar fitness for the accomplishment of certain ends which they themselves did not foresee,–men like Abraham Lincoln, who was not that sort of man whom Henry Clay or Daniel Webster would probably have selected for the guidance of this mighty nation in the greatest crisis of its history.
The Life of Jefferson by Parton is the most interesting that I have read and the fullest, but not artistic. He introduces much superfluous matter that had better be left out. As for the other Lives of Jefferson, that by Morse is the best; that of Schouler is of especial interest as to Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery and popular education. Randall has written an interesting sketch. For the rest, I would recommend the same authorities as on John Adams in the previous chapter.