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Thomas Jefferson - A Character Sketch|
A Character Sketch
by Ellis, Edward S. (A.M.)
|No golden eagle, warm from the stamping press of the mint, is more sharply
impressed with its image and superscription than was the formative period of
our government by the genius and personality of Thomas Jefferson.
Standing on the threshold of the nineteenth century, no one who attempted to
peer down the shadowy vista, saw more clearly than he the possibilities, the
perils, the pitfalls and the achievements that were within the grasp of the
Nation. None was inspired by purer patriotism. None was more sagacious,
wise and prudent, and none understood his countrymen better.
By birth an aristocrat, by nature he was a democrat. The most learned man
that ever sat in the president's chair, his tastes were the simple ones of a
farmer. Surrounded by the pomp and ceremony of Washington and Adams'
courts, his dress was homely. He despised titles, and preferred severe
plainness of speech and the sober garb of the Quakers.
"What is the date of your birth, Mr. President?" asked an admirer.
"Of what possible concern is that to you?" queried the President in turn.
"We wish to give it fitting celebration."
"For that reason, I decline to enlighten you; nothing could be more
distasteful to me than what you propose, and, when you address me, I shall
be obliged if you will omit the 'Mr.' "
If we can imagine Washington doing so undignified a thing as did President
Lincoln, when he first met our present Secretary of State, (John Sherman)
and compared their respective heights by standing back to back, a sheet of
paper resting on the crowns of Washington and Jefferson would have lain
horizontal and been six feet two inches from the earth, but the one was
magnificent in physique, of massive frame and prodigious strength,—the other
was thin, wiry, bony, active, but with muscles of steel, while both were as
straight as the proverbial Indian arrow.
Jefferson's hair was of sandy color, his cheeks ruddy, his eyes of a light
hazel, his features angular, but glowing with intelligence and neither could
lay any claim to the gift of oratory.
Washington lacked literary ability, while in the hand of Jefferson, the pen
was as masterful as the sword in the clutch of Saladin or Godfrey of
Bouillon. Washington had only a common school education, while Jefferson
was a classical scholar and could express his thoughts in excellent Italian,
Spanish and French, and both were masters of their temper.
Jefferson was an excellent violinist, a skilled mathematician and a profound
scholar. Add to all these his spotless integrity and honor, his
statesmanship, and his well curbed but aggressive patriotism, and he
embodied within himself all the attributes of an ideal president of the
In the colonial times, Virginia was the South and Massachusetts the North.
The other colonies were only appendages. The New York Dutchman dozed over
his beer and pipe, and when the other New England settlements saw the
Narragansetts bearing down upon them with upraised tomahawks, they ran for
cover and yelled to Massachusetts to save them.
Clayborne fired popguns at Lord Baltimore, and the Catholic and Protestant
Marylanders enacted Toleration Acts, and then chased one another over the
border, with some of the fugitives running all the way to the Carolinas,
where the settlers were perspiring over their efforts in installing new
governors and thrusting them out again, in the hope that a half-fledged
statesman would turn up sometime or other in the shuffle.
What a roystering set those Cavaliers were! Fond of horse racing, cock
fighting, gambling and drinking, the soul of hospitality, quick to take
offense, and quicker to forgive,—duellists as brave as Spartans, chivalric,
proud of honor, their province, their blood and their families, they envied
only one being in the world and that was he who could establish his claim to
the possession of a strain from the veins of the dusky daughter of Powhatan
Could such people succeed as pioneers of the wilderness?
Into the snowy wastes of New England plunged the Pilgrims to blaze a path
for civilization in the New World. They were perfect pioneers down to the
minutest detail. Sturdy, grimly resolute, painfully honest, industrious,
patient, moral and seeing God's hand in every affliction, they smothered
their groans while writhing in the pangs of starvation and gasped in husky
whispers: “He doeth all things well; praise to his name!" Such people
could not fail in their work.
And yet of the first ten presidents, New England furnished only the two
Adamses, while Virginia gave to the nation, Washington, Jefferson, Madison,
Monroe and then tapered off with Tyler.
In the War for the Union, the ten most prominent leaders were Grant,
Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas, Farragut, Porter, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J. E.
Johnston and Longstreet. Of these, four were the products of Virginia,
while none came from New England, nor did she produce a real, military
leader throughout the civil war, though she poured out treasure like water
and sent as brave soldiers to the field as ever kept step to the drum beat,
while in oratory, statesmanship and humanitarian achievement, her sons have
been leaders from the foundation of the Republic.
Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Albemarle County,Va., April 2,1743.
His father was the owner of thirty slaves and of a wheat and tobacco farm of
nearly two thousand acres. There were ten children, Thomas being the third.
His father was considered the strongest man physically in the county, and
the son grew to be like him in that respect, but the elder died while the
younger was a boy.
Entering William and Mary College, Thomas was shy, but his ability quickly
drew attention to him. He was an irrestrainable student, sometimes studying
twelve and fourteen hours out of the twenty-four. He acquired the strength
to stand this terrific strain by his exercise of body. His father warned
his wife just before his death not to allow their son to neglect this
necessity, but the warning was superfluous. The youth was a keen hunter, a
fine horseman and as fond as Washington of out door sports.
He was seventeen years old when he entered college and was one of the
"gawkiest" students. He was tall, growing fast, raw-boned, with prominent
chin and cheek bones, big hands and feet, sandy-haired and freckled. His
mind broadened and expanded fast under the tutelage of Dr. William Small, a
Scotchman and the professor of mathematics, who made young Jefferson his
companion in his walks, and showed an interest in the talented youth, which
the latter gratefully remembered throughout life.
Jefferson was by choice a farmer and never lost interest in the management
of his estate. One day, while a student at law, he wandered into the
legislature and was thrilled by the glowing speech of Patrick Henry who
replied to an interruption:
“If this be treason, make the most of it."
He became a lawyer in his twenty-fourth year, and was successful from the
first, his practice soon growing to nearly five hundred cases annually,
which yielded an income that would be a godsend to the majority of lawyers
in these days.
Ere long, the mutterings of the coming Revolution drew Jefferson aside into
the service of his country.
At the age of twenty-six (May 11, 1769), he took his seat in the House of
Burgesses, of which Washington was a member. On the threshold of his public
career, he made the resolution which was not once violated during his life,
"never to engage, while in public office, in any kind of enterprise for the
improvement of my fortune, nor to wear any other character than that of a
farmer." Thus, during his career of nearly half a century, he was impartial
in his consideration of questions of public interest.
His first important speech was in favor of the repeal of the law that
compelled a master when he freed his slaves to send them out of the colony.
The measure was overwhelmingly defeated, and its mover denounced as an enemy
of his country.
It was about this time that Jefferson became interested in Mrs. Martha
Wayles Skelton, a childless widow, beautiful and accomplished and a daughter
of John Wayles, a prominent member of the Williamsburg bar. She was under
twenty years of age, when she lost her first husband, rather tall, with
luxuriant auburn hair and an exceedingly graceful manner.
She had many suitors, but showed no haste to lay aside her weeds. The
aspirants indeed were so numerous that she might well hesitate whom to
choose, and more than one was hopeful of winning the prize.
It so happened that one evening, two of the gentlemen called at the same
time at her father's house. They were friends, and were about to pass from
the hall into the drawing-room, when they paused at the sound of music.
Some one was playing a violin with exquisite skill, accompanied by the
harpsicord, and a lady and gentleman were singing.
There was no mistaking the violinist, for there was only one in the
neighborhood capable of so artistic work, while Mrs. Skelton had no superior
as a player upon the harpsicord, the fashionable instrument of those days.
Besides, it was easy to identify the rich, musical voice of Jefferson and
the sweet tones of the young widow.
The gentlemen looked significantly at each other. Their feelings were the
"We are wasting our time," said one; "we may as well go home."
They quietly donned their hats and departed, leaving the ground to him who
had manifestly already pre-empted it.
On New Year's day, 1772, Jefferson and Mrs. Skelton were married and no
union was more happy. His affection was tender and romantic and they were
devoted lovers throughout her life. Her health and wishes were his first
consideration, and he resolved to accept no post or honor that would involve
their separation, while she proved one of the truest wives with which any
man was ever blessed of heaven. The death of his father-in-law doubled
Jefferson's estate, a year after his marriage. His life as a gentleman
farmer was an ideal one, and it is said that as a result of experimentation,
Jefferson domesticated nearly every tree and shub, native and foreign, that
was able to stand the Virginia winters.
Jefferson's commanding ability, however, speedily thrust him into the
stirring incidents that opened the Revolution. In September, 1774, his
"Draught of Instructions" for Virginia's delegation to the congress in
Philadelphia was presented. The convention refused to adopt his radical
views, but they were published in a pamphlet and copies were send to
England, where Edmund Burke had it republished with emendations of his own.
Great Britain viewed the paper as the extreme of insolence and punished the
author by adding his name to the list of proscriptions enrolled in a bill of
Jefferson was present as a member of the convention, which met in the parish
church at Richmond, in March, 1775, to consider the course that Virginia
should take in the impending crisis. It was at that meeting that Patrick
Henry electrified his hearers with the thrilling words:
"Gentlemen may cry, 'Peace, peace!' but there is no peace! The war has
actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our
ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field.
Why stand we here idle? What is it the gentlemen wish? What would they
have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of
chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others
may take, but as for me, Give Me Liberty, or Give me Death!"
Within the following month occurred the battle of Lexington.
Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry were members of the committee
appointed to arrange a plan for preparing Virginia to act her part in the
struggle. When Washington, June, 20, 1775, received his commission as
commander-in-chief of the American army, Jefferson succeeded to the vacancy
thus created, and the next day took his seat in congress.
A few hours later came the news of the battle of Bunker Hill.
Jefferson was an influential member of the body from the first. John Adams
said of him: "he was so prompt, frank, explicit and decisive upon
committees that he soon seized upon every heart." Virginia promptly re-
elected him and the part he took in draughting the Declaration of
Independence is known to every school boy.
His associates on the committee were Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and
Robert R. Livingston. It was by their request that he prepared the document
(see fac-simile, page 49,) done on the second floor of a small building, on
the corner of Market and Seventh Streets. The house and the little desk,
constructed by Jefferson himself, are carefully preserved.
The paper was warmly debated and revised in congress on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th
of July, 1776. The weather was oppressively hot, and on the last day an
exasperating but providential invasion of the hall by a swarm of flies
hurried the signing of the document. Some days afterward, the committee of
which Jefferson was a member provided as a motto of the new seal, that
perfect legend,—E Pluribus Unum.
The facts connected with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence
must always be of profound interest. The public are inclined to think that
our Magna Charta was accepted and signed with unbounded enthusiasm and that
scarcely any opposition to it appeared, but the contrary was the fact.
While Jefferson was the author of the instrument, John Adams, more than any
one man or half a dozen men brought about its adoption. When the question
was afterward asked him, whether every member of congress cordially approved
it, he replied, "Majorities were constantly against it. For many days the
majority depended on Mr. Hewes of North Carolina. While a member one day
was reading documents to prove that public opinion was in favor of the
measure, Mr. Hewes suddenly started upright, and lifting up both hands to
heaven, as if in a trance, cried out:
'It is done, and I will abide by it.'
I would give more for a perfect painting of the terror and horror of the
faces of the old majority at that moment than for the best piece of
Jefferson has given a synopsis of the arguments for and against the adoption
of the Declaration. It will be remembered that the hope of the colonies or
new States, even after the war had continued for a considerable time, was
not so much independence as to extort justice from Great Britain.
Had this been granted, the separation would have been deferred and when it
came, as come it must, probably would have been peaceable. At the same
time, there was a strenuous, aggressive minority who was insistent from the
first for a complete severance of the ties binding us to the mother country.
The debate in congress showed that New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina were not ready to take the irrevocable
step, but it was evident that they were fast approaching that mood, and the
wise leaders tarried in order to take them in their company.
In the vote of July 1, the Pennsylvania and South Carolina delegates still
opposed, while those from New York did the same, contrary to their own
convictions but in obedience to home instructions, which later were changed.
The signs of unanimity became unmistakable on the Second, and two days
later, as every one knows. the adoption of the Declaration took place,
though it was not until the Second of August that all the members, excepting
John Dickinson had signed.
Five years passed before the Articles of Confederation were formally adopted
by the states, by which time it had become clear that they must totally fail
of their purpose, for each state decided for itself whether to respond to
the demands of congress. The poison of nullification thus infused into the
body politic at its birth bore baleful fruit in the years that followed.
On six separate occasions, there were overt acts on the part of the States.
The first occurred in 1798, when Virginia and Kentucky passed nullification
The second was the attempt of New England in 1803 to form a northern
confederacy, comprising five New England States, and New York and New
Jersey. The third was Aaron Burr's wild scheme in the Southwest.
The fourth, the resolution of the New England States to withold cooperation
in the War of 1812.
The fifth, the nullification acts of South Carolina in 1832.
The sixth and last, the effort of eleven states to form the Southern
Confederacy. This brought the burning issue to a head and settled the
question for the ages to come.
It seems incredible in these times that the country submitted for a month to
the intolerable Alien and Sedition acts. Should any congressman propose
their reenactment to-day, he would be looked upon as a crank and be laughed
out of court. They were enacted when Jefferson was Vice President and were
the creation of the brilliant Alexander Hamilton, whose belief was in a
monarchy rather than a republic.
The Sedition act made it a felony punishable with a fine of $5000 and five
years imprisonment for persons to combine in order to impede the operation
of any law of the United States, or to intimidate persons from taking
Federal office, or to commit or advise a riot or insurrection or unlawful
It declared further that the writing or publishing of any scandalous,
malicious or false statement against the president or either house of
congress should be punishable by a fine of $2000 and imprisonment for two
It will be noted that this law precluded all free discussion of an act of
congress, or the conduct of the president.
In other words, it was meant to be the death blow to freedom of speech.
But bad as it was, the Alien act, which congress passed at the same session,
1798, was ten fold worse.
There had been much unrest caused by the intermeddling of foreigners in the
States, and it was now decided that the president might drive out of the
country any alien he chose thus to banish, and to do it without assigning
any reason therefor. It was not necessary even to sue or to bring charges;
if an alien receiving such notice from the president refused to obey, he
could be imprisoned for three years.
President Adams afterward declared that he did not approve of this stern
measure which was the work of Hamilton, and boasted that it was not enforced
by him in a single instance.
Nevertheless, the Sedition act was enforced to a farcical degree.
When President Adams was passing through Newark, N. J., he was saluted by
the firing of cannon. One of the cannoneers, who was strongly opposed to
him, expressed the wish that he might be struck by some of the wadding. For
this remark, he was arrested and compelled to pay a fine of one hundred
Editor Frothingham printed his belief that Hamilton wished to buy the Aurora
for the purpose of suppressing it. For expressing that opinion he was fined
and imprisoned. Thomas Cooper made the remark that in 1797 President Adams
was "hardly in the infancy of political mistakes," and these mild words cost
him $400 and kept him in prison for six months.
It is hard to believe that the following proceedings took place within the
present hundred years in the United States of America, and yet they did.
In the case against Callender, Judge Chase denounced the accused to the
jurors and forbade the marshals to place any one not a Federalist on the
jury. The lawyers who defended Callender were threatened with corporal
In Otsego, N. Y., Judge Peck obtained signers to a petition for the repeal
of the obnoxious acts. For such action he was indicted and taken to New
York city for trial.
That was the sacred right of petition with a vengeance.
Matthew Lyon, while canvassing his district in Vermont for re-election to
congress, charged the president in one of his speeches with "unbounded
thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and a selfish avarice,"
certainly mild expressions compared with what are heard in these times, but
because of their utterance, Mr. Lyon spent four months in jail and paid a
fine of $1000
When he had served out his term and been re-elected, a strong effort was
made to prevent his taking his seat. It failed and in 1840, his fine was
returned to him with interest.
It can well be understood that the passage and enforcement of such
iniquitous measures caused alarm and indignation throughout the country.
Edward Livingston declared that they would "disgrace Gothic barbarism."
Jefferson's soul was stirred with the profoundest indignation. Under his
inspiration, the Virginia assembly adopted resolutions calling on the state
to nullify within its limits the enforcement of the Sedition act. The Alien
and Sedition laws were declared unconstitutional, and the sister States were
invited to unite in resisting them, "in order to maintain unimpaired the
authorities, rights and liberties reserved to the States respectively or to
These views were not only those of Jefferson, but of Patrick Henry, George
Mason and nearly all leading Virginians.
Kentucky, the child of her loins, seconded the action of Virginia, urged
thereto by Jefferson who moulded her resolutions.
The revolt against the measures was so widespread that the Alien act was
repealed in 1800, and the Sedition act in the following year.
Having been essentially Federal measures, they were buried in the same grave
with the Federal party.
Having rendered these invaluable services, Jefferson resigned his seat in
congress, on account of the illness of his wife and the urgent need of his
presence at home. Moreover, he had been elected a member of the legislature
of his State and was anxious to purge its statute books of a number of
He had hardly entered upon the work, when he was notified of his appointment
as a joint commissioner with Franklin and Deane as representatives of the
United States in France. After reflection, he declined the appointment,
believing his duty at home was more important. That such was the fact was
proven by his success in securing the repeal of the system of entail, thus
allowing all property in the State to be held in fee simple, and by the
abolishment of the connection between church and state. The latter required
years in order to effect complete success, but it was reached at last.
How forceful were many of the expressions he employed during that contest,
such as: "Compulsion makes hypocrites, not converts;" "Truth stands by
itself; error alone needs the support of government."
Jefferson's committee abolished the frightful penalties of the ancient code;
he set on foot the movement for the improvement of public education; he drew
the bill for the establishment of courts of law in the State, and
prescribing their methods and powers; he destroyed the principle of
primogeniture, and brought about the removal of the capital from
Williamsburg to Richmond.
Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as Governor of the State, at the opening
of the year 1779. The two years were marked by incessant trial and the
severest labor, for the war had reached Virginia soil and the State was
More than once the legislature was obliged to flee before the enemy; Gates
was crushed at Camden; Arnold the traitor scourged Richmond with his
raiders; Monticello itself was captured by cavalry, and Jefferson escaped
only by a hair's breadth. His estate was trampled over, his horses stolen,
his barns burned, his crops destroyed and many of his slaves run off.
He declined a third election,and in the autumn of 1782, to his inconsolable
sorrow, his wife died, leaving three daughters, the youngest a babe.
In the following November, he took his seat in congress at Annapolis, and
during that session he proposed and caused the adoption of our present
system of decimal currency.
In May, 1784, he was again elected plenipotentiary to France to assist
Franklin and Adams in negotiating commercial treaties with foreign nations.
He arrived in Paris in July, and in May, succeeding, became sole
plenipotentiary to the king of France for three years from March 10, 1785.
Jefferson's residence in France produced a profound impression upon him and
had much to do in crystallizing his ideas of the true form of government.
That country was groveling under the heel of one of the most hideous systems
that the baseness of man ever conceived. Who has not read of the nobleman
who, when his coachman ran over a child and crushed out its life, was only
concerned lest its blood should soil his carriage, or of the poor peasants
who were compelled to beat the bogs all night long, to prevent the frogs
from croaking and thereby disturbing the slumber of their lordly masters?
The condition of no people could be more horrible, than that of the lower
classes in France previous to the uprising, with its excesses that horrified
Jefferson enjoyed the music, the art and the culture of the gay capital, but
could never shake off the oppression caused by the misery of the people.
"They are ground to powder," he said, "by the vices of the form of
government which is one of wolves over sheep, or kites over pigeons."
He took many journeys through the country and made it a practice to enter
the houses of the peasants and talk with them upon their affairs and manner
of living. He often did this, using his eyes at the same time with the
utmost assiduity. All that he learned deepened the sad impression he had
formed, and he saw with unerring prevision the appalling retribution that
was at hand.
But Jefferson was not the officer to forget or neglect his duties to his own
government, during the five years spent in France.
Algiers, one of the pestilent Barbary States, held a number of American
captives which she refused to release except upon the payment of a large
ransom. It had been the custom for years for the powerful Christian nations
to pay those savages to let their ships alone, because it was cheaper to do
so than to maintain a fleet to fight them. Jefferson strove to bring about
a union of several nations with his own, for the purpose of pounding some
sense into the heads of the barbarians and compelling them to behave
One reason why he did not succeed was because our own country had no navy
with which to perform her part in the compact.
France, with that idiotic blindness which ruled her in those fearful days,
maintained a protective system which prevented America from sending cheap
food to starving people, nor was Jefferson able to effect more than a slight
change in the pernicious law. One thing done by him made him popular with
the masses. His "Notes on Virginia" was published both in French and
English. Like everything that emanated from his master hand, it was well
conceived and full of information. In addition, it glowed with republican
sentiment and delighted the people. He was in Paris when his State
legislature enacted the act for which he had so strenuously worked,
establishing the freedom of religion. He had numerous copies of it printed
in French and distributed. It struck another popular chord and received the
ardent praise of the advanced Liberals.
Jefferson was too deeply interested in educational work to forget it among
any surroundings. All new discoveries, inventions and scientific books were
brought to the knowledge of the colleges in the United States, and he
collected a vast quantity of seeds, roots and nuts for transplanting in
It need hardly be said that his loved Monticello was not forgotten, and, as
stated elswhere, he grew about everything of that nature that would stand
the rigor of the Virginia winters. No office or honor could take away
Jefferson's pride as a cultivator of the soil.
Returning to Virginia on leave of absence, in the autumn of 1789, he was
welcomed with official honors and the cordial respect of his fellow
citizens. On the same day he learned of his appointment by Washington as
his Secretary of State.
He would have preferred to return to his former post, but yielded to the
wishes of the first president, and, arriving in New York in March, 1790,
entered at once upon the duties of his office.
In the cabinet Jefferson immediately collided with the brilliant Alexander
Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.
The two could no more agree than oil and water.
Jefferson was an intense republican-democrat, and was shocked and disgusted
to find himself in an atmosphere of distrust of a republican system of
government, with an unmistakable leaning toward monarchical methods. This
feeling prevailed not only in society, but showed itself among the political
Jefferson's political creed may be summed up in his own words:
"The will of the majority is the natural law of every society and the only
sure guardian of the rights of man; though this may err, yet its errors are
honest, solitary and short-lived. We are safe with that, even in its
deviations, for it soon returns again to the right way."
Hamilton believed in a strong, centralized government, and on nearly every
measure that came before the cabinet, these intellectual giants wrangled.
Their quarrels were so sharp that Washington was often distressed. He
respected both too deeply to be willing to lose either, but it required all
his tact and mastering influence to hold them in check. Each found the other
so intolerable, that he wished to resign that he might be freed from meeting
Hamilton abhorred the French revolution, with its terrifying excesses, and
Jefferson declared that no horror equalled that of France's old system of
Finally Jefferson could stand it no longer and withdrew from the cabinet
January 1, 1794.
An equally potent cause for his resignation was the meagreness of his salary
of $3500. It was wholly insufficient and his estate was going to ruin. He
yearned to return to his beloved pursuit, that of a farmer.
The request by Washington to act as special envoy to Spain did not tempt
him, but he allowed his name to be put forward as a candidate for the
presidency in 1796. John Adams received 71 votes and Jefferson 68, which in
accordance with the law at that time made him vice-president.
President Adams ignored him in all political matters, and Jefferson found
the chair of presiding officer of the senate congenial. He presided with
dignity and great acceptability, and his "Manual of Parliamentary Practice"
is still the accepted authority in nearly all of our deliberative bodies.
The presidential election of 1800 will always retain its place among the
most memorable in our history.
The Federalists had controlled the national government for twelve years, or
ever since its organization, and they were determined to prevent the
elevation of Jefferson, the founder of the new Republican party. The
Federal nominees were John Adams for president and Charles Cotesworth
Pinckney for vice-president, while the Republican vote was divided between
Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
A favorite warning on the part of those who see their ideas threatened with
overthrow is that our country is "trembling on the verge of revolution."
How many times in the past twenty-five, ten and five years have ranting men
and women proclaimed from the housetops that we were "on the verge of
revolution?" According to these wild pessimists the revolution is always at
hand, but somehow or other it fails to arrive. The probabilities are that
it has been permanently side-tracked.
During the campaign of 1800, Hamilton sounded the trumpet of alarm, when he
declared in response to a toast:
"If Mr. Pinckney is not elected, a revolution will be the consequence, and
within four years I will lose my head or be the leader of a triumphant
The Federalist clergy joined in denouncing Jefferson on the ground that he
was an atheist. The Federalists said what they chose, but when the
Republicans grew too careless they were fined and imprisoned under the
The exciting canvas established one fact: there was no man in the United
States so devotedly loved and so fiercely hated as Thomas Jefferson. New
York had twelve electoral votes, and because of the Alien and Sedition laws
she witheld them from Adams and cast them upon the Republican side.
It may not be generally known that it was because of this fact that New York
gained its name of the "Empire State."
The presidential vote was: Jefferson, 73; Burr, 73; John Adams, 65; C. C.
Pinckney, 64; Jay, 1. There being a tie between the leading candidates, the
election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which assembled on
the 11th of February, 1801, to make choice between Burr and Jefferson.
It is to the credit of Hamilton that, knowing the debased character of Burr,
he used his utmost influence against him.
A great snow storm descended upon the little town of Washington and the
excitement became intense. On the first ballot, eight States voted for
Jefferson and six for Burr, while Maryland and Vermont were equally divided.
All the Federalists voted for Burr with the single exception of Huger of
South Carolina, not because of any love for Burr, but because he did not
hate him as much as he did Jefferson.
Mr. Nicholson of Maryland was too ill to leave his bed. Without his vote,
his State would have been given to Burr, but with it, the result in Maryland
would be a tie.
It was a time when illness had to give way to the stern necessity of the
case, and the invalid was wrapped up and brought on his bed through the
driving snow storm and placed in one of the committee rooms of the house,
with his wife at his side, administering medicines and stimulants night and
day. On each vote the ballot box was brought to the bed side and his feeble
hand deposited the powerful bit of paper.
Day after day, the balloting went on until thirty-five ballots had been
By that time, it was clear that no break could be made in the Jefferson
columns and it was impossible to elect Burr. When the thirty-sixth ballot
was cast, the Federalists of Maryland, Delaware and South Carolina threw
blanks and the Federalists of Vermont stayed away, leaving their Republican
brothers to vote those States for Jefferson. By this slender chance did the
republic escape a calamity, and secure the election of Jefferson for
president with Burr for vice-president.
The inauguration of the third president was made a national holiday
throughout the country. The church bells were rung, the military paraded,
joyous orations were delivered,and many of the newspapers printed in full
the Declaration of Independence.
The closeness of the election resulted in a change in the electoral law by
which the president and vice-president must of necessity belong to the same
Jefferson had every reason to feel proud of his triumph, but one of the
finest traits of his character was his magnanimity.
The irascible Adams made an exhibition of himself on the 4th of March, when
in a fit of rage, he rose before day-light and set out in his coach for
Massachusetts, refusing to wait and take part in the inauguration of his
successor. With the mellowness of growing years, he realized the silliness
of the act, and he and Jefferson became fully reconciled and kept up an
affectionate correspondence to the end of their lives.
Jefferson did all he could to soothe the violent party feeling that had been
roused during the election. This spirit ran like a golden thread through
his first excellently conceived inaugural. He reminded his fellow citizens
that while they differed in opinion, there was no difference in principle,
and put forth the following happy thought:
"We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us,
who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let
them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of
opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
There can be little doubt that he had Hamilton in mind when he answered, as
follows, in his own forceful way the radical views of that gifted statesman.
"Some honest men fear that a republican government cannot be strong, that
this government is not strong enough. I believe this, on the contrary, is
the strongest government on earth. I believe it is the only one where every
man, at the call of the laws, would fly to the standard of the law, and
would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern."
It was characteristic of Jefferson's nobility that one of his first efforts
was to undo, so far as he could, the mischief effected by the detested
Sedition law. Every man who was in durance because of its operation was
pardoned, and he looked upon the law as "a nullity as obsolete and palpable,
as if congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image."
He addressed friendly and affectionate letters to Kosciusko and others, and
invited them to be his guests at the White House. Samuel Adams of
Massachusetts had been shamefully abused during the canvas, but he felt
fully compensated by the touching letter from the president. Thomas Paine
was suffering almost the pangs of starvation in Paris, and Jefferson paid
his passage home. Everywhere that it was possible for Jefferson to extend
the helping hand he did so with a delicacy and a tact, that won him
multitudes of friends and stamped him as one of nature's noblemen.
The new president selected an able cabinet, consisting of James Madison,
Secretary of State; Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury; Henry
Dearborn, Secretary of War; Robert Smith,Secretary of the Navy; Gideon
Granger, Postmaster-general; Levi Lincoln, Attorney General. This household
proved a veritable "happy family," all working together in harmony
throughout the two terms, and Jefferson declared that if he had his work to
do over again, he would select the same advisers without exception.
Although the policy,"to the victors belong the spoils," had not been
formulated at that time, its spirit quickened the body politic. Jefferson's
supporters expected him to turn out a part at least of the Federalists, who
held nearly all the offices, but he refused, on the principle that a
competent and honest office holder should not be removed because of his
political opinions. When he, therefore, made a removal, it was as a rule,
for other and sufficient reasons.
But he did not hesitate to show his dislike of the ceremony that prevailed
around him. He stopped the weekly levee at the White House, and the system
of precedence in force at the present time; also the appointment of fast and
thanksgiving days. He dressed with severe simplicity and would not permit
any attention to be paid him as president which would be refused him as a
private citizen. In some respects, it must be conceded that this remarkable
man carried his views to an extreme point.
The story, however, that he rode his horse alone to the capitol, and, tying
him to the fence, entered the building, unattended, lacks confirmation.
Jefferson was re-elected in 1804, by a vote of 162 to 14 for Pinckney, who
carried only two States out of the seventeen.
The administrations of Jefferson were marked not only by many important
national events, but were accompanied by great changes in the people
themselves. Before and for some years after the Revolution, the majority
were content to leave the task of thinking, speaking and acting to the
representatives, first of the crown and then to their influential neighbors.
The property qualification abridged the right to vote, but the active,
hustling nature of the Americans now began to assert itself. The universal
custom of wearing wigs and queues was given up and men cut their own hair
short and insisted that every free man should have the right to vote.
Jefferson was the founder and head of the new order of things, and of the
republican party, soon to take the name of democratic, which controlled all
the country with the exception of New England.
Our commerce increased enormously, for the leading nations of Europe were
warring with one another; money came in fast and most of the national debt
Louisiana with an area exceeding all the rest of the United States, was
bought from France in 1803, for $15,000,000, and from the territory were
afterward carved the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas,
Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Oklahoma, the Indian Territory and most of
the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming.
The upper Missouri River and the Columbia River country to the Pacific Ocean
were explored in 1804-6, by Lewis and Clarke, the first party of white men
to cross the continent north of Mexico. Ohio was admitted to the Union in
1802. Fulton's steamboat, the Clermont made her maiden trip from New York
to Albany in 1807. The first boatload of anthracite coal was shipped to
Philadelphia, and it was a long time before the people knew what to do with
The Tripolitan Pirates were snuffed out (1801-1805). The blight of the
Embargo Act settled upon our commerce in 1807, in which year the opening
gun of the War of 1812 was fired when the Leopard outraged the Chesapeake.
The Embargo Act was a grievous mistake of Jefferson, though its purpose was
commendable. Under the plea of securing our ships against capture, its real
object was to deprive England and France of the commodities which could be
secured only in the United States. This measure might have been endurable
for an agricultural people, but it could not be borne by a commercial and
manufacturing one, like New England, whose goods must find their market
abroad. Under the Embargo Act, the New England ships were rotting and
crumbling to pieces at her wharves. It was not long before she became
restless. The measure was first endorsed by the Massachusetts legislature,
but the next session denounced it.
Early in 1809, congress passed an act allowing the use of the army and navy
to enforce the embargo and make seizures.
The Boston papers printed the act in mourning and, meetings were called to
memorialize the legislature. That body took strong ground, justifying the
course of Great Britain, demanding of congress that it should repeal the
embargo and declare war against France. Moreover, the enforcement act was
declared "not legally binding," and resistance to it was urged.
This was as clear a case of nullification as that of South Carolina in 1832.
Connecticut was as hot-headed as Massachusetts.
John Quincy Adams has stated that at that time the "Essex Junto" agreed upon
a New England convention to consider the expediency of secession. Adams
denounced the plotters so violently that the Massachusetts legislature
censured him by vote, upon which he resigned his seat in the United States
The Embargo Act was passed by congress, December 22, 1807, at the instance
of Jefferson, and repealed February 28, 1809, being succeeded by the Non-
Intercourse Act, which forbade French and British vessels to enter American
ports. It was mainly due to Jefferson's consummate tact that war with Great
Britain was averted after the Leopard and Chesapeake affair, and he always
maintained that had his views been honestly carried out by the entire
nation, we should have obtained all we afterward fought for, without the
firing of a hostile gun.
When on March 4, 1809, Jefferson withdrew forever from public life, he was
in danger of being arrested in Washington for debt. He was in great
distress, but a Richmond bank helped him for a time with a loan. He
returned to Monticello, where he lived with his only surviving daughter
Martha, her husband and numerous children, and with the children of his
daughter Maria, who had died in 1804.
He devoted hard labor and many years to the perfection of the common school
system in Virginia, and was so pleased with his establishment of the college
at Charlottesville, out of which grew the University of Virginia, that he
had engraved on his tombstone, "Father of the University of Virginia," and
was prouder of the fact than of being the author of the Declaration of
Meanwhile, his lavish hospitality carried him lower and lower into poverty.
There was a continual procession of curious visitors to Monticello, and old
women poked their umbrellas through the window panes to get a better view of
the grand old man. Congress in 1814, paid him $23,000 for his library which
was not half its value. Some time afterward a neighbor obtained his name as
security on a note for $20,000 and left him to pay it all.
In the last year of his life, when almost on the verge of want, $16,500 was
sent to him as a present from friends in New York, Philadelphia and
Baltimore, more than one-half being raised by Mayor Hone of New York.
Jefferson was moved to tears, and in expressing his gratitude said, he was
thankful that not a penny had been wrung from taxpayers.
In the serene sunset of life, the "Sage of Monticello" peacefully passed
away on the afternoon of July 4, 1826, and a few hours later, John Adams, at
his home in Quincy, Mass., breathed his last. A reverent hush fell upon the
country, at the thought of these two great men, one the author of the
Declaration of Independence and the other the man who brought about its
adoption, dying on the fiftieth anniversary of its signing, and many saw a
sacred significance in the fact.
Horace Greeley in referring to the co-incidence, said there was as much
probability of a bushel of type flung into the street arranging themselves
so as to print the Declaration of Independence, as there was of Jefferson
and Adams expiring on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of that
instrument; and yet one alternative of the contingency happened and the
other never can happen.
Jefferson's liberal views have caused him to be charged with infidelity.
He profoundly respected the moral character of Christ, but did not believe
in divine redemption through Christ's work. His dearest aim was to bring
down the aristocracy and elevate the masses.
He regarded slavery as a great moral and political evil, and in referring to
it said: "I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just."
No more humane slave owner ever lived, and his servants regarded him with
almost idolatrous affection, while his love of justice, his hospitality, his
fairness to all and his winning personality disarmed enmity and gave him
many of his truest and warmest friends from among his political opponents.
A peculiar fact connected with Jefferson is the difference among his
portraits. This is due to the varying periods at which they were made. As
we have stated, he was raw-boned, freckled and ungainly in his youth, but
showed a marked improvement in middle life. When he became old, many
esteemed him good looking, though it can hardly be claimed that he was
When Jefferson was eighty years old, Daniel Webster wrote the following
description of the venerable "Sage of Monticello:"
"Never in my life did I see his countenance distorted by a single bad
passion or unworthy feeling. I have seen the expression of suffering,
bodily and mental, of grief, pain, sadness, disagreeable surprise and
displeasure, but never of anger, impatience, peevishness, discontent, to say
nothing of worse or more ignoble emotions. To the contrary, it was
impossible to look on his face without being struck with the benevolent,
intelligent, cheerful and placid expression. It was at once intellectual,
good, kind and pleasant, whilst his tall, spare figure spoke of health,
activity and that helpfulness, that power and will, 'never to trouble
another for what he could do himself,' which marked his character."
This sketch may well be closed with Jefferson's own words regarding life and
"Perfect happiness, I believe, was never intended by the Deity to be the lot
of one of his creatures in this world; but that He has very much put it in
our power the nearness of our approach to it, is what I have steadfastly
The most fortunate of us, in our journey through life, frequently meet with
calamities and misfortunes, which may greatly afflict us; and to fortify our
minds against the attacks of these calamities and misfortunes should be one
of the principal studies and endeavors of our lives.
The only method of doing this is to assume a perfect resignation to the
Divine will, to consider that whatever does happen must happen, and that by
our uneasiness we cannot prevent the blow before it does fall, but we may
add to its force after it has fallen.
These considerations, and others such as these, may enable us in some
measure to surmount the difficulties thrown in our way, to bear up with a
tolerable degree of patience under this burden of life, and to proceed with
a pious and unshaken resignation till we arrive at our journey's end, when
we may deliver up our trust into the hands of Him who gave it, and receive
such reward as to Him shall seem proportionate to our merits."