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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter II. Putting the Ship on Her Republican Tack
by Johnson, Allen


President Jefferson took office in a spirit of exultation which he made no effort to disguise in his private letters. "The tough sides of our Argosie," he wrote to John Dickinson, "have been thoroughly tried. Her strength has stood the waves into which she was steered with a view to sink her. We shall put her on her Republican tack, and she will now show by the beauty of her motion the skill of her builders." In him as in his two intimates, Gallatin and Madison, there was a touch of that philosophy which colored the thought of reformers on the eve of the French Revolution, a naive confidence in the perfectability of man and the essential worthiness of his aspirations. Strike from man the shackles of despotism and superstition and accord to him a free government, and he would rise to unsuspected felicity. Republican government was the strongest government on earth, because it was founded on free will and imposed the fewest checks on the legitimate desires of men. Only one thing was wanting to make the American people happy and prosperous, said the President in his Inaugural Address "a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." This, he believed, was the sum of good government; and this was the government which he was determined to establish. Whether government thus reduced to lowest terms would prove adequate in a world rent by war, only the future could disclose.

It was only in intimate letters and in converse with Gallatin and Madison that Jefferson revealed his real purposes. So completely did Jefferson take these two advisers into his confidence, and so loyal was their cooperation, that the Government for eight years has been described as a triumvirate almost as clearly defined as any triumvirate of Rome. Three more congenial souls certainly have never ruled a nation, for they were drawn together not merely by agreement on a common policy but by sympathetic understanding of the fundamental principles of government. Gallatin and Madison often frequented the President's House, and there one may see them in imagination and perhaps catch now and then a fragment of their conversation:

Gallatin: We owe much to geographical position; we have been fortunate in escaping foreign wars. If we can maintain peaceful relations with other nations, we can keep down the cost of administration and avoid all the ills which follow too much government.

The President: After all, we are chiefly an agricultural people and if we shape our policy accordingly we shall be much more likely to multiply and be happy than as if we mimicked an Amsterdam, a Hamburg, or a city like London.

Madison (quietly): I quite agree with you. We must keep the government simple and republican, avoiding the corruption which inevitably prevails in crowded cities.

Gallatin (pursuing his thought): The moment you allow the national debt to mount, you entail burdens on posterity and augment the operations of government.

The President (bitterly): The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity is but swindling futurity on a large scale. That was what Hamilton --

Gallatin: Just so; and if this administration does not reduce taxes, they will never be reduced. We must strike at the root of the evil and avert the danger of multiplying the functions of government. I would repeal all internal taxes. These pretended tax-preparations, treasure-preparations, and army-preparations against contingent wars tend only to encourage wars.

The President (nodding his head in agreement): The discharge of the debt is vital to the destinies of our government, and for the present we must make all objects subordinate to this. We must confine our general government to foreign concerns only and let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce. And our commerce is so valuable to other nations that they will be glad to purchase it, when they know that all we ask is justice. Why, then, should we not reduce our general government to a very simple organization and a very unexpensive one--a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants?

It was precisely the matter of selecting these few servants which worried the President during his first months in office, for the federal offices were held by Federalists almost to a man. He hoped that he would have to make only a few removals any other course would expose him to the charge of inconsistency after his complacent statement that there was no fundamental difference between Republicans and Federalists. But his followers thought otherwise; they wanted the spoils of victory and they meant to have them. Slowly and reluctantly Jefferson yielded to pressure, justifying himself as he did so by the reflection that a due participation in office was a matter of right. And how, pray, could due participation be obtained, if there were no removals? Deaths were regrettably few; and resignations could hardly be expected. Once removals were decided upon, Jefferson drifted helplessly upon the tide. For a moment, it is true, he wrote hopefully about establishing an equilibrium and then returning "with joy to that state of things when the only questions concerning a candidate shall be: Is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?" That blessed expectation was never realized. By the end of his second term, a Federalist in office was as rare as a Republican under Adams.

The removal of the Collector of the Port at New Haven and the appointment of an octogenarian whose chief qualification was his Republicanism brought to a head all the bitter animosity of Federalist New England. The hostility to Jefferson in this region was no ordinary political opposition, as he knew full well, for it was compounded of many ingredients. In New England there was a greater social solidarity than existed anywhere else in the Union. Descended from English stock, imbued with common religious and political traditions, and bound together by the ties of a common ecclesiastical polity, the people of this section had, as Jefferson expressed it, "a sort of family pride." Here all the forces of education, property, religion, and respectability were united in the maintenance of the established order against the assaults of democracy. New England Federalism was not so much a body of political doctrine as a state of mind. Abhorrence of the forces liberated by the French Revolution was the dominating emotion. To the Federalist leaders democracy seemed an aberration of the human mind, which was bound everywhere to produce infidelity, looseness of morals, and political chaos. In the words of their Jeremiah, Fisher Ames, "Democracy is a troubled spirit, fated never to rest, and whose dreams, if it sleeps, present only visions of hell." So thinking and feeling, they had witnessed the triumph of Jefferson with genuine alarm, for Jefferson they held to be no better than a Jacobin, bent upon subverting the social order and saturated with all the heterodox notions of Voltaire and Thomas Paine.

The appointment of the aged Samuel Bishop as Collector of New Haven was evidence enough to the Federalist mind, which fed upon suspicion, that Jefferson intended to reward his son, Abraham Bishop, for political services. The younger Bishop was a stench in their nostrils, for at a recent celebration of the Republican victory he had shocked the good people of Connecticut by characterizing Jefferson as "the illustrious chief who, once insulted, now presides over the Union," and comparing him with the Saviour of the world, "who, once insulted, now presides over the universe." And this had not been his first transgression: he was known as an active and intemperate rebel against the standing order. No wonder that Theodore Dwight voiced the alarm of all New England Federalists in an oration at New Haven, in which he declared that according to the doctrines of Jacobinism "the greatest villain in the community is the fittest person to make and execute the laws." "We have now," said he, "reached the consummation of democratic blessedness. We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves." Here was an opposition which, if persisted in, might menace the integrity of the Union.

Scarcely less vexatious was the business of appointments in New York where three factions in the Republican party struggled for the control of the patronage. Which should the President support? Gallatin, whose father-in-law was prominent in the politics of the State, was inclined to favor Burr and his followers; but the President already felt a deep distrust of Burr and finally surrendered to the importunities of DeWitt Clinton, who had formed an alliance with the Livingston interests to drive Burr from the party. Despite the pettiness of the game, which disgusted both Gallatin and Jefferson, the decision was fateful. It was no light matter, even for the chief magistrate, to offend Aaron Burr.

From these worrisome details of administration, the President turned with relief to the preparation of his first address to Congress. The keynote was to be economy. But just how economies were actually to be effected was not so clear. For months Gallatin had been toiling over masses of statistics, trying to reconcile a policy of reduced taxation, to satisfy the demands of the party, with the discharge of the public debt. By laborious calculation he found that if $7,300,000 were set aside each year, the debt--principal and interest--could be discharged within sixteen years. But if the unpopular excise were abandoned, where was the needed revenue to be found? New taxes were not to be thought of. The alternative, then, was to reduce expenditures. But how and where?

Under these circumstances the President and his Cabinet adopted the course which in the light of subsequent events seems to have been woefully ill-timed and hazardous in the extreme. They determined to sacrifice the army and navy. In extenuation of this decision, it may be said that the danger of war with France, which had forced the Adams Administration to double expenditures, had passed; and that Europe was at this moment at peace, though only the most sanguine and shortsighted could believe that continued peace was possible in Europe with the First Consul in the saddle. It was agreed, then, that the expenditures for the military and naval establishments should be kept at about $2,500,000--somewhat below the normal appropriation before the recent war-flurry; and that wherever possible expenses should be reduced by careful pruning of the list of employees at the navy yards. Such was the programme of humdrum economy which President Jefferson laid before Congress. After the exciting campaign of 1800, when the public was assured that the forces of Darkness and Light were locked in deadly combat for the soul of the nation, this tame programme seemed like an anticlimax. But those who knew Thomas Jefferson learned to discount the vagaries to which he gave expression in conversation. As John Quincy Adams once remarked after listening to Jefferson's brilliant table talk, Yet Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, was a very different person from Thomas Jefferson, practical politician. Paradoxical as it may seem, the new President, of all men of his day, was the least likely to undertake revolutionary policies; and it was just this acquaintance with Jefferson's mental habits which led his inveterate enemy, Alexander Hamilton, to advise his party associates to elect Jefferson rather than Burr.

The President broke with precedent, however, in one small particular. He was resolved not to follow the practice of his Federalist predecessors and address Congress in person. The President's speech to the two houses in joint session savored too much of a speech from the throne; it was a symptom of the Federalist leaning to monarchical forms and practices. He sent his address, therefore, in writing, accompanied with letters to the presiding officers of the two chambers, in which he justified this departure from custom on the ground of convenience and economy of time. "I have had principal regard," he wrote, "to the convenience of the Legislature, to the economy of their time, to the relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them, and to the benefits thence resulting to the public affairs." This explanation deceived no one, unless it was the writer himself. It was thoroughly characteristic of Thomas Jefferson that he often explained his conduct by reasons which were obvious afterthoughts --an unfortunate habit which has led his contemporaries and his unfriendly biographers to charge him with hypocrisy. And it must be admitted that his preference for indirect methods of achieving a purpose exposed him justly to the reproaches of those who liked frankness and plain dealing. It is not unfair, then, to wonder whether the President was not thinking rather of his own convenience when he elected to address Congress by written message, for he was not a ready nor an impressive speaker. At all events, he established a precedent which remained unbroken until another Democratic President, one hundred and twelve years later, returned to the practice of Washington and Adams.

If the Federalists of New England are to be believed, hypocrisy marked the presidential message from the very beginning to the end. It began with a pious expression of thanks "to the beneficent Being" who had been pleased to breathe into the warring peoples of Europe a spirit of forgiveness and conciliation. But even the most bigoted Federalist who could not tolerate religious views differing from his own must have been impressed with the devout and sincere desire of the President to preserve peace. Peace! peace! It was a sentiment which ran through the message like the watermark in the very paper on which he wrote; it was the condition, the absolutely indispensable condition, of every chaste reformation which he advocated. Every reduction of public expenditure was predicated on the supposition that the danger of war was remote because other nations would desire to treat the United States justly. "Salutary reductions in habitual expenditures" were urged in every branch of the public service from the diplomatic and revenue services to the judiciary and the naval yards. War might come, indeed, but "sound principles would not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow-citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not, perhaps, happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure."

On all concrete matters the President's message cut close to the line which Gallatin had marked out. The internal taxes should now be dispensed with and corresponding reductions be made in "our habitual expenditures." There had been unwise multiplication of federal offices, many of which added nothing to the efficiency of the Government but only to the cost. These useless offices should be lopped off, for "when we consider that this Government is charged with the external and mutual relations only of these States, . . . we may well doubt whether our organization is not too complicated, too expensive." In this connection Congress might well consider the Federal Judiciary, particularly the courts newly erected, and "judge of the proportion which the institution bears to the business it has to perform."[*] And finally, Congress should consider whether the law relating to naturalization should not be revised. "A denial of citizenship under a residence of fourteen years is a denial to a great proportion of those who ask it"; and "shall we refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land?"

[ The studied moderation of the message gave no hint of Jefferson's resolute purpose to procure the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801. The history of this act and its repeal, as well as of the attack upon the judiciary, is recounted by Edward S. Corwin in "John Marshall and the Constitution" in "The Chronicles of America."]

The most inveterate foe could not characterize this message as revolutionary, however much he might dissent from the policies advocated. It was not Jefferson's way, indeed, to announce his intentions boldly and hew his way relentlessly to his objective. He was far too astute as a party leader to attempt to force his will upon Republicans in Congress. He would suggest; he would advise; he would cautiously express an opinion; but he would never dictate. Yet few Presidents have exercised a stronger directive influence upon Congress than Thomas Jefferson during the greater part of his Administration. So long as he was en rapport with Nathaniel Macon, Speaker of the House, and with John Randolph, Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, he could direct the policies of his party as effectively as the most autocratic dictator. When he had made up his mind that Justice Samuel Chase of the Supreme Court should be impeached, he simply penned a note to Joseph Nicholson, who was then managing the impeachment of Judge Pickering, raising the question whether Chase's attack on the principles of the Constitution should go unpunished. "I ask these questions for your consideration," said the President deferentially; "for myself, it is better that I should not interfere." And eventually impeachment proceedings were instituted.

In this memorable first message, the President alluded to a little incident which had occurred in the Mediterranean, "the only exception to this state of general peace with which we have been blessed." Tripoli, one of the Barbary States, had begun depredations upon American commerce and the President had sent a small squadron for protection. A ship of this squadron, the schooner Enterprise, had fallen in with a Tripolitan man-of-war and after a fight lasting three hours had forced the corsair to strike her colors. But since war had not been declared and the President's orders were to act only on the defensive, the crew of the Enterprise dismantled the captured vessel and let her go. Would Congress, asked the President, take under consideration the advisability of placing our forces on an equality with those of our adversaries? Neither the President nor his Secretary of the Treasury seems to have been aware that this single cloud on the horizon portended a storm of long duration. Yet within a year it became necessary to delay further reductions in the naval establishment and to impose new taxes to meet the very contingency which the peace-loving President declared most remote. Moreover, the very frigates which he had proposed to lay up in the eastern branch of the Potomac were manned and dispatched to the Mediterranean to bring the Corsairs to terms.

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