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Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty
Chapter XV. The End of an Era
by Johnson, Allen


It was in the midst of the diplomatic contest for the Floridas that James Monroe was for the second time elected to the Presidency, with singularly little display of partisanship. This time all the electoral votes but one were cast for him. Of all the Presidents only George Washington has received a unanimous vote; and to Monroe, therefore, belongs the distinction of standing second to the Father of his Country in the vote of electors. The single vote which Monroe failed to get fell to his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. It is a circumstance of some interest that the father of the Secretary, old John Adams, so far forgot his Federalist antecedents that he served as Republican elector in Massachusetts and cast his vote for James Monroe. Never since parties emerged in the second administration of Washington had such extraordinary unanimity prevailed.

Across this scene of political harmony, however, the Missouri controversy cast the specter-like shadow of slavery. For the moment, and often in after years, it seemed inevitable that parties would spring into new vigor following sectional lines. All patriots were genuinely alarmed. "This momentous question," wrote Jefferson, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence."

What Jefferson termed a reprieve was the settlement of the Missouri question by the compromise of 1820. To the demands of the South that Missouri should be admitted into the Union as a slave State, with the constitution of her choice, the North yielded, on condition that the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36 degrees 30' should be forever free. Henceforth slaveholders might enter Missouri and the rest of the old province of Louisiana below her southern boundary line, but beyond this line, into the greater Northwest, they might not take their human chattels. To this act of settlement President Monroe gave his assent, for he believed that further controversy would shake the Union to its very foundations. With the angry criminations and recriminations of North and South ringing in his ears, Jefferson had little faith in the permanency of such a settlement. "A geographical line," said he," coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper." And Madison, usually optimistic about the future of his beloved country, indulged only the gloomiest forebodings about slavery. Both the ex-Presidents took what comfort they could in projects of emancipation and deportation. Jefferson would have had slaveholders yield up slaves born after a certain date to the guardianship of the State, which would then provide for their removal to Santo Domingo at a proper age. Madison took heart at the prospect opened up by the Colonization Society which he trusted would eventually end "this dreadful calamity" of human slavery. Fortunately for their peace of mind, neither lived to see these frail hopes dashed to pieces.

Signs were not wanting that statesmen of the Virginia school were not to be leaders in the new era which was dawning. On several occasions both Madison and Monroe had shown themselves out of touch with the newer currents of national life. Their point of view was that of the epoch which began with the French Revolution and ended with the overthrow of Napoleon and the pacification of Europe. Inevitably foreign affairs had absorbed their best thought. To maintain national independence against foreign aggression had been their constant purpose, whether the menace came from Napoleon's designs upon Louisiana, or from British disregard of neutral rights, or from Spanish helplessness on the frontiers of her Empire. But now, with political and commercial independence assured, a new direction was imparted to national endeavor. America made a volte-face and turned to the setting sun.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century every ounce of national vitality went into the conquest and settlement of the Mississippi Valley. Once more at peace with the world, Americans set themselves to the solution of the problems which grew out of this vast migration from the Atlantic seaboard to the interior. These were problems of territorial organization, of distribution of public lands, of inland trade, of highways and waterways, of revenue and appropriation problems that focused in the offices of the Secretaries of the Treasury and of War. And lurking behind all was the specter of slavery and sectionalism.

To impatient homeseekers who crossed the Alleghanies, it never occurred to question the competence of the Federal Government to meet all their wants. That the Government at Washington should construct and maintain highways, improve and facilitate the navigation of inland waterways, seemed a most reasonable expectation. What else was government for? But these proposed activities did not seem so obviously legitimate to Presidents of the Virginia Dynasty; not so readily could they waive constitutional scruples. Madison felt impelled to veto a bill for constructing roads and canals and improving waterways because he could find nowhere in the Constitution any specific authority for the Federal Government to embark on a policy of internal improvements. His last message to Congress set forth his objections in detail and was designed to be his farewell address. He would rally his party once more around the good old Jeffersonian doctrines. Monroe felt similar doubts when he was presented with a bill to authorize the collection of tolls on the new Cumberland Road. In a veto message of prodigious length he, too, harked back to the original Republican principle of strict construction of the Constitution. The leadership which the Virginians thus refused to take fell soon to men of more resolute character who would not let the dead hand of legalism stand between them and their hearts' desires.

It is one of the ironies of American history that the settlement of the Mississippi Valley and of the Gulf plains brought acute pecuniary distress to the three great Virginians who had bent all their energies to acquire these vast domains. The lure of virgin soil drew men and women in ever increasing numbers from the seaboard States. Farms that had once sufficed were cast recklessly on the market to bring what they would, while their owners staked their claims on new soil at a dollar and a quarter an acre. Depreciation of land values necessarily followed in States like Virginia; and the three ex-Presidents soon found themselves landpoor. In common with other planters, they had invested their surplus capital in land, only to find themselves unable to market their crops in the trying days of the Embargo and NonIntercourse Acts. They had suffered heavy losses from the British blockade during the war, and they had not fully recovered from these reverses when the general fall of prices came in 1819. Believing that they were facing only a temporary condition, they met their difficulties by financial expedients which in the end could only add to their burdens.

A general reluctance to change their manner of life and to practice an intensive agriculture with diversified crops contributed, no doubt, to the general depression of planters in the Old Dominion. Jefferson at Monticello, Madison at Montpelier, and to a lesser extent Monroe at Oak Hill, maintained their old establishments and still dispensed a lavish Southern hospitality, which indeed they could hardly avoid. A former President is forever condemned to be a public character. All kept open house for their friends, and none could bring himself to close his door to strangers, even when curiosity was the sole motive for intrusion. Sorely it must have tried the soul of Mrs. Randolph to find accommodations at Monticello for fifty uninvited and unexpected guests. Mrs. Margaret Bayard Smith, who has left lively descriptions of life at Montpelier, was once one of twenty-three guests. When a friend commented on the circumstance that no less than nine strange horses were feeding in the stables at Montpelier, Madison remarked somewhat grimly that he was delighted with the society of the owners but could not confess to the same enthusiasm at the presence of their horses.

Both Jefferson and Madison were victims of the indiscretion of others. Madison was obliged to pay the debts of a son of Mrs. Madison by her first marriage and became so financially embarrassed that he was forced to ask President Biddle of the Bank of the United States for a long loan of six thousand dollars --only to suffer the humiliation of a refusal. He had then to part with some of his lands at a great sacrifice, but he retained Montpelier and continued to reside there, though in reduced circumstances, until his death in 1836. At about the same time Jefferson received what he called his coup de grace. He had endorsed a note of twenty thousand dollars for Governor Wilson C. Nicholas and upon his becoming insolvent was held to the full amount of the note. His only assets were his lands which would bring only a fifth of their former price. To sell on these ruinous terms was to impoverish himself and his family. His distress was pathetic. In desperation he applied to the Legislature for permission to sell his property by lottery; but he was spared this last humiliation by the timely aid of friends, who started popular subscriptions to relieve his distress. Monroe was less fortunate, for he was obliged to sell Oak Hill and to leave Old Virginia forever. He died in New York City on the Fourth of July, 1831.

The latter years of Jefferson's life were cheered by the renewal of his old friendship with John Adams, now in retirement at Quincy. Full of pleasant reminiscence are the letters which passed between them, and full too of allusions to the passing show. Neither had lost all interest in politics, but both viewed events with the quiet contemplation of old men. Jefferson was absorbed to the end in his last great hobby, the university that was slowly taking bodily form four miles away across the valley from Monticello. When bodily infirmities would not permit him to ride so far, he would watch the workmen through a telescope mounted on one of the terraces. "Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious," he wrote to Adams. "But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of everything. I forget for a while the hoary winter of age, when we can think of nothing but how to keep ourselves warm, and how to get rid of our heavy hours until the friendly hand of death shall rid us of all at once. Against this tedium vitae, however, I am fortunately mounted on a hobby, which, indeed, I should have better managed some thirty or forty years ago; but whose easy amble is still sufficient to give exercise and amusement to an octogenary rider. This is the establishment of a University." Alluding to certain published letters which revived old controversies, he begged his old friend not to allow his peace of mind to be shaken. "It would be strange indeed, if, at our years, we were to go back an age to hunt up imaginary or forgotten facts, to disturb the repose of affections so sweetening to the evening of our lives."

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, Jefferson and Adams were besought to take part in the celebration which was to be held in Philadelphia. The infirmities of age rested too heavily upon them to permit their journeying so far; but they consecrated the day anew with their lives. At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.

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