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The Process of Government under Jefferson
By Noble E. Cunningham Jr.
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
A New Administration
INAUGURATION DAY WAS ONLY TWO WEEKS AWAY when on February 17, 1801, the House of Representatives, after nearly a week of balloting, elected Thomas Jefferson the third President of the United States. Not until then did Jefferson know that he would take office on March 4. Although the Republican victory in the presidential election of 1800 had been known since December, the tie between the two Republican candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, had forced the election into the House of Representatives, where balloting had not begun until February 11. The Federalists in the House did not have the votes to elect Burr without Republican aid, but they had the strength to deny Jefferson the required majority. The possibility existed that the House might be deadlocked when John Adams's term expired and the nation faced with a constitutional impasse disastrous to the young republic. Thirty-six ballots were required to defeat Federalist efforts to block the election of Jefferson, and not until February 17 did Jefferson obtain the majority of the states necessary for election. As President-elect, then, Jefferson had but fourteen days to organize his administration before taking the oath of office on March 4, 1801.
Jefferson had begun to plan for his presidency during the weeks of uncertainty, but he could make no definite arrangements, and the constitutional crisis facing the nation required his first attention. As long as the outcome of the election remained in doubt, he was extremely cautious about making any commitments. In December, when for a few days he was under the impression that one vote had been withheld from Burr in South Carolina and that he had been elected, Jefferson had asked a friend traveling to New York to carry a confidential letter to Robert R. Livingston offering him the post of Secretary of the Navy. Livingston declined; and, after Jefferson learned of the tie with Burr in the electoral vote, he did not again tender any appointments until the outcome of the election in the House of Representatives was known.
The letters that passed between Jefferson and James Madison during these weeks reveal that an understanding had been reached that Madison would join the new administration as Secretary of State should the election terminate, as they hoped, with Jefferson's success. In one letter, Madison indicated that he had made a commitment to join the new administration in a previous conversation with Jefferson. As early as December 19, by which time Jefferson knew of the tie vote with Burr, Jefferson was urging Madison to be present in Washington a day or two before March 4, when the new administration was expected to take over. But except for the special confidence he shared with Madison, Jefferson kept his plans to himself. While the newspapers speculated upon Cabinet appointments, Jefferson was careful to make no premature moves. Noting that the newspapers had named him Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, the Republican floor leader in the House of Representatives, assured his wife at the end of January that he had "received no hint of that kind from Mr. J[efferson]. Indeed, I do not suppose it would be proper in him to say anything on the subject of appointments until he knows whether he shall be elected."
Once the House of Representatives decided the election, Jefferson moved immediately to form his Cabinet. The next day, the President-elect revealed his choices for Cabinet posts to Gallatin. As expected, he offered Gallatin (the leading fiscal expert in Republican ranks) the position of Secretary of the Treasury. On the same day, Jefferson wrote to Madison acceding to Madison's view that it would be improper to arrive in the capital prior to the inauguration but urging him to "come within a day or two after." This letter further confirms that a previous understanding had been made with Madison that he was to be Secretary of State. On the same day, Jefferson wrote to General Henry Dearborn of Massachusetts: "On a review of the different characters in the different states proper for the different departments, I have had no hesitation in considering you as the person to whom it would be most advantageous to the public to confide the Department of war. May I therefore hope Sir, that you will give the country the aid of your talents as Secretary of War?"
Jefferson's hint to Dearborn of a concern for geographical representation in his Cabinet would have been easily recognized by the New Englander, who could appreciate Jefferson's hope of winning support in the area of weakest Republican strength. With the top post in the Cabinet reserved for a fellow Virginian, it was particularly important to fill the other Cabinet positions with persons outside the South. Another New Englander, Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts, was offered the post of Attorney General, a position that had Cabinet rank, though there was no department under his direction. The secretaryship of the Navy, which Livingston had refused, was now tendered to Samuel Smith, a Republican congressman from Maryland and a prominent Baltimore merchant. "You will bring us the benefit of adding in a considerable degree the acquiescence at least of the leaders who have hitherto opposed," Jefferson wrote in trying to convince the reluctant Smith to accept the post. "Your geographical situation too is peculiarly advantageous, and will favor the policy of drawing our naval resources toward the states from which their benefits and production may be extended equally to all parts." Despite strong pressure from Jefferson, Smith persisted in declining the appointment.
Jefferson's prospective nominations for Cabinet appointments appear to have been widely known in the capital before the end of February 1801. William Barry Grove, a Federalist representative from North Carolina, listed on February 27 "the persons spoken of by friends of the new order of things to aid and conduct our nation through the new voyage over 'the tempestuous sea of liberty,'" naming all the men to whom Jefferson had offered Cabinet posts.
The President-elect wrote to Army Lieutenant Meriwether Lewis, asking him to become his private secretary. "In selecting one I have thought it important to respect not only his capacity to aid in the private concerns of the household," he wrote to Lewis, "but also to contribute to the mass of information which it is interesting for the administration to acquire. Your kno[w]le[d]ge of the Western country, of the army and of all it's interests and relations has rendered it desireable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in that office." While the salary (which came entirely out of Jefferson's own pocket) was only five hundred dollars a year, Lewis would have no expenses of board and lodging "as you would be one of my family," Jefferson assured him, pointing out that the post would "make you know and be known to characters of influence in the affairs of our country." From Pittsburgh, Lewis promptly accepted Jefferson's offer, but it was March 20 before Jefferson received the letter of acceptance. Meanwhile, Jefferson requested that the chief clerk of the State Department be directed to attend him at his lodgings immediately after the inauguration to deliver a message or messages to the Senate. Jefferson made one other appointment before taking office, asking Robert R. Livingston to become minister to France; the New York chancellor, having declined to head the Navy Department, agreed to the French mission.
As soon as the outcome of the election in the House became known, a number of Republican leaders wrote to the President-elect giving their opinions in regard to policies that the new administration should follow and reporting their assessments of public opinion in their respective states or regions. While most of these letters did not reach Jefferson until after his inauguration, they quickly initiated the new President to the pressures that his followers would place upon him. They also reflected the accessibility that had characterized Jefferson's party leadership before his election to the presidency — an accessibility that his assumption of office would not alter. Jefferson was also early introduced to the pressures that could be expected from members of Congress, especially from his Republican supporters. The senators from Tennessee addressed a joint letter to the President-elect on February 26, calling his attention to the fact that Congress had appropriated funds for the President to negotiate a treaty with the Indians south of the Ohio River and reporting that President Adams had never taken steps to carry out the law. They followed with a second letter on March 5, stressing the importance of the matter to Tennessee and outlining the position that they thought should be taken by the government in negotiating a treaty. Similar letters began to arrive from other members.
There was some contact between the President-elect and the Adams administration during the transitional period, but it was very limited. On February 25 Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert "by direction of the President" sent to the President-elect a letter from the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce (on the subject of British privateers) together with a copy of his reply. On the day before Jefferson took office, Stoddert sent him some additional papers "by permission of the President," including letters just received from the West Indies and a copy of instructions to naval commanders. Jefferson also conferred personally with Samuel Dexter, Adams's Secretary of the Treasury, about staying on until Gallatin could take over that office. The contacts between Jefferson and Adams were few. Jefferson dined with Adams in January, and before Mrs. Adams's departure from the capital in early February, he paid her a farewell visit during which they discussed some details of household management. After Jefferson's election by the House of Representatives, the only contact appears to have been a brief note written by Adams three days after the House decision, informing the incoming President that he would leave seven horses and two carriages with harness, all government property, in the stables of the United States. Soon thereafter Congress discovered that Adams had purchased the horses and carriages out of an appropriation for furnishings and ordered them sold.
Many Republicans felt that President Adams was trying to make the transition as difficult as possible. "Instead of smoothing the path for his successor," Madison complained, "he plays into the hands of those who are endeavoring to strew it with as many difficulties as possible." The main thing that Adams seemed to be doing was filling vacant offices with Federalists. "More nominations, both military and civil, have been made by the President and confirmed by the Senate, within the last month, than for a year past," protested one Republican congressman at the end of February. "This is merely intended, either with a view to clog the new President with men in whom he has no confidence, and who may take every opportunity to thwart his plans; or with a view to compel him to remove a great number from their places, with a hope of exciting a clamor which may promote the reinstatement of their party in power." Many of the new appointments were made under the judiciary act of February 13, 1801, which provided places for many Federalists in posts not subject to removal by the President. Jefferson himself later protested Adams's "indecent conduct, in crowding nominations after he knew they were not for himself, till 9 o'clock of the night, at 12 o'clock of which he was to go out of office."
During this period, the President-elect also devoted much time to preparing his inaugural address. He made numerous changes in the draft of his speech, wrote a revised copy in which he made further changes, and then prepared a copy from which to read. In this reading copy, he placed separate ideas and key phrases on different lines, varied the numerous indentations from the margin, and used extensive abbreviations. By writing on both sides of the paper, he was able to get the carefully transcribed script on two sheets of paper. Early on the morning of his inaugural, Jefferson sent a copy of his address to Samuel Harrison Smith, editor of the National Intelligencer, who printed it in the issue of March 4, 1801, and had copies ready for distribution immediately after the inaugural ceremonies. "So great was the demand for this address," Smith reported, "and so considerable the number of citizens surrounding the office in expectation of its appearing that the Press could scarcely keep pace with it." Smith also printed the speech in the Universal Gazette, the weekly edition of the National Intelligencer. All evidence indicates that the copy which Jefferson sent to Smith for publication in his papers was the revised draft from which Jefferson made his reading copy. There are thus two drafts of his inaugural which Jefferson considered as final — the revised draft he sent to Smith for printing, and the copy he used in delivering his address. There are no important differences between the two manuscripts, although there are sufficient minor variations to establish that the contemporaneously printed versions were not printed from the reading copy but from the revised draft. The text printed in the Senate Journal was also that of the revised draft rather than the reading copy.
Jefferson himself handled the few necessary arrangements required for his inauguration. On March 2, in separate notes to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, he notified the legislature that he would take the oath of office on March 4 at twelve o'clock in the Senate chamber. He sent another note to Chief Justice John Marshall informing him of these arrangements and requesting him to administer the oath. He also suggested that Marshall try to be on time. Upon receipt of Jefferson's letter of March 2, the Senate ordered that "seats be provided for such members of the House of Representatives and such of the public Ministers, as may think proper to attend; and that the Gallery be opened to the Citizens of the United States." The Chief Justice also promptly acceded to the request of the President-elect and promised to "make a point of being punctual."
The ceremony on March 4, the first inaugural in the new capital on the Potomac, was unpretentious, although touches of pageantry unplanned by Jefferson were added by others. The President-elect walked to the Capitol from his nearby lodgings at Conrad and McMunn's. "His dress," noted one reporter, 'Vas, as usual, that of a plain citizen, without any distinctive badge of office." Preceded by a detachment of Alexandria militia officers with drawn swords and the marshal and deputy marshals of the District, Jefferson was followed by an escort of members of the House of Representatives. Upon his arrival at the Capitol, the Alexandria rifle company stationed at the door opened ranks and saluted the President-elect as he passed. As Jefferson entered the crowded Senate chamber, members rose, while Vice-President Burr, who had been sworn in earlier in the morning by the President pro tempore of the Senate, relinquished the chair of the Senate to him. With the Vice-President taking a seat on the right and the Chief Justice on the left, Jefferson seated himself and paused briefly before rising to speak. Not present at the ceremonies was former President John Adams, who had left Washington at four o'clock that morning. After delivering his address in tones inaudible to many in the chamber, Jefferson moved to the clerk's table where Chief Justice Marshall administered the oath of office. Immediately thereafter the Alexandria artillery company, which had transported two field pieces to Capitol Hill, fired a salute of sixteen rounds.
Excerpted from The Process of Government under Jefferson by Noble E. Cunningham Jr.. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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