Thomas Jefferson: The American Presidents Series: The 3rd President, 1801-1809by Joyce Appleby
An illuminating analysis of the man whose name is synonymous with American democracy
Few presidents have embodied the American spirit as fully as Thomas Jefferson. He was the originator of so many of the founding principles of American democracy. Politically, he shuffled off the centralized authority of the Federalists, working toward a more diffuse/p>/b>
An illuminating analysis of the man whose name is synonymous with American democracy
Few presidents have embodied the American spirit as fully as Thomas Jefferson. He was the originator of so many of the founding principles of American democracy. Politically, he shuffled off the centralized authority of the Federalists, working toward a more diffuse and minimalist leadership. He introduced the bills separating church and state and mandating free public education. He departed from the strict etiquette of his European counterparts, appearing at state dinners in casual attire and dispensing with hierarchical seating arrangements. Jefferson initiated the Lewis and Clark expedition and seized on the crucial moment when Napoleon decided to sell the Louisiana Territory, thus extending the national development. In this compelling examination, distinguished historian Joyce Appleby captures all of the richness of Jefferson's character and accomplishments.
Read an Excerpt
The American Presidents
By Joyce Appleby, Arthur M. Schlesinger
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2003 Joyce Appleby
All rights reserved.
A Pivotal Election
On March 4, 1801, a tall, narrow-shouldered man in his late fifties emerged from a boardinghouse in the capital city of the United States. He was heading for his inauguration as the country's third president. Disdaining the company of dignitaries or an honor guard, Thomas Jefferson walked with friends and supporters to the Capitol, where Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office. Only a salute from a detachment of the Alexandria militia and the applause of the men and women gathered on the Capitol steps marked the special occasion. He had declined to wear even the ceremonial sword that John Adams had sported four years earlier. After thirty-five years in the public limelight, Jefferson was now to govern the nation according to ideas still deemed radical by almost half the voters. As he took office, the wounds from a searing presidential campaign and a cliffhanger of an electoral vote had not yet begun to heal.
Nor did the day start propitiously. The nation's second president had decamped earlier that morning in high dudgeon over his defeat, leaving Jefferson a curt note informing him that there were seven horses and two carriages in the White House stables. In the waning hours of his presidency, Adams had also appointed a slew of federal judges to dog his successor's days in the White House. Despite Jefferson's popularity with the voters, he now faced a thoroughly entrenched opposition in the Supreme Court and in a civil service honeycombed with Federalists.
Chief Justice Marshall was but the most conspicuous of the midnight judges. A Virginian like Jefferson, Marshall was no friend of the incoming administration. "Today ... the new order of things begins," he had written that morning, adding ominously, "The democrats are divided into speculative theorists & absolute terrorists. With the latter I am not disposed to class Mr. Jefferson." This was hardly the expression of confidence the new president needed after his election ordeal, but it was an honest response. The campaign had aroused fear and fury. Profound political disputes during the previous decade had rent asunder that collection of disinterested leaders the Founders had envisioned running the country.
When George Washington took office in 1789, few imagined that partisan disputes would disrupt the civic peace that the Constitution was designed to secure. The Federalist Papers, which explained the virtues of the Constitution, had actually banked on the formation of ad hoc majorities, not permanent ones organized to win elections. Neither did Jefferson nor James Madison imagine that they were jump-starting party politics when they went public with their concerns about the elitist cast of Washington's policies, though they certainly wanted to oust Federalists from office. Their cries of anguish about Alexander Hamilton's financial schemes and the administration's tilt toward Great Britain exposed the tip of an iceberg. Beneath lay profound differences dividing the old revolutionary leadership. Soon the electorate itself became polarized. The ill-fated Adams presidency unfolded under the shadow of partisan activity. Events knocked against each other like so many pool balls. The Alien and Sedition Acts, meant to rein in the routine invective found in newspaper columns, provoked the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions; the quasi-war with France prompted the expansion of the army, which was followed by a taxpayers' revolt.
Federalists depicted a Jefferson so besotted with love for France that he would pervert America's most precious institutions to aid the French revolutionary cause. Republicans likewise wildly exaggerated the Federalist partiality to aristocratic rule. With so much at stake in the presidential election, dire warnings filled both the public realm and private letters. Virginia, Hamilton warned, would "resort to the employment of physical force" should Republicans lose. Writing his mother from Europe, John Quincy Adams passed along a French report "that the friends of liberty in the United States ... [would] probably not wait for the next election, but in the mean time [would] destroy the fatal influence of the President and Senate by a Revolution." Other Federalists feared that the Jeffersonians planned a military takeover. Theodore Sedgwick and Fisher Ames predicted that the Republicans in the large mid-Atlantic states would attempt a coup once they had made their militia as formidable as possible. "It is obvious to me," Ames explained in early 1800, "that all other modes of decision will be spurned" as soon as the Republicans "think they have force on their side."
Republicans were no less alarmist, some even urging secession at the same time that they charged the Federalists with intending to introduce a monarchy or aristocracy before they had to yield power in March 1801. Because both parties had a strong regional basis, talk of disunion abounded in New England and the South. Both Federalists and Republicans expressed doubts that there would even be an election. Since the public had tolerated the detested Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson feared that the Federalists would pass "another act of Congress, declaring that the President shall continue in office during life." Referring to Hamilton as "our Bonaparte," he imagined a military intervention in support of Adams with a "transfer of the succession to his heirs, and the establishment of the Senate for life."
By the time the election year rolled around (and the process did take a year, because the states chose their presidential electors in many different ways), the two parties assumed the worst about each other, and party discipline had replaced independent balloting. Party slates like that of Jefferson and Aaron Burr replaced lists of candidates from which electors chose victor and runner-up for president and vice president. When the actual voting ended, chimeras became real threats. Jefferson defeated Adams, but his electors had so loyally voted for both him and Burr that they produced a tie, catapulting the final choice into the House of Representatives that had been elected in 1798. There, a dozen devilishly partisan schemes hatched. The Constitution stipulated that when no one candidate had a majority, the names of the top five contenders be forwarded to the House. In this case there were only four contenders in all. "One state, one vote" was the constitutional rule, even though Delaware and Rhode Island had populations under 70,000 and Virginia contained close to 900,000 people. With only eight of the sixteen state delegations (Vermont, Tennessee, and Kentucky had now joined the union) firmly supporting Jefferson, there were not enough votes in the old House to elect him, but a sufficient number to drag out the balloting for nearly three weeks and thirty-five rounds of balloting.
The switch from the Electoral College turned Jefferson and Burr into competitors for the presidential plum. Since Burr was willing to play the spoiler, the Federalists had a field day voting on various combinations of Jefferson, Burr, Adams, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. They toyed with bizarre slates, even with the outrageous reversal of their standardbearers, Pinckney and Adams. Through round after round of balloting, representatives ignored the voters' intentions. Even the defeated president deplored the possibility that Burr — "this dexterous gentleman" — might become president: "What a discouragement to all virtuous exertion, and what an encouragement to party intrigue, and corruption!" Most of the Federalists could not decide what they feared more: Jefferson's election or a revolutionary break with the new — hence fragile — constitutional government. Rumors of conspiracies and usurpations had been circulating since presidential voting began in the early fall. One contemporary characterized them as "uncommonly extravagant ravings."
War had again broken out in Europe. That and the raging political passions at home prompted dire conjectures about the fate of the union. As so often happens at critical moments, someone found the courage to act honorably. That someone in 1801 was James Bayard, Delaware's sole representative and a Federalist, who deferred to the will of the people by withholding his vote from Burr. Just two weeks before the official inauguration day, March 4, the House named Jefferson president-elect. Three years later, Congress would propose and the states ratify the Twelfth Amendment, separating the ballots for president and vice president. Not men to shy away from realities, America's political leaders recognized that parties had come to stay.
After taking the oath of office, Jefferson delivered his presidential address in as inauspicious a manner as he had arrived at the Capitol. No doubt relieved by the peacefulness of his inauguration, he tried to douse the partisan flames that had burned fiercely and unchecked for months. Ingeniously, he turned the vitriol of the presidential campaign into proof of democratic vigor, describing it as mere "animation of discussion" which would worry only "strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think." He then appealed to his fellow citizens to "restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things," a sentiment that paved the way for his famous declaration: "We are all Republicans — we are all Federalists." Emphasizing this point, Jefferson admonished his fellow Americans to "bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority, is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression." He also warned the people against "entangling alliances," coining a phrase commonly attributed to George Washington. At the completion of the inaugural address, the crowd dispersed, and Jefferson returned to his lodging, where he took a place among his fellow boarders at the noon dinner table.
Among those in attendance that morning was Margaret Bayard Smith, who accompanied her husband to Washington, where he became editor of the principal newspaper and she wrote novels and sketches of life in the capital. Born into a Federalist family, she soon became Jefferson's strongest advocate. In a description of the Capitol, she wrote that it was guarded by venerable oaks. "Beyond the Capitol-Hill as far as the eye could reach, the city, as it was called, lay in a state of nature," she continued, "covered with forest trees, fields of grain, and verdant plains with here and there a house." It was a view that no doubt stirred appreciation in Jefferson who wanted to return the government to a pristine state.
Writing after his victory to the English scientist Joseph Priestley, who was then ensconced in rural Pennsylvania, Jefferson succinctly reprised the differences between the Democratic-Republicans and their Federalist opponents — who, he wrote, had looked "backwards not forwards, for improvement." The Federalists favored education, Jefferson acknowledged, "but it was to be the education of our ancestors," and he noted ruefully that President Adams had actually told audiences that "we were never to expect to go beyond them in real science." Rising to this handsome occasion for expatiating on the future, Jefferson declared with great gusto: "[W]e can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new." "The mighty wave of public opinion" was something of an exaggeration, for Jefferson had won the election with only seventy-three electoral votes to Adams's sixty-five.
Thirty-three years earlier, Jefferson's talents and social position had won him a seat in colonial Virginia's House of Burgesses. Soon events beyond his control turned him into a rebel, a lawmaker, and a statesman. Tall, red-haired, a fine horseman and gifted musician, Jefferson had mastered the classics, mathematics, horticulture, architecture, and natural philosophy by the time he took his seat at twenty-five. A lawyer and a planter, he shone more for his intellectual gifts than his political ones. His father, who had died when he was fourteen, represented an American archetype, the man who goes to the frontier to build for himself what other slaveholding planters inherited. His mother brought him connections to the world of inherited wealth through membership in the all-powerful Randolph clan. Neither parent can account for Jefferson's brilliance, his way with words, or the expensive tastes that kept him in debt. Nor can they have been responsible for that unique political vision that has left Americans in his debt.
The signaling, singling hand of reputation tapped Jefferson for prominence when his "Summary View of the Rights of British America" joined the polemics of the American resistance movement in 1774. The British colonies were far gone along the road to revolution by that year. When Jefferson joined the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia in May 1775, the delegates were teetering on the verge of rebellion. He and John Adams homed in on each other like talent-seeking missiles. Adams considered Jefferson his protégé, but deferred to his gifts as a writer when it came time for the drafting committee to come up with a document explaining why the colonies intended to declare their independence.
Jefferson was thirty-three in that glorious year of independence, 1776, and his personal life was in shambles. His mother's death in the spring had precipitated a crippling bout of migraine headaches that confined him to his bed for weeks. His much-loved wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, suffered from successive pregnancies. In their first year together, Martha was born; from five subsequent births, two more daughters survived. In 1782 came the blow that Jefferson had struggled so hard to avert: his wife died, never having fully recovered from her last pregnancy, the seventh in ten years of marriage. Martha Jefferson reported her father's terrible grief in her journal; for his part, Jefferson, a fanatic record-keeper, burned all of the correspondence between him and his wife.
During these years, Jefferson stayed as close to his home as possible. Serving on the committee to revise the laws of now independent Virginia, he worked on them in his study at Monticello. His position as an ambivalent reformer became evident at once. He dreamed of expanding the suffrage for white men and gaining religious tolerance for Virginia's many sectarians, but he wrote laws that failed to moderate the state's draconian slave code.
In 1780, in the midst of his prolonged season of grieving, Jefferson became governor of Virginia. It was not a good time. The War for Independence had turned nasty in 1779 when the British moved south and dropped the conciliatory policy that had marked their engagement with the Continental Army in New England and the middle states. With their archenemy, France, pouring money and men into the American cause, the British finally took off the velvet glove and invaded the South with ruthless intensity. Governor Jefferson failed to rally the Virginia militia to meet the new threat and found himself the personal target of an audacious raid. Fleeing on horseback with the state's official papers in his saddlebags, he barely escaped capture. Charges of cowardice followed, not entirely erased by a legislative inquiry that cleared his name.
In 1783 the Virginia legislature sent Jefferson to the Continental Congress. His work there on the ordinances for the Northwest Territory reinforced his reputation as a master craftsman in lawmaking. The following year, Congress sent him to France as America's representative.
Jefferson in Paris was a man intoxicated with ideas, with conversation, with traveling, with playing a hand in the great diplomatic game of Europe. He became particularly fascinated with the possibility of replacing the tacit consent of the governed with a genuine, explicit endorsement of current laws. "The earth belongs in usufruct to the living," he wrote Madison. Then, taking the proposition quite literally, he set about calculating the optimal space of years between appeals to the electorate if each generation were to hold its own plebiscite on the body of laws ruling their lives. Making the point quite sharply, he declared that "the rights of one generation will scarcely be considered hereafter as depending on the paper transactions of another."
These ruminations give the first evidence of Jefferson's running battle with the past. Everywhere he looked, he saw habits, customs, prejudices, veneration of the past obliterating the potential of the new, laying the heavy hand of tradition on youthful exuberance. In language he found the deadening force of tradition as well. If existing laws constrained each cohort of the living, how much more profoundly inhibiting was the conceptual vocabulary babies acquired through language. He saw that in learning to talk, human beings took in a particular way of thinking. Dilating on two words he had just learned — purism and neologism — Jefferson announced that he was "not a friend to what is called purism, but a jealous one to the neology which has introduced these two new words into our dictionary without any authority." Writing with his usual confident elegance, he continued, "I consider purism as destroying the verve and beauty of the language while neology improves both and adds to its copiousness." Demoting dictionaries, he called them "but the depositories of words already legitimated by usage," while society became "the workshop in which new ones are elaborated." The very concept society — a coherent group of people conceptually different from family, church, and state — was novel when he wrote those words.
Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson by Joyce Appleby, Arthur M. Schlesinger. Copyright © 2003 Joyce Appleby. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Joyce Appleby is a professor of history at UCLA. Specializing in the study of early America, she is the author of Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans and Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Joyce Appleby is professor emerita, University of California, Los Angeles, and was president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson: The American Presidents Series: The 3rd President, 1801-1809.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007) was the preeminent political historian of our time. For more than half a century, he was a cornerstone figure in the intellectual life of the nation and a fixture on the political scene. He won two Pulitzer prizes for The Age of Jackson (1946) and A Thousand Days (1966), and in 1988 received the National Humanities Medal. He published the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in the Twentieth Century, in 2000.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
This is just the same old biography of the 3rd US president. I would never recommand this book to anyone.
The usual well written, well edited biography of Thomas Jefferson that Thomas Jefferson slips away from, so to speak. This book is the same old serving of Jefferson fare warmed over with a different set of opinions, and not very different at that. This is just a repeat, I'm afraid. There's nothing new here.