The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 7/Thomas Jefferson
|The Atlantic Monthly
Mr. Jefferson returned from France in the autumn of 1789, and the following spring took office as Secretary of State. He was unwilling to abandon his post abroad, but the solicitations of Washington controlled him. He plainly was the most suitable person for the place. Franklin, the father of American diplomacy, was rapidly approaching the close of his long and busy life, and John Adams, the only other statesman whose diplomatic experience could be compared with that of Thomas Jefferson, was Vice President.
It would be a tedious task to enter into a detail of the disputes which arose in Washington's Cabinet, nor is it necessary to do so. Most candid persons, who have examined the subject, are convinced that the differences were unavoidable, that they were produced by exigencies in affairs upon which men naturally would disagree, by conflicting social elements, and by the dissimilar characters, purposes, and political doctrines of Jefferson and Hamilton. Jefferson's course was in accordance with the general principles of government which from his youth he had entertained.
As to the accusation, so often made, that he opposed an administration of which he was a member and which by the plainest party-rules he was bound to support, it is completely answered by the statement, that his conduct was understood by Washington, that he repeatedly offered to resign, and that when he retired it was in opposition to the President's wish. It is not worth while for us to apply a higher standard of party loyalty to Washington's ministers than he himself applied.
One great difficulty encountered by the politicians of that day seems to have been purely fanciful. Strictly speaking, the government did not have a policy. It went into operation with the impression that it would be persistently resisted, that its success was doubtful, and that any considerable popular disaffection would be fatal to it. These fears proved to be unfounded. The day Washington took the oath, the government was as stable as it now is. Disturbing elements undoubtedly existed, but they were controlled by great and overruling necessities, recognized by all men. Thus the final purpose of the administration was accomplished at the outset. The labor which it was expected would task the patriotism and exercise the skill of the most generous and experienced was performed without an effort,—as it were, by a mere pulsation of the popular heart. The question was not, How shall the government be preserved? but, How shall it be administered? This is evident now, but was not seen then. The statesmen of the time believed that the Union was constantly in danger, and that their best efforts were needed to protect it. In this spirit they approached every question which presented itself. Thinking that every measure directly affected the safety of the republic, a difference of opinion could not be a mere disagreement upon a matter of policy. In proportion to the intensity of each man's patriotism was his conviction that in his way alone could the government be preserved, and he naturally thought that his opponents must be either culpably neglecting or deliberately plotting against the interests of the country. Real difficulties were increased by imaginary ones. Opposition became treason. Parties called themselves Republicans and Federalists;—they called each other monarchists and anarchists. This delusion has always characterized our politics; noisy politicians of the present day stigmatize their adversaries as disunionists; but during the first twenty years it was universal, and explains the fierce party-spirit which possessed the statesmen of that period, and likewise accounts for many of their errors.
Among these errors must be placed the belief which Jefferson had, that there was a party of monarchists in the country. Sir. Randall makes a long argument in support of this opinion, and closes with an intimation that those who refuse to believe now cannot be reached by reason. He may rank us with these perverse skeptics; for, in our opinion, his argument not only fails to establish his propositions, but is strong against them. Let it be understood;—the assertion is not, that there were some who would have preferred a monarchy to a republic, but that, after the government was established, Ames, Sedgwick, Hamilton, and other Federal leaders, were plotting to overturn it and create a monarchy. Upon this we have no hesitation in taking issue. The real state of the case, and the circumstances which deceived Mr. Jefferson, may be briefly set forth.
Jefferson left France shortly after the taking of the Bastile. He saw the most auspicious period of the Revolution. During the session of the Estates General, the evils which afflicted France were admitted by all, but the remedies proposed were, as yet, purely speculative. The roseate theories of poets and enthusiasts had filled every mind with vague expectations of some great good in the future. Nothing had occurred to disturb these pleasing anticipations. There was no sign of the fearful disasters then impending. The delirium of possession had not seized upon the nation,—her statesmen had not learned how much easier it is to plan than to achieve,—nor had the voice of Burke carried terror throughout Europe. Even now, it is impossible to read the first acts of that drama without being moved to sympathetic enthusiasm. What emotions must it not have excited while the awful catastrophe was yet concealed! Tried by any received test, France, for centuries, had been the chief state in Europe,—inferior to none in the arts of war, superior to any in the arts of peace. Fashion and letters had given her an empire more permanent than that which the enterprise of Columbus and the fortune of Charles gave to Spain, more extended than that which Trafalgar and Waterloo have since given to England. Though her armies were resisted, her wit and grace were irresistible; every European prince was her subject, every European court a theatre for the display of her address. The peculiar spirit of her genius is not more distinctly to be seen in the verse of Boileau than in that of Pope,—in the sounding periods of Bossuet than in Addison's easy phrase. The spectacle of a nation so distinguished, which had carried tyranny to a perfection and invested it with a splendor never before seen, becoming the coryphæus of freedom, might easily have fascinated a mind less impressible by nature, and less disposed by education for favorable impressions, than that of Jefferson. He shared the feeling of the hour. His advice was asked, and respectfully listened to. This experience, while, as he says, it strengthened his preconceived convictions, must have prevented him from carefully observing, certainly from being affected by, the influences which had been at work in his own country. He came home more assured in republicanism, and expecting to find that America had kept pace with him.
But many things had occurred in America to excite doubts of the efficiency of republican institutions. The government of the Confederation was of little value. During the war, common interests and dangers had bound the Colonies together; with peace came commercial rivalries, boundary disputes, relations with other countries, the burdens of a large debt,—and the scanty powers with which Congress had been clothed were inadequate to the public exigencies. The Congress was a mere convention, in which each State had but one vote. To the most important enactments the consent of nine States was necessary. The concurrence of the several legislatures was required to levy a tax, raise an army, or ratify a treaty. The executive power was lodged in a committee, which was useless either for deliberation or action. The government fell into contempt; it could not protect itself from insult; and the doors of Congress were once besieged by a mob of mutinous soldiery. The States sometimes openly resisted the central government, and to the most necessary laws, those for the maintenance of the national credit, they gave but a partial obedience. They quarrelled with each other. New York sent troops into the field to enforce her claims upon her New England neighbors. The inhabitants of the Territories rebelled. Kentucky, Vermont, and Tennessee, under another name, declared themselves independent, and demanded admission into the Union. In New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, insurrections took place. In Massachusetts, a rebellion was set on foot, which, for a time, interrupted the sessions of the courts. An Indian war, attended by the usual barbarities, raged along the northern frontier. Foreign states declined to negotiate with a government which could not enforce its decrees within its own borders. England haughtily refused to withdraw her troops from our soil; Spain closed the Mississippi to the commerce and encroached upon the territory of the Confederation. Every consideration of safety and advantage demanded a government with strength enough to secure quiet at home and respect abroad. It is not to be denied that many thoughtful and experienced men were discouraged by the failure of the Confederation, and thought that nothing but a monarchy could accomplish the desired purpose.
There were also certain social elements tending in the same direction, and these were strongest in the city of New York, where Jefferson first observed them. That city had been the centre of the largest and most powerful Tory community in the Colonies. The gentry were nearly all Tories, and, during the long occupation of the town, the tradespeople, thriving upon British patronage, had become attached to the British cause. There, and, indeed, in all the cities, there were aristocratic circles. Jefferson was of course introduced into them. In these circles were the persons who gave dinners, and at whose tables he heard the opinions expressed which astonished and alarmed him.
What is described as polite society has never been much felt in American politics; it was not more influential then. Besides, in many cases, these opinions were more likely to have been the expression of affectation than of settled conviction. Nothing is more common than a certain insincerity which leads men to profess and seemingly believe sentiments which they do not and cannot act upon. The stout squire who prides himself upon his obstinacy, and whose pretty daughter manages him as easily as she manages her poodle, is a favorite character in English comedy. Every one knows some truculent gentleman who loudly proclaims that one half of mankind are knaves and the other half would be if they dared, but who would go mad with despair if he really believed the atrocious principles he loves to announce. Jefferson was not so constituted as to make the proper allowance for this kind of insincerity. Though undemonstrative, he was thoroughly in earnest. In fact, he was something of a precisian in politics. He spoke of kings and nobles as if they were personal foes, and disliked Scott's novels because they give too pleasing a representation of the institution of chivalry. He probably looked upon a man who spoke covetously of titles much as a Salem elder a century before would have looked upon a hard-swearing Virginia planter. In the purse-proud citizens, who, after dinner, used to talk grandly about the British Constitution, he saw a set of malignant conspirators, when in fact not one in ten had ever thought seriously upon the subject, or had enough force of character to attempt to carry out his opinions, whatever they might have been.
The political discontents were hardly more formidable. We have admitted that some influential persons were in favor of a monarchy; but no one took a decided step in that direction. In all the published correspondence there is not a particle of evidence of such a movement. Even Hamilton, in his boldest advances towards a centralization of power, did not propose a monarchy. Those who were most doubtful about the success of a republic recognized the necessity of making the experiment, and were the most active in establishing the present one. The sparsity of the population, the extent of the country, and its poverty, made a royal establishment impossible. The people were dissatisfied with the Confederation, not with republicanism. The breath of ridicule would have upset the throne. The King, the Dukes of Massachusetts and Virginia, the Marquises of Connecticut and Mohawk, Earl Susquehanna and Lord Livingston, would have been laughed at by every ragamuffin. The sentiment which makes the appendages of royalty, its titles and honors, respectable, is the result of long education, and has never existed in America. Washington was the only person mentioned in connection with the crown; but had he attempted to reach it, he would have lost his power over the people. He was strong because he had convinced his country that he held personal objects subservient to public ones,—that, with him, "the path of duty was the way to glory." He had none of the magnetism which lulls the senses and leads captive the hearts of men. Had he clothed himself in the vulgar robes of royalty,—had he taken advantage of the confidence reposed in him for a purpose of self-aggrandizement, and that of so petty and commonplace a kind,—he would have sunk to a level with the melodramatic heroes of history, and that colossal reputation, which rose, a fair exhalation from the hearts of grateful millions, and covered all the land, would have vanished like a mist.
Whatever individuals may have wished for, the charge of monarchical designs cannot be brought against the Federalists as a party. New England was the mother of the Revolution, and became the stronghold of Federalism. In South Carolina and New York, a majority of the inhabitants were Tories; the former State voted for Mr. Jefferson every time he was a candidate, the latter gave him his election in 1800. It requires a liberal expenditure of credulity to believe that the children of the Puritans desired a monarchy more than the descendants of the Cavaliers and the adherents of De Lancy and Ogden. Upon this subject Jefferson does not seem to have understood that disposition which can be dissatified with a measure, and yet firm and honest in supporting it. Public men constantly yield or modify their opinions under the pressure of political necessity. He himself gives an instance of this, when, in stating that he was not entirely content with the Constitution, he remarks that not a member of the Federal Convention approved it in all its parts. Why may we not suppose that Hamilton and Ames sacrificed their opinions, as well as Mr. Jefferson and the framers of the Constitution?
The evidence with which Mr. Randall fortifies his position is inconclusive. It consists of the opinions of leading Republicans, and extracts from the letters of leading Federalists. The former are liable to the objection of having been prompted by political prejudices; the latter will not bear the construction which he places upon them. They are nothing more than expressions of doubt as to the stability of the government, and of regret that one of a different kind was not adopted,—most of which were made after the Federalists were defeated. We should not place too literal a construction upon the repinings of disappointed placemen. Mr. Randall, we believe, has been in political life, and ought to be accustomed to the disposition which exists among public men to think that the country will be ruined, if it is deprived of their services. After every election, our ears are vexed by the gloomy vaticinations of defeated candidates. This amiable weakness is too common to excite uneasiness.
An argument of the same kind, and quite as effective as Mr. Randall's, might be made against Jefferson. His letters contain predictions of disaster in case of the success of his opponents, and the Federalists spoke as harshly of him as he of them. They charged him with being a disciple of Robespierre, said that he was in favor of anarchy, and would erect a guillotine in every market-place. He called them monarchists, and said they sighed after King, Lords, and Commons. Neither charge will be believed. The heads of the Federalists were safe after the election of Mr. Jefferson, and the republic would have been safe if Hamilton and Adams had continued in power.
Both parties formed exaggerated opinions. That Jefferson did so, no one can doubt who observes the weight he gave to trifles,—his annoyance at the etiquette of the capital,—at the levees and liveries,—at the President's speech,—the hysterical dread into which he was thrown by the mere mention of the Society of the Cincinnati, and the "chill" which Mr. Randall says came over him "when he heard Hamilton praise Cæsar." This spirit led him to the act which every one must think is a stain upon his character: we refer to the compilation of his "Ana." As is well known, that book was written mainly for the purpose of proving that the Federalists were in favor of a monarchy. It consists chiefly of reports of the conversations of distinguished characters. Some of these conversations—and it is noticeable that they are the most innocent ones—took place in his presence. The worst expressions are mere reports by third parties. One story rests upon no better foundation than that Talleyrand told it to Volney, who told it to Jefferson. At one place we are informed, that, at a St. Andrew's Club dinner, the toast to the President (Mr. Adams) was coldly received, but at that to George the Third "Hamilton started to his feet and insisted on a bumper and three cheers." This choice bit of scandal is given on the authority of "Mr. Smith, a Hamburg merchant," "who received it from Mr. Schwarthouse, to whom it was told by one of the dinner-party." At a dinner given by some members of the bar to the federal judges, this toast was offered: "Our King in old England,"—Rufus King being the American minister in that country. Whereupon Mr. Jefferson solemnly asks us "to observe the double entendre on the word King." Du Ponceau told this to Tenche Coxe, who told it to Jefferson. Such stuff is repeated in connection with descriptions of how General and Mrs. Washington sat on a raised sofa at a ball, and all the dancers bowed to them,—and how Mrs. Knox mounted the steps unbidden, and, finding the sofa too small for three, had to go down. We are told that at one time John Adams cried, "Damn 'em! you see that an elective government will not do,"—and that at another he complimented a little boy who was a Democrat, saying, "Well, a boy of fifteen who is not a Democrat is good for nothing,—and he is no better who is a Democrat at twenty." Of this bit of treason Jefferson says, "Ewen told Hurt, and Hurt told me." These are not mere scraps, published by an indiscreet editor. They were revised by Mr. Jefferson in 1818, when he was seventy-five years old, after, as he says, the passions of the time were passed away,—with the intention that they should be published. It is humiliating to record this act. No justification for it is possible. It is idle to say that these revelations were made to warn the country of its danger. As evidence they are not entitled to a thought. More flimsy gossip never floated over a tea-table. Besides, for such a purpose they should have been published when the contest was in progress, when the danger was imminent, not after the men whom he arraigned were defeated and most of them in their graves. Equally unsatisfactory is the excuse, that they illustrate history. This may be true, but it does not acquit Mr. Jefferson. Pepys tells us more than Hume about the court of Charles II., and Boswell's Life of Johnson is the best biography in the language,—but he must be a shabby fellow who would be either a Boswell or a Pepys. Mr. Randall's excuse, that the act was done in self-vindication, is the worst of all. Jefferson was the victor and needed no defence, surely not so mean and cowardly a defence. That a grave statesman should stoop to betray the confidence of familiar intercourse,—that a skeptical inquirer, who systematically rejected everything which did not stand the most rigid tests, should rely on the ridiculous gossip of political circles,—that a deliberate and thoughtful man should jump to a conclusion as quickly as a child, and assert it with the intolerance of a Turk, certainly is a strange anomaly. We can account for it only by supposing that upon the subject of a monarchy he was a little beside himself. It is certain, that, through some weakness, he was made to forget gentlemanly propriety, and the plainest rules for the sifting of testimony;—let us believe that the general opinions which he formed, and which his biographer perpetuates, resulted from the same unfortunate weakness.
We have dwelt upon this subject, both on account of the prominence which Mr. Randall has given it, and because, as admirers of Mr. Jefferson, we wished to make a full and distinct statement of the most common and reasonable complaint against him. The biographer has done his hero a great injury by reviving this absurd business, and has cast suspicion upon the accuracy of his book. It is time that our historians approached their subjects with more liberal tempers. They should cease to be advocates. Whatever the American people may think about the policy of the Federalists, they will not impute to them unpatriotic designs. That party comprised a majority of the Revolutionary leaders. It is not strange that many of them fell into error. They were wealthy and had the pride of wealth. They had been educated with certain ideas about rank, which a military life had strengthened. The liberal theories which the war had engendered were not understood, and, during the French Revolution, they became associated with acts of atrocity which Mr. Jefferson himself condemned. Abler men than the Federalists failed to discriminate between the crime and the principles which the criminals professed. Students of affairs are now in a better position than Mr. Jefferson was, to ascertain the truth, and they will not find it necessary to adopt his prejudices against a body of men who have adorned our history by eloquence, learning, and valor.
Jefferson's position in Washington's government must have been extremely disagreeable. There was hardly a subject upon which he and Hamilton agreed. Washington had established the practice of disposing of the business before the Cabinet by vote. Each member was at liberty to explain his views, and, owing to the wide differences in opinion, the Cabinet Council became a debating society. This gave Hamilton an advantage. Jefferson never argued, and, if he had attempted it, he would have been no match for his adversary. He contented himself with a plain statement of his views and the reasons which influenced him, made in the abstract manner which was habitual with him. Hamilton, on the other hand, was an adroit lawyer, and a painstaking dialectician, who carefully fortified every position. He made long speeches to the Cabinet, with as much earnestness as one would use in court. Though Jefferson had great influence with the President, he was generally outvoted. Knox, of course, was against him. Randolph, the Attorney-General, upon whose support he had a right to depend, was an ingenious, but unsteady, sophist. He had so just an understanding, that his appreciation of his opponent's argument was usually stronger than his confidence in his own. He commonly agreed with Jefferson, and voted with Hamilton. The Secretary of State was not allowed to control his own department. Hamilton continually interfered with him, and had business interviews with the ministers of foreign countries. The dispute soon spread beyond the Cabinet, and was taken up by the press. Jefferson again and again asked leave to resign; Washington besought him to remain, and endeavored to close the breach between the rival Secretaries. For a time, Jefferson yielded to these solicitations; but finally, on the 31st of December, 1793, he left office, and was soon followed by Hamilton.
After reaching Monticello, Mr. Jefferson announced, that he had completely withdrawn from affairs, and that he did not even read the journals, preferring to contemplate "the tranquil growth of lucern and potatoes." These bucolic pleasures soon palled. Cultivating lucern and potatoes is, without doubt, a dignified and useful employment, but it is not likely to content a man who has played a great part, and is conscious that he is still able to do so. We soon find him a candidate for the Presidency, and, strange as it may seem, in 1797, he was persuaded to leave his "buckwheat-dressings" and take the seat of Vice-President.
Those who are interested in party tactics will find it instructive to read Mr. Randall's account of the opposition to Adams's administration. His correspondence shows that Adams was the victim of those in whom he confided. He made the mistake of retaining the Cabinet which Washington had during the last year or two of his term, and a weaker one has never been seen. His ministers plotted against him,—his party friends opposed and thwarted him. The President had sufficient talent for a score of Cabinets, but he likewise had many foibles, and his position seemed to fetter his talents and give full play to his foibles. The opposition adroitly took advantage of the dissensions of their adversaries. In Congress, the Federalists were compelled to carry every measure by main force, and every inch of ground was contested. The temporizing Madison, formerly leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, had been succeeded by Albert Gallatin, a man of more enterprising spirit and firmer grasp of thought. He was assisted by John Randolph, who then first displayed the resources of his versatile and daring intellect. Mr. Jefferson, also, as the avowed candidate for the succession, may be supposed to have contributed his unrivalled knowledge of the springs of human action. Earnest as the opposition were, they did not abuse the license which is permitted in political contests. But the Federalists pursued Mr. Jefferson with a vindictiveness which has no parallel, in this country. They boasted of being gentlemen, and prided themselves upon their standing and culture, yet they descended to the vilest tricks and meanest scandal. They called Jefferson a Jacobin,—abused him because he liked French cookery and French wines, and wore a red waistcoat. To its shame, the pulpit was foremost in this disgraceful warfare. Clergymen did not hesitate to mention him by name in their sermons. Cobbett said, that Jefferson had cheated his British creditors. A Maryland preacher improved this story, by saying that he had cheated a widow and her daughters, of whose estate he was executor. He was compared to Rehoboam. It was said, that he had a negro mistress, and compelled his daughters to submit to her presence,—that he would not permit his children to read the Bible,—and that, on one occasion, when his attention was called to the dilapidated condition of a church, he remarked, "It is good enough for him who was born in a manger." According to his custom, he made no reply to these slanders, and, except from a few mild remarks in his letters, one cannot discover that he heard of them.
Mr. Adams did not show his successor the customary courtesy of attending his inauguration, leaving Washington the same morning. The new President, entirely unattended and plainly dressed, rode down the avenue on horseback. He tied his horse to the paling which surrounded the Capitol grounds, and, without ceremony, entered the Senate Chamber. The contrast between this somewhat ostentatious simplicity and the parade at the inaugurations of Washington and Adams showed how great a change had taken place in the government.
The Presidency is the culmination of Mr. Jefferson's political career, and we gladly turn to a contemplation of his character in other aspects.
The collections of Jefferson's writings and correspondence, which have been published, throw no light upon his domestic relations. We have complained of the prolixity of Mr. Randall's book, but we do not wish to be understood as complaining of the number of family letters it contains. They form its most pleasing and novel feature. They show us that the placid philosopher had a nature which was ardent, tender, and constant. His wife died after but ten years of married life. She was the mother of six children, of whom two, Martha and Maria, reached maturity. Though still young, Mr. Jefferson never married again, finding sufficient opportunity for the indulgence of his domestic tastes in the society of his daughters. Martha, whom he nicknamed Patsey, was plain, resembling her father in features, and having some of his mental characteristics. Maria, the youngest, inherited the charms of her mother, and is described as one of the most beautiful women of her time. Her natural courtesy procured for her, while yet a child, from her French attendants, the sobriquet of Polie, a name which clung to her through life.
Charged with the care of these children, Jefferson made their education one of his regular occupations, as systematically performed as his public duties. He planned their studies, and descended to the minutest directions as to dress and deportment. While they were young, he himself selected every article of clothing for them, and even after they were married, continued their constant and confidential adviser. When they were absent, he insisted that they should inform him how they occupied themselves, what books they read, what tunes they played, dwelling on these details with the fond particularity of a lover. Association with his daughters seemed to awaken his noblest and most refined impulses, and to reveal the choicest fruit of his reading and experience. His letters to them are models of their kind. They contain not only those general precepts which an affectionate parent and wise man would naturally desire to impress upon the mind of a child, but they also show a perception of the most subtile feminine traits and a sympathy with the most delicate feminine tastes, seldom seen in our sex, and which exhibits the breadth and symmetry of Jefferson's organization. One of the most characteristic of these letters is in the possession of the Queen of England, to whom it was sent by his family, in answer to a request for an autograph.
His daughters were in France with him, and were placed at school in a convent near Paris. Martha was captivated by the ceremonials of the Romish Church, and wrote to her father asking that she might be permitted to take the veil. It is easy to imagine the surprise with which the worldly diplomatist read the epistle. He did not reply to it, but soon made a visit to the Abbaye. He smiled kindly at the young enthusiast, who came anxiously to meet him, told the girls that he had come for them, and, without referring to Martha's letter, took them back to Paris. The account-book shows that after this incident the young ladies did not diminish their attention to the harpsichord, guitar, and dancing-master.
Maria, who was married to John W. Eppes, died in 1804, leaving two children. Martha, wife of Thomas M. Randolph, survived her father. She was the mother of ten children. The Randolphs lived on Mr. Jefferson's estate of Monticello, and after he retired from public life he found his greatest pleasure in the society of the numerous family which surrounded him,—a pleasure which increased with his years. Mr. Randall publishes a few letters from some of Jefferson's grand-daughters, describing their happy child-life at Monticello. Besides being noticeable for grace of expression, these letters breathe a spirit of affection for Mr. Jefferson which only the warmest affection on his part could have elicited. The writers fondly relate every particular which illustrates the habits and manners of the retired statesman; telling with what kindness be reproved, with what heartiness he commended them; how the children loved to follow him in his walks, to sit with him by the fire during the winter twilight, or at the window in summer, listening to his quaint stories; how he directed their sports, acted as judge when they ran races in the garden, and gathered fruit for them, pulling down the branches on which the ripest cherries hung. All speak of the pleasure it gave him to anticipate their wishes by some unexpected gift. One says that her Bible and Shakspeare came from him,—that he gave her her first writing-desk, her first watch, her first Leghorn hat and silk dress. Another tells how he saw her tear her dress, and in a few days brought a new and more beautiful one to mend it, as he said,—that she had refused to buy a guitar which she admired, because it was too expensive, and that when she came to breakfast the next morning the guitar was waiting for her. One of these ladies seems to give only a natural expression to the feelings which all his grand-children had for him, when she prettily calls him their good genius with magic wand, brightening their young lives by his kindness and his gifts.
Indeed, the account which these volumes give of Monticello life is very interesting. The house was a long brick building, in the Grecian style, common at that time. It was surmounted by a dome; in front was a portico; and there were piazzas at the end of each wing. It was situated upon the summit of a hill six hundred feet high, one of a range of such. To the east lay an undulating plain, unbroken save by a solitary peak; and upon the western side a deep valley swept up to the base of the Blue Ridge, which was twenty miles distant. The grounds were tastefully decorated, and, by a peculiar arrangement which the site permitted, all the domestic offices and barns were sunk from view. The interior of the mansion was spacious, and even elegant; it was decorated with natural curiosities,—Indian and Mexican antiquities, articles of virtù, and a large number of portraits and busts of historical characters. The library—which was sold to the government in 1815—contained between nine and ten thousand volumes. He had another house upon an estate called Poplar Forest, ninety miles from Monticello.
Mr. Jefferson was too old to attempt any new scientific or literary enterprise, but as soon as he reached home he began to renew his former acquaintances. His meteorological observations were continued, he studied botany, and was an industrious reader of three or four languages. When nearly eighty, we find him writing elaborate disquisitions on grammar, astronomy, the Epicurean philosophy, and discussing style with Edward Everett. The coldness between him and John Adams passed away, and they used to write one another long letters, in which they criticized Plato and the Greek dramatists, speculated upon the end for which the sensations of grief were intended, and asked each other whether they would consent to live their lives over again. Jefferson, with his usual cheerfulness, promptly answered, Yes.
He dispensed a liberal hospitality, and in a style which showed the influence of his foreign residence. Though temperate, he understood the mysteries of the French cuisine, and liked the wines of Médoc. These tastes gave occasion to Patrick Henry's sarcasm upon gentlemen "who abjured their native victuals." Mr. Randall tells an amusing anecdote of a brandy-drinking Virginian, who wondered how a man of so much taste could drink cold, sour French wine, and insisted that some night he would be carried off by it.
No American has ever exerted so great and universal an attraction. Men of all parties made pilgrimages to Monticello. Foreigners of distinction were unwilling to leave the country without seeing Mr. Jefferson; men of fashion, artists, littérateurs, savants, soldiers, clergymen, flocked to his house. Mrs. Randolph stated, that she had provided beds for fifty persons at a time. The intrusion was often disagreeable enough. Groups of uninvited strangers sometimes planted themselves in the passages of his house to see him go to dinner, or gathered around him when he sat on the portico. A female once broke a window-pane with her parasol to got a better view of him. But no press of company was permitted to interfere with his occupations. The early morning was devoted to correspondence; the day to his library, to his workshop, or to business; after dinner he gave himself up to society.
Making every allowance for the exaggerations of his admirers, it cannot be doubted that Jefferson was a master of conversation. It had contributed too much to his success not to have been made the subject of thought. It is true, he had neither wit nor eloquence; but this was a kind of negative advantage; for he was free from that striving after effect so common among professed wits, neither did he indulge in those monologues into which eloquence betrayed Coleridge and seduces Macaulay. He had great tact, information, and worldly knowledge. He never disputed, and had the address not to attempt to control the current of conversation for the purpose of turning it in a particular direction, but was always ready to follow the humor of the hour. His language, if seldom striking, never failed to harmonize with his theme, while, of course, the effect of everything he said was heightened by his age and reputation.
Unfortunately, his latter days were clouded by pecuniary distress. Although prudent and methodical, partly from unavoidable circumstances, and partly from the expense of his enormous establishment, his large estate became involved. The failure of a friend for whom he had indorsed completed his ruin and made it necessary to sell his property. This, however, was not done until after his death, when every debt was paid, even to a subscription for a Presbyterian church.
As is well known, the chief labor of his age was the establishment of the University of Virginia. He was the creator of that institution, and displayed in behalf of it a zeal and energy truly wonderful. When unable to ride over to the University, which was eight miles from Monticello, he used to sit upon his terrace and watch the workmen through a telescope. He designed the buildings, planned the organization and course of instruction, and selected the faculty. He seemed to regard this enterprise as crowning and completing a career which had been devoted to the cause of liberty, by providing for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.
In February, 1826, the return of a disease by which he had at intervals been visited convinced Jefferson that he should soon die. With customary deliberation and system, he prepared for his decease, arranging his affairs and giving the final directions as to the University. To his family he did not mention the subject, nor could they detect any change in his manner, except an increased tenderness in each night's farewell, and the lingering gaze with which he followed their motions. His mental vigor continued. His will, quite a long document, was written by himself; and on the 24th of June he wrote a reply to an invitation to the celebration at Washington of the ensuing Fourth of July. It is difficult to discover in what respect this production is inferior to his earlier performances of the same kind. It has all of the author's ease and precision of style, and more than his ordinary distinctness and earnestness of thought. This was his last letter. He rapidly declined, but preserved possession of his faculties. He remarked, as if surprised at it, upon his disposition to recur to the scenes of the Revolution, and seemed to wish that his life might be prolonged until the Fourth of July. This wish was not denied to him; he expired at noon of that day, precisely fifty years after the Declaration of Independence. A few hours afterwards the great heart of John Adams ceased to beat.
So much has been said about Mr. Jefferson's religious opinions, and our biographer gives them such prominence, that we shall be pardoned for alluding to them, although they are not among the topics which a critic generally should touch. Mr. Randall says that Jefferson was "a public professor of his belief in the Christian religion." We do not think that this unqualified statement is supported by Jefferson's explanation of his views upon Christianity, which Mr. Randall subsequently gives. Religion, in the sense which is commonly given to it, as a system of faith and worship, he did not connect with Christ at all. He was a believer in the existence of God, in a future life, and in man's accountability for his actions here: in so far as this, he may be said to have had a system of worship, but not of Christian worship. He regarded Christ simply as a man, with no other than mortal power,—and to worship him in any way would, in his opinion, have been idolatry. His theology recognized the Deity alone. The extracts from his public papers, upon which Mr. Randall relies, contain nothing but those general expressions which a Mohammedan or a follower of Confucius might have used. He said he was a Christian "in the only sense in which Christ wished any one to be"; but received Christ's teachings merely as a system, and not a perfect system, of morals. He rejected the narratives which attest the Divine character or the Divine mission of the Saviour, thinking them the fictions of ignorance and superstition.
He was, however, far from being a scoffer. He attended the Episcopal service regularly, and was liberal in his donations to religious enterprises. Nor do we think that this conformity arose from weakness or hypocrisy, but rather from a profound respect for opinions so generally entertained, and a lively admiration for the character and life of Christ.
If a Christian is one who sincerely believes and implicitly obeys the teachings of Jesus so far as they affect our relations with our fellow-men, then Mr. Jefferson was a Christian in a sense in which few can be called so. Though the light did not unseal his vision, it filled his heart. Among the statesmen of the world there is no one who has more rigidly demanded that the laws of God shall be applied to the affairs of Man. His political system is a beautiful growth from the principles of love, humility, and charity, which the New Testament inculcates.
When reflecting upon Mr. Jefferson's mental organization, one is impressed by the variety and perfectness of his intellectual faculties. He united the powers of observation with those of reflection in a degree hardly surpassed by Bacon. Yet he has done nothing which entitles him to a place among the first of men. It may be said, that, devoted to the inferior pursuit of politics, he had no opportunity to exercise himself in art or philosophy, where alone the highest genius finds a field. But we think his failure—if one can fail who does not make an attempt—was not for want of opportunity. He did not possess any imagination. He was so deficient in that respect as to be singular. The imagination seems to assist the mental vision as the telescope does that of the eye; he saw with his unaided powers only.
He says, "Nature intended him for the tranquil pursuits of science," and it is impossible to assign any reason why he should not have attained great eminence among scientific men. The sole difficulty might have been, that, from very variety of power, he would not give himself up to any single study with the devotion which Nature demands from those who seek her favors.
Within his range his perception of truth was as rapid and unfailing as an instinct. Without difficulty he separated the specious from the solid, gave great weight to evidence, but was skeptical and cautious about receiving it. Though a collector of details, he was never incumbered by them. No one was less likely to make the common mistake of thinking that a particular instance established a general proposition. He sought for rules of universal application, and was industrious in the accumulation of facts, because he knew how many are needed to prove the simplest truth. The accuracy of his mental operations, united with great courage, made him careless of authority. He clung to a principle because he thought it true, not because others thought it so. There is no indication that he valued an opinion the more because great men of former ages had favored it. His self-reliance was shown in his unwillingness to employ servants. Even when very feeble, he refused to permit any one to assist him. He had extraordinary power of condensation, and, always seeing the gist of a matter, he often exposed an argument of hours by a single sentence. Some of his brief papers, like the one on Banking, contain the substance of debates, which have since been made, filling volumes. He was peculiar in his manner of stating his conclusions, seldom revealing the processes by which he arrived at them. He sets forth strange and disputed doctrines as if they were truisms. Those who have studied "The Prince" for the purpose of understanding its construction will not think us fanciful when we find a resemblance between Jefferson's mode of argumentation and that of Machiavelli. There is the same manner of approaching a subject, the same neglect of opposing arguments, and the same disposition to rely on the force of general maxims. Machiavelli exceeded him in power of ratiocination from a given proposition, but does not seem to have been able to determine whether a given proposition was right or wrong.
In force of mind Jefferson has often been surpassed: Hamilton was his superior. As an executive officer, where action was required, he could not have been distinguished. It is true, he was a successful President, but neither the time nor the place demanded the highest executive talents. When Governor of Virginia, during the Revolution, he was more severely tried, and, although some excuse may be made for him, he must be said to have failed.
Upon matters which are affected by feeling and sentiment, the judgment of woman is said to surpass that of our sex,—her more sensitive instincts carrying her to heights which our blind strength fails to reach. If this be true, Jefferson in some respects resembled woman. We have already alluded to the delicacy of his organization; it was strangely delicate, indeed, for one who had so many solid qualities. Like woman, he was constant rather than passionate; he had her refinement, disliking rude company and coarse pleasures,—her love of luxury, and fondness for things whose beauty consists in part in their delicacy and fragility. His political opponents often refused to speak with him, but their wives found his society delightful. Like woman, his feelings sometimes seemed to precede his judgment. Such an organization is not often a safe one for business; but in Mr. Jefferson, with his homely perceptions, it accomplished great results.
The attributes which gave him his great and peculiar influence seem to us to have been qualities of character, not of the mind. Chief among these must be placed that which, for want of a better term, we will call sympathy. This sympathy colored his whole nature, mental and moral. It gave him his many-sidedness. There was no limit to his intellectual tastes. Most persons cherish prejudices, and think certain pursuits degrading or useless. Thus, business-men sneer at artists, and artists sneer at business-men. Jefferson had nothing of this. He understood and appreciated the value of every employment. No knowledge was too trivial for him; with the same affectionate interest, he observed the courses of the winds and the growth of a flower.
Sympathy in some sort supplied the place of imagination, making him understand subjects of which the imagination alone usually informs us. Thus, he was fond of Art. He had no eye for color, but appreciated the beauties of form, and was a critic of sculpture and architecture. He valued everything for that which belonged to it; but tradition sanctified nothing, association gave no additional value. He committed what Burke thought a great crime, that of thinking a queen nothing but a woman. He went to Stratford-on-Avon, and tells us that it cost him a shilling to see Shakspeare's tomb, but says nothing else. He might have admired the scenery of the place, and he certainly was an admirer of Shakspeare; but Stratford had no additional beauty in his eyes because Shakspeare was born and buried there. After his death, in a secret drawer of his secretary, mementoes, such as locks of hair, of his wife and dead children, even of the infant who lived but a few hours after birth, were found, and accompanying each were some fond words. The packages were neatly arranged, and their envelopes showed that they had often been opened. It needed personal knowledge and regard to awaken in him an interest in objects for their associations.
The characteristic of which we speak showed itself in the intensity and quality of his patriotism. There never was a truer American. He sympathized with all our national desires and prejudices, our enterprise and confidence, our love of dominion and boundless pride. Buffon asserted that the animals of America were smaller than those of Europe. Jefferson flew to the rescue of the animals, and certainly seems to have the best of the argument. Buffon said, that the Indian was cold in love, cruel in war, and mean in intellect. Had Jefferson been a descendant of Pocahontas, he could not have been more zealous in behalf of the Indian. He contradicted Buffon upon every point, and cited Logan's speech as deserving comparison with the most celebrated passages of Grecian and Roman eloquence. Nowhere did he see skies so beautiful, a climate so delightful, men so brave, or women so fair, as in America. He was not content that his country should be rich and powerful; his ardent patriotism carried him forward to a time when the great Republic should give law to the world for every department of thought and action.
But this sympathetic spirit is most clearly to be seen in that broad humanity which was the source of his philosophy. He sympathized with man,—his sufferings, joys, fears, hopes, and aspirations. The law of his nature made him a democrat. Men of his own rank, when introduced to him, found his manner cold and reserved; but the young and the ignorant were attracted from the first. Education and interest did not affect him. Born a British subject, he became the founder of a democracy. He was a slaveholder and an abolitionist. The fact, that the African is degraded and helpless, to his, as to every generous mind, was a reason why he should be protected, not an excuse for oppressing him.
Though fitness for the highest effort be denied to Jefferson, yet in the pursuit to which he devoted himself, considered with reference to elevation and wisdom of policy and actual achievement, he may be compared with any man of modern times. It is the boast of the most accomplished English historian, that English legislation has been controlled by the rule, "Never to lay down any proposition of wider extent than the particular case for which it is necessary to provide." Therefore politics in England have not reached the dignity of a science; and her public men have been tacticians, rather than statesmen. Burke may be mentioned as an exception. No one will claim for Jefferson Burke's amplitude of thought and wealth of imagination, but he surpassed him in justness of understanding and practical efficiency. Burke was never connected with the government, except during the short-lived Rockingham, administration. Among Frenchmen, the mind instinctively recurs to the wise and virtuous Turgot. But it was the misfortune of Turgot to come into power at the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI. It became his task to reform a government which was beyond reform, and to preserve a dynasty which could not be preserved. His illustrious career is little more than a brilliant promise. Jefferson undoubtedly owed much to fortune. He was placed in a country removed from foreign interference, with boundless resources, and where the great principles of free government had for generations been established,—among a people sprung from many races, but who spoke the same language, were governed by similar laws, and whose minds' rebellion had prepared for the reception of new truths and the abandonment of ancient errors. To be called upon to give symmetry and completeness to a political system which seemed to be Providentially designed for the nation over which it was to extend, to be able to connect himself with the future progress of an agile and ambitious people, was certainly a rare and happy fortune, and must be considered, when we claim superiority for him over those who were placed in the midst of apathy and decay. His influence upon us may be seen in the material, but still more distinctly in the social and moral action of the country. With those laws which here restrain turbulent forces and stimulate beneficent ones,—with the bright visions of peace and freedom which the unhappy of every European race see in their Western skies, tempting them hither,—with the kind spirit which here loosens the bonds of social prejudice, and to ambition sings an inspiring strain,—with these, which are our pride and boast, he is associated indissolubly and forever. With the things which have brought our country into disrepute—we leave it for others to recall the dismal catalogue—his name cannot be connected.
Not the least valuable result of his life is the triumphant refutation which it gives to the assertion, so often made by blatant sophisters, that none but low arts avail in republics. He has been called a demagogue. This charge is the charge of misconception or ignorance. It is true, he believed that his doctrines would prevail; he was sensitive to the opinions of others, nor was he "out of love with noble fame"; but his successes were fairly, manfully won. He had none of the common qualifications for popularity. No glare of military glory surrounded him; he had not the admired gift of eloquence; he was opposed by wealth and fashion, by the Church and the press, by most of the famous men of his day,—by Jay, Marshall, the Pinckneys, Knox, King, and Adams; he had to encounter the vehement genius of Hamilton and the prestige of Washington; he was not in a position for direct action upon the people; he never went beyond the line of his duty, and, from 1776 to his inaugural address, he did not publish a word which was calculated to excite lively, popular interest;—yet, in spite of all and against all, he won. So complete was the victory, that, at his second election, Massachusetts stood beside Virginia, supporting him. He won because he was true to a principle. Thousands of men, whose untutored minds could not comprehend a proposition of his elaborate philosophy, remembered that in his youth he had proclaimed the equality of men, knew that in maturity he remained true to that declaration, and, believing that this great assurance of their liberties was in danger, they gathered around him, preferring the scholar to orators and soldiers. They had confidence in him because he had confidence in them. There is no danger in that demagogism the art of which consists in love for man. Fortunate, indeed, will it be for the Republic, if, among the aspirants who are now pressing into the strife, and making their voices heard in the great exchanges of public opinion, there are some who will imitate the civic virtues and practise the benign philosophy of Thomas Jefferson!
We take leave of this book with reluctance. It is verbose and dull, but it has led us along the path of American renown; it recites a story which, however awkwardly told, can never fall coldly on an American ear. It has, besides, given us an opportunity, of which we have gladly availed ourselves, to make some poor amends for the wrongs which Jefferson suffered at the hands of New England, to bear our testimony to his genius and services, and to express our reverent admiration for a life which, though it bears traces of human frailty, was bravely devoted to grand and beneficent aims.
[Footnote 1: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. By HENRY S. RANDALL, LL.D. In three volumes. New York: Derby & Jackson. 1858.]