The Presidents of the United States, 1789-1914/Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson[edit]

Also in this chapter … Martha Wayles, wifeMartha, daughterMary, daughter

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, born in Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia, April 2, 1743; died at Monticello, in the same county, July 4, 1826. His father was Peter Jefferson, who, with the aid of thirty slaves, tilled a tobacco and wheat farm of 1,900 acres; a man physically strong, a good mathematician, skilled in surveying, fond of standard literature, and in politics a British Whig. Like his fathers before him, Peter Jefferson was a justice of the peace, a vestryman of his parish, and a member of the colonial legislature. The first of the Virginia Jeffersons, who were of Welsh extraction, was a member of the Virginia legislature of 1619, noted as the first legislative body ever convened on the western continent. Peter married in 1738 Jane, daughter of Isham Randolph, a wealthy and conspicuous member of the family of that name. Of their ten children, Thomas was the third, born in a plain, spacious farm-house, traces of which still exist. He inherited a full measure of his father's bodily strength and stature, both having been esteemed in their prime the strongest men of their county. He inherited also his father's inclination to liberal politics, his taste for literature, and his aptitude for mathematics. Peter Jefferson died in 1757, when his son Thomas was fourteen years of age. On his death-bed he left an injunction that the education of his son, already well advanced in a preparatory school, should be completed at the College of William and Mary, a circumstance which his son always remembered with gratitude, saying that, if he had to choose between the education and the estate his father left him, he would choose the education. His schoolmates reported that at school he was noted for good scholarship, industry, and shyness. Without leaving his father's land he could shoot turkeys, deer, foxes, and other game. His father in his last hours had specially charged his mother not to permit him to neglect the exercise requisite for health and strength; but the admonition was scarcely necessary, for the youth was a keen hunter and had been taught by his father to swim his horse over the Rivanna, a tributary of the James, which flowed by the estate.

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From the painting by Mather Brown, owned by Henry Adams, Washington, D. C.

The Jeffersons were a musical family; the girls sang the songs of the time, and Thomas, practising the violin assiduously from boyhood, became an excellent performer. At seventeen, when he entered the College of William and Mary, he was tall, raw-boned, freckled, and sandy-haired, with large feet and hands, thick wrists, and prominent cheek-bones and chin. His comrades described him as far from handsome, a fresh, healthy-looking youth, very erect, agile, and strong, with something of rusticity in his air and demeanor. The college was not then efficient nor well equipped, but there was one true educator connected with it, Dr. William Small, of Scotland, professor of mathematics. Jefferson gratefully remembered him as an ardent student of science, who possessed a happy talent for communicating knowledge, a man of agreeable manners and enlightened mind. He goes so far as to say in his autobiography that his coming under the influence of Dr. Small "probably fixed the destinies of my life." The learned and genial professor became attached to his receptive pupil, made him the daily companion of his walks, and gave him those views of the connection of the sciences and of the system of things of which man is a part which then prevailed in the advanced scientific circles of Europe. Prof. Small was a friend of the poet Erasmus Darwin, progenitor of an illustrious line of learned men. Jefferson was a hard student in college, and at times forgot his father's dying injunction as to exercise. He kept horses at Williamsburg, but as his love of knowledge increased his rides became shorter and less frequent, and even his beloved violin was neglected. There was a time, as he remembered, when he studied fifteen hours a day. Once a week the lieutenant-governor, Francis Fauquier, had a musical party at the "palace," to which the guests, in the good old style of that century, brought their instruments. Jefferson was always present at these parties with his violin, and participated in the concert, the governor himself being also a performer. From Fauquier, a man of the world of the period, he learned much of the social, political, and parliamentary life of the Old World. George Wythe, afterward chancellor, was then a young lawyer of Williamsburg. He was one of the highly gifted men that frequented the governor's table, and contributed especially to the forming of Jefferson's mind.

On his graduation, Jefferson entered upon the study of law, under the guidance of George Wythe. As his father's estate was charged with the maintenance of a large family, a profession was necessary to the student, and he entered upon his preparation for the bar with all his energy and resolution. On coming of age, in April, 1764, he assumed the management of the estate, and was appointed to two of his father's offices—justice of the peace and vestryman. He gave much attention to the cultivation of his lands, and remained always an attentive, zealous, and improving farmer. He attached importance all his life to the fact that his legal training was based upon the works of Lord Coke, of whom he said that "a sounder Whig never wrote, nor one of profounder learning in the orthodox doctrines of the British constitution, or in what were called British liberties." It was his settled conviction that the early drill of the colonial lawyers in "Coke upon Lyttleton" prepared them for the part they took in resisting the unconstitutional acts of the British government. Lawyers formed by Coke, he would say, were all good Whigs; but from the time that Blackstone became the leading text-book "the profession began to slide into Toryism." His own study of Coke led him to extend his researches into the origins of British law, and led him also to the rejection of the maxim of Sir Matthew Hale, that Christianity is parcel of the laws of England. His youthful treatise on this complex and difficult point shows us at once the minuteness and the extent of his legal studies.

While he was a student of law, he was an eyewitness of those memorable scenes in the Virginia legislature which followed the passage of the stamp-act. He was present as a spectator in the house when Patrick Henry read his five resolutions, written upon a blank leaf torn from a "Coke upon Lyttleton," enunciating the principle that Englishmen living in America had all the rights of Englishmen living in England, the chief of which was that they could only be taxed by their own representatives. When he was an old man, seated at his table at Monticello, he loved to speak of that great day, and to describe the thrill and ecstasy of the moment when the wonderful orator, interrupted by cries of "Treason," uttered the well-known words of defiance: "If this be treason, make the most of it!" Early in 1767, about his twenty-fourth birthday, Jefferson was admitted to the bar of Virginia, and entered at once upon the practice of his profession. Connected through his father with the yeomen of the western counties, and through his mother with the wealthier planters of the eastern he had not long to wait for business. His first account-book, which still exists, shows that in the first year of his practice he was employed in sixty-eight cases before the general court of the province, besides county and office business. He was an accurate, painstaking, and laborious practitioner, and his business increased until he was employed in nearly five hundred cases in a single year, which yielded an average profit of about one pound sterling each. He was not a fluent nor a forcible speaker, and his voice soon became husky as he proceeded; but James Madison, who heard him try a cause, reports that he acquitted himself well, and spoke fluently enough for his purpose. He loved the erudition of the law, and attached great importance to the laws of a country as the best source of its history. It was he who suggested and promoted the collection of Virginia laws known as "Henning's Statutes at Large," to which he contributed the most rare and valuable part of the contents. He practised law for nearly eight years, until the Revolutionary contest summoned him to other labors.

His public life began May 11, 1769, when he took his seat as a member of the Virginia house of burgesses, Washington being also a member. Jefferson was then twenty-six years old. On becoming a public man be made a resolution "never to engage, while in public office, in any kind of enterprise for the improvement of my fortune, nor to wear any other character than that of a farmer." At the close of his public career of nearly half a century he could say that he had kept this resolution, and he often found the benefit of it in being able to consider public questions free from the bias of self-interest. This session of the burgesses was short. On the third day were introduced the famous four resolutions, to the effect that the colonies could not be lawfully taxed by a body in which they were not represented, and that they might concur, coöperate, and practically unite in seeking a redress of grievances. On the fifth day of the session the royal governor, Lord Botetourt, dissolved the house; but the members speedily reassembled in the great room of the Raleigh tavern, where similar resolutions, with others more pointed, were passed. The decency and firmness of these proceedings had their effect. Before many months had passed the governor summoned the assembly and greeted them with the news that parliament had abandoned the system of taxing the colonies—a delusive statement, which he, however, fully believed himself authorized to make. Amid the joy—too brief—of this supposed change of policy, Jefferson made his first important speech in the house, in which he advocated the repeal of the law that obliged a master who wished to free his slaves to send them out of the colony. The motion was promptly rejected, and the mover, Mr. Bland, was denounced as an enemy to his country.

On January 1, 1772, Jefferson married Mrs. Martha Skelton, a beautiful and childless young widow, daughter of John Wayles, a lawyer in large practice at the Williamsburg bar. His new house at Monticello was then just habitable, and he took his wife home to it a few days after the ceremony. Next year the death of his wife's father brought them a great increase of fortune—40,000 acres of land and 135 slaves, which, when the encumbrances were discharged, doubled Jefferson's estate. He was now a fortunate man indeed; opulent in his circumstances, happily married, and soon a father. We see him busied in the most pleasing kinds of agriculture, laying out gardens, introducing new products, arranging his farms, completing and furnishing his house, and making every effort to convert his little mountain, covered with primeval forest, into an agreeable and accessible park. After numerous experiments he domesticated almost every tree and shrub, native and foreign, that could survive the severe Virginia winter.

The contest with the king was soon renewed, and the decisive year, 1774, opened. It found Thomas Jefferson a thriving and busy young lawyer and farmer, not known beyond Virginia; but when it closed he was a person of note among the patriots of America, and was proscribed in England. It was he who prepared the "Draught of Instructions" for Virginia's Delegation to the Congress which met at Philadelphia in September. That congress, he thought, should unite in a solemn address to the king; but they should speak to him in a frank and manly way, informing him, as the chief magistrate of an empire governed by many legislatures, that one of those legislatures—namely, the British parliament—had encroached upon the rights of thirteen others. They were also to say to the king that he was no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws and circumscribed with definite powers. He also spoke, in this very radical draught, of "the late deposition of his majesty, King Charles, by the Commonwealth of England" as a thing obviously right. He maintained that the parliament of Virginia had as much right to pass laws for the government of the people of England as the British legislature had to pass laws for the government of the people of Virginia. "Can any one reason be assigned," he asked, "why a hundred and sixty thousand electors in the island of Great Britain should give law to four millions in the states of America?" The draught, indeed, was so radical on every point that it seemed to the ruling British mind of that day mere insolent burlesque. It was written, however, by Jefferson in the most modest and earnest spirit, showing that, at the age of thirty-one, his radical opinions were fully formed, and their expression was wholly unqualified by a knowledge of the world beyond the sea. This draught, though not accepted by the convention, was published in a pamphlet, copies of which were sent to England, where Edmund Burke caused it to be republished with emendations and additions of his own. It procured for the author, to use his own language, "the honor of having his name inserted in a long list of proscriptions enrolled in a bill of attainder." The whole truth of the controversy was given in this pamphlet, without any politic reserves.

In March, 1775, Jefferson, who had been kept at Monticello for some time by illness, was in Richmond as a member of the convention which assembled in the parish church of St. John to consider what course Virginia should take in the crisis. It was as a member of this body that Patrick Henry, to an audience of 150 persons, spoke the prophetic words in solemn tones as the key to the enigma: "We must fight! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms." These sentences, spoken twenty-seven days before the affair of Lexington, convinced the convention, and it was agreed that Virginia should arm. A committee of thirteen was appointed to arrange a plan, among the members of which were Patrick Henry, George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Harrison, the speaker, Edmund Pendleton, and Thomas Jefferson. The plan they agreed upon was this: The populous counties to raise and drill infantry companies; the other counties horsemen, and both to wear the hunting shirt, which Col. Washington told them was the best field uniform he knew of. The last act of this convention was to appoint that, in case a vacancy should occur in the delegation of Virginia to congress, Thomas Jefferson should supply the place. A vacancy occurred, and on June 20, 1775, the day on which Washington received his commission as commander-in-chief, Jefferson reached Philadelphia, and took his seat the next morning in congress. Before the sun set that day congress received news of the stirring battle of Bunker Hill.

Jefferson was an earnest, diligent, and useful member of the congress. John Adams, his fellow-member, describes him as "so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation that he soon seized upon my heart." His readiness in composition, his profound knowledge of British law, and his innate love of freedom and justice gave him solid standing in the body. On his return to Virginia he was re-elected by a majority that placed him third in the list of seven members. After ten days' vacation at home, where he then had a house undergoing enlargement, and a household of thirty-four whites and eighty-three blacks, with farms in three counties to superintend, he returned to congress to take his part in the events that led to the complete and formal separation of the colonies from the mother-country. In May, 1776, the news reached congress that the Virginia convention were unanimous for independence, and on June 7 Richard Henry Lee obeyed the instructions of the Virginia legislature by moving that independence should be declared. On June 10 a committee of five was appointed to prepare a draught of the Declaration—Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Mr. Jefferson, being the chairman of the committee, was naturally asked to write the document. He then lived near what is now the corner of Market and Seventh streets. The paper was written in a room of the second floor, upon a little writing-desk three inches high, of his own contriving, which still exists. Congress subjected this draught to a severe and prolonged revision, making many suppressions, additions, and alterations, most of which were improvements. One passage was suppressed in which be gave expression to the wounded feelings of the American people in being so unworthily treated by brethren and fellow-citizens. The document was debated in congress on July 2, 3, and 4. Thursday, the 4th, was a warm day, and the members in the afternoon became weary and impatient with the long strain upon their nerves. Jefferson used to relate with much merriment that the final vote upon the Declaration was hastened by swarms of flies, which came from a neighboring stable, and added to the discomfort of the members. A few days afterward he was one of a committee to devise a seal for the new-born power. Among their suggestions (and this was the only one accepted by congress) was the best legend ever appropriated, E pluribus unum, a phrase that had served as a motto on the cover of the "Gentleman's Magazine" for many years. It was originally borrowed from a humorous poem of Virgil's.

Having thus linked his name imperishably with the birthday of the nation, Jefferson resigned his seat in congress, on the ground that the health of his wife and the condition of his household made his presence in Virginia indispensable. He had also been again elected a member of the Virginia legislature, and his heart was set upon the work of purging the statute-books of unsuitable laws, and bringing up Virginia to the level of the Declaration. He had formed a high conception of the excellence of the New England governments, and wished to introduce into his native state the local institutions that had enabled those states to act with such efficiency during the war. After some stay at home he entered upon this work at Williamsburg, where, October 8, 1776, a messenger from congress informed him that he had been elected joint commissioner, with Franklin and Deane, to represent the United States at Paris. After three days of consideration, he resisted the temptation to go abroad, feeling that his obligations to his family and his state made it his duty to remain at home. In reorganizing Virginia, Jefferson and his friends struck first at the system of entail, which, after three weeks' earnest debate, was totally destroyed, so that all property in Virginia was held in fee simple and could be sold for debt. He next attempted, by a short and simple enactment, to abolish the connection between church and state. He was able to accomplish but a small portion of this reform at that session, but the work was begun, and nine years later the law drawn by Jefferson, entitled "An Act for establishing Religious Freedom," completed the severance. This triumph of equal rights over ancient prejudices and restriction Jefferson always regarded as one of his most important contributions to the happiness of his country. Some of his utterances on this subject have passed into familiar proverbs: "Government has nothing to do with opinion," "Compulsion makes hypocrites, not converts," "It is error alone which needs the support of government; truth can stand by itself."

It was he who drew the bill for establishing courts of law in the state, and for prescribing their powers and methods. It was he also who caused the removal of the capital to Richmond. He carried the bill extirpating the principle of primogeniture. It was the committee of which he was chairman that abolished the cruel penalties of the ancient code, and he made a most earnest attempt to establish a system of public education in the state. During two years he and his colleagues, Hamilton, Wythe, Mason and Francis Lightfoot Lee, toiled at the reconstruction of Virginia law, during which they accomplished all that was then possible, besides proposing many measures that were passed at a later day. He could write to Dr. Franklin in 1777 that the people of Virginia had "laid aside the monarchical and taken up the republican government with as much ease as would have attended their throwing off an old and putting on a new suit of clothes." It was Jefferson and his friends who wrought this salutary change, and they were able to effect it because, during the first three years of the war, Virginia was almost exempt from disturbance. In the spring of 1779, when Burgoyne's army, as prisoners of war, were encamped near Monticello, Jefferson was assiduous in friendly attentions both to the British and the Hessians, throwing open his house and grounds to them, and arranging many agreeable concerts for their entertainment. A British captain, himself a good violinist, who played duets with Jefferson at this time, told the late Gen. John A. Dix, of New York, that Thomas Jefferson was the best amateur he had ever heard.

In January, 1779, the Virginia legislature elected Jefferson governor of the state, to succeed Patrick Henry, whose third term ended on June 1. The two years of his governorship proved to be the severest trial of his life. With slender and fast diminishing resources, he had to keep up the Virginia regiments in the army of Washington, and at the same time to send all possible supplies to the support of Gen. Gates in his southern campaign. The western Indians were a source of constant solicitude, and they were held in check by that brave and energetic neighbor of Gov. Jefferson, George Rogers Clarke. The British and Hessian prisoners also had to be supplied and guarded. In the midst of his first anxieties he began the reorganization that he had long desired of the College of William and Mary. Soon, however, his attention was wholly absorbed by the events of the war. On August 16, 1780, occurred the disastrous defeat of Gates at Camden, which destroyed in a day all that Jefferson had toiled to accumulate in warlike material during eight agonizing weeks. On the last day of 1780, Arnold's fleet of twenty-seven sail anchored in Chesapeake bay, and Arnold, with nine hundred men, penetrated as far as Richmond; but Jefferson had acted with so much promptitude, and was so ably seconded by the county militia, that the traitor held Richmond but twenty-three hours, and escaped total destruction only through a timely change in the wind, which bore him down the river with extraordinary swiftness. In five days from the first summons twenty-five hundred militia were in pursuit of Arnold, and hundreds more were coming in every hour. For eighty-four hours Gov. Jefferson was almost continuously in the saddle; and for many months after Arnold's first repulse, not only the governor, but all that Virginia had left of manhood, resources, and credit were absorbed in the contest.

Four times in the spring of 1781 the legislature of Virginia was obliged to adjourn and fly before the approach or the threat of an enemy. Monticello was captured by a troop of horse, and Jefferson himself narrowly escaped. Cornwallis lived for ten days in the governor's house at Elk Hill, a hundred miles down the James, where he destroyed all the growing crops, burned the barns, carried off the horses, killed the colts, and took away twenty-seven slaves. During the public disasters of that time there was the usual disposition among a portion of the people to cast the blame upon the administration, and Jefferson himself was of the opinion that, in such a desperate crisis, it was best that the civil and the military power should be intrusted to the same hand. He therefore declined a re-election to a third term, and induced his friends to support Gen. Thomas Nelson, commander-in-chief of the militia, who was elected. The capture of Cornwallis in November, 1781, atoned for all the previous suffering and disaster. A month later Jefferson rose in his place in the legislature and declared his readiness to answer any charges that might be brought against his administration of the government; but no one responded. After a pause, a member offered a resolution thanking him for his impartial, upright, and attentive discharge of his duty, which was passed without a dissenting voice.

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On September 6, 1782, Jefferson's wife died, to his unspeakable and lasting sorrow, leaving three daughters, the youngest four months old. During the stupor caused by this event he was elected by a unanimous vote of congress, and, as Madison reports, "without a single adverse remark," plenipotentiary to France, to treat for peace. He gladly accepted; but, before he sailed, the joyful news came that preliminaries of peace had been agreed to, and he returned to Monticello. In June, 1783, he was elected to congress, and in November took his seat at Annapolis. Here, as chairman of a committee on the currency, he assisted to give us the decimal currency now in use. The happy idea originated with Gouverneur Morris, of New York, but with details too cumbrous for common use. Jefferson proposed our present system of dollars and cents, with dimes, half-dimes, and a great gold coin of ten dollars, with subdivisions, such as we have now. Jefferson strongly desired also to apply the decimal system to all measures. When he travelled he carried with him an odometer, which divided the miles into hundredths, which he called cents. "I find," said he, "that every one comprehends a distance readily when stated to him in miles and cents; so he would in feet and cents, pounds and cents."

On May 7, 1784, congress elected Jefferson for a third time plenipotentiary to France, to join Franklin and Adams in negotiating commercial treaties with foreign powers. On July 5 he sailed from Boston upon his mission and thirty-two days later took up his abode in Paris. On May 2, 1785, he received from Mr. Jay his commission appointing him sole minister plenipotentiary to the king of France for three years from March 10, 1785. "You replace Dr. Franklin," said the Count de Vergennes to him, when he announced his appointment. Jefferson replied: "I succeed; no one can replace him." The impression that France made upon Jefferson's mind was painful in the extreme. While enjoying the treasures of art that Paris presented, and particularly its music, fond of the people, too, relishing their amiable manners, their habits and tastes, he was nevertheless appalled at the cruel oppression of the ancient system of government. "The people," said he, "are ground to powder by the vices of the form of government," and he wrote to Madison that government by hereditary rulers was a "government of wolves over sheep, or kites over pigeons." Beaumarchais's "Marriage of Figaro" was in its first run when Jefferson settled in Paris, and the universal topic of conversation was the defects of the established régime. Upon the whole, he enjoyed and assiduously improved his five years' residence in Europe.

His official labors were arduous and constant. He strove, though in vain, to procure the release of American captives in Algiers without paying the enormous ransom demanded by the dey. With little more success, he endeavored to break into the French protective system, which kept from the kingdom the cheap food that America could supply, and for want of which the people were perishing and the monarchy was in peril. He kept the American colleges advised of the new inventions, discoveries, and books of Europe. He was particularly zealous in sending home seeds, roots, and nuts for trial in American soil. During his journey to Italy he procured a quantity of the choicest rice for the planters of South Carolina, and he supplied Buffon with American skins, skeletons, horns, and similar objects for his collection. In Paris he published his "Notes on Virginia," both in French and English, a work full of information concerning its main subject, and at the same time surcharged with the republican sentiment then so grateful to the people of France. In 1786, when at length the Virginia legislature passed his "Act for Freedom of Religion," he had copies of it printed for distribution, and it was received with rapture by the advanced Liberals. It was his custom while travelling in France to enter the houses of the peasants and converse with them upon their affairs and condition. He would contrive to sit upon the bed, in order to ascertain what it was made of, and get a look into the boiling pot, to see what was to be the family dinner. He strongly advised Lafayette to do the same, saying: "You must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done, look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds, on pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft." His letters are full of this subject. He returns again and again to the frightful inequalities of condition, the vulgarity and incapacity of the hereditary rulers, and the hopeless destiny of nineteen twentieths of the people. His compassion for the people of France was the more intense from his strong appreciation of their excellent qualities.

Having received a leave of absence for six months, he returned with his daughter to Virginia, landing at Norfolk, November 18, 1789. His reception was most cordial. The legislature appointed a committee of thirteen, with Patrick Henry at their head, to congratulate him on his return, and on the day of his landing he read in a newspaper that President Washington, in settling the new government, had assigned to Thomas Jefferson the office of secretary of state. "I made light of it," he wrote soon afterward, "supposing I had only to say no, and there would be an end of it." On receiving the official notification of his appointment, he told the president that he preferred to retain the office he held. "But," he added, "it is not for an individual to choose his post. You are to marshal us as may be best for the public good." He finally accepted the appointment, and after witnessing at Monticello, February 23, 1790, the marriage of his eldest daughter, Martha, to Thomas Mann Randolph, he began his journey to New York. During his absence in France, his youngest daughter, Lucy, had died, leaving him Martha and Maria. On Sunday, March 21, 1790, he reached New York, to enter upon the duties of his new office. He hired a house at No. 57 Maiden Lane, the city then containing a population of 35,000. His colleagues in the cabinet were Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury; Henry Knox, secretary of war; and Edmund Randolph, attorney-general. Jefferson's salary was only $3,500, and that of the other three members of the cabinet but $3,000, a compensation that proved painfully inadequate.

He soon found himself ill at ease in his place. He had left Paris when the fall of the Bastile was a recent event, and when the revolutionary movement still promised to hopeful spirits the greatest good to France and to Europe. He had been consulted at every stage of its progress by Lafayette and the other Republican leaders, with whom he was in the deepest sympathy. He left his native land a Whig of the Revolution; he returned to it a Republican-Democrat. In his reply to the congratulations of his old constituents, he had spoken of the "sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs." He declared "the will of the majority to be the natural law of every society, and the only sure guardian of the rights of man." He added these important words, which contain the most material article of his political creed: "Perhaps even this may sometimes err; but its errors are honest, solitary, and short-lived. Let us, then, forever bow down to the general reason of society. We are safe with that, even in its deviations, for it soon returns again to the right way." To other addresses of welcome he replied in a similar tone. He brought to New York a settled conviction that the republican is the only form of government that is not robbery and violence organized. Feeling thus, he was grieved and astonished to find a distrust of republican government prevalent in society, and to hear a preference for the monarchical form frequently expressed. In the cabinet itself, where Hamilton dominated and Knox echoed his opinions, the republic was accepted rather as a temporary expedient than as a final good.

Jefferson and Hamilton, representing diverse and incompatible tendencies, soon found themselves in ill-accord, and their discussions in the cabinet became vehement. They differed in some degree upon almost every measure of the administration, and on several of the most vital their differences became passionate and distressing. In May, 1791, by openly accepting and eulogizing Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man," a spirited reply to Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," Jefferson placed himself at the head of the Republican party in the United States. The difference between the two chief members of the cabinet rapidly developed into a personal antipathy, and both of them ardently desired to withdraw. Both, however, could have borne these disagreeable dissensions, and we see in their later letters that the real cause of their longing to resign was the insufficiency of their salaries. Jefferson's estate, much diminished by the war, was of little profit to him in the absence of the master's eye. Gen. Washington, who did equal justice to the merits of both these able men, used all his influence and tact to induce them to remain, and, yielding to the president's persuasions, both made an honest attempt at external agreement. But in truth their feelings, as well as their opinions, were naturally irreconcilable. Their attitude toward the French revolution proves this. Hamilton continually and openly expressed an undiscriminating abhorrence of it, while Jefferson deliberately wrote that if the movement "had isolated half the earth," the evil would have been less than the continuance of the ancient system. Writing to an old friend he went farther even than this: "Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is." On every point of difficulty created by the French revolution the disagreement between the two secretaries was extreme. On other subjects there was little real accord, and it was a happy moment for both when, on January 1, 1794, President Washington accepted Jefferson's resignation. He left office at a fortunate time for his reputation, since his correspondence with the English plenipotentiary, George Hammond, and the French plenipotentiary, Edmond Genêt, had just been published in a large pamphlet. Jefferson's letters to those gentlemen were so moderate, so just, and so conciliatory as to extort the approval of his opponents. Chief-Justice Marshall, an extreme Federalist, remarks, in his "Life of Washington," that this correspondence lessened the hostility of Jefferson's opponents without diminishing the attachment of his friends. Five days after his release from office he set out for home, having been secretary of state three years and ten months.

All his interest in the cultivation of the soil now returned to him, and he supposed his public life ended forever. In September, 1794, after the retirement of Hamilton from the cabinet, Washington invited Jefferson to go abroad as special envoy to Spain; but he declined, declaring that "no circumstances would evermore tempt him to engage in anything public." Nevertheless, in 1796, Washington having refused to serve a third term in the presidency, he allowed his name to be used as that of a candidate for the succession. The contest was embittered by the unpopularity of the Jay treaty with Great Britain. Jefferson had desired the rejection of the treaty, and he remained always of the opinion that by its rejection the government of the United States might at length have secured "a respect for our neutral rights" without a war. Jefferson had a narrow escape from being elected to the presidency in 1796. John Adams received seventy-one electoral votes, and Jefferson sixty-eight, a result that, as the law then stood, gave him the vice-presidency. In view of the duties about to devolve upon him, he began to prepare, chiefly for his own guidance in the chair of the senate, his "Manual of Parliamentary Practice," a code that still substantially governs all our deliberative bodies. He deeply felt the importance of such rules, believing that when strictly enforced they operated as a check on the majority, and gave "shelter and protection to the minority against the attempts of power."

Jefferson much enjoyed the office of vice-president, partly from the interest he took in the art of legislation and partly because his presidency of the Philosophical society brought him into agreeable relations with the most able minds of the country. He took no part whatever in the administration of the government, as Mr. Adams ceased to consult him on political measures almost immediately after his inauguration. The administration of Adams, so turbulent and eventful, inflamed party spirit to an extreme degree. The reactionary policy of Hamilton and his friends had full scope, as is shown by the passage of the alien and sedition laws, and by the warlike preparations against France. During the first three years Jefferson endeavored in various ways to influence the public mind, and thus to neutralize in some degree the active and aggressive spirit of Hamilton. He was clearly of opinion that the alien and sedition laws were not merely unconstitutional, but were so subversive of fundamental human rights as to justify a nullification of them. The Kentucky resolutions of 1798, in which his abhorrence of those laws was expressed, were originally drawn by him at the request of James Madison and Col. W. C. Nicholas. "These gentlemen," Jefferson once wrote, "pressed me strongly to sketch resolutions against the constitutionality of those laws." In consequence he drew and delivered them to Col. Nicholas, who introduced them into the legislature of Kentucky, and kept the secret of their authorship. These resolutions, read in the light of the events of 1798, will not now be disapproved by any person of republican convictions; they remain, and will long remain, one of the most interesting and valuable contributions to the science of free government. It is fortunate that this commentary upon the alien and sedition laws was written by a man so firm and so moderate, who possessed at once the erudition, wisdom, and the feeling that the subject demanded.

Happily the presidential election of 1800 freed the country from those laws without a convulsion. Through the unskilful politics of Hamilton and the adroit management of the New York election by Aaron Burr, Mr. Adams was defeated for re-election, the electoral vote resulting thus: Jefferson, 73; Burr, 73; Adams, 65; Charles C. Pinckney, 64; Jay, 1. This strange result threw the election into the house of representatives, where the Federalists endeavored to elect Burr to the first office—an unworthy intrigue, which Hamilton honorably opposed. After a period of excitement, which seemed at times fraught with peril to the Union, the election was decided as the people meant it should be: Thomas Jefferson became president of the United States and Aaron Burr vice-president. The inauguration was celebrated throughout the country as a national holiday; soldiers paraded, church-bells rang, orations were delivered, and in some of the newspapers the Declaration of Independence was printed at length. Jefferson's first thought on coming to the presidency was to assuage the violence of party spirit, and he composed his fine inaugural address with that view. He reminded his fellow-citizens that a difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." He may have had Hamilton in mind in writing this sentence, and, in truth, his inaugural was the briefest and strongest summary he could pen of his argument against Hamilton when both were in Washington's cabinet. "Some honest men," said be, "fear that a republican government cannot be strong—that this government is not strong enough. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest on earth. I believe it is the only one where every man, at the call of the laws, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern."

Among the first acts of President Jefferson was his pardoning every man who was in durance under the sedition law, which he said he considered to be "a nullity as absolute and palpable as if congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image." To the chief victims of the alien law, such as Kosciuszko and Volney, he addressed friendly, consoling letters. Dr. Priestley, menaced with expulsion under the alien law, he invited to the White House. He wrote a noble letter to the venerable Samuel Adams, of Massachusetts, who had been avoided and insulted during the recent contest. He gave Thomas Paine, outlawed in England and living on sufferance in Paris, a passage home in a national ship. He appointed as his cabinet James Madison, secretary of state; Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury; Henry Dearborn, secretary of war; Robert Smith, secretary of the navy; Gideon Granger, postmaster-general; Levi Lincoln, attorney-general—all of whom were men of liberal education. With his cabinet he lived during the whole of his two terms in perfect harmony, and at the end he declared that if he had to choose again he would select the same individuals. With regard to appointments and removals the new president found himself in an embarrassing position, as all our presidents have done. Most of the offices were held by Federalists, and many of his own partisans expected removals enough to establish an equality. Jefferson resisted the demand. He made a few removals for strong and obvious reasons; but he acted uniformly on the principle that a difference of politics was not a reason for the removal of a competent and faithful subordinate. The few removals that he made were either for official misconduct, or, to use his own language, "active and bitter opposition to the order of things which the public will has established." He abolished at once the weekly levee at the White House, as well as the custom of precedence that had been copied from the court etiquette of Europe. When congress assembled he sent them a message, instead of delivering to them a speech, which had the effect of preventing, as he remarked, "the bloody conflict to which the making an answer would have committed them." He abolished also all the usages that savored of royalty, such as the conveyance of ministers in national vessels, the celebration of his own birthday by a public ball, the appointment of fasts and thanksgiving-days, the making of public tours and official visits. He refused to receive, while travelling, any mark of attention that would not have been paid to him as a private citizen, his object being both to republicanize and secularize the government completely. He declined also to use the pardoning power unless the judges who had tried the criminal signed the petition. He refused also to notice in any way the abuse of hostile newspapers, desiring, as he said, to give the world a proof that "an administration which has nothing to conceal from the press has nothing to fear from it."

A few of the acts of Mr. Jefferson's administration, which includes a great part of the history of the United States for eight years, stand out boldly and brilliantly. That navy which had been created by the previous administration against France Jefferson at once reduced by putting all but six of its vessels out of commission. He despatched four of the remaining six to the Mediterranean to overawe the Barbary pirates, who had been preying upon American commerce for twenty years; and Decatur and his heroic comrades executed their task with a gallantry and success which the American people have not forgotten. The purchase of Louisiana was a happy result of the president's tact and promptitude in availing himself of a golden chance. Bonaparte, in pursuit of his early policy of undoing the work of the seven-years' war, had acquired the vast unknown territory west of the Mississippi, then vaguely called Louisiana. This policy he had avowed, and he was preparing an expedition to hold New Orleans and settle the adjacent country. At the same time, the people of Kentucky, who, through the obstinate folly of the Spanish governor, were practically denied access to the ocean, were inflamed with discontent. At this juncture, in the spring of 1803, hostilities were renewed between France and England, which compelled Bonaparte to abandon the expedition which was ready to sail, and he determined to raise money by selling Louisiana to the United States. At the happiest possible moment for a successful negotiation, Mr. Jefferson's special envoy, James Monroe, arrived in Paris, charged with full powers, and alive to the new and pressing importance of the transfer, and a few hours of friendly parleying sufficed to secure to the United States this superb domain, one of the most valuable on the face of the globe. Bonaparte demanded fifty millions of francs. Marbois, his negotiator, asked a hundred millions, but dropped to sixty, with the condition that the United States should assume all just claims upon the territory. Thus, for the trivial sum of little more than $15,000,000, the United States secured the most important acquisition of territory that was ever made by purchase. Both parties were satisfied with the bargain. "This accession," said the first consul, "strengthens forever the power of the United States, and I have just given to England a maritime rival that will sooner or later humble her pride."

Facsimile of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Margaret Harrison Smith.jpg

[Fac-simile letter from Thomas Jefferson to Mrs. Margaret Harrison Smith]

The popularity of the administration soon became such that the opposition was reduced to insignificance, and the president was re-elected by a greatly increased majority. In the house of representatives the Federalists shrank at length to a little band of twenty-seven, and in the senate to five. Jefferson seriously feared that there would not be sufficient opposition to furnish the close and ceaseless criticism that the public good required. His second term was less peaceful and less fortunate. During the long contest between Bonaparte and the allied powers the infractions of neutral rights were so frequent and so exasperating that perhaps Jefferson alone, aided by his fine temper and detestation of war, could have kept the infant republic out of the brawl. When the English ship "Leopard," within hearing of Old Point Comfort, poured broadsides into the American frigate "Chesapeake," all unprepared and unsuspecting, killing three men and wounding eighteen, parties ceased to exist in the United States, and every voice that was audible clamored for bloody reprisals. "I had only to open my hand," wrote Jefferson once, "and let havoc loose." There was a period in 1807 when he expected war both with Spain and Great Britain, and his confidential correspondence with Madison shows that he meant to make the contest self-compensating. He meditated a scheme for removing the Spanish flag to a more comfortable distance by the annexation of Florida, Mexico, and Cuba, and thus obtaining late redress for twenty-five years of intrigue and injury. A partial reparation by Great Britain postponed the contest. Yet the offences were repeated; no American ship was safe from violation, and no American sailor from impressment. This state of things induced Jefferson to recommend congress to suspend commercial intercourse with the belligerents, his object being "to introduce between nations another umpire than arms." The embargo of 1807, which continued to the end of his second term, imposed upon the commercial states a test too severe for human nature patiently to endure. It was frequently violated, and did not accomplish the object proposed. To the end of his life Jefferson was of opinion that, if the whole people had risen to the height of his endeavor, if the merchants had strictly observed the embargo, and the educated class given it a cordial support, it would have saved the country the second war of 1812, and extorted, what that war did not give us, a formal and explicit concession of neutral rights.

On March 4, 1809, after a nearly continuous public service of forty years, Jefferson retired to private life, so seriously impoverished that he was not sure of being allowed to leave Washington without arrest by his creditors. The embargo, by preventing the exportation of tobacco, had reduced his private income two thirds, and, in the peculiar circumstances of Washington, his official salary was insufficient. "Since I have become sensible of this deficit," he wrote, "I have been under an agony of mortification." A timely loan from a Richmond bank relieved him temporarily from his distress, but he remained to the end of his days more or less embarrassed in his circumstances. Leaving the presidency in the hands of James Madison, with whom he was in the most complete sympathy and with whom he continued to be in active correspondence, he was still a power in the nation. Madison and Monroe were his neighbors and friends, and both of them administered the government on principles that he cordially approved. As has been frequently remarked, they were three men and one system. On retiring to Monticello in 1809, Jefferson was sixty-six years of age, and had seventeen years to live. His daughter Martha and her husband resided with him, they and their numerous brood of children, six daughters and five sons, to whom was now added Francis Eppes, the son of his daughter Maria, who had died in 1804. Surrounded thus by children and grandchildren, he spent the leisure of his declining years in endeavoring to establish in Virginia a system of education to embrace all the children of his native state. In this he was most zealously and ably assisted by his friend, Joseph C. Cabell, a member of the Virginia senate. What he planned in the study, Cabell supported in the legislature; and then in turn Jefferson would advocate Cabell's bill by one of his ingenious and exhaustive letters, which would go the rounds of the Virginia press. The correspondence of these two patriots on the subject of education in Virginia was afterward published in an octavo of 528 pages, a noble monument to the character of both. Jefferson appealed to every motive, including self-interest, urging his scheme upon the voter as a "provision for his family to the remotest posterity."

He did not live long enough to see his system of common schools established in Virginia, but the university, which was to crown that system, a darling dream of his heart for forty years, he beheld in successful operation. His friend Cabell, with infinite difficulty, induced the legislature to expend $300,000 in the work of construction, and to appropriate $15,000 a year toward the support of the institution. Jefferson personally superintended every detail of the construction. He engaged workmen, bought bricks, and selected the trees to be felled for timber. In March, 1825, the institution was opened with forty students, a number which was increased to 177 at the beginning of the second year. The institution has continued its beneficent work to the present day, and still bears the imprint of Jefferson's mind. It has no president, except that one of the professors is elected chairman of the faculty. The university bestows no rewards and no honors, and attendance upon all religious services is voluntary. His intention was to hold every student to his responsibility as a man and a citizen, and to permit him to enjoy all the liberty of other citizens in the same community.

Toward the close of his life Jefferson became distressingly embarrassed in his circumstances. In 1814 he sold his library to congress for $23,000—about one fourth of its value. A few years afterward he endorsed a twenty-thousand dollar note for a friend and neighbor whom he could not refuse, and who soon became bankrupt. This loss, which added $1,200 a year to his expenses, completed his ruin, and he was in danger of being compelled to surrender Monticello and seek shelter for his last days in another abode. Philip Hone, mayor of New York, raised for him, in 1826, $8,500, to which Philadelphia added $5,000 and Baltimore $3,000. He was deeply touched by the spontaneous generosity of his countrymen. "No cent of this," he wrote, "is wrung from the tax-payer. It is the pure and unsolicited offering of love." He retained his health nearly to his last days, and had the happiness of living to the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He died at twenty minutes to one P. M., July 4, 1826. John Adams died a few hours later on the same day, saying just before he breathed his last, "Thomas Jefferson still lives." He was buried in his own grave-yard at Monticello, beneath a stone upon which was engraved an inscription prepared by his own hand: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia." He died solvent, for the sale of his estate discharged his debts to the uttermost farthing. His daughter and her children lost their home and had no means of support. Their circumstances becoming known, the legislature of South Carolina and Virginia each voted her a gift of $10,000, which gave peace and dignity to the remainder of her life. She died in 1836, aged sixty-three, leaving numerous descendants.

The writings of Thomas Jefferson were published by order of Congress in 1853, under the editorial supervision of Henry A. Washington, 9 vols., 8vo (Washington, D. C., 1853). This publication, which leaves much to be desired by the student of American history, includes his autobiography, treatises, essays, selections from his correspondence, official reports, messages, and addresses. Two score years later Prof. Washington's work was superseded by "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, comprising his Public Papers and his Private Correspondence including Numerous Letters and Documents, now for the First Time Printed," edited by Paul L. Ford, 10 vols., 8vo (New York, 1894-'99). Another edition of his works in 20 vols., edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb, was issued by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States (Washington, D. C., 1904-5). The most extensive biography of Jefferson is that of Henry S. Randall (3 vols., New York, 1858). See also the excellent work of Prof. George Tucker, of the University of Virginia, "The Life of Thomas Jefferson" (2 vols., Philadelphia and London, 1837); "The Life of Thomas Jefferson," by James Parton (Boston, 1874); and "Thomas Jefferson, by John T. Morse, Jr., "American Statesmen" series (Boston, 1883). A work of singular interest is "The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson," by his great-granddaughter, Sarah N. Randolph (New York, 1871). Jefferson's "Manual of Parliamentary Practice" has been repeatedly republished; the Washington edition of 1871 is among the most recent. Consult also the "Memoirs, Correspondence, and Miscellanies of Thomas Jefferson," by Thomas J. Randolph (4 vols., Boston, 1830), and the "History of the United States, by Henry Adams, Vols. I to IV, Jefferson's Administration, 1801-1809" (New York, 1889, 1890). The lovers of detail must not overlook "Jefferson at Monticello," compiled by Rev. Hamilton W. Pierson, D. D., of Kentucky, from conversations with Edmund Bacon, who was for twenty years Jefferson's steward and overseer. The correspondence between Jefferson and Cabell upon education in Virginia is very rare.

The portraits of Jefferson, which were as numerous in his own time as those of a reigning monarch usually are, may well baffle the inquirer who would know the express image of his face and person. They differ greatly from one another, as in truth he changed remarkably in appearance as he advanced in life, being in youth raw-boned, freckled, and somewhat ungainly, in early manhood better looking, and in later life becoming almost handsome—in friendly eyes. The portrait by Rembrandt Peale, taken in 1803, which now hangs in the library of the New York historical society, is perhaps the most pleasing of the later pictures of him now accessible. The portrait by Mather Brown, painted for John Adams in 1786, and engraved for this work, has the merit of presenting him in the prime of his years. Daniel Webster's minute description of his countenance and figure at fourscore was not accepted by Mr. Jefferson's grandchildren as conveying the true impression of the man. "Never in my life," wrote one of them, "did I see his countenance distorted by a single bad passion or unworthy feeling. I have seen the expression of suffering, bodily and mental, of grief, pain, sadness, just indignation, disappointment, disagreeable surprise, and displeasure, but never of anger, impatience, peevishness, discontent, to say nothing of worse or more ignoble emotions. To the contrary, it was impossible to look on his face without being struck with its benevolent, intelligent, cheerful, and placid expression. It was at once intellectual, good, kind, and pleasant, whilst his tall, spare figure spoke of health, activity, and that helpfulness, that power and will, 'never to trouble another for what he could do himself,' which marked his character."

In April, 1913, a noble building was completed in honor of Jefferson by the State of Missouri in Forest Park, St. Louis, at a cost of almost half a million dollars, and containing, in its central hall, a colossal seated statue of our third president. It was dedicated as a memorial of the Louisiana Purchase on the last day of April. On May 1, the Missouri Historical Society, now occupying the building, also held a dedication meeting, the chief feature of which was an address by James Grant Wilson, of New York, whose subject was "Two Makers of American History—Lincoln and Grant."

Martha Wayles[edit]

His wife, Martha Wayles, born in Charles City County, Va., October 19, 1748; died at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Va., September 6, 1782, was the daughter of John Wayles, a wealthy lawyer, from whom she inherited a large property. Her first husband, Bathurst Skelton, died before she was twenty years of age, and Mr. Jefferson was one of her many suitors. She is described as very beautiful, a little above middle height, auburn-haired, and of a dignified carriage. She was well educated for her day, and a constant reader. Previous to her second marriage, while her mind seemed still undecided as to which of her many lovers would be accepted, two of them met accidentally in the hall of her father's house. They were about to enter the drawing-room when the sound of music caught their ear. The voices of Jefferson and Mrs. Skelton, accompanied by her harpsichord and his violin, were recognized, and the disconcerted lovers, after exchanging a glance, took their hats and departed. She married Mr. Jefferson in 1772. He retained a romantic devotion for her throughout his life, and because of her failing health refused foreign appointments in 1776, and again in 1781, having promised that he would accept no public office that would involve their separation. For four months previous to her death he was never out of calling, and he was insensible for several hours after that event. Two of their children died in infancy, Martha, Mary, and Lucy Elizabeth surviving, the latter dying in early girlhood.


Martha, born at Monticello in September, 1772; died in Albemarle County, Va., September 27, 1836, after the death of her mother accompanied her father to Europe in 1784 and remained several years in a convent, until her desire to adopt a religious life induced her father to remove her from the school. In the autumn of the same year (1789) she married her cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph, afterward governor of Virginia, and, being engrossed with the cares of her large family, passed only a portion of her time in the White House, which she visited with her husband and children in 1802, with her sister in 1803, and during the winter of 1805-'6. After the retirement of Mr. Jefferson she devoted much of her life to his declining years. He describes her as the "cherished companion of his youth and the nurse of his old age," and shortly before his death remarked that the "last pang of life was parting with her." After the business reverses and the death of her father and husband, she contemplated establishing a school, but was relieved from the necessity by a donation of $10,000 each from South Carolina and Virginia. She left a large family of sons and daughters, whom she carefully educated.

There is no known portrait of Mrs. Jefferson.


Her sister, Mary, born at Monticello, August 1, 1778; died in Albemarle County, Va., April 17, 1804, was also educated in the convent at Panthemont, France, and is described, in a letter of Mrs. Abigail Adams, "as one of the most beautiful and remarkable children she had ever known." She married her cousin, John Wayles Eppes, early in life, but was prevented by delicate health from the enjoyment of social life. She spent the second winter of Mr. Jefferson's first term with her sister as mistress of the White House. She left two children, one of whom, Francis, survived.

Jefferson's last surviving granddaughter, Mrs. Septima Randolph Meikleham, died in Washington, D. C., on September 16, 1887. See "The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson," by Miss Sarah N. Randolph (New York, 1871).

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