For Electoral College Fanatics:

Here’s an excerpt from the latest book I’m reading, Susan Dunn’s Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism.

To orient you, this excerpt is from the beginning of the book, where Dunn sets up her story. Thomas Jefferson is surreptitiously running for president from the privacy of Monticello, pretending he’s not campaigning at all, getting all of his news from Madison… basically pretending that his eyes were lifted towards loftier philosophical goals, and he would not get mucked up in politics.

Remember, in those early days, it was seen to be very VERY bad form to WANT to hold the highest office in the land. Campaigning meant that you obviously admitted you wanted to have a ton of power, which people feared, and campaigning also meant that you, in your heart of hearts, didn’t think you were really up to the job and had to spend a lot of time convincing people. (Heh heh. I sure wish THAT attitude would return into vogue. There is nothing more disgusting to me than a career politician telling me why I should vote for him, why his vision is better than the other guy’s.)

Not that Thomas Jefferson didn’t feel all those things. He is, to my taste, one of the most infinitely fascinating and contradictory men this country has ever produced. We will NEVER get to the bottom of this man.

John Adams, by contrast, was an open book. He left behind journals, personal letters that could fill a library … He ranted, raved, whined, he was completely open with Abigail about his inner thoughts and insecurities, and so he shared all of that stuff with her. By sharing himself with her, we get to know him. We get to see his concerns, his humanity, his fears, his yearning to be with her again.

Thomas Jefferson had no such confidante. It was not in his nature, perhaps? I don’t know. The journals he kept were basically financial records, and farming and gardening records: “Sweet peas bloomed today. Bought a harpsichord.” (With money he didn’t have! But that didn’t matter – he would meticuously write down the price in his records) There was no introspection in his language, no hint of an inner life …

There’s a VERY funny story about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson taking a country-trip through England, during their sojourn there … John Adams wrote in his journal eloquently and emotionally about wanting to kiss the door-stone of Shakespeare’s house, he tells Abigail he wishes she had been there, he raves about the unbelievable beauty of the country, the gardens, and how he hopes that America can someday achieve such cultivation. Thomas Jefferson’s journals are all: “Paid 2 pence for wine. Found an inn. Paid 3 pounds for a room. Went to the stables. Good horses. Book shop. Bought 49,000 books.” Whatever. Blunt, financial, boring.

Side by side, these accounts are HILARIOUS. There is no mention in Jefferson’s journal about John Adams, their conversations, their enjoyable evenings in the inn, what they talked about …

And yet, when Thomas Jefferson decided to put pen to paper for a purpose – literally nobody could touch him. Perhaps it was that his gift for the English language, and for expressing deep and inspirational ideas (and rage – don’t forget that rage in the Declaration of Independence) only manifested when it was in the cause of an ACTION, as opposed to a moment of reflection.

By that I mean: Thomas Jefferson was the typical example of a man who used his pen as a sword.

John Adams used his pen to work through his problems, his feelings, his grievances … he used his pen to ward off loneliness, to feel close to Abigail … You read those letters now, and you can FEEL the presence of John Adams, sitting beside you, in all his complexity and warmth.

So Thomas Jefferson sat on his mountaintop, pretending to not campaign, pretending to be unaware that an election was going on … but this was, in essence, a pose.

And now on to the excerpt:

…Federalists were not as enchanted by the Virginian’s [Thomas Jefferson] courtly manners, pensive eyes, and gentle lilting voice. His intellectual stature and distinguished public service — author of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Virginia House of Burgesses at the age of 26, wartime governor of Virginia, delegate to the Continental Congress, minister to France, secretary of state under George Washington, vice president under John Adams — left them unimpressed. Perhaps in the little republic of St. Marino Jefferson’s political “experiments” could be tolerated, observed Charles Carroll of Carrollton, but in America the Virginian’s “fantastic tricks” would most assuredly dissolve the Union.

Carroll and his patrician Federalist friends not only wanted to remain at the help, from which they had so ably steered the country toward stability and prosperity, but they believed that they were entitled to remain there. Clinging to the myth of the virtue of the elite few, they were convinced that only they possessed a deep commitment to public service and an unerring sense of the common good. How could the nation survive and flourish without them, “the wise & good,” asked Alexander Hamilton, one of the Federalist leaders. “Obedience and submission to the powers that be,” a Pennsylvania congressman declared, “is the duty of all.” In private, the Federalist governor of New York, John Jay, was just as blunt. Conflating power and property, he candidly confided to a friend that “those who own the country ought to participate in the government of it.”

Oddly, the pedigreed, patrician Jefferson was one of those “owners” of the country — wealthier and from a more distinguished family than Federalists like Adams and the self-made Hamilton. And yet Jefferson sought to challenge their hold on power — their “strident exclusivism,” in the words of historians Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick — and even challenge the legacy of the great George Washington. The father of the country and his closest disciples, Federalists believed, had created and bequeathed to America an orderly society and well-functioning institutions. “Our government is as free as it is capable of being — the country as happy as a government can make it,” they crowed. “What more do you want? Will you grasp at a shadow, and lose the substance?”

What principles guided Jefferson and his so-called Republicans? The Jeffersonian brand of republicanism, Federalists scoffed, simply meant “an essential want of integrity, and an unprincipled pursuit of whatever promotes the interests, or gratifies the passions of the individuals.” In short, Republicans were motivated only by base “self-interest” whereas Federalists were proud to be anti-individualists, committed to the notion of the common good of all…

Surely in a democracy in which the people were sovereign, the Republicans, though political outsiders, had the right to criticize and oppose those who governed. And yet, some Federalists proposed that “a few BOLD STROKES” be used to silence all opposition to government. But Republicans refused to be silent. They offered voters a forceful platform and an aggressive agenda for change. They blasted John Jay’s recent one-sided treaty with Great Britain in which the English had made no concessions to American claims. They attacked Adams and the other Federalists for passing the repressive Sedition Act in 1798, designed to smother opposition to the Federalist regime. They denounced the standing federal army, warning that it could be used to quash domestic dissent. They condemned the dispatching of federal troops in 1799 to crush a tax revolt — Fries’s Rebellion — in Pennsylvania.

Republicans pounded home their message: a simple government, low taxes, state militias instead of a standing army, repeal of the Sedition Act, and free schools. In the South and the burgeoning West, they attracted voters by offering security for slavery, access to new unsettled lands, and markets for their agricultural products. In New England, their democratic message appealed to voters with aspirations of upward mobility.

Most of all, Republicans criticized the Federalist “monocrats” for upholding the rights of the few and ignoring the rights of the many, for catering to the social and financial elite, for disdaining the people and democracy itself. Even Federalist Governeur Morris, the former minister to France and now the junior senator from New York, conceded that his Federalist colleagues had given Republicans reason to believe that they wished to establish a monarchy. [Remember Abigail’s warning to her husband John, in re: Hamilton: “That man could be a Bonaparte.] The Republican’s affinity for inclusion contrasted sharply with Federalist elitism.

The election, declared Massachusetts Republican Elbridge Gerry, was a battle between the people and a party “utterly devoted to a monarchical system.”

If you think the country is polarized NOW, you oughta go back and look at some of the rhetoric from the election of 1800. It was sheer apocalyptic language. 1776 and the long years of war following was a living memory for everyone … The union was fragile, fractious, exhausted. At any moment the grand experiment could crumble. There was a deep suspicion and hatred of “parties” and “factions” (I know how they feel) – and yet, inevitably, two sides emerged – the Federalists and the Republicans – with two different philosophies, plans of action. And each side was utterly convinced that THEY were holding the true legacy of the American Revolution.

Not only that but each side demonized the other to the point of absurdity.

There is, as well, that old question: what is the more important event, in terms of the creation of this country and its spirt: The Declaration of Independence or the creation of the Constitution? The country was split in its opinion on this question.

There were those who believed (and Jefferson was one of them) – that a state of perpetual revolution was good for the nation. Nothing should be set in stone. All authority was to be distrusted – ALWAYS. He even wanted laws to not be continuous – to be up for review from administration to administration. John Adams thought he was wacked – there had to be SOME continuous culture in this country, you couldn’t just re-write the laws every 4 years. But Jefferson felt that revolution “cleared the air”. People feared him for this reason. Abigail Adams feared him for this reason. He seemed blood-thirsty (in his lofty Monticello way), too eager for violence, he thought the revolution in France was great. It took him a while to perceive that things had taken a chilling and horrific turn in France, because he was so against monarchies, he was so against kings and queens of any kind.

I really have no conclusions here. It’s a topic I’m hugely interested in, obviously. Something I enjoy pondering.

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26 Responses to For Electoral College Fanatics:

  1. susie says:

    great post – i will be getting this book as i really do find perspective in history. it seems to me that this country and it’s culture has always run in cycles though i can’t identify the actual timing of them. in any case there always seems to be some kind of pendulum swinging back and forth which makes it dynamic and changing. as much as many people don’t like change it is inevitable. i think that revolution is the kind of change we get when there are the highest levels of resistance to change. in my individual life it always feels like a cosmic kick in ass that comes when i am digging in my heels trying to stay in what feels safe. on a larger scale that cosmic kick in the ass manifests quite violently.
    on a completely different note the story of the journals reminded me of a family story about my aunt and uncle who, as teenaged siblings agreed to swap journals at the end of one year. my aunt had written all the juicy details of her life and my uncle, her big brother had simply recorded the weather for each day. i think she’s still pissed at him. when i was a little girl i thought that was just hilarious, but i have also never offered to swap journals with anyone either.

  2. Curtis says:

    I really need to read about Jefferson. I agree with Abigail Adams, someone who thinks constant revolution is a good thing is kind of scary. At the same time, I have often thought it would be nice if we could take the whole federal budget, dump it, and then start over.

  3. red says:

    Susie – I so relate to your comment! First of all, the story of the swapped journals is hysterical.

    I picked up this book now because it’s about one of the most violent (ideologically, I mean) elections our country has ever gone through. I felt I needed that perspective during this election season.

  4. red says:

    Curtis – If you’d like me to recommend any books about Jefferson, I’d be happy to. Also, you can’t go wrong if you pick up a copy of the years-long correspondence between Adams and Jefferson at the ends of their lives, when their feuds had ended … and they tried to hash out their political differences (KNOWING that these letters would exist into posterity – Not only were they explaining their positions to each other, but they were expliaining them to US, because they knew that we would be watching, centuries later).

    Anyway – I’ve read a ton on all these guys, so let me know if you want any book recs.

  5. Ash says:

    Nice post. Nothing puts things in perspective like history.

  6. Mr. Bingley says:

    ah, mr. jefferson. i went toook my degree from uva in 86, where he is revered as GOD. i kid you not, he is always refered to as ‘mr. jefferson’, and the manner with which this is said is to imply that he is in the next room and may come in at any moment. i grew up thinking that hamilton was SATAN.


  7. Curtis says:

    Sheila- I would love a book recommendation on Jefferson. I am probably mostly interested in his political theories rather than a typical life history type bio… what would you recommend?
    What is the title of the book that you mentioned regarding Adams and Jefferson correspondance?

  8. red says:

    The ideological differences between Adams and Jefferson came down to this:

    John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson (during their correspondence at the end of their lives):

    You are afraid of the one, I, the few. We agree perfectly that the many should have full, fair, and perfect representation [in the House]. You are apprehensive of monarchy; I, of aristocracy. I would therefore have given more power to the President and less to the Senate.

    They had different views on power-sharing, based on their different temperaments, and different life experiences.

    Do we fear the many or the few?

    I suppose we are still hashing out that question in this country.

  9. red says:

    Well, a wonderful place to start (for the correspondence, where it is discussed in enormous detail – with extensive excerpts) is Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers.

    Ellis gives a WONDERFUL perspective on these 2 elderly revolutionaries, trying to express their differences at the very end of their lives.

    You can also find (probably at used book stores, where I got mine) – the letters of Thomas Jefferson, or the letters of John Adams (which are weighty tomes, indeed).

    But any decent biography of either of these two men is going to cover their correspondence in total detail.

    The David McCullough biography of John Adams is beyond compare.

    And let me reiterate that Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis, is TERRIFIC. There’s an entire 2 chapters of the Adams/Jefferson friendship – one called The Friendship, and one called The Correspondence. It’s amazing.

  10. Curtis says:

    Questions like that always make me think of the quote from The Patriot..
    “Why should I trade one tyrant a thousand miles away for a thousand tyrants one mile away?”

    So, where should the balance of power be? And where is it now, in reference to the ideals of Adams and Jefferson?

  11. red says:

    Mr. Bingley:

    Funny – I grew up thinking there was something evil about Alexander Hamilton too, but only because I grew up in a strictly Adams-worshipping family. :) John and Abigail Adams were our gods … and they feared Hamilton like crazy … so I guess that rubbed off. When I finally read a biography of the man, I was shocked at his … genius, his gift of writing, etc. Yeah, he was a bit frightening, but … fascinating nonetheless!

  12. Curtis says:

    Oh and thanks for the book ref’s!!

  13. red says:


    My opinion is – is that the question is not meant to be answered. But what we can insure (and what the Founding Fathers tried desperately to insure)is that the debate goes on. The debate itself is built into our country’s structure. If that makes any sense.

  14. red says:

    What I mean is:

    If John Adams ALONE had been responsible for creating America, we would have been in trouble. If Thomas Jefferson ALONE had been responsible for creating America, we would have been in trouble. It was the alchemy, the mixture of them TOGETHER which is so extraordinary.

    They were debating about the “many vs. the few” until they drew their last breaths. And so are we, still. It’s when the debate stops that we’ll be in real trouble.

  15. Curtis says:

    Thanks for the old posts, very interesting! I get this light feeling when I read the Declaration of Independence, to live in those times!! To write those words! Simply amazing.

  16. red says:

    Curtis – you are not kidding. Gimme a time machine and I would be SO THERE.

  17. Mr. Bingley says:

    i’ve been reading chernow’s biography of hamilton on the ferry this week. i burst out laughing last night when i got to the part where he was describing the yellow fever outbreak in philadelphia. and what in that caused me to chuckle? this line:

    This required intestinal fortitude as carts rumbled across the cobblestones, carrying piles of cadavers, and residents were loudly exhorted, “Bring out your dead.”

    hehheh. too many years of monty python…

  18. Mr. Bingley says:

    oh yeah, average life span of 35, yellow fever, anthrax, no bathing, bloodletting-is-good-for-you health care, rotten teeth, rotten food…sign me up! ;)

  19. red says:

    No such thing as too many years of Monty Python.

  20. red says:

    One of my favorite Hamilton stories is this:

    George Washington (who really started Hamilton’s career) was famously reserved, even a bit stiff. He was always formal, his manners impeccable … but he wasn’t quite a social animal. He was the epitome of reserve.

    Hamilton, needless to say, was NOT.

    At some revolutionary gathering, with all the main characters there, Hamilton dared someone (can’t remember who at the moment) to go over to Washington, throw his arm around him, and say, “Hey, chap, how are you?” Something overly familiar, obviously …

    Whoever it was – said “No way, I can’t do that!” but Hamilton goaded and goaded, until finally – the gentleman walked over, threw his arm around Washington and made some relaxed familiar greeting.

    Washington remained stiff as a board – was gracious, as always – but you just did not throw your arms around General Washington.

    Hamilton, across the room, had watched the whole exchange, laughing like a maniac.

    Such a bad-boy. So funny, too – to imagine the Founding Fathers “daring” each other to do stuff, as though they were 7 year old boys in the back yard.

  21. CW says:

    That’s a great story about Hamilton red, and the original post was one of your best…

    I’ve never been a big fan of Jefferson, as I am of the Adamses, but you make a great point about the polarization of the electorate in 1800. In comparison we are SO much more restrained today.

  22. rossi says:

    my dear
    you are turning into such an intellectual these days
    i think i shall have an affair with your brain
    send her over


  23. homebru says:

    Cary Grant one day, Adams and Jefferson the next.

    Red, you are a treasure.

  24. Ken Hall says:

    I may have recommended this one before, but a good and readable account of the ratification struggle from the Antifederalist point of view is Robert Allen Rutland’s The Ordeal of the Constitution (ISBN of the paperback edition: 0930350502). I tripped over it wandering the stacks one day at the Cleveland State University library), and decided to read it. I recommend it to my students (and anyone else interested in the period and the topic) without reservation.

  25. I’m a huge fan of this period of history as well, and I also highly, highly recommend the Founding Brothers – Ellis does a great job of really capturing the mood of the times and the personalities not just of Jefferson and Adams, but of Hamilton, Madison and to a lesser extent Franklin. I’ve also read Ellis’ biography of Jefferson – An American Sphinx – and that’s excellent as well.

    Also, in response to this comment: “If John Adams ALONE had been responsible for creating America, we would have been in trouble. If Thomas Jefferson ALONE had been responsible for creating America, we would have been in trouble. It was the alchemy, the mixture of them TOGETHER which is so extraordinary.”

    I would add to that, one of the things that really worked in early America, and probably the main reason for the triumph of Republicanism over Federalism was the partnership between Jefferson and Madison. Jefferson was radically idealistic – you’re right, if he had been solely responsible for building America, we would have been in a lot of trouble. Madison was his junior and Jefferson was something of a mentor to him, but Madison was the practical one. In my opinion, Jefferson was largely responsible for forming America’s spirit and ideals; Madison, the structure that supported those ideals. Witness the fact that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence while Madison was the primary author of the Constitution. The role that Madison played in shaping and applying Jefferson’s high minded ideals into a pragmatic, workable form was exceedingly important.

    (And by the way, you’ve definitely whetted my appetite for this book by your excerpt!)

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