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.