You would imagine that the changeover from opinionated Federalists
to stubborn agrarian Democratic-Republicans would be a crisis for a
new Republic, the world's largest, and the fourth largest nation in land
mass, especially following upon an internal crisis in which thousands of
politicians were calling each other crooks and traitors, particularly,
too, inasmuch as it was a violent country where every year thousands
died in brawls, riots, massacres, and brutal bondage.
Not to mention that the election just held for the President had
resulted in a tie vote of the Electoral College and underhanded
machinations to deprive the incoming President of his Office. And,
too, the opponent in the tie, one Aaron Burr, was about as smart and
unscrupulous a Patriot as you could hope to find, quite capable of
recruiting a gang of thugs, as he would reveal later, to take over the
unattended White House.
For President John Adams, outgoing, did not wait to be jovially
ushered away or rudely thrown out. He simply departed town, much
relieved. And Thomas Jefferson dropped in. To my recollection, the
only country in history where this sort of behavior has occurred has
been Switzerland, where, according to one rumor, the incoming and
outgoing Presidents shook hands and left on different trolley cars. It
was one of the greatest days in the history of the United States,
March 4, 1801.
Since the Constitution implied some kind of ceremony upon taking
office, Jefferson went over to the Senate Chamber, where one of his
numerous political foes, who had just been appointed days before
under tricky circumstances to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,
John Marshall, that is, asked him to take the oath of office - him,
Jefferson, who did not believe in the intervention of the Lord and
much less the Bible in such matters. He so swore.
Perhaps all potential conspirators were temporarily exhausted. Or,
more likely, they were conspiring at their home bases impossibly far
from the scene of action, a blessing of the Federal system. Even had
any group come to Washington, they would have had little chance of
finding board and room. The town was small and its houses
transparent, except for the grandiloquent Capitol and manorial White
House. Anyhow, the ceremony ended, Jefferson went off to dinner.
And the Congressmen, too, dispersed to the several taverns of the
town and to their lodgings. It was the rude Republican Rome of Cato
the Elder, some imagined. (But the Romans lived near their work.)
Jefferson looked upon the White House as
an immense harem.
Major Pierre l'Enfant had designed the Capital. He had been a
volunteer in the Revolution. He laid out Paterson, New Jersey.
In Washington, he laid out a large grid of streets.
He pasted upon it a network of diagonal boulevards; he provided a large
avenue with the Executive mansion at one end and the congressional
Capitol at the other end of it: both were genial ideas. The Potomac
River flowed not far away, upstream from Mount Vernon. In fact there
were streams here, there, and everywhere, and,
if not, then mud.
Surveyor George Washington had selected the site. Virginia and Maryland
bordered the District of Columbia, and as the town of Washington
grew under the negligent eye of its master, the Congress, it became
rather more of the slave culture than any other. It is curious that there
was no battle over giving the nation's capital to the slave cause. In the
secret deal between the "North" and "South" to exchange in effect
money for location, this may have been a
second implied assurance.
Many "insiders" and common folk anticipated that Jefferson would
"clean house" once in office. Maybe he would have. Actually he did
not. He hired surprisingly few supporters, allies, family, and friends to
government positions, none of which were under civil service tenure
rules and most of whom would not be for another century and more.
But rumor had it that another deal had been made when the shocking
situation dawned upon Congress: Jefferson and Burr had each 73, the
same number of electoral votes, while Adams gained 65, and, speaketh
the "greatest design ever spun off by the mind of man," the candidate
with a majority of the votes should become President, and, in case of a
tie, the House of Representatives, with each State delegation voting as a single
State with one vote, would determine by majority the winner.
It seemed that Burr, who knew right well that he was supposed to be
Vice-President, if anything, was going to let the "red-baiters" of the
Federalist party vote against Jefferson.
But Hamilton hated Burr more than he disliked Jefferson, and suddenly
discovered new virtues in the man he had been denouncing scurrilously
just recently. It might have been he or a clever idea on Jefferson's side
that sent an informer to the Federalists confiding that Jefferson would
not only uphold the Hamiltonian fiscal system but would not fire every
Federalist on the payroll. Jefferson was chosen by the House.
As you might imagine, one of the first items of business was to change
the manner of electing the President, so as to make sure that a
candidate who was running for the office of President was not also
running for the office of Vice President, and vice versa. This Twelfth
Amendment passed in time for the next Presidential election. The
Electoral College still would not work well, but that is a long and
boring story to come.
Meanwhile, the pretentiously bucolic Jefferson, who welcomed
distinguished foreigners in sloppy attire, but who drank better wines
than practically anybody in America and dined upon the culinary
creations of a French chef, set about continuing the Revolution that he
was always talking about. Almost nothing of the sort
occurred. His Inaugural speech proclaimed that we were all
Republicans, all Federalists, as if nothing had been happening and
politics were a great spoof. It was a useful spoof, a myth of unanimity.
A second myth was in the same speech, and it was also essentially fine:
that this nation was unique in that every man would meet
invasions ofthe public order as his personal concern.
What did happen usually contradicted his theory of the Constitution,
or was bad for the country. He advertised the belief in minimal
government: "That government is best that governs least."
This foolish and impossible notion has been forever an American favorite.
It is not only impossible in the face of the realities
of winning politics and resolving issues thrust upon one.
It is also an invitation to greedy and destructive special interests
to take over the role of government in their sphere.
Preferable might be the operating principle that the
government is best that is so flexible as to increase or decrease its
governance in accord with the changing state of wickedness in the
halls and nooks and corners of society.
Flexibility to expand or contract as required:
such is the more important mechanism
of "good government."
Jefferson believed that all the money needed to run the Federal
government could come from moderate tariffs (if not smuggled in) and
from the sale of lands owned by the government, although procured by
hornswoggling Indians. He went on a saving spree - he, of all people,
who still owed personally large sums of money and would be turned
out of his house for debt in the end - and began paring the debt that
had been so cleverly built up into a useful tool of fiscal management by
Hamilton. He was helped in this by a Swiss-born American, naturally:
Albert Gallatin, one of those Republicans whose appointments pleased
the Federalists. The Bank of the United States continued to prosper in
the hands of his enemies and various British investors.
Jefferson ran the army and the navy down to practically nothing,
during a time when foes were sharking about the Seven Seas
and Britain was hovering about in the Northwest, and Spain, under
French influence much of the time, was considering whether or not to
close down the Mississippi River to Americans.
Even the Bey of Tripoli felt his oats and decided to ask more in the
way of tribute from the United States than ordinarily had been
forthcoming annually since 1786.
He wanted $300,000 next time around and
in 1801, when the payment seemed unlikely, he declared
war on the United States. Since the shipping at risk was in the
Mediterranean, Jefferson sent several boats to teach the Bey a lesson.
But a frigate ran aground, its crew taken prisoner and the boat burned
by the Algerians. After a year, in faint echo of what would happen in
Iran when the U.S. was Super-Power of the World, Jefferson paid
over $60,000 as ransom and the crew was released.
Jefferson also opposed the extension of judicial power through the
Supreme Court and its growing national network of district and circuit
courts. He seems not to have appreciated that the exceedingly
dangerous interposition and nullification proceedings of which he was
author several years before might have destroyed the new
Republic, and that a Supreme Court with the power to declare
national laws unconstitutional would have probably
voided the Alien and Sedition Acts.
He did little about his views, save growl, whereas he might have
mustered his congressional majorities and
undo the lame-duck judiciary law of the Federalists;
in fact, he helped cut back the number of justices to the old number
of five, instead of going ahead and packing the court
as he might have done, if he had any idea of what he
should expect the packed court to do.
(So that the later case of Franklin Roosevelt is not comparable.)
In his second Inaugural Address (he won a second term easily), he
exulted in that no farmer, laborer, or mechanic ever saw a tax-gatherer.
They did not see internal improvements either. And very few
of the civilized amenities that Jefferson so admired in France.
Most shippers avoided customs and saw as little of tax-gatherers as possible,
an habitual dodge for Americans to this day.
His Embargo Act, when it came, should have
won a medal for asininity.
It began with his British enemies.
They were fighting a quarter-century war, first against the
French Republic, then against the French Empire. They were
repeatedly defeated on land, so preferred the sea,
where they did very well, Nelson at Trafalgar
representing the peak achievement.
However, their fleet needed wretched bodies, so they stopped
American ships and took about ten thousand of them over a decade of
time, of which only 1,000 turned out to be true deserters (desertion
being the pretext for the impressment). Too, their fleet blockaded as
much of the European Coast and West Indies as possible to prevent
any traffic with the French. And American ships were informed that
they must have permission from the British before proceeding to the
Continent, even with innocent cargoes.
But when Napoleon learned that many American ships were getting
permits in English ports before proceeding to the continent, he ordered
their taking, according to the rules of his so-called Continental System,
which was designed to counter the British Orders in Council. This
meant basically that all shipping had to serve two masters before
reaching its consignees.
Then, in 1807, the British bombarded and boarded an
American ship, the Chesapeake; several men were killed
and wounded and several were impressed, so that when the vessel
returned to port, a hullabaloo carried around the country, and
Federalists (whose merchants seemed to get along somehow under any
circumstances) cried for war.
Jefferson remained peaceable, but committed the Embargo Act. That
is, with a bill out of Congress (under the most dubious and
loose un-Republican Constitutional warrant that an embargo was a
regulation of commerce), he forbade all American trade with France and Britain.
This folly endured for fifteen months. Evasion of the law was
epidemic. (Napoleon foxily caught American vessels entering
forbidden places and let it be said that he was only
helping America to enforce its laws.)
Now let us have more of the good of Jefferson. We already know that
he composed the Declaration of Independence, but are not sure that it
was an honest document and are sure that it was great propaganda,
and needed. We know, too, that he had been Governor of Virginia,
Ambassador to France, performing with distinction, that he was a
fine build-it-yourself architect who put up his mansion and designed the
University of Virginia's earliest structures. He also prompted the State
of Virginia into a full tolerance of the various religions present and
prospective in the Republic, notwithstanding considerable opposition
from Anglicans and others who continued to struggle against
More than an aesthete - unique among United States Presidents - he
was an intellectual - almost unique among U.S. Presidents, read in
several languages, had friends in several countries. He could have been
a Lorenzo de' Medici or Frederick II of Prussia or
Prime Minister Johann-Wolfgang von Goethe of Weimar
had he the cultural base to support him.
His correspondence was voluminous and highly literate.
He used his competence and energy as a writer to more than
compensate for his poor performance as a public speaker. The first
mass democratic party system in the world was an outgrowth of his
endless epistolarianism. Neither rains, nor snows, nor perilous waves
that erased many a good letter could dismay his pen.
He held pomp and protocol in contempt. He was an egalitarian as far
as he could be one while espousing the doctrine of merit - two
practically contradictory positions unless you coin the phrase "equality
of opportunity." And this is precisely what Jefferson wanted and
expounded continually. It was to be a classless society, where
individuals might rise to their just level of work and recognition. He
looked about the fast-developing world, saw there industry and cities,
and shrank from them.
The happy life, the ideal society, was to be next to nature; the
independent yeoman (farmer, peasant) would join with kindred souls in
a participatory democracy. There, all possible decisions would be made as close
to the heart of the problem as possible by people who
knew one another. He hoped that America could get what it needed in
the way of manufactured goods from the wage slaves of Europe, in
exchange for their raw materials and foodstuffs. He felt no guilt
regarding the political circumstances of women, because he felt that
their tender breasts should not suffer the blows of power politics.
His affections for women were genuine; no one accused him of sexual
harassment. He was the intended victim of blackmail for "incorrect
relations" with a neighbor's wife. The fabulous story has Hamilton first
being blackmailed by a wicked drunken journalist for adultery,
admitting it in order to avoid a worse charge of financial corruption.
The journalist had been briefed by a henchman of Jefferson, none other
than President-to-be James Monroe. But allies of Hamilton trumped up
a trial and conviction of the journalist, who was helped, but not
enough, by Jefferson; he was the source of the story and other stories
of Jefferson's sexual adventures. Jefferson became President and,
helping to pay the man's fine and pull wires, got him released. The
journalist, drunk, slipped into a flooded gutter and drowned.
(No, I doubt that anybody pushed him.)
Jefferson's relationship with his wife remained affectionate
throughout their lives together. His adulterous affair
with a Frenchwoman was practically comme il faut in France.
More interesting is his love affair with Sally Hemings,
his slave, who was actually half-sister to Jefferson's wife,
whom Jefferson did not and could not legally marry,
though she bore him children, as did his legal wife.
Nor could he claim the infants legally as his own,
without admitting to a crime. The long-time liaison
has still its consequences in that both Black "Jeffersons"
and White "Jeffersons" can lay claim to such honors as Monticello,
their ancestral home, and now a national foundation, affords.
Although a historian in 1997 won a literary prize
partly for covering up nicely the love affair,
a comparison of the DNA of the two branches
in 1998 confirmed that Jefferson was ancestor to both.
The Jefferson household was one of the convivial households
of the slave culture, if you had to be a slave. People of all colors
ran around the place as if they belonged there.
And they were bought and sold, beaten up, and
otherwise treated ambivalently by a man who,
after all, was inconsistent, headstrong, and mean
in politics, too.
One of the Jefferson black offshoots, it developed,
did not carry his telltale DNA chromosome ,
revealing thus an illegitimate liaison by the
lady of a later Jeffersonian.
But as the Good Book says, "It's a wise man
who knows his father." So one should not gamble
on the DNA of all the White Jeffersonians.
Nor, for that matter, on the DNA ancestry
of thee and me.
When he came to write about Africans and Caucasians,
Jefferson gave a good account of himself as a
rudimentary anthropologist and psychologist,
trying to be just, but with hints of prejudice, including a
major, yet reserved, "finding" that, unlike the slave of
Socrates' parable who could understand the Pythagorean theorem
in Geometry when dialectically explained,
Africans could not do so well (or passably) in
mathematics as Europeans.
Many years earlier, Jefferson had tried to get the
Virginia Assembly to bring slavery to an end,
and failed, though not by much.
But then, why did he not free more of his slaves?
Because they would have a worse life?
Because his creditors would not have allowed it?
And when the time came in 1808,
he promptly, on January 1, carried out
the Constitutional directive to ban the slave trade.
Then why did not Jefferson exert his great influence and
power to put teeth into the law,
to provide an agency for its strict enforcement?
For he must have known that his countrymen were the world's worst
smugglers. In fact, an estimated 300,000 slaves were smuggled into
the United States between 1808 and 1860, an awful fact, that people
who approve of smuggling on principle might ponder. And with the
costs of non-compliance to the law, the price and
monetary value of slaves went up.
Not everything went wrong for Jefferson in foreign affairs. Napoleon
promised the Spanish government that he would put a Spanish prince
and spouse on the throne ruling over a few square miles of land in Italy
called Tuscany in exchange for the vast area from the Mississippi River
to the borders of the Far West, and the Spaniards snapped up the
offer. Then, Napoleon, not bothering to give the Spanish anything,
instructed Talleyrand to ask the Americans whether they wished to buy
it, the great Louisiana Territory. When he heard this news from Paris,
Jefferson - everyone says - searched his soul, and decided only then
that he might evade his convictions on the subject of a strict
construction of the Constitution, and hastened a second envoy to Paris
to reinforce the first. The price: $15 millions.
The envoys did not cavil. They mentioned boundaries, a map, and
Talleyrand told them that they had an excellent deal and they should
not worry about a million acres here and there,
like where did Texas belong, and
where did the Northwest fit into the scheme?
The Senate, filled with strict constructionists,
contradicted its own views in a jiffy.
Louisiana became American.
As to why Talleyrand and Napoleon acted as they did, it may have
been to put the huge territory in American, rather than Spanish or
British, hands; America would not trouble them. Besides, Americans
were already rafting across the big river; French settlers were few, and
Napoleon needed all potential settlers as cannon fodder for his Grand
Imperial Army that was already battling around the continent.
Anyhow, like almost all Europeans of wealth, culture, and power, the
French leaders regarded the Americas as a perennial sideshow.
The acquisition was genuine, despite its informality.
Every once in the while a French voice is raised to claim that
the U.S. never paid the 15 million dollars,
but no one has threatened to take Louisiana back.
Inspired by the new acquisition, particularly as to the vagueness of its
boundaries, American gangs began to invade Florida, particularly from
the East bank of the Mississippi to the present-day Panhandle. The
area stretched up to touch present-day Mississippi and Alabama, which
had come into the United States with the Pinckney Treaty of 1795. All
of this was hot, humid, lowland, predestined, it would appear, for
planters to grow cotton with slave labor. Actually, the irregular
invasion and occupation could be called the West Florida Rebellion.
Once more, the Spanish government acceded to aggression, and a
face-saving deal was struck to legitimize the acquisition.
Meanwhile as part of this stupendous expansiveness, an expedition ,
called the Lewis-Clark Expedition for its leaders, was despatched by
Jefferson, even before the Louisiana offer came up, to go as far West
as possible and report back what they found. They had a wonderful
trip, were led, in a Hollywood romantic touch, by a young Indian
squaw with a worthless husband, a good part of the way across the
High Plains. They achieved the mouth of the Columbia River.
They might have put up a settlement there - British, Russian, Spanish,
Americans and other types of traders and trappers were roundabout -
and this would have firmed up the American claim to the Oregon
territory that was made upon their return. Or a settlement could have
been despatched. For the region was not ignored. The Russians were
down from Alaska with solid claims. The British had docked in the
estuaries and traded, and put in claims. The tenacious and redoubtable
MacKenzie had been up and down and across Canada with a vision on
behalf of the British Empire second to none.
Still, further South, the trail of Lewis and Clark and that, too, of
Lieutenant Pike, whose company had covered a good part of the near
West before it was arrested and taken into custody by Spanish troops
and ushered out, were observed by mountain men and traders and
fugitives, so that, before long, more stable pioneers began to
make the trek Northwest.
About the time that Lewis and Clark were told to go West, Aaron
Burr was making plans for the West himself, and shortly was to send a
great American "West." Burr was the son of a President of Princeton
University, a Colonel in the War of Independence, a handsome New
York political figure of consequence, and a rich lawyer.
He was projected upon the national scene in 1796, you will recall, when
Jefferson of Virginia and Burr of New York came close to beating the
Federalist ticket, and you will recall, too, that he and Jefferson tied in
the Electoral College count for President, as head of the Federalist
ticket, and, as was right and proper, Jefferson won out, not without
the aid of Alexander Hamilton, also a New Yorker.
I repeat myself because these injuries at the hands of
Hamilton, no matter how deserved, were not forgotten.
But Hamilton, ever nasty in verbalistics, would not get off his back.
When Burr got involved in something called the "Essex Junto," which
was a feeble attempt by last-ditch Federalists to disjoin New England
from the Union, Burr was wondering about adding New York to the
disjuncture. Hamilton would have believed so even were it untrue.
That was not all. Burr, still Vice-President, decided to offer himself as
a candidate for Governor of New York and lost out in the
preliminaries. Hamilton delivered himself profusely of defamatory
language in the course of events, and received finally from Burr a
challenge to duel. Duels were banned in New York, but they might
cross the Hudson River and duel at Weehawken, for example.
They did so.
Depending upon how much you hate the one and like the other, you
can believe how high was Hamilton's pistol when he shot first. After he
missed, Burr fired and mortally wounded Hamilton. At which point a
perfectly justifiable volume could be written on the "If..then" pattern.
If Burr had also missed, would Hamilton have become President, and
would Burr lead a group of Northern States out from the Union? ..etc.
Burr lost a certain esteem, to be sure, but one must remember that
Hamilton had a great many enemies and Burr was a charming man.
Burr had the nerve to resume his office as Vice President and gavelled
the Senate into order when it convened. But then, hardly in the good
graces of Jeffersonian Republicans or the Federalists, he was soon
without a job and still thinking big. So he journeyed West and joined
up with a General Wilkinson, a man of questionable Revolutionary
War conduct, who was in the pay of the Spaniards as a spy. He
persuaded Wilkinson that they should set up a separate Republic in the
West, and began to recruit men for his army. Wilkinson betrayed him
in a letter to Jefferson and a warrant of arrest went out on Burr.
He was soon captured and brought to trial before a
U.S. circuit court on a charge of treason, the same court
over which John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court,
and foe of Jefferson, was presiding. But who could find
"two witnesses to the overt act" of treason,
as the Constitution required for conviction?
Jefferson went out of his way to find evidence against Burr, promising
a pardon to conspirators who turned state's evidence, and was sure
there was plenty to convict him in an ordinary court of law.
Questionable conduct, his, but, then, Marshall was seen to be dining
out with the defense, including the defendant, for which today he
would be impeached and probably convicted of malfeasance.
Marshall subpoenaed the President to appear in court with
relevant documents, but Jefferson, referring to the independence
of the executive branch, claimed the privilege of refusal.
The two men reversed their roles. Jefferson, strict constructionist,
would have overlooked the explicit language of the Constitution.
Marshall, broad constructionist, referred to the express
letter of thelaw, becoming a strict constructionist:
no two eye-witnesses, no conviction.
Burr went free. He returned to New York, practiced law, lived as well
as he could, but too lavishly for his purse. His cherished daughter was
married to a Carolinian, and on her way to visit her father, her boat
disappeared in a storm. Burr would go down to the Battery and look
out to sea on occasion, hoping for a glimpse of the missing ship. He
enjoyed for many years the affections of a woman-about-town. He was
divorced for adultery in his eighties, but no matter, for he was not
alone. It was men like him who gave New York City a bad name.
Some of the work of Mr. John Marshall, C.J. seemed to be of lesser
importance than treason. Not long after Jefferson became President,
and Marshall Chief Justice, a minor official named Marbury came into
court pleading that he been denied his commission to a job in the court
system; he knew that Adams had signed the commission, along with
many others, in the last moments of his presidency, but through an
oversight, his, Marbury's, commission had not been delivered, and,
what was more, the new Secretary of State, one James Madison,
refused to let him have it. The Judiciary Act of 1789, argued Marbury,
allowed him to come before the Supreme Court and get from it a writ
of mandamus, which would direct the Secretary of State to
hand over the appointment.
The panel of justices pondered the case, then Chief Justice Marshall
wrote up the decision, the judgement, the opinion of the Court, the
other justices concurring, in the case of Marbury vs. Madison. Yes,
said the Court, Marbury's facts were right, but the Constitution
expressly gave the Court the right to hear cases as a court of first
instance, that is, gave it an original jurisdiction, only in cases involving
foreign officials. All other cases had to come to it on appeal from
lower courts. Therefore, said Marshall, the broad constructionist, the
Constitution forbids us to take on this case and the section of the
Judiciary Act of 1789 that says otherwise is unconstitutional,
null and void.
The elegance and irony of the incident are remarkable. Poor Marbury,
the Federalist, was out of luck, the Federalist Court decided. The law
ushered through by his party, the Federalist Party, was unconstitutional.
The Court was sworn to uphold in its judgements the Constitution.
It could do nothing else. And the principle of
Judicial Review of the constitutionality
of actions of all branches and
all actions of all federal officers
was thereby practically established.
The very insignificance of the substance of the case,
along with its involuted reasoning prevented Congress,
public opinion, and the people on the street from
becoming angrily aroused.
Here was the beginning of the most powerful judiciary in the world.
The Supreme Court became much more powerful in the years to come;
often its legislative powers exceeded those of Congress, and its
executive powers those of the Presidency.
Judges could be impeached,
but only for high crimes and misdemeanors and then
by elaborate trials by the Senate to achieve convictions.
It happened twice in Jefferson's time, with no effect on the power of
the Court. The one case dealt with a Pickering who was not only often
drunk on duty, but prone to obscene language, and furthermore, to all
appearances, insane. He was impeached and convicted and removed.
A second case, Justice Chase, involved a Federalist of loudly voiced,
scandalous opinions of persons and ideas with which he disagreed. He
was not convicted, and, this action having failed, future attempts to get
at the Court's personnel and sense of power were few and far between.
Thomas Jefferson must be bid adieu, as he leaves office and retires to
Monticello, not a little disgusted with his experience
and relieved at getting out of Washington. It is just as well
that he did not write a treatise on his theories of government.
They would be contradictory, whereas as they found their
way into policy documents, they appeared over the years
as superb and useful to all kinds of people, ranging from
Southern Bourbons to New York communists.
He was basically a nice guy, which means that he did not engage in
duels, massacres, denials of widows and orphans, hatreds of common
people anywhere in the world, and promises of the apocalypse. (It is
surprising how many famous leaders are discharged from a decent
respect by these criteria.)
His idea of democracy and the republic, as distinct from a systematic
theory on the subjects, was individualistic, cooperative, participatory,
and because there was no way to get unanimity in the short run, it was
majoritarian. (We shall not ask when, if ever, a majority government is
possible, except when we mean by the term a way for settling a tally of
voices.) He resisted Franklin's democratic pragmatism, wrongly, for
Franklin was quite ready to be idealistic when
other people were ready.
Far from becoming conservative with age,
Jefferson stuck to his extreme democratic views.
He thought (1816) that every biological generation,
certainly every social generation, should have the right to,
and actually should, redo the Constitution.
Writing Baron von Humboldt in 1817, he declared,
" .. The lex majoris partis is the fundamental law of
every society of individuals of equal rights;
to consider the will of the society enounced by the
majority of a single vote, as sacred as if unanimous,
is the first of all lessons in importance."
The genial Baron, having suffered the worst jungles of the world,
could tolerate such tangled nonsense with aplomb.
Jefferson could not stomach the realpolitik of
his close collaborator James Madison,
who thought of society as composed of a variety of interests
that had to be compromised. He detested Hamilton's preference
for a republic governed by and for the wealthy and powerful.
By implication and some hard evidence, he felt somewhat the
same about ideas of George Washington and John Adams.
He was an indigenous civilized and cultivated American
when this category of person was not numerous enough
to appear in any sampling no matter how large.
His influence was broad and vague. Bycontrast,
around Boston now, a small and sharp influence was growing
out of the Unitarian movement. Started up in England by Theophilus
Lindsay (need we be amazed that at the very first gathering in London,
Benjamin Franklin dropped by?), the Unitarians came around to
discounting the literal truth of the Scriptures and the Holy Trinity, and
proposing the radical notion that the Deity was a God of love, holding
- to quote the leader of the sect in America, Ellery Channing - that
the God who "regards us with displeasure before we have acquired
power to understand our duties and reflect on our actions" is no God
at all, and the true God is "infinitely good, kind, benevolent... good in
disposition as well as in act, good not to a few but to all."
The Puritan outlook was reversed. So was the revivalist. God wanted
humans to become educated adults, not caterwauling children born
again and again, after sin upon sin, fall upon fall. Love for God and
Humankind reciprocating. The few Unitarians would have
disproportionately large influence upon American theology, education,
science, and literature. Were persons like Channing and Jefferson in
charge, there would never have been a Civil War.
Neither was a typical American.
Jefferson was grand in displaying merit and democratic feelings
simultaneously. Wherever he went, whenever he wrote, he spoke
frankly, and as a result was a great and rare teacher of the public - at
a time when the Second Awakening in religion was resulting in sadistic
and masochistic orgies, intemperate outbursts worse than anything in
politics, but in the name of God hence ignored and forgiven and even
embraced by historians and civic leaders since then -- at a time when,
according to most foreign expert observers, the country was peopled
by semi-savages of high ambitions and low tastes.
He remained thoroughly loyal to his country
despite his being so outré, of such a tiny minority.
Moreover, at the same time, he secured a majority
of his countrymen to the general cause of benevolent democracy -
a phenomenon of the first instance in America.