On “The Blood of Tyrants”: How Jefferson Treated His Loyal Opposition

The rumble of President John Adams’s coach had hardly died away in the distance on the morning of March 4,1801, when Mr. Thomas Jefferson entered the breakfast room of Conrad’s boarding house on Capitol Hill, where he had been living in bachelor’s quarters during his Vice-Presidency. He took his usual seat at the lower end of the table among the other boarders, declining with a smile to accept the chair of the impulsive Mrs. Brown, who felt, in spite of her democratic principles, that on this day of all days Mr. Jefferson should have the place which he had obstinately refused to occupy at the head of the table and near the fireplace. There were others besides the wife of the Senator from Kentucky who felt that Mr. Jefferson was carrying equality too far. But Mr. Jefferson would not take precedence over the Congressmen who were his fellow boarders.

Conrad’s was conveniently near the Capitol, on the south side of the hill, and commanded an extensive view. The slope of the hill, which was a wild tangle of verdure in summer, debouched into a wide plain extending to the Potomac. Through this lowland wandered a little stream, once known as Goose Creek but now dignified by the name of Tiber. The banks of the stream as well as of the Potomac were fringed with native flowering shrubs and graceful trees, in which Mr. Jefferson took great delight. The prospect from his drawing-room windows, indeed, quite as much as anything else, attached him to Conrad’s.

As was his wont, Mr. Jefferson withdrew to his study after breakfast and doubtless ran over the pages of a manuscript which he had been preparing with some care for this Fourth of March. It may be guessed, too, that here, as at Monticello, he made his usual observations-noting in his diary the temperature, jotting down in the garden-book which he kept for thirty years an item or two about the planting of vegetables, and recording, as he continued to do for eight years, the earliest and latest appearance of each comestible in the Washington market. Perhaps he made a few notes about the “seeds of the cymbling (cucurbita vermeosa) and squash (cucurbita melopipo)” which he purposed to send to his friend Philip Mazzei, with directions for planting; or even wrote a letter full of reflections upon bigotry in politics and religion to Dr. Joseph Priestley, whom he hoped soon to have as his guest in the President’s House.

Toward noon Mr. Jefferson stepped out of the house and walked over to the Capitol—a tall, rather loose-jointed figure, with swinging stride, symbolizing, one is tempted to think, the angularity of the American character. “A tall, large-boned farmer,” an unfriendly English observer called him. His complexion was that of a man constantly exposed to the sun—sandy or freckled, contemporaries called it—but his features were clean-cut and strong and his expression was always kindly and benignant.

Aside from salvos of artillery at the hour of twelve, the inauguration of Mr. Jefferson as President of the United States was marked by extreme simplicity. In the Senate chamber of the unfinished Capitol, he was met by Aaron Burr, who had already been installed as presiding officer, and conducted to the Vice-President’s chair, while that debonair man of the world took a seat on his right with easy grace. On Mr. Jefferson’s left sat Chief Justice John Marshall, a “tall, lax, lounging Virginian,” with black eyes peering out from his swarthy countenance. There is a dramatic quality in this scene of the President-to-be seated between two men who are to cause him more vexation of spirit than any others in public life. Burr, brilliant, gifted, ambitious, and profligate; Marshall, temperamentally and by conviction opposed to the principles which seemed to have triumphed in the election of this radical Virginian, to whom indeed he had a deep-seated aversion. After a short pause, Mr. Jefferson rose and read his Inaugural Address in a tone so low that it could be heard by only a few in the crowded chamber.

Those who expected to hear revolutionary doctrines must have been surprised by the studied moderation of this address. There was not a Federalist within hearing of Jefferson’s voice who could not have subscribed to all the articles in this profession of political faith. “Equal and exact justice to all men”—”a jealous care of the right of election by the people”—”absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority”—”the supremacy of the civil over the military authority”—”the honest payments of our debts”—”freedom of religion”—”freedom of the press”—”freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus”—what were these principles but the bright constellation, as Jefferson said, “which has guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation?” John Adams himself might have enunciated all these principles, though he would have distributed the emphasis somewhat differently.

But what did Jefferson mean when he said, “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans—we are all Federalists.” If this was true, what, pray, became of the revolution of 1800, which Jefferson had declared “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form?” Even Jefferson’s own followers shook their heads dubiously over this passage as they read and reread it in the news-sheets. It sounded a false note while the echoes of the campaign of 1800 were still reverberating. If Hamilton and his followers were monarchists at heart in 1800, bent upon overthrowing the Government, how could they and the triumphant Republicans be brethren of the same principle in 1801? The truth of the matter is that Jefferson was holding out an olive branch to his political opponents. He believed, as he remarked in a private letter, that many Federalists were sound Republicans at heart who had been stampeded into the ranks of his opponents during the recent troubles with France. These lost political sheep Jefferson was bent upon restoring to the Republican fold by avoiding utterances and acts which would offend them. “I always exclude the leaders from these considerations,” he added confidentially. In short, this Inaugural Address was less a great state paper, marking a broad path for the Government to follow under stalwart leadership, than an astute effort to consolidate the victory of the Republican party.

Disappointing the address must have been to those who had expected a declaration of specific policy. Yet the historian, wiser by the march of events, may read between the lines. When Jefferson said that he desired a wise and frugal government—a government “which should restrain men from injuring one another but otherwise leave them free to regulate their own pursuits—” and when he announced his purpose “to support the state governments in all their rights” and to cultivate “peace with all nations—entangling alliances with none,” he was in effect formulating a policy. But all this was in the womb of the future.

It was many weeks before Jefferson took up his abode in the President’s House. In the interval he remained in his old quarters, except for a visit to Monticello to arrange for his removal, which indeed he was in no haste to make, for “The Palace,” as the President’s House was dubbed satirically, was not yet finished; its walls were not fully plastered, and it still lacked the main staircase-which, it must be admitted, was a serious defect if the new President meant to hold court. Besides, it was inconveniently situated at the other end of the, straggling, unkempt village. At Conrad’s Jefferson could still keep in touch with those members of Congress and those friends upon whose advice he relied in putting “our Argosie on her Republican tack,” as he was wont to say. Here, in his drawing-room, he could talk freely with practical politicians such as Charles Pinckney, who had carried the ticket to success in South Carolina and who might reasonably expect to be consulted in organizing the new Administration.

The chief posts in the President’s official household, save one, were readily filled. There were only five heads of departments to be appointed, and of these the Attorney-General might be described as a head without a department, since the duties of his office were few and required only his occasional attention. As it fell out, however, the Attorney-General whom Jefferson appointed, Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts, practically carried on the work of all the Executive Departments until his colleagues were duly appointed and commissioned. For Secretary of War Jefferson chose another reliable New Englander, Henry Dearborn of Maine. The naval portfolio went begging, perhaps because the navy was not an imposing branch of the service, or because the new President had announced his desire to lay up all seven frigates in the eastern branch of the Potomac, where “they would be under the immediate eye of the department and would require but one set of plunderers to look after them.” One conspicuous Republican after another declined this dubious honor, and in the end Jefferson was obliged to appoint as Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, whose chief qualification was his kinship to General Samuel Smith, an influential politician of Maryland.

The appointment by Jefferson of James Madison as Secretary of State occasioned no surprise, for the intimate friendship of the two Virginians and their long and close association in politics led everyone to expect that he would occupy an important post in the new Administration, though in truth that friendship was based on something deeper and finer than mere agreement in politics. “I do believe,” exclaimed a lady who often saw both men in private life, “father never loved son more than Mr. Jefferson loves Mr. Madison.” The difference in age, however, was not great, for Jefferson was in his fifty-eighth year and Madison in his fiftieth. It was rather mien and character that suggested the filial relationship. Jefferson was, or could be if he chose, an imposing figure; his stature was six feet two and one-half inches. Madison had the ways and habits of a little man, for he was only five feet six. Madison was naturally timid and retiring in the presence of other men, but he was at his best in the company of his friend Jefferson, who valued his attainments. Indeed, the two men supplemented each other. If Jefferson was prone to theorize, Madison was disposed to find historical evidence to support a political doctrine. While Jefferson generalized boldly, even rashly, Madison hesitated, temporized, weighed the pros and cons, and came with difficulty to a conclusion. Unhappily neither was a good judge of men. When pitted against a Bonaparte, a Talleyrand, or a Canning, they appeared provincial in their ways and limited in their sympathetic understanding of statesmen of the Old World.

Next to that of Madison, Jefferson valued the friendship of Albert Gallatin, whom he made Secretary of the Treasury by a recess appointment, since there was some reason to fear that the Federalist Senate would not confirm the nomination. The Federalists could never forget that Gallatin was a Swiss by birth—an alien of supposedly radical tendencies. The partisan press never exhibited its crass provincialism more shamefully than when it made fun of Gallatin’s imperfect pronunciation of English. He had come to America, indeed, too late to acquire a perfect control of a new tongue, but not too late to become a loyal son of his adopted country. He brought to Jefferson’s group of advisers not only a thorough knowledge of public finance but a sound judgment and a statesmanlike vision, which were often needed to rectify the political vagaries of his chief.

The last of his Cabinet appointments made, Jefferson returned to his country seat at Monticello for August and September, for he was determined not to pass those two “bilious months” in Washington. “I have not done it these forty years,” he wrote to Gallatin. “Grumble who will, I will never pass those two months on tidewater.” To Monticello, indeed, Jefferson turned whenever his duties permitted and not merely in the sickly months of summer, for when the roads were good the journey was rapidly and easily made by stage or chaise. There, in his garden and farm, he found relief from the distractions of public life. “No occupation is so delightful to me,” he confessed, “as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” At Monticello, too, he could gratify his delight in the natural sciences, for he was a true child of the eighteenth century in his insatiable curiosity about the physical universe and in his desire to reduce that universe to an intelligible mechanism. He was by instinct a rationalist and a foe to superstition in any form, whether in science or religion. His indefatigable pen was as ready to discuss vaccination and yellow fever with Dr. Benjamin Rush as it was to exchange views with Dr. Priestley on the ethics of Jesus.

The diversity of Jefferson’s interests is truly remarkable. Monticello is a monument to his almost Yankee-like ingenuity. He writes to his friend Thomas Paine to assure him that the semi-cylindrical form of roof after the De Lorme pattern, which he proposes for his house, is entirely practicable, for he himself had “used it at home for a dome, being 120 degrees of an oblong octagon.” He was characteristically American in his receptivity to new ideas from any source. A chance item about Eli Whitney of New Haven arrests his attention and forthwith he writes to Madison recommending a “Mr. Whitney at Connecticut, a mechanic of the first order of ingenuity, who invented the cotton gin,” and who has recently invented “molds and machines for making all the pieces of his [musket] locks so exactly equal that take one hundred locks to pieces and mingle their parts and the hundred locks may be put together as well by taking the first pieces which come to hand.” To Robert Fulton, then laboring to perfect his torpedoes and submarine, Jefferson wrote encouragingly: “I have ever looked to the submarine boat as most to be depended on for attaching them [i. e., torpedoes]…. I am in hopes it is not to be abandoned as impracticable.”

It was not wholly affectation, therefore, when Jefferson wrote, “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.” One can readily picture this Virginia farmer-philosopher ruefully closing his study door, taking a last look over the gardens and fields of Monticello, in the golden days of October, and mounting Wildair, his handsome thoroughbred, setting out on the dusty road for that little political world at Washington, where rumor so often got the better of reason and where gossip was so likely to destroy philosophic serenity.

Jefferson had been a widower for many years; and so, since his daughters were married and had households of their own, he was forced to preside over his menage at Washington without the feminine touch and tact so much needed at this American court. Perhaps it was this unhappy circumstance quite as much as his dislike for ceremonies and formalities that made Jefferson do away with the weekly levees of his predecessors and appoint only two days, the First of January and the Fourth of July, for public receptions. On such occasions he begged Mrs. Dolly Madison to act as hostess; and a charming and gracious figure she was, casting a certain extenuating veil over the President’s gaucheries. Jefferson held, with his many political heresies, certain theories of social intercourse which ran rudely counter to the prevailing etiquette of foreign courts. Among the rules which he devised for his republican court, the precedence due to rank was conspicuously absent, because he held that “all persons when brought together in society are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.” One of these rules to which the Cabinet gravely subscribed read as follows:

“To maintain the principles of equality, or of pele mele, and prevent the growth of precedence out of courtesy, the members of the Executive will practise at their own houses, and recommend an adherence to the ancient usage of the country, of gentlemen in mass giving precedence to the ladies in mass, in passing from one apartment where they are assembled into another.”

The application of this rule on one occasion gave rise to an incident which convulsed Washington society. President Jefferson had invited to dinner the new British Minister Merry and his wife, the Spanish Minister Yrujo and his wife, the French Minister Pichon and his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Madison. When dinner was announced, Mr. Jefferson gave his hand to Mrs. Madison and seated her on his right, leaving the rest to straggle in as they pleased. Merry, fresh from the Court of St. James, was aghast and affronted; and when a few days later, at a dinner given by the Secretary of State, he saw Mrs. Merry left without an escort, while Mr. Madison took Mrs. Gallatin to the table, he believed that a deliberate insult was intended. To appease this indignant Briton the President was obliged to explain officially his rule of “pole mele”; but Mrs. Merry was not appeased and positively refused to appear at the President’s New Year’s Day reception. “Since then,” wrote the amused Pichon, “Washington society is turned upside down; all the women are to the last degree exasperated against Mrs. Merry; the Federalist newspapers have taken up the matter, and increased the irritations by sarcasms on the administration and by making a burlesque of the facts.” Then Merry refused an invitation to dine again at the President’s, saying that he awaited instructions from his Government; and the Marquis Yrujo, who had reasons of his own for fomenting trouble, struck an alliance with the Merrys and also declined the President’s invitation. Jefferson was incensed at their conduct, but put the blame upon Mrs. Merry, whom he characterized privately as a “virago who has already disturbed our harmony extremely.”

A brilliant English essayist has observed that a government to secure obedience must first excite reverence. Some such perception, coinciding with native taste, had moved George Washington to assume the trappings of royalty, in order to surround the new presidential office with impressive dignity. Posterity has, accordingly, visualized the first President and Father of his Country as a statuesque figure, posing at formal levees with a long sword in a scabbard of white polished leather, and clothed in black velvet knee-breeches, with yellow gloves and a cocked hat. The third President of the United States harbored no such illusions and affected no such poses. Governments were made by rational beings—”by the consent of the governed,” he had written in a memorable document—and rested on no emotional basis. Thomas Jefferson remained Thomas Jefferson after his election to the chief magistracy; and so contemporaries saw him in the President’s House, an unimpressive figure clad in “a blue coat, a thick gray-colored hairy waistcoat, with a red underwaist lapped over it, green velveteen breeches, with pearl buttons, yarn stockings, and slippers down at the heels.” Anyone might have found him, as Senator Maclay did, sitting “in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other,” a loose, shackling figure with no pretense at dignity.

In his dislike for all artificial distinctions between man and man, Jefferson determined from the outset to dispense a true Southern hospitality at the President’s House and to welcome any one at any hour on any day. There was therefore some point to John Quincy Adams’s witticism that Jefferson’s “whole eight years was a levee.” No one could deny that he entertained handsomely. Even his political opponents rose from his table with a comfortable feeling of satiety which made them more kindly in their attitude toward their host. “We sat down at the table at four,” wrote Senator Plumer of New Hampshire, “rose at six, and walked immediately into another room and drank coffee. We had a very good dinner, with a profusion of fruits and sweetmeats. The wine was the best I ever drank, particularly the champagne, which was indeed delicious.”

It was in the circle of his intimates that Jefferson appeared at his best, and of all his intimate friends Madison knew best how to evoke the true Jefferson. To outsiders Madison appeared rather taciturn, but among his friends he was genial and even lively, amusing all by his ready humor and flashes of wit. To his changes of mood Jefferson always responded. Once started Jefferson would talk on and on, in a loose and rambling fashion, with a great deal of exaggeration and with many vagaries, yet always scattering much information on a great variety of topics. Here we may leave him for the moment, in the exhilarating hours following his inauguration, discoursing with Pinckney, Gallatin, Madison, Burr, Randolph, Giles, Macon, and many another good Republican, and evolving the policies of his Administration.


Allen Johnson was a historian and author of Jefferson and his Colleagues, from which this article is excerpted. Image from John Trumbull, painted in 1788.