May 11, 1794 – May 27, 1795
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “I am glad to find you so well pleased with your Retirement. I felt the same delightful Satisfaction after my Return from Europe, and I feel still every Summer upon my little farm all the Ardour, and more than all the Ardour of youth: to such a Degree that I cannot bear the thought of writing or reading, unless it be some trifle to fill up a vacant half hour.”
JA to TJ: “I have spent my Summer so deliciously in farming that I return to the old Story of Politicks with great Reluctance. The Earth is grateful. You find it so, I dare say. I wish We could both say the Same of its Inhabitants.”
TJ to JA: “We have had a hard winter and backward spring. This injured our wheat so much that it cannot be made a good crop by all the showers of heaven which are now falling down on us exactly as we want them. Our first cutting of clover is not yet begun. Strawberries not ripe till within this fortnight, and every thing backward in proportion. What with my farming and my nail manufactory I have my hands full. I am on horseback half the day, and counting and measuring nails the other half. I am trying potatoes on a large scale as a substitute for Indian corn for feeding animals.”
JA to TJ: “If I had Your Plantation and your Labourers* I should be tempted to follow your example and get out of the Fumum et Opes Strepitumque Romae [“the smoke, the wealth, the din of Rome”] which I abominate.”
Joseph J. Ellis in American Creation: “Incantations of virtuous retirement to rural solitude were a familiar and even formulaic refrain, especially within the planter aristocracy of Virginia. The classical models of Cicero and Cincinnatus provided the script, which Jefferson’s principled withdrawal from the hurly-burly of politics to the pastoral serenity of Monticello fit perfectly.”
Whose brilliant idea was it to read American Creation as commentary alongside the A-J Letters? You’re welcome. The benefit is the added ability to include some meaningful context to the correspondence. The problem, besides TMI, is what I might call the rabbit hole of historical revelation. This reveals this, which reveals that, which clarifies that, which debunks this, which proves this, which misconstrues that. Where does it end? How many times do I need to acknowledge a caveat of historical ignorance? Maybe every post….
Anyway, where I’m heading is that during TJ’s secretary of state term, his subsequent “retirement,” and the sparse A-J correspondence during the 1790s, Jefferson is doing a lot more than just negotiating Native American sovereignty, as mentioned in the previous post. Essentially he is trying to undermine President Washington’s (and Adams’s) administration and establish the first official opposition party to the Federalists. Ellis lays this story out in his book and Jefferson comes out looking pretty bad. I won’t get into it much deeper than that except for two long but impressive quotes from Ellis.
First, a little more background: Jefferson and James Madison allied to establish the Democratic-Republican party, who feared a too-strong federal government, manifested most clearly in the proposed First Bank of the United States championed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The national bank was established by Congress in 1791; TJ & Co. declared it unconstitutional.** Now here’s Ellis:
“It was not just the bank itself, then, that terrified Madison and his fellow Virginians, though that source of dread was real enough. It was the open-ended definition of federal power on which the bank was authorized, which in effect gave the federal government a roving mandate to extend its authority wherever it wished, to include the thoroughly vulnerable issue of slavery. In the [Democratic-]Republican vision of the current political situation, most especially its distinctive Virginia vision, corrupt “money-men” were making fortunes by shuffling pieces of paper while whispering insulting jokes about the unknowing yeoman farmers they were fleecing. But neither Jefferson nor Madison was really a farmer. (Neither man ever did a full day’s work in the fields.) They and the Virginia constituency they represented were planters, and the labor source on which the plantation economy rested, ever so precariously it turned out, was slavery.”
So, Jefferson was full of it, and as a Virginia plantation owner, he was unavoidably corrupted by the need to protect the South’s slave economy from federal meddling. He undermined the GW administration – while a member of that administration. (He even hired a “translator” in the State Department whose real job was to write crap about GW in the papers.) Here’s what Ellis says about the Federalists’ opinion of Jefferson:
“Hamilton’s exposure of Jefferson’s covert role in the Republican plotting prompted a series of Federalist assaults on his character that drew selectively on his previous career to document his shallowness and lack of integrity: as governor of Virginia he had fled ignominiously before invading British troops; as minister to France he had failed to comprehend the bloody consequences of the French Revolution, insisting that all would turn out well because he clung tenaciously to ‘theoretical principles fit only for Utopia’; as the author of Notes on the State of Virginia he had declared ‘the inherent inferiority of Blacks to Whites, because they are more unsavory and secrete more by the kidneys’; as a mathematician he kept shifting his theorems as he twirled away in his specially designed pivot chair, which became a favorite symbol of Jefferson’s endemic rotations and vacillations. He was, in the Federalist demonology, a misguided, duplicitous, dangerous dreamer whose sublimated ambition would never be satisfied until he became president of the United States.”
Ouch. And Ellis really doesn’t refute most of that, particularly the “duplicitous” characterization.
Is there a lesson here? Skepticism is healthy when it comes to reading primary sources? Every big problem in American history seems to connect to slavery? If you can write the Declaration of Independence, you’ll probably do all right in most history books? Truth is more complicated than myth? Jefferson was a S.O.B.? What do you think?
* I have yet to find the words “slave” or “slavery” in this correspondence. So far only John Adams has mentioned Jefferson’s “labourers.” And only Abigail Adams mentioned Jefferson’s “maid servant,” Sally Hemings. TJ is silent.
**A fun fact to consider the next time you’re in an argument about what the Founding Fathers intended in the Constitution. Even they didn’t agree.