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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.”

Noble farmers willing to give it up for absolute power.
"Cincinnatus leaves the plow for the Roman dictatorship" by Juan Antonio Ribera, 1806.

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.

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Farmerlike

April 9, 2012

August 30, 1791 – April 25, 1794

“I congratulate you on the charming Opening of the Spring, and heartily wish I was enjoying of it as you are up on a Plantation, out of the hearing of the Din of Politicks and the Rumours of War.” – JA to TJ, 4/4/1794

Monticello Mountain
Image Credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation

TJ resigned as secretary of state on December 31, 1793 and returned to his farm in Virginia. Let’s skip the whys and just say there was a lot of political infighting and he decided to take a breather. Did we just skip ahead three years from the last post? Yes.

Historical digression alert! One of the things TJ was involved in during his SofS stint was establishing an official U.S. government policy toward Native American sovereignty. According to Joseph J. Ellis, who provides an excellent account of this early diplomatic initiative in his book, American Creation, one of TJ’s first acts as secretary of state was to officially oppose Georgian encroachment into Creek Indian land. In other words, he let Georgia know that it was the U.S. government—and not the states—that was the calling the shots when it came to westward expansion. Ellis writes:

“At a deeper and less legislative level, moreover, Jefferson brought the most fully articulate sense of the underlying moral issue at stake at this defining moment in the shaping of American policy toward the Native Americans. He had written the most compelling defense of Indian culture by any American of his time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia [1785] Jefferson . . . had mounted a full-scale defense of Indian intelligence, courage, and integrity against the derogatory claims to the contrary by the eminent French scientist Count Buffon, who had argued that American Indians were a biologically and mentally inferior collection of savages unworthy of comparison with white Europeans. Jefferson politely but firmly argued that Buffon, Europe’s most renowned natural scientist, did not know what he was talking about.”

President Washington & Co. established that independent Native American tribes were foreign nations and thus all diplomatic relations fell under the authority of the federal government, as opposed to state governments. This noble attempt to curtail American westward expansion in the name of Native American sovereignty was, of course, a failure, but I’ve already surpassed my word limit for this post.

Back to TJ’s farm.

TJ to JA (writing from Monticello, 4/25/1794): “The difference of my present and past situation is such as to leave me nothing to regret but that my retirement has been postponed four years too long. The principles on which I calculate the value of life are entirely in favor of my present course. I return to farming with an ardour which I scarcely knew in my youth, and which has got the better entirely of my love of study. Instead of writing 10. or 12. letters a day, which I have been in the habit of doing as a thing of course, I put off answering my letters now, farmerlike, till a rainy day, and then find it sometimes postponed by other necessary occupations.”

Mulberry Row, Vegetable Garden Terrace, and South Orchard at Monticello
Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Leonard Phillips.

In all sincerity, that is a profound statement. “The principles on which I calculate the value of life are entirely in favor of my present course.” If I could a) define the principles on which I calculate the value of life, and b) know that my present course was following those principles, I’d call it a day. Isn’t that pretty much the thing?

Now, TJ goes on to run for president, so there’s the grain of salt. But let’s not spoil the moment.

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