History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/First/I:9


Chapter 9: The Annual MessageEdit

President Washington began his administration by addressing Congress in a speech, which Congress answered; and the precedent established by him in 1790 was followed by his successor. The custom was regarded by the opposition as an English habit, tending to familiarize the public with monarchical ideas, and Jefferson gave early warning that he should address Congress in a message, which would require no answer. In after times the difference between oral and written communications as signs of monarchy or republicanism became less self-evident; but the habit of writing to Congress was convenient, especially to Presidents who disliked public speaking, and Jefferson's practice remained the rule. The Federalists naturally regarded the change as a reproof, and never admitted its advantages. The Republicans also missed some of the conveniences of the old system. John Randolph, eight years afterward, seemed to regret that the speech had been abandoned:[1]

"The answer to an Address, although that answer might finally contain the most exceptionable passages, was in fact the greatest opportunity which the opposition to the measures of the Administration had of canvassing and sifting its measures. . . . This opportunity of discussion of the answer to an Address, however exceptionable the answer might be when it had received the last seasoning for the Presidential palate, did afford the best opportunity to take a review of the measures of the Administration, to canvass them fully and fairly, without there being any question raised whether the gentleman was in order or not; and I believe the time spent in canvassing the answer to a speech was at least as well spent as a great deal that we have expended since we discontinued the practice."

President Jefferson did not assign political reasons for changing the custom. "I have a principal regard," he said,[2] "to the convenience of the legislature, to the economy of their time, to their relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them, and to the benefits thence resulting to the public affairs." With this preamble, he sent his message.

Jefferson's first Annual Message deserved study less for what it contained than for what it omitted. If the scope of reform was to be measured by the President's official recommendations, party spirit was likely to find little excuse for violence. The Message began by announcing, in contrast with the expectations of Republicans, that while Europe had returned to peace the United States had begun a war, and that a hostile cruiser had been captured "after a heavy slaughter of her men." The Federalist wits made fun of the moral which the President added to soften the announcement of such an event: "The bravery exhibited by our citizens on that element will, I trust, be a testimony to the world that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace, but a conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race, and not to its destruction." The idea seemed a favorite one with the President, for he next congratulated Congress on the results of the new census, which, he said, "promises a duplication in little more than twenty-two years. We contemplate this rapid growth and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do to others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits, to the multiplications of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price."

Just and benevolent as this sentiment might be, Jefferson rarely invented a phrase open to more perversion than when he thus announced his party's "conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race." Perhaps his want of a sense of humor prevented his noticing this slip of the tongue which the English language had no precise word to describe; perhaps he intended the phrase rather for a European than for an American audience; in any case, such an introduction to his proposed reforms, in the eyes of opponents, injured their dignity and force. As he approached the reforms themselves, the manner in which he preferred to present them was characteristic. As in his Inaugural Address, he showed skill in selecting popular ground.

"There is reasonable ground of confidence," he said, "that we may now safely dispense with all the internal taxes, . . . and that the remaining sources of revenue will be sufficient to provide for the support of government, to pay the interest on the public debts, and to discharge the principals within shorter periods than the laws or the general expectation had contemplated. War, indeed, and untoward events may change this prospect of things, and call for expenses which the imposts could not meet; but sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow-citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not perhaps happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure."

Assuming that "the States themselves have principal care of our persons, our property, and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns," the Message maintained that the general government was unnecessarily complicated and expensive, and that its work could be better performed at a smaller cost.

"Considering the general tendency," it said, "to multiply offices and dependencies, and to increase expense to the ultimate term of burden which the citizen can bear, it behooves us to avail ourselves of every occasion which presents itself for taking off the surcharge, that it never may be seen here that, after leaving to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist, government shall itself consume the residue of what it was instituted to guard."

No one could deny that these sentiments were likely to please a majority of citizens, and that they announced principles of government which, if not new, were seldom or never put into practice on a great scale. As usual in such cases, the objections came from the two classes who stood at the extremes of the political movement. The Federalists denied that they had ever asked "to accumulate treasures for wars." They asked for cannon and muskets in the armories; for timber and ship-stores in the navy-yards; for fortifications to defend New York, and for readiness to resist attack. Gallatin's economies turned on the question whether the national debt or the risk of foreign aggression were most dangerous to America. Freedom from debt and the taxation which debt entailed was his object, not in order to save money, but to prevent corruption. He was ready to risk every other danger for the short time required. "Eight years hence," he afterward wrote,[3] "we shall, I trust, be able to assume a different tone; but our exertions at present consume the seeds of our greatness, and retard to an indefinite time the epoch of our strength." The epoch of strength once reached, Gallatin had no objection to tax, and tax freely, for any good purpose, even including ships-of-the-line. "Although I have been desirous," he wrote some four years later,[4] "that the measure might at least be postponed, I have had no doubt for a long time that the United States would ultimately have a navy." Nothing in his political theories prevented his spending money on defensive armaments or internal improvements or any other honest object, provided he had the money to spend.

The Federalists disagreed with Gallatin rather on a question of fact than of principle. They asserted that the country could not safely disarm; Gallatin, on the other hand, thought that for a few years military helplessness might be risked without too much danger. Time could alone decide which opinion was correct; but in this issue the Federalists could see no suggestion such as Jefferson made, that "sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow-citizens to accumulate treasures for wars to happen we know not when." If Congress were to be tied so fast that no provision could ever be made for national defence except in actual presence of war, this "sound principle" should have been announced, according to Federalist theories, not as a detail of administration but as a constitutional amendment.
In this opinion the true Virginia school probably concurred. Economy for its own sake was not the chief object of that class of men, and any reform on such narrow ground was not wholly to their taste. Even they were well aware at the moments when they complained the most of extravagance that the United States, compared with any powerful European government, had always been a model of economy,—and indeed the most obvious criticism of the system was that economy had been its only extravagance. In the year 1800, when expenses were swollen to their highest point, in consequence of a quasi war with France, the disbursements reached about $11,500,000, of which the sum of $4,578,000 was on account of public debt. The running expenses of the government, including the creation of an army and a navy, did not then exceed $7,000,000, or about $1.30 a head to each inhabitant. The average annual expenditure for the past ten years had been about $9,000,000,—a smaller sum than Jefferson ever succeeded in spending. This example of economy was enough to strike the imagination of any observer; and still greater parsimony, even though it should reduce the running expenses by one half, could do no more than strengthen the same impression, or at most create an idea that republican government was too economical for its own safety. This was no revolution such as the Virginians wished to effect. They aimed at restricting power even more than at relieving taxation.

The Message put economy in the place of principle in dealing with patronage, while in regard to constitutional powers it ignored the existence of a problem. In this silence, which for the first time since 1787 fell on the lips of those who had hitherto shown only jealousy of government; in this alacrity with which Republicans grasped the powers which had, as they affirmed, made "monocrats" of their old opponents,—a European would have seen the cynicism of conscious selfishness. Certain phrases in the Constitution had been shown by experience to be full of perils, and were so well established by precedent in their dangerous meaning as to be susceptible only of excision. The clause which gave Congress sweeping power to make all laws which a majority might think "necessary and proper" for carrying the Constitution into effect, was, as settled by precedents, fatal not only to the theory of States-rights, but to the doctrine of strict construction on which American liberties were supposed to rest. The war and treaty making powers, with their undefined and therefore unlimited consequences, were well understood. These loopholes for the admission of European sovereignty into the citadel of American liberty were seen in 1800 as clearly as when the children and grandchildren of the Southern statesmen broke up the Union because they feared the consequences of centralization. Yet Jefferson called no man's attention to the danger, took no step toward averting it, but stretched out his hand to seize the powers he had denounced.

Even in regard to the Judiciary, the most dangerous part of the system, he recommended no legislation but for the apparent purpose of saving money.

"The judiciary system of the United States," continued the Message, "and especially that portion of it recently erected, will of course present itself to the contemplation of Congress; and that they may be able to judge of the proportion which the institution bears to the business it has to perform, I have caused to be procured from the several States, and now lay before Congress, an exact statement of all the causes decided since the first establishment of the Courts, and of those which were depending when additional Courts and Judges were brought in to their aid."

That he should have shown no anxiety to limit the vague powers of Legislature and Executive was less surprising, because these powers were henceforward to remain in the hands of his own party; but the Judiciary was in the hands of Federalists, whose constitutional theories were centralization itself. The essence of Virginia republicanism lay in a single maxim: The Government shall not be the final judge of its own powers. The liberties of America, as the Republican party believed, rested in this nutshell; for if the Government, either in its legislative, executive, or judicial departments, or in any combination of them, could define its own powers in the last resort, then its will, and not the letter of the Constitution, was law. To this axiom of republicanism the Federalist Judiciary opposed what amounted to a flat negative. Chief-Justice Marshall and his colleagues meant to interpret the Constitution as seemed to them right, and they admitted no appeal from their decision.

The question how to deal with the Judiciary was, therefore, the only revolutionary issue before the people to be met or abandoned; and if abandoned then, it must be forever. No party could claim the right to ignore its principles at will, or imagine that theories once dropped could be resumed with equal chance of success. If the revolution of 1800 was to endure, it must control the Supreme Court. The object might be reached by constitutional amendment, by impeachment, or by increasing the number of judges. Every necessary power could be gained by inserting into the United States Constitution the words of the Constitution of Massachusetts, borrowed from English constitutional practice, that judges might be removed by the President on address by both Houses of the Legislature. Federalists were certain to denounce both object and means as revolutionary and dangerous to public repose; but such an objection could carry little weight with men who believed themselves to have gained power for no other purpose than to alter, as Jefferson claimed, the principles of government. Serious statesman could hardly expect to make a revolution that should not be revolutionary.

Had Jefferson overlooked the danger, costly as the oversight was, it might cause no surprise; but he perceived it clearly, and in private denounced it with as much keenness as though he already knew what was to be judged "necessary and proper" for the purposes of a government which, as Virginians foresaw, would in the end interpret its own powers. "They have retired into the Judiciary as a stronghold," cried he in the same breath with which he talked to Congress only of economy.[5] "There the remains of federalism are to be preserved and fed from the Treasury; and from that battery all the works of republicanism are to be beaten down and erased." Some twenty years afterward Jefferson awoke to see his prophecy come true, and he then threw responsibility on the Constitution.

"The nation declared its will," he said,[6] "by dismissing functionaries of one principle and electing those of another in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their election. Over the judiciary department the Constitution had deprived them of their control. That, therefore, has continued the reprobated system; and although new matter has occasionally been incorporated into the old, yet the leaven of the old mass seems to assimilate to itself the new; and after twenty years' confirmation of the federated system by the voice of the nation, declared through the medium of elections, we find the Judiciary, on every occasion, still driving us into consolidation."

Such was the fact; and when Jefferson spoke of "the leaven of the old mass," he meant Chief-Justice Marshall, who had won a slow, certain victory over States-rights, and had thrust powers on the national government which, if Jefferson were right, must end in corrupting and destroying it. Whose was the fault? Was it true that the Constitution deprived the people of their control over the Judiciary? Even if it were so, did not Jefferson for years control with autocratic power the strength necessary for altering the Constitution? When at last, four years before his death, the impending certainty of defeat forced itself on Jefferson's mind, he made what amounted to a confession of his oversight, and withdrew the apology which threw blame on the Constitution: "Before the canker is become inveterate,—before its venom has reached so much of the body politic as to get beyond control,—remedy should be applied. Let the future appointments of judges be for four or six years, and renewable by the President and Senate."[7] If this could be done, as his words implied, in 1822 under the Presidency of James Monroe, when J. Q. Adams, Calhoun, Clay, and Andrew Jackson were each in his own way laboring to consolidate a nation still hot with the enthusiasm of foreign war, why was it not attempted in 1801, when a word from Jefferson would have decided the action of his party?

If this were all, some explanation of the President's silence might be offered; for in 1801-1802 his majority in the Senate was small, and only a political leader as bold as Andrew Jackson would have dared to risk his popularity on such a venture. The judges held office for life; the Constitution required for amendment two thirds of the Senate and three fourths of the States; any violent shock might have thrown Connecticut and Massachusetts into open secession; but these objections to a revolution in constitutional law did not apply to partisan Federalist legislation. Why did not Jefferson officially invite Congress to confirm the action of Virginia and Kentucky by declaring the Alien and Sedition Laws to be unconstitutional and null as legislative precedents? In the absence of such a declaratory act, the Republican party left on the statute book the precedent established by those laws, which had expired only by limitation. Had the Alien and Sedition Laws been alone in dispute, the negligence might have seemed accidental; but the statute-book contained another Federalist law, aimed against States-rights, which had roused alarm on that account. The Judiciary Act of 1789, the triumph of Federalist centralization, had conferred on the Supreme Court jurisdiction over the final judgment of State courts in cases where the powers of the general government had been "drawn in question" and the decision was unfavorable to them. This concession of power to the Supreme Court,—a concession often alleged to be more dangerous to the States than the "necessary and proper" clause itself,—was believed to be dictated by a wish to make the State judiciaries inferior courts of the central government, because the powers of the general government might be "drawn in question" in many ways and on many occasions, and thus the authority of the State courts made contemptible. Chief-Justice Marshall achieved one of his greatest triumphs by causing Judge Story, a republican raised to the bench in 1811 for the purpose of contesting his authority, to pronounce in 1816 the opinion of the court in the case of Martin vs. Hunter's Lessee, by which the Virginia Court of Appeals was overruled upon the question of constitutionality raised by the State court in regard to Section 25 of the Judiciary Act. Such a result would hardly have happened had the Republicans in 1801 revised the laws which they considered unconstitutional; but with what propriety could Virginia in 1816 assert the unconstitionality of a law which she had for fifteen years possessed the power to repeal, without making an attempt or expressing a wish to exercise it?

Whatever was the true cause of the inaction, it was certainly intentional. President Jefferson wished to overthrow the Federalists and annihilate the last opposition before attempting radical reforms. Confident that States-rights were safe in his hands, he saw no occasion to alarm the people with legislation directed against past rather than future dangers. His party acquiesced, but not without misgivings. John Taylor of Caroline, most consistent of the States-rights school, thought that reforms should have been made. John Randolph, eight years afterward, expressed his opinion with characteristic frankness:—

"You know very well," he said,[8] addressing Speaker Varnum, "that there were many of us, and I was one, who thought that at the commencement of Mr. Jefferson's administration it would be proper for us to pass a sort of declaratory Act on the subject of the Sedition Law; . . . but on this subject, as well as the reduction of the army below its then standard, as on some others, I had the honor, or dishonor as some might esteem it, to be in the minority. I had thought that we ought to have returned the fines of all those who suffered under the law; . . . but you know that it was said that we came in as reformers; that we should not do too much; that we should go on little by little; that we should fire minute-guns, I think was the expression,—which produced no other effect, that I ever found, than the keeping up a spirit of irritation."

Speaker Macon, Joseph Nicholson, and William B. Giles were probably among those who held the same opinion, and were overruled by the Northern democrats. They never quite forgave Madison, to whose semi-Federalist influence they ascribed all Jefferson's sins. Distrust of Madison was natural, for neither Virginian nor New Englander understood how Madison framed the Constitution and wrote the "Federalist" with the same hand which drafted the Virginia Resolutions of 1798; but Jefferson himself would have been last to admit the correctness of such an explanation. He could point to the sentence of his Inaugural Address which pledged him to "the preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor." If in redeeming the pledge he preserved vigor that his friends deemed unconstitutional, his own habits of mind, not Madison's semi-Federalist tendencies, explained the error.

Another reason partly accounted for the President's silence. In theory the Executive received its instructions from the Legislature. Upon no point had the Republican party, when in opposition, laid more stress than on the necessity of reducing Executive influence. President Washington's personal authority, even more than the supposed monarchical tendencies of his successor, inspired anger, if not terror, in the minds of his opponents. Jefferson wished to avoid this error, and to restore the true constitutional theory to its place in practice. His recommendations were studiously restrained, and the Federalists were so far silenced that they could only say with Chief-Justice Marshall, "By weakening the office of President, he will increase his personal power." The concluding sentences of the Message expressed in a few words the two leading ideas which Jefferson wished most to impress on the people,—his abnegation of power and his wish for harmony:—

"Nothing shall be wanting on my part to inform, as far as in my power, the legislative judgment, nor to carry that judgment into faithful execution. The prudence and temperance of your discussions will promote, within your own walls, that conciliation which so much befriends rational conclusion, and by its example will encourage among our constituents that progress of opinion which is tending to unite them in object and in will. That all should be satisfied with any one order of things is not to be expected, but I indulge the pleasing persuasion that the great body of our citizens will cordially concur in honest and disinterested efforts, which have for their object to preserve the General and State governments in their constitutional form and equilibrium; to maintain peace abroad, and order and obedience to the laws at home; to establish principles and practices of administration favorable to the security of liberty and property, and to reduce expenses to what is necessary for the useful purposes of government."

  1. Annals of Congress, May 26, 1809, XI. Congress, Part I. p. 92.
  2. Letter to the President of the Senate, Dec. 8, 1801.
  3. Gallatin to Jefferson, Aug. 16, 1802; Works, i. 88.
  4. Gallatin to Jefferson, Sept. 12, 1805; Works, i. 253.
  5. Jefferson to J. Dickinson, Dec. 19, 1801; Works, iv. 424.
  6. Jefferson to Roane, Sept. 6, 1819; Works, vii. 133.
  7. Jefferson to W. T. Barry, July 2, 1822; Works, vii. 256.
  8. Annals of Congress, May 25, 1809. XI. Congress, Part I. 87.