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


Chapter 9: Domestic AffairsEdit

As the members of Congress, after their wrangles, at last, April 22, wandered homeward, and John Randolph's long, lean figure disappeared on horseback beyond the Potomac, both the President and the Secretary of State drew a sigh of relief; for never before in the history of the Government had a President been obliged to endure such public insults and outrages at the hands of friend and enemy alike. The Federalists had quarrelled with each other as bitterly as the Republicans were quarrelling, but in Congress at least they had held their peace. Under their sway neither Spain, France, nor England insulted them or their Presidents with impunity. Sanguine as Jefferson was, he could not but feel that during two sessions he had been treated with growing disrespect both in Congress and abroad; and that should the contempt for his authority increase, his retirement would offer melancholy proof that the world no longer valued his services. So clearly did he see the danger that, as has been shown, he would gladly have changed the external appearance of his policy. February 18, 1806, he wrote his letter declaring himself convinced that Europe must be taught to know her error in supposing his Government to be "entirely in Quaker principles;"[1] and that unless this idea could be corrected, the United States would become the plunder of all nations. The attempt to teach Europe her error made his position worse. A month later, after the President had done all that he dared to do toward alarming the fears of Europe, the British minister at Washington wrote that both the American government and the American people, so far from meaning to use force, were trembling lest Great Britain should declare war:[2]

"The fear and apprehension of such a crisis is manifestly so great that I think I may venture to say that should his Majesty's government, in consequence of the menace insinuated in the President's Message, have thought proper to make any demonstration of their determination to resist whatever measures might be adopted here, by sending a reinforcement to the British squadron on the American station sufficiently great to be noticed, such a measure on their part would have the salutary effect of putting a stop at once to all the hostile proceedings of this Government."

In view of speeches like those of Gregg, Crowninshield, and Randolph, with their running commentary on the President's policy, such a conclusion as that which Merry had reached could not be called unjust. A few weeks afterward the British minister found his theory put to a severe test. April 25, 1806, soon after the adjournment of Congress, an event occurred which seemed calculated to bring the two nations into collision. The "Leander," the "Cambrian," and the "Driver," blockading the port of New York, were in the habit of firing shot across the bows of merchant vessels in order to bring them to. According to the British account,—which was of course as favorable to the frigate as possible,—a shot fired by the "Leander" to stop a passing vessel happened by an unlucky chance to be in line with a coasting sloop far beyond, and killed one John Pierce, brother of the coaster's captain. Making his way to the city with the mangled body of his brother, the captain roused New York to excitement over the outrage. A meeting of citizens was held at the Tontine Coffee-house; but the Republicans allowed the Federalist leaders to conduct it. Rufus King, Oliver Wolcott, and other well-known enemies of President Jefferson reported a series of resolutions censuring the Government for permitting the seizures, impressments, and murders which were a consequence of the blockade, recommending that all intercourse with the blockading squadron should be stopped, and advising that John Pierce should be buried with a public funeral. Meanwhile the people took the law into their own hands, intercepting supplies for the squadron, and compelling the few British officers on shore to hide themselves. Pierce's funeral was turned into a popular demonstration. Captain Whitby of the "Leander" was indicted for murder by the grand jury; and the mayor despatched to Washington the necessary affidavits, on which the President might rest such further action as should seem fit.

Jefferson was greatly annoyed at this new misfortune, which allowed his Federalist enemies to charge upon him responsibility for British aggressions. In truth the Federalist merchants were the chief opponents of war with England; and their patriotic feeling was for the most part a sham. Yet the matter could not be ignored; and accordingly, May 3, the President issued a proclamation closing the ports and harbors of America forever to the three British frigates and to their commanders, and ordering all officers of the United States to arrest Captain Whitby wherever he might be found within American jurisdiction. This manner of redressing his own wrongs placed Jefferson at a disadvantage in asking for redress from Fox, who might naturally reply that if the United States government chose to make its appeal to municipal law, it could not expect the Government of Great Britain to offer further satisfaction; but popular excitement was for the moment more important than diplomatic forms.

Jacob Crowninshield, returning from Washington to Massachusetts after the adjournment of Congress, happened to be in New York at the time of Pierce's funeral, and wrote to the President on the subject. The President, May 13, answered his letter at some

length.
"Although the scenes which were acted on shore," he said,[3] "were overdone with electioneering views, yet the act of the British officer was an atrocious violation of our territorial rights. The question what should be done was a difficult one. The sending three frigates was one suggestion. . . . While we were thus unable to present a force of that kind at New York, we received from Mr. Merry the most solemn assurances that the meeting of the three British vessels at New York was entirely accidental, from different quarters, and that they were not to remain. We concluded, therefore, that it was best to do what you have seen in the proclamation, and to make a proper use of the outrage and of our forbearance at St. James's to obtain better provisions for the future."

This was not all. Jefferson avowed himself in favor of a navy. His fifty new gunboats would, he thought, put New Orleans and New York in safety:

"But the building some ships of the line, instead of our most indifferent frigates, is not to be lost sight of. That we should have a squadron properly composed to prevent the blockading our ports is indispensable. The Atlantic frontier, from numbers, wealth, and exposure to potent enemies, has a proportionate right to be defended with the western frontier, for whom we keep up three thousand men. Bringing forward the measure, therefore, in a moderate form, placing it on the ground of comparative right, our nation, which is a just one, will come into it, notwithstanding the repugnance of some on the subject when first presented."

That Jefferson should repeat the opinions and echo the arguments of the Federalist Presidents was an experience worth noting; but as a matter of statesmanship, there was reason to fear that the change came too late. The theory of peaceable coercion had been made the base of Jefferson's foreign policy; and upon it his fortunes must stand or fall. Merry, though willing to quiet President Jefferson's fears so far as concerned the accident of Pierce's death, was little affected by the outcry of New York, for he saw that the United States government could not change its pacific system. He wrote to Fox an urgent remonstrance against concession to American demands:[4]

"I consider it my duty to accompany this statement with a conviction on my part, from what is evident of the division of parties throughout the United States, from the weakness of the Government, from the prominent passion of avarice which prevails among every class of the community, and their intolerance under internal taxes, which must be imposed in the event of a war with any Power, that should his Majesty's government consider the pretensions that are asserted from hence as unjust, and be therefore disposed to resist them, such a resistance would only be attended with the salutary effect of commanding from this Government that respect which they have recently lost toward Great Britain."

Within the last year England had seized a large portion of American shipping and commerce; hundreds of American citizens had been taken by force from under the American flag, some of whom were already lying beneath the waters off Cape Trafalgar; the port of New York had been blockaded by a British squadron, which drew its supplies from the city, and lay habitually within its waters, except when engaged in stopping and searching vessels beyond the three-mile line; and at last an American citizen was killed within American jurisdiction by the guns of the blockading squadron. In return the United States government had threatened to buy no more fine woollens and silks from England; and had stopped the fresh meat and vegetables which the officers of the "Cambrian" and "Leander" were in the habit of procuring in the New York market. That Merry should still complain, that he should wish to stifle even this whisper of protest, and should talk of the American government in the same breath as trembling with fear and as having lost respect toward England, showed that he had a memory better than his powers of observation. He was still brooding over Jefferson's pêle-mêle and his heelless slippers.

For that offence, committed in the heyday of diplomatic triumph, the President had bitterly atoned. As Jefferson twisted and twined along a course daily becoming more tortuous, he found that public disaster was followed by social trials; on all sides he felt the reaction of his diplomatic failures. This kind of annoyance left little trace in history, and was commonly forgotten or ignored by the people; but Jefferson was more than commonly sensitive to social influences, and if it annoyed him to be slandered, it annoyed him still more to be laughed at. He could not retaliate, and the more he exerted himself to appear above his vexations, the more he exposed himself to ridicule.

General Turreau, with grim amusement, reported faithfully what he saw and heard. At one moment Jefferson, trying to discover some plan for checking British authority, broached to the minister of Napoleon a scheme for uniting all Christian Powers in a novel alliance against each other's aggressions.

"Your Excellency will of course understand," wrote the sardonic Turreau to the saturnine Talleyrand,[5] "that it is not a system of armed neutrality which Mr. Jefferson would like to see established. Everything which tends to war is too far removed from his philanthropic principles, as it is from the interests of his country and the predominant opinion. The guaranty of neutrals would repose on the inert force of all the Powers against the one that should violate the neutral compact, and whose vessels would then find all foreign ports shut to them."

Turreau was amused by the incongruity of inviting Napoleon Bonaparte not only to protect neutral rights, but to do so by peaceful methods, and to join with Great Britain in a Christian confederation which should have for its main object the protection of American commerce, in order to save President Jefferson the expense of protecting it himself; but the humor of the scheme was not to be compared with its rashness. Had Jefferson foreseen the future, he would have abstained from suggesting ideas to a despot of Napoleon's genius.

Turreau entertained at heart a liking for Jefferson; and indeed no one could come within the President's kindly influence without admitting its charm. "There is something voluptuous in meaning well." There was something voluptuous in Jefferson's way of meaning well; and if the quality increased the anger of the New England Puritans, who saw in it only hypocrisy, or if it drove John Randolph nearly to frenzy, it softened the hearts of bystanders like Turreau, who atoned for their weakness toward the President by contempt for his favorite the Secretary of State. May 10 Turreau wrote to Talleyrand:

"This infatuation of Mr. Jefferson for a commonplace man, whose political opinions are becoming every day more and more an object of suspicion to the leaders of the dominant party, will not surprise those who know the actual chief of the Federal government. Mr. Jefferson as a private man joins to estimable qualities an uncommon degree of instruction; he cultivates successfully philosophy, the sciences, and the arts; he knows well the true interests of his country; and if he seems sometimes to sacrifice them, or at least to offend them, when they do not accord with his extreme popularity, this is not with him the result of matured reflection, but only of a kindly sentiment, the impulse of which he blindly follows. But in my opinion Mr. Jefferson lacks the first of the qualities which make a statesman; he has little energy, and still less of that audacity which is indispensable in a place so eminent, whatever may be the form of government. The slightest event makes him lose his balance, and he does not even know how to disguise the impression he receives. Although the last session was quite stormy, it was easy to foresee that everything would end in propositions of agreement, because no one wished war; and yet Mr. Jefferson has worried himself so much with the movements of Congress that he has made himself ill, and has grown ten years older. Not that he has yet reached the point of repenting having begun a second term. What has further contributed to render his position disagreeable is the drawing off of a part of his friends, and even of the diplomatic corps, who, with the exception of the French minister, no longer visit the President. This isolation renders him the more sensible to the reiterated outrages he receives in Congress even in open session. I have certain information that he has been extremely affected by it." [6]

Neither these annoyances nor the unlucky accident of Pierce's death, following so long a series of political misfortunes, could prevent the skies from clearing with the coming spring. If the Southern Republicans for a time seemed, as General Smith said, to be falling away daily from the Administration, the President could still congratulate himself on the steadiness of the Northern democrats, who asked for no better fortune than to be rid forever of John Randolph's tyranny. On the whole, Jefferson was well pleased with the behavior of his majority. His chief care was to find a parliamentary leader who could take Randolph's place; and he was willing that this leadership should pass out of Virginia hands, even though it should fall into the hands of Massachusetts. He wrote to Barnabas Bidwell, urging him to take the vacant position:[7]

"The last session of Congress was indeed an uneasy one for a time; but as soon as the members penetrated into the views of those who were taking a new course, they rallied in as solid a phalanx as I have ever seen act together. They want only a man of business and in whom they can confide to conduct things in the House, and they are as much disposed to support him as can be wished. It is only speaking a truth to say that all eyes look to you."
Jefferson's great hope seemed likely soon to be realized beyond his own anticipations, when New England should not only accept democratic principles, but should also control the party which Virginia had brought into power. In the April election of 1806 Massachusetts chose a democratic legislature; the Federalist Governor Strong was reelected by only a few hundred votes, while a democrat was actually elected for lieutenant-governor. The conduct of England, which caused Jefferson his most serious difficulties abroad, worked in his favor among the people of America, who were more patriotic than their leaders, and felt by instinct that whatever mistakes in policy their Government might commit, support was the alternative to anarchy.

The factions in New York and Pennsylvania fought their tedious and meaningless battles, which had no longer a national interest. The newspapers continued to find in personal abuse the most lively amusement they could furnish to their readers. The acts of Jefferson and Madison were extolled or vilified according to the partisan division of the press; and material for attack and defence was never lacking. During the summer of 1806 Miranda's expedition and the trial of Smith and Ogden, which resulted from it, filled many columns of the papers. Conviction of these two men for violating the neutrality laws seemed to be the President's earnest wish; yet when members of the Administration were subpoenaed for the defence, Jefferson ordered them to disobey the summons, alleging that their attendance in court would interfere with their performance of official duties. The question whether this rule was proper in practice or correct in law came soon afterward before the Supreme Court, and received elaborate discussion; but in the case of Smith and Ogden, the refusal of Madison to obey the subpoena was a political necessity. Had he been forced into the witness-box, he must have produced Miranda's letter; and in the face of evidence so compromising to the superior officers of government, no jury would have convicted a subordinate.

Before the trial began, the President removed Smith from his office of surveyor of the port of New York; and after its close he removed Swartwout from the post of marshal. The reasons for punishing Swartwout were given in a Cabinet memorandum written by Jefferson:—

"Swartwout the marshal, to whom in his duel with Clinton Smith was second, summoned a panel of jurors the greater part of which were of the bitterest Federalists. His letter, too, covering to a friend a copy of 'Aristides,' and affirming that every fact in it was true as Holy Writ. Determined unanimously that he be removed."

Thanks to Swartwout's jury and to Madison's share in Miranda's confidence, Smith was acquitted. As in many other government cases, the prosecution ended in a failure of justice.

The Spaniards easily defeated Miranda, and captured or drove away his forces. Events followed with such rapidity that this episode was soon forgotten. Yrujo did his utmost to keep it alive. The Federalist newspapers printed more than one attack on Madison evidently from Yrujo's pen, which annoyed the secretary and his friends; while Yrujo remained in the country only by way of bravado, to prove the indifference of his Government to the goodwill of the United States. On the Texan frontier the Spaniards showed themselves in increasing numbers, until a collision seemed imminent. Wilkinson, on his side, could collect at Natchitoches no force capable of holding the Red River against a serious attack. Whether Wilkinson himself were not more dangerous than the Spaniards to the government of the United states was a question which disturbed men like John Randolph more than it seemed to interest Jefferson.

Fortunately the Treasury was as strong as the Army and the Foreign Department were weak. Gallatin made no mistakes; from the first he had carried the Administration on his shoulders, and had defied attack. Duane hated him, for Gallatin's influence held Duane in check, and seemed the chief support of Governor McKean in Pennsylvania; but Duane's malignity could find no weak point in the Treasury. The revenue reached $14,500,000 for 1806, and after providing the two millions appropriated for the Florida purchase, left a balance for the year of four hundred thousand dollars beyond all current demands. The Treasury held a surplus of at least four millions. The national debt was reduced to less than $57,500,000; and this sum included the Louisiana stock of $11,250,000, which could not be paid before the year 1818. After the year 1808, Gallatin promised an annual surplus of five or six millions, ready for any purpose to which Congress might choose to apply it. Even the Federalists gave up the attempt to attack the management of the Treasury; and if they sometimes seemed to wish for a foreign war, it was chiefly because they felt that only a war could shake the authority and success of Gallatin. "For many years past," wrote Timothy Pickering in 1814,[8] "I have said, 'Let the ship run aground! The shock will throw the present pilots overboard; and then competent navigators will get her once more afloat, and conduct her safely into port.'" Only war with England, by breaking down the Treasury, could effect Pickering's purpose.

Of such a war, in spite of the Rule of 1756, the blockade of New York, the impressment of seamen, and the slaughter of Pierce, there was no immediate prospect. The death of William Pitt and the accession of Charles James Fox to power quieted fear. The American people were deliberately resolved not to join in the outburst of passion which Pierce's death caused in New York. Little sense was felt of a common interest between agriculture and shipping; so that even the outrage of Pierce passed without stirring men who followed the plough and swung the scythe. New York was but a seaport, half foreign in population and interests, an object of jealousy to good citizens, who looked askance at manufactures and middlemen. The accidental death of a seaman was no matter of alarm. Every patriotic American wanted peace with England, and was glad to be told that Fox had promised pleasant things to Monroe.

Although the merchants had been robbed, the people at large were more prosperous and contented than ever. The summer of 1806 was one of quiet and rapid progress. While Europe tossed on her bed of pain, and while Russia built up the fourth coalition against Napoleon, only to drench with blood the battle-fields of Jena, Eylau, and Friedland, the United States moved steadily toward their separate objects, caring little for any politics except their own. In foreign affairs their government, after threatening to break through the bounds it had set to its own action and to punish the offenders of its dignity, ended by returning to its old ground and by avowing, as in 1801, that war was not one of its weapons. In domestic matters no serious division of opinion existed. The American people went to their daily tasks without much competition or mental effort, and had no more wish to wrangle about problems of the future than to turn back on their path and face Old-World issues. Every day a million men went to their work, every evening they came home with some work accomplished; but the result was matter for a census rather than for history. The acres brought into cultivation, the cattle bred, the houses built, proved no doubt that human beings, like ants and bees, could indefinitely multiply their numbers, and could lay up stores of food; but these statistics offered no evidence that the human being, any more than the ant and bee, was conscious of a higher destiny, or was even mechanically developing into a more efficient animal. As far as politics proved anything, the evidence seemed to show that the American tended already to become narrow in his views and timid in his methods. The great issues of 1776 and of 1787 had dwindled into disputes whether robbery and violence should be punished by refusing to buy millinery and hardware from the robbers, and whether an unsuccessful attempt to purloin foreign territory should be redeemed by bribing a more powerful nation to purloin it at second hand. The great issues of democracy and republicanism were still alive, but their very success removed these subjects for the moment from the field of politics. That a democracy could for so long a time maintain itself above Old-World miseries was a triumph; but thus far the democracy had been favored by constant good fortune, and even in these five years conservatives thought they felt a steady decline of moral tone. What would happen when society should be put to some violent test?

In politics nothing that proved progress could be seen. In other directions little positive result had been reached.

Far in the wilderness a few men, in the pay of the United States government, were toiling for the advancement of knowledge. In the summer of 1805 General Wilkinson ordered Lieutenant Pike, a young officer in the first infantry, to take a sergeant, a corporal, and seventeen privates, and ascertain the true sources of the Mississippi. For scientific purposes such a party of explorers could do little of permanent value, but as a military reconnoissance it might have uses. Lieutenant Pike worked his way up the stream from St. Louis. October 16, 1805, he reached a point two hundred and thirty-three miles above the Falls of St. Anthony, and there stopped to establish a winter station. December 10 he started again with a part of his men and went northward with sleds until, Jan. 8, 1806, he reached a British trading-station on Sandy Lake, from which he struggled to Leech Lake, where another British establishment existed. His visit was rather an act of formal authority than a voyage of exploration; but he notified both the British and the Indian occupants of the territory that they were under the rule of the United States government. After accomplishing this object he began his return march February 18, and reached St. Louis April 30, 1806, having shown such energy and perseverance in this winter journey as few men could have surpassed.

General Wilkinson was so well pleased with the success of the expedition that he immediately ordered Pike upon another. This time the headwaters of the Arkansas and Red rivers were to be explored as far as the Spanish settlements of New Mexico. July 15, 1806, with about the same number of men as before. Pike left St. Louis, and September 1 reached the Osage towns on the Missouri River. Striking across the prairie, he marched through a country filled with jealous Pawnee Indians, till he reached the Arkansas River, and ascending its branches, left a permanent monument to his visit by giving his name to Pike's Peak in Colorado. Turning toward the southwest, he entangled himself in the mountains; and after suffering terribly in snow and ice, at last, Feb. 26, 1807, was stopped by the Spanish authorities at Santa Fé, who sent him to Chihuahua, and thence allowed him to return through Texas to the United States.

Both these expeditions were subordinate to the larger exploration of Lewis and Clark, which President Jefferson himself organized, and in which he took deep interest. After passing the winter at the Mandan village, as has been already told, Lewis with thirty-two men set out April 7 in boats and canoes for the headwaters of the Missouri. The journey proved to be full of labor, but remarkably free from danger; the worst perils encountered were from rattlesnakes and bears. The murderous Sioux were not seen; and when, August 11, Lewis reached the end of river navigation, and found himself at the base of the mountains that divided the waters of the Missouri from those of the Columbia, his greatest anxiety was to meet the Indians who occupied the line of passage, His troubles rose from the poverty, rather than from the hostility, of these tribes. They supplied him with horses and with such provisions as they had, and he made his way peacefully down the western slope until he could again take canoes. November 7 the explorers reached the mouth of the Columbia River, and saw at last the ocean which bounded American ambition. There they were forced to pass the winter in extreme discomfort, among thievish and flea-bitten Indians, until March 26, 1807, they could retrace their steps.

Creditable as these expeditions were to American energy and enterprise, they added little to the stock of science or wealth. Many years must elapse before the vast region west of the Mississippi could be brought within reach of civilization. The crossing of the continent was a great feat, but was nothing more. The French explorers had performed feats almost as remarkable long before; but, in 1805, the country they explored was still a wilderness. Great gains to civilization could be made only on the Atlantic coast under the protection of civilized life. For many years to come progress must still centre in the old thirteen States of the Union. The expeditions of Lewis and Pike returned no immediate profits; but in the city of New York men were actively engaged in doing what Lewis could not do,—bringing the headwaters of the western rivers within reach of private enterprise and industry. While Lewis slowly toiled up the Missouri River, thinking himself fortunate if he gained twenty miles a day against the stream, the engine which Robert Fulton had ordered from the works of Watt and Bolton in England had been made, and Fulton returned to New York to superintend its use. With the money of Chancellor Livingston he began to construct the hull of his new steamboat and adjust it to the engine.

The greatest steps in progress were often unconsciously taken, and Fulton's steamboat was an example of this rule. Neither in private talk nor in the newspapers did his coming experiment rouse much notice. To the public, Fulton's idea, though visionary, was not new. Indeed Fulton stood in imminent danger of being forestalled by rivals. In 1804 Oliver Evans experimented with a stern-wheel steamboat on the Delaware River, while at the same time John C. Stevens was experimenting with a screw-propeller on the Hudson. Nothing practical had as yet come from these attempts. The public seemed to regard them as matters which did not concern it, and the few thousand dollars needed to pay for a proper engine and hull could with difficulty be wrung from capitalists, who were derided for their folly. Fulton worked with better support than his predecessors had enjoyed, but with little encouragement or show of interest from the press or the public.

So far as concerned activity of mind, politics still engrossed public attention. The summer of 1806, quiet and prosperous as it seemed, betrayed uneasiness,—a mysterious political activity, connected with no legitimate purpose of party. Except in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Federalists, as an organized body, could hardly be said to exist. Democrats, Republicans, and Federalists were divided for the moment rather by social distinctions than by principle; but the division was not the less real. Every year added strength to the national instinct; but every year brought also a nearer certainty that the denationalizing forces, whether in New England under Timothy Pickering, or in Virginia under John Randolph, or in Louisiana under some adventurer, would make an effort to break the chain that hampered local interests and fettered private ambition. Under a Virginia President and a slave-owning majority of Congress, the old anti-national instinct of Virginia was paralyzed, and the dangers to rise from it were postponed; but the freer play was given to the passions of Boston and New Orleans,—to the respectable seditiousness of Timothy Pickering and the veneered profligacy of Aaron Burr. The time had come when Burr was to bring his conspiracy to the test of action, and to try the strength of a true democracy. During the autumn of 1806 Burr's projects and movements roused a sudden panic, less surprising than the tolerance with which his conspiracy had been so long treated by the President and the press.


  1. See p. 111 [Ch. 5].
  2. Merry to Lord Mulgrave, March 19, 1806; MSS. British Archives.
  3. Jefferson's Writings (Ford), viii. 451.
  4. Merry to C. J. Fox, May 4, 1806; MSS. British Archives.
  5. Turreau to Talleyrand, Jan. 15, 1806; Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  6. Turreau to Talleyrand, May 10, 1806; Archives des Aff. Étr., MSS.
  7. Jefferson to Bidwell, July 5, 1806; Works, v. 14; Jefferson MSS.
  8. Pickering to Gouverneur Morris, Oct. 21, 1814; Lodge's Cabot, p. 535