History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson/Second/II:20

Chapter 20: Jefferson's RetirementEdit

The repeal of the embargo, which received the President's signature March 1, closed the long reign of President Jefferson; and with but one exception the remark of John Randolph was destined to remain true, that "never has there been any Administration which went out of office and left the nation in a state so deplorable and calamitous." That the blame for this failure rested wholly upon Jefferson might be doubted; but no one felt more keenly than he the disappointment under which his old hopes and ambitions were crushed.

Loss of popularity was his bitterest trial. He who longed like a sensitive child for sympathy and love left office as strongly and almost as generally disliked as the least popular President who preceded or followed him. He had undertaken to create a government which should interfere in no way with private action, and he had created one which interfered directly in the concerns of every private citizen in the land. He had come into power as the champion of States-rights, and had driven States to the verge of armed resistance. He had begun by claiming credit for stern economy, and ended by exceeding the expenditure of his predecessors. He had invented a policy of peace, and his invention resulted in the necessity of fighting at once the two greatest Powers in the world.

The feelings of the New England Democrats have been described in their own words. Angry as Ezekiel Bacon and Joseph Story were, their bitterness against Jefferson was hardly so great as that of the Clintonians in New York; but the same irritation extended even into the compact democracy of Pennsylvania. In the preceding summer, before the Presidential election, A. J. Dallas said to Gallatin:[1] "I verily believe one year more of writing, speaking, and appointing would render Mr. Jefferson a more odious President, even to the Democrats, than John Adams." So far as could be judged from the conduct of the party, the prophecy became truth. The Southern Republicans, always loyal to a Southern President, would not openly turn against their old leader, but the Northern Democrats made no disguise of their aversion.

Not even in 1798 had factiousness been so violent as in the last month of President Jefferson's power; in 1800 the country in comparison had been contented. Feb. 23, 1809, nearly three weeks after the disastrous overthrow of the embargo in Congress, the Connecticut legislature met in special session to "interpose" between the people and the national government. In a Report echoing the words of Governor Trumbull's speech, the House instantly approved his refusal to aid in carrying out the "unconstitutional and despotic" Enforcement Act, and pledged itself to join the legislature of Massachusetts in the measures proposed "to give to the commercial States their fair and just consideration in the Union."[2] The spirit in which Massachusetts meant to act was shown in a formal Address to the People issued by her Legislature March 1, bearing the official signatures of Harrison Gray Otis, President of the Senate, and Timothy Bigelow, Speaker of the House.

"Protesting in the sight of God the sincerity of their attachment to the Union of the States, and their determination to cherish and preserve it at every hazard until it shall fail to secure to them those blessings which alone give value to any form of government," the Massachusetts legislature laid before the people of the State certain Reports and measures adopted for the purpose of impeding the embargo laws, and apologized for having done no more, on the ground that more could not have been done "without authorizing a forcible resistance to Acts of Congress,—an ultimate resource so deeply to be deprecated that the cases which might justify it should not be trusted even to the imagination until they actually happen." Less than forty years before, Massachusetts had used much the same language in regard to Acts of Parliament, and the world knew what then followed; but even in the bitterest controversies over Stamp Act or Port Bill, the General Court of Massachusetts had never insulted King George as they insulted President Jefferson. The Address at great length asserted that his Government was laboring under "an habitual and impolitic predilection for France;" and even in making this assertion it apologized for England in terms which echoed the words of Canning and Castlereagh:—

"Without pretending to compare and adjust the respective injuries sustained from the two nations, it can not be disguised that in some instances our nation has received from Great Britain compensation; in others offers of atonement, and in all the language of conciliation and respect."

On the other hand, war with England must lead to alliance with France; and that a connection with France "must be forever fatal to the liberty and independence of the nation is obvious to all who are not blinded by partiality and passion."

Such reasoning had the merits of its emphasis. The case of forcible resistance which could not be trusted to the imagination until it happened pointed designedly to a war with England, which, being equivalent to a connection with France, must be forever fatal to the liberty and independence of the United States. The dogma that a British war must dissolve the Union had become more than ever an article of Federalist faith. Even Rufus King, writing to Pickering, January 31, said:[3]"The embargo, as we are now told, is to give way to war. If the project be to unite with France against England, the Union cannot be preserved." To prevent war with England was to prevent a dissolution of the Union; and the legislature of Massachusetts, acting on that idea, closed what it called its "Patriotick Proceedings," by declaring to the people of the Commonwealth the measures by which alone the Union could be saved:—

"As the malady is deep, you will still be deceived by trusting to any temporary relief. You must realize and comprehend the nature of your peculiar interests, and by steady, persevering, and well-concerted efforts rise into an attitude to promote and preserve them. The farmer must remember that his prosperity is inseparable from that of the merchant; and that there is little affinity between his condition and habits and those of a Southern planter. The interests of New England must be defined, understood, and firmly represented. A perfect intelligence must be cultivated among those States, and a united effort must be made and continued to acquire their just influence in the national government. For this purpose the Constitution should be amended, and the provision which gives to holders of slaves a representation equal to that of six hundred thousand free citizens should be abolished. Experience proves the injustice, and time will increase the inequality, of this principle, the original reason for which has entirely failed. Other amendments to secure commerce and navigation from a repetition of destructive and insidious theories are indispensable."

Such were the conditions on which Massachusetts must insist:—

"The Legislature are aware that their measures and sentiments will encourage their opponents in propagating the foul imputation of a design to dismember the Union. But when did party malice want a theme to excite popular prejudice? When did it have recourse to one more absurd and unfounded?"

The object of the Federalist majority was to strengthen the Union,—so they protested and so they doubtless believed; but in truth they insisted upon creating a new Union as a condition of their remaining in the old. The fatal word "must" ran through all their demands:—

"If the Southern States are disposed to avail themselves of the advantages resulting from our strength and resources for common defence, they must be willing to patronize the interests of navigation and commerce without which our strength will be weakness. If they wish to appropriate a portion of the public revenue toward roads, canals, or for the purchase of arms and the improvement of their militia, they must consent that you who purchase your own arms, and have already roads, canals, and militia in most excellent order, shall have another portion of it devoted to naval protection. If they in the spirit of chivalry are ready to rush into an unnecessary and ruinous war with one nation, they must suffer you to pause before you bid an eternal adieu to your independence by an alliance with another."

Union of New England against the national Union—an idea hitherto confined to the brain of Timothy Pickering—had become the avowed object of the Massachusetts and Connecticut legislatures. " Nothing less than a perfect union and intelligence among the Eastern States" could answer the objects of Pickering; but side by side with the perfect union of the Eastern States went a perfect intelligence between those States and the British government. On one side, Pickering maintained relations with Rose; on the other, Sir James Craig kept a secret agent at Boston. January 26, at the moment when the crisis of war or peace was about to be decided at Washington, Mr. Ryland at Quebec, on behalf of the Governor-General of Canada, sent for John Henry to undertake another winter journey through New England.[4] His instructions, dated February 6 and signed by Sir James Craig himself, enjoined the utmost secrecy, and restricted Henry to the task of ascertaining how far, in case of war, the Federalists of the Eastern States would look to England for assistance, or be disposed to enter into a connection with the British government.[5] Only in case the Federalist leaders should express a wish to that effect was Henry cautiously to avow his official character, and to receive any communication for transmittal. February 10 Henry started on this errand, but before he reached Boston the news that Congress had decided to repeal the embargo without declaring war left him little to do. He remained quietly in Boston, in familiar relations with the Federalist leaders,[6] without betraying his errand; and the substance of his reports to the governor-general amounted only to a decided opinion that the Federalists were not yet ready to act: "I can assure you that at this moment they do not freely entertain the project of withdrawing the Eastern States from the Union, finding it a very unpopular topic."[7] Until midsummer, when the last fear of war vanished, this accredited agent of the governor-general waited at Boston for events. "His manners being gentlemanly and his letters of introduction good," said Josiah Quincy, "he was admitted freely into society and heard the conversation at private tables."

Had Jefferson known that a British emissary was secretly waiting at Boston to profit by the result of eight years' Republican policy, he could not but have felt deep personal mortification mingled with his sense of wrong. Of all Jefferson's hopes, perhaps the warmest had been that of overthrowing the power of his New England enemies,—those whom he had once called the monarchical Federalists,—the clergy and the Essex Junto. Instead of overthrowing them he had given them, for the first time in their lives, unlimited power for mischief; he had overthrown only the moderate Federalists, who when forced to choose between treason and embargo submitted to the embargo and hated its author. The Essex Junto became supreme in New England; and behind it stood the power of Great Britain, ready to interpose, if necessary, for its defence.

Jefferson submitted in silence, and even with an air of approval, to the abrupt abandonment of his favorite measure. He admitted that the embargo had failed; he even exaggerated its evils, and described it as more costly than war. His language implied that the failure of peaceable coercion was no longer a matter of doubt in his mind.

"The belligerent edicts," he wrote to Armstrong,[8] "rendered our embargo necessary to call home our ships, our seamen, and property. We expected some effect, too, from the coercion of interest. Some it has had, but much less on account of evasions and domestic opposition to it. After fifteen months continuance, it is now discontinued because, losing fifty million dollars of exports annually by it, it costs more than war, which might be carried on for a third of that, besides what might be got by reprisal."

To Dupont de Nemours Jefferson wrote in the same strain.[9] He signed without the betrayal of a protest the bill repealing the embargo, and talked of war as a necessary evil. Not until more than a year afterward did he admit the bitterness of his disappointment and mortification; but July 16, 1810, he wrote to his old Secretary of War a letter which expressed, in his familiar note of irritability, the feelings he had pent up:[10]

"The Federalists during their short-lived ascendency have nevertheless, by forcing us from the embargo, inflicted a wound on our interests which can never be cured, and on our affections which will require time to cicatrize. I ascribe all this to one pseudo-Republican,—Story. He came on in place of Crowninshield, I believe, and stayed only a few days,—long enough, however, to get complete hold of Bacon, who, giving in to his representations, became panic-struck, and communicated the panic to his colleagues, and they to a majority of the sound members of Congress. They believed in the alternative of repeal or civil war, and produced the fatal measure of repeal. . . . I have ever been anxious to avoid a war with England unless forced by a situation more losing than war itself; but I did believe we could coerce her to justice by peaceable means; and the embargo, evaded as it was, proved it would have coerced her had it been honestly executed. The proof she exhibited on that occasion that she can exercise such an influence in this country as to control the will of its government and three fourths of its people is to me the most mortifying circumstance which has occurred since the establishment of our government."

In truth, the disaster was appalling; and Jefferson described it in moderate terms by admitting that the policy of peaceable coercion brought upon him mortification such as no other President ever suffered. So complete was his overthrow that his popular influence declined even in the South. Twenty years elapsed before his political authority recovered power over the Northern people; for not until the embargo and its memories faded from men's minds did the mighty shadow of Jefferson's Revolutionary name efface the ruin of his Presidency. Yet he clung with more and more tenacity to the faith that his theory of peaceable coercion was sound; and when within a few months of his death he alluded for the last time to the embargo, he spoke of it as "a measure which, persevered in a little longer, we had subsequent and satisfactory assurance would have effected its object completely."[11]

A discomfiture so conspicuous could not fail to bring in its train a swarm of petty humiliations which for the moment were more painful than the great misfortune. Jefferson had hoped to make his country forever pure and free; to abolish war, with its train of debt, extravagance, corruption, and tyranny; to build up a government devoted only to useful and moral objects; to bring upon earth a new era of peace and good-will among men. Throughout the twistings and windings of his course as President he clung to this main idea; or if he seemed for a moment to forget it, he never failed to return and to persist with almost heroic obstinacy in enforcing its lessons. By repealing the embargo, Congress avowedly and even maliciously rejected and trampled upon the only part of Jefferson's statesmanship which claimed originality, or which in his own opinion entitled him to rank as a philosophic legislator. The mortification he felt was natural and extreme, but such as every great statesman might expect, and such as most of them experienced. The supreme bitterness of the moment lay rather in the sudden loss of respect and consideration which at all times marked the decline of power, but became most painful when the surrender of office followed a political defeat at the hands of supposed friends.

The last days of his authority were embittered by a personal slight which wounded him deeply. After the peace of Tilsit the Emperor Alexander of Russia expressed a wish to exchange ministers with the United States government. In every point of view America must gain by winning the friendship of Russia; and much as Jefferson disliked multiplying diplomatic offices, he could not but feel that at a time when his ministers were likely at any moment to be driven from France and England, nothing could be more useful than to secure a foothold at St. Petersburg. Without loss of time he created the mission, and appointed his old personal friend William Short to the new post. In August, 1808, during the recess of Congress, he sent Short to Europe, with orders to stop at Paris until the Senate should confirm his appointment. For political reasons Jefferson waited till the close of the session, and then, February 24, made this appointment the subject of his last Message to the Senate, explaining the motives which had induced him to create a diplomatic agency at St. Petersburg, and announcing that Short had received his commission and had gone to Europe six months before on this errand.

No sooner had the Senate, on receiving this Message, gone into executive session than Senator Bradley of Vermont offered a Resolution that any intercourse with Russia, such as the President suggested, might "be carried on with equal facility and effect by other public agents of the United States without the expense of a permanent minister plenipotentiary;" or in case of sudden negotiations for peace in Europe, "the permanent minister at any of the Courts thereof may be instructed to attend on the same;" and that for these reasons the proposed appointment was at present inexpedient and unnecessary. After much secret debate, Senator Bradley, February 27, withdrew his motion, and the Senate then abruptly and unanimously rejected Short's nomination.

The discourtesy was flagrant. As a matter of policy the new mission might fairly be subject for argument; and the Senate had a right, if it chose, to follow its own opinions on such a subject. Unreasonable as was the idea of sending hither and thither the American ministers "at any of the Courts of Europe," when every senator knew that on the continent of Europe America had but one minister, and even he was on the verge of dismissal or recall; ill-judged as was the assertion that a consular agent could carry on "with equal facility and effect" at a Court like that of St. Petersburg a diplomatic intercourse which would need every resource of public and private influence; narrow as was the policy of refusing "the expense of a permanent minister plenipotentiary" to the only nation in the world which offered her friendship at a moment when England and France were doing their utmost to spare America the expense of legations at London and Paris,—yet these objections to Jefferson's wish were such as the Senate might naturally make, for they were the established creed of the Republican party, and no one had done more than Jefferson himself to erect them into a party dogma. Dislike of diplomacy was a relic of the old colonial status when America had been dependent on Europe,—a prejudice rising chiefly from an uneasy sense of social disadvantage. Whenever America should become strong and self-confident, these petty jealousies were sure to disappear, and her relations with other Powers would be controlled solely by her wants; but meanwhile the Senate in every emergency might be expected to embarrass the relations of the Executive with foreign governments, and to give untenable reasons for its conduct. That the Senate should object, could have been no surprise to Jefferson; but that it should without even a private explanation reject abruptly and unanimously the last personal favor asked by a President for whom every Republican senator professed friendship, and from whom most had received innumerable favors, seemed an unpardonable insult. So Jefferson felt it. He wrote to Short in accents of undisguised mortification:—

"It is with much concern I inform you that the Senate has negatived your appointment. We thought it best to keep back the nomination to the close of the session, that the mission might remain secret as long as possible, which you know was our purpose from the beginning. It was then sent in with an explanation of its object and motives. We took for granted, if any hesitation should arise, that the Senate would take time, and that our friends in that body would make inquiries of us and give us the opportunity of explaining and removing objections; but to our great surprise and with an unexampled precipitancy they rejected it at once. This reception of the last of my official communications to them could not be unfelt."[12]

Senators attempted explanations: Short had been too long in the diplomatic service or resident abroad; the diplomatic connections of the United States with Europe were already too extensive, and rather than send more ministers those actually abroad should be recalled; "riveted to the system of unentanglement with Europe," the Senate, though sensible of "the great virtues, the high character, the powerful influence, and valuable friendship of the Emperor," declined the honor of relations with him. Yet these reasons showed only that the Senate felt as little regard for Jefferson's opinions and feelings as for those of the Czar. The manner of the rejection, even more than the rejection itself, proved the willingness of the President's oldest friends to inflict what they knew to be a painful wound on the self-respect of a fallen leader.

These mortifications, which rapidly followed each other in the last days of February, were endured by Jefferson with dignity and in silence. Perhaps senators would have better understood and might have more respected a vigorous burst of anger, even at some cost of dignity, than they did the self-restraint of the sensitive gentleman who had no longer a wish but to escape from Washington and seek peace in the calm of Monticello. He could with only a pang of mortified pride write his excuses to the Emperor Alexander and to William Short, and dismiss the matter forever from his mind. Public annoyances were for him nearly at an end, and could never recur; but unfortunately these public trials came upon him at a moment when his private anxieties were extreme.

In his style of life as President, Jefferson had indulged in such easy and liberal expenses as suited the place he held. Far from showing extravagance, the White House and its surroundings had in his time the outward look of a Virginia plantation. The President was required to pay the expenses of the house and grounds. In consequence, the grounds were uncared for, the palings broken or wanting, the paths undefined, and the place a waste, running imperceptibly into the barren fields about it. Within, the house was as simple as without, after the usual style of Virginia houses, where the scale was often extravagant but the details plain. Only in his table did Jefferson spend an unusual amount of money with excellent results for his political influence, for no President ever understood better than Jefferson the art of entertaining; yet his table cost him no excessive sums. For the best champagne he paid less than a dollar a bottle; for the best Bordeaux he paid a dollar; and the Madeira which was drunk in pipes at the White House cost between fifty and sixty cents a bottle. His French cook and cook's assistant were paid about four hundred dollars a year. On such a scale his salary of twenty-five thousand dollars was equivalent to fully sixty thousand dollars of modern money; and his accounts showed that for the first and probably the most expensive year of his Presidency he spent only $16,800 which could properly be charged to his public and official character.[13] A mode of life so simple and so easily controlled should in a village like Washington have left no opening for arrears of debt; but when Jefferson, about to quit the White House forever, attempted to settle his accounts, he discovered that he had exceeded his income. Not his expenses as President, but his expenses as planter dragged him down. At first he thought that his debts would reach seven or eight thousand dollars, which must be discharged from a private estate hardly exceeding two hundred thousand dollars in value at the best of times, and rendered almost worthless by neglect and by the embargo. The sudden demand for this sum of money, coming at the moment of his political mortifications, wrung from him cries of genuine distress such as no public disaster had called out. He wrote to his commission-merchant entreating him to borrow the money:—

"Since I have become sensible of this deficit I have been under an agony of mortification, and therefore must solicit as much urgency in the negotiation as the case will admit. My intervening nights will be almost sleepless, as nothing could be more distressing to me than to leave debts here unpaid, if indeed I should be permitted to depart with them unpaid, of which I am by no means certain."[14]

Large as it was, this estimate of the debt fell far short of the reality. The arrears amounted in truth to twenty thousand dollars.[15] Nothing but immediate and rigid economy could restore the loss, and even with every advantage Jefferson could never hope to live again upon his old scale without incurring bankruptcy; he must cease to be a grand seigneur, or drag his family into the ruin which seemed to be the fate of every Virginian.

Under the weight of these troubles, public and private, Jefferson's longing to escape became intense; and his letters repeated, in accents more and more earnest, the single wish that filled his mind.

"I shall within a few days," he wrote February 25,[16] "divest myself of the anxieties and the labors with which I have been oppressed, and retire with inexpressible delight to my family, my friends, my farms, and books. There I may indulge at length in that tranquillity and those pursuits from which I have been divorced by the character of the times in which I have lived, and which have forced me into the line of political life under a sense of duty and against a great and constant aversion to it."

March 2 he wrote to Dupont de Nemours,[17] in stronger terms of weariness and disgust: "Never did a prisoner released from his chains feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight." March 4 he rode once more on horseback to the Capitol, and stood by the side of Madison while John Marshall administered the oath of office. The weight of administration was at last removed, but the longing for home became only the greater. March 5 he wrote to Armstrong:[18] "Within two or three days I retire from scenes of difficulty, anxiety, and of contending passions, to the elysium of domestic affections and the irresponsible direction of my own affairs." A week afterward Jefferson quitted Washington forever. On horseback, over roads impassable to wheels, through snow and storm, he hurried back to Monticello to recover in the quiet of home the peace of mind he had lost in the disappointments of his statesmanship. He arrived at Monticello March 15, and never again passed beyond the bounds of a few adjacent counties.

With a sigh of relief which seemed as sincere and deep as his own, the Northern people saw him turn his back on the White House and disappear from the arena in which he had for sixteen years challenged every comer. In the Northern States few regrets were wasted upon his departure, for every mind was intent on profiting by the overthrow of his system; but Virginia was still loyal to him, and the citizens of his own county of Albemarle welcomed with an affectionate address his final return. His reply, dignified and full of grateful feeling, seemed intended as an answer to the attacks of partisan grossness and a challenge to the judgment of mankind:—

"The anxieties you express to administer to my happiness do of themselves confer that happiness; and the measure will be complete if my endeavors to fulfil my duties in the several public stations to which I have been called have obtained for me the approbation of my country. The part which I have acted on the theatre of public life has been before them, and to their sentence I submit it; but the testimony of my native county, of the individuals who have known me in private life, to my conduct in its various duties and relations is the more grateful as proceeding from eye-witnesses and observers, from triers of the vicinage. Of you, then, my neighbors, I may ask in the face of the world, 'Whose ox have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed, or of whose hand have I received a bribe to blind mine eyes therewith?' On your verdict I rest with conscious security."


  1. Dallas to Gallatin, July 30, 1808; Adams's Gallatin, p. 372.
  2. Report and Resolutions, National Intelligencer, March 10, 1809.
  3. King's Life and Correspondence, v. 131.
  4. Ryland to John Henry, Jan. 26, 1809; State Papers, iii. 546.
  5. Sir James Craig to John Henry, Feb. 6, 1809; State Papers, iii. 546.
  6. Quincy's Life of Quincy, p. 250.
  7. Henry to Sir J. Craig, March 7, 1809; State Papers, iii. 549.
  8. Jefferson to Armstrong, March 5, 1809; Works, v. 433.
  9. Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, March 2, 1809; Works, v. 432.
  10. Jefferson to Dearborn, July 15, 1810; Works, v. 529.
  11. Jefferson to W. B. Giles, Dec. 25, 1825; Works, vii. 424.
  12. Jefferson to W. Short, March 8, 1809; Works, v. 435.
  13. Jefferson's Financial Diary. Harper's Magazine, March, 1885, pp. 534-542.
  14. Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 400.
  15. Randall's Jefferson, iii. 326.
  16. Jefferson to Warden, Feb. 25, 1809; Jefferson MSS.
  17. Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, March 2, 1809; Works, v. 432.
  18. Jefferson to Armstrong, March 5, 1809; Works, v. 434.