Note to readers:
Contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson would not be surprised that he left explicitly detailed instructions for the creation of his tombstone.
“A plain die or cube of 3 feet without any moldings, surmounted by an obelisk of 6 feet height, each of a single stone. On the face of the obelisk the following inscription, not a word more.
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia”
Notably absent is any mention of his Presidency. Was it true humility or carefully concealed hubris?
The historian Joseph Ellis writes in his preface to American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson “…inspired by the example of John Adams to believe that affection and criticism toward Jefferson are not mutually exclusive postures.”
Like binary stars, Jefferson and Adams were bound together in a kind of intellectual gravity. Friends. Enemies. And friends again. It is not a coincidence that Adams left Washington at 4 AM on the day of Jefferson’s inaugural.
The great divide of the fledgling country was between the Federalists, who argued for a strong central government and the Democratic-Republicans, who argued for more states rights and smaller government.
Jefferson’s election was perhaps the most contentious in our history. [Far more controversial than Bush/Gore]. It took 36 congressional ballots to secure him the Presidency over Aaron Burr. It is in this crucible that Jefferson had to give the speech of his life.
We live in a time when most speeches no longer spill from the pen of the politician. The eloquence is manufactured and packaged. We do not remember speeches wholesale, but witness only those highlights filtered through endless media outlets.
What follows is a brief literary musing on a speech that was barely heard by those who were there, but loudly reverberates today as a reminder of how fragile and enduring is the idea of democracy.
The clatter and dust of President John Adam’s coach had barely drifted away on a brisk Wednesday morning in March 1801. A 6’2″ Virginian entered the breakfast room of Conrad and McCunn’s boarding house near Capital Hill where he had living in bachelor’s quarters during his Vice-Presidency.
The Federalists had many unsavory names for the Virginian, but he was known throughout the young nation as Thomas Jefferson. He had already labored through two drafts of his first inaugural address.
A few weeks earlier, he had written to his beloved daughter Maria (Polly) “I feel a sincere wish, indeed, to see our Government brought back to its republican principles, to see that kind of government firmly fixed to which my whole life as been devoted.”
As usual, Jefferson’s eloquence took its form on parchment not from the podium. He was, by all accounts, an inordinately shy and reticent public speaker. John Adams recalled that “during the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.”
His lack of oratory skills was considered a liability because the Continental Congress was regarded as an arena for orators. Jefferson’s Virginia brethren were known for their oratorical brilliance.
The historian Joseph Ellis describes such luminaries as Edmund Pendleton — “the silver haired and silver-tongued master of the elegant style…Pendleton’s specialty was the cool an low key peroration that hypnotized the audience.”
Another Virginian, Richard Henry Lee, was “more flammable and ostentatious. If Pendleton’s technique suggested peaceful occupation, Lee was a proponent of the all-out invasion…and the undisputed oratorical champion was Patrick Henry, whose presence in the Virginia delegation generated more public attention than anyone else except for George Washington.”
Henry was the equivalent of an evangelical preacher — who talked in cadences and seduced the audience in waves of emotional inspiration with equally powerful pauses.
At noon, dressed as “a plain citizen, without any distinctive badge of office,” Jefferson walked up Capitol Hill. Behind him was a small parade of dignitaries led by a cadre of Republican congressmen and two members of the outgoing cabinet.
In the Senate chamber of the unfinished Capital, he was met by Aaron Burr, who had already been installed as presiding officer and Chief Justice John Marshall, who administered the oath of office.
After a short pause, Jefferson stood to deliver his speech in a room that was, Margaret Bayard Smith claimed, “so crowded that I believe not another creature could enter,” and that according to newspaper reports held the “largest concourse of citizens ever assembled here. Another newspaper reported an audience of 1,140 in addition to members of Congress.
Jefferson rose and began reading his Inaugural Address in a tone so low that it could be heard by only a few in the chamber.
“Friends and Fellow-Citizens,” he began, “Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow citizens which is here assembled to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire.”
This opening was followed a few paragraphs later with, “To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.
During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.
And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.”
And later, the oft-quoted “But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson continues, “Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations.
Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people…freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.
These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment.”
“I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts.”
Jefferson mastered that fine art of the aspirational speech. An art that deftly integrates the possible with the probable. The contradictions of his character and of the country were ultimately played out on the stage of politics.
Ironically, some of his great accomplishments as President were often a result of Federalist sensibilities. The Louisiana Purchase was not a democratic decision, but a Presidential one. And he did not dismantle the financial machinations of Alexander Hamilton.
Christopher Hitchens has written that “Jefferson had, in the course of a long political life, contained ‘multitudes,’ in Walt Whitman’s phrase, to contradict himself with scope and with generosity. Historians still wrestle with his paradoxical writings on slavery and race.
But on that March afternoon in 1801, Jefferson whispered words that defined and refined a nation in search of identity. Well done, Mr. Jefferson.
My thanks to Joseph Ellis, Christopher Hitchens, and Merrill Peterson.