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Jefferson, Master Politician

ISSUE:  Summer 1926


It is commonly agreed that Thomas Jefferson was the most consummate politician in American history. It is the boast of his followers; and his enemies concede it with a smirk, intended to convey the impression that the man who wrote the Declaration, inspired the Bill of Rights, added an empire to the national domain, and directed the forces that won the battle for democracy, was nothing else. There is nothing disreputable in being a politician provided one is interested primarily in advancing principles and policies, and Jefferson was interested in nothing else. He had no itch for office. He was the politician of a cause, and that cause was one of liberty, humanity, and democracy.

It is not necessary to prove that he was a consummate politician—it stands out irresistibly in the record. When he reappeared in the national arena after his embassy in France, the enemies of democracy were in possession of the government. Some of the paramount ideas of the Revolution had become jests in the mart, in the counting room, and in the fashionable drawing rooms of the cities. Samuel Adams had been rejected by a constituency in Boston and a brilliant young cynic who had participated not at all in the struggle for independence had been sent to Congress to sneer at the principles of the Declaration. Powerful influences, which a century and a third of history has shown to be well nigh irresistible, when working in unison, had been drawn together into a combination and cemented by interest. Men of rare cleverness and ingenuity were in control. Within ten years the man of Monticello had overthrown this combination, wrested the government from its control, converted the machinery to the purposes of the people, and created and drilled a militant party that was increasingly triumphant for a quarter of a century. The effect of his victory can scarcely be over-estimated for it placed the friends of democracy in power through the formative years.


The precise moment that Jefferson determined to organize an opposition to Federalist policies is not positively known. In the summer following the consummation of the principal plans of Hamilton, a coach, bearing Jefferson and Madison, might have been seen lumbering along the rough roads of New York and New England. There is nothing in evidence to sustain the theory that this trip resulted in the perfection of plans for a party of opposition. The letters of the two friends indicate nothing beyond recreational pleasures, albeit wherever they stopped, they called upon the local political celebrity. Inevitably they must have discussed the political situation, but the necessity for an organized opposition had unquestionably been the topic of discussion on many an evening before the fire. Even so it was immediately after this journey that Jefferson bent to the task of creating a new party.

To appreciate his remarkable achievement it is necessary to note the seemingly hopeless handicaps that confronted him in the beginning. Every possible practical advantage was with the Federalists. They were in control of the government, under the leadership of a genius of the first order, who was moving with lightning rapidity, and with the hearty approval of the influential, to the consolidation of his power. His policies, appealing to the self-interest of the financial and commercial elements, had enlisted their vigorous support. These elements, close-welded, concentrated in the cities and larger towns, and organized into well drilled Chambers of Commerce, could be easily directed and speedily reached with orders. Thus Hamilton had a compact party organization at nis command without the turning of a hand. In the event of a contest he could quickly flood Congress with petitions or remonstrances, from societies representing the most prosperous and important citizens of the cities, that would seem the spontaneous expression of public opinion. Then, too, his aristocratic idea of government appealed to the professional classes, lawyers, ministers, teachers, the intellectual leaders of the various centers. The fact that his supporters had a personal, and, not infrequently, a financial interest in the success of his policies, put them into his fights without the use of whip or spur. He had the greater part of the press, and, in the beginning, the cleverest of the pamphleteers. In the nature of things he had fashionable society with him, with its pull on the snobs and climbers. In truth, he and his party were the fashion, prone to press their advantage with that arrogance and audacity which is the heavy artillery in a fight. And to cap all, he had assembled about him some of the most brilliant, attractive, eloquent, cynical and unscrupulous men that America has ever known. The Federalists, representing a minority, were apparently entrenched beyond all hope of expulsion.


Jefferson sensed public sentiment and feeling too accurately to believe that the majority of the people would sympathize with the Federalist fundamentals if they were known. Unfortunately for his purpose, a large part of these were disfranchised by property qualifications. This was particularly true in the cities. The others were scattered over the country, ninety-five per cent living in small towns and on the remote farms and plantations—unorganized, difficult to reach, and not easy to arouse. In the absence of our modern methods of flashing the events of the day to the four corners, few of these had the slightest notion of what was being done at the capital, and fewer still realized that it affected them directly. They were an inert mass, their civic consciousness asleep. The task that Jefferson undertook was to awaken this lethargic mass, organize and drill it into an effective army, make it politically-minded, and reach it with the munitions of war. It was a miracle he proposed, and he achieved it.

The organization of a congressional party was easy enough. There was division enough among the members of Congress on the fundamentals involved in the Federalist policies, and with both Jefferson and Madison on the ground, those of democratic proclivities could be easily organized into a party; Jefferson was far too wise to be satisfied with anything so simple. He proposed, not to organize a party for opposition, but for power; to displace Federalists in Congress with democrats; and that necessarily transferred the real fighting to the people. It was a national party, with a popular following, reaching into every nook and corner, and militant in spirit, that he sought— and that was not so simple. Congressional leaders were not enough, there had to be local leaders organizing public opinion to support and sustain the leaders in the capital. Surveying the field, he found in almost every State something in the nature of a party, built around local issues, and inspired by democratic ideals. Why not merge these into a national organization? This was his first step, and he sat down to the writing of long letters to local leaders. In the selection of his assistants he could not always choose. The available material was not always the most inspiring; but after all he was not engaged in creating a political agency for the fashionable and the intelligentsia, but for the average man. Many of the “second-rate” men he utilized were more important politically than the more brilliant and dashing Hamiltonian leaders who were ignorant of mass psychology and aspirations. The rough hewn Matthew Lyon was a premier agitator among plain people. So was Ben Austin, the Boston rope-maker. So, too, was Timothy Bloodworth, the Carolina smith, and the leather-lunged James Jackson of Georgia. In almost every community men of this sort, hard-headed, stout-hearted, ardent in the cause, became agitators and drill masters. And all of these acted under the inspiration of a board of strategy with which Jefferson surrounded himself—brilliant men like Madison, Pendleton, Giles, Taylor of Caroline, Gallatin and Livingston; resourceful men like Clinton, McKean, Charles Pinck-ney and Willie Jones.

Thus gradually he built up the framework of a party. Soon New England Federalists were astounded to find agitators in the taverns, on the stage coaches, in the country stores. Soon there was nervous laughing among them because organizers called “drill-masters” were busy with the raw recruits. Soon there was a party.


The most spectacular battles were necessarily staged in Congress where an organized and compact opposition began to challenge vigorously the policies of the dominant party. These battles were planned with meticulous care, usually about the dinner table presided over by Jefferson. Speeches were prepared for publication and circulation. Members were encouraged to write elaborate letters to their constituents commenting sharply on men and measures, and these, in time, became so potent that, in a moment of hysteria, the Federalist radicals, not without support from the Bench, sought to prevent the practice on the silly ground of sedition. A Federal judge in Richmond would have made it a crime for a member of Congress to make a report on the proceedings in Congress! These speeches and letters had a tremendous effect in arousing the people, and if they were challenged, and agitation resulted, all the better. Jefferson was not playing ping-pong—he was out with a meat cleaver.

Thus in addition to the letters and the speeches, he appreciated the value of pamphlets and encouraged their publication. Quite early, when the tide was running strongly against democracy, and the champions of aristocratic government were in rhapsodies over Edmund Burke’s reactionary pamphlet, and John Adams’ amazing “Discourses of Davilla,” he rejoiced over the appearance of Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man,” and urged that it be given the widest possible circulation. The unauthorized use of a personal note from Jefferson, to the printer, as the preface to the American edition, called down upon his head the vials of wrath—but that only served to advertise Paine’s spirited defense of democracy. Soon ordinary men in small towns were angrily debating the relative merits of the two pamphlets. It was a strategic blunder on the part of the Federalists to thus associate the Jeffersonians with democracy and the revolutionary spirit—for the people were democratic. It saved the new party the expense of much printers’ ink.

Thereafter pamphlets, powerful or persuasive, made their appearance under the inspiration of the leader. Thus a defeat was turned into something very like victory when John Taylor of Caroline published “An Examination of the Late Proceedings of Congress Respecting the Official Conduct of the Secretary of the Treasury.”


When Jefferson said, that, forced to a choice between government without newspapers, or newspapers without government he would choose the latter, he fell into the vice of over-statement, but no political leader has ever made a more effective use of the press. When in Paris, he insisted that all the leading papers be sent him regardless of cost. When he assumed the leadership of a cause, his first thought was the establishment of a party organ. If Freneau’s vigorous Gazette was the conception of Madison, it had Jefferson’s approval. As a medium of propaganda it played an important part in the creation of public opinion. If Jefferson contributed nothing from his pen, he actively interested himself in the extension of its influence. He sent a subscription blank among his neighbors, interested Sam Adams in its circulation in Boston, and wrote exultantly to Madison that it was reaching into many parts of New England. If he did not write himself, he ordered his associates to write when occasion called, and not infrequently Madison received instructions or appeals to reply to newspaper articles by Hamilton. These articles that Jefferson personally inspired were above scurrility, and were written with the dignity and power of state papers. Sitting under his plane trees at his country home near Philadelphia one summer afternoon he read one of the numbers of Hamilton’s “Pacifist.” Laying the paper down, he seized his pen and wrote to Madison—”Reply!” And Madison sweltering in the Virginia heat reluctantly took up his pen, and soon his articles were running in papers all over the country. When Hamilton began his bitter attacks upon democracy during the X.Y.Z. hysteria, Jefferson again wrote Madison: “For heaven’s sake, take up your pen and do not desert the public cause.” A hard taskmaster, this easy boss could be.

Thus the people were aroused, and at times Jefferson was embarrassed by the radicalism and indiscretions of his followers. Genet was a thorn in his side. The Democratic societies were sometimes embarrassing. Occasionally these blunders of the over zealous and emotional threatened to destroy the advantages that had been gained. There were moments when young democracy ran amuck, and the democrats of the rank and file lost their bearings. The wine of liberty is strong. Then, on more than one occasion, Jefferson had recourse to the resolution and the mass meeting to chart the course anew. The resolutions were prepared with the care of a diplomatic note or a modern platform plank by Jefferson or Madison, setting forth clearly and impressively the real policy of the party; the place for the mass meeting would be wisely chosen; Madison, Monroe or Pendleton would present the resolution; and it would be sent to the press throughout the country, and the over zealous, noting their mistake, were usually quick to profit by the lesson. When the Democratic societies were under fire at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion, one after another in rapid succession adopted resolutions deprecating the violation of the excise law, denouncing forceful opposition to its execution— but reiterating the demand for its repeal. These resolutions, sound as the Constitution, have failed to attract the attention of historians. They were inspired and phrased by the Jeffersonian leaders.


Jefferson looked on politics as war. It was not enough to have an army—an army that did not move with machinelike precision was a mob. He knew himself to be a master of strategy and he determined upon his plans. And these plans, he insisted, should be carried out consistently from Boston to Savannah. No scattering of shots! No dissipation of energy! No bickering over the non-essentials! The army had to move in step all along the line, responsive to a common will. He was a relentless, rigid disciplinarian. When a policy was considered paramount he insisted that his followers shonid agitate for it, and it above all, everywhere at the same time from the Vermont taverns to the Georgia woods. His usual method was persuasion and suggestion, but when time pressed he gave orders, with the harshness of a Prussian autocrat. Thus his orders to Madison to take up his pen; thus to Monroe to organize a mass meeting; thus, too, when quick action was necessary in the publication of a pamphlet of propaganda, “It will take some money. I have put you down for this or that amount.”

Through the methods here sketchily mentioned, Thomas Jefferson wrought the Revolution of 1800 which determined, in its issue, that ours should be, not only a republic, but a democratic republic. In the long view, it was more significant to the masses of mankind than the other Revolution which closed with the surrender at Yorktown. That gave us independence; the Constitutional Convention gave us a nation; and Jefferson’s Revolution gave us a democracy.


And all this he achieved because he was endowed by nature and temperament as a leader of men. Let us take a hasty glance at these qualities of leadership. A careful reading of the letters of the political leaders of the time show Jefferson to have been unique in the possession of one of the elements of success—his capacity to see and acknowledge ability and power in a foe. One searches the correspondence of Hamilton, King, Cabot, Ames, Wolcott, Pickering, McHenry for a line conceding to Jefferson a single virtue—in vain. These men were all “high-hat.” To disagree with them was to confess to mediocrity or worse. Jefferson never made that stupid blunder. He was too much of a realist. He never blinded himself with prejudice and never deceived himself with sophistry. He faced facts. Time and again, when the fight was fiercest, and Hamilton was busy with his pen, we find Jefferson writing anxiously to Madison of the destructive genius of his great opponent. He always wanted to know the worst in a situation, the better to meet it. He invited no ambuscades. Nor did he waste his time on bootless invectives against an opponent. He kept a firm rein on his passions. He even maintained a certain judicial poise in reference to those who were striking at his policies. The fact that Washington sometimes aligned himself with the Federalists never betrayed Jefferson into an expression of disrespect.

And this is one of the “peculiar things about history”— it conveys the impression that while the Jeffersonians were rude to Washington, the Federalist leaders loved him as a father. In the correspondence of those times the finest tributes to Washington were those of Jefferson; the severest criticisms were those of Pickering and Ames; and there is nothing in the letters of Hamilton to denote affection.

Jefferson kept his vision clear. In the heat of his rivalry with Adams he was able to write of him justly, with a certain admiration, and he usually did. He could hate when occasion called as hotly as any man, but he never got drunk on hate. This made his judgment sound in council.


Thus he was a genius in self control. He never lost his head—while Hamilton usually went to pieces in a crisis affecting his personal or political prestige. He refused to compromise the dignity of his cause by descending to personalities. Neither by voice nor pen, in a public way, did he attack his enemies, and when he was thus attacked he maddened them all the more by his contemptuous silence. He understood too well the strategic advantage of aloofness from vulgar bickerings to be persuaded or dragged in. When Hamilton, in a series of letters, assailed him personally under cover, Jefferson refrained. Thus when the Fenno journal and Peter Porcupine demanded in outrageous phrasing that he answer this or that, he took no notice. Thus when Luther Martin, a little in his cups as usual, bombarded him with abusive charges in Cobbett’s journal, no one, noting the serenity with which he presided over the Senate in Philadelphia, could have suspected that he had heard of them. This self-control, this dignified refusal to stoop, enraged his enemies, and all the more because they saw that his silence made a better impression than their damor. The Federalist school of historians continue to assail him for his silences; and the drollest thing that Henry Cabot Lodge ever did in print was to admit that Hamilton’s attack on Jefferson through the press was undignified and lamentable, while sneering at Jefferson for not meriting the historian’s criticism of his idol. Even to this day Jefferson has not been able to satisfy his enemies; it was always enough for him to know that he satisfied the expectations of the friends of his cause.

Along with this capacity for silence, he further enraged his foes, as he enrages them still, by his cleverness in working under cover. He was a master at management. He was happy in the important science of the surprise attack. He knew how to lengthen his fuse far from the point of the explosion. A quiet dinner at a tavern in Philadelphia—and something happened in Georgia. A conversation under the plane trees near that city—and the Federalists had a new problem in South Carolina. He seemed so serene, so idle, so indifferent, and yet so many new difficulties were appearing to vex the “wise and the good,” and these were so often traced finally to Jefferson. Because of this artfulness he has been accused of resorting to “sneaking under-hand methods.” As well accuse Washington of being a coward because he did not at all times invite a pitched battle. With his own forces scattered and remote, and for some time weak and unorganized and facing the powerful organization of his foes, Jefferson knew the value of mining. He knew, as the most consummate political leaders must, when to play the lion and when the fox. He usually outwitted his foes—that is his infamy; he won the fight for a democracy, and that is his unpardonable sin.


Political leaders who do not sometimes work under cover would be as stupid as a general who would send the enemy the full plans of a proposed attack. This line of criticism against Jefferson smacks of insincerity and dishonesty, for his most important antagonist, whom these critics praise as a paragon of frankness and courage, did not always fight in the open. When he was writing his anonymous attacks on his colleague in the Cabinet he was representing to a correspondent that they were the work of another man, Unable to deprive Adams of his party’s designation, he sought, by “under-hand methods” to trick him out of his election in the interest of Pinckney through a secret conspiracy among the Federalist electors. In the organization of the army in 1798 he worked “under cover” with the treacherous members of Adams’ Cabinet, who were his tools, to thwart the purposes of the President, and by the deception of Washington, through subterranean methods, secured his cooperation, and succeeded. In connection with the proposed French war, he worked “under cover” with King in London and Pickering in Philadelphia, to associate this country with England in a war of conquest in South America, keeping both the President and Washington in the dark. These are more serious “under-hand” actions than any that have been charged against Jefferson by the historians who would have us believe that Hamilton fought always in the sunlight.


Then, too, in the appraisement of his equipment for leadership, it must be added that he was a master in the personal management of men. He was the first “easy boss” in American politics. He knew men at a glance—knew them intuitively. There was something almost feminine in his tact-fulness. He argued out any questionable point with Madison. He gave orders to Monroe. He used persuasion on Pendleton. He patted the rather vain but brilliant Giles on the back. He consulted with Gallatin. He stormed at none.

Here for example was a man, vain, opinionated, self-important, contentious, prone to be stubborn, and none too subtle. With this type Jefferson was finesse itself. He invited the victim to a conversation or a dinner, and in a roundabout way opened the subject on his mind, casually throwing out a suggestion here and there, and encouraging his visitor to talk. Another hint, here and there. But nothing positive from Jefferson. Clearly he was groping for a plan. The visitor could see that easily. And so the conversation went on—with more hints from Jefferson; until, at length, the visitor, piecing the disconnected suggestions together, found the plan the political psychologist had been giving his disjointedly, and proposed it. The keen eyes of the master brightened. Just the thing! Why hadn’t he thought of it himself? The plan of the visitor was instantly adopted. It was Jefferson’s plan, planted with ineffable finesse in the mind of the difficult one, and he had never suspected it. That is the art of political management at its highest. That is one of the arts that made Jefferson the most consummate politician of his time.

But even these extraordinary qualities of management could scarcely have prevailed over the powerful forces arrayed against him but for his unequalled ability to sense public sentiment and to interpret the heart throbs of the American people. The moment a measure was proposed, he knew instinctively what the popular reaction would be in remote places. No statesman of his time understood America so thoroughly, and none were in such complete sympathy with the people’s hopes, expectations and aspirations. His whole heart was enlisted in the cause of democracy and liberty, and to this he dedicated his genius and devoted his life. If the people believed in him it was because they knew that he believed in them. In the final analysis, it was not so much the mind of Jefferson that prevailed over his enemies—it was his soul.


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