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A Peppercorn for Mr. Jefferson

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

Early in the morning of New Year’s Day, 1802, Parson John Leland proudly drove his heavily laden sleigh up to the front door of the President’s House. For three weeks this Baptist preacher and his companion, Darius Brown, had been on the road to Washington from their home town of Cheshire, in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts. Over crisp and sparkling snow they had slowly traveled through one village after another, and in each had been loudly huzzaed by the farmers and mechanics whose votes in 1800 had helped elect Thomas Jefferson the “People’s President.” The Parson had spun yarns to Darius about Revolutionary days in Virginia, where he had fought not only for Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence but for his world-famous Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. He had talked about his own present struggle for religious liberty against the tax-supported Congregational clergy of Massachusetts. And all the way to the Federal City he had zealously guarded his precious cargo, a “Mammoth Cheese” which the people of Cheshire had lovingly made for Mr. Jefferson—”the greatest cheese in America, for the greatest man in America.”

John Leland was a plain man, a pious, self-educated preacher-farmer. The chances are that he had never heard of the medieval tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler. Yet there was something of the medieval acrobat’s devotional spirit in the Parson and his fellow farmers of Cheshire. They had long been restive under the rule of the Hamiltonian Federalists, purse-proud and class-proud aristocrats who openly derided their Jeffersonian faith in the decency and dignity of the common man. When the glorious news came that Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans had triumphed, the citizens of Cheshire had rejoiced with rank-and-file Americans from Maine to Georgia, fired their muskets, and sung such spirited songs as “The People’s Friend” and the very popular “Jefferson and Liberty”—

Hail! long expected glorious day Illustrious, memorable morn; That freedom’s fabric from decay Secures—for millions yet unborn.

But they had not been content with singing thanks and praises. They wished to express their joy in some tangible way. Now there was one thing the little town of Cheshire did supremely well, and that was the making of cheese. Why not, said Parson Leland, present Mr. Jefferson with the biggest and best cheese the world has ever seen? They agreed that every man and woman who owned a cow would give for this cheese all the milk yielded on a certain day. Not one drop of milk was to come from a Federalist cow!

A huge cider press was fitted up to make it in, and on the appointed day the whole community turned out with pails and tubs of curd, the girls and women in their best gowns and ribbons, the men in their Sunday-go-to-meeting coats and clean shirt-collars. The cheese was put to press with prayers by Parson Leland and the singing of hymns by the men and women of Cheshire. When it was well dried and put on the parson’s sleigh, it was as large as a burr millstone and weighed—mark you—1,235 pounds!

Now it had arrived at its destination and there on the steps of the President’s House was Thomas Jefferson himself, smiling and with hand outstretched.

When Mr. Jefferson shook hands with a man, so people related, he did so in a manner that said as plainly as words could, “I am your friend.” His reddish hair had grayed, yet his slow smile and soft manner were as gracious as when Leland had last seen him in Virginia. This man of quiet dignity had filled the most important posts at home and abroad, yet he was “without any tincture of pomp, ostentation, or pride,” and one could speak as freely with him as with any farmer in the hills of Berkshire or of Albemarle. Tall, thin, dressed in his customary suit of black, the Philosopher-President (according to a Federalist observer) on that day struck a new note in Jeffersonian innovation. He had “shoes on that closed tight round his ancles, laced up with neat leathern strings, and absolutely without buckles, considering them as superfluous and anti-republican, especially when a man has strings.”

Delighted with the simplicity and warmth of his welcome, Leland and Darius presented him with the Mammoth Cheese “in behalf of all Cheshire.” The Parson then read a prepared Address, a precious bit of homespun Americana. In it the citizens of Cheshire avowed their loyalty to a Constitution which the Federalists had tried to subvert, and thanked “that Supreme Father of the Universe, who . . . has raised up a Jefferson for this critical day, to defend Republicanism and baffle all the arts of Aristocracy.

“Sir, we have attempted to prove our love to our President not in words alone, but in deed and truth. With this Address we send you a Cheese, by the hands of Messrs. John Leland and Darius Brown, as a peppercorn of the esteem which we bear to our chief magistrate, and as a sacrifice to Republicanism. It is not the last stone in the Bastille, nor is it of any consequence as an article of worth; but as a free will offering, we hope it will be received. The Cheese was not made by his lordship, for his sacred majesty; nor with a view to gain dignified titles or lucrative offices; but by the personal labour of free born farmers (without a single slave to assist), for an elective President of a free people; with the only view of casting a mite into the scale of democracy. . . .

“May God long preserve your life and health for a blessing to the United States, and the world at large.”

This peppercorn of esteem (small in itself compared to the love common people everywhere had for him), this gigantic democratic “mite,” was accepted by Mr. Jefferson with heartfelt thanks. He had the great cheese placed in the East Room of the White House, a large and unfinished audience-hall which he that day christened “the Mammoth Room.” The designation appealed to his sense of humor, since Federalist editors for years had jeered at his scientific interest in fossil bones and often called him “Mr. Mammoth” and “the Mammoth of Democracy.”

At noon that day the President held his usual New Year’s reception or levee. The scarlet-coated Marine Band played “Jefferson and Liberty” as citizens of Washington, government officials, army and navy officers, turbaned ladies, gold-braided diplomats, and blanketed Miami and Pottawatomie chieftains—a various and brilliant company—gathered to pay the compliments of the season to Mr. Jefferson. It was a proud day for the Parson and his friend Darius. The good-humored President greeted each guest with dignified simplicity and invited them, one and all, to go to the Mammoth Room and partake of the Mammoth Cheese. First he cut out a huge wedge to be sent back to the donors, and then everybody sampled the cheese.

Republicans pronounced it the biggest and best ever. Federalists said the flavor was only so-so. Privately they grumbled about “this monument to human weakness and folly,” and thought it strange that a preacher should have presented it to a man who ranked first on the Tory list of public enemies: Tom Jefferson, Tom Paine, and Tom the Devil. Manasseh Cutler, congressman and Congregation-alist minister from eastern Massachusetts, was chagrined at the spirit of democratic unrest in his own state symbolized by this “poor, ignorant, illiterate, clownish preacher.” Federalist editors only further increased the President’s popularity by ridiculing this cheese-monger adulation of Thomas Jefferson, that wicked man who had inspired delusive hopes of a poor man’s Millenium among “our American peasantry.” The Parson and Darius stayed on a few days to see the sights of the new Federal City. Before they left for Cheshire, Mr. Jefferson with characteristic delicacy and tact persuaded them to accept a sum of money far above the market value of the cheese. It was his rule never to accept presents while in office, and this money the Parson might expend in Cheshire as he saw fit.

And before they drove off in their sleigh for home (a journey on which Leland was to preach in almost every village), Mr. Jefferson, members of Congress, and the people of Washington went to the Capitol on Sunday to hear the Parson preach one of his rough-hewn and effective sermons. In the spirit of his Cheshire Address and not without an oblique allusion to President Jefferson and what he symbolized to the average American, the democratic Parson took for his text, “And behold a greater than Solomon is here.”


John Leland and his fellow Americans could be pardoned for thinking that the Millenium had arrived. For their young Republic under Jefferson enjoyed peace in a world at war, and an unprecedented, widely diffused prosperity. The People’s President had put the Argosy of state on a true republican tack, had done away with ceremonies of a dangerous monarchical tendency, and once again opened the doors of hospitality to refugees from Old World tyranny. He had abolished all internal taxes. At the same time he had drastically reduced the public debt and piled up a surplus in the Treasury. No President before or since could ask his fellow countrymen, as he did in his second Inaugural Address: “What farmer, what mechanic, what laborer, ever sees a tax-gatherer of the United States?”

To crown all, his magnificent Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the area of the Republic, removed foreign control of its vital Mississippi outlet, and made possible its greatness as a continental power. A vast empire as large as and more fertile than the Republic itself bad been acquired, peaceably, and without taxation, for the tariff revenues at New Orleans alone would soon pay for the Purchase. It was, as Jefferson modestly said, a transaction replete with the blessings of freedom and equal laws for unborn millions.

In 1804 he was re-elected by Parson Leland’s Massachusetts and every state in the Union except Connecticut and Delaware. A few die-hard Federalists continued to attack him, and often most scurrilously. “This monied corps” of the great cities, “this mass of anti-civism,” as he termed them, comprised only one twenty-fifth of the people, yet controlled three-fourths of the newspapers. With characteristic good humor he declared that the Federalist press was very useful: “It is like the chimneys to our dwellings; it carries off the smoke of party which might otherwise stifle the nation.” The Federalists made little headway against the People’s President, who in 1808 disappointed thousands of Americans by refusing a third term in the presidency.

“Rarely ever did prince rule more absolutely than T. J.,” growled a Federalist near the end of his presidency, still complaining of the people’s adulation and the subserviency of a “rubber-stamp” Congress. “He can manage everything in the national legislature by his rod.”

The man who wielded the rod of power, great as a statesman, adept as a politician, was a very practical idealist who translated democratic faith into democratic practice. He devoted his whole life to the welfare of his fellow man, as legislator, governor, congressman, diplomat, secretary of state, vice president, and president; as social reformer, inventor, scientist, architect, and educator. His many talents and great services have been generally acknowledged. But most historians, perhaps awed by the breadth and depth of his accomplishments, have failed to get beyond the impressive outer works to the warm, affectionate, and charming inner personality. They do a great injustice to Mr. Jefferson to treat him as a mere intellectual machine, or a political symbol. Some have even denied him a sense of humor 1

A delightful play of humor and wit enlivens his thousands of letters. He loved to tell anecdotes of his much-admired friend, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and of Paris of the Ancien Regime, On occasion he could tell a typically American tall story that a Davy Crockett or a Seba Smith would have appreciated. His intimate friend and lieutenant, James Madison, was in private life “a social, jovial, and good-humored companion, full of anecdote, sometimes rather of a loose description.” During these Washington years Secretary Madison further endeared himself to his chief by relating the latest story or bon mot, many of them concocted by Federalists at Jefferson’s expense, and making the President laugh until the tears came.

It was a very human President that John Leland and Darius Brown, and his Washington neighbors and friends, had the good fortune to meet, whether at his New Year’s levee, his dinner table, or during his walks and rides about the new Federal City.


“There is a degree of ease in Mr. Jefferson’s company that everyone seems to feel and to enjoy,” said Benjamin H. Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol. This was especially true at the President’s dinners. He had done away with pompous state dinners, but he gave nearly every day small dinner parties for ten or twelve. Mr. Latrobe’s description of a dinner at the President’s on a November afternoon in 1802 is typical of many contemporary accounts. Jefferson’s two daughters, Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Eppes, were there, having come up from their homes in Virginia. Present also were James and Dolly Madison, Mr. and Mrs. Carter from Virginia, Levi Lincoln, the Attorney General, Dr. William Thornton, the head of the Patent Office, and Mr. Jefferson’s secretary, Meriwether Lewis.

They had a magnificent venison dinner, prepared by Monsieur Julien, the French chef. The excellent wines varied from rare old sherry to champagne. Mr. Jefferson said little at dinner besides attending to the filling of plates, “which he did with great ease and grace for a philosopher.” But when the cloth was removed he became very talkative, and the conversation was most agreeable and spirited: “Literature, wit, and a little business, with a great deal of miscellaneous remarks on agriculture and building, filled every minute.” When Martha Randolph, at the request of Mr. Carter, drank a glass of wine with him, Mr. Jefferson smilingly told his daughter that she was breaking his law against drinking healths at table. “She said she was not acquainted with it, that it must have been passed during her absence. He replied that three laws governed his table—no healths, no politics, and no restraint.”

The ladies of Washington were especially charmed by his handsome way of entertaining. His compliments reminded them that he had spent five years at the court of Louis XVI. One lady was once congratulating herself that she never felt the cold in winter.

“Go where I will,” she said, “I can always fancy it’s summer.”

Bowing as if he were back at Versailles, Mr. Jefferson replied: “And whenever you con:e under my roof, Madam, I partake your impression!”

On one occasion a rather obtuse lady caused his dinner guests to gasp in astonishment. The Federalists for years had been satirizing Jefferson for leaving Monticello during the Revolution when a British force seized it. Instead of remaining there to be captured, like some foolish Don Quixote, he had taken refuge on Carter’s Mountain. The name of this place had somehow been connected in the woman’s mind with that of the President. Wishing to make conversation, she asked him if he did not live near Carter’s Mountain.

“Very close,” he said, “it is the adjoining mountain to Monticello.”

“I suppose it is a very convenient pleasant place?” persisted the lady, not noticing her husband’s frowning red face or the efforts of the other guests to conceal their amusement.

“Why, yes,” answered Mr. Jefferson, smiling. “I certainly found it so in wartime.”

At his small dinner parties for gentlemen only, Jefferson’s humor sometimes took a broader turn. Like his friend Madison or any other eighteenth-century gentleman he could appreciate a story reminiscent of “Tom Jones” or “Tristram Shandy.”

Present at one of these dinners were Latrobe and three other gentlemen, “all men of science.” The conversation, in deference to Latrobe, was turned to architecture. Then Jefferson skillfully led the talk to the experiments being made on the nature of light; to his friend, Dr. Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen; European emigration to America; the culture of the vine and American wines; and then to a favorite topic, the domestic manners of the Parisians.

“By this time the President became very entertaining,” wrote Latrobe to his wife, and he told one of his amusing Franklin anecdotes. At a party given by Dr. Franklin in Paris a certain “Mrs. M.” was making herself ridiculous by correcting the Doctor’s wretched French, when her own was not much better. At that point the Doctor’s grandson, Temple Franklin, entered the room, said Mr. Jefferson, “and, in one of his freaks of assurance, kissed the lady who stood nearest the door, and then went round the room saluting each of them, and last of all he kissed Mrs. Jay. Mrs. Jay, not used to such gallantry, blushed so deeply that Dr. Franklin, observing it, asked why she blushed. Mrs. M. immediately answered, “Parcequ’il a lui baise le derriere–instead of la derniere.”

The President can “both hear and relate humorous stories as well as any man of social feelings,” remarked Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, a gay and sociable New York congressman, editor of the Medical Repository, and an eminent scientist whose universal knowledge had prompted Mr. Jefferson to nickname him “the Congressional Dictionary.” It is doubtful whether Dr. Mitchill fully appreciated his stories at the expense of medical men, even though they were told in a characteristic tone of playful raillery. One of these was directed at a mutual friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, for all his many virtues, had unfortunately popularized the practice of blood-letting. Once on a journey Jefferson had stopped at a tavern where the landlady had just returned from the funeral of a promising young man. The good woman wept and lamented his loss at great length, then, finally wiping her eyes, she said: “At least we have the consolation that the doctors did everything possible for him—he was bled six and twenty times.”

For Federalist congressmen no less than Republican the President’s House was an oasis of good food, good wines, and good humor. In the crude and sprawling city of Washington they were confined to stuffy boarding houses, “like bears, brutalized and stupefied . . . from hearing nothing but politics from morning to night.” Men who lived on “hog, homminy, and hoe-cake” did not complain with sour old Patrick Henry that “Tom Jefferson has abjured his native vittles.” A French dinner at Mr. Jefferson’s, prepared by the incomparable Julien, was well worth the hazard of being overturned or mired on Pennsylvania Avenue, “when one can neither go backwards or forwards, and either loses one’s shoes or one’s patience.”

The Reverend Manasseh Cutler, although displeased at not being called upon to say a blessing, was fascinated by “His Democratic Majesty” and his many foreign “jim-cracks”—a strange soup called bouilli, ice cream enclosed in warm pastry, and “a pie called macaroni, which appears to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions.” Senator Plumer of New Hampshire noted eight different kinds of wine, including a superb Tokay costing a guinea a bottle! Their host, as usual, was “very social and communicative.” Plumer wondered whether Mr. Jefferson was really in earnest when, noting that many New Englanders thought horse-racing was immoral, he made an elaborate defense of the sport: horse-racing improved the breed, and the attendant betting was less injurious to the Southern people than the heavy gambling at cards and dice in Calvinistic Boston.

“But Mr. Jefferson tells large stories,” remarked John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, a man so sober and precise that the President could never resist the impulse to startle him. Surely the President was mistaken when he said that once in Paris the thermometer stood, not for a single day but for six weeks, at twenty degrees below zero; or that when he went to Paris he left in Virginia some ripe pears, sewed up in tow bags, and upon his return almost six years later found them perfectly preserved—self-candied! “You never can be an hour in this man’s company without something of the marvellous, like these stories.”


During Mr. Jefferson’s eight years in the Federal City the people of Washington and Georgetown developed a warm affection for him as a neighbor and a friend. They appreciated his interest in every civic enterprise and his generous contributions—whether toward a market-house, a circulating library, a new church or academy, or to the poor. His private charities (amounting in one year alone to nearly a thousand dollars) were unpublicized, but Washingtonians knew that every time he returned from Monticello poor peo- | pie once again began their calls upon him, and were never disappointed.

The President was always accessible to every citizen or visitor. When guests dropped in he would come out of his study in his comfortable slippers and everyday dress, quite unlike the black suit he wore on formal occasions. On one day, for example, when he greeted an unexpected guest he was wearing “a blue coat, a thick gray-coloured hairy waistcoat, with a red under-waistcoat lapped over it, green velveteen breeches with pearl buttons, yarn stockings, and slippers down at the heels; his appearance being very much like that of a tall, raw-boned farmer.” That study was his refuge and his joy. There he had his books, his carpenter’s tools, his palette and paints, his drafting board, his scientific instruments, maps, globes, and gardening tools. In the window recesses were stands for his roses and geraniums, among which was suspended the cage of his favorite mocking bird. Often he would open the cage and the bird would fly about, perch on his shoulder and take food from his lips, and sometimes hop upstairs after him to his bedroom. “How he loved this bird! How he loved his flowers! He could not live without something to love,” said a Washington friend, Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith; “and in the absence of his darling grandchildren, his bird and his flowers became the objects of tender care.”

Mrs. Smith, a great friend of the family and beloved by the grandchildren, who were all too seldom at the President’s House, exceedingly admired his flowers, and especially his geraniums. But the mocking bird was as much a favorite with Etienne Lemaire, the President’s steward, as with Mr. Jefferson himself. Whenever the President was at Monticello, Lemaire took affectionate care of it, and he was proud that it could not only imitate all the birds of the woods but could sing popular American, Scottish, and French tunes.

Lemaire was the head of a household establishment of a dozen servants, all of them devoted to the President: Julien and Madame Julien, Joseph Dougherty, the coachman and general handyman, and Mrs. Dougherty, Edward Maher, Maria Murphy, and the others. The feeling that members of the household entertained toward Mr. Jefferson was perhaps best expressed by Isaac A. Coles, his private secretary during the latter years of his presidency: “His conduct is marked by so much delicacy, and his conversation is so frank, so open, so unreserved, that the great Executive Officer is constantly lost in the Man, and I declare to you that some of the most delightful moments of my life have been passed in his company. . . . From the President I receive nothing but kindness, and in truth I love him.”

For eight years the people of Washington had seen Mr.

Jefferson going about the city, mounted on his magnificent horse Wildair—riding on a Sunday to divine services, where he loved to sing old psalm tunes; to Theophilus Holt’s nursery gardens on the Eastern Branch or Mr. Main’s gardens in Georgetown; to the stores on the Avenue and F Street; to the Navy Yard, the Marine Barracks, the Great Falls of the Potomac, or on a botanizing expedition along the banks of Rock Creek. He had never missed a fall meeting of the Washington Jockey Club Races. And he had enjoyed at the little theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue such plays as the comedy, “I’ll Tell You What, or, An Undescribable Something,” the farce, “All the World’s a Stage, or The Spouting Butler,” and the favorite burlesque afterpiece, that “most Tragical, Comical, Operatical Tragedy that ever was Tragedized by any Comical Company of Tragedians, called ‘The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great‘ “—his laughter and his delight smoothing out the lines in his face placed there by his presidental worries and labors.

When the time came for him to leave the President’s House, there were addresses from all over the nation expressing gratitude for his forty years of services to his country and to mankind. The people of the Federal City made farewell calls upon him, and in their public addresses, their “peppercorns of esteem,” struck a personal note. The citizens of Georgetown praised the domestic and social virtues of a neighbor whom posterity would honor “among the immortal benefactors of man.” The Tammany Society of Washington, in their parting address to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the “Grand Sachem” of the seventeen American tribes, expressed the “spontaneous effusions” of men who had each passing day for eight years examined and approved his conduct. “The world knows you as a philosopher and a philanthropist,” declared the citizens of Washington; “the American people know you as a patriot and statesman;—we know you, in addition to all this, as a man. And . . . there is not one among us whose predominant feeling at this moment is not that of affection.” In his felicitous manner Mr. Jefferson bade farewell to his fellow citizens, and prepared to retire to his family, his farms, and those tranquil pursuits of science which had ever been his supreme delight. Characteristic, and most felicitous, was the parting blessing he sent to Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith, just before he rode back to Monticello:

“Th: Jefferson presents his respectful salutations to Mrs. Smith, and sends her the Geranium she expressed a willingness to receive. It is in very bad condition, having been neglected latterly, as not intended to be removed. He cannot give it his parting blessing more effectually than by consigning it to the nourishing hand of Mrs. Smith. If plants have sensibility, as the analogy of their organization with ours seems to indicate, it cannot but be proudly sensible of her fostering attentions. Of his regrets at parting with the society of Washington, a very sensible portion attaches to Mrs. Smith, whose friendship he has particularly valued. Her promise to visit Monticello is some consolation; and he can assure her she will be received with open arms and hearts by the whole family. He prays her to accept the homage of his affectionate attachment and respect.”


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