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Thomas Jefferson’s Weird Fear of George Washington

In the latest issue of American Historical Autographs, my old friend Joe Rubinfine, dean of America’s autograph dealers, is selling an 1825 letter from Thomas Jefferson that is one of the most revealing documents our third president ever wrote. The letter was to Richard Rush, a talented diplomat who had just returned from eight years as Minister to Great Britain to become Secretary of the Treasury in President John Quincy Adams’s cabinet.

Jefferson congratulated Rush on his safe return to his own country. Then came a commentary on the nation’s politics. “You left us in a state of political division and in the same state you find us…. The essence of these differences is whether to strengthen the Executive or the popular branch of our government…. The friends of a strong Executive have hitherto looked, for effecting it, to a prolongation of the term of office by making it for life or hereditary. This is now seen to be desperate until a previous measure be effected, that is, until the federal jurisdiction be made paramount in all things and all the powers of government be brought to a single center. From this it will be easier to slide into longer terms of office….”

Written in the last full year of Jefferson’s life, the letter reveals that he was still hard at work dismissing the political achievement of George Washington, the man who played a crucial role in creating the office of president, and demonstrated in decision after decision what he and the writers of the Constitution intended the president to be – the leader of the federal government.

When Jefferson first read the Constitution, he was still America’s ambassador to France. He had not participated in the creation of the national charter or the year-long struggle to ratify it. He told John Adams, who was ambassador to Great Britain at the time, that there were things in the document that “stagger all my dispositions to subscribe” to it. He was particularly unhappy with the presidency. He told Adams it “seems a bad edition of a Polish king.” A Polish king was elected by the people but served for life.

Jefferson said he still preferred “the good old venerable fabrick” (sic) of the Articles of Confederation, the primitive constitution that Congress had created during the War for Independence. He had expected the Constitutional Convention to add only three or four “enlargements” to this charter. Washington had gone to the convention only after he had convinced James Madison that the Articles were worthless. Their president was so powerless, he did not even have the authority to answer a letter. He had to give it to a committee who would decide on a reply.

After eight years of dealing with Congress’s vagaries and indecision, Washington insisted that only a president with powers coequal to Congress could provide the leadership to govern the 13 contentious states. He believed this so emphatically, at one point during the convention he recommended that Congress should not have the power to override a president’s veto. Madison, knowing that the convention would never agree to this much presidential power, persuaded him to accept a congressional right to override by a two thirds vote.

From the start, Washington’s convictions, rooted in harsh experience, had put him on a collision course with Jefferson. Understanding why Jefferson disagreed with him is more difficult. Was it an ideological clash? As befits the author of the Declaration of Independence, Liberty was Jefferson’s god. He did notable things in its name, barring slavery from the Northwest Territory, and writing the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom. But he soon showed ideological symptoms. He called the French Revolution his “polar star” and dismissed any and all attempts to portray its degeneration into mindless violence as British propaganda.

There is another possibility lurking at a deeper level in Jefferson’s psyche: envy of George Washington. In the first president’s presidential papers are three anonymous letters, warning Washington that Jefferson was his secret enemy and was ready to go to extreme lengths to succeed him as president. The fact that Washington left these missives in his papers, rather than discarding them, suggests he wanted others to read them.

While he was secretary of state (1790-93) Jefferson did everything in his power to block or mock Washington’s presidential decisions and policies. Jefferson hired writer Philip Freneau as a translator for the State Department and helped him launch a newspaper that relentlessly attacked Washington’s administration. As part of this assault, Jefferson persuaded James Madison, previously a Washington ally, to write 18 negative articles under pseudonyms. Jefferson and his followers found particular fault with the idea that there were implied powers in the Constitution that enabled the federal government to launch the Bank of the United States (BUS) and other corporate entities to repay America’s Revolutionary War debt and make the nation a commercial power.

Jefferson portrayed these ideas as part a plot by “Anglomen” and “Monocrats” to create an American king. People who bought stock in the BUS were characterized as dabblers in “federal filth.” At another point, he said Virginians who did business with the BUS should be executed for treason to their native state. This violent partisanship was light years beyond the bemused tone that Jefferson struck in his letter to Rush.

Jefferson could afford to discuss the dispute between “executive” and “popular” power so serenely because by 1825 he seemed to have won the argument. The Federalist Party that backed Washington and a strong executive had vanished from the national scene. Jefferson’s Republicans reigned more or less supreme. His favorite phrase for describing his administration – “The Revolution of 1800” – seemed beyond challenge or reproach.

During his two terms as chief executive, Jefferson assiduously worked to diminish the powers of the great office Washington had created. Jefferson abandoned President Washington’s tradition of addressing Congress once a year to report on the federal government’s accomplishments and problems. Instead, Jefferson’s annual message was read by a clerk, a diminution that prevailed for the next 100 years. He banned presidential proclamations and formal receptions as “monarchical.” He greeted visitors to his residence in old and often soiled clothes and at state dinners decreed that everyone would be seated “pell mell” with no consideration for prominence. Most important, President Jefferson presided at private dinners during which he persuaded legislative leaders to join him in creating the illusion that Congress was running the country. Today we would call it “leading from behind” – the opposite of what Washington thought a president should do.

Coupled with these policies was a studied dismissal of Washington’s political achievements as president. Instead, he was described as “our first and greatest revolutionary character, whose preeminent revolutionary services … entitled him to the first place in his country’s love.” There is not a hint in those words of the decisive president who smashed the secessionists of the Whiskey Rebellion, deflated the so-called Democratic Societies and their adoration of France, and persuaded Americans to accept the less than perfect John Jay commercial treaty with England as a price worth paying for peace – all feats that Thomas Jefferson had dismissed with sneers and loathing.

By 1813, Jefferson had begun to revise the history of Washington’s administration. “General Washington did not harbor one Principle of Federalism,” he insisted. Note the use of “General” rather than “President.” Chief Justice John Marshall published a biography of Washington in which he made it very clear that Washington abhorred Jefferson’s Republicans for their mindless worship of France, their readiness to ignore the Constitution and discuss – even plan – to fracture the Union. Jefferson dismissed the book as a tissue of lies put together for “electioneering purposes.” In his heart, Jefferson maintained, Washington was a small “r” republican, which meant he never agreed with the monarchists and Anglomen who peopled the Federalist Party.

Standing the truth on its head this way, Jefferson succeeded in making the Federalists guilty of twisting Washington’s reputation into a parody of the real president. Jefferson claimed they had “gone some distance toward sinking his character by hanging theirs on it and by representing as the enemy of republicans him, who of all men, is best entitled to the appellation of the father of the republic which they were endeavoring to subvert. “ There was, Jefferson admitted, opposition to the course of Washington’s administration but that was simply an effort to “preserve Congress pure and independent of the executive and not permit the Constitution to be warped in practice into all the principles and pollutions of their favorite English model.” The Republicans, devoted to the present Constitution “had never threatened the national charter, as Chief Justice Marshall claimed. They merely resisted “Anglomany and Monarchy.”

As Jefferson entered the third year of his presidency, the Revolution of 1800 must have seemed like a failed joke. He had sent most of the tiny U.S. Navy to fight an unnecessary and seemingly endless war against Moslem pirates in the Mediterranean. Even more dubious was his decision to permit Napoleon Bonaparte to insert a 20,000-man army into St. Domingue (now Haiti) to regain control of that valuable sugar colony. Washington would never have let the French dictator get within easy striking distance of the United States.

More than justifying such distrust of the latest ruler of Jefferson’s “polar star” was Bonaparte’s secret acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Spain and his plan to erect a “wall of brass” along the Mississippi to reduce the United States to the status of a French satellite.

At home the pell mell dinners had made the British ambassador an enemy, ruining special envoy James Monroe’s attempt to negotiate a new commercial treaty with Britain. Meanwhile Jefferson writhed under virtually eyewitness newspaper accounts that he was having sexual relations with his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings, and had previously attempted to seduce the wife of a close friend. His attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase failed, aborting the next step in his plan to make the popular branch (aka Congress) supreme. During the Chase trial, his backers in Congress had confidently predicted that they would soon have a law that enabled Congress to replace any justice on the court by a majority vote.

These miasmas vanished almost magically in 1803 when yellow fever destroyed the French army in Haiti and Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States to prevent the British from seizing it. Jefferson had to use the presidency’s implied powers to legalize this astounding acquisition but his exultant followers were unbothered. They cheered him for doubling the size of the country without “an effusion of blood” – a putdown of George Washington, who had effused quite a lot of blood to make the original half of the nation independent.

In his 1804 run for reelection, Jefferson carried all but two states. Henceforth a majority of America’s voters – and not a few historians – believed in The Revolution of 1800. By the 1870s, one of these scholarly worshippers was writing: “If Jefferson is wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.”

Almost totally forgotten was Washington’s refutation of the Polish King canard by refusing a third term and writing The Farewell Address, in which he urged rotation in office. By 1825, no president would have dared to show the slightest inclination to violate this principle. But Jefferson continued waving his red flag of imaginary dangers, as if the threat of hereditary power was still looming on the national horizon. As for the menace of federal “consolidation” of all power, this was an ancient scare word, first bellowed by Patrick Henry when he opposed the Constitution in 1788. By 1825, it was virtually forgotten.

On the contrary, the 1825 trend was toward dissolution of the Union, thanks in part to Jefferson’s endorsement of the idea during the agitation over the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. He called it “cission.” In 1833, seven years after Jefferson died, John C. Calhoun and his followers were recommending the idea for South Carolina and citing Jefferson as their authority. President Andrew Jackson invoked the implied powers of the presidency by threatening to lead an army of 90,000 men to Charleston if they tried it. The secessionists evaporated as totally as Washington’s whiskey rebels. But they vowed to try again, when they had a president who was closer to the Jeffersonian model. They found him in 1860, in the person of waffling James Buchanan. But their dreams of independent glory were quashed by another Washingtonian president.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln invoked enough implied powers to create a presidential dictatorship in perpetuity if he or anyone else desired it. He suspended habeas corpus, arrested the entire-secession minded Maryland legislature, suppressed hostile newspapers and issued the Emancipation Proclamation plus scores of executive orders without consulting Congress. But he also made it clear that he intended to abandon these implied powers once the Union was restored.

When an assassin cut Lincoln down, the restive Congress launched a Jeffersonian Revolution of 1865. Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, sounded the battle cry: “Though the President is commander in chief, Congress is his commander and God willing he will obey.” Forty years of weak presidents and an often domineering Congress followed this disposal of the Washington-Jackson-Lincoln presidency.

In the midst of this constitutional darkness, a college professor named Woodrow Wilson wrote a book, Congressional Government, that put Jefferson’s politics on the way to history’s dumpster. Wilson put his astute finger on the fundamental flaw of letting the “popular branch” run the country. “Nobody stands sponsor for the policy of government,” Wilson wrote. “A dozen men originate it, a dozen compromises twist and alter it, a dozen officers whose names are scarcely known outside Washington put it into execution.”

Wilson decided the only answer to this plague was a strong presidency. “The president is at liberty, both in law and in conscience, to be as big a man as he can.” He might have realistically added: “As big as George Washington.” But he too had lost touch with the reality of Washington’s presidency. When Wilson became the chief executive, however, one of his first innovations was a return to Washington’s custom of reporting to Congress in person each year.

Twelve years later Wilson was succeeded by one of the strongest presidents in our history, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He tamed Congress with no less than 641 vetoes – more than all his predecessors combined. He was succeeded by Harry S Truman, who was fond of saying that the American presidency was the greatest office ever designed by the mind of man.

Three cheers for Joe Rubinfine for reminding us of Thomas Jefferson’s fantasy politics in words too unmistakable to deny or avoid. If you can spare $60,000, you can obtain the original copy of his letter and contemplate at leisure the strange way this enormously gifted but deeply ideological man divided – and to some extent still divides – the United States of America.