The other [party] consists of the ill-tempered & rude men in society who have taken up a passion for politics. From both of these classes of disputants, my dear Jefferson, keep aloof, as you would from the infected subjects of yellow fever or pestilence. Consider yourself, when with them, as among the patients of Bedlam needing medical more than moral counsel. . . . Get by them therefore as you would by an angry bull: it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal. You will be more exposed than others to have these animals shaking their horns at you, because of the relation in which you stand with me.” – Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, November 24, 1808
Speaking at Springfield, Illinois, a day or two ago, President Barack Obama reminded his audience that vicious partisanship is not unique to our own time. He noted some of the terrible things said of Abraham Lincoln in his lifetime, and Andrew Jackson, but he reserved his longest citation for Thomas Jefferson.
In the ugly election of 1800, a Federalist newspaper warned that if the Jacobin fanatic Jefferson were elected, the American people could expect that “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood and the nation black with crimes.”
Actually, Jefferson turned out to be a mild-mannered President. The worst that he did, from the Federalists’ point of view, was turn out of office a few score of diehard Federalists who refused to make peace with his administration. And he convinced a friendly Congress to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801 (thus reducing the number of judgeships), and to impeach two Federalist jurists (John Pickering of New Hampshire and US Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase).
Jefferson’s enemies were sure he would bring about a Reign of Terror in the United States–or at least they pretended to. They called him an atheist (which he was not), a Jacobin (untrue), an enemy to Christianity (not really true, but there is a small grain of distorted truth in the charge), a despoiler of widows’ estates (absurd), and the father of a slave’s children (hem!).
The same anti-Jeffersonian newspaper asked, “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, female chastity violated, children writhing on a pike?”
Jefferson refused to respond to any of this nonsense. He regarded his religious views as strictly private, and no business of the American people; and he felt that if he responded to one attack it would be like Hercules fighting Hydra–cut off one head and two more spring up as if by magic.
In the end, Jefferson won the election (in a narrow, contested election). He presided over eight years of peace and prosperity, reduced the national debt, doubled the size of the American republic for three cents per acre, sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the shores of the Pacific, fought an undeclared naval and marine war against the Islamic pirates of north Africa, and reduced the size of the national government.
No children writhing on the pike!!!
I do believe many well-meaning Americans feared that Jefferson was too radical to be trusted as the leader of the United States. Many well-meaning Americans worried that a Deist (semi-atheist) President would erode the social fabric of the nation. Some were sorry to see a slaveholder whose election was made possible by the Three Fifths Clause preside over a nation dedicated to liberty.
Jefferson surprised many and “disappointed” his hotheaded critics by presiding over the country with modesty and mostly-mild policies. He served exquisite foods and wines at the White House.
And he gave as good as he took. He encouraged the disreputable pamphleteer James Callender to write nasty things about John Adams.
So much for civility.
President Obama spoke of these things with a sense of bemusement that must be an example of what Jefferson called “artificial good humor.”
To read the whole of Jefferson’s superb letter about political disputation, click here.
»Jefferson’s Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism by Susan Dunn.
»America Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800 by Bernard Weisberger.
»A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson.