I believe I mentioned previously that with these essays I try not to judge the people I'm studying, or hold the version of them whose words I'm reading accountable for the deeds of their later self. I believed I also violated this principle on a previous occasion when Jefferson was my subject, so I do hope you’ll forgive me if I do it again here. In my defence, it’s rather hard to resist when Jefferson is the one under the microscope. Few public figures in American history have managed to say one thing and do another with such charisma and panache. And Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address is positively riddled with examples of high-minded sentiments that were later disregarded, twisted or glossed-over during the man’s two terms as president. That being said, I want to make it clear (or perhaps I just desperately want you to believe me) that I don’t engage in this exercise because I think Jefferson was a hypocrite, or because I disagree with him on a philosophical or political level. Really, I just want whoever deigns to read the words I write to come away with a more nuanced understanding of the American Founding Fathers and the age that they lived in than media and popular culture might otherwise impart. Jefferson was not the demi-god or saint that he is so often made out to be. He was, at bottom, an American politician; fiercely intelligent, extraordinarily eloquent, yes, but also as flawed, petty, and short-sighted as any of us in our less noble moments. Hopefully the words that follow will help nurture an understanding of the man that goes beyond the myth-making and tries to take in all there is to see.
To begin, I’d like to look at how Jefferson’s evolving relationship with political power changed the way he thought about authority, its proper exercise and its limits. It will be remembered (hopefully) that in 1798, while serving as the Vice-President of the United States, Jefferson was also one of the leading lights of the opposition Republicans. While occupying these two seemingly contradictory stations he wrote a series of complaints or resolutions that where intended to outline his and his followers’ objections to the recently-implemented Alien & Sedition Acts. While these resolutions, subsequently adopted by the legislature of Kentucky, relied on a host of legal and moral principles in order to make their case, the central, repeated point that Jefferson seemed eager to get across was that, “whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.” This seemed to imply that under the government organized by the United States Constitution the rule of law was not absolute, but rather was contingent on an objective evaluation of the law’s conformity with said Constitution. Judging from the tone he employed Jefferson seemed keen to spur his countrymen to resist any such unauthoritative acts, and argued that persistence by the general government in enforcing said acts would drive the states into active resistance, or as he put it, “revolution and blood.” While in the same resolutions he also called for the issue at hand to be taken up by the federal Congress at the earliest possible opportunity, calls for an orthodox legal remedy seemed significantly outnumbered by tacit or explicit endorsements of radical resistance.
I reiterate all of this because, by 1801 and his first inauguration Jefferson seemed to have modified his approach somewhat to the relationship between law, government, and the people. Having just passed through a period of political tension which saw mass protests and calls for armed resistance, the newly-declared president seemed eager for his fellow citizens to settle themselves and embrace the favourable outcome. The contest for chief executive, “being now decided by the voice of the nation,” he wrote in the second paragraph of his First Inaugural, “all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.” Evidently, the will of the people as expressed during a presidential election possessed greater legitimacy than the will of the people as expressed through their representative in Congress. After all, the Alien & Sedition Acts had been drafted and approved by a Federalist majority in Congress. Granted said laws were almost certainly unconstitutional and surely would have been ruled as such had the procedure then been in place to appeal them to the Supreme Court, but then I don’t think that’s really what Jefferson was saying. In fact, it’s rather difficult to determine exactly what he was trying to say in 1801.
Whereas in 1798 he seemed quite clearly to endorse resistance to laws that are seen to violate the Constitution, in his First Inaugural he appeared far more equivocal. For instance, further on in the second paragraph Jefferson qualified his call for compliance with the law by stating that, “though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possesses their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” In itself, this is hardly a strange or objectionable statement; a president who claims to call himself a “republican” speaks of the limits of majority rule and cautions against the abuse of minority rights. However, in the fourth paragraph of his First Inaugural Jefferson claimed as one of the essential principles of his government, “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which there is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism.” Specifically, it’s the use of the word “absolute” that strikes me as particularly troubling. In one paragraph Jefferson is quick to caution against blind obedience to the law of the majority and attempts to remind his fellow citizens of their moral obligation to the rights of the minority; two paragraphs later he seems to imply that total obedience to the rule of law is an essential commandment of the republican faith, and that resistance against it would only lead to tyranny and bloodshed. This would seem to be an intractable inconsistency, though Jefferson probably didn't see it as such. Likely as not he wished to make it clear to his long-time supporters and allies that though he had not completely abandoned his principles, now that he was president his government was to be respected and its laws obeyed in spite of what he might have said or wrote in the past. Certainly he was trying to have his cake and eat it too, but this is far from the most egregious contradiction that Jefferson’s First Inaugural has to offer.
The tone that seems to dominate the Sage of Monticello’s first public address as president might easily be described as magnanimous. The country having recently passed through a period of intense partisan conflict, followed by a highly controversial presidential election, Jefferson’s chief desire appeared to be a speedy reconciliation. To that end he famously stated in the second paragraph of his First Inaugural, “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” His faction having just trounced the Federalists in the elections of 1800, Jefferson doubtless felt comfortable offering this rhetorical olive branch on behalf of his fellow Republicans to their political rivals. Similarly, though in a more abstract form, he called for a general spirit of understanding and acceptance in American political life. “Having banished from our land,” he also wrote in the second paragraph, “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.” It’s possible that Jefferson was reflecting on his own attempt to institute religious freedom in Virginia when he wrote this, about which he remained justly proud for the rest of his life. That he seemed to believe it possible to bring about a similar environment of political toleration in America is perhaps a testament to his idealism and ambition, particularly as it came from one of the leaders of the previous decade’s feuding factions. In the fourth paragraph of his First Inaugural Jefferson seemed to be trying to bring these sentiments home to his audience when he plainly stated that, “Equal justice to all men, of whatever persuasion, religious or political,” was one of the fundamental principles of American republicanism. Again, I don’t believe that anyone would have disagreed with him in 1801. As it turned out, they didn't have to.