How Should We Think About the Election of 1800?
Thomas Jefferson, Elections, Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Slavery, Westward expansion, Native Americans
On March 15, 1801, eleven days after delivering his inaugural address, President Jefferson received a letter from a group of Irish immigrants, “The Aliens of Beaver County Pennsylvania.” It contains choice language, yet of a sort that cautions today’s discerning reader about any tendency to take at face value all the celebratory outpourings that followed Jefferson’s election and the triumph of the Democratic-Republican Party. The Aliens exulted over Jefferson’s victory, confident that all who cherished liberty shared their “sincere joy and real pleasure.” With his assumption of office, they trusted that the odious Alien Act would be repealed. The Irish-born deeply regretted their disenfranchisement, noting that “our inslavers prevented us by their alien Bills from being instrumental to your advancement.” The Alien and Sedition Acts had sought to silence their voices, and any movement away from liberty was movement toward slavery. If the Federalists had acted to enslave, Jefferson [End Page 753] would soon become the great emancipator. The letter did not stop there. The Aliens were amazed that former Revolutionary republicans could conduct themselves as the Federalists had. “Strange,” they wrote, “that the Boaster of liberty thus wishes to inslave others.”
Thomas Jefferson was a complex person, and of course two centuries’ worth of historical process intrude between our reading of that line and his. But did that line give him at least a moment’s pause? Not likely. We can presume that the Aliens were not seeking to provide a subtext. The boasters and enslavers were Federalists, for they alone had passed “these laws viz, the Alien and Sedition Bills, Laws never sanctioned by the people at large.” And though the despised laws were primarily aimed at people like themselves, “all the union severely feels the weight of them.” Of course, they acknowledged, Jefferson was the last person who had to be told about the terrible danger and harm. “We almost deem it needless to insinuate to your Excellency,” the Aliens assured the president, “how slavery breaks the spirit of patriotism.”
The Aliens had sailed from their “native lands and Braved the boisterous ocean. . . . We sought an Assylum on these happy shores from tyranny and oppression.” Their hopes could only be realized once they had been delivered from “our modern American Federal Despots.” The source of that deliverance was obvious to them: “We all look to thee not only as a citizen of the Patriotic state of Virginia, but as a citizen of the World, whose philanthropic Bosom generously Glows with the ardent desire to promote the happiness of all Men.” How far did that philanthropic impulse carry? The writers of the letter “hope[d] to see the fulfillment of our reasonable wishes in the enjoyment of freedom and abolition of slavery, the Recovery of patriotism, and liberty: the downfall of delusion, fanatickism, Ambition, and falsehood; engines too long, too powerfully, And too successfully employed, in the subjugation of Man.” The letter ended with ecstatic optimism that could only have grown out of former desperation. Those who had sought to enslave were defeated, their “purposes” having proved “abortive”; “Truth and reason now assume their Place. . . . Liberty and true Republickanism universally triumphs.” The future the Aliens beheld was one “when peace and liberty shall universally prevail from East to West, from Pole to Pole . . . and an end put to arbitrary despotism and slavery forever.”1 [End Page 754]
Jefferson answered this letter some weeks later, having returned to Monticello in the interim. He wrote reassuringly about the “liberal conduct heretofore observed towards strangers settling among us,” which he hoped would persist.2 His response was of a piece with numerous other examples of his answering letters from similarly obscure civic groups and committees in the twenty-one months after his inauguration, the period encompassed by the six recent volumes of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson covered in this review. Yet it is hard to find another letter to the new chief executive as rich and problematic as the Aliens’ letter.
I would not claim with confidence that the Aliens were challenging chattel slavery. The clearest textual evidence points to their making the classically inspired association of experiencing enslavement by being cut off from conditions, once enjoyed, that allowed those within a civil society to speak openly and freely. Since the Aliens identified the Alien and Sedition Acts as the sources of slavery, the most careful reading of their meaning is to identify the slavery they denounced with the dangers posed to those who would not have been in danger but for the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Yet these volumes show just how difficult it was becoming to maintain the distinction between “slaveries.” Certainly the revolution in Saint Domingue and the revolt of Gabriel blurred (even obliterated) the line between the classically inspired fear of slavery associated with loss of status and rights of citizenship and New World chattel slavery. In many ways, the mere fact of the Aliens’ letter helped to blur the line. Jefferson seems always to exist at the heart of this matter, deeply involved and deeply implicated. For no matter how critical about him we decide to be, it is impossible for me to imagine any other gentleman of the post-Revolutionary period receiving such a letter. Madison did not inspire such universal language of transformative possibility. Adams and Hamilton certainly did not. Washington, at least prior to the mid-1790s, encouraged paeans of a different sort, but people poured their dreams into Jefferson.
That is one reason why we should not answer too quickly the question at the head of this essay. For the Aliens of Beaver County saw their prospects improve dramatically because of the Democratic-Republicans’ [End Page 755] triumph. As they benefitted, so too did the ordinary white male citizen heads of household whose ranks, under Jefferson, the Aliens would soon join. The Democratic-Republicans embraced the Aliens of Beaver County and, to use their words, freed them from bondage. For “what are all the whites of this continent but the aliens of yesterday,” wrote one correspondent of Jefferson’s.3
The Beaver County Aliens could not have asked for much more than they received from Jefferson’s party. “My general opinion,” Jefferson explained, “is that, man, having a right to live somewhere on the earth, no nation has a better right to exclude him from their portion of the earth than every other has; and consequently has no such right at all.” Jefferson translated that profound principle into policy, and then devoted his administration to gaining control over the polity so that he could extend his ideal across an extensive continent.4
The Democratic-Republicans’ confidence that they would quickly control the polity is demonstrable in these volumes, as is their intention to build a republic safe for the Aliens of Beaver County. Upon taking power, the Democratic-Republicans exhibited the mindset that Jefferson would later reveal in his famous 1819 letter to Spencer Roane, in which he dubbed his victory “the revolution of 1800.” In 1801–1802, Jefferson and his advisers frequently referred to the “Royalist” or “Monarchical” party they had defeated.5 Numerous letters conveyed their profound sense that a revolution would soon take place wherein public debt and a European style state would disappear, along with all internal taxes—and where Hamilton’s 50,000-man army would never be heard from again, supplanted by the republican instrument of embargo, to peacefully coerce nations into a just free trade where commercial intercourse replaced the violence of war.6 [End Page 756]
The Democratic-Republicans were convinced that the Federalist Party had no future in the republic. Indeed, Jefferson and his supporters were far more concerned about internal divisions than Federalist resurgence. The way to prevent divisions was to deliver the splendid new era promised to white men like the Aliens of Beaver County. Delivering it required providing citizens, expectant citizens, and their descendants the resources that would ensure their material independence, which would forever confound future efforts to “enslave” them. These volumes show how much the Democratic-Republicans planned to do for such men, and they also make it clear that Jefferson and his supporters pursued their revolution at the expense of virtually everybody else living in North America.
In the twenty months after his election, Jefferson and his correspondents were intensely preoccupied with gaining dominion over the west and the dangers posed by France regaining Louisiana. They understood that hegemony in the west required not solely dispossessing Indians, but also spreading cotton culture and slavery. In moments of rare candor, they raised these issues.
Jefferson and his supporters were confident that East and West Florida could grow “everything that Jamaica produces.”7 In addition to sugar, they also knew that cotton would be all-important and that slavery would be essential in the west. While extolling the future of cotton, the Pennsylvania Federalist-turned-Jeffersonian Tench Coxe explained that only a labor shortage could prevent the republic from dominating world production. “Were the slave trade right, safe, and constitutional, a single year would give us the cotton business,” Coxe maintained.8
Jefferson did not have to be told about the potential of the southwestern territory and of the land still held precariously by Spain. During his first months in office he met Eli Whitney, whose letter of introduction described him as “the inventor . . . of the machine for cleaning cotton, so much used in the southern states.” The very next day, Jefferson received an instructive letter from Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins, which was meant to be conveyed to the son of a Jefferson family friend [End Page 757] who was repairing to Mississippi. Cotton cultivation was reaping staggering profits. “One disagreeable circumstance,” however, was “the keen desire generated by such great profit to accumulate slaves by any and every means.”9 Western settlement required labor; and western hegemony, profitability, and the expansion of slavery were obviously connected, facts that Jefferson and his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph made explicit in their detailed exchange regarding Randolph’s prospects of moving to Mississippi or Georgia.10
Jefferson and his supporters understood that westward expansion was vital for reasons of political economy and national security. The Democratic-Republicans were deeply concerned over the likelihood that a powerful France would soon take Louisiana from Spain. Letters to and from Jefferson explained with impressive clarity that France planned to reacquire Louisiana to supply its West Indian islands, which it expected to reconquer. France in the west, “peopled with troops black as well as white,” would mean that the two most powerful European nations, both in a strong position to align with Indians, could prevent the republic’s westward expansion.11
Such concerns reinforced connections between the future of slavery, the treatment of Indians, and the centrality of race in the Jeffersonian era. Negotiating with Indians was joined to Democratic-Republicans’ anxiety for the future of republican institutions and their fear about the viability of slavery, rendered acute by Gabriel’s rebellion. They understood, in turn, that these negotiations were closely connected to, and as significant as, the republic’s dealings with France, Spain, and Britain.
While Jefferson promised the Indians “every act of friendship and liberality,” these volumes also introduce the perspective of those looking east.12 The Cherokee delegation of 1801 believed that new treaties were efforts “to deprive us of more land,” and demanded to know whether the government would control new cessions or whether, as they feared, [End Page 758] “the frontier people” would. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn’s response could not have inspired any confidence among Indians: “you must be sensible that the white people are very numerous.”13
Ample evidence shows Indians acting sensibly. “Banditti composed of outcasts from all the tribes” formed in order to prevent white expansion in the Old Northwest and along the Mississippi River. In the winter of 1801–1802, the Miami leader Little Turtle traveled to Washington from his home on the Wabash River, in order to meet with President Jefferson. The respected warrior made clear what Indians’ gravest concern was: “white people are settling over the line.” Jefferson understood that the Indians were “very jealous on the subject of their lands.” But obtaining those lands was essential for the citizens of his republic, for securing a viable slavery and preventing the future suggested by Gabriel, and for keeping dangerous European nations at bay. The president responded to Little Turtle that “we shall endeavor in all meetings to be just and generous towards you, and to aid you in meeting those difficulties which a change of circumstances is bringing on.” Small wonder that at a subsequent conference, the Shawnee Chief Black Hoof felt compelled to “mention once more what bad People you have under you.”14
William C. C. Claiborne, Governor of the Mississippi Territory, explained to the president that he would “find the southern Indians very unaccommodating; the Cherokees have been taught to view the New President as their Enemy, and to expect the worse from his administration.” Indians did not need access to Jefferson’s private intentions to mistrust his promise of friendship: “there is perhaps no method more irresistible of obtaining lands from them than by letting them get into debt, which when too heavy to be paid they are always willing to lop off by a cession of lands,” wrote Jefferson to his secretary of war.15
Race, slavery, the republic, and the West were incapable of being disentangled. Telling evidence comes from a letter Jefferson wrote to [End Page 759] James Monroe. Both Virginians worried in the aftermath of Gabriel’s revolt about those slaves who proved truly uncontrollable. Jefferson felt he had to explain why Monroe’s plan to settle them in the West was insupportable. “It is impossible,” Jefferson wrote, “not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expend itself . . . and cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent.” At that point, “should we be willing to have such a colony in contact with us?” He regarded it as short-sighted to move slaves who were too dangerous for Virginia onto lands occupied by Indians that the United States would eventually seize. Instead, they should be sent to Saint-Domingue, the best place for such “dangerous characters.” He speculated “that [Saint-Domingue’s] present ruler might be willing . . . to receive even that description which would be exiled for acts deemed criminal by us, but meritorious perhaps by him.” For an instant, Jefferson had virtually erased the distinction between injustice and racial injustice, the distinction on which the entire Democratic-Republican project depended.16 But only for an instant. It is chilling to read letters that move easily from charming discussions of fossils and extinct North American fauna to considerations of the “Aboriginal American,” “a race of savage men,” who over the course of time would deservedly suffer the fate of the mammoth.17
The democracy of the Democratic-Republicans nurtured the limited conception of liberation that we see unambiguously in the Aliens’ letter. Jefferson’s party took good care of those who faced the classically inspired understanding of enslavement as a result of Federalist policies. Taking such good care of these citizens (and those who would now become citizens) provided the justification for maintaining the hierarchies and tyrannies within households shaped by race and gender, and for the domineering aggression towards the nation’s neighbors.
And yet, the care-taking and the dream-pouring required expansive even universal language that was at once urgently moving and also profoundly slippery. “We are in truth,” Jefferson insisted, “the sole trustees for the whole race of man now on the globe.”18 Such language was capable of sliding toward unanticipated persons and places, and of being [End Page 760] expropriated and redeployed in subversive and unexpected ways. The Aliens’ letter is ample illustration of the generation of this expansive language, and I believe that it was a letter that Jefferson alone among the elite gentlemen of the founding era could have inspired. To paraphrase James Oakes, Jefferson and his party again and again inspired ideas and new standards by which they could and should be judged and found wanting.19
What should we think about the Democratic-Republicans’ revolution of 1800? Taking stock of his own era’s democracy, E. M. Forster, who, with his artist’s sensibility, wrestled with the harsh realities of imperialism, racism, class oppression, and the pain of the closeted homosexual, found that he could only offer democracy two cheers.20 Ideally, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson will succeed in helping the culture to be tough-minded about our nation’s early history, which means being especially tough-minded about Thomas Jefferson. But think also of the Aliens of Beaver County, who knew what they were living through, and whose hopes mattered a great deal then, and still resonate today. For Jefferson’s democracy, I think we should offer one cheer. [End Page 761]
Andrew Shankman is associate professor of history at Rutgers University, Camden. He is the author of Crucible of American Democracy: The Struggle to Fuse Egalitarianism and Capitalism in Jeffersonian Pennsylvania (Lawrence, KS, 2004). His book The World of the Revolutionary American Republic will be published by Routledge in 2014.
1. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (hereafter PTJ), 33: 297–99.
2. May 2, 1801, PTJ, 34: 8.
3. From Benjamin Vaughan, May 4, 1801, PTJ, 34: 35. Emphasis original.
4. To Benjamin Vaughan, June 7, 1801, PTJ, 34: 271. See also “Partial Draft: Judiciary, Juries, and Naturalization,” [before Nov. 1801], 35: 620.
5. See esp. from John Beckley, Feb. 27, 1801, PTJ, 33: 84–85; from James Monroe, Mar. 12, 1801, 33: 256–57; from George Logan, May 10, 1801, 34: 77; from William B. Giles, June 1, 1801, 34: 228; and particularly choice invective from James Hopkins, July 16, 1801, 34: 576.
6. See esp. from John Beckley, Feb. 27, 1801, PTJ, 33: 85–86; from Albert Gallatin, Mar. 14, 1801, 33: 275–76; to William Short, Oct. 3, 1801, 35: 380–82; to Amos Marsh, Nov. 20, 1801, 35: 708–709; to Gallatin, Apr. 1, 1802, 37: 157–58; to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Apr. 2, 1802, 37: 167–68; to Volney, Apr. 20, 1802, 37: 295–97; with colorful confirmation from a solicitous young German American, Frederic Herlitz, Sept. 2, 1802, 38: 335.
7. “A Kentucky-Citizen,” [before June 26, 1801], PTJ, 34: 456.
8. “Tench Coxe’s Reflections on Cotton,” Feb. 11, 1802, PTJ, 36: 562.
9. From Pierpont Edwards, Oct. 27, 1801, PTJ, 35: 514; from Benjamin Hawkins, Oct. 28, 1801, 35: 518.
10. From Thomas Mann Randolph, Mar. 6, Mar. 20, Oct. 16 & Oct. 29, 1802, PTJ, 37: 14–16, 97–98, 38: 505, 601; to Randolph, Mar. 12, 1802, 37: 64–67; to Thomas Sumter, Sr., Oct. 22, 1802, 38: 534.
11. From Charles Pinckney, May 24, 1802, PTJ, 37: 497.
12. To James Wilkinson, Benjamin Hawkins, and Andrew Pickens, Sept. 16, 1801, PTJ, 35: 308.
13. “Reply to Cherokee Delegation,” and “Reply to Cherokee Delegation by Henry Dearborn,” July 3, 1801, PTJ, 34: 505, 510.
14. From William Henry Harrison, Dec. 30, 1801, PTJ, 36: 242–43; “Conference with Little Turtle,” 36: 274–90, quotes at 280, 286; “Address of Black Hoof,” Feb. 5, 1802, 36: 517–18; “To the House of Representatives,” Feb. 8, 1802, 36: 543.
15. From William C. C. Claiborne, Oct. 7, 1801, PTJ, 35: 402; to Henry Dearborn, Aug. 13, 1802, 38: 209–10.
16. To James Monroe, Nov. 24, 1801, PTJ, 35: 719–20.
17. From Robert R. Livingston, Mar. 17, 1801, PTJ, 33: 323–27.
18. To Nathaniel Macon, July 17, 1802, PTJ, 38: 89–91.
19. James Oakes, “Whom Have I Oppressed: The Pursuit of Happiness and the Happy Slave,” in The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, ed. James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter Onuf (Charlottesville, VA, 2002), 220–39.
20. E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (New York, 1962).