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  • How Should We Think About the Election of 1800?
  • Andrew Shankman (bio)

Thomas Jefferson, Elections, Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Slavery, Westward expansion, Native Americans

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vols. 33–38. Edited by Barbara B. Oberg, James P. McClure, Elaine Weber Pascu, Martha J. King, Tom Downey, Amy Speckart, Linda Monacao, and John E. Little. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007–2011. Vol. 33/Cloth, 800pp.; Vol. 34/Cloth, 816pp.; Vol. 35/Cloth, 878pp.; Vol. 36/Cloth, 824pp.; Vol. 37/Cloth, 844pp.; Vol. 38/Cloth, 826pp.)

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 With his assumption of office, they trusted that the odious Alien Act would be repealed.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...