1 On the Brink
Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” predicted the Connecticut Courant in the fall of 1800. “The air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Hardly more than a dozen years after the path-breaking Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the outlook for American democracy suddenly appeared grim. There was “scarcely a possibility that we shall escape a Civil War,” the Courant editorialized.
The stability and prosperity of the young republic would abruptly halt if Thomas Jefferson, the vice president of the country and the leader of the Republicans, were to defeat President John Adams in the Electoral College in December 1800 — or so Federalists believed. Reasonable, dependable government seemed unlikely to survive the leadership of a man who blithely held that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” indeed, that rebellion was “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Jefferson was a “fanatic,” they exclaimed, as they drew lurid pictures of the starry-eyed visionary in love with radical revolution, the “great arch priest of Jacobinism and inﬁdelity.” The Virginian and his Republicans would turn America upside down, permitting the hoi polloi to govern the nation and unseating the wealthy social elite, long accustomed to wielding political power and governing the nation. Jefferson’s election, wrote a Federalist in western Massachusetts, would produce “the most serious and alarming evils to this Country.”
Something had to be done to save the country from the “fangs of Jefferson,” cried an anxious Alexander Hamilton. The Virginian’s radical promises of liberty, equal rights, and a redistribution of wealth and property, another Federalist declared, would introduce anarchy, which would surely terminate, as it had in France, in military despotism.
People whispered about his “Congo Harem” and “dusky Sally Hemings.” They were incensed at his lack of respect for religion. It had come to light, an outraged Robert Troup reported to his friend Rufus King, the American minister in London, that Jefferson had once been indiscreet enough to attend a public entertainment in Virginia on a Sunday! What better proof of his “contempt for the Christian religion and his devotion to the new religion of France”?
For months during the spring and summer of 1800, Federalist editors throughout the country had been fulminating against the Virginian, smearing him for being an atheist, a dreamer, a coward, a man entirely lacking in conscience, religion, and charity. “Do you believe in the strangest of all paradoxes,” demanded one of Jefferson’s foes in the New York Commercial Advertiser, “that a spendthrift, a libertine, or an atheist is qualiﬁed to make your laws and govern you and your posterity?” Writers denounced him for seeking to poison the minds and destroy the morals of the people while spreading the seeds of confusion, anarchy, and slavery throughout the United States. And not only morality, but economic prosperity too, they concluded, would suffer.
Commerce would be plundered, farmers impoverished, and merchants ruined. “Shadows, clouds, and darkness rest on our future prospects,” wrote Troup dejectedly to his friend King.
And then, in the middle of the summer heat, jolting news! Jefferson was dead! For more than a week in early July 1800, newspapers carried shocking but unconﬁrmed reports of the Virginian’s sudden death.
Sadly the Baltimore American relayed an “alarming and truly melancholy report” that Thomas Jefferson “is no more.” He seemed to have died in a sudden manner, the Philadelphia True American informed its startled readers the following day. The next day, the Federalist newspaper, the Gazette of the United States, afﬁrmed that “the report of Mr.
Jefferson’s death appears to be entitled to some credit.”Had the author of the Declaration of Independence fallen ill — or been assassinated?"
Three days later, the American Daily Advertiser still could not disprove the “distressing information” that Jefferson had mysteriously died. “Old Tories” and “haters of our independence” were giving one another sly “winks of congratulations,” reported the Republican newspaper, the Aurora.
A week later, the story still remained in doubt. One Federalist, writing in the Connecticut Courant, explained tongue-in-cheek that it had been a slow news week, and “some compassionate being,” seeking to provide the country with noteworthy news, had “very humanely killed Mr. Jefferson.” When the reports were exposed as false, Republican newspapers took aim at the Federalists’ glee. “The asses of ariistocracy, fearing the paws of this republican lion, reported his death — because they wished him so!”
“I have never enjoyed better and more uninterruptedd health,” a vigoooorous, unperturbed Jefferson wrote upon receiving news of his own passing.
His friend, Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, had just written to him to describe his great relief when he learned that the reports of Jefferson’s death were false. “I am much indebted to my enemies,” Jefferson responded, “for proving by their recitals of my death, that I have friends.”
The ﬁfty-seven-year-old vice president was alive and well in Monticello.
The presiding ofﬁcer of the Senate, he had been delighted to leave Philadelphia in May of 1800 for his hilltop home in Virginia. The Senate, he felt, did not have enough business to occupy it for a halfhour a day, while the beloved estate he had so carefully planned and created for himself fully occupied his mind and, as he said, gratiﬁed his esthetic senses.
In Monticello, he would wake at dawn, slip out of his alcove bed, and spend the ﬁrst hours of the morning in the adjacent “cabinet,” reading and working on his voluminous correspondence. Then came breakfast with other members of the household at eight o’clock. After breakfast there was time to give thought to the university he was planning, to contemplate more alterations to his house, which was in a state of perpetual redesign and reconstruction, and to pursue his scientiﬁc inquiries and inventions. Science, he told his friends and family, was his “passion,” whereas politics was a “duty” as well as a “torment.”
Letters streamed in from all over the country keeping him in close touch with political events. Still, Jefferson wanted to be passive during these election months, trusting his friends and collaborators to campaign on his behalf — as well as to respond to the “calumnies of the newspapers.” The “only truth to be relied on in a newspaper,” he quipped, was contained in its advertisements. Surveying his land on horseback, attending to his crops, playing with his grandchildren, conversing with his guests, he was content to spend his time in his refuge of mountains, forests, rivers, gardens, books, inventions, and ideas.
“Is this the violent democrat, the vulgar demagogue, the bold atheist . . . I have so often heard denounced by the federalists?” wondered a captivated Margaret Bayard Smith, the wife of the editor of the National Intelligencer, when she ﬁrst met Jefferson in December of 1800.
“Can this man so meek and mild, yet digniﬁed in his manners, with a voice so soft