States of the United States vs. the Federal Government


From before the adoption of the US Constitution in 1787, there has been strenuous argument, sometimes bordering on the violent, between those who wanted a strong central government and those who saw the individual states as the primary locus of governmental power—except for those 18 specific powers granted to the two houses of the federal government, as enumerated in the Constitution.

(Former President) Jefferson… maintained that the national and state governments were ‘as independent, in fact, as different nations,’ and that the function of one was foreign and that of the other was domestic. President Madison still declared that Congress could not build a road or clear a watercourse; while Congress believed itself authorized to do both, and in that belief passed a law which Madison vetoed. (Source).

Why am I bringing this up 224 years after the adoption of our Constitution? Hasn’t the primacy of the Federal government in almost all matters been settled? Perhaps not. See these recent headlines, and the articles under the links:

Sitting Supreme Court Justices, 2011

After the successful Declaration of Independence from Great Britain by the Continental Congress in 1776, eleven years passed before the delegates from the 13 former colonies, now “states”, adopted the US Constitution. The USA was governed during these eleven years by a series of Continental Congresses, each with a presiding officer, or “President”, under the rules of governance as contained in The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between The States.

Many of the delegates from the new states were dissatisfied with the Articles. In May, 1787, a remarkable group of men began publishing a series of 85 pseudonymous monographs in the New York press, under the general heading of The Federalist. These are now famously known as The Federalist Papers. The authors, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, advanced their criticisms and recommendations for improvement in the Articles that were “adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union”.

Fearing a return to British-style despotism, some other people, mostly from Virginia, started publishing responses to the Federalist articles, now known as the Anti-Federalist Papers. Led by Patrick Henry of Virginia, Anti-Federalists worried that the position of president in the proposed constitution would lead to a monarchy. Jefferson was sympathetic to the Anti-Federalists.

The Federalists won public support and the Constitution was passed, along with ten amendments, the 9th and 10th of which were advanced by those with Anti-Federalist sentiments.

Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to theUnited Statesby the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”


George Washington wanted a strong central government but he recognized there was danger in appearing as a monarch. During his eight years as the first president, famously saying his title should be “Mr. President”, he said and did as little as possible and deferred where and when possible to the houses of Congress. He did institute the system of departmental “secretaries” in a “Cabinet”, to which he delegated almost completely, including Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State.

As members of Washington’s cabinet Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued over national fiscal policy, especially the funding of the debts of the war. Jefferson later compared Hamilton and the Federalists with “Royalism”, and stated the “Hamiltonians were panting after…crowns, coronets and mitres.” Due to their opposition to Hamilton, Jefferson and James Madison founded and led the Democratic-Republican Party… Jefferson’s political actions, and his attempt to undermine Hamilton, nearly led George Washington to dismiss Jefferson from his cabinet. Though Jefferson left the cabinet voluntarily, Washington never forgave him, and never spoke to him again.” (Source)

Shortly before Washington’s Vice President and successor left his presidential office, John Adams appointed John Marshall, a Federalist, to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, intending that Marshall should provide a check against the “Jacobin” (i.e., revolutionary) and “democratic” (used as a term of opprobrium by Federalists) tendencies of the incoming President Jefferson. Marshall served 35 years and did indeed perform this function:

The Marshall Courtmade several important decisions relating to federalism, affecting the balance of power between the federal government and the states during the early years of the republic. In particular, he repeatedly confirmed the supremacy of federal law over state law, and supported an expansive reading of the enumerated powers. (Source).

Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, 1801-1835

There still is much argument within and without the courts whether states can effectively nullify any given federal statute. We may well see this decided, again, by the sitting Supreme Court within a few years as the state actions quoted above, and others, are played out in the courts.

How do these states presume to “nullify” existing, or even future, federal legislation? Where does this notion of “nullification” come from? From resolutions, written by Jefferson and Madison, and adopted by two states: the Virginia Resolution of 1798, and the Kentucky Resolution of 1799 wherein the states said they deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional and would not recognize them, or any other unconstitutional law, as binding on the states or their citizens. The issue was never brought to a head and the four Acts either were repealed or expired during Jefferson’s administration.

There have been several other important attempts by states (and the Cherokee Nation) to nullify federal laws, but these have either been made moot by changing circumstances or have been denied by the Supreme Court.

It should be noted that the primacy of the federal government was greatly strengthened through the prosecution and eventual result of the “war between the states”.

A broader view of the relationship between the center of government and the people, from comments by a friend and correspondent, Jay Michlin of San Mateo, California:

An even more interesting question is not just about states versus Washington, D.C., but also about the competing virtues of individual and local liberty versus all forms of centralized governance.

These include questions regarding when individuals should retain autonomy, with neither guidance nor coercion from any governing entity, whether city, state or federal. It includes matters about which cities or towns ought to retain jurisdiction, without interference from state governments. And it includes states rights versus the federal government too.

At one extreme, Jefferson had little trust in governments. He wanted whatever government may be necessary to be as close as possible to citizens, and as much as possible under their control. We denote this with the term “Jeffersonian democracy“. The loose association of states under the Articles of Confederation enacted this concept and was ultimately seen as a failure.

Hamilton saw no way to allow the country to succeed as a loose federation without a potent central government. Yet he too understood the risks of ceding too much power to any government, and he further understood that it would be an exceedingly hard sell to a population fresh from revolution against governance by an unaccountable entity at a great distance—London. He, Jay and Madison wrote The Federalist Papers as a series to sell the idea of a more powerful central government, and more important, to allay citizens’ fears that it would become a tyranny enslaving them.

Busts of Jefferson and Hamilton, which Jefferson placed on opposite sides of the entrance hall at Monticello. This arrangement, he told visitors, showed them “opposed in death as in life”. (mahg/ashland/edu)

The Bill of Rights was a political compromise along this order. Hamiltonians rightly said that no such bill was needed since the body of the Constitution rigorously enumerated the powers of the central government. But Jeffersonians didn’t trust a central government and insisted that rights be explicitly spelled out, even if redundant.

As we now know from the vantage point of more than 200 years, the Hamiltonians were right in theory, but the Jeffersonians were right in practice. And this underscores the remarkable gift the Founders gave us in the Constitution. It began with rigorous theory based on studies of governments from ancient times, to-date, then overlaid and strengthened these with brilliant insights into human nature, as the millennia have also taught us.

The Founders understood that the allocation of central authority versus local autonomy would forever be a tense and contentious matter, with each side vying for power. They knew they could not enshrine a division for time immemorial, and they perceived that the resolution would inevitably be political. So they gave us a framework by which each generation could make prudent decisions, with checks and balances to constrain either extreme from wresting definitive control.

Other societies have regularly suffered the same tensions, and usually resolved them by wars of one sort or another. The genius of our Founders is to have bequeathed us a system where we fight the battles politically and rhetorically and, therefore, peacefully.

Ending Summary and Comment

The question remains: how much power must and should the central government retain and exercise to fulfill the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the purposes of U.S. Constitution; and, how much power should be retained by the states to assure the liberties of people residing within each of them—all 50?

The Federalists (later, Republicans) didn’t trust the people and even used the word “democracy” and its derivatives disparagingly. The Anti-Federalists (later, the Democratic-Republicans and, still later, the Democrats) didn’t trust a strong central government, feeling it would lead to the despotism they fought against in order to be free of Great Britain and its hierarchies of power: king, church, aristocracy.

Current day Democrats have been successful in directing more power to the federal government in the name of “fairness” and other abstractions aimed at leveling social and economic disparities among classes of people.

Most elements of the current Republican Party, especially the Libertarian wing, see great danger in the power that has accrued to Washington, D.C. in the past Century.

The historical ironies presented here are worth contemplating. As Mr. Michlin points out, the amazing flexibility of our system allows for such shifts of political perspectives.

For example, without a strong central government would we have had the necessary attention paid to the inequities of “Jim Crow” in most of the southern states?

On the other hand, how far must and should the central government protect us from ourselves in matters of diet and behavior, for instance, without infantilizing the citizenry?

How do you see it?


The Democratic Republic vs. the Aristocracy

“… I love you with all my heart, and pray for the continuance of your life until you should be tired of it yourself.”

Thus ends the letter of 15 August 1820 from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, the men having achieved, respectively, the ages of 77 and 85. They had not quite another six years to live and died on the same day, exactly 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.

Jefferson’s effusive salutation is remarkable in two ways, at least. Jefferson was ever the withdrawn, introverted, land wealthy (and cash poor) statesman of both the Colony and the State of Virgina who usually wrote from his head after much deliberation; whereas, Adams was the loquacious, argumentative and extroverted farmer-lawyer of Massachusetts who wrote from the heart quite freely.

Also, the depth of their affection for each other this late in their lives belies the severe break in relations that resulted in a hiatus of over eight years in their correspondence, between 1804 and 1812.

“…we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”—Jefferson to Adams

This is my second writing about the treasure these men left us in their letters between years 1777 and 1826. My article of 3 February 2010 covered the letters in a general way. Today’s article presents what both saw as an enemy of a democratic republic, the aristocracy, but they never fully agreed on a remedy or how to prevent its ascendancy.

They first discussed this subject while both were diplomats; Adams represented the new United States of America in London (1785 -1788) and Jefferson, similarly, in Paris (1784 – 1789). Jefferson visited Adams at the British Embassy of the USA, commonly called, then and now, Grosvenor Square, London.

(From JA to TJ, 1 Mar 1787): A work upon the subject you mention, nobility in general [i.e., the aristocracy], which I once hinted to you a wish to see handled at large would..require many books which I have not, and a more critical knowledge both of ancient and modern languages than at my age a man can aspire to. There are but two circumstances, which will be regretted by me, when I leave Europe. One is the opportunity of searching any questions of this kind, in any books [in England and France] that may be wanted, and the other will be the interruption of that intimate correspondence with you, which is one of the most agreeable events in my life.

Twenty-six years later, the two began an intense correspondence on the subject that lasted one and one-half years.

(JA to TJ, 9 July 1813): I recollect, near 30 years ago to have said carelessly to you, that I wished I could find time and means to write something upon aristocracy…I soon began, and have been writing upon that subject ever since…Your “άριστοι” [“aristoi—aristocrats”] are the most difficult animals to manage…They will not suffer themselves to be governed. They not only exert all their own subtle industry and courage, but they employ the commonality, to knock to pieces every plan and model that the most honest architects in legislation can invent to keep them within bounds…But who are these “άριστοι”? Who shall judge? Who shall select these choice spirits from the rest of the congregation? Themselves? We must first find out and determine who themselves are. Shall the congregation choose? Ask Xenophon…[who] says that the ecclesia [popular assembly] always chooses the worst men they can find because none others will do their dirty work. This wicked motive is worse than birth or wealth.

Here I want to quote Greek again…[from] a collection of moral sentences from all the most ancient Greek poets. In one.. [is] a couplet the sense of which was “Nobility in men is worth as much as it is in horses, assess, or rams: but the meanest blooded puppy in the world, if he begets a little money, is as good a man as the best of them.” Yet birth and wealth together have prevailed over virtue and talents in all ages. The many will acknowledge no other “άριστοι”.

“Your distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy does not appear to me as well founded.”—Adams to Jefferson

So began five letters from Adams to Jefferson before the latter sent a lengthy and famous response to Adams on the subject of the aristocracy, after which Adams wrote a final letter, the beginning of which states: “We are now explicitly agreed, in one important point, viz. that ‘there is a natural aristocracy among men, the grounds of which are virtue and talents.’ ”

But where did they differ? This will be discussed, further below.

First, we must look at what these men meant by The Aristoi, an ancient Greek construction with which they were familiar as scholars in the writings and philosophies of that time. Immediately below are excerpts from two sources to give us a grounding in what these men were discussing.

Arete and the Aristoi

Arete…means goodness, excellence, or virtue of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential. Arete in ancient Greek culture was courage and strength in the face of adversity and it was to what all people aspired. [Source]

The concept of arete, or excellence, was one of the Homeric Age’s most important contributions to Western culture…(T)he nobility is the prime mover in forming a nation’s culture, and…the aristoi, or “the best,” are responsible for the creation of a definite idea of human perfection, an ideal toward which they are constantly educated. Arete became the “quintessence of early aristocratic education,” and thereafter the dominant concept in all Greek education and culture; it has remained with us as an educational ideal ever since.

It was not possible to separate leadership from arete, the Greeks believed, because unusual or exceptional prowess was a natural manifestation of leadership. Since each man was ranked in accordance with his ability, arete became an ideal of self-fulfillment or self-realization in terms of human excellence. A noble’s arete, in Homer, is specifically indicated by his skill and prowess as a soldier in war, and as an athlete in peace. War provides the occasion for the display of arete and the winning of kleos, or glory. The aristoi compete among themselves “always to be the best and to be superior to others.” [Source]

Definitions of Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy in Modern Times, from a paper by Paul Lucardie at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, to give us a current context in which to understand our subject  [Please click on the table to be able to read it]:

The Letters Between Adams and Jefferson on the Aristocracy

Adams wrote to Jefferson on 2 September 1813: “The five pillars of aristocracy are beauty, wealth, birth, genius and virtues. Any one of the first three can at any time overbear any one or both of the two last,” and goes on to give historical and contemporary examples.

Jefferson counters that he has faith in the enlightenment of men through science, and in the well-functioning democratic principles and machinery they and their fellow writers of the U.S. Constitution established, especially regarding regular elections:

Science is progressive, and talents and enterprise on the alert. Resort may be had to the people of the country, a more governable power from their principles and subordination; and rank, and birth, and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance… (I)f the moral and physical conditions of our own citizens qualifies them to select the able and good for the direction of their government, with the recurrence of elections at such short periods as will enable them to displace an unfaithful servant before the mischief he mediates may become irredeemable.

The mostly formal style of their writing (Adams occasionally lapsed into a more familiar style) sometimes masks, for the modern eye, the fundamental disagreement between these statesmen on the issue. Adams was the Federalist, perceiving a strong federal (i.e., central) government as necessary to “control” the natural appetites of man toward power and privilege. He had no confidence that those with natural born talent (sometimes called “genius”)  and “virtues,” derived through family traits and education, who ascended as “natural aristocracy” would not become as corrupt as those who ascended through wealth, beauty or name–the latter group being the “tinsel aristocracy” as described by Jefferson.

Obituary for John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (source: /

Jefferson had faith in the common sense of the ordinary citizen to vote out the misbehaving elected officials before they could do irreparable damage. Further, he did not place as much importance on the doings of the central government, observing that the limitless frontier then offered by America made the enterprising man relatively independent of the aristocratic tendencies of those in power in the country’s capital.

[The text is not edited to conform with modern English usage] With respect to Aristocracy, we should further consider that, before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to History but the Man of the old world, crouded within limits either small or overcharged, and steeped in the vices which that situation generates. A government adapted to such men would be one thing; but a very different one that for the Man of these states. Here every one may have land to labor for himself if he chuses; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence, but where-with to provide for a cessation from labor in old age. Every one, by his property, or by his satisfactory situation, is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholsome controul over their public affairs…

What is unstated by Jefferson in this correspondence is his underlying acceptance, perhaps even approval, of the occasional revolution to cleanse the ruling elite. Jefferson was enthusiastic about the French Revolution to which he was a direct witness, although he acknowledged that its latter stages went to bloody excess. This was a point of contention and public controversy between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans in the election of 1800 between Adams and Jefferson.

Jefferson famously wrote from Paris to William S. Smith on 13 November 1787:

We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.

There is much reference these days to the thoughts and intentions of the “founding fathers.” I suggest a reading of these letters would help us all truly understand where the founders stood on issues of freedom and liberty, government and democracy.

You can see all the letters (to everyone) of Thomas Jefferson here.

John Adams & Thomas Jefferson: From Friendship to Antagonism to Reconciliation



I was tempted to title this piece “The DNA of the United States of America, Part 3.”

I have already written of the rivalry between Adams and Jefferson for the Presidency of the USA in the year 1800, and on the autobiography of Jefferson.

What stimulated my writing of this current article was the arrival of a book I ordered, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, which contains letters between the men, and between Abigail Adams and Jefferson, from 1777 until the deaths of the two men in 1826.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third Presidents of the United States (Source)

I was recently reminded of these letters while viewing the HBO television series, John Adams on Swedish TV. I also subsequently ordered and viewed a videotape of the musical play 1776, which I had seen several decades ago. The play was centered on John Adams and his relentless efforts to get the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain.

I find this period in our country’s history endlessly fascinating. I return often to the biographies and histories of the most well-known figures and, now, some of the lesser known but no less important, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush who was the instrument through which Adams and Jefferson resumed their friendship after many years of bitter enmity, at least on the part of Adams who was the more emotional of the two men.

So, I bravely wrote the first draft of this article, focusing on the implications of the frequency and of the time line the letters occupy, and forwarded it to a friend for criticism. (He, coincidentally, is currently in the process of viewing the same six-part HBO series on John Adams). His remarks are so cogent and pithy I asked to use them here, and he consented.

I learned from the video that Jefferson was a bit of a libertarian radical for his time, and Adams a bit of a buttoned-down conservative. One aspect of all this is that it took the magic of George Washington’s leadership to keep them all together for the sake of the country, and that may be an…important lesson for today — that we lack a real leader like Washington.

I don’t see these protagonists’ philosophical differences as akin to the political warfare we have today. In Jefferson and Adams’ day, no matter the philosophical differences, each person knew the stakes were unimaginably high. We were a small and fragile nation, always vulnerable to attack from within or without. There was no guarantee we would prevail or even survive, and the Founding Fathers faced up to this reality with courage and discipline, as well as a keen sense of reality.

Today our politicians live in a Never Never Land where America is transcendent, there is no real perceived risk to us or our way of life, and debates are based on academic philosophies that have not been vetted in the real world. Today’s politicians lack the seriousness of people who know they are playing for life-and-death stakes.

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818)

With my friend’s remarks as Introduction, I now offer some detail, derived from the Letters, to reveal some of the personal dynamics between these two men, without whom we would not be enjoying the liberties our independence from Great Britain afforded us, to whatever degree these liberties remains.

The Declaration of Independence

In June of 1776 Adams and Jefferson were appointed by the Second Continental Congress, along with Benjamin Franklin and two others, to write a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Here is Adams’s account of how Jefferson became the writer of the initial draft:

The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.’ (Source).

From this beginning Adams and Jefferson became friends and, after the death of Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles Jefferson in 1782, Jefferson was sometimes a guest in the home of Abigail and John Adams where Abigail and Jefferson also became friends.

The friendships between the Adamses and Jefferson resulted in a total of 380 letters written from one to the other, between 1777 until the death of the two men on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence (along with 54 others).

After Independence and before the Constitution

It should be remembered that although we became independent of Great Britain by declaration in 1776, we did not have a governmental constitution until 1789. During this period the decisions of Continental Congress and then, by adoption in 1781, the Articles of Confederation, provided the framework for governance of the combined states. There were 14 presidents of the Continental Congress (two served twice) until George Washington was inaugurated as the first U.S. president, on April 30, 1789 under the new Constitution, with John Adams as his Vice President.

Washington as first President and the formation of political parties around differing views of the role of the Federal Government

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

Although there were not organized political parties until the election of 1896, there were those who called themselves Federalists and those who identified themselves as Democratic-Republicans. These groups, and later parties, had importantly differing views on the proper role of the new federal government. Simply put, the Federalists wanted more power centralized in the federal government, and the Democratic-Republicans wanted the minimum necessary accruing to the central government for the purposes laid out in the Constitution. Adams was for the Federalists and Jefferson was for the Democratic-Republicans. As they became political rivals, these differences put a cloud over their friendship which was not cleared until well after both had been out of power.

The 380 Letters

A mentioned above, the letters began in 1777, but were few in number until year 1785 when there were 69 letters between them, plus eight each between Abigail Adams and Jefferson. In the following two years there were 42 and 43 letters, respectively. In 1788 there were 12 letters.

While Adams was Vice President in the eight years 1789 through 1796, when Adams was elected President to succeed Washington, they averaged slightly over three per year between them.

Because of the odd method of choosing vice presidents (since improved) Jefferson was Adams’s Vice President from 1796-1800. There were no letters between them during this period.

Jefferson was elected President over Adams in 1800, and they returned to an intermittent and scanty correspondence in 1801 and 1804.

Jefferson was reelected, again over Adams and others, in 1804. The two men did not correspond again for eight years until January, 1812 when Madison was elected to his second term as fourth President of the USA.

Portrait of Dr. Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale

The cause of their renewed correspondence and, concomitantly, their even deeper friendship was by the agency of their mutual friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Here is some background to this initiative from commentary in the book (excerpted and edited):

One of the more bitter aspects of the retirement of John Adams from the presidency in 1800 was the fact that several of those with whom he had early co-labored during the Revolution had become his fervent adversaries. This was especially true in the case of Thomas Jefferson who, although serving closely with Adams during the Revolution, had become one of his chief enemies during President Washington’s administration. This feud not only deeply embittered Adams emotionally but it also troubled Dr. Rush, who was still a close friend of both Adams and Jefferson.

In his concern over the relationship between these two, one night several months after Jefferson’s retirement from the Presidency in 1809, Dr. Rush had a dream about the two which he felt was important. On October 17, 1809, he wrote down an account of that dream and sent it to John Adams.

At the time this letter was written, Jefferson and Adams were still vehement opponents. Adams received the dream from his dear friend with an open heart. Shortly after this letter, Rush, who was also a dear friend of Jefferson, initiated a correspondence with Jefferson on the same topic, attempting to reconcile the two. Jefferson, too, listened to Rush with an open heart, and tentatively reached out to Adams with a gracious letter. Adams, as he had promised, did “not fail to acknowledge and answer the letter,” and thus began a cordial renewing of a warm and sincere friendship between the two. Source

Adams took the first step by writing a brief letter to Jefferson on New Year’s Day, 1812, the subject being a “Packett containing two Pieces of Homespun” which Adams sent under separate cover to Jefferson. Jefferson responded on January 21 and they exchanged 13 letters in this year.

Year 1813 saw an explosion of pent-up expression from Adams who wrote 29 letters to Jefferson; the latter, as was his habit, wrote fewer but longer letters, only 6. Abigail and Jefferson also exchanged one letter between them this year.

They continued a regular, but less frequent correspondence until their deaths in 1826. Abigail and Jefferson also exchanged, typically, one letter per year until her death in 1818.

I offer, in closing, two excerpts from the book of letters, chapter 9, headed: “Whether you or I were right posterity must judge:”

Even in retirement Adams could not view the political scene… with the detachment that Jefferson achieved. Charges of corruption against the Republican Presidents Adams treated with contempt, even though he told Jefferson, “in the Measures of Administration I have neither agreed with you or Madison.” As for non-importation, non-intercourse (with other nations) embargoes, the structure of the judiciary, or neglect of the Navy, “whether you or I were right Posterity must judge (May, 1912)…

“By the summer of 1813 their accord was re-established, despite a few old wounds exposed and irritated. But their mutual friend who had brought about the rapprochement died on April 19. As Adams and Jefferson mourned Rush’s death, they took count of the surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence. Beside themselves, only six (of the 58) were alive.

I think there is a lesson here for our present-day representatives, in the two branches of government where the people directly choose: there can be strong and completely opposing points of view, hard fought in public and privately, but public benefit can be maintained through disciplined argument, and through the respect such argument can engender among men of good will.

I am again reminded to honor and revere the memory and the contributions of these two men, of disparate background and disposition, to our nation and to our freedom from tyranny.

But, as my friend points out, strong and purposeful leadership, mindful of the endless dangers in the world, is the key ingredient in maintaining our liberties.

(Read my essay on Liberty and Freedom here)


”The [American] Revolution of 1800”

The book that stimulated me to write this article is Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, by John Ferling. While reading this book over the last several weeks I was reminded of the similarities between the presidential campaign of 1800 and the one currently in play in the USA.

Part I: Underpinnings of the 1800 Presidential Campaign

Painting of George Washington in 1972

President Washington served two terms from 1789 until 1797. Prior to his presidency there were around 20 “Presidents of Congress” in the first and second Continental Congresses from 1774 to 1781, and in the Congress after the ratification by the states of the Articles of Confederation in March,1781. Some of these presidents served more than once.

John Adams was Washington’s vice president because he received the second largest number of votes from the Electoral College in the elections of 1788 and 1792, but the ticket of these two men was not contested by others, in deference to the immense political and personal stature of George Washington who chose Adams as his running mate. Adams won the presidency in the election of 1796 and Thomas Jefferson received the second most votes to become the vice president, in the first contested American presidential election and the first one to elect a President and Vice-President from opposing tickets, exposing a downside to the original Electoral College system. The rules were changed in this regard by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804.

Left to right, President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson, in office 1797-1801

Left to right, President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson, in office 1797-1801

The parties of Adams and Jefferson were, respectively, The Federalist Party and The Democratic-Republican Party (which later morphed into the present-day Democrat Party).
To set the stage for the political conflict between Adams and Jefferson, another extraordinary man must be introduced: Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton

With John Jay and James Madison, Hamilton wrote a series of papers (published in book form as The Federalist, 1788) urging the people of New York to ratify the new constitution. His brilliant essays on the need for a stronger union, the utility of a national taxing power, and the importance of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government became classic statements of his political philosophy of strong leadership in the public interest. At the New York ratifying convention of June-July 1788, Hamilton and his allies defeated the previously dominant antifederal forces in the state.

The political map of the United States in 1800 could be seen as the “red” and “blue” we now employ to designate those states leaning toward Republicans, or Democrats, respectively. Although this analogy is not entirely translatable to the past, the “reds” were the Federalists and their sympathizers, and the “blues” were the Anti-Federalists or Republicans. Another way to characterize the parties: the Federalists as elitists and crypto-monarchists; the Republicans as anti-federalists and populists.

Hamilton was the driving force among the Federalist party and like-minded people, some of whom were still emotionally wed to a strong central government with a kingly leader—and with themselves as the aristocracy. Hamilton had served under General Washington in the army of independence and gained his admiration and support in many matters after independence was gained.

Abigail Adams

Adams was a Federalist, but not the firebrand that Hamilton uniquely was. Hamilton preferred another candidate over Adams in the Federalist Party and worked diligently to prevent Adams to get to the top of the party’s ticket. Over time, Adams, and wife Abigail Adams thought Hamilton a sort of fiend or devil.

Jefferson, although himself an aristocrat of the south, especially in his home state, Virginia, was an anti-federalist and, therefore, in the Democratic-Republican Party—usually shortened to Republican. He and Adams had served together as diplomats under the Continental Congress and under President Washington, and had been quite social with each other, including with Abigail (Jefferson had become a widower by this time). As the run-up to the campaign of 1800 loomed, Adams became estranged from Jefferson, although Jefferson remained generally fond of Adams. Hamilton figured large in this schism between Adams and Jefferson; to Hamilton, Jefferson was the arch-enemy and “devil.”

Hamilton and Jefferson on U.S. postage stamps

Hamilton and Jefferson on U.S. postage stamps

Jefferson was a democrat by moral inclination, even taking the position that slaves were not subhuman but full-fledged humans, despite being a slave-holder. He was for the widest possible suffrage, not to be limited by class and property qualifications (adult, non-slave males only, at this time).

Thus the stage was set for the second contested presidential election in the United States, with the political parties more clearly defined and with more partisan energy than in the 1796 election when Jefferson was not as sure as he now was, in 1800, that he wanted to be president.

Part II: The 1800 Campaign for President

Now follows a series of brief quotes from the book Adams vs. Jefferson to show the rancor and exaggeration from and within both sides of the political dichotomy in the USA of 1800.

[T]hirteen months before election day…Pennsylvania’s Senator James Ross introduced legislation to create a “Grand Committee”—it was to consist of the chief justice of the United States and five members of Congress—to adjudicate any disputes in the election of the president. As the chief justice was a staunch Federalist, and as that party controlled both houses of Congress, Ross’s bill seemed…to be an attempt by the Federalists to steal the election. The bill went nowhere, but its introduction and the Repblican response to it—one who was close to Jefferson labeled it a “deadly blow…aimed at us”—was a signal that the presidential contest was underway.

So too was the publication a few weeks later of James Callender’s The Prospects Before US. A Scotsman with a poison pen, Callender had been forced to flee to…Philadelphia (in 1793) to avoid arrest…The pamphlet that got him in trouble…,an assault on the British constitution in the old country, had been read with delight by Jefferson while he was secretary of state. Jefferson also savored Callendar’s subsequent work, especially when he not only lashed out at Hamiltonianism but broke the the story in 1979 that while Treasury secretary, Hamilton had been involved in an extramarital affair with a married woman and supposedly…provided her husband with public monies and insider information to purchase his silence.

Thereafter, Jefferson visited Callendar in his lodging and agreed to underwrite additional malicious squibs. Soon other Republicans with deep pockets came forward…to bankroll the journalist. Calumny dripped from Callender’s pen in several essays that he wrote during the next year…He called Hamilton “the Judas Iscariot of our country” and charged that he was a monarchist willing to sell out his the United States to Great Britain.

Callender’s hatchet jobs soon landed him in trouble…[T]hugs visited his apartment, terrorizing his family and curtailing his literary productivity. The Sedition Act stopped it altogether.

What I heretofore have not mentioned in this narrative is the passage of the The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, sponsored by the Federalists…intended [in part] to quell any political opposition from the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. This story is too large to present here, but the reader should be aware of the poisonous atmosphere it generated in the young nation regarding “freedom of speech” which Jefferson and his fellow Republicans, and many other people, treasured, especially as it was (and remains) encased in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. One act — the Alien Enemies Act — is still in force in 2008, and has frequently been enforced in wartime. The others expired or were repealed by 1802. Thomas Jefferson [when president] held them all to be unconstitutional and void, then pardoned and ordered the release of all who had been convicted of violating them (Source).

Satiric portrayal of the first fight in Congress, between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold. Lyon was later prosecuted under the Sedition Act

Satiric portrayal of the first fight in Congress, between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold. Lyon was later prosecuted under the Sedition Act

In Chapter 10, “The Boistrous Sea of Liberty” the author of Adams vs. Jefferson shows us many unbridled verbal and written attacks by one party and its leaders against the other party and its leaders, and also within the Federalist party under Hamiliton’s leadership against Adams in favor of Thomas Pinckney for the top of the Federalist ticket.

Here are a final few political and personal assaults:

By early summer [1800] all signs pointed toward [Jefferson's] electoral success in December…In October Alexander Hamilton published a savage attack on Adams that for scurrility equaled the worst assaults by the most noxious Republican scribes…The Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, fifty-four pages of unremitting vilification, was called by the [Philadelphia] Aurora “the most gross and libelous charges against Mr. Adams that have ever yet to be published or heard of.”

The Republicans indicted their adversaries as Anglophiles who wished not only to save or reestablish the society and customs of the colonial past, but to build the nation’s ecenomy on the British template…Republicans excoriated the Federalists for seldom mentioning the War of Independence or recalling the wartime destruction sown by Britain’s redcoat armies…The Federalists were limned as political apostates who mouthed republican ideas while they sought “to sap the very foundation of public liberty”…This was a contest, said one Republican newspaper, to determine “whether we shall have at the head of our executive a steadfast friend of the Rights of the People, or an advocate for hereditary power and distinctions.”

This Federalist cartoon depicts the federal eagle preventing Jefferson from burning the Constitution on the altar of French despotism

This Federalist cartoon depicts the federal eagle preventing Jefferson from burning the Constitution on the altar of French despotism

The Federalists also fixated on Jefferson’s religious beliefs, maligning him as an atheist…Jefferson had dilated on the “rights of conscience,” about which individuals were “answerable [only to …or God” and never to the state. He then added that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pockets nor breaks my leg.” Those two sentence were reprinted endlessly in Federalist newspapers as proof of Jefferson’s impiety.Both parties engaged in…negative campaigning, an assault on their adversary’s program amd leadership rather than an emphasis on their own platform. The Federalisis…link[ed] the Republicans with the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Jefferson and his adherents, they charged, embraced the same “cant of jacobinical illiberality” as their radical friends in France; like their counterparts across the ocean, they were “artful and ambiguous demagogues” who led “discontented hotheads,” “democratic blockhea[d]s” and “cold-hearted jacobin[s].” Furthermore…the [Federalisis charged] the Republican leaders espoused a “creed of atheism and revolution.”

Part III: Evaluating “The Revolution of 1800″

The author’s final chapter is an epilogue on “The Revolution of 1800.”

Jefferson and his fellow Republican, Aaron Burr, ended up in a tie vote in first place over Federlists Adams and Pinckney. The final outcome, after many votes in the House of Representative, was that Jefferson won the presidency and Burr was vice president.

[W]hen he was seventy-six years old [Jefferson] offered his most memorable observation of his victory. The election of 1800 was tantamount to “the revolution of 1800.” It was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceful instruments of reform, the suffrage of the people.”

Although Jefferson’s claim of a “revolution of 1800″ was exaggerated, his famous postmortem was not absurd. While his election was not as revolutionary as independence had been in 1776, Republican governance came with a new tone, a new style, and a new ideology that enabled the nation to move piecemeal from the habits of 1800, laced as they yet were with restrictive customs that had persisted from colonial days, toward egalitarianism and democratization.

It was a transformation that many of the consolidationists [Federalists wanting a strong central government over the former colonies] had sought to inhibit through the Constitution of 1787 and that the Federalists had eagerly attempted to forestall when they fought to thwart Jefferson’s election in the House of Representatives.
Sooner or later a democratic revolution would have occurred, but it would not have been during a era of Federalist hegemony, and had Adams or Pinckney been elected in 1800, the Federalists might have controlled both the executive and the judicial branches of the government for a very long time. In this sense, the elction of 1800 consummated the American Revolution, resolving what had not been settled in the initial upheaval and fulfilling the dreams of those who, like [Thomas] Paine, long had yearned for the “birthday of a new world.”

No one is free from bias and I admit my bias matches what seems to be that of the author; that is, in favor of Jefferson’s point of view.

This may or may not account for my citing more examples of the Federalists’ intemperate diatribes than of the Republicans’, including Jefferson. To correct his possible bias I state here that it seemed both sides were just about equally rancorous toward their adversaries, although Jefferson (via the author) seemed less inclined to personally, or at least publicly, engage in such behavior.

As the author goes on to say in the balance of the “Epilogue,” this election set the tone for most others to follow. More importantly, it established the framework for the two-party system we now employ, if not enjoy, and broke us away from the lingering sentiments toward the parent country, Great Britain, and its imperial and aristocratic nature.

We became truly “American” (USA-style) upon the final outcome of this election of 1800.

“…when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

The title of today’s entry is from an address made, April 29,1962, by President John F. Kennedy in welcoming a group of Nobel Prize winners to a dinner in their honor at The White House. The extended quote is: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

What ultimately brought me to this well-known quotation was my reading of a small and fascinating book, Autobiography of Thos. Jefferson. I bought this book, apparently second hand, many years ago and something told me I was prepared now to read it.

There has been so much written about this great statesman, political philosopher, diplomat, inventor, amateur scientist, farmer, slaveholder and opponent of slavery, I can do no more than to refer you to others, and to offer some quotations.

One thing he did not say, and I now correct myself on having misquoted him, is: “That government is best which governs least.” It was Henry Thoreau, who paraphrased the motto of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review: “The best government is that which governs least.”

Despite hundreds of volumes written by others about him, Jefferson’s own recounting of his life takes but 100 pages in this small paperback. He starts it thus: “At the age of 77, I begin to make some memoranda, and state some recollections of dates and facts considering myself, for my own more ready reference, and for the information of my family.”

I found it interesting that Jefferson served both in the legislature of the Virginia Commonwealth and as Governor of the successor State of Virginia. While a delegate to the legislature, he was chosen by his fellows to be on a “committee of correspondence” which met with other such committees in the other colonies to discuss their common interests including grievances against the British King and parliament. Much of Jefferson’s work in this realm, before the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), was as a lawyer in devising correct political positions with respect to the home country, even as he and others opposed many elements of Great Britain’s rule.

His biography dwelt for a while on his work in the development of Virginia’s constitution, adopted June 12, 1776, which served as a template for much of what was devised and written for the U.S. Constitution, ratified June 21, 1788. This caused me to go to the Internet to find more information on this, which I present below.

A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.

Map: The Louisiana Purchase during Jefferson’s administration

1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety (Virginia Constitution, Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776).

2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them (Virginia Constitution, Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776).

Jefferson’s drawing of a macaroni machine and instructions for making pasta

3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right, to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the publick weal (Virginia Constitution, Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776).

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear … I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology.

15. That no free government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles (Virginia Constitution, Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776).

Jefferson’s design for a plow

16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other (Virginia Constitution, Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776).

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government … The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

In the final 17 years of his life, Jefferson’s major accomplishment was the founding (1819) of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He conceived it, planned it, designed it, and supervised both its construction and the hiring of faculty. The university was the last of three contributions by which Jefferson wished to be remembered; they constituted a trilogy of interrelated causes: freedom from Britain, freedom of conscience, and freedom maintained through education. On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson died at Monticello. [Source]

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty … Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.