In which we see a pragmatist act
Thomas Jefferson becomes the third president of the United States in March of 1801. He gives a smashing Inaugural Address. “We are all federalists, we are all republicans,” he tells his fellow Americans. “Not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle.” Jefferson always talked a good game.
—Are you saying the reality was different?
Well, no. The early years of the Jefferson administration were a great success.
—What did he do that was so good?
In a way, nothing. As we’ve been saying in recent days, the fate of the nation wasn’t in the new capital of Washington, DC. It was in London and Paris. These were the years Napoleon Bonaparte was running France, and the first few years of the century were a kind of intermission in France’s slugfest with England. This meant all that trouble on the high seas subsided. In fact things were so good they might have turned out to be a problem: Napoleon seriously considered re-establishing the French empire in the Americas.
In Haiti. What do you kids know about Haiti?
—It’s an island near Cuba.
Yes, Kylie. Part of one, anyway—Haiti is on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola is where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. Anything else? Do you know who lives in Haiti?
My fault. Not a great question. I mean demographically. Who lives in Haiti?
—Is it black?
—I think it’s poor.
Haiti has historically been very poor. It’s also the site of the first successful slave revolt in the western world. Haiti got its independence from France in 1791 under the leadership of the former slave Toussaint L’Overture. The Adams administration provided aid to L’Overture, which reflected its opposition to slavery, its position Quasi War against France, and its desire to keep the British out. But the new Jefferson administration, fearful of the implications of a slave revolt for the United States, withdrew aid and sought to isolate Haiti.
There are three big ironies that flow from this. One is that that Jefferson, who has been strongly pro-French since the American Revolution, now has to face the prospect of a new French empire in America, something that has to frighten any U.S government. The second is that this slaveholder’s best hope for avoiding such an outcome are former slaves who will fight to prevent it. As it turns out, though, Napoleon’s most powerful adversary turns out not to be Haitians, but insects. Specifically mosquitoes: they sicken a large number of the 20,000 French troops that arrive in early 1802. The French defeat the Haitians in a series of battles, but the Haitians don’t give up, and the growing ranks of the sick invaders—one third of French forces succumb to the fever—lead Napoleon to conclude that the whole idea isn’t worth the effort.
—So what’s the third irony?
This: that the biggest threat to the nation—the global struggle between Britain and France—becomes the source of its greatest opportunity. Napoleon decides he wants to go to war with England again. In order to do that he needs some quick cash. The easiest way to do that, he concludes, is to give up on his imperial designs in America. As a result of a secret treaty he’s made with Spain, France actually controls a vast tract of land that extends from New Orleans all the way to modern-day Idaho. It’s a slab of territory bigger than the United States itself. And he wants to sell it—fast. For the fire-sale price of $15 million.
Jefferson hesitates: Do I have the authority to do this? I’m Mr. Small Government. Hamilton says: Go for it, moron! More importantly, Madison says: Go for it, Mr. President! Jefferson does. In 1803, the United States makes the Louisiana Purchase. It’s the greatest real estate transaction in the history of the world. Comes out to three cents per acre. Jefferson sends a couple of explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the territory. They would have gotten hopelessly lost, if not worse, had they not had the help of Sacagawea, a Native American of the Shoshone tribe, who literally showed the way. So Jefferson scores big.
—You know, Mr. K., I have this idea you don’t like Thomas Jefferson very much.
Oh you do, do you, Em? Where do you get that idea?
—I dunno. We haven’t really talked about him much. We hear a lot more about Hamilton, even Adams. This is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, after all.
You’re right: I’m not really much of a Jefferson fan. I think of him as a phony and a hypocrite. Yes: he wrote the Declaration. But in that document he also included stuff about slavery being the King’s fault, not Americans (that part got cut out), and he never really did anything about ending slavery in his public or private life. He could be gracious, but he also talked about you behind his back. I don’t think he was really fair to Adams after Adams got elected. He played with fire with Aaron Burr, and almost got burned. Now he’s succeeding in office, but that’s more luck than anything else.
—Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?
Well, you did ask. There’s a part of me that feels uneasy about my unease about Jefferson, because my views reflect those of the historians of my generation. Adams and Hamilton have both gotten more positive appraisals in recent decades. But Jefferson’s stock is now about as low as it’s ever been. How do you feel about him?
—I don’t know. I pretty much only know what you tell me. I think the slavery thing is a problem.
Well, you don’t have to make your mind up now. You have a lifetime to think about it. But let me push on: remember, I called this part of the Jefferson era this was the happy middle. We haven’t gotten to the end. Buckle up kids, we’re in for a bumpy ride.
Next: The Duel