Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

I think I would have liked Thomas Jefferson. He had a passionate interest in science and natural history. I also would have enjoyed discussing political theory and religion with him, though I suspect we would have disagreed vehemently about some things. And there is no denying that Jefferson was one of our most historically significant Presidents. So for me, visiting Jefferson’s estate at Monticello was almost like a pilgrimage (though he and I would both have rejected the very idea of a religious pilgrimage).


Thomas Jefferson almost didn’t get elected at all. Under the electoral rules, each elector in the Electoral College got to cast two votes, and the President was simply whoever got the majority of votes and the Vice President was whoever came in second. That had led, in 1796, to John Adams of the Federalist Party becoming President and Jefferson, from the Democratic-Republican party, as Vice President—a situation which both parties found intolerable. After this fiasco, then, both parties tried in 1800 to game the rules and arrange their votes to produce the outcome they wanted. Each party now selected a presidential and vice presidential preference, and agreed beforehand that their delegates in the Electoral College would withhold one of their votes for their preferred vice presidential candidate, insuring he would come in second. In 1800, the Democratic-Republican party selected Jefferson as their presidential candidate and Aaron Burr as their preferred Vice President, and agreed that one of the delegates from Rhode Island, which was assumed to be a safely pro-Jefferson state,  would withhold one of his votes for Burr. In the actual election, however, Rhode Island, in a political surprise, went for Federalist candidate John Adams, and although the Democratic-Republicans won the Presidential elections, their two selected candidates, Jefferson and Burr—tied in the Electoral College with 73 electoral votes each. Under the rules, that meant the House of Representatives would break the tie, with each state delegation voting and the winner determined by a simple majority of states.

It caused chaos. The Federalists tried to use their influence to get Burr elected President instead of Jefferson (and it was whispered that the ambitious Burr, despite his party ties, cooperated with this effort). In the end, the matter came down to the tiny state of Delaware, which had only one Representative in the House. He cast his vote for Jefferson.

In his inaugural speech, Jefferson called for unity, but the bitter partisan conflicts that resulted from the Adams Administration made this virtually impossible. Jefferson promptly replaced all of the Cabinet members, and made an unsuccessful effort to impeach and remove one of the Federalist-supporting Supreme Court Justices. When Jefferson refused to deliver official commissions to some of the Federal judges that had been appointed by Adams, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Marbury v Madison ruling that established the Court’s right to declare public laws as unconstitutional.

The partisan bickering between the two political parties soon reached white-hot levels. But the Democratic-Republican Party had majorities in both chambers of Congress, and Jefferson for the most part had the power to pass whatever he wanted. To recognize the reality of party rivalry, the electoral system was altered through the adoption of the 12th Amendment, which allowed the parties to join their presidential and vice-presidential candidates into a single unified ticket—thereby avoiding the debacles of 1796 and 1800.

Jefferson’s first test as President had begun even before he assumed office. By the last years of the 18th century, the Muslim countries of North Africa, known as the Barbary coast, had set up what amounted to a protection racket on shipping in the Mediterranean, charging exorbitant “fees” to ships that passed as “protection” from “pirates”. Under the Adams Administration the United States, which was still recovering from the Revolutionary War and was reluctant to become involved with foreign affairs, simply paid up.

When Jefferson took office in 1801, the “fees” suddenly went up, and rather than give in to the extortion, he sent the US Navy into the Mediterranean. At first, a number of American frigates found themselves getting beaten up by Barbary pirate ships, but then a fleet was dispatched to Tripoli harbor, where it bombarded the city and landed raids by US Marines. The “Barbary War” marked the first tentative step by the fledgling United States onto the world stage, as well as giving us the opening line to the Marine Battle Hymn—”From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”.

Jefferson’s next foreign adventure happened much nearer to home. In 1763, as part of the treaty ending the French and Indian War, France had agreed to turn over all of its territory west of the Mississippi River, known as Louisiana, to Spain, retaining only the port city of New Orleans. As the United States expanded steadily westward from its thirteen original colonies, the Mississippi became an important commercial route. In 1795, therefore, the Washington Administration reached an agreement with Spain guaranteeing American ships free access to the Mississippi River and allowing them to transfer cargo to ocean-going ships in the Port of New Orleans, known as the “right of deposit”.

When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in France, however, he had dreams of reviving and expanding France’s former North American empire, and he strong-armed Spain into turning over control of Louisiana to him. (A few years later, he invaded Spain itself and installed his older brother as King.) The United States, not wanting to be dragged into the European war, declared its neutrality, and as punishment Napoleon revoked the American right of deposit in New Orleans.

This was a severe blow to American trade, and in 1803 Jefferson decided to try to resolve the matter diplomatically (while at the same time making plans to send US troops under General James Wilkinson to seize the port city if it became necessary). Jefferson made an offer to Napoleon to buy the city of New Orleans from France for $10 million.

The self-proclaimed “Emperor of France” now saw an opportunity. He had decided that Louisiana, so far away from Paris, would probably be too expensive to administrate and defend anyway. If he allowed the Americans to have it, on the other hand, he could gain a significant amount of money to finance his wars in Europe. And if he were fortunate, perhaps the western states in the US, the stronghold of the Democratic-Republican party, would break away from the Federalist northeast and form its own independent country, which would ally with France. So Napoleon made a counter-offer: the US could have all of Louisiana for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase was finalized in July 1803. At a stroke, the US had doubled in size.

But Jefferson had no idea what lay inside the enormous territory he had just bought. The Spanish and British had already explored most of the Pacific coastline, but few Europeans had ever ventured inland. Jefferson hoped that explorers could find an easy way to reach the Pacific from the east, both as a political expedient to make an American claim to the Northwest before England or some other European power did, and as an economic endeavor to open up an potential American trade route to China and the spice islands of the East Indies. Jefferson also had a private motive: as a well-educated man of science, he was intensely interested in the area’s geology and its wildlife, at one point apparently confessing that he hoped to find still-living mammoths, mastodons or other extinct species out in the unknown expanses of the American West.

To lead the first foray, dubbed the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis, who was his well-educated personal secretary in addition to being a Captain in the US Army. To assist him, Jefferson appointed William Clark, a Kentucky woodsman and an Army Lieutenant, and they gathered men and supplies in St Louis. The expedition set out in the summer of 1804.

That winter, the group sought shelter with the Mandan Native Americans, in what is now South Dakota, and when they departed again in spring, Lewis and Clark were accompanied by French-Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau (who served as guide), his teenaged Shoshone wife Sacagawea (who acted as interpreter and translator), and their newborn son Pompey. Most of their encounters with Native Americans along the way were peaceful, with the presence of Sacagawea and her infant helping to convince everyone that they were not a war party. The group distributed blankets, tools and food as gifts, which they had brought along with them for the purpose. There was, however, a brief conflict with the Blackfeet in which two warriors were killed.

After 18 months of travel, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean in what is now Oregon, and spent the winter there before returning to St Louis in September 1806. They brought back maps, detailed reports, and hundreds of plant and animal specimens. Upon there return, Jefferson dispatched several more expeditions to cover areas further south, including one under William Dunbar and George Hunter along the Ouachita River, a second led by Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis to the Red River, and another commanded by Zebulon Pike to the Rocky Mountains and the southwest deserts.

With the Louisiana Purchase, France had abandoned the North American continent entirely. But American issues with Britain continued, and as the Napoleonic Wars continued to rage, Jefferson did his best to keep the United States out of it. But one issue kept the fuse to war alight.

The Royal Navy was well-known for its harsh discipline and its sometimes brutal treatment of sailors. So it was no surprise that during the Napoleonic Wars the desertion rate was high, as English (and especially Irish) seamen jumped ship and signed on with private merchant vessels, including American, which offered better pay and conditions. By some estimates at the time, as many as half of the sailors on American ships were born in the British Empire. Some of these had become naturalized American citizens, but the Crown Government did not recognize this—its position was that once someone was born into the kingdom, they were then a royal subject for life.

The Royal Navy, meanwhile, was losing some 10,000 sailors each year during the war with France through casualties, deserters, and sickness, and blunt military necessity required replacing them. To stem these losses, the Royal Navy began stopping merchant ships (especially American) on the high seas and searching for any English or Irish deserters. Those that were found were “impressed”—forcibly taken back into His Majesty’s service. Not only were the Americans angered by this violation of their neutrality, but many times the British would impress sailors who were not deserters—and often not even British, but American.

The breaking point came in 1807, when a small group of Royal Navy warships anchored off Norfolk VA looking for the French.  A number of British sailors took the opportunity to desert, and four of them, claiming to be US citizens, enlisted aboard the US Navy frigate Chesapeake. The British replied that they were English subjects and deserters, and demanded they be handed back. The Americans refused, and the British took matters into their own hands. As the Chesapeake left harbor, the British Royal Navy frigate Leopard showed up, stopped the American ship and demanded to search her for their deserters. When the Chesapeake refused, the British ship opened fire, killing three US crewmembers.

War with England might have come then and there (as it ultimately would, in 1812) had not the cooler head of Jefferson prevailed. He argued that the United States was simply not strong enough to engage the Royal Navy in open combat, and pointed out that if the French under Napoleon managed to beat the English, the American grievances would disappear on their own. As an act of protest, though, Jefferson passed an embargo law in 1807 that banned any American ships from trading in Europe. The intent was to cut off American supplies to both sides and inflict enough economic pain that both France and England would agree to lift their restrictions. What it really did, however, was crush the American economy by slashing its foreign trade by over 80%. This caused so much bitterness in the US itself (especially in the trading ports of the Northeast), directed squarely at Jefferson and his party, that the embargo was repealed not long after and replaced by a law allowing overseas trade with every European country except France or Britain. But the damage had already been done, and resentment would smolder in the Northeast for a long time.

Not all of Jefferson’s challenges were coming from foreign nations, however. After the convoluted election of 1800, Aaron Burr had dutifully taken his place as Vice President, where he served without distinction. But President Jefferson and the rest of the Democratic-Republican Party were convinced that Burr had been actively working with the Federalists to try to get himself elected in the House and steal the election away from Jefferson, and they never forgave him. Jefferson shut Burr out of any substantive policy discussions, and when Jefferson was re-nominated for the election of 1804, not a single party delegate voted to re-nominate Burr as Vice President, naming NY Governor George Clinton as Jefferson’s running mate instead. Burr, who had always had his eyes on the White House, tried to revive his political fortunes by running for Clinton’s old position himself in April, but failed to get elected. In July Burr plummeted even further in popularity when, still in office as Vice President, he got himself into a duel with longtime political opponent Alexander Hamilton and killed him.

Then began one of the strangest and most controversial episodes in American history. Shortly before leaving office as Vice President, Burr began visiting some significant people.

One of these was General James Wilkinson, who had been dispatched to New Orleans to oversee the transition from French rule to American. By the time Wilkinson had assumed command of the US Army in 1796, he was already being paid by the Spanish Government as a spy, with the codename “Agent 13”. And in May 1804, as Wilkinson would later tell the tale, Burr came to him with a proposal to use his influence to entice Louisiana and Spanish Mexico to form a new independent country, under Burr’s rule.

Three months later, British Ambassador Anthony Merry sent a message to London informing the Foreign Ministry that he had received an extraordinary visit from Burr: “I have just received an offer from Mr. Burr the actual vice president of the United States (which Situation he is about to resign), to lend his assistance to His Majesty’s Government in any Manner in which they may think fit to employ him, particularly in endeavouring to effect a Separation of the Western Part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantick and the Mountains, in it’s whole Extent.”

In this same time period, meanwhile, Burr also met twice with General Andrew Jackson, who had commanded the US forces in Florida during the Seminole War. And once again Burr talked about taking Texas, and perhaps Florida too, from the Spanish.

Unfortunately for Burr, one of the men he talked with turned out to be too unreliable, and the other too reliable. Wilkinson, who had a reputation as a political scoundrel who always schemed to be on the winning side, sent word to Jefferson laying out the whole plot. Jackson, who knew less about the plotting but didn’t like the parts he did know, also sent word to Washington DC that something unseemly was afoot with Burr.

Jefferson ordered Burr’s arrest on charges of treason, and when the trial began in Richmond VA, Chief Justice John Marshall himself would preside over the trial. This probably saved Burr. Although testimony was presented indicating that Burr had recruited a force of armed men and bought boats to transport them to New Orleans, Marshall ruled that the Constitution allowed only a very narrow definition of “treason”, and Burr was acquitted. His political career, however, was dead.

After leaving office in 1809, Jefferson retired to his estate house in Virginia, which he called Monticello. Originally begun in 1768, the house sat on a 5,000-acre plantation with roughly 500 slaves. It was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1770 and rebuilt, then was remodeled in 1794, which nearly doubled its size. By the time Jefferson left the White House and retired here, work on Monticello was mostly complete, but he continued to make changes here and there until he died on July 4, 1826. He is buried in a cemetery on the house grounds.

At Jefferson’s death, Monticello passed to his daughter Martha, who sold the property to pay off his debts. Eventually the estate was bought by US Navy Commodore Uriah Levy, and admirer of Jefferson who spent his own money to restore the house. Levy’s descendents then preserved Monticello for the next 100 years until 1923, when the estate was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a nonprofit group. The Foundation still owns the property today and runs it as a museum and a memorial to Jefferson. There are guided tours of the house and re-enactors and lecturers on the grounds.

Monticello is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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