History of the United States of America
During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson
In the midst of the 2016 US Presidential election I accidentally started a stupid fight.
For me, the issue was using the proper words to describe things. For my interlocutor, the issue was reinforcing her political position. Logical fallacies like the appeal to authority are hard to miss, but I dropped the matter when the heavy guns of friends and relations entered.
And all because I insisted an author of popular histories should more properly be referred to as a writer than an historian.
Allow me to demonstrate the difference with the current volume, a 1252-page look at eight years in the early history of the American republic. Popular histories that soar to the top of the bestseller charts seem to cover a lifetime. Or an event so big it needs that many pages. Think of World War II. Any number of battles, let alone campaigns, could take several hundred pages. The whole shebang is bound to take more.
Rarely, though, do they go into a level of detail that moves at an average pace of three days per page, as this book does. That Adams manages to keep it readable–he has a great grasp of narrative tension–is testament to his talents as a writer.
Historians, I find, are often better writers than social scientists. I recall a history prof once saying you couldn’t escape telling a story, it’s right there in the name of the discipline. In addition to the story told in this book, and its companion on Madison‘s administration, Adams published biographies, poetry, novels and art history as well as technical treatises and more history. Writing was his thing.
I’m close to gushing, which I tend to do when I finally read something I was too intimidated to start for a long time. So let me say a word about our author. Henry Adams is one of those Adamses. Grandson of John Quincy Adams, great-grandson of John Adams, son and brother of diplomats and scholars. Like the James clan, the Adamses have had an out-sized effect on America and the world.
Adams was a formidable intellect in his own right. A graduate of Harvard who also studied on the continent, he eventually served on the faculty of his alma mater. Arguably he was an early mover in codifying the objective approach to historical research and writing.
There’s no better contrast than Adams’ townsman from the previous generation, Francis Parkman, who served as professor of both history and horticulture (!) at the Big H. Parkman’s writings read like a brief for America as God’s great design and have not aged well at all.
I understand that history is under siege as a hopelessly compromised handmaiden to patriarchy, but that’s just presentism. At its best, history helps us understand how decisions made in the past helped create our present. Better to read Parkman and discuss the explicit biases I say.
Back to the book. Why dwell on such a period? A survey history course would boil it down to a few events: the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark‘s expedition, the impressment of sailors and the Embargo Act. You might also get Marbury v. Madison solidifying the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution.
Adams’ granular approach allows us to see the cumulative impact of decisions. It’s hard to remember that in 1800 the United States had been governed under the Constitution for a mere 12 years, with one party dominating the Executive and Judicial branches. The election marked the first transfer of power between parties with competing views of what the nation should be.
Those views couldn’t be more opposite. Nor could they more muddle what we think of as the traditional alignments.
Moving out, we had the party of strong government, close ties with Britain, industry and commerce. New England-based and viewed as closet monarchists by their opponents, the Federalists are sometimes claimed as the ancestors of the current GOP.
Coming in we had the Democratic-Republicans. Just to keep you on your toes this group, which really is the lineal forebear of the current Democratic Party, referred to itself as the Republicans. They stood for limited government, States-rights, agriculture before industry and agrarian areas over urban ones. Jefferson took office promising to restore and purify the government in line with its original design and philosophy.
Jefferson, it should be said, does not come off well in this telling. Adams never questions his brilliance or motives. It’s his behaviors that warrant notice. When first elected, for instance, Jefferson rides around the just-beginning-to -be-built District of Columbia, in corduroy overalls and a red waistcoat. He insists on abandoning diplomatic protocols in the name of democracy. He expects deference to his ideas and acts sullen and withdrawn when the politics do not go his way.
He also was not rigid. While pursuing the acquisition of Florida, Louisiana is, instead, offered and he leaps at it. Nor does he let the ensuing arguments slow him down. The part of the Louisiana Purchase we never hear about is the near crisis it caused. There is no provision in the Constitution for acquiring populated territory with an existing government.
At least a third of the volume deals with events in France, England and Haiti. The upside is I now have a much better sense of early 19th century European geopolitics. Jefferson’s tenure served as the run-up to the War of 1812 so events elsewhere drove events at home. Fans of the Internet’s instant connections may wonder at how business and diplomacy were connected when the fastest receipt of news and information one could hope for was six weeks.
A few other things stick out worthy of mention. First, Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, is the unsung hero of the era. A Swiss émigré, Gallatin was in every way Hamilton‘s equal when it came to statecraft and finance. Time and again he proffers a solution to a thorny problem or has ensured the financial means to address almost any contingency are available. A remarkable person I need to learn more about.
Then there’s, Arron Burr, the bête noire of the era. A hero of the War for Independence, Burr had mad designs on power. He led a hapless conspiracy intended to separate the states west of the Appalachians, both of them, from the seaboard states and set up a new government, with President Burr of course. The Jefferson Administration eventually finds out about this but lets it go on an awfully long time before rounding up Burr and Co.
Burr’s eventual capture and trial lead to a familiar stand-off when Jefferson is subpoenaed to testify. The President first asserts Executive privilege against being forced to testify in court. Then he pleads he is too busy, working night and day, even as he’s spending months at Monticello, less than a day’s ride from the court where the trial is meeting.
That standoff features another Jefferson nemesis–fellow Virginian (and relative) John Marshall. For a Constitution buff like me, Marshall is a God and to see these two battle out their petty differences across the battlefield of Constitutional law is a wonder to behold. I also learned an interesting bit of trivia. Marbury, the plaintiff in the case that established judicial review as the job of the Supreme Court, never collected the commission the lawsuit was about.
What destroyed Jefferson’s reputation for a generation was his handling of Britain and France. As those two engaged in their eternal struggle Jefferson strove to not take sides. Both combatants passed laws that hindered American commerce. Here’s another familiar criticism: the Europeans claimed the only thing the Americans care about is commerce.
In this case, though, Jefferson rammed through The Embargo Act, essentially closing all foreign trade down. More costly than a war, the embargo made him extremely unpopular. So much so that it rejuvenated the Federalist Party in New England and led to rumblings of secession that almost came to pass under his successor.
That underscores an important reality easily overlooked in the present. The nation was brand new and its continuation not a given. Disunion was ever-present as an idea and while New England may have gotten closer to effecting it, the Southern States are here, too, claiming that to abolish the slave trade in 1807, as mandated in the Constitution, was to destroy the South and threatening secession if they were not accommodated.
Adams clearly subscribes to the great man of history approach and he’s willing to suggest that Jefferson may not have had the best personality for a politician even as he celebrates his accomplishments.
That leads to some blind spots the most glaring of which involves Sally Hemings. A scurrilous, anti-administration newspaper (all the news media of the era were hyper-partisan) printed claims that Jefferson kept a negro mistress and fathered children by her. We now know this to be true; Adams dismisses it as a complete impossibility.
Do you really need to spend the time it takes to read all this? I think there’s a benefit. But there’s also a shortcut. Allow me to end by letting Adams sum it up for us:
“Loss of popularity was his bitterest trial. He who longed like a sensitive child for sympathy and love left office as strongly and almost as generally disliked as the least popular President who preceded or followed him. He had undertaken to create a government which should interfere in no way with private action, and he had created one which interfered directly in the concerns of every private citizen in the. land. He had come into power as the champion of States-rights, and had driven States to the verge of armed resistance. He had begun by claiming credit for stern economy, and ended by exceeding the expenditure of his predecessors. He had invented a policy of peace, and his invention resulted in the necessity of fighting at once the two greatest Powers in the world. ” p. 1239