“Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country… I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire.” So began Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1801.
Like the trepidation voiced by George Washington prior to his inauguration, Jefferson’s words clearly denote his understanding of the lion’s den in which he was about to walk. He also understood that he did not enjoy the positive regard of almost the entire nation that Washington once experienced. John Adams had not been reelected because of his desire to strengthen the Federal Government and support for legislation such as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson had been a vocal critic of Adams, and much of his inaugural address spoke to the contentious rancor which had arisen between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson reached out with statements such as, “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions…. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Despite his conciliatory statements, Jefferson was indeed attacked throughout his presidency as noted by the attached 1808 political cartoon.
To those who felt the Federal Government was not strong enough, Jefferson voiced his own opinion that it was the strongest government of the time in the world, and listed the principles which would shape his administration. Amongst other points, he included “equal and exact justice to all men,” “the support of the State governments in all their rights,” “the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor,” rights granted in the Bill of Rights such as freedom of religion, and “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”
I suspect that list was in Jefferson’s mind when he wrote to Samuel Adams on March 29, 1801. In the letter he referenced his inaugural speech: “I addressed a letter to you, my very dear & antient friend, on the 4th. of March: not indeed to you by name, but through the medium of some of my fellow citizens, whom occasion called on me to address. in meditating the matter of that address, I often asked myself, is this exactly in the spirit of the patriarch of liberty, Samuel Adams? is it as he would express it? will he approve of it? I have felt a great deal for our country in the times we have seen: but individually for no one so much as yourself. when I have been told that you were avoided, insulated, frowned on, I could but ejaculate ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jefferson went on to acknowledge, and ask Adams’ forgiveness the “indignation” he had felt toward Adams during the recent political hostilities. “however, the storm is over, and we are in port. the ship was not rigged for the service she was put on. we will shew the smoothness of her motions on her republican tack. I hope we shall once more see harmony restored among our citizens, & an entire oblivion of past feuds.” He lamented that Adams had not been involved in the executive branch. “it would have been a day of glory which should have called you to the first office of the administration. but give us your counsel my friend, and give us your blessing:”
It is Samuel Adams’ response that motivated me to write this post. I came across his letter accidentally and spent much of the day reading Jefferson’s letter and inaugural address. We have very little of Adams’ personal correspondence because, in no small part, of a habit once referenced by his famous cousin, John. John Adams noted that Samuel ripped up or burned letters in order to protect his friends and fellow patriots. Samuel Adams was the organizer and moving force behind the Sons of Liberty and Boston Committee of Correspondence. He may also have been the driving force behind the Boston Tea Party. Therefore, those corresponding with him did so at their own peril. After all, it was only Adams and John Hancock who were specifically exempted from General Gage’s offer of amnesty to all Bostonians in 1775. Adams was known for his fiery and passionate speeches. He worked tirelessly in his quest to have colonists treated in the same manner as British citizens living in England, and later in his desire to relieve the Colonies from the tyranny imposed upon them. He clearly shared the principles so valued by Jefferson. With that in mind, what a different perspective we have from reading Adams’ letter to Jefferson. His conciliatory and reassuring words must have been a comfort to Jefferson. It also gives us a window into level of acrimony which existed between the political forces of the time. Please enjoy the words of Samuel Adams in his letter to Thomas Jefferson dated April 24, 1801:
“My Very Dear Friend
Your Letter of the 29th. of March came duly to my hand. I sincerely congratulate our Country on the arrival of the day of Glory, which has called you to the first office in the administration of our federal Government. Your warm feelings of friendship must certainly have carried you to a higher tone of expression, than my utmost merrits will bear: If I have at any time been avoided, or frowned upon, your kind ejaculation in the language of the most perfect friend of Man, surpasses every injury. The Storm is now over, and we are in port, and I dare say, the ship will be rigged for her proper service; she must also be well man’d and very carefully officered. No man can be fit to sustain an office, who cannot consent to the principles, by which he must be governed. With you, I hope, we shall once more see harmony restored; but after so severe and long a storm, it will take a proportionate time to still the raging of the waves. The World has been governed by prejudice and passion, which never can be friendly to truth; and while you nobly resolve to retain the principles of candour and of justice resulting from a free elective Representative Government, such as they have been taught to hate and despise; you must depend upon being hated yourself, because they hate your principles, not a man of them dare openly to despise you, your inaugural speech, to say nothing of your eminent services to the acceptance of our Country, will secure you from contempt. It may require some time before the great body of our fellow citizens will settle in harmony, good humour and peace: When deep prejudices shall be removed in some, the self interestedness of others shall cease, and many honest Men, whose minds for want of better information have been clouded shall return to the use of their own understanding, the happy and wished for time will come. The Eyes of the people have too generally been fast closed from the view of their own happiness; such Alass has been always the lot of Man! but Providence, who rules the World, seems now to be rapidly changing the sentiments of Mankind in Europe, and America: May Heaven grant, that the principles of Liberty and virtue, truth and justice may pervade the whole Earth. I have a small circle of intimate friends, among whom Doctr. Charles Jarvis is one; he is a man of much information and great integrity: I heartily wish, there may be an epistolary correspondence between him and you.—I should have written this Letter before, had not my faithfull friend and amanuensis John Avery; who is your friend as well as mine, been occupied in the business of his office of Secretary of this Commonwealth, which he attends with great punctuallity and integrity.—It is not in my power my dear friend, to give you council, an Old Man is apt to flatter himself, that he stands upon an equal footing with younger Men, he indeed cannot help feeling, that the powers of his Mind, as well as his body are weakened; but he relies upon his memory, and fondly wishes his young friends to think, that he can instruct them by his Experience, when in all probability, he has forgot every trace of it, that was worth his memory. Be assured, that my esteem for you is as cordial, if possible, as yours is to me:—Though an Old Man cannot advise you, he can give you his Blessing: You have devoutly my Blessing and my Prayers.—
My dear Mrs. Adams will not suffer me to close this Letter, ‘till I let you know, that she recollects the pleasure and entertainment, you afforded us, when you was about to embark for France, and hopes that your administration may be happy to yourself, and prosperous to our Country.—“
Read Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address at: http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/founding-fathers/presidents-during-the-founding-period/1462-2/thomas-jeffersons-first-inaugural-address/
Read Jefferson’s letter to Adams at: http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-history/founding-fathers/presidents-during-the-founding-period/1462-2/letter-to-samuel-adams-from-thomas-jefferson-march-29-1801/
Please take a moment to consider that the heated political debates of our time are not new to our country. They have occurred throughout the course of the history of the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson fought against an all-powerful Federal Government and was bolstered in his efforts to lead the country by men such as Samuel Adams. Important lessons can be learned in our present quest to restore our constitutional republic. As Jefferson said, “the ship was not rigged for the service she was put on….I will sacrifice every thing but principle to procure it. a few examples of justice on officers who have perverted their functions to the oppression of their fellow citizens, must, in justice to those citizens, be made. but opinion, & the just maintenance of it shall never be a crime in my view; nor bring injury on the individual.” The wise words of Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams are truly examples of What IS Right With America!
Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.