"A soft word turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.”
On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson put on a plain business suit and took a short walk from a boarding house just south of Washington City to the chamber of the United States Senate to be sworn in as the third President of the United States.
Though the third President, Jefferson’s inauguration marked several firsts. He was the first president to be inaugurated in Washington City – his predecessors had taken the oath of office in New York and Philadelphia. His decision to journey to the swearing-in on foot, and his decision to dispense with dress clothes and a ceremonial sword, marked deliberate departures from the ritual established by his predecessors. The carriages in which George Washington and John Adams rode to their inaugurations, and the clothes and ceremonial swords they wore for them, were modest by Old-World standards; but Jefferson still regarded them as out of step with the spirit of 1776. The simplicity of Jefferson’s ceremony was a critique of the Federalist government that preceded him, and an attempt at bestowing republican modesty upon American government.
Jefferson, however, knew better than to use his inauguration simply as an occasion to pour salt in the wounds of his predecessors and opponents. He needed to restore peace, civility, and a discernable center to American politics – all of which the Election of 1800 had obliterated.
The decade preceding 1800 foreshadowed what would be the first pugilistic American presidential election. George Washington’s two elections were uncontested, though even by his re-election in 1792 partisan hostilities between Federalists and Republicans were warming on the back burner. The Election of 1796 – Adams vs. Jefferson I – was competitive, and occasionally testy, and political partisanship by then had heated to a simmer. But during Adams’ term as President the boiling point was reached. Inflamed by the warring narratives of partisan presses and the Quasi-war with France, the first two American parties came to view one another, not as opponents, but as enemies, seditionists, and threats to the Republic. Republican and Federalist presses cast aside all restraint in savaging men of the other party. The Federalists passed the Sedition Act, and used it to prosecute Republican newspapermen whose publications ought to have been protected by the First Amendment. In response, Republicans in Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions which stated that, on account of these unconstitutional prosecutions under the Sedition Act, that Act should be nullified and the State governments should “interpose for arresting the progress of the evil” committed against their citizens. Alexander Hamilton may occasionally have enjoyed the Quiet Uptown, but more often he was mustering an army to subdue Frenchmen and Spaniards on the Southern and Western frontiers – and also Republicans in Kentucky and Virginia.
With such a backdrop, the vitriol of the Election of 1800 came as little surprise. What finally threw the election to the Republicans was division in the Federalists’ ranks. While Alexander Hamilton fired a widely-read broadside at the Adams administration, the Republican coalition held together, through election day. But the year 1800 had a twist ending to add, as Jefferson’s election was thrown into doubt by the fact that he and his running mate Aaron Burr both received seventy-three electoral votes for President. Whether this resulted from simple neglect by a Burr elector who forgot to throw away his vote, or by Burr intrigue, has never been resolved by historians. However the tie came about, though, the result was chaos, as the election had then to be decided by the lame-duck Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. For perspective, we find it unsettling when a presidential election isn’t resolved the Wednesday after election Tuesday. The Election of 1800 wasn’t resolved until February 17, 1801 – when, on a thirty-sixth ballot in the House, Jefferson finally won the requisite number of State delegations to win the presidency.
Having won the Presidency of a young nation already so chafed by partisan friction, whose nerves had been set so on edge by the uncertainty of the electoral process, Jefferson had about two weeks to prepare an inaugural address whose words might salve the wounds of the election past, or aggravate them. Wisely, Jefferson chose to apply the balm. His inaugural address stands to this day as one of the finest ever delivered, and perhaps the finest address Jefferson himself ever wrote. It’s easier to be eloquent in a break-up song – the Declaration of Independence – than in a mediation between warring factions.
But Jefferson, in his inaugural, took exactly the right stance. The address is remembered chiefly for the conciliatory sentence “We are all republicans; we are all federalists.” But Jefferson surrounded that sentence with various assurances of forbearance toward Federalists:
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.
The Federalists, having brandished the Sedition Act against the Republicans, would not be subject to retribution: “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate [them] would be oppression.” This was not a bland middle way between Republicanism and Federalism; it was the Republican argument against the Sedition Act in full bloom. But when a once-minority becomes a governing majority, it often conveniently forgets the arguments it made previously. Jefferson would not forget; and if many of the beneficiaries of his assurances were his Federalist critics, so be it. He did not wish to discipline with scorpions the political transgressions that his predecessors disciplined with whips.
The address also contained Jefferson’s working harmonization of the federalist and republican principles. These were not the product of two weeks’ reflection, but two presidential terms’ worth. The bitterness of the Election of 1800 did not disturb Jefferson’s reflections, and the softness of his expressions contrasted remarkably with the bitterness of the election: “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle.” Jefferson neither wished “to dissolve this Union, or to change its republican form.”
The most remarkable passage in Jefferson’s address passed from the political to the personal. Political goods may have been important, then as now, but they were not ends:
. . . let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things.
Two hundred and twenty years later, the sentence has not lost a bit of its freshness.