Jefferson and his Colleagues, A Chronicle of the Virginia Dynasty by Allen Johnson

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  • 1921
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The rumble of President John Adams’s coach had hardly died away in the distance on the morning of March 4,1801, when Mr. Thomas Jefferson entered the breakfast room of Conrad’s boarding house on Capitol Hill, where he had been living in bachelor’s quarters during his Vice-Presidency. He took his usual seat at the lower end of the table among the other boarders, declining with a smile to accept the chair of the impulsive Mrs. Brown, who felt, in spite of her democratic principles, that on this day of all days Mr. Jefferson should have the place which he had obstinately refused to occupy at the head of the table and near the fireplace. There were others besides the wife of the Senator from Kentucky who felt that Mr. Jefferson was carrying equality too far. But Mr. Jefferson would not take precedence over the Congressmen who were his fellow boarders.

Conrad’s was conveniently near the Capitol, on the south side of the hill, and commanded an extensive view. The slope of the hill, which was a wild tangle of verdure in summer, debouched into a wide plain extending to the Potomac. Through this lowland wandered a little stream, once known as Goose Creek but now dignified by the name of Tiber. The banks of the stream as well as of the Potomac were fringed with native flowering shrubs and graceful trees, in which Mr. Jefferson took great delight. The prospect from his drawing-room windows, indeed, quite as much as anything else, attached him to Conrad’s.

As was his wont, Mr. Jefferson withdrew to his study after breakfast and doubtless ran over the pages of a manuscript which he had been preparing with some care for this Fourth of March. It may be guessed, too, that here, as at Monticello, he made his usual observations-noting in his diary the temperature, jotting down in the garden-book which he kept for thirty years an item or two about the planting of vegetables, and recording, as he continued to do for eight years, the earliest and latest appearance of each comestible in the Washington market. Perhaps he made a few notes about the “seeds of the cymbling (cucurbita vermeosa) and squash (cucurbita melopipo)” which he purposed to send to his friend Philip Mazzei, with directions for planting; or even wrote a letter full of reflections upon bigotry in politics and religion to Dr. Joseph Priestley, whom he hoped soon to have as his guest in the President’s House.

Toward noon Mr. Jefferson stepped out of the house and walked over to the Capitol–a tall, rather loose-jointed figure, with swinging stride, symbolizing, one is tempted to think, the angularity of the American character. “A tall, large-boned farmer,” an unfriendly English observer called him. His complexion was that of a man constantly exposed to the sun–sandy or freckled, contemporaries called it–but his features were clean-cut and strong and his expression was always kindly and benignant.

Aside from salvos of artillery at the hour of twelve, the inauguration of Mr. Jefferson as President of the United States was marked by extreme simplicity. In the Senate chamber of the unfinished Capitol, he was met by Aaron Burr, who had already been installed as presiding officer, and conducted to the Vice-President’s chair, while that debonair man of the world took a seat on his right with easy grace. On Mr. Jefferson’s left sat Chief Justice John Marshall, a “tall, lax, lounging Virginian,” with black eyes peering out from his swarthy countenance. There is a dramatic quality in this scene of the President-to-be seated between two men who are to cause him more vexation of spirit than any others in public life. Burr, brilliant, gifted, ambitious, and profligate; Marshall, temperamentally and by conviction opposed to the principles which seemed to have triumphed in the election of this radical Virginian, to whom indeed he had a deep-seated aversion. After a short pause, Mr. Jefferson rose and read his Inaugural Address in a tone so low that it could be heard by only a few in the crowded chamber.

Those who expected to hear revolutionary doctrines must have been surprised by the studied moderation of this address. There was not a Federalist within hearing of Jefferson’s voice who could not have subscribed to all the articles in this profession of political faith. “Equal and exact justice to all men”–“a jealous care of the right of election by the people”–“absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority”–“the supremacy of the civil over the military authority”–“the honest payments of our debts”–“freedom of religion”–“freedom of the press”-“freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus”–what were these principles but the bright constellation, as Jefferson said, “which has guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation?” John Adams himself might have enunciated all these principles, though he would have distributed the emphasis somewhat differently.

But what did Jefferson mean when he said, “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans–we are all Federalists.” If this was true, what, pray, became of the revolution of 1800, which Jefferson had declared “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form?” Even Jefferson’s own followers shook their heads dubiously over this passage as they read and reread it in the news-sheets. It sounded a false note while the echoes of the campaign of 1800 were still reverberating. If Hamilton and his followers were monarchists at heart in 1800, bent upon overthrowing the Government, how could they and the triumphant Republicans be brethren of the same principle in 1801? The truth of the matter is that Jefferson was holding out an olive branch to his political opponents. He believed, as he remarked in a private letter, that many Federalists were sound Republicans at heart who had been stampeded into the ranks of his opponents during the recent troubles with France. These lost political sheep Jefferson was bent upon restoring to the Republican fold by avoiding utterances and acts which would offend them. “I always exclude the leaders from these considerations,” he added confidentially. In short, this Inaugural Address was less a great state paper, marking a broad path for the Government to follow under stalwart leadership, than an astute effort to consolidate the victory of the Republican party.

Disappointing the address must have been to those who had expected a declaration of specific policy. Yet the historian, wiser by the march of events, may read between the lines. When Jefferson said that he desired a wise and frugal government–a government “which should restrain men from injuring one another but otherwise leave them free to regulate their own pursuits–” and when he announced his purpose “to support the state governments in all their rights” and to cultivate “peace with all nations–entangling alliances with none,” he was in effect formulating a policy. But all this was in the womb of the future.

It was many weeks before Jefferson took up his abode in the President’s House. In the interval he remained in his old quarters, except for a visit to Monticello to arrange for his removal, which indeed he was in no haste to make, for “The Palace,” as the President’s House was dubbed satirically, was not yet finished; its walls were not fully plastered, and it still lacked the main staircase-which, it must be admitted, was a serious defect if the new President meant to hold court. Besides, it was inconveniently situated at the other end of the, straggling, unkempt village. At Conrad’s Jefferson could still keep in touch with those members of Congress and those friends upon whose advice he relied in putting “our Argosie on her Republican tack,” as he was wont to say. Here, in his drawing-room, he could talk freely with practical politicians such as Charles Pinckney, who had carried the ticket to success in South Carolina and who might reasonably expect to be consulted in organizing the new Administration.

The chief posts in the President’s official household, save one, were readily filled. There were only five heads of departments to be appointed, and of these the Attorney-General might be described as a head without a department, since the duties of his office were few and required only his occasional attention. As it fell out, however, the Attorney-General whom Jefferson appointed, Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts, practically carried on the work of all the Executive Departments until his colleagues were duly appointed and commissioned. For Secretary of War Jefferson chose another reliable New Englander, Henry Dearborn of Maine. The naval portfolio went begging, perhaps because the navy was not an imposing branch of the service, or because the new President had announced his desire to lay up all seven frigates in the eastern branch of the Potomac, where “they would be under the immediate eye of the department and would require but one set of plunderers to look after them.” One conspicuous Republican after another declined this dubious honor, and in the end Jefferson was obliged to appoint as Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, whose chief qualification was his kinship to General Samuel Smith, an influential politician of Maryland.

The appointment by Jefferson of James Madison as Secretary of State occasioned no surprise, for the intimate friendship of the two Virginians and their long and close association in politics led everyone to expect that he would occupy an important post in the new Administration, though in truth that friendship was based on something deeper and finer than mere agreement in politics. “I do believe,” exclaimed a lady who often saw both men in private life, “father never loved son more than Mr. Jefferson loves Mr. Madison.” The difference in age, however, was not great, for Jefferson was in his fifty-eighth year and Madison in his fiftieth. It was rather mien and character that suggested the filial relationship. Jefferson was, or could be if he chose, an imposing figure; his stature was six feet two and one-half inches. Madison had the ways and habits of a little man, for he was only five feet six. Madison was naturally timid and retiring in the presence of other men, but he was at his best in the company of his friend Jefferson, who valued his attainments. Indeed, the two men supplemented each other. If Jefferson was prone to theorize, Madison was disposed to find historical evidence to support a political doctrine. While Jefferson generalized boldly, even rashly, Madison hesitated, temporized, weighed the pros and cons, and came with difficulty to a conclusion. Unhappily neither was a good judge of men. When pitted against a Bonaparte, a Talleyrand, or a Canning, they appeared provincial in their ways and limited in their sympathetic understanding of statesmen of the Old World.

Next to that of Madison, Jefferson valued the friendship of Albert Gallatin, whom he made Secretary of the Treasury by a recess appointment, since there was some reason to fear that the Federalist Senate would not confirm the nomination. The Federalists could never forget that Gallatin was a Swiss by birth–an alien of supposedly radical tendencies. The partisan press never exhibited its crass provincialism more shamefully than when it made fun of Gallatin’s imperfect pronunciation of English. He had come to America, indeed, too late to acquire a perfect control of a new tongue, but not too late to become a loyal son of his adopted country. He brought to Jefferson’s group of advisers not only a thorough knowledge of public finance but a sound judgment and a statesmanlike vision, which were often needed to rectify the political vagaries of his chief.

The last of his Cabinet appointments made, Jefferson returned to his country seat at Monticello for August and September, for he was determined not to pass those two “bilious months” in Washington. “I have not done it these forty years,” he wrote to Gallatin. “Grumble who will, I will never pass those two months on tidewater.” To Monticello, indeed, Jefferson turned whenever his duties permitted and not merely in the sickly months of summer, for when the roads were good the journey was rapidly and easily made by stage or chaise. There, in his garden and farm, he found relief from the distractions of public life. “No occupation is so delightful to me,” he confessed, “as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” At Monticello, too, he could gratify his delight in the natural sciences, for he was a true child of the eighteenth century in his insatiable curiosity about the physical universe and in his desire to reduce that universe to an intelligible mechanism. He was by instinct a rationalist and a foe to superstition in any form, whether in science or religion. His indefatigable pen was as ready to discuss vaccination and yellow fever with Dr. Benjamin Rush as it was to exchange views with Dr. Priestley on the ethics of Jesus.

The diversity of Jefferson’s interests is truly remarkable. Monticello is a monument to his almost Yankee-like ingenuity. He writes to his friend Thomas Paine to assure him that the semi-cylindrical form of roof after the De Lorme pattern, which he proposes for his house, is entirely practicable, for he himself had “used it at home for a dome, being 120 degrees of an oblong octagon.” He was characteristically American in his receptivity to new ideas from any source. A chance item about Eli Whitney of New Haven arrests his attention and forthwith he writes to Madison recommending a “Mr. Whitney at Connecticut, a mechanic of the first order of ingenuity, who invented the cotton gin,” and who has recently invented “molds and machines for making all the pieces of his [musket] locks so exactly equal that take one hundred locks to pieces and mingle their parts and the hundred locks may be put together as well by taking the first pieces which come to hand.” To Robert Fulton, then laboring to perfect his torpedoes and submarine, Jefferson wrote encouragingly: “I have ever looked to the submarine boat as most to be depended on for attaching them [i. e., torpedoes]….I am in hopes it is not to be abandoned as impracticable.”

It was not wholly affectation, therefore, when Jefferson wrote, “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions.” One can readily picture this Virginia farmer-philosopher ruefully closing his study door, taking a last look over the gardens and fields of Monticello, in the golden days of October, and mounting Wildair, his handsome thoroughbred, setting out on the dusty road for that little political world at Washington, where rumor so often got the better of reason and where gossip was so likely to destroy philosophic serenity.

Jefferson had been a widower for many years; and so, since his daughters were married and had households of their own, he was forced to preside over his menage at Washington without the feminine touch and tact so much needed at this American court. Perhaps it was this unhappy circumstance quite as much as his dislike for ceremonies and formalities that made Jefferson do away with the weekly levees of his predecessors and appoint only two days, the First of January and the Fourth of July, for public receptions. On such occasions he begged Mrs. Dolly Madison to act as hostess; and a charming and gracious figure she was, casting a certain extenuating veil over the President’s gaucheries. Jefferson held, with his many political heresies, certain theories of social intercourse which ran rudely counter to the prevailing etiquette of foreign courts. Among the rules which he devised for his republican court, the precedence due to rank was conspicuously absent, because he held that “all persons when brought together in society are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.” One of these rules to which the Cabinet gravely subscribed read as follows:

“To maintain the principles of equality, or of pele mele, and prevent the growth of precedence out of courtesy, the members of the Executive will practise at their own houses, and recommend an adherence to the ancient usage of the country, of gentlemen in mass giving precedence to the ladies in mass, in passing from one apartment where they are assembled into another.”

The application of this rule on one occasion gave rise to an incident which convulsed Washington society. President Jefferson had invited to dinner the new British Minister Merry and his wife, the Spanish Minister Yrujo and his wife, the French Minister Pichon and his wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Madison. When dinner was announced, Mr. Jefferson gave his hand to Mrs. Madison and seated her on his right, leaving the rest to straggle in as they pleased. Merry, fresh from the Court of St. James, was aghast and affronted; and when a few days later, at a dinner given by the Secretary of State, he saw Mrs. Merry left without an escort, while Mr. Madison took Mrs. Gallatin to the table, he believed that a deliberate insult was intended. To appease this indignant Briton the President was obliged to explain officially his rule of “pole mele”; but Mrs. Merry was not appeased and positively refused to appear at the President’s New Year’s Day reception. “Since then,” wrote the amused Pichon, “Washington society is turned upside down; all the women are to the last degree exasperated against Mrs. Merry; the Federalist newspapers have taken up the matter, and increased the irritations by sarcasms on the administration and by making a burlesque of the facts.” Then Merry refused an invitation to dine again at the President’s, saying that he awaited instructions from his Government; and the Marquis Yrujo, who had reasons of his own for fomenting trouble, struck an alliance with the Merrys and also declined the President’s invitation. Jefferson was incensed at their conduct, but put the blame upon Mrs. Merry, whom he characterized privately as a “virago who has already disturbed our harmony extremely.”

A brilliant English essayist has observed that a government to secure obedience must first excite reverence. Some such perception, coinciding with native taste, had moved George Washington to assume the trappings of royalty, in order to surround the new presidential office with impressive dignity. Posterity has, accordingly, visualized the first President and Father of his Country as a statuesque figure, posing at formal levees with a long sword in a scabbard of white polished leather, and clothed in black velvet knee-breeches, with yellow gloves and a cocked hat. The third President of the United States harbored no such illusions and affected no such poses. Governments were made by rational beings–“by the consent of the governed,” he had written in a memorable document–and rested on no emotional basis. Thomas Jefferson remained Thomas Jefferson after his election to the chief magistracy; and so contemporaries saw him in the President’s House, an unimpressive figure clad in “a blue coat, a thick gray-colored hairy waistcoat, with a red underwaist lapped over it, green velveteen breeches, with pearl buttons, yarn stockings, and slippers down at the heels.” Anyone might have found him, as Senator Maclay did, sitting “in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other,” a loose, shackling figure with no pretense at dignity.

In his dislike for all artificial distinctions between man and man, Jefferson determined from the outset to dispense a true Southern hospitality at the President’s House and to welcome any one at any hour on any day. There was therefore some point to John Quincy Adams’s witticism that Jefferson’s “whole eight years was a levee.” No one could deny that he entertained handsomely. Even his political opponents rose from his table with a comfortable feeling of satiety which made them more kindly in their attitude toward their host. “We sat down at the table at four,” wrote Senator Plumer of New Hampshire, “rose at six, and walked immediately into another room and drank coffee. We had a very good dinner, with a profusion of fruits and sweetmeats. The wine was the best I ever drank, particularly the champagne, which was indeed delicious.”

It was in the circle of his intimates that Jefferson appeared at his best, and of all his intimate friends Madison knew best how to evoke the true Jefferson. To outsiders Madison appeared rather taciturn, but among his friends he was genial and even lively, amusing all by his ready humor and flashes of wit. To his changes of mood Jefferson always responded. Once started Jefferson would talk on and on, in a loose and rambling fashion, with a great deal of exaggeration and with many vagaries, yet always scattering much information on a great variety of topics. Here we may leave him for the moment, in the exhilarating hours following his inauguration, discoursing with Pinckney, Gallatin, Madison, Burr, Randolph, Giles, Macon, and many another good Republican, and evolving the policies of his Administration.


President Jefferson took office in a spirit of exultation which he made no effort to disguise in his private letters. “The tough sides of our Argosie,” he wrote to John Dickinson, “have been thoroughly tried. Her strength has stood the waves into which she was steered with a view to sink her. We shall put her on her Republican tack, and she will now show by the beauty of her motion the skill of her builders.” In him as in his two intimates, Gallatin and Madison, there was a touch of that philosophy which colored the thought of reformers on the eve of the French Revolution, a naive confidence in the perfectability of man and the essential worthiness of his aspirations. Strike from man the shackles of despotism and superstition and accord to him a free government, and he would rise to unsuspected felicity. Republican government was the strongest government on earth, because it was founded on free will and imposed the fewest checks on the legitimate desires of men. Only one thing was wanting to make the American people happy and prosperous, said the President in his Inaugural Address “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which 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.” This, he believed, was the sum of good government; and this was the government which he was determined to establish. Whether government thus reduced to lowest terms would prove adequate in a world rent by war, only the future could disclose.

It was only in intimate letters and in converse with Gallatin and Madison that Jefferson revealed his real purposes. So completely did Jefferson take these two advisers into his confidence, and so loyal was their cooperation, that the Government for eight years has been described as a triumvirate almost as clearly defined as any triumvirate of Rome. Three more congenial souls certainly have never ruled a nation, for they were drawn together not merely by agreement on a common policy but by sympathetic understanding of the fundamental principles of government. Gallatin and Madison often frequented the President’s House, and there one may see them in imagination and perhaps catch now and then a fragment of their conversation:

Gallatin: We owe much to geographical position; we have been fortunate in escaping foreign wars. If we can maintain peaceful relations with other nations, we can keep down the cost of administration and avoid all the ills which follow too much government.

The President: After all, we are chiefly an agricultural people and if we shape our policy accordingly we shall be much more likely to multiply and be happy than as if we mimicked an Amsterdam, a Hamburg, or a city like London.

Madison (quietly): I quite agree with you. We must keep the government simple and republican, avoiding the corruption which inevitably prevails in crowded cities.

Gallatin (pursuing his thought): The moment you allow the national debt to mount, you entail burdens on posterity and augment the operations of government.

The President (bitterly): The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity is but swindling futurity on a large scale. That was what Hamilton —

Gallatin: Just so; and if this
administration does not reduce taxes, they will never be reduced. We must strike at the root of the evil and avert the danger of multiplying the functions of government. I would repeal all internal taxes. These pretended tax-preparations, treasure-preparations, and army-preparations against contingent wars tend only to encourage wars.

The President (nodding his head in agreement): The discharge of the debt is vital to the destinies of our government, and for the present we must make all objects subordinate to this. We must confine our general government to foreign concerns only and let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce. And our commerce is so valuable to other nations that they will be glad to purchase it, when they know that all we ask is justice. Why, then, should we not reduce our general government to a very simple organization and a very unexpensive one–a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants?

It was precisely the matter of selecting these few servants which worried the President during his first months in office, for the federal offices were held by Federalists almost to a man. He hoped that he would have to make only a few removals any other course would expose him to the charge of inconsistency after his complacent statement that there was no fundamental difference between Republicans and Federalists. But his followers thought otherwise; they wanted the spoils of victory and they meant to have them. Slowly and reluctantly Jefferson yielded to pressure, justifying himself as he did so by the reflection that a due participation in office was a matter of right. And how, pray, could due participation be obtained, if there were no removals? Deaths were regrettably few; and resignations could hardly be expected. Once removals were decided upon, Jefferson drifted helplessly upon the tide. For a moment, it is true, he wrote hopefully about establishing an equilibrium and then returning “with joy to that state of things when the only questions concerning a candidate shall be: Is he honest? Is he capable? Is he faithful to the Constitution?” That blessed expectation was never realized. By the end of his second term, a Federalist in office was as rare as a Republican under Adams.

The removal of the Collector of the Port at New Haven and the appointment of an octogenarian whose chief qualification was his Republicanism brought to a head all the bitter animosity of Federalist New England. The hostility to Jefferson in this region was no ordinary political opposition, as he knew full well, for it was compounded of many ingredients. In New England there was a greater social solidarity than existed anywhere else in the Union. Descended from English stock, imbued with common religious and political traditions, and bound together by the ties of a common ecclesiastical polity, the people of this section had, as Jefferson expressed it, “a sort of family pride.” Here all the forces of education, property, religion, and respectability were united in the maintenance of the established order against the assaults of democracy. New England Federalism was not so much a body of political doctrine as a state of mind. Abhorrence of the forces liberated by the French Revolution was the dominating emotion. To the Federalist leaders democracy seemed an aberration of the human mind, which was bound everywhere to produce infidelity, looseness of morals, and political chaos. In the words of their Jeremiah, Fisher Ames, “Democracy is a troubled spirit, fated never to rest, and whose dreams, if it sleeps, present only visions of hell.” So thinking and feeling, they had witnessed the triumph of Jefferson with genuine alarm, for Jefferson they held to be no better than a Jacobin, bent upon subverting the social order and saturated with all the heterodox notions of Voltaire and Thomas Paine.

The appointment of the aged Samuel Bishop as Collector of New Haven was evidence enough to the Federalist mind, which fed upon suspicion, that Jefferson intended to reward his son, Abraham Bishop, for political services. The younger Bishop was a stench in their nostrils, for at a recent celebration of the Republican victory he had shocked the good people of Connecticut by characterizing Jefferson as “the illustrious chief who, once insulted, now presides over the Union,” and comparing him with the Saviour of the world, “who, once insulted, now presides over the universe.” And this had not been his first transgression: he was known as an active and intemperate rebel against the standing order. No wonder that Theodore Dwight voiced the alarm of all New England Federalists in an oration at New Haven, in which he declared that according to the doctrines of Jacobinism “the greatest villain in the community is the fittest person to make and execute the laws.” “We have now,” said he, “reached the consummation of democratic blessedness. We have a country governed by blockheads and knaves.” Here was an opposition which, if persisted in, might menace the integrity of the Union.

Scarcely less vexatious was the business of appointments in New York where three factions in the Republican party struggled for the control of the patronage. Which should the President support? Gallatin, whose father-in-law was prominent in the politics of the State, was inclined to favor Burr and his followers; but the President already felt a deep distrust of Burr and finally surrendered to the importunities of DeWitt Clinton, who had formed an alliance with the Livingston interests to drive Burr from the party. Despite the pettiness of the game, which disgusted both Gallatin and Jefferson, the decision was fateful. It was no light matter, even for the chief magistrate, to offend Aaron Burr.

>From these worrisome details of administration, the President turned with relief to the preparation of his first address to Congress. The keynote was to be economy. But just how economies were actually to be effected was not so clear. For months Gallatin had been toiling over masses of statistics, trying to reconcile a policy of reduced taxation, to satisfy the demands of the party, with the discharge of the public debt. By laborious calculation he found that if $7,300,000 were set aside each year, the debt–principal and interest–could be discharged within sixteen years. But if the unpopular excise were abandoned, where was the needed revenue to be found? New taxes were not to be thought of. The alternative, then, was to reduce expenditures. But how and where?

Under these circumstances the President and his Cabinet adopted the course which in the light of subsequent events seems to have been woefully ill-timed and hazardous in the extreme. They determined to sacrifice the army and navy. In extenuation of this decision, it may be said that the danger of war with France, which had forced the Adams Administration to double expenditures, had passed; and that Europe was at this moment at peace, though only the most sanguine and shortsighted could believe that continued peace was possible in Europe with the First Consul in the saddle. It was agreed, then, that the expenditures for the military and naval establishments should be kept at about $2,500,000–somewhat below the normal appropriation before the recent war-flurry; and that wherever possible expenses should be reduced by careful pruning of the list of employees at the navy yards. Such was the programme of humdrum economy which President Jefferson laid before Congress. After the exciting campaign of 1800, when the public was assured that the forces of Darkness and Light were locked in deadly combat for the soul of the nation, this tame programme seemed like an anticlimax. But those who knew Thomas Jefferson learned to discount the vagaries to which he gave expression in conversation. As John Quincy Adams once remarked after listening to Jefferson’s brilliant table talk, “Mr. Jefferson loves to excite wonder.” Yet Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, was a very different person from Thomas Jefferson, practical politician. Paradoxical as it may seem, the new President, of all men of his day, was the least likely to undertake revolutionary policies; and it was just this acquaintance with Jefferson’s mental habits which led his inveterate enemy, Alexander Hamilton, to advise his party associates to elect Jefferson rather than Burr.

The President broke with precedent, however, in one small particular. He was resolved not to follow the practice of his Federalist predecessors and address Congress in person. The President’s speech to the two houses in joint session savored too much of a speech from the throne; it was a symptom of the Federalist leaning to monarchical forms and practices. He sent his address, therefore, in writing, accompanied with letters to the presiding officers of the two chambers, in which he justified this departure from custom on the ground of convenience and economy of time. “I have had principal regard,” he wrote, “to the convenience of the Legislature, to the economy of their time, to the relief from the embarrassment of immediate answers on subjects not yet fully before them, and to the benefits thence resulting to the public affairs.” This explanation deceived no one, unless it was the writer himself. It was thoroughly characteristic of Thomas Jefferson that he often explained his conduct by reasons which were obvious afterthoughts –an unfortunate habit which has led his contemporaries and his unfriendly biographers to charge him with hypocrisy. And it must be admitted that his preference for indirect methods of achieving a purpose exposed him justly to the reproaches of those who liked frankness and plain dealing. It is not unfair, then, to wonder whether the President was not thinking rather of his own convenience when he elected to address Congress by written message, for he was not a ready nor an impressive speaker. At all events, he established a precedent which remained unbroken until another Democratic President, one hundred and twelve years later, returned to the practice of Washington and Adams.

If the Federalists of New England are to be believed, hypocrisy marked the presidential message from the very beginning to the end. It began with a pious expression of thanks “to the beneficent Being” who had been pleased to breathe into the warring peoples of Europe a spirit of forgiveness and conciliation. But even the most bigoted Federalist who could not tolerate religious views differing from his own must have been impressed with the devout and sincere desire of the President to preserve peace. Peace! peace! It was a sentiment which ran through the message like the watermark in the very paper on which he wrote; it was the condition, the absolutely indispensable condition, of every chaste reformation which he advocated. Every reduction of public expenditure was predicated on the supposition that the danger of war was remote because other nations would desire to treat the United States justly. “Salutary reductions in habitual expenditures” were urged in every branch of the public service from the diplomatic and revenue services to the judiciary and the naval yards. War might come, indeed, but “sound principles would not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow-citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not, perhaps, happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure.”

On all concrete matters the President’s message cut close to the line which Gallatin had marked out. The internal taxes should now be dispensed with and corresponding reductions be made in “our habitual expenditures.” There had been unwise multiplication of federal offices, many of which added nothing to the efficiency of the Government but only to the cost. These useless offices should be lopped off, for “when we consider that this Government is charged with the external and mutual relations only of these States, . . . we may well doubt whether our organization is not too complicated, too expensive.” In this connection Congress might well consider the Federal Judiciary, particularly the courts newly erected, and “judge of the proportion which the institution bears to the business it has to perform.”* And finally, Congress should consider whether the law relating to naturalization should not be revised. “A denial of citizenship under a residence of fourteen years is a denial to a great proportion of those who ask it”; and “shall we refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land?”

* The studied moderation of the message gave no hint of Jefferson’s resolute purpose to procure the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801. The history of this act and its repeal, as well as of the attack upon the judiciary, is recounted by Edward S. Corwin in “John Marshall and the Constitution” in “The Chronicles of America.”

The most inveterate foe could not characterize this message as revolutionary, however much he might dissent from the policies advocated. It was not Jefferson’s way, indeed, to announce his intentions boldly and hew his way relentlessly to his objective. He was far too astute as a party leader to attempt to force his will upon Republicans in Congress. He would suggest; he would advise; he would cautiously express an opinion; but he would never dictate. Yet few Presidents have exercised a stronger directive influence upon Congress than Thomas Jefferson during the greater part of his Administration. So long as he was en rapport with Nathaniel Macon, Speaker of the House, and with John Randolph, Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, he could direct the policies of his party as effectively as the most autocratic dictator. When he had made up his mind that Justice Samuel Chase of the Supreme Court should be impeached, he simply penned a note to Joseph Nicholson, who was then managing the impeachment of Judge Pickering, raising the question whether Chase’s attack on the principles of the Constitution should go unpunished. “I ask these questions for your consideration,” said the President deferentially; “for myself, it is better that I should not interfere.” And eventually impeachment proceedings were instituted.

In this memorable first message, the President alluded to a little incident which had occurred in the Mediterranean, “the only exception to this state of general peace with which we have been blessed.” Tripoli, one of the Barbary States, had begun depredations upon American commerce and the President had sent a small squadron for protection. A ship of this squadron, the schooner Enterprise, had fallen in with a Tripolitan man-of-war and after a fight lasting three hours had forced the corsair to strike her colors. But since war had not been declared and the President’s orders were to act only on the defensive, the crew of the Enterprise dismantled the captured vessel and let her go. Would Congress, asked the President, take under consideration the advisability of placing our forces on an equality with those of our adversaries? Neither the President nor his Secretary of the Treasury seems to have been aware that this single cloud on the horizon portended a storm of long duration. Yet within a year it became necessary to delay further reductions in the naval establishment and to impose new taxes to meet the very contingency which the peace-loving President declared most remote. Moreover, the very frigates which he had proposed to lay up in the eastern branch of the Potomac were manned and dispatched to the Mediterranean to bring the Corsairs to terms.


Shortly after Jefferson’s inauguration a visitor presented himself at the Executive Mansion with disquieting news from the Mediterranean. Captain William Bainbridge of the frigate George Washington had just returned from a disagreeable mission. He had been commissioned to carry to the Dey of Algiers the annual tribute which the United States had contracted to pay. It appeared that while the frigate lay at anchor under the shore batteries off Algiers, the Dey attempted to requisition her to carry his ambassador and some Turkish passengers to Constantinople. Bainbridge, who felt justly humiliated by his mission, wrathfully refused. An American frigate do errands for this insignificant pirate? He thought not! The Dey pointed to his batteries, however, and remarked, “You pay me tribute, by which you become my slaves; I have, therefore, a right to order you as I may think proper.” The logic of the situation was undeniably on the side of the master of the shore batteries. Rather than have his ship blown to bits, Bainbridge swallowed his wrath and submitted. On the eve of departure, he had to submit to another indignity. The colors of Algiers must fly at the masthead. Again Bainbridge remonstrated and again the Dey looked casually at his guns trained on the frigate. So off the frigate sailed with the Dey’s flag fluttering from her masthead, and her captain cursing lustily.

The voyage of fifty-nine days to Constantinople, as Bainbridge recounted it to the President, was not without its amusing incidents. Bainbridge regaled the President with accounts of his Mohammedan passengers, who found much difficulty in keeping their faces to the east while the frigate went about on a new tack. One of the faithful was delegated finally to watch the compass so that the rest might continue their prayers undisturbed. And at Constantinople Bainbridge had curious experiences with the Moslems. He announced his arrival as from the United States of America he had hauled down the Dey’s flag as soon as he was out of reach of the batteries. The port officials were greatly puzzled. What, pray, were the United States? Bainbridge explained that they were part of the New World which Columbus had discovered. The Grand Seigneur then showed great interest in the stars of the American flag, remarking that, as his own was decorated with one of the heavenly bodies, the coincidence must be a good omen of the future friendly intercourse of the two nations. Bainbridge did his best to turn his unpalatable mission to good account, but he returned home in bitter humiliation. He begged that he might never again be sent to Algiers with tribute unless he was authorized to deliver it from the cannon’s mouth.

The President listened sympathetically to Bainbridge’s story, for he was not unfamiliar with the ways of the Barbary Corsairs and he had long been of the opinion that tribute only made these pirates bolder and more insufferable. The Congress of the Confederation, however, had followed the policy of the European powers and had paid tribute to secure immunity from attack, and the new Government had simply continued the policy of the old. In spite of his abhorrence of war, Jefferson held that coercion in this instance was on the whole cheaper and more efficacious. Not long after this interview with Bainbridge, President Jefferson was warned that the Pasha of Tripoli was worrying the American Consul with importunate demands for more tribute. This African potentate had discovered that his brother, the Dey of Algiers, had made a better bargain with the United States. He announced, therefore, that he must have a new treaty with more tribute or he would declare war. Fearing trouble from this quarter, the President dispatched a squadron of four vessels under Commodore Richard Dale to cruise in the Mediterranean, with orders to protect American commerce. It was the schooner Enterprise of this squadron which overpowered the Tripolitan cruiser, as Jefferson recounted in his message to Congress.

The former Pasha of Tripoli had been blessed with three sons, Hasan, Hamet, and Yusuf. Between these royal brothers, however, there seems to have been some incompatibility of temperament, for when their father died (Blessed be Allah!) Yusuf, the youngest, had killed Hasan and had spared Hamet only because he could not lay hands upon him. Yusuf then proclaimed himself Pasha. It was Yusuf, the Pasha with this bloody record, who declared war on the United States, May 10,1801, by cutting down the flagstaff of the American consulate.

To apply the term war to the naval operations which followed is, however, to lend specious importance to very trivial events. Commodore Dale made the most of his little squadron, it is true, convoying merchantmen through the straits and along the Barbary coast, holding Tripolitan vessels laden with grain in hopeless inactivity off Gibraltar, and blockading the port of Tripoli, now with one frigate and now with another. When the terms of enlistment of Dale’s crews expired, another squadron was gradually assembled in the Mediterranean, under the command of Captain Richard V. Morris, for Congress had now authorized the use of the navy for offensive operations, and the Secretary of the Treasury, with many misgivings, had begun to accumulate his Mediterranean Fund to meet contingent expenses.

The blockade of Tripoli seems to have been carelessly conducted by Morris and was finally abandoned. There were undeniably great difficulties in the way of an effective blockade. The coast afforded few good harbors; the heavy northerly winds made navigation both difficult and hazardous; the Tripolitan galleys and gunboats with their shallow draft could stand close in shore and elude the American frigates; and the ordnance on the American craft was not heavy enough to inflict any serious damage on the fortifications guarding the harbor. Probably these difficulties were not appreciated by the authorities at Washington; at all events, in the spring of 1803 Morris was suspended from his command and subsequently lost his commission.

In the squadron of which Commodore Preble now took command was the Philadelphia, a frigate of thirty-six guns, to which Captain Bainbridge, eager to square accounts with the Corsairs, had been assigned. Late in October Bainbridge sighted a Tripolitan vessel standing in shore. He gave chase at once with perhaps more zeal than discretion, following his quarry well in shore in the hope of disabling her before she could make the harbor. Failing to intercept the corsair, he went about and was heading out to sea when the frigate ran on an uncharted reef and stuck fast. A worse predicament could scarcely be imagined. Every device known to Yankee seamen was employed to free the unlucky vessel. “The sails were promptly laid a-back,” Bainbridge reported, “and the forward guns run aft, in hopes of backing her off, which not producing the desired effect, orders were given to stave the water in her hold and pump it out, throw overboard the lumber and heavy articles of every kind, cut away the anchors . . . and throw over all the guns, except a few for our defence . . . . As a last resource the foremast and main-topgallant mast were cut away, but without any beneficial effect, and the ship remained a perfect wreck, exposed to the constant fire of the gunboats, which could not be returned.”

The officers advised Bainbridge that the situation was becoming intolerable and justified desperate measures. They had been raked by a galling fire for more than four hours; they had tried every means of floating the ship; humiliating as the alternative was, they saw no other course than to strike the colors. All agreed, therefore, that they should flood the magazine, scuttle the ship, and surrender to the Tripolitan small craft which hovered around the doomed frigate like so many vultures.

For the second time off this accursed coast Bainbridge hauled down his colors. The crews of the Tripolitan gunboats swarmed aboard and set about plundering right and left. Swords, epaulets, watches, money, and clothing were stripped from the officers; and if the crew in the forecastle suffered less it was because they had less to lose. Officers and men were then tumbled into boats and taken ashore, half-naked and humiliated beyond words. Escorted by the exultant rabble, these three hundred luckless Americans were marched to the castle, where the Pasha sat in state. His Highness was in excellent humor. Three hundred Americans! He counted them, each worth hundreds of dollars. Allah was good!

A long, weary bondage awaited the captives. The common seamen were treated like galley slaves, but the officers were given some consideration through the intercession of the Danish consul. Bainbridge was even allowed to correspond with Commodore Preble, and by means of invisible ink he transmitted many important messages which escaped the watchful eyes of his captors. Depressed by his misfortune–for no one then or afterwards held him responsible for the disaster–Bainbridge had only one thought, and that was revenge. Day and night he brooded over plans of escape and retribution.

As though to make the captive Americans drink the dregs of humiliation, the Philadelphia was floated off the reef in a heavy sea and towed safely into the harbor. The scuttling of the vessel had been hastily contrived, and the jubilant Tripolitans succeeded in stopping her seams before she could fill. A frigate like the Philadelphia was a prize the like of which had never been seen in the Pasha’s reign. He rubbed his hands in glee and taunted her crew.

The sight of the frigate riding peacefully at anchor in the harbor was torture to poor Bainbridge. In feverish letters he implored Preble to bombard the town, to sink the gunboats in the harbor, to recapture the frigate or to burn her at her moorings–anything to take away the bitterness of humiliation. The latter alternative, indeed, Preble had been revolving in his own mind.

Toward midnight of February 16, 1804, Bainbridge and his companions were aroused by the guns of the fort. They sprang to the window and witnessed the spectacle for which the unhappy captain had prayed long and devoutly. The Philadelphia was in flames–red, devouring flames, pouring out of her hold, climbing the rigging, licking her topmasts, forming fantastic columns– devastating, unconquerable flames–the frigate was doomed, doomed! And every now and then one of her guns would explode as though booming out her requiem. Bainbridge was avenged.

How had it all happened? The inception of this daring feat must be credited to Commodore Preble; the execution fell to young Stephen Decatur, lieutenant in command of the sloop Enterprise. The plan was this: to use the Intrepid, a captured Tripolitan ketch, as the instrument of destruction, equipping her with combustibles and ammunition, and if possible to burn the Philadelphia and other ships in the harbor while raking the Pasha’s castle with the frigate’s eighteen-pounders. When Decatur mustered his crew on the deck of the Enterprise and called for volunteers for this exploit, every man jack stepped forward. Not a man but was spoiling for excitement after months of tedious inactivity; not an American who did not covet a chance to avenge the loss of the Philadelphia. But all could not be used, and Decatur finally selected five officers and sixty-two men. On the night of the 3rd of February, the Intrepid set sail from Syracuse, accompanied by the brig Siren, which was to support the boarding party with her boats and cover their retreat.

Two weeks later, the Intrepid, barely distinguishable in the light of a new moon, drifted into the harbor of Tripoli. In the distance lay the unfortunate Philadelphia. The little ketch was now within range of the batteries, but she drifted on unmolested until within a hundred yards of the frigate. Then a hail came across the quiet bay. The pilot replied that he had lost his anchors and asked permission to make fast to the frigate for the night. The Tripolitan lookout grumbled assent. Ropes were then thrown out and the vessels were drawing together, when the cry “Americanas!” went up from the deck of the frigate. In a trice Decatur and his men had scrambled aboard and overpowered the crew.

It was a crucial moment. If Decatur’s instructions had not been imperative, he would have thrown prudence to the winds and have tried to cut out the frigate and make off in her. There were those, indeed, who believed that he might have succeeded. But the Commodore’s orders were to destroy the frigate. There was no alternative. Combustibles were brought on board, the match applied, and in a few moments the frigate was ablaze. Decatur and his men had barely time to regain the Intrepid and to cut her fasts. The whole affair had not taken more than twenty minutes, and no one was killed or even seriously wounded.

Pulling lustily at their sweeps, the crew of the Intrepid moved her slowly out of the harbor, in the light of the burning vessel. The guns of the fort were manned at last and were raining shot and shell wildly over the harbor. The jack-tars on the Intrepid seemed oblivious to danger, “commenting upon the beauty of the spray thrown up by the shot between us and the brilliant light of the ship, rather than calculating any danger,” wrote Midshipman Morris. Then the starboard guns of the Philadelphia, as though instinct with purpose, began to send hot shot into the town. The crew yelled with delight and gave three cheers for the redoubtable old frigate. It was her last action, God bless her! Her cables soon burned, however, and she drifted ashore, there to blow up in one last supreme effort to avenge herself. At the entrance of the harbor the Intrepid found the boats of the Siren, and three days later both rejoined the squadron.

Thrilling as Decatur’s feat was, it brought peace no nearer. The Pasha, infuriated by the loss of the Philadelphia, was more exorbitant than ever in his demands. There was nothing for it but to scour the Mediterranean for Tripolitan ships, maintain the blockade so far as weather permitted, and await the opportunity to reduce the city of Tripoli by bombardment. But Tripoli was a hard nut to crack. On the ocean side it was protected by forts and batteries and the harbor was guarded by a long line of reefs. Through the openings in this natural breakwater, the light-draft native craft could pass in and out to harass the blockading fleet.

It was Commodore Preble’s plan to make a carefully concerted attack upon this stronghold as soon as summer weather conditions permitted. For this purpose he had strengthened his squadron at Syracuse by purchasing a number of flat-bottomed gunboats with which he hoped to engage the enemy in the shallow waters about Tripoli while his larger vessels shelled the town and batteries. He arrived off the African coast about the middle of July but encountered adverse weather, so that for several weeks he could accomplish nothing of consequence. Finally, on the 3rd of August, a memorable date in the annals of the American navy, he gave the signal for action.

The new gunboats were deployed in two divisions, one commanded by Decatur, and fully met expectations by capturing two enemy ships in most sanguinary, hand-to-hand fighting. Meantime the main squadron drew close in shore, so close, it is said, that the gunners of shore batteries could not depress their pieces sufficiently to score hits. All these preliminaries were watched with bated breath by the officers of the old Philadelphia from behind their prison bars.

The Pasha had viewed the approach of the American fleet with utter disdain. He promised the spectators who lined the terraces that they would witness some rare sport; they should see his gunboats put the enemy to flight. But as the American gunners began to get the range and pour shot into the town, and the Constitution with her heavy ordnance passed and repassed, delivering broadsides within three cables’ length of the batteries, the Pasha’s nerves were shattered and he fled precipitately to his bomb-proof shelter. No doubt the damage inflicted by this bombardment was very considerable, but Tripoli still defied the enemy. Four times within the next four weeks Preble repeated these assaults, pausing after each bombardment to ascertain what terms the Pasha had to offer; but the wily Yusuf was obdurate, knowing well enough that, if he waited, the gods of wind and storm would come to his aid and disperse the enemy’s fleet.

It was after the fifth ineffectual assault that Preble determined on a desperate stroke. He resolved to fit out a fireship and to send her into the very jaws of death, hoping to destroy the Tripolitan gunboats and at the same time to damage the castle and the town. He chose for this perilous enterprise the old Intrepid which had served her captors so well, and out of many volunteers he gave the command to Captain Richard Somers and Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth. The little ketch was loaded with a hundred barrels of gunpowder and a large quantity of combustibles and made ready for a quick run by the batteries into the harbor. Certain death it seemed to sail this engine of destruction past the outlying reefs into the midst of the Tripolitan gunboats; but every precaution was taken to provide for the escape of the crew. Two rowboats were taken along and in these frail craft, they believed, they could embark, when once the torch had been applied, and in the ensuing confusion return to the squadron.

Somers selected his crew of ten men with care, and at the last moment consented to let Lieutenant Joseph Israel join the perilous expedition. On the night of the 4th of September, the Intrepid sailed off in the darkness toward the mouth of the harbor. Anxious eyes followed the little vessel, trying to pierce the blackness that soon enveloped her. As she neared the harbor the shore batteries opened fire; and suddenly a blinding flash and a terrific explosion told the fate which overtook her. Fragments of wreckage rose high in the air, the fearful concussion was felt by every boat in the squadron, and then darkness and awful silence enfolded the dead and the dying. Two days later the bodies of the heroic thirteen, mangled beyond recognition, were cast up by the sea. Even Captain Bainbridge, gazing sorrowfully upon his dead comrades could not recognize their features. Just what caused the explosion will never be known. Preble always believed that Tripolitans had attempted to board the Intrepid and that Somers had deliberately fired the powder magazine rather than surrender. Be that as it may, no one doubts that the crew were prepared to follow their commander to self-destruction if necessary. In deep gloom, the squadron returned to Syracuse, leaving a few vessels to maintain a fitful blockade off the hated and menacing coast.

Far away from the sound of Commodore Preble’s guns a strange, almost farcical, intervention in the Tripolitan War was preparing. The scene shifts to the desert on the east, where William Eaton, consul at Tunis, becomes the center of interest. Since the very beginning of the war, this energetic and enterprising Connecticut Yankee had taken a lively interest in the fortunes of Hamet Karamanli, the legitimate heir to the throne, who had been driven into exile by Yusuf the pretender. Eaton loved intrigue as Preble gloried in war. Why not assist Hamet to recover his throne? Why not, in frontier parlance, start a back-fire that would make Tripoli too hot for Yusuf? He laid his plans before his superiors at Washington, who, while not altogether convinced of his competence to play the king-maker, were persuaded to make him navy agent, subject to the orders of the commander of the American squadron in the Mediterranean. Commodore Samuel Barron, who succeeded Preble, was instructed to avail himself of the cooperation of the ex-Pasha of Tripoli if he deemed it prudent. In the fall of 1804 Barron dispatched Eaton in the Argus, Captain Isaac Hull commander, to Alexandria to find Hamet and to assure him of the cooperation of the American squadron in the reconquest of his kingdom. Eaton entered thus upon the coveted role: twenty centuries looked down upon him as they had upon Napoleon.

A mere outline of what followed reads like the scenario of an opera bouffe. Eaton ransacked Alexandria in search, of Hamet the unfortunate but failed to find the truant. Then acting on a rumor that Hamet had departed up the Nile to join the Mamelukes, who were enjoying one of their seasonal rebellions against constituted authority, Eaton plunged into the desert and finally brought back the astonished and somewhat reluctant heir to the throne. With prodigious energy Eaton then organized an expedition which was to march overland toward Derne, meet the squadron at the Bay of Bomba, and descend vi et armis upon the unsuspecting pretender at Tripoli. He even made a covenant with Hamet promising with altogether unwarranted explicitness that the United States would use “their utmost exertions” to reestablish him in his sovereignty. Eaton was to be “general and commander-in-chief of the land forces.” This aggressive Yankee alarmed Hamet, who clearly did not want his sovereignty badly enough to fight for it.

The international army which the American generalissimo mustered was a motley array: twenty-five cannoneers of uncertain nationality, thirty-eight Greeks, Hamet and his ninety followers, and a party of Arabian horsemen and camel-drivers–all told about four hundred men. The story of their march across the desert is a modern Anabasis. When the Arabs were not quarreling among themselves and plundering the rest of the caravan, they were demanding more pay. Rebuffed they would disappear with their camels into the fastnesses of the desert, only to reappear unexpectedly with new importunities. Between Hamet, who was in constant terror of his life and quite ready to abandon the expedition, and these mutinous Arabs, Eaton was in a position to appreciate the vicissitudes of Xenophon and his Ten Thousand. No ordinary person, indeed, could have surmounted all obstacles and brought his balky forces within sight of Derne.

Supported by the American fleet which had rendezvoused as agreed in the Bay of Bomba, the four hundred advanced upon the city. Again the Arab contingent would have made off into the desert but for the promise of more money. Hamet was torn by conflicting emotions, in which a desire to retreat was uppermost. Eaton was, as ever, indefatigable and indomitable. When his forces were faltering at the crucial moment, he boldly ordered an assault and carried the defenses of the city. The guns of the ships in the harbor completed the discomfiture of the enemy, and the international army took possession of the citadel. Derne won, however, had to be resolutely defended. Twice within the next four weeks, Tripolitan forces were beaten back only with the greatest difficulty. The day after the second assault (June l0th) the frigate Constellation arrived off Derne with orders which rang down the curtain on this interlude in the Tripolitan War. Derne was to be evacuated! Peace had been concluded!

Just what considerations moved the Administration to conclude peace at a moment when the largest and most powerful American fleet ever placed under a single command was assembling in the Mediterranean and when the land expedition was approaching its objective, has never been adequately explained. Had the President’s belligerent spirit oozed away as the punitive expeditions against Tripoli lost their merely defensive character and took on the proportions of offensive naval operations? Had the Administration become alarmed at the drain upon the treasury? Or did the President wish to have his hands free to deal with those depredations upon American commerce committed by British and French cruisers which were becoming far more frequent and serious than ever the attacks of the Corsairs of the Mediterranean had been? Certain it is that overtures of peace from the Pasha were welcomed by the very naval commanders who had been most eager to wrest a victory from the Corsairs. Perhaps they, too, were wearied by prolonged war with an elusive foe off a treacherous coast.

How little prepared the Administration was to sustain a prolonged expedition by land against Tripoli to put Hamet on his throne, appears in the instructions which Commodore Barron carried to the Mediterranean. If he could use Eaton and Hamet to make a diversion, well and good; but he was at the same time to assist Colonel Tobias Lear, American Consul-General at Algiers, in negotiating terms of peace, if the Pasha showed a conciliatory spirit. The Secretary of State calculated that the moment had arrived when peace could probably be secured “without any price and pecuniary compensation whatever.”

Such expectations proved quite unwarranted. The Pasha was ready for peace, but he still had his price. Poor Bainbridge, writing from captivity, assured Barron that the Pasha would never let his prisoners go without a ransom. Nevertheless, Commodore Barron determined to meet the overtures which the Pasha had made through the Danish consul at Tripoli. On the 24th of May he put the frigate Essex at the disposal of Lear, who crossed to Tripoli and opened direct negotiations.

The treaty which Lear concluded on June 4, 1805, was an inglorious document. It purchased peace, it is true, and the release of some three hundred sad and woe-begone American sailors. But because the Pasha held three hundred prisoners, and the United States only a paltry hundred, the Pasha was to receive sixty thousand dollars. Derne was to be evacuated and no further aid was to be given to rebellious subjects. The United States was to endeavor to persuade Hamet to withdraw from the soil of Tripoli–no very difficult matter–while the Pasha on his part was to restore Hamet’s family to him–at some future time. Nothing was said about tribute; but it was understood that according to ancient custom each newly appointed consul should carry to the Pasha a present not exceeding six thousand dollars.

The Tripolitan War did not end in a blaze of glory for the United States. It had been waged in the spirit of “not a cent for tribute”; it was concluded with a thinly veiled payment for peace; and, worst of all, it did not prevent further trouble with the Barbary States. The war had been prosecuted with vigor under Preble; it had languished under Barron; and it ended just when the naval forces were adequate to the task. Yet, from another point of view, Preble, Decatur, Somers, and their comrades had not fought in vain. They had created imperishable traditions for the American navy; they had established a morale in the service; and they had trained a group of young officers who were to give a good account of themselves when their foes should be not shifty Tripolitans but sturdy Britons.


Bainbridge in forlorn captivity at Tripoli, Preble and Barron keeping anxious watch off the stormy coast of Africa, Eaton marching through the windswept desert, are picturesque figures that arrest the attention of the historian; but they seemed like shadowy actors in a remote drama to the American at home, absorbed in the humdrum activities of trade and commerce. Through all these dreary years of intermittent war, other matters engrossed the President and Congress and caught the attention of the public. Not the rapacious Pasha of Tripoli but the First Consul of France held the center of the stage. At the same time that news arrived of the encounter of the Enterprise with the Corsairs came also the confirmation of rumors current all winter in Europe. Bonaparte had secured from Spain the retrocession of the province of Louisiana. From every point of view, as the President remarked, the transfer of this vast province to a new master was “an inauspicious circumstance.” The shadow of the Corsican, already a menace to the peace of Europe, fell across the seas.

A strange chain of circumstances linked Bonaparte with the New World. When he became master of France by the coup d’etat of the 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799), he fell heir to many policies which the republic had inherited from the old regime. Frenchmen had never ceased to lament the loss of colonial possessions in North America. From time to time the hope of reviving the colonial empire sprang up in the hearts of the rulers of France. It was this hope that had inspired Genet’s mission to the United States and more than one intrigue among the pioneers of the Mississippi Valley, during Washington’s second Administration. The connecting link between the old regime and the new was the statesman Talleyrand. He had gone into exile in America when the French Revolution entered upon its last frantic phase and had brought back to France the plan and purpose which gave consistency to his diplomacy in the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs, first under the Directory, then under the First Consul. Had Talleyrand alone nursed this plan, it would have had little significance in history; but it was eagerly taken up by a group of Frenchmen who believed that France, having set her house in order and secured peace in Europe, should now strive for orderly commercial development. The road to prosperity, they believed, lay through the acquisition of colonial possessions. The recovery of the province of Louisiana was an integral part of their programme.

While the Directory was still in power and Bonaparte was pursuing his ill-fated expedition in Egypt, Talleyrand had tried to persuade the Spanish Court to cede Louisiana and the Floridas. The only way for Spain to put a limit to the ambitions of the Americans, he had argued speciously, was to shut them up within their natural limits. Only so could Spain preserve the rest of her immense domain. But since Spain was confessedly unequal to the task, why not let France shoulder the responsibility? “The French Republic, mistress of these two provinces, will be a wall of brass forever impenetrable to the combined efforts of England and America,” he assured the Spaniards. But the time was not ripe.

Such, then, was the policy which Bonaparte inherited when he became First Consul and master of the destinies of his adopted country. A dazzling future opened before him. Within a year he had pacified Europe, crushing the armies of Austria by a succession of brilliant victories, and laying prostrate the petty states of the Italian peninsula. Peace with England was also in sight. Six weeks after his victory at Marengo, Bonaparte sent a special courier to Spain to demand–the word is hardly too strong–the retrocession of Louisiana.

It was an odd whim of Fate that left the destiny of half the American continent to Don Carlos IV, whom Henry Adams calls “a kind of Spanish George III “–virtuous, to be sure, but heavy, obtuse, inconsequential, and incompetent. With incredible fatuousness the King gave his consent to a bargain by which he was to yield Louisiana in return for Tuscany or other Italian provinces which Bonaparte had just overrun with his armies. “Congratulate me,” cried Don Carlos to his Prime Minister, his eyes sparkling, “on this brilliant beginning of Bonaparte’s relations with Spain. The Prince-presumptive of Parma, my son-in-law and nephew, a Bourbon, is invited by France to reign, on the delightful banks of the Arno, over a people who once spread their commerce through the known world, and who were the controlling power of Italy,–a people mild, civilized, full of humanity; the classical land of science and art.” A few war-ridden Italian provinces for an imperial domain that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior and that extended westward no one knew how far!

The bargain was closed by a preliminary treaty signed at San Ildefonso on October 1, 1800. Just one year later to a day, the preliminaries of the Peace of Amiens were signed, removing the menace of England on the seas. The First Consul was now free to pursue his colonial policy, and the destiny of the Mississippi Valley hung in the balance. Between the First Consul and his goal, however, loomed up the gigantic figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a full-blooded negro, who had made himself master of Santo Domingo and had thus planted himself squarely in the searoad to Louisiana. The story of this “gilded African,” as Bonaparte contemptuously dubbed him, cannot be told in these pages, because it involves no less a theme than the history of the French Revolution in this island, once the most thriving among the colonial possessions of France in the West Indies. The great plantations of French Santo Domingo (the western part of the island) had supplied half of Europe with sugar, coffee, and cotton; three-fourths of the imports from French-American colonies were shipped from Santo Domingo. As the result of class struggles between whites and mulattoes for political power, the most terrific slave insurrection in the Western Hemisphere had deluged the island in blood. Political convulsions followed which wrecked the prosperity of the island. Out of this chaos emerged the one man who seemed able to restore a semblance of order–the Napoleon of Santo Domingo, whose character, thinks Henry Adams, had a curious resemblance to that of the Corsican. The negro was, however, a ferocious brute without the redeeming qualities of the Corsican, though, as a leader of his race, his intelligence cannot be denied. Though professing allegiance to the French Republic, Toussaint was driven by circumstances toward independence. While his Corsican counterpart was executing his coup d’etat and pacifying Europe, he threw off the mask, imprisoned the agent of the French Directory, seized the Spanish part of the island, and proclaimed a new constitution for Santo Domingo, assuming all power for himself for life and the right of naming his successor. The negro defied the Corsican.

The First Consul was now prepared to accept the challenge. Santo Domingo must be recovered and restored to its former prosperity–even if slavery had to be reestablished–before Louisiana could be made the center of colonial empire in the West. He summoned Leclerc, a general of excellent reputation and husband of his beautiful sister Pauline, and gave to him the command of an immense expedition which was already preparing at Brest. In the latter part of November, Leclerc set sail with a large fleet bearing an army of ten thousand men and on January 29, 1802, arrived off the eastern cape of Santo Domingo. A legend says that Toussaint looking down on the huge armada exclaimed, “We must perish. All France is coming to Santo Domingo. It has been deceived; it comes to take vengeance and enslave the blacks.” The negro leader made a formidable resistance, nevertheless, annihilating one French army and seriously endangering the expedition. But he was betrayed by his generals, lured within the French lines, made prisoner, and finally sent to France. He was incarcerated in a French fortress in the Jura Mountains and there perished miserably in 1803.

The significance of these events in the French West Indies was not lost upon President Jefferson. The conquest of Santo Domingo was the prelude to the occupation of Louisiana. It would be only a change of European proprietors, of absentee landlords, to be sure; but there was a world of difference between France, bent upon acquiring a colonial empire and quiescent Spain, resting on her past achievements. The difference was personified by Bonaparte and Don Carlos. The sovereignty of the lower Mississippi country could never be a matter of indifference to those settlers of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio who in the year 1799 sent down the Mississippi in barges, keel-boats, and flatboats one hundred and twenty thousand pounds of tobacco, ten thousand barrels of flour, twenty-two thousand pounds of hemp, five hundred barrels of cider, and as many more of whiskey, for transshipment and export. The right of navigation of the Mississippi was a diplomatic problem bequeathed by the Confederation. The treaty with Spain in 1795 had not solved the question, though it had established a modus vivendi. Spain had conceded to Americans the so-called right of deposit for three years–that is, the right to deposit goods at New Orleans free of duty and to transship them to ocean-going vessels; and the concession, though never definitely renewed, was tacitly continued. No; the people of the trans-Alleghany country could not remain silent and unprotesting witnesses to the retrocession of Louisiana.

Nor was Jefferson’s interest in the Mississippi problem of recent origin. Ten years earlier as Secretary of State, while England and Spain seemed about to come to blows over the Nootka Sound affair, he had approached both France and Spain to see whether the United States might not acquire the island of New Orleans or at least a port near the mouth of the river “with a circum-adjacent territory, sufficient for its support, well-defined, and extraterritorial to Spain.” In case of war, England would in all probability conquer Spanish Louisiana. How much better for Spain to cede territory on the eastern side of the Mississippi to a safe neighbor like the United States and thereby make sure of her possessions on the western waters of that river. It was “not our interest,” wrote Mr. Jefferson, “to cross the Mississippi for ages!”

It was, then, a revival of an earlier idea when President Jefferson, officially through Robert R. Livingston, Minister to France, and unofficially through a French gentleman, Dupont de Nemours, sought to impress upon the First Consul the unwisdom of his taking possession of Louisiana, without ceding to the United States at least New Orleans and the Floridas as a “palliation.” Even so, France would become an object of suspicion, a neighbor with whom Americans were bound to quarrel.

Undeterred by this naive threat, doubtless considering its source, the First Consul pressed Don Carlos for the delivery of Louisiana. The King procrastinated but at length gave his promise on condition that France should pledge herself not to alienate the province. Of course, replied the obliging Talleyrand. The King’s wishes were identical with the intentions of the French government. France would never alienate Louisiana. The First Consul pledged his word. On October 15, 1802, Don Carlos signed the order that delivered Louisiana to France.

While the President was anxiously awaiting the results of his diplomacy, news came from Santo Domingo that Leclerc and his army had triumphed over Toussaint and his faithless generals, only to succumb to a far more insidious foe. Yellow fever had appeared in the summer of 1802 and had swept away the second army dispatched by Bonaparte to take the place of the first which had been consumed in the conquest of the island. Twenty-four thousand men had been sacrificed at the very threshold of colonial empire, and the skies of Europe were not so clear as they had been. And then came the news of Leclerc’s death (November 2, 1802) . Exhausted by incessant worry, he too had succumbed to the pestilence; and with him, as events proved, passed Bonaparte’s dream of colonial empire in the New World.

Almost at the same time with these tidings a report reached the settlers of Kentucky and Tennessee that the Spanish intendant at New Orleans had suspended the right of deposit. The Mississippi was therefore closed to western commerce. Here was the hand of the Corsican.* Now they knew what they had to expect from France. Why not seize the opportunity and strike before the French legions occupied the country? The Spanish garrisons were weak; a few hundred resolute frontiersmen would speedily overpower them.

* It is now clear enough that Bonaparte was not directly responsible for this act of the Spanish intendant. See Channing, “History of the United States,” vol. IV, p. 312, and Note, 326-327.

Convinced that he must resort to stiffer measures if he would not be hurried into hostilities, President Jefferson appointed James Monroe as Minister Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to France and Spain. He was to act with Robert Livingston at Paris and with Charles Pinckney, Minister to Spain, “in enlarging and more effectually securing our rights and interests in the river Mississippi and in the territories eastward thereof”–whatever these vague terms might mean. The President evidently read much into them, for he assured Monroe that on the event of his mission depended the future destinies of the Republic.

Two months passed before Monroe sailed with his instructions. He had ample time to study them, for he was thirty days in reaching the coast of France. The first aim of the envoys was to procure New Orleans and the Floridas, bidding as high as ten million dollars if necessary. Failing in this object, they were then to secure the right of deposit and such other desirable concessions as they could. To secure New Orleans, they might even offer to guarantee the integrity of Spanish possessions on the west bank of the Mississippi. Throughout the instructions ran the assumption that the Floridas had either passed with Louisiana into the hands of France or had since been acquired.

While the packet bearing Monroe was buffeting stormy seas, the policy of Bonaparte underwent a transformation–an abrupt transformation it seemed to Livingston. On the 12th of March the American Minister witnessed an extraordinary scene in Madame Bonaparte’s drawing-room. Bonaparte and Lord Whitworth, the British Ambassador, were in conversation, when the First Consul remarked, “I find, my Lord, your nation want war again.” “No, Sir,” replied the Ambassador, “we are very desirous of peace.” “I must either have Malta or war,” snapped Bonaparte. The amazed onlookers soon spread the rumor that Europe was again to be plunged into war; but, viewed in the light of subsequent events, this incident had even greater significance; it marked the end of Bonaparte’s colonial scheme. Though the motives for this change of front will always be a matter of conjecture, they are somewhat clarified by the failure of the Santo Domingo expedition. Leclerc was dead; the negroes were again in control; the industries of the island were ruined; Rochambeau, Leclerc’s successor, was clamoring for thirty-five thousand more men to reconquer the island; the expense was alarming–and how meager the returns for this colonial venture! Without Santo Domingo, Louisiana would be of little use; and to restore prosperity to the West India island–even granting that its immediate conquest were possible–would demand many years and large disbursements. The path to glory did not lie in this direction. In Europe, as Henry Adams observes, “war could be made to support war; in Santo Domingo peace alone could but slowly repair some part of this frightful waste.”

There may well have been other reasons for Bonaparte’s change of front. If he read between the lines of a memoir which Pontalba, a wealthy and well-informed resident of Louisiana, sent to him, he must have realized that this province, too, while it might become an inexhaustible source of wealth for France, might not be easy to hold. There was here, it is true, no Toussaint L’Ouverture to lead the blacks in insurrection; but there was a white menace from the north which was far more serious. These Kentuckians, said Pontalba trenchantly, must be watched, cajoled, and brought constantly under French influence through agents. There were men among them who thought of Louisiana “as the highroad to the conquest of Mexico.” Twenty or thirty thousand of these westerners on flatboats could come down the river and sweep everything before them. To be sure, they were an undisciplined horde with slender Military equipment–a striking contrast to the French legions; but, added the Frenchman, “a great deal of skill in shooting, the habit of being in the woods and of enduring fatigue–this is what makes up for every deficiency.”

And if Bonaparte had ever read a remarkable report of the Spanish Governor Carondelet, he must have divined that there was something elemental and irresistible in this down-the-river-pressure of the people of the West. “A carbine and a little maize in a sack are enough for an American to wander about in the forests alone for a whole month. With his carbine, he kills the wild cattle and deer for food and defends himself from the savages. The maize dampened serves him in lieu of bread . . . . The cold does not affright him. When a family tires of one location, it moves to another, and there it settles with the same ease. Thus in about eight years the settlement of Cumberland has been formed, which is now about to be created into a state.”

On Easter Sunday, 1803, Bonaparte revealed his purpose, which had doubtless been slowly maturing, to two of his ministers, one of whom, Barbs Marbois, was attached to the United States through residence, his devotion to republican principles, and marriage to an American wife. The First Consul proposed to cede Louisiana to the United States: he considered the colony as entirely lost. What did they think of the proposal? Marbois, with an eye to the needs of the Treasury of which he was the head, favored the sale of the province; and next day he was directed to interview Livingston at once. Before he could do so, Talleyrand, perhaps surmising in his crafty way the drift of the First Consul’s thoughts, startled Livingston by asking what the United States would give for the whole of Louisiana. Livingston, who was in truth hard of hearing, could not believe his ears. For months he had talked, written, and argued in vain for a bit of territory near the mouth of the Mississippi, and here was an imperial domain tossed into his lap, as it were. Livingston recovered from his surprise sufficiently to name a trifling sum which Talleyrand declared too low. Would Mr. Livingston think it over? He, Talleyrand, really did not speak from authority. The idea had struck him, that was all.

Some days later in a chance conversation with Marbois, Livingston spoke of his extraordinary interview with Talleyrand. Marbois intimated that he was not ignorant of the affair and invited Livingston to a further conversation. Although Monroe had already arrived in Paris and was now apprised of this sudden turn of affairs, Livingston went alone to the Treasury Office and there in conversation, which was prolonged until midnight, he fenced with Marbois over a fair price for Louisiana. The First Consul, said Marbois, demanded one hundred million francs. Livingston demurred at this huge sum. The United States did not want Louisiana but was willing to give ten million dollars for New Orleans and the Floridas. What would the United States give then? asked Marbois. Livingston replied that he would have to confer with Monroe. Finally Marbois suggested that if they would name sixty million francs, (less than $12,000,000) and assume claims which Americans had against the French Treasury for twenty million more, he would take the offer under advisement. Livingston would not commit himself, again insisting that he must consult Monroe.

So important did this interview seem to Livingston that he returned to his apartment and wrote a long report to Madison without waiting to confer with Monroe. It was three o’clock in the morning when he was done. “We shall do all we can to cheapen the purchase,” he wrote, “but my present sentiment is that we shall buy.”

History does not record what Monroe said when his colleague revealed these midnight secrets. But in the prolonged negotiations which followed Monroe, though ill, took his part, and in the end, on April 30, 1803, set his hand to the treaty which ceded Louisiana to the United States on the terms set by Marbois. In two conventions bearing the same date, the commissioners bound the United States to pay directly to France the sum of sixty million francs ($11,250,000) and to assume debts owed by France to American citizens, estimated at not more than twenty million francs ($3,750,000). Tradition says that after Marbois, Monroe, and Livingston had signed their names, Livingston remarked: “We have lived long, but this is the noblest work of our lives . . . . From this day the United States take their place among the powers of the first rank.”


The purchase of Louisiana was a diplomatic triumph of the first magnitude. No American negotiators have ever acquired so much for so little; yet, oddly enough, neither Livingston nor Monroe had the slightest notion of the vast extent of the domain which they had purchased. They had bought Louisiana “with the same extent that it is now in the hands of Spain, and that it had when France possessed it, and such as it should be after the treaties subsequently entered into between Spain and other States,” but what its actual boundaries were they did not know. Considerably disturbed that the treaty contained no definition of boundaries, Livingston sought information from the enigmatical Talleyrand. “What are the eastern bounds of Louisiana?” he asked. “I do not know,” replied Talleyrand; “you must take it as we received it.” “But what did you mean to take?” urged Livingston somewhat naively. “I do not know,” was the answer. “Then you mean that we shall construe it in our own way?” “I can give you no direction,” said the astute Frenchman. “You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.” And with these vague assurances Livingston had to be satisfied.

The first impressions of Jefferson were not much more definite, for, while he believed that the acquired territory more than doubled the area of the United States, he could only describe it as including all the waters of the Missouri and the Mississippi. He started at once, however, to collect information about Louisiana. He prepared a list of queries which he sent to reputable persons living in or near New Orleans. The task was one in which he delighted: to accumulate and diffuse information–a truly democratic mission gave him more real pleasure than to reign in the Executive Mansion. His interest in the trans- Mississippi country, indeed, was not of recent birth; he had nursed for years an insatiable curiosity about the source and course of the Missouri; and in this very year he had commissioned his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to explore the great river and its tributaries, to ascertain if they afforded a direct and practicable water communication across the continent.

The outcome of the President’s questionnaire was a report submitted to Congress in the fall of 1803, which contained much interesting information and some entertaining misinformation. The statistical matter we may put to one side, as contemporary readers doubtless did; certain impressions are worth recording. New Orleans, the first and immediate object of negotiations, contained, it would appear, only a small part of the population of the province, which numbered some twenty or more rural districts. On the river above the city were the plantations of the so-called Upper Coast, inhabited mostly by slaves whose Creole masters lived in town; then, as one journeyed upstream appeared the first and second German Coasts, where dwelt the descendants of those Germans who had been brought to the province by John Law’s Mississippi Bubble, an industrious folk making their livelihood as purveyors to the city. Every Friday night they loaded their small craft with produce and held market next day on the river front at New Orleans, adding another touch to the picturesque groups which frequented the levees. Above the German Coasts were the first and second Acadian Coasts, populated by the numerous progeny of those unhappy refugees who were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755. Acadian settlements were scattered also along the backwaters west of the great river: Bayou Lafourche was lined with farms which were already producing cotton; near Bayou Teche and Bayou Vermilion–the Attakapas country–were cattle ranges; and to the north was the richer grazing country known as Opelousas.

Passing beyond the Iberville River, which was indeed no river at all but only an overflow of the Mississippi, the traveler up-stream saw on his right hand “the government of Baton Rouge” with its scattered settlements and mixed population of French, Spanish, and Anglo-Americans; and still farther on, the Spanish parish of West Feliciana, accounted a part of West Florida and described by President Jefferson as the garden of the cotton-growing region. Beyond this point the President’s description of Louisiana became less confident, as reliable sources of information failed him. His credulity, however, led him to make one amazing statement, which provoked the ridicule of his political opponents, always ready to pounce upon the slips of this philosopher-president. “One extraordinary fact relative to salt must not be omitted,” he wrote in all seriousness. “There exists, about one thousand miles up the Missouri, and not far from that river, a salt mountain! The existence of such a mountain might well be questioned, were it not for the testimony of several respectable and enterprising traders who have visited it, and who have exhibited several bushels of the salt to the curiosity of the people of St. Louis, where some of it still remains. A specimen of the salt has been sent to Marietta. This mountain is said to be 180 miles long and 45 in width, composed of solid rock salt, without any trees or even shrubs on it.” One Federalist wit insisted that this salt mountain must be Lot’s wife; another sent an epigram to the United States Gazette which ran as follows:

Herostratus of old, to eternalize his name Sat the temple of Diana all in a flame;
But Jefferson lately of Bonaparte bought, To pickle his fame, a mountain of salt.

Jefferson was too much of a philosopher to be disturbed by such gibes; but he did have certain constitutional doubts concerning the treaty. How, as a strict constructionist, was he to defend the purchase of territory outside the limits of the United States, when the Constitution did not specifically grant such power to the Federal Government? He had fought the good fight of the year 1800 to oust Federalist administrators who by a liberal interpretation were making waste paper of the Constitution. Consistency demanded either that he should abandon the treaty or that he should ask for the powers which had been denied to the Federal Government. He chose the latter course and submitted to his Cabinet and to his followers in Congress a draft of an amendment to the Constitution conferring the desired powers. To his dismay they treated his proposal with indifference, not to say coldness. He pressed his point, redrafted his amendment, and urged its consideration once again. Meantime letters from Livingston and Monroe warned him that delay was hazardous; the First Consul might change his mind, as he was wont to do on slight provocation. Privately Jefferson was deeply chagrined, but he dared not risk the loss of Louisiana. With what grace he could summon, he acquiesced in the advice of his Virginia friends who urged him to let events take their course and to drop the amendment, but he continued to believe that such a course if persisted in would make blank paper of the Constitution. He could only trust, as he said in a letter, “that the good sense of the country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce its ill effects.”

The debates on the treaty in, Congress make interesting reading for those who delight in legal subtleties, for many nice questions of constitutional law were involved. Even granting that territory could be acquired, there was the further question whether the treaty-making power was competent irrespective of the House of Representatives. And what, pray, was meant by incorporating this new province in the Union? Was Louisiana to be admitted into the Union as a State by President and Senate? Or was it to be governed as a dependency? And how could the special privileges given to Spanish and French ships in the port of New Orleans be reconciled with that provision of the Constitution which, expressly forbade any preference to be given, by any regulation of commerce or revenue, to the ports of one State over those of another? The exigencies of politics played havoc with consistency, so that Republicans supported the ratification of the treaty with erstwhile Federalist arguments, while Federalists used the old arguments of the Republicans. Yet the Senate advised the ratification by a decisive vote and with surprising promptness; and Congress passed a provisional act authorizing the President to take over and govern the territory of Louisiana.

The vast province which Napoleon had tossed so carelessly into the lap of the young Western Republic was, strangely enough, not yet formally in his possession. The expeditionary force under General Victor which was to have occupied Louisiana had never left port. M. Pierre Clement Laussat, however, who was to have accompanied the expedition to assume the duties of prefect in the province, had sailed alone in January, 1803, to receive the province from the Spanish authorities. If this lonely Frenchman on mission possessed the imagination of his race, he must have had some emotional thrills as he reflected that he was following the sea trail of La Salle and Iberville through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. He could not have entered the Great River and breasted its yellow current for a hundred miles, without seeing in his mind’s eye those phantom figures of French and Spanish adventurers who had voyaged up and down its turbid waters in quest of gold or of distant Cathay. As his vessel dropped anchor opposite the town which Bienville had founded, Laussat must have felt that in some degree he was “heir of all the ages”; yet he was in fact face to face with conditions which, whatever their historic antecedents, were neither French nor Spanish. On the water front of New Orleans, he counted “forty-five Anglo-American ships to ten French.” Subsequent experiences deepened this first impression: it was not Spanish nor French influence which had made this port important but those “three hundred thousand planters who in twenty years have swarmed over the eastern plains of the Mississippi and have cultivated them, and who have no other outlet than this river and no other port than New Orleans.”

The outward aspect of the city, however, was certainly not American. From the masthead of his vessel Laussat might have seen over a thousand dwellings of varied architecture: houses of adobe, houses of brick, houses of stucco; some with bright colors, others with the harmonious half tones produced by sun and rain. No American artisans constructed the picturesque balconies, the verandas, and belvederes which suggested the semitropical existence that Nature forced upon these city dwellers for more than half the year. No American craftsmen wrought the artistic ironwork of balconies, gateways, and window gratings. Here was an atmosphere which suggested the Old World rather than the New. The streets which ran at right angles were reminiscent of the old regime: Conde, Conti, Dauphine, St. Louis, Chartres, Bourbon, Orleans–all these names were to be found within the earthen rampart which formed the defense of the city.

The inhabitants were a strange mixture: Spanish, French, American, black, quadroon, and Creole. No adequate definition has ever been formulated for “Creole,” but no one familiar with the type could fail to distinguish this caste from those descended from the first French settlers or from the Acadians. A keen observer like Laussat discerned speedily that the Creole had little place in the commercial life of the city. He was your landed proprietor, who owned some of the choicest parts of the city and its growing suburbs, and whose plantations lined both banks of the Mississippi within easy reach from the city. At the opposite end of the social scale were the quadroons–the demimonde of this little capital–and the negro slaves. Between these extremes were the French and, in ever-growing numbers, the Americans who plied every trade, while the Spaniards constituted the governing class. Deliberately, in the course of time, as befitted a Spanish gentleman and officer, the Marquis de Casa Calvo, resplendent with regalia, arrived from Havana to act with Governor Don Juan Manuel de Salcedo in transferring the province. A season of gayety followed in which the Spaniards did their best to conceal any chagrin they may have felt at the relinquishment–happily, it might not be termed the surrender–of Louisiana. And finally on the 30th of November, Governor Salcedo delivered the keys of the city to Laussat, in the hall of the Cabildo, while Marquis de Casa Calvo from the balcony absolved the people in Place d’Armes below from their allegiance to his master, the King of Spain.

For the brief term of twenty days Louisiana was again a province of France. Within that time Laussat bestirred himself to gallicize the colony, so far as forms could do so. He replaced the cabildo or hereditary council by a municipal council; he restored the civil code; he appointed French officers to civil and military posts. And all this he did in the full consciousness that American commissioners were already on their way to receive from him in turn the province which his wayward master had sold. On December 20, 1803, young William Claiborne, Governor of the Mississippi Territory, and General James Wilkinson, with a few companies of soldiers, entered and received from Laussat the keys of the city and the formal surrender of Lower Louisiana. On the Place d’Armes, promptly at noon, the tricolor was hauled down and the American Stars and Stripes took its place. Louisiana had been transferred for the sixth and last time. But what were the metes and bounds of this province which had been so often bought and sold? What had Laussat been instructed to take and give? What, in short, was Louisiana?

The elation which Livingston and Monroe felt at acquiring unexpectedly a vast territory beyond the Mississippi soon gave way to a disquieting reflection. They had been instructed to offer ten million dollars for New Orleans and the Floridas: they had pledged fifteen millions for Louisiana without the Floridas. And they knew that it was precisely West Florida, with the eastern bank of the Mississippi and the Gulf littoral, that was most ardently desired by their countrymen of the West. But might not Louisiana include West Florida? Had Talleyrand not professed ignorance of the eastern boundary? And had he not intimated that the Americans would make the most of their bargain? Within a month Livingston had convinced himself that the United States could rightfully claim West Florida to the Perdido River, and he soon won over Monroe to his way of thinking. They then reported to Madison that “on a thorough examination of the subject” they were persuaded that they had purchased West Florida as a part of Louisiana.

By what process of reasoning had Livingston and Monroe reached this satisfying conclusion? Their argument proceeded from carefully chosen premises. France, it was said, had once held Louisiana and the Floridas together as part of her colonial empire in America; in 1763 she had ceded New Orleans and the territory west of the Mississippi to Spain, and at the same time she had transferred the Floridas to Great Britain; in 1783 Great Britain had returned the Floridas to Spain which were then reunited to Louisiana as under French rule. Ergo, when Louisiana was retro-ceded “with the same extent that it now has in the hands of Spain, and that it had when France possessed it,” it must have included West Florida.

That Livingston was able to convince himself by this logic, does not speak well for his candor or intelligence. He was well aware that Bonaparte had failed to persuade Don Carlos to include the Floridas in the retrocession; he had tried to insert in the treaty an article pledging the First Consul to use his good offices to obtain the Floridas for the United States; and in his midnight dispatch to Madison, with the prospect of acquiring Louisiana before him, he had urged the advisability of exchanging this province for the more desirable Floridas. Livingston therefore could not, and did not, say that Spain intended to cede the Floridas as a part of Louisiana, but that she had inadvertently done so and that Bonaparte might have claimed West Florida, if he had been shrewd enough to see his opportunity. The United States was in no way prevented from pressing this claim because the First Consul had not done so. The fact that France had in 1763 actually dismembered her colonial empire and that Louisiana as ceded to Spain extended only to the Iberville, was given no weight in Livingston’s deductions.

Having the will to believe, Jefferson and Madison became converts to Livingston’s faith. Madison wrote at once that in view of these developments no proposal to exchange Louisiana for the Floridas should be entertained; the President declared himself satisfied that “our right to the Perdido is substantial and can be opposed by a quibble on form only”; and John Randolph, duly coached by the Administration, flatly declared in the House of Representatives that “We have not only obtained the command of the mouth of the Mississippi, but of the Mobile, with its widely extended branches; and there is not now a single stream of note rising within the United States and falling into the Gulf of Mexico which is not entirely our own, the Appalachicola excepted.” From this moment to the end of his administration, the acquisition of West Florida became a sort of obsession with Jefferson. His pursuit of this phantom claim involved American diplomats in strange adventures and at times deflected the whole course of domestic politics.

The first luckless minister to engage in this baffling quest was James Monroe, who had just been appointed Minister to the Court of St. James. He was instructed to take up the threads of diplomacy at Madrid where they were getting badly tangled in the hands of Charles Pinckney, who was a better politician than a diplomat. “Your inquiries may also be directed,” wrote Madison, “to the question whether any, and how much, of what passes for West Florida be fairly included in the territory ceded to us by France.” Before leaving Paris on this mission, Monroe made an effort to secure the good offices of the Emperor, but he found Talleyrand cold and cynical as ever. He was given to understand that it was all a question of money; if the United States were willing to pay the price, the Emperor could doubtless have the negotiations transferred to Paris and put the deal through. A loan of seventy million livres to Spain, which would be passed over at once to France, would probably put the United States into possession of the coveted territory. As an honest man Monroe shrank from this sort of jobbery; besides, he could hardly offer to buy a territory which his Government asserted it had already bought with Louisiana. With the knowledge that he was defying Napoleon, or at least his ministers, he started for Madrid to play a lone hand in what he must have known was a desperate game.

The conduct of the Administration during the next few months was hardly calculated to smooth Monroe’s path. In the following February (1804) President Jefferson put his signature to an act which was designed to give effect to the laws of the United States in the newly acquired territory. The fourth section of this so-called Mobile Act included explicitly within the revenue district of Mississippi all the navigable waters lying within the United States and emptying into the Gulf east of the Mississippi–an extraordinary provision indeed, since unless the Floridas were a part of the United States there were no rivers within the limits of the United States emptying into the Gulf east of the Mississippi. The eleventh section was even more remarkable since it gave the President authority to erect Mobile Bay and River into a separate revenue district and to designate a port of entry.

This cool appropriation of Spanish territory was too much for the excitable Spanish Minister, Don Carlos Martinez Yrujo, who burst into Madison’s office one morning with a copy of the act in his hand and with angry protests on his lips. He had been on excellent terms with Madison and had enjoyed Jefferson’s friendship and hospitality at Monticello; but he was the accredited representative of His Catholic Majesty and bound to defend his sovereignty. He fairly overwhelmed the timid Madison with reproaches that could never be forgiven or forgotten; and from this moment he was persona non grata in the Department of State.

Madison doubtless took Yrujo’s reproaches more to heart just because he felt himself in a false position. The Administration had allowed the transfer of Louisiana to be made in the full knowledge that Laussat had been instructed to claim Louisiana as far as the Rio Bravo on the west but only as far as the Iberville on the east. Laussat had finally admitted as much confidentially to the American commissioners. Yet the Administration had not protested. And now it was acting on the assumption that it might dispose of the Gulf littoral, the West Florida coast, as it pleased. Madison was bound to admit in his heart of hearts that Yrujo had reason to be angry. A few weeks later the President relieved the tense situation, though at the price of an obvious evasion, by issuing a proclamation which declared all the shores and waters “lying WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF THE UNITED STATES”* to