This week President Thomas Jefferson speaks about the political mistakes he made.
Even Jefferson made a few mistakes, and although he might've had a hard time admitting them during his lifetime, it costs us nothing to look at them in retrospect from 200 years. Clay made a list, and it comes to about eight. We had: criticizing Washington, attacking Hamilton, the Kentucky Resolutions, demanding papers in the XYZ Affair, the Embargo Acts — when Jefferson thought better of the American people's patience than was actually the case — and believing that the French Revolution would come out harmoniously. Jefferson actually doctored some of his early correspondence to make himself look less naive on the bloodbath of the reign of terror.
- Yale Law School: Thomas Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address
Read this week's Jefferson Watch essay, "On Jefferson and Leadership."
What Would Jefferson Do?
The following is a rush transcript.
DS: 00:00 Good day, Thomas Jefferson Hour podcast listeners, and thank you for listening.
CSJ as TJ: 00:05 It is such a delight to have you in our community. I travel a lot. I was just on the Lewis and Clark trail, David, and people said how much they appreciate this program that they look to it for clarity, that they look to it for civility, that they look to it for historical contextualization. And I'll tell you the story. This is a really weird story. I was walking down — sorry, I was walking up the Wendover death march. Have I told you this?
DS: 00:33 I'm not sure.
CSJ as TJ: 00:33 I'm walking up the Wendover death march, which is seven and a half miles straight up, no rational being —
DS: 00:39 You were admonished once for calling it a quote, "death march."
CSJ as TJ: 00:41 I know — the Wendover hike.
DS: 00:43 Right.
CSJ as TJ: 00:44 And it's a bear and we come around this corner and then there's the slope that's like straight up for the last third of the journey and it's hot and the trees are barren and you're tired. And I saw a young man walking down and I thought, I've never seen anyone on this trail. Not once. And I waited, and he came down to my level and he got within about 15 feet of me and he said, 'you're Clay Jenkinson.' And I was so shocked. I said, 'yeah, who are you?' And he said, he gave, his name is Jimmy. He's maybe 23 or 24. He said he's a college graduate or just finishing up at a Missouri University and he's traveling the country this summer. And he said, ',I've heard your podcast with David Swenson and I am an avid fan and listener. I've read your books. And I wanted to do the Wendover hike as a to show respect for you.' And it was so moving to me —
DS: 01:43 Wow.
CSJ as TJ: 01:44 — because I'm like coughing up a lung and just wishing that a stretcher would come, that a helicopter would come and take me out. And here's this young man just beginning his life. And he's like, 'you matter to me.' And I thought — it really moved me. I can't even express it, but I thought, I have an obligation to people that we've touched to be more clear, more intelligent, better grounded, more thoughtful, more insightful, more disciplined, physically in better shape. It's, I mean, that sounds crazy, I know, but there's a responsibility in doing what we do because we're taking on one of the greatest men who ever lived — a problematic individual to be sure — but we're voicing him and people listen to that and they hearken to it and they shaped their views of life and they shape — to a certain degree — and they shaped their views of history to a certain degree based on what comes out of my mouth and your mouth. And I thought this is kind of a responsibility to get this right. And I thought, next year I'm going to be, I'm going to be like marching up that hill with the greatest of ease. I'm going to be in the best shape of my life, or certainly better shape.
DS: 03:00 Did you get a picture of Jimmy?
CSJ as TJ: 03:02 No, but I, you know, I couldn't even — I was on the ground writhing. I was just fighting — I said, I'll give you a thousand dollars for an oxygen tank, Jimmy. But I said, get back in touch. So Jimmy, if you're listening, I want to know you and I want you to come visit the barn. We will even take you without a blindfold.
DS: 03:21 What?
CSJ as TJ: 03:21 Yes, Jimmy. Well maybe not.
DS: 03:23 We'll talk about it.
CSJ as TJ: 03:24 But I mean —
DS: 03:25 It'd be great to hear from him.
CSJ as TJ: 03:26 But you hear me, don't you that, that there's a responsibility in inhabiting one of the great people who ever lived and trying to get it right and not misusing them, not distorting it, not misapplying it, not doing it for personal gain, or mouth one's own political views and to be better at it, to be the best you can be at it. It really struck me.
DS: 03:52 That's great. That's a great story.
CSJ as TJ: 03:53 It was one of the great — I can't explain it but I think you hear it.
DS: 03:56 I do.
CSJ as TJ: 03:56 It was like one of the — I came away somber, thinking, if this kid — when you go west to Missoula, you have to ask a lot of questions. Nobody knows where this thing is. And when you start it, you think what kind of a moron would climb this hill? And he did it because he believes in what we say, it just struck me as deepening and humbling and a challenge for me and for you, but mostly for me to be careful because we're embodying something that people listen to on a volunteer basis. This is not required radio. And so I just came away thinking I want to be my best self at all times and certainly my better self every time. And I just, I was so pleased for this young man and he really, he sent me back. I mean it was, I thought, if he feels that, imagine what he would feel if I really got my act together. So that's how I felt. Anyway.
DS: 05:02 I don't know if I want to go there or not, but I like the rest of it a lot. And I hope that Jimmy does listen.
CSJ as TJ: 05:09 I want to hear from him.
DS: 05:10 You know, it may be that he'd rather remain anonymous.
CSJ as TJ: 05:14 He could have died on that mountain.
DS: 05:14 Probably not. 23, 24.
CSJ as TJ: 05:16 No, he's, he was scampering around like a mountain goat.
DS: 05:19 So if he's out there, help us find Jimmy.
CSJ as TJ: 05:22 Yeah, I want to find him and I want to get him on the show and I want to talk with him. Then there's the Ukulele guy. The guy who's making me a Ukulele.
DS: 05:29 Yeah.
CSJ as TJ: 05:29 A man is making me a Ukulele.
DS: 05:31 You got to learn to play.
CSJ as TJ: 05:32 I said, if he makes me the Ukulele. We'll feature him on the show because I want to hear about the makers movement. Crafting. He's a gifted instrument maker. His name is Kevin, and I wanted to talk about the process and then I want them to teach me, I think I told you once, my father had a Ukulele and he taught me to play "Sunny Side of the Street," and he said it's a babe magnet. I've never found that to be the case, but it's not too late.
DS: 05:57 Look at George Harrison, you know, I mean.
CSJ as TJ: 05:59 Oh, and, my daughter. I have to tell you, you —
DS: 06:02 He carried four around in his car in case anybody needed one.
CSJ as TJ: 06:05 I wish I'd met him. You turned me on to the McCartney karaoke thing or I turned you on, I don't remember. It was fantastic. My daughter is living in New York. She was out in the Hamptons doing some work. She went to this restaurant in an evening and she was parked in this parking lot and a jeep rolled up next to her and out came Paul McCartney. She was —
DS: 06:30 As she would say, 'wow.'
CSJ as TJ: 06:32 She was within three feet of Sir Paul McCartney. She gets the Beatle. She gets why they're so central to our lives and still to people today. And she said, 'Dad, I didn't have the guts to say, Paul McCartney, I' — you know, because she said, you know, that's not going to be useful to him. He just wants to go have supper. But she said it was one of the thrills of her life to see this guy get out of a jeep who happened to be one of the last two surviving Beatles and our favorite Beatle. It was amazing. And she just, she was like star struck for the first time in her life I think.
DS: 07:10 Cool. Well we should stop all this —
CSJ as TJ: 07:13 Send money is what we need. Ukuleles and other musical instrument.
DS: 07:15 I haven't done my pitch, but —
CSJ as TJ: 07:18 Gifts of all sorts.
DS: 07:20 I think those of you who listened to Clay tell a story about Jimmy know that, if you want to support this show, go tojeffersonhour.com, join the 1776 club or whatever, and we really appreciate it. We take none of that. It all goes into supporting the show. Of course. That's why you have to ask for free things, right?
CSJ as TJ: 07:40 I beg. It's not asked. It's beg. And David, if I've touched one person —
DS: 07:44 Who knows.
CSJ as TJ: 07:45 I've maybe touched two, you know, I mean, who knows, but I take it so seriously. And if people think that this is important —
DS: 07:53 There's got to be some sort of metaphysical, a mathematical formula for like, you do this and then it goes out and you don't know what happens, and again and again. And I used to think about that with CDs. When you produce musical CDs, how many people does it — how does that work?
CSJ as TJ: 08:07 What's the butterfly effect?
DS: 08:09 Yeah.
CSJ as TJ: 08:09 How does it change anything?
DS: 08:10 Yeah.
CSJ as TJ: 08:10 Does it change anything?
DS: 08:11 Yeah.
CSJ as TJ: 08:12 Is it entertainment?
DS: 08:12 That's another show.
CSJ as TJ: 08:13 Yeah, but it's important and all I'll say is we take it very seriously. We take nothing except the many gifts I begged for and we are very appreciative of all of you. So listen now to this interesting edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour in which Mr Jefferson freely admits that once in a long while he made serious political mistakes. Thanks for listening.
DS: 08:36 Good day, citizens, and welcome to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with President Thomas Jefferson. Mr Jefferson is portrayed by the award winning humanities scholar, author Clay Jenkinson. I'm your host David Swenson, and seated across from me. Now he's President Thomas Jefferson. Good day to you sir.
CSJ as TJ: 08:56 Good day to you, my dear friend.
DS: 08:58 Mr Jefferson, we must start with a pleasantry because I'm going to ask you to have a difficult conversation this week. So how are things at Monticello? How is your garden, sir?
CSJ as TJ: 09:10 The garden flourishes. It's a huge terrace, 300 yards long. It's a massive garden, not just to feed the community at Monticello. We have many guests, sometimes as many as 50 overnight guests, and the slave population and the white overseers and the workmen and so on and so forth. But I also like to experiment with plants. Plants that were sent to me by Lewis and Clark, or brought back by Mr Lewis, or plants that were offered to me from abroad. I brought back cuttings of olives and cuttings of grape vines and an upland species of rice that I smuggled out of northern Italy. And so the gardens were much more important than just feeding us. They were a kind of laboratory of agrarianism.
DS: 10:00 I too like to experiment in my garden, Mr Jefferson, and thanks to you, I actually do keep a garden book and try to refer to it.
CSJ as TJ: 10:07 How fare things for you this year?
DS: 10:09 Quite, quite nicely. You know, every year is different. Some things better than others, but —
CSJ as TJ: 10:13 Didn't you say something about a two pound tomato?
DS: 10:16 I did. And thank you. I had a two pound Green Cherokee, green tomato. It was quite good.
CSJ as TJ: 10:22 You ate it?
DS: 10:23 I did sir.
CSJ as TJ: 10:24 And it was still green?
DS: 10:26 This is its natural color, it gets a bit yellow, it's called a green, but it never gets red. It gets a bit yellow. But it was quite a monster.
CSJ as TJ: 10:35 You know, my view is that the success of one thing or the failure is recompensed by another. What sort of a success rate do you have the summer?
DS: 10:42 Certain things are doing wonderfully and other things, not so much. I do have a good, a good small crop of carrots and tomatoes and potatoes, but my greens, it's too hot and I —
CSJ as TJ: 10:56 A hot summer in Dakota?
DS: 10:57 — my lettuce and my spinach and I miss it. Even if I reseed it, as you suggested, I — the hot weather just doesn't agree with it.
CSJ as TJ: 11:05 Perhaps if you relocated in Virginia, things would go better.
DS: 11:09 Well, it could be. I've tried to a couple of things. Putting a sort of a white netting over them to keep them out of the sun. But I digress. Mr President, I want to talk to you this week about — well, I don't know how to put this delicately, but I know you made some political mistakes during your service to the nation, sir, and I thought I might bring them up and get you to comment and — so that I can better understand what your thinking was.
CSJ as TJ: 11:33 Well, everyone who holds power makes mistakes and I'm sure I made more than my share. That's one reason why I was reluctant to leave the harmony and the joy of Monticello to go into the cauldron of American politics. I'm very thin skinned and I'm easily wounded and I'm easily inspired to walk away. I wrote a letter to Abigail Adams once and said, I have no spirit of disputatiousness, that when there is conflict, my instinct is to slip away and to retreat to my mountain fortress of harmony and family. I understand that there are certain people that enjoy the flow and the tensions of politics. I am not one of them.
DS: 12:25 And yet you were quite good at it. I wanted to start with talking about Mr Hamilton. Forgive me sir, but —
CSJ as TJ: 12:33 So much for harmony.
DS: 12:35 As I said, forgive me sir, when you began to work closely with Mr Hamilton, I would say about 1790. Um, if that's —
CSJ as TJ: 12:45 That's correct. I came back in 1789. I took up my, my duties in the late spring of 1790 in the temporary national capital at New York.
DS: 12:55 The two of you were of different ages. You were 12 years older than him. You were 47. He was 35. My understanding is that you had a real difference, a real fundamental difference in the style of government that you wanted in the United States.
CSJ as TJ: 13:15 Well, first of all, not to spend too long on Colonel Hamilton, but he traveled out of his own portfolio as the secretary of the treasury. He actually regarded himself as the prime minister in the manner of Robert Walpole from British history. And he meddled in the work of the Department of State, which was my own portfolio.
DS: 13:36 He meddled in that, sir?
CSJ as TJ: 13:37 Oh indeed. And he actually worked with British agents to undermine the official foreign policy of the United States. He said to a man named Beckwith, 'if Mr Jefferson, as secretary of state in any way offends you or challenges you, just come see me because I can speak for George Washington and I promise you we're more in sync with the British empire than Mr Jefferson might suggest.' That's virtually a form of of treason, but —
DS: 14:04 — say he didn't really have the authority to do that —
CSJ as TJ: 14:06 He took the authority, and the cabinet had not yet jelled in the way that it has in your time when the portfolios are more bounded than they were in mine, but he always saw himself as the prime minister, as Washington's favorite and as somebody who was free to do whatever he pleased.
DS: 14:23 Well, there was some truth to that, wasn't there?
CSJ as TJ: 14:25 Yes, there is some truth there. Washington had great admiration for him and Washington had brought him into his administration and the secretary of the Treasury is a very important post. Please don't assume that I'm not interested in that one, but I do believe that that his ambitions, Mr Hamilton's ambitions, were such that he would never have been content to stay with any cabinet post.
DS: 14:48 No. He, he wanted a centralized government, which you did not.
CSJ as TJ: 14:52 The stronger, the better. The more centralized, the better. He wanted a huge national debt, a national army. He wanted broad construction of the constitution. He wanted to swallow up the states. In fact, he wanted a monarchy, but that's another question.
DS: 15:06 Hm. Forgive me Mr Jefferson, but my understanding is that you were behind some personal attacks on Mr Hamilton, including attacks on his finances.
CSJ as TJ: 15:16 Well maybe yes and maybe no. Let me quickly explain. So he proposed that we fund the debt at par and he didn't announce this to the American people before he had announced it to his friends and cronies, and so they went up and bought depreciated war bonds for pennies on the dollar. Then and only then did Hamilton announce to the public that these would be redeemed at par. So the original holders who were farmers and widows and soldiers and so on, had sold their bonds for three cents on the dollar or twenty cents on the dollar. Hamilton and his cronies knew that these would be redeemed at 100 percent, at a dollar for a dollar. But the American people weren't aware of this. So this is corruption at the most basic level.
DS: 15:58 During my time, there are certainly laws that a man would be prosecuted for that.
CSJ as TJ: 16:02 And there should have man then, but he got away with it. But I thought that in addition to allowing his cronies to profit at the expense of war widows and soldiers, I thought that he himself was profiting. And so I urged Congress to pass resolutions of inquiry into his conduct and his personal finances. It turns out that he was able to quash those concerns. He wrote brilliant memos almost overnight defending his own personal behavior and proved, I think to the satisfaction of a virtually everybody, that we had been wrong in assuming that he was personally corrupt. And so this was a mistake, I should have kept it on policy because the policy is indefensible, as you've said, the policy allowing speculators to aggrandize themselves at the expense of widows and soldiers, some of whom were maimed, and farmers and mechanics and sailors. That's appalling in and of itself. It's a naked conflict of interest. And he was giving insider trading tips to some of his closest friends. We should have kept it at that. By going beyond that boundary into his personal character and personal behavior, particularly his financial behavior. We made it possible for him to defend himself and that had an effect of, in a way, discrediting the larger attack or criticism that we were making of his official conduct. So I will acknowledge that I was a bit paranoid and I went a bit too far in going after Hamilton's private financial affairs.
DS: 17:32 Well, there's another gentleman that you attacked. I've never heard you do anything but to speak of this gentleman in the highest regard. But it said that you actually attacked George Washington privately.
CSJ as TJ: 17:47 I did say a few in private letters that were quite critical of George Washington. I do think he's one of the greatest men who ever lived. He's maybe the most important American, possible exception to that would be Dr Franklin. Washington was a brilliant strategist. He had the character of Cincinnatus. He could have been king or dictator. He chose to be a private citizen —
DS: 18:11 But he fell under Hamilton's spell.
CSJ as TJ: 18:14 You are correct, sir. He fell under the sway of this Machiavellian ambitious figure Hamilton.
DS: 18:21 So that had something to do with your attacking George Washington.
CSJ as TJ: 18:25 I felt that he favored Hamilton unnecessarily and listened unnecessarily to Hamilton's manipulations, but also, now I want to be very careful here, towards the end of his second term, and I should say Washington did not want a second term. We insisted upon it. But towards the end of his time as president, his mental acuity began to diminish and he was less acute and less intellectually independent and less intellectually forceful. He stopped thinking for himself as he had done all of his life and he began to become dependent on those around him, particularly Colonel Hamilton, and I felt that Hamilton took advantage of this to manipulate the somewhat elderly general, and I felt that Washington's own reputation, his historical character, would be hurt by the fact that he became less fully in control of his own mind towards the end of his time, and I wrote some of this privately. I also wrote a letter that leaked back that suggested that he had become a kind of a puppet figure to Hamilton and this really upset George Washington as you might expect, and he began to really distance himself from me and I think it's fair to say that if you had asked him on his death bed, when he had many better things to be thinking about, how he felt about me, he would say that Mr Jefferson has been a disappointment and to a certain degree has not been trustworthy.
DS: 20:02 Goodness. That must weigh heavily on you, sir.
CSJ as TJ: 20:05 It did because I admired and even adored him and I believed that he was truly one of the world's worthies and admirable in so many ways, but I do think that he stayed on the public stage perhaps a little longer than his mind could keep up.
DS: 20:23 So these two items, attacking Hamilton's personal finances and attacking George Washington regrets.
CSJ as TJ: 20:30 Yes, of course — I did not attack Washington, but criticizing him — I probably should just have avoided that all together even though it was in private letters that were leaked to the public.
DS: 20:42 Mr Jefferson, I so do appreciate your candor on these items. We have a few more to talk about after we take a short break, but I assure you we shall not revisit the subject of Mr Hamilton.
CSJ as TJ: 20:53 I blush for my own weaknesses as a man.
DS: 20:56 We'll be back in just a moment. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
DS: 21:05 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with President Thomas Jefferson, and Mr Jefferson, again, I thank you for your candor this week, allowing me to talk about some of the mistakes you have made or telling me that they weren't a mistake.
CSJ as TJ: 21:22 I had a difficult time in my own lifetime admitting to these things. I was aware, believe me, how imperfect a human being on statesmen I was, but pretty self protective, I think.
DS: 21:36 Sir, I think that's just human nature. Could you talk a bit about the Kentucky Resolutions? How that came about?
CSJ as TJ: 21:43 The Quasi war was an undeclared naval war with France. The Adams federalist administration overreacted in appalling ways. They passed the alien law, the sedition law, the naturalization law. These were laws worthy of the ninth or 10th century, palpable violations of the Bill of Rights.
DS: 22:01 And I know that you did everything you could when you became president to nullify them or not resign the bills or —
CSJ as TJ: 22:08 Some of them sunsetted out at the end of the Adams administration, but I quickly paid back the fines of those who had been jailed under the sedition law and we passed much more enlightened legislation about immigration and so on during my two terms as president. But when I saw that the federalist Congress passed these palpable breaches of the First Amendment, the fourth amendment, and so on, I despaired because no one checked them. Adams signed them into law. He was gleeful about some parts of it. The Supreme Court made no attempt to check this. So our system of federal checks and balances broke down. This sometimes can happen. It's meant to check these kinds of excesses. But in this case it did not. The Senate didn't check the House, the president didn't veto the legislation and the courts didn't even bother to take up these extremely controversial violations of the bill of rights. So then what? Now what? So I went back to Virginia. I was the vice president at the time and I secretly wrote something called the Kentucky resolutions, which said that if nobody else will check a national government in violation of the constitution than the states must be that check and states have a right extremity, only in extremity, to refuse to enforce illegal federal legislation within their boundaries.
DS: 23:33 If I could stopp you there, Mr. President, because I think that citizens need to understand this in the most direct way. Now, I should also say that Mr Madison helped you.
CSJ as TJ: 23:43 He wrote the Virginia resolutions which were milder than my Kentucky resolutions, both secret.
DS: 23:48 But essentially what you were asserting is state's rights. In other words, if the federal constitution or federal law was disputed by a particular state, the state could say, 'no, we're more powerful than the federal government.' Is that right?
CSJ as TJ: 24:05 — if these are violations of the constitution. So if it's policy, let's say that the federal —
DS: 24:10 — that's open to interpretation though, isn't it?
CSJ as TJ: 24:12 So let's say the federal government passes a tariff law that I disliked profoundly. We have to accept that because it's constitutional. So there's a difference between that which is constitutional and that which is not. Now again, that might be in the eye of the beholder, but what happened was that nobody checked this. Remember the 10th amendment says those powers not delegated to the national government belong instead to the states and to the people. So the constitution and the bill of rights include a states' rights provision in the 10th amendment. So when this happened, I wrote these resolutions saying we will just refuse to enforce what we take to be extra constitutional legislation within the sovereign boundaries of Kentucky. And Madison wrote a milder form of that. This is the doctrine of nullification. You've probably heard about it. The doctrine of nullification is a radical states' rights doctrine. That's why I didn't sign the Kentucky resolutions and Madison didn't sign the Virginia ones and it was later used, as I'm told, to justify southern secession in southern nullification in the run up to the civil war. So in retrospect, I believe that I went too far. I think I had good reason to do it. But if you ever contemplate nullification, you are also contemplating the breakdown of the Union and if you contemplate that probably you cannot remain a unified republic very long. If Vermont wants to leave for such and such a reason and Delaware for a different one and Maryland for a third and so on,
DS: 25:46 So you would you would oppose that? If there were, say a group of states that decided they, for whatever reason could no longer seek their happiness being part of the United States. You would oppose them leaving?
CSJ as TJ: 25:58 Rhetorically but not militarily. In other words, I would urge everyone to stay and work it out because I think you will soon break up into a whole series of atomized regions or states if you take secessionism too far, but as a matter of natural law and sovereignty, if Virginia wants to secede and form its own republic, it has a right to do so. If Delaware wants to become its own independent nation. It has a right to do so. I would strongly urge everyone to stay and to try to work it out in the public arena. But in terms of legal right, any state has a right to secede alone or with others at any time.
DS: 26:38 Understood. It did lead to some of the bloodiest times in American history.
CSJ as TJ: 26:43 And I would not have held the union together with blood. I would have said to the southern states, you're making a mistake. We should stay and work this out in an open public debate and dialogue. But if you are insisting on going, we won't hold you in the union with an army. But my point is that in retrospect I see that I was right about the illegality of the alien and sedition laws and their barbarism. But that going that far on the road to nullification created a precedent which was then used by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina in the 1830s and used in a more bloody fashion and the 1850s and '60s by angry southern slave states. And so I'm not only the author of the declaration of independence, but I'm also the author of the doctrine of nullification, which has had a kind of a nuisance mischief in the course of American history. If I were doing it over again, I would let Mr Madison tone them down even more than he did in his rival Virginia resolutions.
DS: 27:48 Let's move on to another, what I might call a political mistake, sir, uh, my apologies. The XYZ affair. What can you tell our listeners about that?
CSJ as TJ: 27:58 Well, quickly, just to set it up. we sent — the Adams administration — sent ministers to France to try to work out some really difficult troubles with France. This was in the run up to the Quasi war, this undeclared naval war we had an 1798 and 1799 with France. And so Adam sent ministers including Elbridge Gerry and John Marshall, and they were to treat with French diplomats to try to work out the problems. And they were approached when they finally got credentialed in Paris, they were approached by agents who said, unless they paid a huge bribe to the French directory and gave France alone and apologize for the Adams administration, the French would refuse to treat with them, would refuse to give them any diplomatic time, and so in their dispatches about the three individuals who were demanding bribes and so on, they called them x, y, and z instead of their French names. So they were called the x, y, and z diplomats. And that became the XYZ Affair. Anyway, when this all came back to the United States, my political group, the emerging small r republican party, believed that Adams was hiding something and that France was wanting to reconcile and that Adams' ministers, chiefly John Marshall, my cousin, were making things difficult than we're being intransigent. And so we insisted through the House of Representatives that the papers, the XYZ papers, be released to the public, or at least to Congress so the congress could decide for itself whether this was an overreaction by the Adams administration. John Adams did not want to release those papers, but the Republicans under my and Mr Madison's watch were so insistent that Adams finally said, 'fine, I'll release the papers.' And when he did, they vindicated the American ministers. They vindicated the Adams administration. They showed that the French were not only demanding bribes, but were corrupt and hostile and really behaving abysmally in the world's arena. And so this reinforced the righteousness of the Adams administration. It cast deep shadows of it legitimacy on the opposition that I helped to represent. This was maybe the greatest political, tactical mistake of my entire life, believing that the transparency of the XYZ papers would be hammer which we could use against Hamilton and Adams and the federalists; they turned out to be a hammer that was used on our own heads and frankly, we richly deserved the public dismay that followed.
DS: 30:42 I hate to pile on here, Mr. President, but you said it might be the greatest —
CSJ as TJ: 30:46 I think it was the greatest single mistake.
DS: 30:48 I would give you a runner up then, and that would be the embargo act of 1807.
CSJ as TJ: 30:52 No sir. Even though the American public refused to accept the embargo acts and accused me of being a tyrant and breaching the fourth and first amendments and so on, I went to my grave certain that I had been right, and just let me quickly say that we were in a very untenable situation. Britain was being hostile to us. France was being hostile to us on the high seas and elsewhere, impressing soul sailors, unfair tariffs, discriminatory tonnage and and a whole range of orders and council and decisions by Napoleon and his court to damage the United States. Britain and France were locked into a war of national survival, the Great Napoleonic wars, and each one felt that it had to do whatever it took in order to survive and if possible, prevail in the little American navy of merchant class of vessels was being ground up between these two horrible actors in the world's arena. And we were being humiliated. Our sovereignty was being violated. Our citizens were being impressed into service. Some of them were being arrested and forcibly taken off on British ships. There were firings on American vessels, firings within American coastal waters, and so I had to do something and I could have fought a war against Britain or France or both. I could not allow this to continue because it was such a degradation of American dignity and sovereignty. And so I chose this tertium quid, this third path, which was a total economic embargo. I feel certain I was right. I feel certain if we had really adhered to that embargo, we would have won, that economic coercion is a much preferable answer to the world's crises than actual war. But the problem was that my embargo, although intelligent and the only rational path, was highly unpopular in the United States, not only with New England merchant class people and shipping interests and banking interests and insurance interests, but it was highly unpopular with farmers including Virginia farmers. And so there was widespread smuggling, there was anger about my policies. The enforcement became much more difficult and in some ways draconian. We had to end the embargoes on the day that I left office. It was a political failure, no question, but I believe that it was the right response and that the last thing we should have done in 1807, 1808 and 1809 was fight a second war of national independence because we weren't ready for it yet.
DS: 33:28 So perhaps it was not so much a mistake in policy as a blatant political mistake — Mr President you, if you do something that is going to hurt the finances of individual citizens, as well as companies, to think that they would all just sort of absorb this for the bigger picture. I hate to say it was naive, but I'm afraid it was.
CSJ as TJ: 33:57 Possibly. Let me say this about it. It was a noble experiment.
DS: 34:02 Agreed.
CSJ as TJ: 34:03 Preferring peace to war. I would have thought, and I don't mean to sound dramatic, that a merchant in New England would rather have a little economic deprivation than send his son off into a battle from which he might return without his limbs or not return at all.
DS: 34:20 But you didn't really sell that point to the public, did you, Mr. President? You assumed that they would figure it out on their own.
CSJ as TJ: 34:26 I assumed that people would understand that war is the last melancholy response to a situation like this and wars almost always end after the maiming and killing of hundreds or thousands with the restoration of the status quo, antebellum, the various set of circumstances from which the war began. What I didn't understand was that you have to sell these ideas in the arena of public opinion, there was no such infrastructure in my time and I would not have wanted to do it anyway because I don't believe that a president should, should preach at the American people or issue pronouncements or essays or anything else.
DS: 35:06 Isn't the first job of a president to lead the people and make the nation more secure and safe?
CSJ as TJ: 35:12 Yes, of course. And I did that.
DS: 35:14 Wouldn't that have, wouldn't that have — If you had had, like during my time Mr President, there are press officers, people whose job is nothing but to do that sort of thing, to inform the public, to sell them ideas.
CSJ as TJ: 35:27 There was no such being in my very modest administration. I had no press secretary. I never had a news conference. I never issued anything to the public during the whole course of my eight years as president and let me say one more thing about this too, and to enforce the embargo acts, I was forced kind of down a slippery slope into greater and greater government intrusion into the economy and into the private lives of our citizens until, in order to make the embargo work, I had to assume powers that no president had again until your civil war. And so you can imagine how deeply abashed I was. I'm a libertarian who believes in extremely limited government and I didn't ever want to be president of the United States anyway, and suddenly I'm in the midst of this world crisis. In order to enforce the saluatory, the positive, and I think enlightened, embargo, I have to assume almost dictatorial powers in certain limited respects. That was a crushing blow to my idea of presidential power, my idea of myself, and I will say this, that it was the only time, I believe, in my whole lifetime, that I was disappointed with the American people. I would have hoped that they would've seen the nobility of this gesture, even if it was economically disadvantageous to certain sectors of the economy.
DS: 36:53 I recognize that sir, and I admire that nobility in you.
CSJ as TJ: 36:56 Thank you very much. I wished the American people had in the crisis of the moment felt what you do in retrospect.
DS: 37:05 Well, it's easy for me —
CSJ as TJ: 37:07 You're not a New England merchant.
DS: 37:08 Neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs.
CSJ as TJ: 37:11 Correct, your ox has not been gored, sir.
DS: 37:14 There is one other one I wanted to ask you about and that, I don't know if we call it a political mistake or naivete or what, but you really believed that the French revolution would come out harmoniously.
CSJ as TJ: 37:28 I did. I am an optimist for one thing. I steer my bark with hope ahead and fear astern. I hoped that the French revolution would end more or less like ours with the creation of a constitutional republic and a bill of — a charter of rights, of some sort. I believe that people want peace and prosperity and that our natural instinct is for calm and harmony rather than conflict and struggle. And so when the French revolution spun out of control in 1788, 1789 and beyond, I was horrified, but I kept predicting that it would soon return to equanimity and social harmony and I was just wrong. And in fact, one of the few times in the course of my 83 years that I admitted that I was wrong was in a letter to John Adams after we started corresponding again. That started again in 1812. And in one of my letters I said, 'There's one area where you predicted chaos and I predicted harmony and you were right. And I have to say I was wrong. You, John Adams, believed that the French revolution would end in dictatorship. You were right. I believe that it would end in the establishment of a free and well ordered republic. I was wrong and I cheerfully admit that I was as wrong as can be on that subject.' Of course, he chortled, and was very gleeful that he had finally forced me into a capitulation on some issue or others. And let me just say this much more and I — It doesn't put me in a very good light. I actually edited my correspondence late in my life for posterity. And I went back into some of my correspondence and I changed a few phrases to make me seem less naive about the possibility of a happy ending to the French revolution.
DS: 39:12 Did you? Mr Jefferson, I'm surprised.
CSJ as TJ: 39:13 I have to admit it. It's not — it doesn't give me any joy to admit it, but I did. I was so surprised that I had gotten this so wrong that I toned down a few of my more optimistic statements from the 1790s about the likely outcome of the cataclysmic French revolution.
DS: 39:31 Well, I must give you this, sir, that you are owning up to it now.
CSJ as TJ: 39:35 It's easy now as you, as you say, it's easy for me to, several hundred years after the fact, to be more candid than I might've been during my time. Pride is a human emotion, sir.
DS: 39:45 But it is a clue to you. You really believed in the better side of man.
CSJ as TJ: 39:51 I do. Indeed, sir.
DS: 39:52 Thank you very much Mr Jefferson. We need to take a short break. We'll be back in just a moment. You're listening to the Thomas Jefferson Hour.
DS: 40:06 Welcome back to the Thomas Jefferson Hour, your weekly conversation with President Thomas Jefferson, and now your weekly conversation with the creator of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Mr Clay Jenkinson. Good to see you, sir.
CSJ: 40:18 Good to see you too, David Swenson, the semi permanent tomato growing guest host of the Thomas — two pound a tomato.
DS: 40:26 Yeah. Well be careful. We'll get into gardens.
CSJ: 40:29 — cherry tomatoes. So that's it for now.
DS: 40:30 I have a photograph. I will show it to you.
CSJ: 40:33 Can you post it on the website? Jeffersonhour.com
DS: 40:36 I sure can, but there it is on a scale.
CSJ: 40:38 He's handing me something called an iPhone. Oh it's huge! And there's the scale that says two oh one?
DS: 40:45 That's two pounds, 5/8 ounce. I don't want to start a competition here. I just had to prove that it was that big.
CSJ: 40:50 It has three lobes. It's beautiful.
DS: 40:52 Yeah, it was kinda the first one — mutant.
CSJ: 40:57 You win. Now you have to give a dinner. That's how it works. Remember with the peas? The first person?
DS: 41:04 So Jefferson's mistakes.
CSJ: 41:06 And we didn't include one which is so important. That's why it's kind of a tough one.
DS: 41:11 Put it at the bottom of the list.
CSJ: 41:12 And it's not just slavery obviously, but in 1819 and 1820, the Missouri Compromise which extended slavery into the West. One state would come in free and one state would come in slave and it led to the civil war and that was a catastrophe politically, but a compromise that probably was necessary given the moment. During that time, Jefferson said, 'slavery will be — will disappear sooner if we extend into the west.' This is known as the theory of diffusion. He said, 'if we diffuse the slave population into the west, there will be fewer slave gangs. There will be a handful of slaves per farmer plantation. The white owners will treat their slaves with greater respect than they would a gang of workers and that this will hasten the end of slavery.' All I can say, David, is that is one of the weakest pronouncements that Jefferson ever made. The diffusion argument is on the surface insane. It's self serving. It's defensive, it's disingenuous. It's demagogic. It's one thing to say slavery should extend itself into the West. It's another thing to say, it'll go away faster if we say — and that I think is maybe the his worst moment. There are plenty of bad moments for Jefferson, but he was an old man by now. There had been kind of a hardening of his spiritual arteries. We know that race and slavery bedeviled him through as long and distinguished life and that he was, to put it mildly, ambivalent about all of this, but to say that slavery will be milder and will disappear sooner by extending it into Missouri territory is one of the most upsetting things that Jefferson ever did and we spent too much time on race on this program. We have to. But I think it's an important political mistake that he made that haunted the country and led to almost 800,000 deaths, not directly, but he was part of the extension of slavery that made the civil war inevitable and that led to almost 800,000 deaths. That's the largest bloodbath in American history.
DS: 43:17 I probably should have brought that up but as you know, I sort of tiptoed into this, now —
CSJ: 43:22 — my idea. Yeah —
DS: 43:23 — it's interesting to me — the show was your idea — It's interesting to me. I was thinking about how sucked into Jefferson's character I am.
CSJ: 43:32 You are protective of the old boy.
DS: 43:33 Well, yes and no. I mean, you know, I've just like learned, uh, through meeting with him every week, what you can do and what you can't. You can't just pop in questions about Sally Hemings and not expect him to get up and leave the room.
CSJ: 43:46 There was the incident.
DS: 43:47 Yes. So I had to sort of tip toe into these.
CSJ: 43:51 It was good of you.
DS: 43:52 And then he was happy to talk about these and sort of correct some things and admit some mistakes and say, I wish I'd have done this. And so it was very interesting.
CSJ: 44:04 You know, you see these people — I just watched the documentary about Gary Hart, a few days ago.
DS: 44:09 Oh, I remember him. Yeah.
CSJ: 44:10 And you know, he —
DS: 44:11 — I was just a child —
CSJ: 44:12 — monkey business — Donna Rice and the — Anyway, Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Ronald Reagan, during the Iran Contra affair, Nixon during the, you know, these people during the moment can almost never say, 'Oh boy, I'm wrong. I'm completely wrong. I throw myself at the mercy of the American people.' They tough it out. They do what Nixon called a modified limited hangout. They, they — mistakes were made in the passive voice —
DS: 44:43 Alternate facts.
CSJ: 44:44 Right. But then 20 years later Nixon finally is able to say to David Frost, it's not even 20, but a number of years later he says, you know, 'that will haunt me for the rest of my life.' Bill Clinton recently ducked a chance to be humble and accept his own errors and sinfulness. It takes a long time for people to be able to say, 'you know what, that wasn't my best moment.'
DS: 45:09 Mr. Jefferson's case, two hundred years.
CSJ: 45:11 Yeah, exactly. He could not have said these things during his lifetime.
DS: 45:13 Right.
CSJ: 45:13 But, but he would have over time because if he would've had a harder time at this than I do, but we all know that humans are capable of greatness and capable of pettiness. And — to put it in Christian terms, we're capable of exploitation and also sin. St Augustin and others would say we're born sinful. That this is the original inheritance of Adam and Eve, however you want to see it. I think Conrad Lorenz said that humans have a corrupt gene. There's a dark gene in us, it leads us to self destructive behavior and war, whatever you want to say. We all know that there is this. That humans fail.
DS: 45:54 Right.
CSJ: 45:54 They fail through pride, they fail through lust. They fail through ego, through shortsightedness, self-righteousness, hubris. The Greek said hubris. It's hard for people to admit that they're wrong. And the funny thing about it is the American people are so very forgiving. If you just say, I was wrong, and we all know this, there's nobody that doesn't realize that America is the nation of second chances that if you say you're wrong and throw yourself at the mercy of the people, they almost automatically cheer up and forgive you —
DS: 46:27 Almost as much as — the American public enjoys seeing giants fall.
CSJ: 46:32 We do love to see giants fall. This documentary about Gary Hart was about that moment, that they say this was the crack where private behavior suddenly became a big public issue. Back in the age of Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy, the press was quiet about sexual indiscretion, but Hart thought like Bill Clinton later thought, 'hey, they all do it. I guess I'll do it too. What's power for if you can't lie in your own bed,' and this was — Gary Hart happened to be this person at the moment.
DS: 47:00 That's a bit —
CSJ: 47:02 There's some of that. There's some of that. Bill Clinton was asked why he did it. He said because I could. Because I could. But leaving that aside, Hart happened to come along just at the moment when this flared, and now we're in a permanent situation where the private lives of public officials are fair game. Nothing is private anymore.
DS: 47:22 A lot of people would say that's good.
CSJ: 47:23 It could be. I don't know. All I'm saying is that people have a hard time acknowledging their weaknesses and admitting their mistakes. And Jefferson was himself a very thin skinned fellow and had a hard time acknowledging his own failures.
DS: 47:41 I did think it a very interesting — back to me reacting — thinking about how I react to Jefferson's character. I mean, it's beyond you. You're out of control, now. Uh, I mean not out of control, but you have no control of this persona that has come to the barn and that I've begun to know so well. I took heart in him saying how disappointed he was in the American public when they didn't support his embargo because it was to prevent the death of soldiers. It was to prevent war.
CSJ: 48:12 This is the kind of argument that automatically appeals to you because you have a huge heart and you believe in humanity and you're committed to peace and you — and I know — I knew when I started down this path that this would appeal to you because he was right.
DS: 48:29 So what are you saying, Jefferson was just playing on my better nature?
CSJ: 48:32 No, I'm saying that the part of Jefferson which I find most admirable is his belief that people are up to it.
DS: 48:42 Yeah.
CSJ: 48:43 And that we will progress as a nation.
DS: 48:46 Incredibly naive, but admirable.
CSJ: 48:48 You're being an Adamsite. 'Naive, incredibly naive.' Jefferson would say, give it a shot. Let's give it a shot.
DS: 48:54 It was Mr Jefferson that said later in life he had to admit to Mr Adams that he was a bit naive.
CSJ: 49:00 Wrong on the French revolution. Isn't that shocking that he went back and doctored his correspondence?
DS: 49:06 Yeah. That was pretty amazing that he would bring up.
CSJ: 49:09 Snd my old student, Joanne Freeman, showed that in his — he created this little commonplace collection called the annus and it was really gossip and innuendo about his enemies. Everybody at their worst moments and he collected this, and late in life, he went through and edited it and carefully put it — because he wanted historians to find this and say, this is for example, where we learned that he had the famous dinner party where Hamilton said he thought that Julius Caesar was the greatest man who ever lived. The only source for that is Jefferson, and so he collected the scrapbook of the worst things that could be said about his enemies and left it just sitting around. So the historians would find it and think, there's the truth because the story is so great that — you know, that Jefferson said Locke, Bacon and Newton are the three greatest men who ever lived and then, Hamilton said, 'it was Julius Caesar.' Jefferson wanted us to be having this conversation so he wasn't above this sort of self aggrandizement and the demonization of his enemies.
DS: 50:04 But I do believe that, back to this — his disappointment in the public — and that he really believed that the American citizenry was above that, that he expected more.
CSJ: 50:17 So if you take the best educated people in America, let's say —
DS: 50:21 Well — into today's time. You know, here we are with a — trade wars, tariffs. Kind of the same thing.
CSJ: 50:28 He thought we would always find a way to push out ego and self interest. And talk about longterm self interest.
DS: 50:38 Current administration could do a little bit of learning by looking at each Jefferson's embargo act and —
CSJ: 50:44 You better tell the farmers who grow soybeans why this is important, and that in the long run they will be better off. If you don't explain yourself — self interest, the pocket book will almost always prevail. So you're right that this is one of those situations where we could learn a lot by looking at Jefferson's embargo as we face the current situation with our trade wars, with China, with Canada, and with other nations. Can I say one more thing about this and that is that we — there's another disappointment that Jefferson had. The only other one that I know of and that's when he saw the Missouri compromise and slavery almost bringing about a civil war. And he thought — he says — There's a famous letter. It says, 'the sacrifices we made at the time of the revolution should not be sullied by this meaningless battle.' He saw the fact that slavery wasn't going to benignly go away as tragedy. That slavery was going to continue to bedevil the country and rock us to the core from time to time, and he said, I thought our children and grandchildren would be more enlightened than this and they would find some benign way to end this practice and get out from under slavery, and so these are the only two times in all of his voluminous correspondence and all that I know about Jefferson, that he was actually disappointed by us.
DS: 51:58 And with that sir, I thank you for an enlightening conversation and Mr Jefferson, but is now time for this week's Jefferson Watch.
CSJ: 52:07 Just a note about Jefferson and leadership. First, he was reluctant. Thanks to the influence of classical culture, all of the founding fathers had to pretend that they would rather be home tending their garden than hold political power, but Jefferson seems actually to have meant that. He was a shy, thin-skinned, scholarly man who had a poor speaking voice and loved to be home in his slippers reading from his extensive library, writing exquisite letters on fine handmade paper and tending to his prize geraniums. When he said he had no more desire to government than to ride his horse through a storm. Jefferson meant it.
CSJ: 52:46 Second, he seems to have learned early on to check his ego at the door. There was a kind of selflessness about Jefferson's leadership: quiet voice, understated arguments, no drama, and almost excessive willingness to hear from everyone else and seek consensus. It would be impossible to think of Jefferson raising his voice, for example, or pounding the table, or declaring ex cathedra how things were going to be handled, or sending out a dawn tweet for that matter. He had a great quality of great leaders of not needing to get credit for his ideas. In fact, he was so determined to lead from consensus and to let the will of the people tell him how to proceed, that they might not have been a great leader in crisis. He was no Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, he was no FDR. He believed that he existed to turn the will of the people, as far as he understood it, into careful action. Hamilton frequently found fault with Jefferson for being too cautious, not bold enough.
CSJ: 53:46 Third, Jefferson was an actual Utopian visionary who truly believed in the severely limited government. "A few plain duties performed by a few honest men," he wrote. In theory, Jefferson was an anarchist. He believed in no formal government at all, that each of us would be a fully self actualized being who governed him or herself, and then beyond that, all we would really need was a post office. You hear people today talking about limited government, but that usually means they don't like taxes, or they want to kill off all the government programs they don't happen to like, like the National Endowment for the Arts or the Department of Education, and then keep the rest. Jefferson is that rarest of beings. Someone who actually wanted us to try for a minimalist national government. You can imagine what he would think of our swollen leviathan government extending its tentacles into every aspect of our lives. With 1.4 million civilians receiving salaries directly from the United States Treasury, and literally millions of federal regulations. If you believe in democracy or even a Jeffersonian republic, the idea of leaders is inherently problematic. Jefferson can hardly be a bold, ambitious, dramatic, strong man on a white horse, and still believe that the people should largely govern themselves, even if he had had a white horse mentality, which he didn't.
CSJ: 55:14 Fourth. Jefferson was a patient leader. He reckoned the time was on America's side, that most things can probably be left alone, and that precipitous action is almost always the worst possible response to a problem or a crisis. He was always content to wait — to gather information, to see how things unfolded according to their own dynamics, buy for time — because he knew that the United States was going to get stronger, more prosperous and more independent over time, and that we were uniquely blessed by the 3,000 mile moat that separated us from the broken Old World across the Atlantic. He was extremely patient with the Mississippi River crisis between 1801 and 1803, and the result was the Louisiana Purchase. He was patient with respect to the growing Aaron Burr treason circus of 1806 and 1807, and the result was civil harmony in the trans-Appalachian west. He was patient during what he called the reign of witches in 1798, the period of the alien and sedition laws, and the result was that he became the third president of the United States at the next election. When others called for immediate action, Jefferson was content to hold his cards close to his chest and observe things.
CSJ: 56:31 Finally, Jefferson believed in peace, not peace at any cost, but peace if in any honorable way possible. He regarded war as ancient and medieval barbarism and savagery, trying to maintain its bloody market share in a much more enlightened world. "Peace," Jefferson said, "is my passion." He believed a republic like ours should never start a war, and only go to war after every possible attempt had been made to find a peaceful alternative. Of all of the founding fathers, Jefferson was the one who found least glory in war, violence, the parade of troops, the ingenuity of weaponry or the arrogance of the officer corps. Do we have such leaders today? Even with some of the principles in terms adjusted for inflation and retooled for a dangerous global arena, the answer is no. Time to stop beating up Jefferson for his real and perceived faults, and to hearken to his vision of a self sufficient, highly educated, peaceful, mild-mannered self-led and self-actualized republic. If we worked on those matters, most of our troubles, to use a Jeffersonian metaphor, would disappear like the fog when the sun rises in the morning. I'm Clay Jenkinson. We'll see you next week for another exciting edition of the Thomas Jefferson Hour.