Mr Jefferson’s Wisdom After the Election

On a raw day in early March of 1801, Thomas Jefferson stood to swear the oath of office as the newly elected President of the United States. The oath was administered by the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Although they were distant cousins, the two men possessed a strong personal antipathy. The new capital city consisted mostly of mud-filled streets and buildings under construction. In the campaign of 1800, the exchanges between President John Adams and former Governor Jefferson were heated and sometimes hateful. The two former friends would not again exchange peaceful words for many years until the resourceful Abigail Adams re-opened communication between her husband and their former great friend. In his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson gave us words to consider in the aftermath of our just-concluded election.


Thomas Jefferson in 1805 painting

“During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes wornan aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Jefferson on a postage stamp in use during 1850s

Historical note: The “Republican” Party to which Jefferson made reference was the Democratic-Republican Party which he and James Madison co-founded in the early 1790’s. In 1825 it split into the Democratic Party which we know today and the Whig Party which faded away in the mid-1850s and many former members in the North became part of the Republican Party which we know today by that name. Andrew Jackson was the first Democratic president and Abraham Lincoln the first Republican president which we identify with those terms in modern usage. Both modern parties can claim descent from Jefferson in some fashion. For more reading on the history of American political parties, check the following:

Adams, Henry Brooks. History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. (1889).

Banning, Lance, ed. After the Constitution : Party Conflict in the New Republic. (1989).

Beard, Charles A. Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy. (1915).

Bernhard, Winfred E. A., ed. Political Parties in American History. (!974).

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. Jeffersonian Republicans: the Formation of Party Organization: 1789-1801 (1957)

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power: Party Operations 1801-1809 (1963).

Edwards, Rebecca. Angels in the Machinery : Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era. (1997).

Kelley, Robert L. The Cultural Pattern in American Politics : the First Century. (1979).

Klein, Philip S. Pennsylvania Politics, 1817-1832: A Game without Rules (1940).

Macy, Jesse, Political Parties in the United States, 1846-1861. (1900).

Rutland, Robert A., ed. James Madison and the American Nation, 1751-1836: An Encyclopedia. (1994)

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