In the three years that Jefferson spent in retirement at Monticello in the middle 1790s, he never ranged more than seven miles from his front door. This is a remarkable record for a man as well traveled as Jefferson, but there was much to detain him on the homefront. After over a decade away from his own domain, Jefferson now poured his energy into the agrarian ideals that he so vociferously expressed as virtues throughout his writings.
Less is known about Jefferson during this period than during any other period in his life. His correspondence dropped precipitously, and though he received visitors, he was frequently alone in the absence of his daughters, co-existing with the sole company of his many slaves for weeks on end. While isolated thus, his thoughts must have turned frequently to Maria Cosway, who had since given birth, only to abandon her husband and son in the company of an Italian castrato, with whom she absconded to Italy.
While generations of academics have insisted that Cosway was the last great love of Jeffersons life, a long line of dissenters has argued to the contrary. Over the span of her twenties and early thirties, Sally Hemings gave birth to seven children. From his tenure in France until his dying day, she was closely associated with his domestic affairs. In each of her pregnancies, Jefferson was present nine months prior to the date of labor. Coupled with the distinctly pallid appearance of Hemingss children, appearing to one visiting Frenchman to be as white as he was, many have speculated that the paternity should be attributed to Jefferson or one of his close relatives.
Jeffersons rumored association with Hemings followed him doggedly throughout his later life, and has remained attached to his name down through the succeeding generations. Persistent stories mushroomed into a full-blown scandal during Jeffersons first term as President, and public suspicions of the affair remained despite his oblique evasions and his familys outright denials. The matter had faded into semi-obscurity by the late nineteenth century when it was revived by the recollections of Madison Hemings, an emancipated slave who claimed to be the son of Jefferson by Sally Hemings. His testimony was written off by most, and remained unconsidered for nearly a decade.
Only in the last twenty-five years has the matter been re-opened to serious public consideration. A spate of studies speculating as to Jeffersons true relationship with Hemings raised the once-dismissed rumor to the level of a potentially verifiable legend. Then, in the autumn of 1998, the paternity of Eston Hemings, Sallys youngest son, was proved beyond reasonable doubt by a series of genetic tests. A member of the Jefferson line was the father of one, and likely most, of Hemingss children. Though the possibility remains that a relative of Jeffersons could be the man in question, the overwhelming majority of circumstantial evidence and testimony points directly to Jefferson himself.
The Hemings family, headed by Betty Hemings, mistress to Jeffersons father- in-law John Wayles, had always been afforded preferential treatment at Monticello. They enjoyed especially comfortable lodgings on Mulberry Row, where Jeffersons most privileged slaves lived, and many of the younger generation were later emancipated or allowed to roam free. Sally Hemings herself had the charge of Jeffersons chamber and wardrobe, and was never involved in serious labor of any kind. In addition, Jeffersons own quarters were outfitted with a series of trap doors and secret passageways that may well have been necessitated by such an illicit arrangement.
Thus, it has become an increasingly accepted fact that Jefferson carried on an extended affair with one of his slaves, all the while denying it and further condemning miscegenation as an unadulterated evil. It is difficult to assess such a full-blown paradox, and because of this it is impossible to speculate as to the true nature of the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings. Since every effort was made by Jefferson to deny and efface the very possibility of a union between himself and Hemings, any guess as to the abuses or affections that may have occurred between them is ultimately a futile enterprise. Handcuffed as he was by the climate and values of his time, Jeffersons role in the affair, both in philosophical and practical terms, poses a troubling problem for his legacy as a defender of honesty and liberty.
Frequently, when the beliefs of Jefferson as self-professed abolitionist come into contradiction with the practices of Jefferson as slave-holder, his defenders point to his difficult financial situation. In the decade surrounding his return to Monticello, Jefferson sold over a hundred slaves and rented out countless others in order to help fund his ambitious agricultural and architectural projects. While he did also deed several slaves as gifts, to have emancipated his entire slave population would have been financial suicide for Jefferson, completely undermining his net worth while rendering his lands unworkable. Nevertheless, financial considerations rarely, if ever, checked his desire for extravagance or finery.
With dozens of slaves to implement his system, Jefferson proceeded to farm his lands under a plan of crop rotation. While the conception was grand in scope, it was hardly so in scale, as only one thousand acres actually remained under cultivation. In truth, this was not farming for profit, but farming for subsistence. Once again, to his credit, Jefferson elected to make his staple cash crop wheat as opposed to tobacco, thus minimizing slave labor and making a positive contribution in the form of a foodstuff rather than a negative contribution in the form of a narcotic.
Although he considered himself a farmer at root, Jefferson rarely ranged out into the fields themselves. He was much more taken with the ongoing construction of Monticello, which doubled in size during the later 1790s. Inspired by the forms and functions he had witnessed in Europe, Jefferson made a concerted effort to incorporate architectural poeticisms in every possible nook and cranny, sparing no expense.
From his growing sanctuary at Monticello, Jefferson was slowly drawn back to the political fray. As an agrarian, he was especially incensed by President Washingtons smiting of the Whiskey Rebellion, incited by tax-weary farmers in rural Pennsylvania. As a devoted friend to the French cause, he took umbrage at the British mercantile and naval alliance drawn up by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay. For these and other reasons, Jefferson came to believe that a pro-monarchical faction of Federalists was attempting to extinguish the cause of democracy that he had fought so hard to establish.
Against his professed wish that James Madison assume the party mantle, Jefferson in time acceded to the support given him by the Democratic- Republicans in the 1796 presidential campaign. With President Washington retiring, Jefferson faced up to the sitting vice president, the Federalist John Adams, in a nip-and-tuck race. After the returns had been counted, Jefferson found himself a narrow loser in the electoral college, with 68 votes to 71 for Adams. By existing conventions, Jefferson was cast in the role of vice president despite his opposing political views.
Rather than view himself as a subordinate, Jefferson chose to look at his vice presidency as the perfect opportunity to continue his political involvement without being bound to the actual strictures of office. During his tenure as second-in-command, he spent roughly as much time at Monticello as he did in Philadelphia. His primary duty in these years was to preside over the Senate, a role that the legislator in him must have relished. He took advantage of the opportunity to author a Manual of Parliamentary Practice, still used by Congress to this day.
Even as Jefferson found a niche for himself in the legislative wing, he once again struggled to integrate into the executive hierarchy. Relations between Adams and Jefferson were from the very beginning cool at best. Just following the inauguration, Adams offered Jefferson a diplomatic post in France, quickly rescinding the proposal when he recognized Jeffersons disinclination and the dangerous political ramifications inherent in the deportation of his next-in- line.
Throughout the ensuing four-year period, Jefferson took several actions to undermine the authority of the Adams administration. Though he often writing under condition of anonymity, he was not always able to conceal his hostility. One highly critical piece of correspondence to an Italian friend was translated into French and then back into English, in the process skewing several of Jeffersons remarks and thus–or perhaps nevertheless–rendering them an ill- willed condemnation of Adamss Anglican, monarchical and aristocratical party.
Adams himself landed in hot water over the XYZ Affair, a convoluted intrigue involving the bribery of several French diplomats. With tensions mounting in various European theaters, the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in order to maintain national security and unity. Thus, numerous Frenchmen were deported, and all untoward criticisms of the federal government were punishable by law. While extreme measures in a time of peace, the threat of conflict made the measures palatable under the Constitution. Extremely unpopular at the time, this initial Sedition Act set a precedent for later, harsher sedition legislation established by Senator Stephen Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the burgeoning Civil War.
Again, the delicate tension between tyranny and anarchy hung in the balance, with Adams perhaps erring on the side of tyranny, and Jefferson on the side of anarchy. Believing the Sedition Act to be a gross and untoward extension of federal powers, as well as a violation of first amendment freedoms, Jefferson struck out against them. Under an assumed name, Jefferson, in conjunction with Madison, authored a secret document asserting the rights of the several states against the encroaching federal government. Known today as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, these brash documents were essentially tantamount to treason, as Jefferson surreptitiously acted to undermine the authority of his own office while continuing a respectable facade in the service of his role.
In his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson laid out a compact theory of union by which the states reserved the right to dissolve ties to the federal government as they saw fit. Speaking with regard to federal power, Jefferson declared that where powers are assumed which have not been delegated a nullification of the Act is the rightful remedy. Continuing, he proposed that if and when specific states should agree that the federal government has exceeded its bounds, they will concur in declaring these acts void and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts, nor any others of the federal government not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories.
Such is the epitome of strict constructionism, classically defined. The difficulty comes not in the theory but in the practice, where the state must take specific measures of its own–that is, measures of force–to preclude infringing legislation from being exercised upon them. Although Jeffersons compact theory survived into the published form of the Kentucky Resolutions, his language regarding the doctrine of nullification was expunged. Southern secessionists such as John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis later revived Jeffersons arguments in the face of the mounting slave controversy. When secession became a reality in 1861, Jeffersons compact theory was put to the test, and defeated by the federal power of war.
Today the primacy of the federal body over the several states is virtually unquestioned. However, in the early days of the American experiment, as Henry Adams carefully pointed out, union was a question of expediency, not of obligation. In the late 1790s, Jefferson could playfully, if anonymously, bandy about theories of compact and nullification without the fear of recriminating effects. However, as President of the United States, Jefferson was forced to transform his entire political outlook. With the prince of federal opposition crowned king, democratic, republican and states rights ideologies were revealed as the expedient political tools that they were for Jefferson, no more to be clung to as binding obligations.
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