Thomas Jefferson

The Presidency 1800-1808

Summary The Presidency 1800-1808

Of Jefferson's leadership qualities, Henry Adams noted him to be one of those rare politicians who "dared to legislate as though eternal peace were at hand, in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood." In this remark, does the reader apprehend a sense of admiration, or of condemnation, or simply of disbelief? All three sentiments apply equally to the eight years of Thomas Jefferson's presidency: years so replete with controversy, scandal and earth-shaking transformations as to scarcely be believed.

As a new capital city completely lacking in history, Washington was the ideal setting for a man devoted to rural seclusion. In a way, Jefferson was the only game in town for the many domestic and foreign dignitaries who came calling on business. Thus, with the aid of his daughter Patsy and the ever-present Dolly Madison, the President's House became a center of social activity, much like Monticello had been. Thrice-weekly formal dinners were held, noted as much for their moratorium on political discussions as for their distinctive French cuisine, servants, and wines.

In an effort to democratize proceedings, the bow was replaced by the handshake, and round tables took the place of rectangular ones. Eventually, even these reforms proved inadequate, and Jefferson abolished state dinners, considering them to be an undemocratic institution. Nevertheless, he continued to host private functions with vigor throughout his presidency, spending out of his own pocket to keep the standard of entertainment high. He accumulated $4,000 of debt per year in this fashion, and spent over $10,000 on wine alone in his first term in office. After adjusting for inflation, it is by any standard a phenomenal social budget.

Slim, standing six feet, two inches, with a deep, almost ruddy complexion, hair rapidly graying from a reddish-brown, hazel eyes, and a freckled face, Jefferson must have struck visitors as a bizarre combination of awkwardness and distinction. He was described by turns as courteous but reserved, sensitive and perceptive, even-tempered and relaxed, seeming shy and even aloof to some. His leisure activities included a furious mix of reading, letter-writing and horseback riding.

Like the equally haughty Lincoln, Jefferson affected an aggressive manner of rustic simplicity, dressing the part of the aristocratic country farmer, wont to speak in the most down-home, rambling of styles. The President's habit of appearing in rough waistcoats, too-small breeches and down-at-heel slippers, even when receiving honored guests, was a source of surprise to many. In keeping with these democratic window-dressings, Jefferson insisted on what he termed the "pele-mele" approach to entertaining, in which no distinctions of rank were made, and every man was left to place himself rather than relying on a hierarchical seating plan.

As Chief Executive, Jefferson surrounded himself with a cadre of trusted advisers, most prominently James Madison as Secretary of State and Albert Gallatin as Secretary of Treasury. To round out his cabinet, he tabbed a number of loyal Democratic-Republicans, largely replacing the Federalists of the previous administration. Although Jefferson termed these changes as made on the basis of merit, it seems clear that party affiliation played a significant role. For this reason, Jefferson is commonly considered as the father of the modern-day spoils system.

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