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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s Role in the Washington and Adams Administrations

Upon his return to the United States in November 1789, Jefferson learned that he had been appointed Secretary of State; he reluctantly accepted the post. Much of his time was consumed with affairs in France as the revolution there took a violent turn and threatened to involve the United States in a war with Britain. Search the collection using the keyword Genet for multiple references to the maneuvers of Citizen Edmond Genet and the problems he caused in American foreign policy.

On the domestic front, Jefferson opposed Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s financial program, which Washington endorsed. Hamilton’s program included federal assumption of state debts incurred during the Revolution, establishment of a mint and a national bank, imposition of various taxes, and a vision of an industrial America. Jefferson, in a February 1791 letter to Washington, argued that aspects of Hamilton’s program violated the Tenth Amendment and could not be justified under the “necessary and proper” clause in Article I. (Note that Jefferson identified the relevant amendment as the Twelfth Amendment because the Bill of Rights originally included twelve proposed amendments, two of which were not ratified at that time by the states.)

George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, August 23, 1792

George Washington to Thomas
Jefferson, August 23, 1792
. Why do
you think President Washington
marked this letter “Private”?

The disagreements between Jefferson and Hamilton disturbed Washington, who wrote to both men in August 1792. In his letter to Jefferson, Washington wrote, “How unfortunate, and how much is it to be regretted then, that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals.” Jefferson responded in a letter dated September 9, 1792.

. . . If it has been supposed that I have ever intrigued among the members of the legislature to defeat the plans of the Secretary of the Treasury, it is contrary to all truth. . . . That I have utterly, in my private conversations, disapproved of the system of the Secretary of the treasury, I acknowledge & avow: and this was not merely a speculative difference. His system flowed from principles adverse to liberty, & was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature.

From “Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, September 9, 1792,”

Look for other documents in the collection that will help you understand the conflict between Jefferson and Hamilton.

  • What was the basis of the conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson?
  • How did these disagreements evolve into the creation of political parties?
  • Why did both Jefferson and Hamilton resign from Washington’s cabinet?

Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet in 1793 and returned to Monticello, where he took up affairs on his estate, which he had long neglected. Politics, however, distracted Jefferson in his “retirement.” In December 1794, he wrote to Madison expressing his concerns about the government’s reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Washington had publicly blamed the outbreak on “democratic societies” while Jefferson laid the blame on Hamilton’s excise tax, which he described as “an infernal one” that might be “the instrument of dismembering the Union.” In April 1796, Jefferson wrote to Philip Mazzei, a friend in Italy, expressing his disillusionment with the political climate in the United States. The letter to Mazzei was first printed in the Italian press and then translated and circulated in the United States. The letter, assumed to be directed at George Washington, stirred controversy and became an issue in the election of 1796.

Although Jefferson did not seek the presidency in 1796, his name was placed on the ballot, accompanied by a firestorm of Federalist opposition. The Federalists supported the candidacy of Vice President John Adams. Although Jefferson and Adams had been colleagues during the Revolutionary era, political philosophy had divided them. Jefferson wrote to Adams on December 28, 1796:

The public & the papers have been much occupied lately in placing us in a point of opposition to each other. I trust with confidence that less of it has been felt by ourselves personally. . . . Our latest intelligence from Philadelphia at present is of the 16th inst. but tho' at that date your election to the first magistracy seems not to have been known as a fact, yet with me it has never been doubted. . . . I have never one single moment expected a different issue; & tho' I know I shall not be believed, yet it is not the less true that I have never wished it. . . . Indeed it is impossible that you may be cheated of your succession by a trick worthy the subtlety of your arch-friend of New York who has been able to make of your real friends tools to defeat their and your just wishes. Most probably he will be disappointed as to you; and my inclinations place me out of his reach. . . . No one then will congratulate you with purer disinterestedness than myself. . . . I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office.

From “Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, December 28, 1796”

  • Why do you think Jefferson began the letter by referring to public and media perceptions of his relationship with Adams? What does this suggest about the purpose of the letter?
  • What did Jefferson mean by “the first magistracy”?
  • Whom was Jefferson referring to when he mentioned “your arch-friend of New York”? What was Jefferson’s attitude toward this person?
  • Why do you think Jefferson said that governing men was “a painful and thankless office”? Do you agree? Why or why not?

After receiving the second highest number of electoral votes, Jefferson was sworn in as John Adams’ vice president. Despite Jefferson’s suggestion that he and Adams were not in such great opposition as the press and public believed, conflicts between Adams’ Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans continued through the Adams administration. These differences were particularly strong regarding issues related to a possible conflict with France and Britain. When it appeared probable that the United States would be drawn into war, Federalists in Congress secured passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. In the Kentucky Resolution, which he wrote privately, Jefferson forcibly expressed opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, which he believed were a first step toward establishing a dictatorship or monarchy:

. . . to take from the States all the powers of self-government and transfer them to a general and consolidated government, without regard to the special delegations and reservations solemnly agreed to in that compact, is not for the peace, happiness, or prosperity of these States; and that therefore this commonwealth is determined . . . to submit to undelegated, and consequently unlimited powers in no man, or, body of men on earth: . . . where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact . . . to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them.

From “Thomas Jefferson, November 16, 1798, Kentucky Resolution,”

Examine the Kentucky Resolution in Jefferson’s hand or in transcription.

  • What is the compact to which Jefferson referred?
  • What course of action was Jefferson recommending?
  • Does a state have the right to nullify an act of the federal government? If so, under what circumstances?

Note that Jefferson’s fellow Republican James Madison wrote similar resolutions to be introduced to the Virginia legislature. Both Kentucky and Virginia passed the resolutions, which had no legal bearing on the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts.