Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 36 Proclamation of Neutrality

SEEMINGLY, Washington had labored in vain to dissuade Jefferson from resignation; in fact, at the beginning of the new year the newspapers were reporting that he had already done so.

General Gates, now in retirement and pleased to call himself "the Hermit of Rose Hill," read the item and hastened to add his protest to the swelling Republican chorus. He peered into his own "prophetic Soul" and discovered that Jefferson's supposed action "Augurs no Benefit to the State by such a Sacrafice [sic]; If the best Seamen abandon the Ship in a Storm, she must Founder, and if all Human means are neglected, Providence will not for The Vessel, She must Perish!"1

The premature publication discommoded Jefferson considerably. For Hamilton's bitter public attacks on him under the guise of "An American." plus a concerted campaign of vilification in the Federalist press, had just preceded the notice and were steadily rising in fury, going so far as to demand an investigation of his conduct in office. The juxtaposition and sequence of the two gave rise, therefore, even in the minds of some of his best friends, to the thought that the one had led to the other, and that Jefferson was retiring in the face of the storm and, perhaps, even to avoid the threatened investigation.

Nothing could have been better calculated to give Jefferson pause. Even greater than his abnormal sensitivity to public criticism was his passionate desire for public approbation. To escape from the former would inevitably lead to the loss of the latter. "The only reward I ever wished on mv retirement," he wrote in considerable agitation to Martha, "was to carry with me nothing like a disapprobation of the public. These representations have, for some weeks passed shaken a determination which I had thought the whole world could not have shaken."2

He had already begun to pack, sold some of his furniture and found a tenant for his Philadelphia house. At Monticello, he had hired workers and laid in materials for extensive building operations, which included the construction of a canal at the base so that his produce could be floated safely into the main river. All these projects were at sixes and sevens; though he had asked his son-in-law to attend to the canal, which was to be six feet wide at the bottom, "and to slope at the sides so as to permit grass to grow on them."3

Under the circumstances, however, Jefferson felt he owed it to his honor and public repute not to appear to have resigned under fire. On February 7,

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