Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 69 Triumph of the University

JAMES MADISON served two terms as President and, in accordance with the rule laid down by Jefferson, was ready to retire to private life. He was not too averse to the prospect; his administrations had encompassed an inglorious war and there was general agreement, except among his most loyal followers, that he had not been a great President. The uneasy patience which James Monroe had exhibited over his own discard some eight years before was now vindicated, and the caucus of Republican Congressmen whose mandate was usually accepted as a nomination, chose him as the Republican standard-bearer by a fairly close vote over the rival pretensions of William H. Crawford. Monroe later found it expedient to give Crawford the post of the Treasury in his Cabinet. The nomination, in view of the completely disorganized condition of the Federalists, was tantamount to election; so much so, indeed, that Jefferson hardly found it worth while to refer to the campaign in any of his letters.

He preferred rather to engross himself in general principles and in adopting a world view. The South American colonies had finally erupted into their long threatened revolt against Spain; and Jefferson, in spite of agitation to the contrary, thought it unwise to give them any military assistance until we ourselves had gone to war with Spain for other reasons. Surprisingly, however, he hoped that, when victorious, South America would nor form a single confederacy, but would split into several groups. The reason he gave is illuminating. "In a single mass," he frankly avowed, "they would be a very formidable neighbor." If divided into three parts, as he thought their geography indicated, the United States might then be "the balancing power."1

Yet he viewed their struggles with a sympathetic eye, and when the enthusiastic Dupont drafted a plan of a constitution for the "Equinoctial republics," Jefferson soberly rebuked it as undemocratic. "We both consider the people as our children, and love them with parental affection," he observed. "But you love them as infants whom you are afraid to trust without nurses; and I as adults whom I freely leave to self-government."2

But this conception of self-government was strictly as a representative and not a pure democracy. The latter, he believed, could only work usefully in a small town or ward meeting. It was on that basis that he disputed Montesquieu, and insisted that a republican, representative structure could be applied to large areas. In fact, the larger the area, the more solid would be the structure, provided it "was founded, not on conquest, but in prin

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