Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 30 A Stranger to the Scene

JEFFERSON was only a month short of his forty-seventh birthday when he assumed his duties as Secretary of State. Dr. Benjamin Rush, with whom he had visited at Philadelphia on his way to New York, thought that he dressed plainly and that his manners had not changed as a result of his European experience. Much to the eminent doctor's satisfaction, Jefferson still considered himself a republican and deplored John Adams's alleged shift in opinion to a more aristocrarical idea, even though he spoke of him with respect and affection as a great and upright man.1 What brought about this new view of Adams were the stories that assiduously circulated of his attempt to introduce monarchical salutations and courtly protocol into the business of government.

A more detailed--and more critical--description of the new Secretary of State at this time has come to us from the pen of William Maclay, backwoods Pennsylvania radical and United States Senator. To this fierce egalitarian, all Virginia gentlemen were suspect as essential aristocrats, and Jefferson's much-touted republicanism seemed but a pale simulacrum of the real thing.

He met Jefferson for the first time in May, 1790, and that night set down his impressions of the author of the Declaration of Independence. " Jefferson is a slender man," he wrote; "has rather the air of stiffness in his manner; his clothes seem too small for him; he sits in a lounging manner, on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other; his face has a sunny aspect; his whole figure has a loose, shackling air. He had a rambling, vacant took, and nothing of that firm, collected deportment which I expected would dignify the presence of a secretary or minister. I looked for gravity, but a laxity of manner seemed shed about him. He spoke almost without ceasing. But even his discourse partook of his personal demeanor. It was loose and rambling, and yet he scattered information wherever he went, and some even brilliant sentiments sparkled from him. The information which he gave us respecting foreign ministers, etc., was all high-spiced. He had been long enough abroad to catch the tone of European folly."2

Maclay's somewhat caustic description has been too readily accepted as standard for the Jefferson of this period. Yet Maclay himself contradicted this alleged loose-shackledness of posture and behavior, this lack of collected deportment and gravity, by his own comment of only a month later. Then, while dismissing Hamilton as a "skite" and possessed of a "very boyish,

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