Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 44 Specter of Nullification

IN December, 1798, Jefferson returned to his official duties in Philadelphia, arriving on Christmas Day. He had private worries, as well as public. His finances, as always, were in a desperate state. He had pinned his hopes for hard cash on his nail factory, but the results of a half year's unremitting work had yielded painfully little; so little, in fact, that he was unable to meet even small obligations.1

A cold caught on the road laid him up for two days in Philadelphia, so that he did not enter the Senate to preside until December 27th. He sought political gossip eagerly, and was assured by his Republican friends that the public was fast coming round to their standard.2

He was further gratified by a serenade, complete with band and lusty song, put on for his benefit on New Year's Day by the faithful Republicans. They sang:

"Bless'd with genius, with talents, with virtue divine,
Still Columbia thy boast is that Jefferson's thine."3

All this, of course, was heartening; but the national picture still presented a most ominous aspect. An undeclared war, real enough in all conscience, was in progress with France. Privateers and ships of war roamed the seas and fought on sight. Congress had authorized the raising of an army, Washington had been called out of retirement to head it, and Hamilton, ostensibly second in command, was chief in fact and dreaming dreams of glory. Adams's opening address to Congress breathed military fire to Jefferson, who thought it had been written for him "by the military conclave, & particularly Hamilton." He was also certain that Gerry's correspondence with Talleyrand. which Adams had refused to publish, would "shew France in a very conciliatory attitude, and . . . contradict some executive assertions."4

Jefferson's alarm grew stronger with every day. Unless some herculean effort was made--and soon--the Federalists would be able to jam an official declaration of war through Congress. As a last resort he begged Madison to publish the secret debates of the Constitutional Convention, of which he had taken such voluminous notes. Perhaps the knowledge of what actually took place might throw sufficient light on the true nature of that instrument as to be decisive with the public.5 But Madison made no move to do so.

Elbridge Gerry, now returned to the United States, was shocked at the way his mission had been distorted. Jefferson replied that he too had been

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