Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 56 Re-election

PERSONAL matters were also engrossing Jefferson's attention. He was still engaged in the unfortunate and acrimonious litigation with a neighbor over a plot of ground abutting the Rivanna, on which he had built a dam and a mill, which interfered with his own navigation of the river, and which his agent, Craven Peyton, had bought on his behalf.1 As usual, the Federalists sought to make political capital of Jefferson's private misadventures, and he was goaded to an anonymous defense of his position (as "A Bystander") in the public press.2

In a pleasanter frame of mind he received, through the good offices of Lafayette, copies of works published in France. One was a treatise on Political Economy by Jean Baptiste Say, and the other a volume entitled ldéologie by De Stutt Tracy, whose daughter had married Lafayette's son. Both volumes, but particularly Tracy's, profoundly influenced Jefferson's future thinking. He indeed hailed Tracy's work as one of the greatest ever written, and hater translated it himself for American consumption. He remembered his good friend Lafayette with gratitude, and was assiduously trying to get for him a Congressional grant of land in the vicinity of New Orleans, where he believed values would rise with great rapidity. Indeed, had Lafayette then been in America, Jefferson would have offered him the governorship of that territory.3

The great naturalist and geologist, Baron Humboldt, came to America in 1804 and, as was the case with every European scientist on arrival in the New World, he sought out Jefferson as an intellectual equal and as the foremost exponent in this country of their mutual interests. Jefferson's newly appointed secretary, William A. Burwell, found Humboldt "about thirty, of small figure, well made, agreable Physiognomy, simple unaffected manners, remarkably sprightly, vehement in conversation … sometimes eloquent."

Jefferson welcomed him with the greatest cordiality and listened eagerly to the "treasures of information" which Humboldt was enabled to impart from his own vast stores of knowledge. One morning, while they were at breakfast, Jefferson came down to the company with a newspaper clipping in his hand. It was, he remarked, filled with the grossest personal abuse of himself. He was presenting it, he said, to Humboldt with the request that he deposit it in a European museum, as evidence "how little mischief flow'd from the freedom of the Press. That notwithstanding innumerable pieces of similar nature issued daily from the Press his administration had never

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