I have always been impressed at how Thomas Jefferson stage managed his own demise. First, he wrote his own epitaph, then gathered the family around for a dramatic final words ceremony. And even after that, he was determined to wait for the perfect moment to exit the stage. The 83 year old control freak woke the last time at about 8:00 P.M., and asked if it was the fourth of July yet. When Doctor Robley Dunglison told him “It soon will be”, Jefferson went back to sleep and then kept breathing just long enough to be certain he was in the spot light. He died at 12:50 A.M, on July 4, 1826 - the fiftieth anniversary of the official signing of his “Decleration of Indpendence”. His fellow founding father, John Adams, died later the same day, unaware the Virginian had upstaged him again. And then immediately, just as modern day conservatives grapple over the legacy of Ronald Reagan, the living politicians of 1826 started arguing over Jefferson's endorsement. And the opening shot was delivered by the amazing Edward Coles
He was a Virginia aristocrat, like his neighbor Thomas Jefferson, and a private secretary to President James Madison - another neighbor. And he had a secrete dream. In 1819 the 33 year old sold his plantation to his older brother Walter, packed his personal belonging, his wardrobe and papers, his plows and spinning wheels and his 17 slaves onto two flatboats, and set off into the unknown.
“The morning after we left Pittsburgh,” Coles recalled 25 years later, “a mild, calm and lovely April day, the sun shining bright, and the heavens without a cloud, our boats floating gently down the beautiful Ohio...I called on the deck of the boats, which were lashed together, all the Negroes, and made them a short address.... I proclaimed in the shortest and fullest manner possible, that they were no longer slaves, but free —free as I was, and were at liberty to proceed with me, or to go ashore at their pleasure. The effect on them was electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard...As they began to see the truth...there came on a kind of hysterical, giggling laugh”
Coles had been planning this for a long time, and both Jefferson and Madison, who had advised Coles against it, were watching his experiment from afar. The slave Coles was most fond of, 47 year old Ralph Crawford, protested. “He thought I ought not to do it till they had repaid me the expense I had ...removing them from Virginia”. But Coles was determined.. “I told them, no” He then added that “as a reward for their past services, as well as a stimulant to their future exertions, and with a hope it would add to their self esteem and their standing in the estimation of others, I should give to each head of a family...one hundred and sixty acres of land.”
It was like a fairy tale, and it did not prove simple to accomplish. But Coles saw it accomplished. After landing on the Indiana shore opposite Louisville, the party sold their boats and made their way overland to the Mississippi River, arriving in May at Edwardsville, Illinois, opposite St. Louis. Madison had secured Coles the post of Register of Lands for the territory, and that income allowed him to help his freemen and their families as they struggled to make a new life in Illinois. In 1822, when an attempt was made to rewrite the new state's Constitution to permit slavery, Coles was elected, the second Governor of Illinois, on a firm anti-slavery platform. It took 18 hard months, but the forces of slavery were beaten back once again. .
Cole had corresponded with Thomas Jefferson for years, and at the ex-President’s requests had provided him with advice and details on the manumission of slaves. The Sage of Monticello had left Cole with the impression that Jefferson intended to free his own slaves in his will. When Jefferson died without having done that, Cole was bitterly disappointed. And that must have played a part in explaining why, shortly after Jefferson's death in 1826, Cole made public a letter he had received from Jefferson in August of 1825. In that letter Jefferson had called Jackson “a mere military chieftain,” and added that his popularity, “has caused me to doubt (the stability of the democracy) more than anything that has occurred since our Revolution.”
It might have been that Jefferson, being a politician, was again merely feeding Coles what he thought Coles wanted to hear. But then there was the conversation which Daniel Webster and Thomas Gilmer both had with Jefferson just before John Quincy Adam's victory in the House of Representatives in February of 1825. After Jefferson's death they both quoted Jefferson as saying, “One might as well make a sailor of a cock, or a soldier of a goose, as a President of Andrew Jackson.” Webster went even farther, quoting Jefferson in an even earlier conversation as describing Jackson as “a dangerous man.”
It was a sharp blow to Jackson's image. And since candidates did not campaign themselves in this era, image was everything. The truth was, Jefferson had backed Crawford from Georgia in the 1824 election, but after the “corrupt bargain” he had invited Jackson to Monticello, noting his “great respect” for the military chieftain. But Jackson had not taken Jefferson up on the invitation. Virginian Andrew Stevenson, who was a new Jackson supporter, thought he had the perfect man to punch holes in Cole's evidence.
His name was Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.. The Randolphs were F-F-V: one of the First Families of Virginia. Randolph Junior had served in the Virginia Senate in the 1790's, the U.S. Congress in the first decade of the new century, the Virginia House in the late teens, and finally as Virginia Governor from 1823 to 1825. And he was Thomas Jefferson's son-in-law. That made his credentials pretty impressive. However Randolph Jr. was also an alcoholic, and so abusive that Martha Jefferson had moved back in with her father to escape his drunken outbursts. Randolph Junior was clearly not welcomed at Monticello. Still he had a good pedigree and title, and few outside the immediate families knew the details of Randolph's estrangement from his father-in-law.
Thomas Randolph Jr.; now assured voters that Jefferson had indeed trusted Jackson, describing him as an “honest, sincere, clear-headed and strong-minded man of the soundest principles”. Randolph also insisted that Jefferson had described Jackson as “the only hope left” to stop Adam's Big Government campaign. Now, maybe Jefferson had really said those things, but it seems unlikely in the final months of his life he would have confided in a drunken lout like Randolph. Still, if you wanted to believe in Jackson, Thomas' story was now on the table, for public use.
And there was another Jefferson letter, this one written by the sage of Monticello to the new Virginia Governor, the idiosyncratic William Branch Giles. He was a political loose cannon, and just about everybody was angry with Giles at one time or another. Like a child left alone in a candy shop, it was almost impossible to predict where he was going to stick his finger next. But at this time, in 1827, he decided, for whatever reason, to release his version of the Sage of Monticello. .Giles' version of Jefferson was not concerned about Andrew “Jackass” Jackson the military lunatic, but the ominous looming power mad Federal government under John Quincy Adams. And it wasn't so much what President Adams had already done.
Wrote this Jefferson, the real danger was the “...vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of '76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed in-corporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered plough man and beggared yeomanry.”
The response from the Adams' supporters to Gile's version of Jefferson was muted. Coles, from far off Illinois, insisted that HIS Jefferson had not changed his mind about Jackson. And others groused that at the end of his life, Jefferson must have gone senile. It seems that Jefferson was right to try to micromanage his legacy, because the minute he was gone, every politician in America had their own version of “Jefferson lite”, a Jefferson of every flavor, for every taste. It was easy, because Jefferson the real man had been a skilled politician, who made his living being as many things to as many people as possible. That is professional politics 101, version one, lesson one:.a politician who does not get elected is not a politician, but just another loud mouth with an opinion.
And whatever else he was, Thomas Jefferson was never that.
- 30 -