The Reading Room

Thomas Jefferson’s Last-Minute Flip-Flop on the Future of American Democracy

As Thomas Jefferson neared his death—which came on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence—he composed some of the most famous and optimistic lines ever to emerge from his pen. He had been invited to attend celebrations of the Golden Jubilee far and wide, but at age eighty-three he was far too frail to do so. He instead sat down on June 24 to write a self-consciously eloquent message about the significance of the anniversary to Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, DC, who was overseeing the festivities in the nation’s capital.
Jefferson painstakingly edited this letter, which he knew would be his final public statement. After expressing his regrets at being unable to travel to Washington, Jefferson stepped back to reflect on the meaning and impact of the Declaration that the nation was celebrating:
may it be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which Monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self government … all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves let the annual return of this day, for ever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.
Here was a classic statement of Jeffersonian optimism if ever there was one: the American Revolution had not only burst the chains of oppression and secured the blessings of self-government for this country—apparently for good—but paved the way for the rest of the world to do so as well (“to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all”). The imagery about the masses not being born with saddles on their backs, nor the favored few with boots and spurs, was borrowed from a speech that one of Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers had delivered from the scaffold almost a century and a half earlier, but this kind of appropriation and repurposing was considered unobjectionable at the time. We can perhaps also ignore for the moment the obvious applicability of this imagery to the enslaved people who labored and cared for Jefferson even as he wrote this message. This was as lyrical and uplifting of a vision as anything the founders ever penned, an unmistakable expression of faith in the American experiment. And it fits perfectly with the abiding optimism that Jefferson had exhibited for the great majority of his career, at least up until 1816.
For anyone who has read the prior decade of Jefferson’s correspondence, however, it all rings rather hollow. As I recount in my recent book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, Jefferson had spent the past ten years issuing countless dire warnings about what he regarded as imminent threats to the American republic. These threats, as he saw them, were many and varied, including the federal government’s lack of accountability to the popular will, the spread of industry and the rage for banks and financial speculation, the usurpations of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall, and the resurgence of Federalist principles under a different guise. The two greatest threats in Jefferson’s eyes, however, were the entrenched sectional divisions that the Missouri crisis had brought to light and the steady march of consolidation in all three branches of the federal government.
Start with the Missouri crisis (1819–1821), which was the nation’s first major conflict over the spread of slavery. Jefferson described his alarm about the growing tensions between North and South in a letter to John Holmes, a Republican from Maine, in April 1820. He had long since “ceased to read newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands,” he told Holmes, “but this mementous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.” In explaining why he saw the conflict over Missouri as the union’s death knell, Jefferson all but prophesied the path to the Civil War: “a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” Jefferson concluded the letter with an unforgettable expression of regret: “I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76. to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.” The current generation was, Jefferson moaned, perpetrating an “act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.” One would be hard pressed to compose a clearer, more forceful articulation of disillusionment than this, and it is all the more striking coming from the most perennially optimistic of the founders.
Nor was Jefferson’s missive to Holmes an anomaly. Letters on “the Missouri question” poured forth from Monticello during this period, equal parts rage and despair. Jefferson told John Adams that “from the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we never had so ominous a question,” and he added to Hugh Nelson, the representative from his House district in Virginia, that “the Missouri question … is the most portentous one which ever yet threatened our Union. in the gloomiest moment of the revolutionary war I never had any apprehensions equal to what I feel from this source.” To William Short, a fellow Virginian whom he regarded almost as an adopted son, Jefferson wrote that “I have been among the most sanguine in believing that our Union would be of long duration. I now doubt it much, and see the event at no great distance … my only comfort & confidence is that I shall not live to see this: and I envy not the present generation the glory of throwing away the fruits of their fathers sacrifices of life & fortune, and of rendering desperate the experiment which was to decide ultimately whether man is capable of self government.” Jefferson had always taken great joy in peering into the nation’s glorious future, but now he saw little in store but impending disunion and civil war.
During the subsequent years, Jefferson was kept mired in the depths of despair by what he regarded as the illegitimate and dangerous centralization of political power within the federal government, particularly after John Quincy Adams’s election to the presidency in 1824. Jefferson became an increasingly ardent—even fanatical—states-rightser in his old age, and he found the tendency toward what he called “consolidation” so distressing that he began to wonder whether a breakup of the union might soon be not only inevitable, but desirable. In December 1825 he wrote to William Branch Giles, a former senator and soon-to-be governor of Virginia: “take together the decisions of the federal court, the doctrines of the President, and the misconstructions of the constitutional compact, acted on by the legislature, and it is but too evident that the three ruling branches … are in combination to strip … the States authorities of the powers reserved by them and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic.” Virginia should not resort to violence except as “the last resource,” Jefferson told Giles, but he did not think that secession was at all out of the question. On the contrary, he declared that a separation of the states would be necessary “when the sole alternatives left are the dissolution of our union … or submission to a government without limitation of powers. between these two evils when we must make a choice, there can be no hesitation.” In other words, he had concluded that dissolving the union was preferable to consolidation—and consolidation was nearly upon them.
Jefferson reached a similar conclusion—and issued a similar threat—in a letter that he wrote to William Gordon, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, on New Year’s Day of 1826. “It is but too evident,” he remarked, “that the branches of our foreign department of govmt, Exve, judiciary and legislative are in combination to usurp the powers of the domestic branch.” (Note that Jefferson had resorted to identifying the federal government of the United States as the nation’s “foreign department,” whereas the state legislatures were the “domestic branch.”) To Gordon too he insisted that they should not resort to arms—at least “not yet, nor until the evil, the only, greater one than separ[atio]n, shall be all but upon us, that of living under a government of discretion. between these alternatives there can be no hesitation.” The following week Jefferson wrote to Claiborne Watts Gooch, a co-editor of the Richmond Enquirer, to lament “all the evils which the present lowering aspect of our political horison so ominously portends.” America’s political order, he suggested, could hardly even be described as a free government at this point: “that, at some future day, which I hoped to be very distant, the free principles of our government might change, with the change of circumstances, was to be expected. but I certainly did not expect that they would not over-live the generation which established them.”
Strikingly, it was just five months later that Jefferson composed the famous letter to Weightman that virtually overflowed with confidence and idealism. What could have led Jefferson to pivot from bemoaning “all the evils which the present lowering aspect of our political horison so ominously portends” on January 9 to delivering an inspiring tribute to American democracy on June 24? It is impossible to say with any certainty, at a remove of almost two centuries, what motivated this abrupt reversal, but several possibilities spring to mind. The letter to Weightman may have represented a genuine, last-minute change of heart on Jefferson’s part—a reversion to his more customary optimism, perhaps spurred by reflection on the jubilee. Or it may have represented a rather more calculated attempt to secure his own historical legacy, which he knew would be intimately bound up with his role in the Revolution and above all his authorship of the Declaration of Independence; the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of his beloved Declaration is perhaps the single occasion on which Jefferson would have been most eager to ring a hopeful note. Or it may have represented simply a polite attempt to put on a good face for his fellow citizens who were eager to celebrate the republic at its half-century mark, along with those who had founded it. Perhaps most likely is that the letter was prompted by some combination of these motives.
What is certain is that the letter to Weightman represented a stark departure from Jefferson’s outlook during his final decade, not the culmination of it. Throughout his old age, the great optimist’s faith in America’s future had been emphatically riddled with doubts.