Deconstructing the Meme, Volume 1: That Jefferson Quote

The meme: Ah, a quote from Thomas Jefferson, and yes, this time he really said it, which is refreshing. This quote is currently making the rounds again on politically divided social media accounts in our politically divided nation. Depending on how you look at it (and at the person doing the quoting) it’s either a beautiful expression of friendship that conveys a longing to heal the fractures that keep us apart , or it’s a convenient excuse for holding unpopular opinions and wanting everyone to stop giving you a hard time. But it turns out that the back story is actually more interesting than the quote itself, and possibly even more relevant. See, it’s somewhat of a cautionary tale about what can happen when a government uses a threat against the nation to rid itself of political rabble-rousers and people who seek to inhibit their power. See where I’m going with this?

The history: In April of 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, William Hamilton (no relation to he of musical fame, sadly). It’s one of a number of letters between the two men, but it’s arguably the most significant. The rest stick mostly to discussing gardening, which turns out to be one of Hamilton’s major passions, although that’s neither here nor there. Hamilton and Jefferson are acquaintances, which is odd considering the former was put on trial for unpatriotic activities during the Revolution, confined to house arrest once acquitted, and then left the newly formed country for England almost as soon as he could. In the letter, Jefferson offers an apology of sorts; he responds to Hamilton’s mention of a “neglect” that he suffered — apparently Jefferson failed to return a visit the man paid him while he was in Philadelphia to be sworn in as Vice President in 1797. It was a busy social time for our nation’s second Veep, and he left the city exhausted assuming that everyone knew that he wasn’t intentionally ignoring them. Hamilton lived on the other side of the Schuylkill River on an estate called The Woodlands, so word that TJ was making a quick exit probably didn’t trickle over to William’s neck of the woods and he thought he was just getting the cold shoulder because of all that anti-patriot unpleasantness. Can’t say I blame the guy.

Jefferson, ever the diplomat, assures him that there was no intentional slight. He was tired, busy, and things were heating up politically with a new “war fever” that pitted friends against each other. Of course it wasn’t Hamilton’s maybe-kinda-sort Loyalist tendencies that made Jefferson ignore him a couple of times, he says. And all of that is probably true considering Jefferson is a man who didn’t let politics get in the way of a friendship. Even John Adams, his friend turned political foe turned frenemy again enjoyed a renewed camaraderie with him towards the end of their lives, despite all the ugliness of the Election of 1800. Yes, despite his cantankerous reputation, old Tommy was a man who was often able to overlook staunch differences in ideology and enjoy the company of a variety of people — unless we’re talking about Alexander Hamilton. He really didn’t like that dude. But that’s a story for another day.

Here’s where it gets interesting: So what’s all of this “war fever” that Jefferson refers to in his letter to Hamilton? What is it that’s causing people to go crazy with passionate rhetoric and pitting them against those they once held dear? Although he refers to the Revolution later on, he’s not talking about that here, he’s talking about something that happened around the summer of 1797 or 1798 (“the ensuing summer”). There was an actual naval campaign against the French brewing in the Caribbean and other waterways around the world around that time; those skirmishes have become known as the Quasi-War because it was never an officially declared war. Why fight the French, who had our back during the Revolution? The reason is both simple and complicated, but it begins with this — a handful of years into our young countryhood, the French deposed their king in a bloody, complicated, multi-faced revolution of their own, after which time they descended into a period of chaos, experimental government, and general oddness before Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as a military leader. Although one of their primary motivations in aiding the American colonists was their long-established feud with Great Britain, France now found itself facing a world where not only were they at war with Great Britain and most of Europe as a result of their revolutionary conquests, but the United States and Britain were allies as a result of the controversial Jay Treaty. That whole “we’ll scratch your back…” reciprocity between nations is a finicky thing; we’d be back to fighting the British a decade or so later.

A big problem for the new French First Republic, or at least one of the many big problems for them, was that the United States refused to pay back the debt owed to France on account of them beheading the guy who lent it to us. As far as our burgeoning country was concerned, that debt was eliminated with a stroke of the guillotine. France, predictably, didn’t take that too well — especially given the fact that economic issues were partially to blame for their revolution in the first place and hadn’t really been resolved yet. Kind of a jerk move on our part, and it turns out that Jefferson and his political allies agreed.

See there was a different kind of “war fever” gripping those concerned with politics in those years; the political battles between Jefferson and President John Adams, and the fractioning of government between Adams’s ideological ilk, the Federalists (who favored the Constitution and a centralized government) and Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans (who favored decentralization and a Bill of Rights). Although Jefferson was VP during Adams’s tenure, it was different back then. There were no party tickets, no running mates, no Obama-Biden type bromances. No, back in the early days of our government, the candidate who came in second place during the election was the automatic veep. What could go wrong?

Not surprisingly, the President and his Vice were frequently at odds, and it soon became apparent that Jefferson would vie for the presidency once again in 1800. The mudslinging between the two really heated up during the that campaign, with Adams being accused of having a personality and drive not strong enough for a man yet not sensible enough for a woman, and Jefferson’s lineage and sexual prowess both brought into question. But things really jumpstart well before that, during the summer of 1798, when Congress passed through a series of acts known as the Alien and Sedition Acts that made it harder to become a citizen, took away the rights to criticize the government, and established those perceived to be a threat against the country as “alien enemies” who could be “apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed.”

Yikes. Sound familiar?

Outwardly, the purpose of the Acts was to protect a country with only shaky alliances with other nations from the threat of foreign interference in its borders, specifically the French. In reality, it was a means to undermine the Democrat-Republicans, who supported not only the French but, perhaps, were also willing to revolt against their own newly formed national government in favor of states rights. The Acts sparked outrage amongst those already leery of a powerful central government, and Jefferson won a narrow victory in 1800. Perhaps not the outright revolution that some predicted or hoped for, but a change of guard that almost destroyed the Federalists forever.

Under the Jefferson administration, most of the stipulations of the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed or allowed to expire. One, the Alien Enemies Act, is technically still on the books, although it’s been modified several times. It’s been used as justification for horrific human rights violations, such the Espionage and Sedition Acts during WWI, Executive Order 9066 which sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps, and, most recently, Trump’s ban on immigration from Muslim majority countries.

Back to the quote: So what is Jefferson really telling us in his letter to Hamilton? Does he want everyone to forgive and forget? Is he providing a simple placation for those impacted by the competing political views of their friends? Or does it go much deeper than that? See, before he even writes the quote that’s been used for such a variety of intentions, he first says:

“I determined, for the first time in my life, to stand on the ceremony of the first visit even with my friends; because it served to sift out those who chose a separation.”

And to those who chose a separation, Jefferson reacted not by shunning them in popular society, but by shutting them down through political might. When faced with measures enacted by a government that sought to undermine the will and rights of the people, Jefferson and his party asked the people to use their voices to speak out for what is right.

It worked.

So, perhaps, the important lesson modern society stands to gain from this quote isn’t that we should all just overlook issues that we disagree with in the spirit of friendship, but that we should continue to keep fighting through the means we have available. Our friendships and relationships can be diversified and meaningful even when we disagree, but that doesn’t mean we must placate, to concede, or to capitulate. Jefferson’s richest friendships came with those he shared common ground with, but arguably the most interesting ones were with those which he did not.

Still, he never lost his direction, he never backed down from what he knew to be right, and he realized that sometimes separation was inevitable. There was no love lost between those he deemed without principle, those he felt held values that undermined those of the country, those who were “all tongue, without head and heart,” like Patrick Henry. To Jefferson, it wasn’t merely the opinion that mattered, but the actions — or lack thereof — that made the difference.

What would Thomas Jefferson say, today? What side of history would he be on? What actions and words would be too much for him to overlook? I’ll leave you with another Jefferson quote to help you decide.

“If ignorance is bliss, why aren’t more people happy?”