It was simply inconceivable that this man could be President! And yet, the fact was all too glaring on this day of all days – Inauguration Day. Many of his opponents had chosen to boycott the ceremony, including the outgoing president. Still, Thomas Jefferson would repeat the oath, and the office would be transferred from the Federalist Party to the Republicans/Democratic Party. To many, this meant the transfer from stability to madness and anarchy. Jefferson, it was believed by many, was an atheist! (There were people hiding and even burying their Bibles to keep them protected.) He had been placed into office not through the disinterested decision of the people, but with help of foreign foes. (Said outgoing President John Adams, “A group of foreign liars, encouraged by a few ambitious native gentlemen, have discomfited the education, the talents, the virtues and the property of the country.” There were those who believed he was intellectually and emotionally unfit for such a high office. He had been elected, they said, through the arrogance of a Federalist Party that attempted to push through a candidate for whom there was no energetic support.
How had we gotten to this point? The election had been vicious and contentious, and when articles were published describing the sexual escapades of Jefferson – he had sexual relations, it was said, with his slave Sally Hemmings, and he had attempted to seduce a good friend’s wife when he was off protecting Jefferson and others from Indian attacks – many thought the election was over, that he could never win. And yet, the middle states did not seem to care what kind of man they put into office.
His election continued to be a matter of contention – it wreaked with illegitimacy. He had not won a majority of the electoral vote but had tide with Aaron Burr, a member of his own party, at it had taken the machinations of congressional votes to push him through, exactly what those at the Constitutional Convention had tried to avoid by creating the system they created. There was talk of fighting back, not allowing him in, and Jefferson, in return, spoke of arming the middle states and fighting back if the will of the people were thus denied. In the end, calmer heads prevailed, and here he was, ready to take the oath.
Adams and Hamilton, while in no way friends or allies, had each in their own way sought to protect their policies even after they were gone. Hamilton had created an economic system that would prove impossible to untangle as it reached into all levels of society. And Adams filled the government with numerous appointments to insure that the Federalist voice would remain, even when he was gone. Jefferson would be taking the oath from Chief Justice John Marshall, an avowed enemy.
Many Federalists looked upon the day as if it were a funeral, as was shown by the headline of the Boston Centenial. “YESTERDAY EXPIRED. Deeply regretted by MILLIONS of grateful Americans, and by all GOOD MEN, the FEDERAL ADMINISTRATION of the GOVERNMENT of the UNITED STATES.”
Those who supported Jefferson saw things in an opposite light. Rather than threatening the country, Jefferson had saved it from being annihilated by a group of monarchists in sheep’s clothing, pro-British hacks who sought to rob the revolution of all meaning.
It was a badly divided country that President Jefferson would address, a country divided by region.
There would be no pomp set up for his arrival. Jefferson, a man who strived for an almost ostentatious Republican simplicity, strolled from his lodgings to the Senate Chamber where he had resided as Vice-President for the last four years. The ceremony that was to take place was virtually unprecedented. A revolution of sorts had occurred – one party and philosophy transferring to a diametrically opposed party and philosophy – and not a shot had been fired! Margaret Bayard Smith was on hand to view the transfer of power: “The changes of Administration, which in every government and age have most generally been epochs of confusion, villainy and bloodshed, in this, our happy country, take place without any species of distraction or disorder.”
Jefferson would use his speech not to gloat or threaten his defeated adversaries, but to reassure them. “During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.” Of course. And there was this “sacred principle” as well: “that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” He argued that there was more to unite the country than divide it. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference or principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”