America’s Long Journey: Jefferson as Secretary of State

Jefferson as Secretary of State

By the time he left Washington’s Cabinet, Jefferson was a partisan, working with Madison and others to organize opponents of Hamilton’s policies. But he didn’t enter into his office in that way. He entered, at Washington’s request, as a patriot working with other patriots to construct a new government, and for the first two years, his relations with Hamilton were civil, and even reasonably cordial. This, even after Jefferson started to become alarmed at the implications of Hamilton’s economic program It was only after England entered into the war against France that Hamilton decided that Jefferson was a threat to the republic, and in attacking him, made him into the recognized leader of the opposition.

We have seen how that happened. Let us look at the earlier phase of Jefferson’s tenure.

He arrived in Virginia from France in late 1789 on what he thought was a leave of absence from his post in Paris. Instead, he found waiting for him a request from President Washington that he accept appointment as the first Secretary of State under the new Constitution. Despite having reservations about the job, Jefferson didn’t feel that he could say no to the president’s request. (This was a common response among these men when Washington asked for their service!)

His was a natural, almost an inevitable, appointment. The only Americans with diplomatic experience comparable to Jefferson’s were John Jay, who would be named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Adams, who had already been elected Vice-President, and Benjamin Franklin, who at 84 was too old. (And in fact, Franklin would die in April, 1790, age 84, about a month after Jefferson’s cordial last conversation with him.)

In his five years as Minister to France, Jefferson had had a uniquely favorable position from which to watch the last days of the old regime and the beginning of the revolution. He was known to the movers and shakers and, like Franklin 10 years earlier, was known as a man of science and culture, not merely as a political representative. Besides, his warm admiration of French culture was well known, and his pointed criticisms of the French aristocracy and government had been kept tactfully quiet, as befitted both his diplomatic status and Jefferson’s natural reluctance to engage in controversy.

But the new Department of State that he joined, on March 22, 1790, was more than its predecessor in the Confederation government, the Department of Foreign Affairs. Congress had included in the new department many domestic duties that today would be included in other departments. As one example, State was entrusted with the care of state records.

On January 8, 1790, President Washington in his first annual message to Congress, called for “uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures of the United States,” and the House of Representatives requested Jefferson to draw up a plan for a uniform system of weights and measures. In July he submitted his “Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States,” which gave them two alternatives: one that merely refined and simplified their accustomed English measurement, and one that would be decimal, like the currency he had recommended. The scientific and mathematical basis of his proposed system was impressive, and as a scientifically based decimal system of weights and measures, his predated the metric system that would soon be devised and adopted in France.

We won’t go into it, because Jefferson’s proposal was not adopted, despite having the support of Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Monroe. The Senate dawdled in considering it, and a few years later, events overtook it, when Congress enacted the survey grid system for the Northwest Territory. It is merely a sample of the nature of the duties that came with the office in those days. Another example is that he was held responsible not only for registering patent applications, but for testing the new inventions and deciding whether they were practical! The responsibility to make judgments that he recognized himself as incompetent to make drove him crazy. (And, a bit later, though too late to help Jefferson, Congress flip-flopped on the issue and decreed that patents would be accepted without examination. It was only several decades later that the present system was adopted.)

But, these duties aside, the Secretary’s main function was, of course, to serve as principal adviser to the President on foreign policy. His routine duties were not onerous. When he took office, the entire department consisted of four clerks (officers charged with correspondence, including but not limited to messages to overseas posts) and a messenger. Overseas, the United States maintained two diplomatic and ten consular posts. (The diplomatic service centers on politics; the consular service centers on commerce.) Jefferson initiated the practice of requiring American diplomats and consuls to file periodic reports.

In discussions with the first British Minister to the United States, he sought to get the British to admit that they were violating the Treaty of Paris, and to cease doing so by vacating the posts they were manning in the Northwest Territory, and indemnifying the United States for slaves taken by British troops during the war. He got nowhere. He also attempted – equally without success – to force treaties of commerce with Spain and England, but mostly his time and attention went to keeping the United States neutral in the war between England and France.

Hamilton and Jefferson both agreed with Washington’s policy of neutrality. The issues between them were not matters of patriotism or loyalty, but of judgment. In what did neutrality consist? And how was it to be achieved? Those issues remained very much unsettled when Jefferson resigned his office and returned to Monticello, thinking his public life over.

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