An article in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.
Ever wonder who Thomas Jefferson picked to be in his first cabinet, or why he selected them? Join Guide Olivia Brown and John Ragosta, Historian at Monticello's Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, to learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s Cabinet Secretaries.
Olivia Brown: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation - from the past and from the present. Thank you for joining us, we hope you'll learn something new.
Welcome to Mountaintop History. I'm Olivia Brown.
Though he didn't think of being president among his greatest achievements and referred to the position as a "splendid misery," most know Thomas Jefferson for serving two terms as the third president of the United States. Presidents often are not accomplishing things on their own, however, and are aided by the men and women they choose to serve in their cabinets. Today, we'll be looking more closely at Thomas Jefferson's first presidential cabinet.
I'm joined by John Ragosta, Historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies here at Monticello. John, thanks so much for joining me.
John Ragosta: Sure, good morning, Olivia.
Olivia Brown: So let's start off with a little bit of context, get ourselves back in time to the life of Thomas Jefferson. What years was Thomas Jefferson's first term as president of the United States?
John Ragosta: Well, Thomas Jefferson is inaugurated on March 4, 1801, so it's late in the year from our perspective. We don't have January inaugurations until 1937. So it's March 1801 to March 1805. This is the era of the Louisiana Purchase, Danbury Baptist letter, his fights with the judiciary. It's a very full first term.
Olivia Brown: So it was very early on in the history of the United States, that this two-party system emerged. There were fierce battles among members of the opposing Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. When Jefferson was elected, the presidency switched parties. John Adams had been in office for four years and was a Federalist, so then Jefferson, as a Democratic-Republican, was elected. Did he appoint an entirely new Cabinet?
John Ragosta: Well, he does, and to us that seems obvious, but it wasn't obvious at the time. They're still trying to figure out how the country works. It's, it's only ten years old, and when John Adams became president after George Washington, he, of course, keeps all of Washington's secretaries, all the cabinet officials. He thinks maybe he's obligated to do so. These people were appointed by the president, they had Senate confirmation. Now, of course, we would say, well, Washington and Adams are the same party. I'm not sure they would have said that. They don't think of parties in those terms, but the election of 1800, we're starting to see a two-party system. And so Jefferson comes in, and of course, Adams had had terrible problems with his holdover cabinet. Jefferson has no intention of keeping Adams' cabinet members. So he's going to change the cabinet completely. He understands, and people talk about Jefferson's presidency in this term, he is maybe the first president who really understands that the president speaks for the people. The president's the only official other than the vice president, nobody cares about the vice president, who's elected by the whole country, and so Jefferson is going to form his cabinet very much in mind as a "I'm taking over, I'm now running this administration."
Olivia Brown: Yeah, it sounds like he was ready to kind of start this term with those like-minded people around him, even if that's not really what had happened beforehand.
John Ragosta: Exactly. And, and again, it seems obvious to us, but if you think about it, when you're starting the country, these cabinet members are approved by the Senate, they're appointed by the president. We have people, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Fed Commissioners, who continue from term to term. So it was not clear, nothing in the Constitution says that these people have to be replaced, but Jefferson was going to replace all these people.,
Olivia Brown: Yeah, it seems more in our modern political idea than necessarily at the early founding of the country.
John Ragosta: That's right.
Olivia Brown: When we're thinking about his first presidential cabinet, who are the key people that we're talking about here? Can you tell us a little about what we know about them?
John Ragosta: Sure. First of all, he wants to have a regional balance, so in terms of who he's going to pick, he does think, "I've got to have some people from the North, I've got to have some people in the middle states, I've got to have people in the South." He wants people who are loyal, he wants people who are going to be brilliant. Jefferson's very focused on people having extraordinary abilities. James Madison, of course, everyone knows Jefferson's confidante, his friend, had been heavily involved in Congress and drafting the Constitution. Interesting, Madison becomes the Secretary of State, he had never left the country, which is a little bit of a change.
The second cabinet member people talk about Albert Gallatin, a very important cabinet member, Jefferson's Secretary of Treasury. Again, he had fought in the Revolution - Jefferson has a lot of Revolutionary War veterans - but Gallatin had been born in Switzerland, and he was actually one of the people that the Federalists were attacking with the Alien Acts. They were saying, you know, you've got this foreigner who's serving as a member of the Pennsylvania Congress. He's from Pennsylvania, so again, we get some regional diversity there. He's brilliant. He understands finances, frankly, a lot better than Jefferson and Madison, and he's going to keep in place a lot of Alexander Hamilton's system because he realizes that Hamilton, in fact, knew what he was doing, even if we might disagree with him. But he's very focused. He is a Jeffersonian. He's very focused on fiscal integrity, is his key thing.
Third character, Levi Lincoln. Levi Lincoln's going to be his first Attorney General, he'll have several others in his second term. Again, a Revolutionary War veteran from Massachusetts. He later becomes acting governor of Massachusetts for a short period of time, and Jefferson consults with him. He gets advice from Lincoln.
Henry Dearborn is his Secretary of War. Again, a Revolutionary War veteran. He, at the time Jefferson appoints him, is the most senior general in the military, in the Army. A, a little bit of a side point, sort of unforunate, he's appointed because James Wilkinson becomes the most senior general in the military, and James Wilkinson is basically on the payroll of the Spanish government. He's going to be heavily involved in the Aaron Burr controversy over the next couple of years. But Henry Dearborn is sort of a, maybe the easiest of the pick, he's the senior general.
And then the hardest one for Jefferson to place was Robert Smith. Robert Smith becomes the Secretary of the Navy. And the reason this was difficult is, first of all, the Secretary of Navy is a new position, we just created a separate Department of the Navy, and people know that Jefferson plans on reducing the Navy, the size of the Navy, so nobody wants to sign up to be the Secretary of Navy, while Jefferson's you know, taking away your ships and your money. And so it takes him a while, and he eventually gets Robert Smith from Maryland. And the interesting thing about Smith is he's related to members of Congress. He is also the brother of the editor of the National Intelligencer, the Jeffersonian newspaper in the new town of Washington. So Jefferson's appointing somebody here with political connections and with media connections. So very important for him.
Two other people that we don't normally think of as being in the cabinet: Gideon Granger becomes Postmaster General. Not a cabinet official, but very important, Jefferson will consult him. The Postmaster General has a lot of employees, because he's got people all over the country. So he's an important official.
And nobody mentions Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr is Jefferson's vice president. The pattern had been started really under Washington and then continued under Adams that the vice president is really not consulted much. And Jefferson might have changed that if it had been someone other than Aaron Burr, because by this point in time, they had had the tie in the Electoral College. Burr, he felt, had not sufficiently said, "No, Jefferson's in charge," and so Burr is cut out of the administration almost from day one.
Olivia Brown: It sounds like Jefferson really is coming up with a strategy when it comes to his first presidential cabinet. He's entering in as a member of a new or different party than the previous administration, and you said he's selecting people from all over the country, too, representing these various regions. So it almost sounds like the same strategies that go into our politics today were in use back in 1800.
John Ragosta: Oh, that absolutely. And he seems to understand, you know, again, the cabinet - Lindsay Chervinsky's book about Washington forming the cabinet - nobody understood there was going to be a cabinet, or what it was going to be necessarily when the Constitution's drafted and when the Constitution's ratified. Jefferson seems to really get it in a, in the sense of, you know, people point out that Jefferson, he's such a successful politician because he looks like he's not a politician. People say, "Oh, he's just a philosopher. He's not a politician," well in fact, he's a very good politician, and he's thought this through. And so he wants a cabinet, they're going to be good advisors. They sometimes disagree with him on on important occasions.
On the Louisiana Purchase, for example, Jefferson wanted to have a constitutional amendment to permit the Louisiana Purchase, and it's his cabinet officials who are saying, "Mr. Jefferson, that's a very bad idea. It'll be delayed. Napoleon's going to take the deal back. We won't get the Louisiana Purchase." They do this on naturalization. Jefferson wanted to change, liberalize the naturalization laws, and he gets advice, actually, from Robert Smith, the Secretary of Navy saying, "Okay, but don't be too specific in what you tell Congress." Again, Smith is related to members of Congress. On the Chesapeake Affair that occurs in the second term. So he understands that these people are important to give him advice. There's little turnover. Jefferson to this day has the least turnover in his cabinet of any president. For his first term, there's no turnover. These are his cabinet. He wants that continuity. He wants that stability, but he also is very clear from day one that he is in charge. He appreciates their advice, but he's going to be in charge. He institutes a policy that Washington had started of saying, "I want to see all correspondence." Think about that today. You just can't even imagine.
Olivia Brown: Every email, phone call, and text message.
John Ragosta: Yeah, but he, so he tells the cabinet, "I want to see every substantive piece of correspondence and I want to see your draft response." And he says I want to know, his language, "I want possession of all facts and proceedings in every part of the Union."
He's going to limit group meetings of the cabinet. Washington had started a. System where the cabinet often met without Washington there. Not with Jefferson. Again, he's going to make clear, I'm in charge here. If the cabinet's meeting without you there, they may come up to a decision and they say, "Well, Mr. President, we've decided..." and he's not going to allow that to happen. He is very well aware before a cabinet meeting occurs, if there's going to be a disagreement, and if there's going to be a disagreement, he may pull somebody in personally for a one-on-one first. He circulates an agenda for his cabinet. So he relies on these people, but there's no mistake that he's in charge of how the cabinet's going to operate.
Olivia Brown: Now, do you find it interesting that that is how Jefferson operates when one of his biggest critiques of the Federalist Party was the want for a strong federal government and leader and he's often calling them, you know, monarchical and using that kind of language?
John Ragosta: Well, that's an interesting point, Olivia. I hadn't thought about it in those terms specifically, but, you know, I think he'd say, "Look, I was the one elected. I am the one responsible to the people." Again, this, this idea, and we say, well, of course that's the president. They didn't understand that at the time, and the understanding that the president speaks for the nation, the president is the one that has to face the election. So for example, on the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson He always felt that was unconstitutional, but he says right before the election of 1804, that if the people decide we were wrong to do this, they'll vote me out of office. They're not voting the cabinet secretaries out of office. They're voting me out of office. So you know, he's he is going to be a powerful president. The other thing that I think happens is once you become president, you suddenly realize, holy cow, I've got this power that I need to exercise. I'm in charge here. And you know, this is common, I think, when people become president. It's a lot easier to criticize that power. And so people say Jefferson, in fact, is a very powerful president. And he uses the cabinet very effectively to help him exercise that power. You know, is that inconsistent with what he said in the 1790s? Well, sometimes we learn things.
Olivia Brown: As we have that responsibility ourselves, maybe, as it came for Jefferson. So do you overall think that his cabinet played a role in the legacy of this first term as president?
John Ragosta: Oh, absolutely. The cabinet's extremely important. We talked about Albert Gallatin. Gallatin clearly is controlling the finances. Jefferson and Gallatin had a plan to eliminate the national deficit, the national debt. We're substantially in debt coming out of the Revolution, and so on. Alexander Hamilton's assumption plan for taking on the debts of the state, and Jefferson wanted to eliminate that debt. And Gallatin had a whole plan, this is how we're going to do it. And we're not only only going to eliminate the debt, we're going to eliminate the internal taxes, the Whiskey Tax. We're gonna get rid of that because everybody dislikes that. And it would have worked, except for the Barbary War intervenes, and they have to spend a lot of money on, on the Navy and so on. But he is very successful at reducing the national debt, and he needs Gallatin to do that.
He's very successful in terms of managing domestic policy, a lot of stuff that today would not be part of the Secretary of State's job, but were at that time. Things like the Louisiana Purchase. He's very successful, of course, with the Danbury Baptist letter, a wall of separation between church and state, and he gets a lot of advice on that letter before it's sent. There are drafts of that letter, and Levi Lincoln and Gideon Granger, the Postmaster General, both from New England, where you have still a bunch of Puritans, are advising him on how to, how to draft that letter. So Jefferson's in charge, but like any good leader, he is depending heavily on, on these people who are helping him.
Olivia Brown: He's helping to delegate some of those things, and I think what you were saying earlier, he was elected, but then used that to appoint other people. So kind of seeing them as the representatives of his vision as well.
John Ragosta: Absolutely. He's very good, as I said, one of Jefferson's great successes as a politician is not appearing to be a politician, but he's very good at being a politician.
Olivia Brown: Well, I think there's probably about ten more podcasts just in the few things that you mentioned on this one today. So stay tuned, we may have John back in the next little while to talk about some of the other things he mentioned on this episode. But John, I want to thank you so much for joining me today on Mountaintop History to discuss really some of the ins and outs of Jefferson's role as president, and the people who were helping there along the way.
We'll be highlighting more of Jefferson's presidency next year, leading up to the 2024 presidential election, so I hope you'll come back and join us for some more interesting discussions.
John Ragosta: Thank you, Olivia.
Olivia Brown: Thank you so much.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio Collective. To learn more about Monticello, or to plan your next trip, visit us online at monticello.org.
Historian Lindsay M. Chervinsky reveals the far-reaching consequences of Washington’s choices for his -- and the nation's -- first Cabinet and outlines how the tensions between Hamilton and Jefferson heightened partisanship and contributed to the development of the first party system.