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In March 1801, Thomas Jefferson approached his first inauguration as President of the United States, knowing that one of his tasks was to heal a divided nation. Jefferson had predicted prior to the election of 1800 that "our campaign will be as hot as that of Europe, but happily we deal in ink only; they in blood." He noted that the nation's newspapers were "teaming with every falsehood they can invent for defamation."1 President John Adams, seeking re-election on the Federalist ticket, was labeled a monarchist; Vice President Jefferson was called an atheist; both candidates were declared enemies of the Constitution.
When the states' electoral votes were cast on December 3, 1800, Adams was defeated but Jefferson did not win the presidency. Instead, he tied with Aaron Burr, his Republican running mate. The twelfth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1804, would change the process for electing the president and vice president by directing the states to vote separately for each; in 1800, however, the fact that nearly all Republicans recognized Jefferson's place at the top of the ticket counted for little. The election would be decided in the House of Representatives, where members of the Federalist majority worked to block Jefferson's election by backing Burr.
The House convened in Washington on February 9, 1801, but after several days of balloting there was still no decision. Finally, on February 17 on the 36th ballot, Jefferson attained a majority and the presidency. The bitterly contested campaign and the drawn-out election process, plus the predictions of resistance to the new administration and whispers about the possibility of civil war, inspired Jefferson to use his inaugural address to unify the nation. He knew that words would reach a far larger audience than merely the crowd that would assemble for the first inauguration to be held in the new federal city of Washington. That morning, in fact, he gave an advance copy of his address to a printer so it could be distributed later in the day.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 4, Jefferson emerged from the Conrad and McMunn boarding house at New Jersey Avenue and C Street, where he had been residing for several months. Demonstrating his desire for "republican simplicity," Jefferson broke the precedent set by his predecessors John Adams and George Washington, who had worn elegant suits and swords for their inaugurations and been driven to the ceremonies in liveried coaches. The tall, 57-year-old Virginian wore, the Alexandria Times reported, the clothes "of a plain citizen without any distinctive badge of office," and walked the short distance to the unfinished Capitol, accompanied by Virginia militia officers, District of Columbia marshals, and a group of congressmen.2
Jefferson arrived to find the Senate Chamber "so crowded," an observer noted, that "not another creature could enter—there was near a thousand persons within the walls."3 Noticeably absent was John Adams, who had left town in the middle of the night. Jefferson was sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall, his distant cousin and a staunch political foe. The crowd then fell silent as Jefferson began his address.
"Friends & Fellow-Citizens," he began, almost in a whisper. "Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow citizens which is here assembled ... to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents." Jefferson declared, however, that he would find "resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties" in those "authorities provided by our constitution."
He said that the nation had "room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation" and that his administration would pursue "honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." He affirmed that America's future depended upon "the preservation of the General government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home, and safety abroad." He called on the nation to "unite with one heart and one mind."
"[E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle," Jefferson maintained, and said Americans were, in truth, "brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists."4 Though few people actually heard Jefferson's address, which one observer said was "delivered in so low a tone" as to be barely audible, the sentiments were not lost.5
"I have this morning witnessed one of the most interesting scenes, a free people can ever witness," Margaret Bayard Smith commented. "The changes of administration, which in every government and in every 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. This day, has one of the most amiable and worthy men taken that seat to which he was called by the voice of his country."6 After the inauguration, Jefferson returned to Conrad and McMunn's for dinner with his fellow boarders. The new leader of the nation that he had helped to create continued to live there until March 19, when he moved into the President's House.
- Christine E. Coalwell, 2001. Originally published as "President Jefferson Seeks Unity and Reconciliation," in Monticello Newsletter vol. 12, no. 1 (Spring 2001).
- Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Inaugural Addresses of President Thomas Jefferson, 1801 and 1805. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
- Malone, Jefferson, 4:17-28.
- 1. Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, April 21, 1800, in PTJ, 31:531. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 2. Some accounts incorrectly claim that Jefferson rode a horse to the Capitol for his inauguration. For a thorough debunking of this story, see "Editor's Easy Chair," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 76 (February 1888): 473-74.
- 3. Smith, First Forty Years, 26.
- 4. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, in PTJ, 33:148-52. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Editorial Note: First Inaugural Address, in PTJ, 33:134-38. Note available at Founders Online.
- 5. Smith, First Forty Years, 26.
- 6. Smith, First Forty Years, 25.