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Public Speaking

Though many of Thomas Jefferson's speeches and addresses exist in written form, we cannot determine how many were delivered in public. Early in his career, Jefferson was a silent member of the Continental Congress. John Adams wrote, "Mr. Jefferson had been now about a Year a Member of Congress, but had attended his Duty in the House but a very small part of the time and when there had never spoken in public: and during the whole Time I satt with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three Sentences together. The most of a Speech he ever made in my hearing was a gross insult on Religion, in one or two Sentences, for which I gave him immediately the Reprehension, which he richly merited."1

As a young lawyer, Jefferson was respected for his knowledge of the law, but he was not known as an outstanding orator. Edmund Randolph once observed, "Mr. Jefferson drew copiously from the depths of the law, Mr. Henry from the recesses of the human heart."2 Jefferson admired Patrick Henry as an orator; however, he wrote to William Wirt that Henry "said the strongest things in the finest language, but without logic, without arrangement, desultorily."3

From Paris, the young diplomat Jefferson wrote on March 13, 1789, to Francis Hopkinson, "My great wish is to go on in a strict but silent performance of my duty: to avoid attracting notice and to keep my name out of newspapers, because I find the pain of a little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise."4

During his eight years as president, Jefferson delivered two Inaugural Addresses. One witness to the first Inaugural Address on March 4, 1801, Margaret Bayard Smith, described the scene:

I cannot describe the agitation I felt, while I looked around on the various multitude and while I listened to an address, containing principles the most correct, sentiments the most liberal, and wishes the most benevolent, conveyed in the most appropriate and elegant language and in a manner mild as it was firm. If doubts of the integrity and talents of Mr. Jefferson ever existed in the minds of any one, methinks this address must forever eradicate them. The Senate chamber was so crowded that I believe not another creature could enter. On one side of the house the Senate sat, the other was resigned by the representatives to the ladies. The roof is arched, the room half circle, every inch of ground was occupied. It has been conjectured by several gentlemen whom I've asked, that there were near a thousand persons within the walls. The speech was delivered in so low a tone that few heard it. Mr. Jefferson had given your Brother [Samuel Harrison Smith, editor of the National Intelligencer] a copy early in the morning, so that on coming out of the house, the paper was distributed immediately.5

On March 4, 1805, the second Inaugural Address, like the first one, "was only partly audible." It was also sent in advance to the National Intelligencer and was quickly available to the public.6

For his first annual message to Congress, on December 8, 1801, Jefferson chose not to deliver it in person. Instead, he sent his written message by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis. He continued this practice throughout his presidency and never appeared before Congress to deliver the annual message. This new tradition instigated by Jefferson lasted until 1913 when President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress. Some claimed that Jefferson changed the procedure because of his aversion to public speaking and nearly inaudible speaking voice.7 Jefferson himself stated that he did it for the convenience of Congress. On December 20, 1801, he wrote to Benjamin Rush, "Our winter campaign [the winter session of Congress] has opened with more good humor than I expected. by sending a message, instead of making a speech at the opening of the session, I have prevented the bloody conflicts to which the making an answer would have commited them. they consequently were able to set in to real business at once, without losing 10. or 12. days in combating an answer."8

Again defending his reason for sending a written message, Jefferson wrote to John Wayles Eppes on January 1, 1802, "Congress have not yet done anything, nor passed a vote which has produced a party division. the sending a message, instead of making a speech to be answered, is acknowleged to have had the best effect towards preserving harmony."9 Through a written message, he wanted to direct Congress's attention to specific issues and make recommendations for legislation. Also, the written message fit the republican image of the Jefferson administration. Nathaniel Macon, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a man Jefferson respected, had written to the president earlier suggesting changes "the people expect." At the top of his list was "the communication to the next Congress will be by letter not a speech."10 Many Republicans feared that a written speech and a formal reply from Congress were too close to the ceremonies of British monarchy.

Among Jefferson's addresses are numerous ones to American Indians. Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to invite the American Indians to visit him. He wrote, "If a few of their influential chiefs, within a practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them."11 In July 1804, representatives of the Osage nation visited the president. He made a brief speech of welcome on their arrival and then gave a formal address a few days later. The delegation was made up of twelve men and two boys.12 Another delegation of about twenty-seven "Chiefs from the Missouri and Mississippi" arrived on December 22, 1805. Jefferson received this delegation on New Year's Day 1806 at the President's House, and then officially addressed them on January 4.13

When the retired President Jefferson left Washington for the last time in March 1809 and arrived in Albemarle County, he received a cordial message from his Albemarle County neighbors. He replied to their message on April 3, 1809.14 Whether his reply was a delivered speech or was sent as a written message is not clear. One of Jefferson's last addresses and his last public appearance took place at a dinner on November 5, 1824, in the unfinished Rotunda at the University of Virginia honoring the Marquis de Lafayette. Jefferson claimed he didn't have the strength or voice to deliver it. The presiding officer read it in a loud voice.15

- Betty Goss, 1/9/01

Further Sources


Rich Wells's picture
I too am intrigued with Jefferson's lack of oratorical skills, and have long wondered if he, like myself, was a stutterer. This could explain his disinclination to speak before audiences, yet seeming adequacy one-on-one. I have seen several references to his very quiet voice, but nothing definitive. Is there any way to get more clarity on this subject? I am a curious screenwriter.
ksmeltzer's picture
I find this information about Jefferson's lack of aptitude as an orator intriguing! I don't know where I got this idea, but I always believed Jefferson to be a great public speaker as well as a great writer. I presume from first person accounts that Jefferson could be eloquent and engaging one-on-one or in small groups. But apparently talking in front of large groups made him go cold and wiggly. Obviously, that is neither a direct quote or a technical phrase for the aversion. I sure am glad that he was a great writer, though.
Kristie Smeltzer


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