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Washington in New York -- chs 10, 11 & 12


“A Complete Revolution In France.”

That was the headline of the New York Daily Gazette, of September 19, 1789.  By the time news of the French Revolution reached America it was two-months old.

On July 14, 1789, after five days of rioting, an angry mob stormed the Bastille, released seven prisoners, killed the commanding officer and, brandishing his decapitated head on a pike, paraded through the streets of Paris. In the days that followed, the rampaging mob took control of the city.  France, friend and ally of America in her time of revolution, was herself now embroiled in revolution.

Two Americans were in Paris at the time: Thomas Jefferson, U.S. minister to France; and Gouverneur Morris, signer of the U.S. Constitution, who was there on personal business. Neither saw the crisis coming.  No one had.

The revolution was mainly the result of French foreign policy, particularly (and ironically) as the result of France’s support of the American Revolution, which had bled the state treasury dry. The problem worsened considerably by a bread shortage and became intolerable when Louis XVI fired the one government minister in whom the common people of France had faith, a Swiss financier named Jacques Necker.  Necker was the people’s hope, a government official of high political standing who championed their cause.

Born in Geneva, Necker moved to Paris in 1750 where he made his fortune in banking and in grain speculation.  In 1776, on the recommendation of Paris bankers, the king appointed him director of the state treasury; a year later he was promoted to director-general of finance. Necker knew how to make money multiply, and he pushed for social reform.  While reform measures endeared him to the downtrodden (which included nearly everyone outside the clergy and nobility) it made him an enemy of the nobility.

Necker refused salary, and lent the cash-strapped treasury two million livres out of his own pocket.  Rather than raise taxes ("the people have been taxed enough," he said), he was able to float loans that within a year brought to the treasury another 148 million livres.  He established better order, accountability, and economy within the treasury department, and abolished over 500 government jobs, most of which paid a salary but required little or no work.  He reduced inequities in taxation, improved hospitals, and organized pawnshops to lend money to the poor at low interest.  He prevailed upon Louis XVI to allow the establishment of provincial assemblies in Berry, Grenoble, and Montauban, and he set an important precedent by arranging that in these gatherings, the representatives of the Third Estate (the middle and lower classes) be equal those of the nobility and the clergy combined.

The king, however, who chose the members of these assemblies, would not grant them any legislative authority. Undeterred, Necker won a substantial victory by inducing the King to free all remaining serfs on the royal domain, and invited all feudal lords to follow the king’s example by freeing their serfs.  They declined.  In 1780, again on Necker's prompting, the king ordered an end to judicial torture, the disuse of subterranean prisons, the separation of prisoners duly convicted of crimes from those not yet tried, and the separation of both of these groups from those arrested for debt.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Americans were fighting a war for independence. The American Revolution was popular with nearly everyone in France--king, clergy, the rich and the poor. It was Necker's job to raise the necessary sums that France lent to America: one million livres in 1776, three million in 1778, another million in 1779, four million in 1780, four million in 1781, and six million in 1782.  In addition, he raised money to finance the French government, army, navy, and court.  He did so without raising taxes.

To foster confidence in the financial community, and with the King's blessing, Necker published in 1781, “A Compte rendu au Roi,” a report that said the French government was once again financially sound.  Necker was acclaimed as a financial genius who had saved the government from bankruptcy.  With that, the attacks began, mostly from within the French court which resented his increasing influence with the king. Necker was accused of cooking the books and of being a revolutionist who planned to undermine the monarchy by establishing more provincial assemblies. Necker did not help his cause by demanding more and greater reform powers.  Government ministers joined together and threatened to tender their resignations if the king didn’t fire Necker at once.  The King saw no choice but to acquiesce. Necker was out, and all Paris mourned.

Without Necker, the French government slipped into bankruptcy. Necker, meanwhile, retired to his Swiss estate and wrote his memoirs: “A Treatise on the Administration of the Finance of France.”  It was published in 1784.  Alexander Hamilton who by now had read Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” got his hands on the English edition and devoured all three volumes.


In 1788, with the French monarchy teetering on the brink of financial collapse, Louis XVI asked Jacques Necker to return to his position in the French government, with the promise of more power than before, the new title of secretary of state, and a seat on the Royal Council.  Necker accepted.

A huge crowd gathered in the courtyard of the Versailles Palace to welcome him back. "Yes, my children," he said, tearing up. "I remain; be comforted."

As a gesture to restore confidence, Necker put two million francs of his own into the treasury and pledged his personal fortune as partial guarantee of the state's financial commitments. He revoked an earlier order requiring bondholders to accept paper instead of money and as a result government bonds rose thirty percent on the market. The bankers, happy that Necker was back, advanced the treasury sufficient funds to tide over the financial crises for one year.

Superficially, France was in a situation similar to that of America in 1787; it was  saddled with a crushing war debt, a political system that blocked any revenue stream, and a government in need of reform.  Change was needed and fast.  Where to begin?  Tax reform.  France’s wealthy elite--the clergy and the nobility--paid little or no taxes while the commoners shouldered the bulk of the nation’s tax burden--on very little income.  While Necker was out of office the Assembly of Notables had met for the purpose of changing the tax structure, and failed.  On Necker's advice, the king called for an assembly of the Estates General, which was comprised of representatives of all three Estates: the First Estate (clergy), the Second Estate (nobility), and the Third Estate (commoners).  It was an historic occasion: the first meeting of the Estates-General in over 150 years, but did it mean anything?  Could they do what the the Assembly of Notables had failed to do?  No one realized it at the time, but the fate of France hung in the balance.

Many people were hopeful, including Thomas Jefferson.  He was appalled at the grinding poverty he saw daily in the streets of Paris, and on occasion he had seen angry crowds roaming the streets ”rehearsing revolution” as one historian put it.  His letters home, however, brimmed with confidence that reforms were under way and that all would be well in the end.  Gouverneur Morris saw no reason not to be optimistic either. Necker had averted a famine by putting a stop to the export of grain and by importing seventy million livres' worth of additional grain into the country.  A number of the wealthy had even opened their doors to feed and warm the poor, and one monastery had fed twelve hundred people daily for six weeks.

Once the Estates-General convened in June, however, any chance of the three Estates working together vanished quickly. The Third Estate, which had as many numbers as the First Estate and Second Estate combined, demanded that voting be by head, rather than by Estate.  This would have boosted its relative strength and given it the power necessary to bring equity to the tax laws. When this was denied by the First and Second Estates, which weren’t about to give up their advantage over the commoners, the Third Estate walked out, changed its name to the National Assembly, and began meeting separately.

Louis XVI, who was willing to inaugurate a reform movement that he could control, reacted badly.  Over Necker's objection, on July 1 he summoned ten regiments to threaten the National Assembly and make it disperse.  Instead, the Assembly began drawing up plans for a new government--a constitutional monarchy similar to that of England's.  On July 8, the Assembly asked the King to remove his troops.  Louis XVI refused, saying something to the effect that the troops were there not to harm them but to protect them from outside danger.  Three days later, on July 11, the King dismissed Necker and ordered him to leave Paris at once.

With the sudden fall of Necker--the only man in government in whom the people had faith--the streets of Paris erupted. On July 14 the Bastille was taken.  The French Revolution and the horror it would unleash had began.


It was one of the defining moments in Alexander Hamilton's political career, perhaps the defining moment. He began reading Jacques Necker's memoirs and in the introduction was a passage that seemed to be addressed directly to him.  It read:

"There are men whose zeal ought not to be cooled.  Such are those who being conscious that they are qualified for great things, have a noble thirst for glory; who being impelled by the force of their genius, feel themselves too confined within the narrow limits of common occupations; and those, more especially, who being struck with the idea of the public good, meditate on it, and make it the most important business of their lives. Proceed, you, who after silencing self-love find your resemblance in this picture."

Alexander Hamilton was the type who liked to throw caution to the wind, who would leap before he looked, and always made a big splash. When the American Revolution began, he quit school to join the Continental Army, and missed college graduation by a single month. It wasn't enough for him to rise up through the ranks and become General Washington's chief-of-staff.  Against the General’s wishes, he demanded--and got--his own battalion, and at Yorktown led a bayonet charge into enemy fire to take a key redoubt that led ultimately to General Cornwallis' surrender.

Having helped initiate the federal government, Hamilton’s next goal was to replace land with money as the source of wealth, because money rewarded merit and was oblivious to class, color, and social standing. He hoped to achieve this goal as Secretary of the Treasury, first by funding the war debt with a new issue of United States securities, and second by creating a national bank. Without a gold reserve, he hoped to make public securities--mere paper--as good as gold.

As with Necker, Hamilton saw his role as two-fold: as the nation's accountant, and as a social reformer.

Exactly when Washington decided to make Hamilton Treasury Secretary is not known, but it must have been early on.  Hamilton had been preparing himself to be the nation's treasurer, and acted as if he were confident that the appointment would be forthcoming. In 1788 he was active politically but avoided running for office. In 1789, a few days after Washington's inaugural, he told fellow lawyer Robert Troup that the president had asked him to accept the secretaryship, and he asked Troup to be prepared to take over his law practice. Four weeks after the inauguration, in a letter dated May 27, Madison wrote Jefferson that Hamilton would likely be appointed to head up the Treasury Department.

If Hamilton’s grand schemes were to succeed, he knew three conditions had to be met.  First, he would need the support of James Madison, the ablest and most influential man in government. Second, the Treasury Department would have to be under the control of one man, not three as had been the case with the impotent three-man Board of Treasury under the Articles of Confederation. Third, and most important, he would need a measure of independence from the president and be permitted to deal directly with Congress.  With regard to the third point, what he really wanted was to have a role similar to that of the British Prime Minister, to be appointed and replaced with consent of Congress, and be unencumbered by term limits.

What Congress created was not too far removed from what Hamilton wanted.  The Treasury Department would operate under the direction of one man, with an auditor and comptroller to settle and keep track of public accounts, a registrar to record them, a treasurer to hold the money, and so forth. The idea was to keep the Treasury Secretary free of mundane tasks, and not to place him in a position where he could be easily accused of improprieties. The only government money that actually would touch his hands would be his own salary. The president would appoint him to office, with advice and consent of the Senate, and he would report directly to the House on matters concerning revenue and public credit.

The Treasury Secretary was given a wide range of duties and a goodly measure of latitude in carrying them out.  He was empowered to appoint his assistant, superintend the collection of the revenues, decide upon the forms of keeping accounts, and prepare and report budgetary estimates. He would make reports, "and to give information to either branch of the Legislature, in person or in writing (as he may be required), respecting all matters referred to him or which shall pertain to his office."

Among his immediate tasks was to prepare a special report, due to be given in Congress the following January, that would "digest and prepare plans for the improvement and management of the revenue, and for the support of public credit."  This would include determining the extent of foreign and domestic debt, and recommending a systematic means of payment.

Nine days after signing the Treasury Department Act, Washington sent Hamilton's nomination to the Senate for confirmation. It was confirmed on the same day.  Two days later, on Sunday, September 13, Hamilton went to work.


Of all the issues addressed by Congress in the first session, it was by far the most divisive.  In April, mere days after achieving a quorum, the issue threatened to destroy the fragile government before it had a chance to prove itself.  The issue?  Deciding where to relocate the nation’s capital.

An observer wrote: "Special interest, always more active than public interest, was at the point yesterday of inciting a great tumult in Congress at its very debut. The Pennsylvanians . . . want this sovereign Assembly to reside in their State at all costs. . . . It was only with difficulty that they decided to defer this distinct measure."  This was on April 17, 1789, before Washington even arrived in New York.

As he would do many times that first year, James Madison restored order.  He told the Pennsylvanian Congressmen to be patient.  The residency question would be addressed before the end of the first session, and everyone would have a say in the decision.  On August 28, with the end of the first session in sight, the question of where to move the capital was addressed once again.

Congress was clearly divided and emotions ran high. The Pennsylvanians wanted the capital moved back to their beloved Philadelphia, the city that had given birth to the Declaration of Independence and to the U.S. Constitution.  Other northern states preferred to keep the capital in New York City.  Southern states, not at all happy with the north’s growing abolition movement, were intent on moving the capital to a southern location where slavery wasn’t questioned, such as Maryland or Virginia.

As debate got underway it was clear Philadelphia had the most support in both houses.  It was a large, cultured city, and centrally located.  Philadelphia was ruled out, however, when it was decided that the capital should not be within the confines of an existing city.  What was being called for was the creation of a new city, within a 100-square mile federal district, over which Congress would have exclusive jurisdiction.

Where to place such a city? The Pennsylvania delegation made a strong case for locating the new capital on an open tract of land on the Susquehanna River, between Lancaster and York.  James Madison, the leader of the Potomac faction, argued long and vehemently for locating the capital near Georgetown, Maryland, on the banks of the Potomac.  At times the debate turned ugly.  Richard Bland Lee of Virginia intimated darkly that the fate of the Union rested on the House decision, saying, "should Congress dare to keep the capital in Pennsylvania, it would devastate Southerner's faith in the union."  The Potomac faction, however, could not muster the necessary votes.

When the question was put to a vote, the House passed the bill designating the Susquehanna River as the site of the new capital.  The fate of the Residency Bill was now in the hands of the Senate.

Had the Pennsylvania delegation been united, the bill likely would have passed the Senate, and today the Capital of the United States would be located on the banks of the Susquehanna River and not on the Potomac, in the state of Pennsylvania instead of in Maryland. But the Pennsylvania delegation was split.

The leading advocate for the Susquehanna location was William Maclay, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  He knew the Susquehanna well, having surveyed the land along its banks.  The debate pitted Maclay against fellow Pennsylvanian Robert Morris.  Morris, it will be remembered, was the Philadelphia merchant who pledged his personal fortune as collateral to pay Washington's army at Yorktown.  As the archetypal money man, he had a reputation for being someone who could get things done.  Morris favored a location either at Germantown, just outside Philadelphia, or on the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey where he had been acquiring land.  To sweeten the deal, Morris promised to throw in $100,000 of his own money.

Behind the scenes, Morris lobbied Senators from several Northern states to switch their support from the Susquehanna to the Delaware. He promised the two New York senators that if they voted for Germantown, he and his allies would agree to block removal of the government from NewYork City before 1793, even if the new capital was ready sooner.  When Maclay found out what Morris was up to, he became enraged. "Mr. Morris (was) running backwards and forwards like a boy, taking out one senator after another to them," he wrote in his journal. "No business was ever treated with more barefaced partiality."

On September 24 Morris moved to delete the Susquehanna from the bill, and to leave a blank in its place, confident that the space would be filled with Germantown. For much of the day, conflicting motions clouded the debate, among them a motion to reconsider the Potomac for the seat of government. Finally, as Morris had hoped, his back-room lobbying paid off.  When at last the votes were counted, the Susquehanna was struck out.  Morris immediately proposed inserting Germantown in its place.  Maclay was so furious that he voted against the motion, leaving the Senate evenly divided, nine to nine.  Who would break the tie?  Vice President John Adams.

What say you, Mr. Vice President?  The Susquehanna or the Delaware?

According to Maclay, who left the only record of Adam's response, the vice president at first tried to please everyone.  He praised the Potomac location.  He praised New York.  He praised Philadelphia.  He said if it were up to him, the capital would alternate between these two cities, spending four years at a time in each. Finally, he tipped his hand by saying a few disparaging remarks about the Susquehanna location, and then cast his vote for Germantown. Maclay was devastated, certain it was Morris's $100,000 that clinched the deal. On September 28, the bill went back to the House for approval.

At this point, Morris surely assumed the House would pass the Residency Bill and the future capital of the United States would be located on the banks of the Delaware near Germantown, Pennsylvania.  What he hadn't counted on was James Madison's tenacity and resourcefulness.

Madison knew the stakes.  Unless he found a way to cripple the bill, his dream of seeing the capital located on the Potomac would be dashed forever.  But how?  When attempts by fellow Southerners failed to postpone the vote, Madison turned to several influential New Yorkers for assistance.  He persuaded them to pressure their senators to help postpone the bill until the next session. Postponement would give New York a chance, however slight, of keeping the capital in New York City. They agreed.

Madison next proposed a minor amendment to the Bill which the House approved. The Bill went back to the Senate for a vote on the amendment.  As Madison hoped, the Senate decided to postpone their vote until the next session, beginning in January 1790.

According to one historian, Morris had over-played a winning hand.  On September 30, Congress adjourned.


Trying to please everyone and pleasing no one.  That was John Adams in 1789.

Perhaps he’d stayed in Europe too long, had become too accustomed with the ways of monarchical government, and grown out out-of-touch with America. One thing was certain; he was out-of-step with George Washington.

Upon his return to America in 1788, Adams was viewed as a great statesman with a number of impressive accomplishments to his credit, including his part in brokering the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Revolution, and in negotiating several Dutch loans that kept the nation's ailing economy on life support.  It was no surprise when he was elected second-in-command to George Washington, as vice president.

In the early months of Washington's administration, Adams was guilty perhaps of trying too hard. He was too nice, too guarded, and perhaps too eager to please the president. He made himself a laughing stock in the Senate when he insisted the president be addressed as "His Excellency" or "His Majesty."  Yes, in the early days of the new government, Adams clearly was out of step.

Twelve years earlier, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, it was a different story. John Adams was at the center of the whirlwind, the agitator, the firebrand, the unstoppable force who convinced the delegates to go against their better judgement and declare independence from England. Indeed, Adams was a king-maker: he picked George Washington to lead the Continental Army.  He recognized talent: he picked Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.  While he was away in Europe, a new generation of national leaders had risen--James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. In Adams' absence, the Constitution was drafted, “The Federalist Papers” were written, and the new government was ratified by the states.  And the status of General George Washington was elevated to that of king.

John Adams biggest problem was himself.  He was honest, forthright, and brilliant.  And fussy, hypersensitive, and opinionated.  He said what he felt, which often got him in trouble.  Somehow, he managed to offend nearly everyone he met.

Ben Franklin characterized Adams as “always an honest man, often a great one, and sometimes absolutely mad.”

Said Thomas Jefferson: “He hates Jay, he hates the French, he hates the English.”

As James McHenry, who would later serve as Adams’ secretary of war, explained, whether Adams was “sportful, playful, witty, kind, cold, drunk, sober, angry, easy, stiff, jealous, careless, cautious, confident, close, open, it is almost always in the wrong place or to the wrong person.”

While Adams was second in command, he didn't feel like he was second in command.  He felt far down on the list of important people.  Adams' feelings at the time can be summed up best in his owns words, spoken after he was sworn is as vice president. "Gentlemen, I feel a great difficulty how to act. I am vice president.  In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.  But I am President also of the Senate."  He then asked, "When the President comes into the Senate, what shall I be?"

What Adams would not be was Washington's leader in Congress.  That role belonged to James Madison, the floor leader in the House of Representatives, and in 1791 it would pass to Alexander Hamilton.  Nor would Adams be among Washington's inner circle of Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Knox. He would not be among the select group of decision-makers who would shape the nation during Washington’s crucial eight years as president.  Washington would have nothing to do with a man who could not control his mouth or his emotions.  Adams was invited to the Executive Mansion on social occasions, of course, but when Washington's cabinet began meeting in 1790, Adams was left out.

Adams did enjoy one small consolation.  No one else in the federal government lived in as nice a house. "Never did I live in so delightful a spot," Adams said.  Located one mile north out of town, on a promontory overlooking the Hudson River, the Richmond Hill manor was a royal retreat but too far off the beaten path.  The house, like Adams himself, was outside the sphere of activity.

John Adams would be the first, but certainly not the last vice president, to complain about the office. "(It is) the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived," Adams said. Thomas R. Marshall, the 28th Vice President said: "Once there were two brothers. One ran away to the sea; the other was elected vice president of the United States. And nothing was heard of either of them again." John Nance Garner, who served as vice president from 1933 to 1941 under FDR, perhaps said it best. "The vice presidency isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss."

It all might have turned out differently had someone else been elected as the first vice president of the United States.  In an era of precedent-setting, it seems the Adams’ vice presidency set the precedent for all future vice presidents.


Thomas Jefferson was not good at goodbyes.

When he left Paris on September 28, 1789, he avoided bidding adieu to all but a few kindred spirits (Lafayette, La Rochefoucauld, and Condorcet) and slipped out of town quietly.

The political storms that overtook Paris in July had given way to relative calm in August and September, as the nation waited for the National Assembly to create a constitutional government.  Having seen his personal guard wiped out, King Louis XVI was relegated to the role of interested observer.  Outside Paris, the king remained popular with the common people.  But for how long?  Bread shortages continued to be an everyday fact of life.

On August 4, the National Assembly abolished feudalism in what was known as the August Decrees, sweeping away both the signeurial rights of the Second Estate (nobility) and the tithes gathered by the First Estate (church). Using the United States Declaration of Independence as a model, on August 26 the Assembly published the Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Citizens.  At the same time, next to nothing was being done about the financials crisis, which was the reason for calling a meeting of the National Assembly in the first place.

Jefferson watched these events with an approving eye, convinced that something wonderful was happening.  He planned to spend Christmas at Monticello, pay his debts, and return to Paris in the spring.

  At the port of La Harve he was confronted with a storm out on the Atlantic that delayed his voyage for two weeks.  On the day of departure, a fellow traveler observed the tall Virginian standing out in the weather with his daughters Patsy and Polly gathered around him, reading out loud to their father while he helped Polly pronounce the difficult words. The Jefferson party included two slaves: Jim Hennings, who had been taught the fine art of French cooking while in Paris, and his sister Sally Hennings.  Among the items being shipped to Monticello were 288 bottles of French wine, a coach, and a harpsichord.

While on a short layover in England, Jefferson read in the London newspapers that back in France 5000 angry women had marched to Versailles demanding that more be done about the bread shortages, and that as a sign of good faith the king and his administration return to Paris.  Despite Jefferson's letters to America stating that the worst of the crisis was over, the French Revolution was in fact just beginning, and would last until 1799 and be far bloodier than anyone dared imagine.

The crew on board Jefferson’s ship The Clermont predicted a nine-week voyage.  Crossing the Atlantic was always a dicey business.  Pirates could attack; a sudden storm could rise up and dash the ship to pieces.   Even on the calmest of days passengers were confined to their tiny wooden cubbies below deck, with little to do and little to eat but hard biscuits, salt port, and fish.  All the while waves toyed with the ship, tossing, turning, and dropping it fiercely, so that it pitched and rolled and for the first couples of weeks made passengers sick.

With storms having subsided, Jefferson's ship encountered favorable winds and made the journey in a remarkably short 26 days (just shy of three weeks).  The Clermont made port at Norfolk on November 23.

Jefferson so admired the lines of a table on board the ship that he left word with the captain that he wanted a duplicate made in London, of the finest mahogany, and be shipped to his hotel in France.  As it turned out, he received the table one year later, not in France, but in Virginia, as Jefferson's plans changed.  While crossing the Atlantic, President George Washington had appointed him Secretary of State.  Jefferson received word of his appointment when he arrived in Norfolk.


Thomas Jefferson liked to speak of Republican simplicity and virtue.  He said, "The government that governs least, governs best."  When it came to public buildings, however, these sentiments flew out the window.  For the capitol building of Virginia, he wanted something with, as he put it, "the ring of eternity."  In the heart of rural Virginia, in a town of about 1,800 people, he wanted to replicate a Roman Temple.  In the great hall inside, in place of a Roman god, he wanted a statue of George Washington.

As minister to France, Thomas Jefferson fell passionately in love with a number of grand buildings.  According to his biographer Dumas Malone, he "was so violently smitten with the Hotel de Salm, that he would to go to the Tuileries almost every day to admire, generally sitting on a parapet and twisting his head around until his neck got stiff."  He so loved the building that he used it as his model for the redesign of Monticello he planned to undertake once he returned home.

While governor of Virginia, Jefferson ordered the state capital be moved from Williamsburg to a small town on the upper James.  At the time, Richmond was a mere shadow of the cultural, intellectual and economic center that was Williamsburg.  The move would presage by fifteen years the relocation of the nation's capital from New York to a cow pasture on the Potomac, also instigated by Jefferson.  Jefferson relished the idea of creating a city from scratch, one that would be unmarred by commerce, industry, and moneymen, with buildings of white marble and grand columns that recalled classic Athens.

The design of the Virginia capitol had yet to be determined when Jefferson was appointed minister to France.  No matter.  After finding a suitable model in France, he would draft a blueprint and forward it home.  In the south of France he found the perfect building--The Maison Carree.   A Roman temple no less, with Corinthian columns, a deep portico, pilasters on the sides, and no windows. Now this, Jefferson thought, was a building with “the ring of eternity."

Back in Richmond, meanwhile, work began on a building that, to Jefferson’s taste, simply would not do.  From France, he ordered all work to cease, the building be torn down, and work to begin anew on his design, the plans of which would be forthcoming.  He wrote: "(My plans) are simple and sublime.  More cannot be said.  They are not the brat of whimsical conception never before brought to light, but copied from the most precious, the most perfect model of ancient architecture on earth."  Who was the Virginia Assembly to question Thomas Jefferson?  They agreed.

The Maison Carree may have been (in Jefferson’s words) "the most perfect model of ancient architecture on earth," but it was not designed to function as a public building.  Several changes were needed in order to make it habitable for government use.  The design was enlarged to house the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government; Ionic columns were substituted for Corinthian (too impractical to replicate); the pilasters were removed from the sides (also impractical); the depth of the portico was reduced from three columns to two; and windows were cut in the walls to let in light (marring the building's unbroken lines).

Construction was not finished at the time Jefferson returned from France, but what he saw he didn’t like.  They had ruined his perfect building.  Jefferson, who avoided confrontation like the plague, travelled on without comment.  He arrived home in Monticello two days before Christmas, and wasn’t happy with the building he saw there, either.  His time in France had heightened his aesthetic sense.


It was not the Monticello we know today.  The house Jefferson returned to on December 23, 1789 was similar to most southern plantation homes in Virginia.  It was impressively large and consisted of a central two-story block of rooms, with wings on each side.  What set the house apart were the double porticoes--one order of columns on top of another--on the east and west sides of the house. The lower level consisted of four Doric columns that were topped on the upper level by four Ionic columns.  Jefferson copied this double portico motif from Andrea Palladio’s architectural treatise, The Four Books of Architecture.

Before unpacking his bags, Jefferson walked around the exterior of his house and noted signs of neglect during his long absence: flaking paint, warped panels, the still-unfinished porticos.  A few repairs here and there, the completion of the porticos, and a fresh coat of paint and the house would be good as new.  He then would have a house that, well, bored him.

Jefferson decided much of the existing house would have to come down.  He had a new design in mind.  His European experience had given him an opportunity to see for himself several of the most stylish examples of French Palladianism.  The Palladian design that captured his heart was the aforementioned Hotel de Salm in Paris.  It was a wide rectangular building with a central, semicircular columned bay, capped with a dome.   Because the structure sat low on the foundation, it appeared smaller and more compact than it actually was.  When Jefferson redesigned Monticello, the image of this intriguing rectangular building with the unique dome was foremost in his mind.

Those who knew Thomas Jefferson well believed Monticello would never be finished.  It would always be a work in progress and therefore subject to change, depending on Jefferson’s latest architectural whim.  Work originally began in 1768 with the clearing of a mountaintop near the Jefferson family home.  The decision to build his dream house atop an 867-foot mountain rather than beside a broad river set Jefferson apart from other Virginia planters and added significantly to building difficulties.

Rivers were the lifeblood of Virginia.  Rivers joined Virginia's interior regions to the Tidewater, and to the world.  The Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James Rivers allowed Virginia’s chief commercial product, tobacco, to be transported with relative ease from the inland counties to the shipping ports of the Chesapeake.  It was along these rivers that the Virginia's great plantation manor houses were built.  Rivers made it easy to transport the needed building materials, furniture, and supplies.   Deciding to build his house atop a mountain meant that lumber, bricks, doors, windows, furniture, Jefferson’s voluminous library, as well as drinking water, would have to be hauled up to the mountaintop.  Why go to all the trouble?  To enjoy the panoramic view from the top, of course.  It was a case of putting aesthetics ahead of practicality.

Most substantial plantation homes were built by skilled craftsmen.  Usually, a master bricklayer or carpenter assumed the role of what today would be a general contractor; he would hire and supervise other carpenters, sawyers, joiners, bricklayers, plasterers and painters.  Slaves did the digging, the hauling, and the heavy lifting.  Architectural designs were either copied from existing houses or selected from pattern books and modified to meet the owner’s requirements.  Jefferson, however, not only designed his own house, he acted as his own general contractor.  He insisted on paying as he went in order to keep from going deeper in debt.  Money often ran out and Jefferson was away a lot.   As a result, work proceeded at irregular intervals.  Sixteen years passed when he departed for France in 1784, and still his Monticello dream house was not finished.

Upon his return in 1789, he decided to tear down much that was finished, and start over again.  It must have seemed like madness to his neighbors, but to Jefferson it made perfect sense.  He wasn’t building a house; he was creating art.  Nowhere was this more evident than with the dome.  Other than providing an elegant cap for a stylish Palladian residence, the dome had no real purpose.  Building it would stretch the capabilities of his skilled craftsmen to the absolute limit.  No doubt they learned as they built, tearing down and rebuilding until they got it right.  When it was finished, the dome room, or “sky room” as it was sometimes called, was used as a children’s playroom, a spare bedroom, and finally as a storeroom.  Other than that, Jefferson had no real purpose for the space beneath the dome.

Jefferson was unique among the Founding Fathers in his interest in the arts.  None of them could match his knowledge or interest in music, literature, or architecture.  Great as his political writings were, Jefferson was, as one scholar put it, “first of all an artist.”  Work on Monticello would continue for the rest of his life.  Indeed, the final touches would not be completed until 1823, three years before his death.


It happened by chance, as they were returning home.  Somewhere on the road between Norfolk and Monticello, the Jefferson party encountered Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.  For Jefferson’s daughter Martha and for young Randolph, it was love at first sight  They were second cousins who had known each other since childhood, but apparently met for the first time as adults while the Jeffersons were in transit. It wasn’t long afterward and the couple announced their engagement.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was undecided about his appointment as Secretary of State.  His heart was set on returning to Paris, and he worried that domestic duties--supervising territorial governments, issuing commissions, handling patents, and doing loads of paperwork--might not suit him.  James Madison, who was home for Christmas, rode over from Orange County to assure him that State Department assistants would handle the more mundane tasks and that he would be free to concentrate on foreign issues.  Madison also tried to convince him that he would be more effective as a policy maker at home than as a minister in France.  Jefferson was neither convinced nor ready to make a decision.

Madison wrote Washington that Jefferson was cool toward the appointment but thought his friend would accept with some encouragement from the President.  Put another way, if Washington really wanted Jefferson as Secretary of State he would have to convince him himself.  Either way, Jefferson wouldn’t be leaving Monticello anytime soon.  His daughter’s wedding was planned for February 23, and Jefferson planned to be there to give her away.  Then and only then would he come to New York, if he was coming at all.

- END -

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