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Jefferson, Marshall, Adams, and a new nation. (Review Essay).

In What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States, James F Simon writes interesting history by showing why the clash between Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Marshall had such a powerful effect on the direction of our nation. The issue was states' rights versus a strong federal government. Jefferson versus Marshall was one of the most important confrontations in American history, a point Mr. Simon makes clear by keeping his central theme in front of the reader.

Thomas Jefferson was a tough, devious politician who viewed the states as supreme. His competitor, John Marshall, may have started out in a weaker position but won the long-term battle by aligning his views with the Constitution. The more one learns about Jefferson, the less likeable he becomes. He evidently was a man who would not hesitate to slander John Adams or even George Washington. Indeed, when Washington found out what kind of a man Jefferson was, he cut off all communications with him.

In contrast, Richard Brookhiser writes a somewhat more difficult book to read in The Adamses, 1735-1918: America's First Dynasty, covering four generations of the Adams family. The author is clearly intelligent, but his focus is on countless small points at the expense of the big picture. John Adams was a giant of the founding period and someone who had great influence on both Jefferson and Marshall. One would not grasp this important fact from reading Brookhiser's book.

Brookhiser could have more effectively focused on a central overall concept that tied together the lives of John Adams, John Quincy, Charles Francis, and Henry Adams. The overwhelming link between these four generations was the character of John Adams as a man, and as a political thinker and leader. Brookhiser writes: "Public service in New England, during the lifetimes of the Adamses, was not just a job but an essential and moral social task." Unfortunately, this book fails to link the important points together. It is more a compilation of isolated and at times puzzling historical facts, leaving the reader more confused than informed.

For example, it was difficult for this reviewer to understand Mt Brookhiser's point regarding the prime theme of the Declaration of Independence versus the Massachusetts Constitution written in 1779 by Adams. "All men are born equally free and independent," written by Adams, is more precise than Jefferson's "All men are created equal." The American goal is for all men and women to be "free and independent." Most would agree with John Adams that "all men are created equal" but only in the eyes of God.

The prelude to the clash between Jefferson and Marshall began with factions. Mr. Jefferson's goal was not only to beat John Adams in the 1800 presidential election but to destroy the Federalist Party. The Federalists, starting with George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, believed that the best way for the United States to prosper was with a strong federal government. Jefferson distrusted this idea.

Washington and Adams kept their eye on what direction the country would take. The founding period meant everything to them, and this formed the basis of their actions. In contrast, Jefferson represents the political opportunist who used events to serve his personal goals. He appears to have been a totally self-centered man who truly believed that winning was everything. He was so good at it that most Americans still have no idea regarding the dark side of Jefferson.

Brookhiser writes of Jefferson and Adams: "Politics drove them apart. If Jefferson was to defeat the unwholesome schemes of Federalism and win office himself, he had to supplant John Adams, and he did it as coolly as one would put down a dog." Certainly, one would never expect this kind of behavior from Washington or Adams. That is why they were such great men, and it says much about John Marshall that he recognized this fact.

Mr. Simon writes that Jefferson "conceded broad power to the federal government only in the sphere of foreign affairs. Domestically, he believed that the states represented the most efficacious governmental unit, in large part because they were closest to the people." Marshall disagreed, but just as important, he never trusted Jefferson.

Consider this: It was Jefferson and James Madison who made the deal with Alexander Hamilton in June 1790 that allowed the federal government to take over the debts of the states. In exchange, Hamilton supported moving the capital to the Potomac. This brilliant move by Hamilton brought power to the central government. It helped the country to establish an economic system that enabled it to prosper. Washington fortunately supported Hamilton's plan. Surely Jefferson did not understand until later the full meaning of his deal with Hamilton. Simon writes that "Jefferson later admitted that it was the worst political decision he ever made, providing Hamilton with the first important victory in his drive to increase the power of the federal government."

Jefferson did not hesitate to throw dirt. He even was foolish enough to throw it at George Washington, something Marshall never forgave Jefferson for doing. In the delicate 1798 X.Y.Z. affair that almost resulted in war with France, three French intermediaries attempted to bribe the United States. Jefferson blamed Marshall for what happened. He wrote: "... and particularly the X.Y.Z. dish cooked up by Marshall where the swindlers are made to appear as the French government." Jefferson's problem may have been that he thought everyone was as dishonest as he was.

Simon outlines clearly what went wrong in the Adams Administration in the relationship between President Adams and Vice President Jefferson. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts became a burden to Adams, and Jefferson took full advantage of the situation. The fact is the federal judges were acting improperly by helping the Adams Administration.

Simon writes: "Their blatantly partisan actions in pursuit of convictions under the Sedition Act reinforced Jefferson's profound distrust of the federal judiciary, a distrust that would develop into outright hostility after he was elected President." Jefferson believed the Federalists were consolidating power in the executive and judicial branches of the federal government at the expense of Congress and the state governments.

When he became President, Jefferson did not object "to selective prosecutions of his political critics under state seditious libel laws." Simon's book includes the activities and the consequences of Jefferson's dirty dealings using William Duane, Thomas Cooper, and the notorious James T. Callender, appropriately called "scribblers." It was Callender who wrote an ugly piece, "The Prospect Before Us," knocking the Federalists. Later Callender even turned on Jefferson. In this case Brookhiser hits his mark by wisely using a quote from Abigail Adams to make his point: "When one of Jefferson's hacks switches sides and publishes the first account of the Sally Hemings story, Abigail wrote her famous friend [Jefferson] triumphantly, 'the serpent you cherished and warmed, bit the hand that nourished him.'" Abigail knew how to deal with truth, especially when it came to Jefferson. And she, like Washington, permanently ended her relationship with Jefferson.

Marshall had close contact with Washington and he admired him greatly. Interestingly, it was Washington who persuaded Marshall to run for Congress, which started him on the way to his becoming Secretary of State for President Adams and then Chief Justice in 1801, a position he held for 34 years. President Adams had made one of the most important judicial appointments in American history.

How pleasant it is to read about Marshall's loyalty to Adams. Simon writes: "With an unwavering eye on Adams's re-election chances, Marshall more than any other Federalist member of the House, assiduously protected the President's interests."

Marshall not only wanted Adams to win the election of 1800, he wanted Jefferson to be defeated. Simon writes: "For Marshall, Jefferson's insult of his mentor and hero [Washington] was morally indefensible and... disqualified him for the presidency."

The fight over the direction of our country started on 27 January 1801, when Marshall became Chief Justice, and on 4 March 1801, when Jefferson became President. Jefferson asked the Chief Justice to administer the oath of office, and Marshall replied with a sting: "I shall with much pleasure attend to administer the oath of office on the 4th & shall make a point of being punctual." It was clear to both men that, as Mr. Simon writes, "Jefferson's Republican dream was Marshall's nightmare." Marshall understood that the judiciary had to defend the Constitution especially against the wishes of Thomas Jefferson. Marshall wrote at the time: "Of the importance of the Judiciary at all times, but more especially the present, I am fully impressed."

When the Supreme Court made clear in Marbury v. Madison that it would decide what laws are constitutional, Marshall jumped right over Jefferson. Simon writes: "Marshall's opinion also served notice that the Court, not the President, would be the ultimate judge of claims of executive privilege, an authority of seismic proportions."

It is interesting that if Jefferson had stuck to his basic philosophy of government he could not have completed the Louisiana purchase without a constitutional amendment. He urged his supporters in Congress to ratify the purchase "in silence" and "with as little debate as possible, and particularly so far as respects the constitutional difficulty."

It bothered this reviewer that Mr. Simon refers to our form of government as a constitutional democracy. Most scholars and students would define our government instead as a constitutional republic. James Madison put it this way: "Majority rule is tyranny in disguise." As the brilliant educator and appointed politician John W. Gardner said, "Majority rule does not always define the common good." This is why the delicate separation of powers in the Constitution is so brilliant.

It is also of particular interest that in Talbot v. Seeman, Marshall wrote that Congress alone, based on the Constitution, has the warmaking power. One hopes that Congress and the President understand this fundamental fact as they consider further military action around the world.

George Washington said: "The Constitution rests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject [and] authorized such a measure." James Madison approvingly wrote: "In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war and peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department." How Congress could allow every President since Harry Truman to disregard the Constitution regarding the warmaking power is beyond comprehension.

Considering what happened to our country on 11 September 2001, we had better make sure that we listen to what Washington said about threats to our country. Simon writes: "Washington advocated [extreme measures] against those 'who acknowledge no allegiance to country and in many cases are sent among us... for the express purpose of poisoning the minds of our people and to sow dissensions among them."' Washington also gave us wise council which is applicable today when, as Brookhiser points out, he said: "It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest."

The strength of Simon's book is in making the connection between what happened politically to our country based on the dislike and mistrust between Jefferson and Marshall. He writes: "The distrust between Jefferson and Marshall was palpable; it started in general terms, in 1798, when each man viewed the other as a leader of political forces the other believed could devastate the nation." Others believe it started when Marshall was at Valley Forge while Jefferson fought the Revolutionary War from Monticello.

Simon's What Kind of Nation is a well written and interesting book which deals with an important part of our founding period. If you want to learn more about John Adams and our early history, I would recommend: Setting The World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution by John Ferling, and John Adams & The Spirit of Liberty by C. Bradley Thompson.


Brookhiser, Richard. The Adamses, 1735-1918: America's First Dynasty. New York: The Free Press, 2002.

Simon, James F. What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

The Reviewer: Robert Previdi is the author of Civilian Control versus Military Rule, the first book dealing with Goldwater-Nichols.
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Title Annotation:What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States; The Adamses, 1735-1918: America's First Dynasty
Author:Previdi, Robert
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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