Letter provides glimpses into Jefferson’s personal life
July 3, 2014 11:44 PM
Marie Jefferson Eppes Shine.
John Wayles Eppes.
By Federico Martinez/Block News Alliance
TOLEDO, Ohio — It had been nearly 24 years since the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence, but by 1800, Thomas Jefferson, the author of that document, had come to realize carrying through on those ideals would be more difficult then he ever could have imagined.
The conservative Federalist Party, under the leadership of President John Adams, was in power at the time and had plunged the country into a multimillion-dollar deficit by continuing to build a larger, more powerful military, said Bruce Way, a professor of history at the University of Toledo. The 5th U.S. Congress also had passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which, among other things, prohibited any speech that was critical of the federal government.
These were actions Mr. Jefferson strongly opposed, as he made clear in the Declaration of Independence. He believed people should have the right to express their opinions and did not believe the federal government should be all-powerful; instead he believed the individual states should be able to govern themselves.
Mr. Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican and the vice president at the time, expressed his frustration at not being able to do anything to oppose these actions in a personal letter dated March 8, 1800, to his son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes — a letter that has been in the possession of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library for 136 years.
“Some among us insist that Congress have no privileges but those given by the constitution, which go only to their own persons & to proceedings within their own doors: while others insist there is an inherent right of self-preservation in every body of men, which authorizes them to do whatever they think necessary for protecting themselves undisturbed in the exercise of their functions. There is little doubt which sentiment will be strongest within doors and which without.”
Mr. Jefferson’s letter is one of thousands of rare documents kept in The Toledo Blade’s Rare Book Room at the Main Library in downtown Toledo. Marie Jefferson Eppes Shine, who was Thomas Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, donated the letter in 1878, according to Jill Clever, the library’s manger of the Local History and Genealogy Department.
The letter is kept in a climate-controlled vault that can be visited only by appointment, Mrs. Clever said.
This week, Mrs. Clever and Irene Martin, the library’s preservationist, dug deep into the library’s vault and dusted off the original records where the names of donors are kept; Mrs. Shine’s name was there. Within minutes, the library staff had found photos of Mrs. Shine and other tidbits of information including her birth — April 12, 1840 — and death — Sept. 8, 1896.
At The Blade’s request, research experts at Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., which the Thomas Jefferson Foundation funds, verified the letter’s authenticity and the existence of Mrs. Shine. Princeton University’s The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, which specializes in collecting and transcribing documents related to Mr. Jefferson, also verified the Virginia group’s findings. The Princeton, N.J., research group transcribed the Jefferson letter in 1955, according to a letter Julian Boyd wrote. Mr. Boyd was the editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson in 1955. The letter is addressed to Herbert M. Sewell, who was then director of the Toledo Public Library.
In his letter, Mr. Boyd noted the very personal tone of the letter. James P. McClure, the current general editor, noted the same thing. He also pointed out that it was very rare for Mr. Jefferson to express such strong emotions and vulnerability in a letter.
“This is a fairly long, substantial letter that touches upon family and political events,” Mr. McClure said. “This is a nice letter; there’s quite a lot of content.”
At the time Mr. Jefferson penned the March 8, 1800, letter to his son-in-law, the health of Mr. Jefferson’s youngest daughter and Mr. Eppes’ wife, Mary “Maria” Jefferson Eppes, was growing worse. Mr. Eppes was Mary Jefferson’s first cousin.
“I thank you much for the regular information you have communicated of Maria’s state,” Mr. Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law. “Tho it has been a painful one to me, yet it is less so than a state of uncertainty and fear.”
Near the letter’s conclusion, he asks that a message be relayed to his daughter. “To my beloved Maria express the tender anxieties I feel for her and how much I wish it were in my power to go to her.”
A pivotal point
Mr. Way said the letter’s importance can’t be overstated; it was written at a pivotal point in history.
“The 4th of July was a starting point, and 24 years later, we were still trying to work it out,” Mr. Way said. “Life had not been good to Jefferson since the Declaration of Independence; his wife had died, and a daughter and son had died. He was concerned about running his estate.”
Politically, things were not going well either, Mr. Way said. As vice president, the Federalist Party stymied Mr. Jefferson at every turn. In the letter, he expressed sympathy for the victims of the Alien and Sedition Act, which prohibited any speech that was critical of the federal government, but there was nothing he could do, Mr. Way said.
In the late 1790s, William Duane, the publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper, ignored the law banning free speech and used his newspaper as a platform to denounce the Federalist Party, Mr. Way said. Despite their anger, the Federalists did nothing, until the publisher made a fatal mistake.
Democratic-Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives whispered to the publisher that, behind closed doors, President Adams and the Federalists were trying to create a special committee that would be charged with reviewing the electoral votes. The committee would be loaded with Federalists, he was told.
“Mr. Duane’s mistake was that he wrote the story as if it had already happened,” Mr. Way said. The Federalists used the mistake to temporarily put him out of business.
One of Mr. Jefferson’s greatest foes was Alexander Hamilton, who was chief of staff to George Washington and had been one of the most influential promoters of the U.S. Constitution. He also served as the country’s first secretary of Treasury and founded the Federalist Party — the first American political party.
Mr. Hamilton used his influence to attempt to ensure the public elected someone from his party as the next president during the 1800 elections, Professor Way said.
Despite his efforts and a quirk in the voting, there ended up being a tie in the electoral vote between Mr. Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who were both Democratic-Republicans. Mr. Hamilton disliked both men but used his influence to persuade the House of Representatives to elect Mr. Jefferson as the third president of the United States.
Ship building halted
In Mr. Jefferson’s March 8, 1800, letter, he had already indicated what would happen if he were elected president.
“By stopping enlistments & suspending for one year the building of the 74, they reduce the deficit to $3 1/2 million, which is to be borrowed at any interest the President shall approve.”
And that’s exactly what President Jefferson did once he took office, Mr. Way said.
“He stopped the ship building program — the building of the 74 and eliminated the Army and Navy,” Mr. Way said. “He reduced the debt as promised, but when we went to war with England in 1812, we had no navy or army.”
His decision to make cuts to the military might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it left the country vulnerable, Mr. Way said.
During his second term, Mr. Jefferson was faced with a new problem: In 1803, France was offering to sell Louisiana for $15 million, but there was nothing in the Constitution stating that the president could or couldn’t do this, Mr. Way said.
The other dilemma Mr. Jefferson faced is that he had promised to reduce the deficit, and now he was thinking about increasing the country’s deficit to its highest level yet at the time.
“But he had the chance to nearly double the size of the country, and he decided to buy it,” Mr. Way said. His political enemies tried to use the action to criticize him, but the purchase turned out to be one of his greatest legacies.
His daughter, Mary Jefferson Eppes, died in 1804.
There’s still one more question that vexes Toledo-Lucas County Pubic Library staff and researchers at Jefferson Monticello’s and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University: Why did Marie Jefferson Eppes Shine donate this rare family letter to the library in Toledo, and what, if any, connection did she have with the Toledo area?
All research indicates she spent her life in Florida, and no family lineage could be traced to Lucas County.
“Unfortunately, we may never know,” Mr. McClure said. “In this case, what happened was she was a descendant of Eppes. Those letters got dispersed to various generations. It was so long after President Jefferson died nobody continued to keep track of the Eppes lineage.”
The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Federico Martinez is a reporter at The Blade.
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