Modern history

CHAPTER FIVE

The President’s Secretary

1801–1802

On February 23, 1801, eleven days before his inauguration, President-elect Jefferson wrote Captain Lewis. He said he needed a secretary, “not only to aid in the private concerns of the household, but also to contribute to the mass of information which it is interesting for the administration to acquire. Your knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it’s interests & relations has rendered it desireable . . . that you should be engaged in that office.”

The salary would be only five hundred dollars per year, scarcely more than the pay and rations that Lewis would have to relinquish, although Jefferson assured him that he would retain his rank and his right to promotion. Further, service as the president’s secretary “would make you know & be known to characters of influence in the affairs of our country, and give you the advantage of their wisdom.” He would live in the President’s HouseI “as you would be one of my family.”

Jefferson wrote a job description: “The office is more in the nature of that of an Aid de camp, than a mere Secretary. The writing is not considerable, because I write my own letters & copy them in a press. The care of our company, execution of some commissions in the town occasionally, messages to Congress, occasional conferences and explanations with particular members, with the offices, & inhabitants of the place where it cannot so well be done in writing, constitute the chief business.”1 The president’s secretary would be paid from the president’s private funds, and provided with a servant and a horse, also at the president’s expense. The post “has been solicited by several, who will have no answer till I hear from you.” He requested an immediate reply.2

It took almost two weeks for Jefferson’s letter to reach Lewis in Pittsburgh. On March 7, Lewis expressed his joy in a letter to his company commander, tent mate, and fellow Virginian, Captain Ferdinand Claiborne: “I cannot withhold from you my friend the agreeable intelligence I received on my arrival at this place [Pittsburgh] by way of a very polite note from Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected President of the United States, signifying his wish that I should except the office of his private Secretary; this unbounded, as well as unexpected confidence, confered on me by a man whose virtue and talents I have ever adored, and always conceived second to none, I must confess did not fail to raise me somewhat in my own estimation, insomuch that I have almost prevailed on myself to believe that my abilities are equal to the task; however be that as it may I am resolved to except it, and shal therefore set forward to the City of Washington in a few days; I deem the prospect two flattering to be neglected by a man of my standing and prospects in life.” He closed the euphoric letter with a hint of his instinct for politics, along with the air of self-importance that went with being the president’s secretary: “I shal take the liberty of informing you of the most important political occurrences of our government or such of them as I may feel myself at liberty to give.”3

The maddening delays and infrequency of the mails forced the eager young man to wait three days before he could post his reply to Jefferson. In a letter dated March 10, Lewis explained: “Not untill two late on friday last to answer by that days mail, did I recieve your’s of the 23rd Ult. . . . [asking] that I accept the place of your private Secretary.”

He immediately got to the point: “I most cordially acquiesce, and with pleasure accept the office.” After profuse thanks for the honor, Lewis promised “to get forward to the City of Washington with all possible despatch: rest assured I shall not relax in my exertions. Receive I pray you Sir, the most undisembled assureance, of the attatchment and friendship of Your most obedient, & Very Humble Servt., Meriwether Lewis.”4

He set off at once, but spring rains, a lame horse, and miserable roads conspired to slow his progress. It took him three weeks to get from Pittsburgh to Washington, where he arrived on the afternoon of April 1. Shortly thereafter, he wrote his friend Thornton Gilmer of Albemarle: “I feel my situation in the President’s family an extreemly pleasent one. I very little expected that I possessed the confidence of Mr. J. in so far as to have produced on his part, a voluntary offer of the office of his private secretary—however nothing is extraordinary in these days of revolution, and reform.”5

He was active in reform. Jefferson had a specific mission in mind when he offered the post to Lewis, who became a key participant in one of the president’s most important projects, one of the planks in his election campaign: reducing the size of the army.

In a letter of February 23, 1801, to General James Wilkinson, commanding general of the army, asking Wilkinson to release Captain Lewis from active service while allowing him to retain his rank and right to promotion, Jefferson had explained that he had chosen Lewis on the basis of “a personal acquaintance with him, owing from his being of my neighborhood.”6

But the president had something more specific in mind. He knew Lewis not only as a neighbor but as a solid Republican and as an army officer who, because of his responsibilities as paymaster, had traveled extensively throughout the trans-Appalachian region visiting the various army posts, and thus a man who knew the officer corps well. Jefferson’s somewhat cryptic reference to Lewis’s “knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it’s interests & relations,” was a reference not to an upcoming exploration of the Missouri River country but to politics. What Jefferson wanted first of all from Lewis was help in reducing the grip of the Federalists on the army officer corps.

Jefferson intended to reduce the size of the army by one-half. This was good Republican principle and sound policy. The undeclared war with France was over, and relations with the British were quiet. Money could be saved by the government—also solid Republican principle—if the number of officers was cut back, something that made sense in any event because of the way John Adams and the Federalists had swelled the ranks of the officer corps during the war scare of 1798, and again through Adams’s midnight appointments in March 1801. If officers were going to be cut, Jefferson figured it should be done, at least to some extent, on the same basis according to which they had been given their commissions—partisan politics.

But Jefferson had never worn a uniform. He did not know even the senior, much less the junior officers in the army. He did not know which officers were competent, which were extreme Federalists, which were inferior, which superior. But his young friend Meriwether Lewis knew, and Jefferson could count on him to evaluate the officer corps with complete candor.

Thus Lewis’s first task as Jefferson’s secretary was to go through a roster from the War Department listing all commissioned officers. Using a simple code of symbols (+ + +, or 00, or #, etc.), Lewis passed a judgment on every officer in the army. There were eleven symbols in all. The first “denotes such officers as are of the 1st Class, so esteemed from a superiority of genius & Military proficiency.” The second showed “officers of the second class, respectable.” The third listed “the same. Republican.” The fourth covered officers whose politics Lewis could not “positively ascertain.” Fifth, officers without politics. Sixth, those “Opposed to the Administration, otherwise respectable.” Seventh, “More decisively opposed to the Administration.” Eighth, “Most violently opposed to the administration and still active in its vilification.” Ninth, professional soldiers without a political creed. Tenth, “Unworthy of the commissions they bear.” Finally, “Unknown to us.”

Jefferson did not take a meat ax to the Federalists on Lewis’s list. If one puts the list beside the names of the officers dismissed from the service, it is clear that in the winnowing process military qualifications were given much greater consideration than party preference. Federalist officers rated superior by Lewis retained their commissions; of those rated acceptable, seven of eighteen were retained. This was good politics as well as good military policy; Jefferson wanted to bring the country together, not make it more divided than it already was, and of course he hoped to win over at least some Federalists to his cause, so he had to keep some Federalists in the army. But all except one of those noted as “Most violently opposed to the administration” were dropped.7

Despite the purge, Federalist officers continued to outnumber Republicans by a majority of 140 to 38.8 The only senior officer thought to be sympathetic to the Republicans was Wilkinson—and he was notorious for swimming with the tide. Jefferson had not gone as far as his more extreme supporters wished. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn complained, “We have been much more liberal towards them [the Federalists] than they would be towards us, and in future I think we ought to give them measure for measure.”9 Jefferson put it well when he commented, “The army is undergoing a chaste reformation.”10 Lewis had been invaluable in bringing it about on a fair rather then an excessively partisan basis.

Beyond his active role in the reduction of the army, Lewis’s duties were varied and not particularly exciting. He spent long hours at the writing desk, performing menial tasks, such as drawing up a list of all U.S. postmasters, with their locations and compensation, a total of twenty pages. He copied many other routine documents, including a list of prisoners in the Washington jail as of March 29, 1802; an extract of a letter of March 6, 1802; four pages of a report on the cost of a naval arsenal on December 4, 1802; and so on. He delivered messages from Jefferson to Congress.11 It was tedious work, but instructive.

Abigail Adams, the first resident of the President’s House, called it the “great castle” and hated the place. It was too large—twenty-three rooms—and basically unfurnished and unfinished. Mrs. Adams complained that it took thirty servants to run the place. The roof leaked. The walls were unplastered. In the nearest stable, at Fourteenth and G Streets, John Adams told his successor, were seven horses and two carriages in the stables that were the property of the United States and available for the president’s use.

Jefferson ran the place with only eleven servants, brought up from Monticello. There were no more powdered wigs, much less ceremony. Washington and Adams, according to Republican critics, had kept up almost a royal court. Jefferson substituted Republican simplicity—to a point. He had a French chef, and French wines he personally selected. His salary was $25,000 per year—a princely sum, but the expenses were also great. In 1801 Jefferson spent $6,500 for provisions and groceries, $2,700 for servants (some of whom were liveried), $500 for Lewis’s salary, $3,000 for wine. And it turned out he had to buy his own horses; Congress, thinking it an outrage that the government should pay for the president’s horses, ordered that the ones Adams had turned over to Jefferson be sold. Adams was so mortified over this action that he left town before the inauguration.12

Jefferson was a widower. His two daughters were married and had their husbands, children, and own affairs to look after. Secretary of State James Madison and his wife, Dolley, stayed with Jefferson in the President’s House for several weeks in May 1801, and Dolley Madison often acted as hostess for dinner parties, but essentially the President’s House was a bachelor house in the years Lewis lived there.13 Other than the servants, Jefferson and Lewis were the only residents. On May 28, 1801, shortly after the Madisons took their own residence, Jefferson wrote his daughter Martha, “Capt. Lewis and myself are like two mice in a church.”14

They ate together, spent the evenings together—usually with guests—and worked closely together, especially on matters concerning the army. Jefferson came to know Lewis as well as he knew any man. He later praised Lewis for, among other attributes, “sound understanding and a fidelity to truth.” But he also noted, “While he lived with me in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind.” He had seen the same melancholy in Lewis’s father, and felt it was a malady that ran in the family: “Knowing their constitutional source, I estimated their course by what I had seen in the family.” Lewis’s depressions, in other words, did not unduly alarm the president, or last long—but Jefferson could not help noticing them.15

Lewis’s quarters were in what became the East Room. It contained almost no furniture and was damp, cold, drafty, and depressing. Abigail Adams had hung her wash in it. Life in the President’s House, however, was as exciting and rewarding to Lewis as life in the White House has been to most of the young people lucky enough to live or work there in the following two centuries.

First of all, there was that daily association with Jefferson. No American has ever surpassed Jefferson, and fewer than a handful have ever equaled him, as friend, teacher, guide, model, leader, companion. Dumas Malone, author of the definitive multivolume biography, called Jefferson “this extraordinarily versatile and seemingly inexhaustible man.”16 For Lewis, left fatherless as a child, thirty-one years younger than Jefferson, the president was all that and a father figure as well.

Lewis took his meals with the president, and was almost always present when he entertained, which was four or five nights a week. The dinner parties were small affairs, usually two or three guests, sometimes six to eight, never more than a dozen.

One of the guests, Mahlon Dickerson, four years older than Lewis, was a lawyer from Philadelphia and a politician who later became governor of New Jersey and then a Cabinet officer. He noted in a letter that Jefferson “is accused of being very slovenly in his dress, & to be sure he is not very particular in that respect, but however he may neglect his person he takes good care of his table. No man in America keeps a better.” “You drink as you please, and converse at your ease,” another guest reported.17

The table was an oval one, encouraging a general conversation. The talk flowed freely, on any subject that interested Jefferson, which meant practically all subjects. But the concentration was on natural science, geography, natural philosophy, Indian affairs, and of course politics.

Jefferson had promised Lewis that if he accepted the appointment he would “know & be known to characters of influence in the affairs of our country, and give you the advantage of their wisdom,” and that was exactly what happened. Lewis sat with the Republican high command, including such regulars as Madison, Dearborn, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, and Attorney General Levi Lincoln. Nonpolitical guests included the poet and journalist Joel Barlow, the artist Charles Willson Peale, the author Thomas Paine, the poet Philip Freneau, and other writers, scientists, and travelers.

Lewis and Dickerson, who met at Jefferson’s table, became good friends. Lewis visited him in Philadelphia, where young bachelor Dickerson moved in the highest social circles. Dickerson kept a diary, with such entries as “Frid. 14 [May 1802], A fine day—Capt. Lewis & others dined with me—went to see Rannie’s deceptions—much pleased.” Rannie was a magician and ventriloquist. “Wed. 19 [May], Cloudy & rainy part of the day—cold at evg.—spent the evg. at Madmoiselle Fries with Capt. L.” “Frid. 21. Clear in Morng. rained very hard PM.—rode out with Capt. L. to Dr. Logans—diner there—retd. at eveng.” George Logan was a physician and U.S. senator and a founder of the American Philosophical Society, in which Dickerson was active and Jefferson was a member.18

It was a feature of Jefferson’s personality that he reached out to men older and younger than he, men with different life experiences who could bring to his table perspectives and information foreign to him. Henry Adams wrote, “Three more agreeable men than Jefferson, James Madison, and Albert Gallatin were never collected round the dinner-table of the White House; and their difference in age was enough to add zest to their friendship.”19 Jefferson was fifty-eight years of age in 1801, Madison fifty, Gallatin forty, and Lewis twenty-seven.

Lewis’s activities with Dickerson added to the list of famous men with whom he visited. “Mon. 24. A charming day—rode with Capt. L. to Wilmington—on a visit to Jno Dickinson—he was from home—we put up at Craigs.” John Dickinson was the revolutionary pamphleteer who wrote the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania in 1768. That same week, Lewis and Dickerson dined with Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean, former member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. On a visit to Philadelphia a year later, Lewis joined Dickerson for dinner with Henry Sheaff, a merchant who had been the provider of wine and sundries for President Washington when the capital was in Philadelphia.20 Clearly Captain Lewis was moving in elite circles.

In August 1802, Jefferson retired to Monticello for a two-month vacation. Lewis accompanied him and stayed at the clapboard house three miles east of Monticello on the estate called Franklin, home of Ben Franklin’s grandson William Bache. Being there allowed Lewis to visit his mother, brothers, and sister at Locust Hill, and to attend dinners at Monticello. One Albemarle planter, Lewis’s schoolboy friend Peachy Gilmer, called the company that gathered at Jefferson’s table “the most accomplished and elegant society that has been anywhere, at any time, within my knowledge in Virginia. Meriwether Lewis was, too, sometimes with us, sometimes absent.”21

In Washington, Lewis was on the move much of every day, carrying messages and invitations, gathering information for his boss. He had the honor of copying and then delivering Jefferson’s first State of the Union Address to Congress. This broke the precedent set by Washington and Adams, who had delivered their speeches in person. Jefferson thought that practice a bit monarchical; besides, he disliked making public speeches.II

The summer of 1802 was marked by a juicy scandal full of invective and slander, leaks from men in high places, hush money, blackmail, and charges of immoral sexual conduct and miscegenation by Jefferson. Meriwether Lewis was involved, in his capacity as aide and messenger for the president.

The scandal had its origins in 1798, when Jefferson leaked some information on foreign affairs to a Richmond journalist named James Thomson Callender. It was not new or secret information, but it had received little publicity and Jefferson wanted it known, although he did not want his having supplied it to Callender to be known. He asked Callender to attribute what he had supplied to an unnamed source, which was done. Jefferson then read some of the page proof of a book Callender was writing, The Prospect Before Us, for the 1800 presidential campaign, and approved of what he saw. He wrote Callender, “Such papers cannot fail to produce the best effect. They inform the thinking part of the nation.”

But the work as a whole turned out to be full of such spleen and scurrility that Jefferson disapproved of it and feared its extreme language would help the Federalists and hurt the Republicans. For example, Callender called Washington “the grand lama of Federal adoration, the immaculate divinity of Mt. Vernon,” and described Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”22

Callender was arrested for his words, tried before Supreme Court Justice and arch-Federalist Samuel Chase on charges of violating the Sedition Act of 1798, found guilty, fined two hundred dollars, and thrown into prison. By the time Jefferson became president, Callender had paid his fine and served his nine-month sentence. Jefferson gave him a pardon. He could do no other, not so much because Callender had been his supporter in the election as because he and his party had denounced the Sedition Act—along with the Alien Act—as unconstitutional in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

When he granted the pardon, Jefferson also ordered the fine returned to Callender, who was pleading poverty and simultaneously demanding the postmaster position in Richmond. But a series of red-tape delays held up the repayment.

Callender came to Washington in May 1801 to demand his money. He accused Jefferson of going back on his word and said among other things that it would have been advantageous to Jefferson’s reputation if his head had been cut off five minutes before he began his inaugural address. In a letter of May 29 to James Monroe, the governor of Virginia who had suggested raising the two hundred dollars by private contributions in order to get Callender to shut up, Jefferson related what happened next: “Understanding he [Callender] was in distress I sent Captain Lewis to him with 50 D[ollars] to inform him we were making some inquiries as to his fine which would take a little time, and lest he should suffer in the meantime I had sent him, &c.”

But Callender wanted that postmastership, not a paltry fifty dollars. Jefferson’s report to Monroe continued, “His language to Captain Lewis was very high-toned. He intimated that he was in possession of things which he could and would make use of in a certain case: that he received the 50 D. not as a charity but a due, in fact as hush money; that I knew what he expected, viz. a certain office, and more to this effect. Such a misconstruction of my charities puts an end to them forever. . . . He knows nothing of me which I am not willing to declare to the world myself.”

Jefferson absolutely refused to make the appointment or have anything further to do with Callender. Monroe regretted that Lewis had handed the money over to the man, although it is not clear whether Lewis did so before or after Callender made his threats. Callender went back to Richmond, where he switched political sides and began publishing scurrilous attacks on Jefferson in the Richmond Recorder. These were picked up by Federalist papers around the country, including Hamilton’s organ, the New York Evening Post. In the summer of 1802, the vengeful campaign of the embittered Callender reached its crescendo. Jefferson was deeply hurt, not so much by what Callender charged as by the readiness of men he respected, including Hamilton, to believe the slanders. “With the aid of a lying renegade from Republicanism,” he wrote, “the Federalists have opened all their sluices of calumny.”23

The charges were: Jefferson had a slave mistress, “Black Sally,” who had borne him several children; Jefferson had approached another man’s wife when the man was away; Jefferson had cheated on a debt. The first charge lives on. The second charge was true and was later admitted to by Jefferson. The third was false.

Within a year, Callender had fallen into a three-foot pool of water, dead drunk, and drowned. The Federalists tried to pound Jefferson with the charges in the election of 1804, without effect. By that time, Lewis had left Washington.

Beyond vicious partisanship and vile political journalism, what had Meriwether Lewis learned in the first two years of his life in Washington? A great deal about practical politics, including the politics of the U.S. Army. He was an insider’s insider in Washington, privy to the president’s hopes, plans, ambitions, and secrets. He got to know and be known to the elite of Washington and Philadelphia. His biographer Richard Dillon wrote that the President’s House “served as an ideal finishing school for Lewis.”24

Further, he advanced his scientific education. He was introduced to new instruments of navigation; he listened to discussions of the geography of North America and the world, and of the Indians of the United States; he heard experts on the birds and animals and plant life of the eastern United States, and speculation on what lay beyond the Mississippi River.

In addition to the school of the practical and scientific, he greatly expanded his understanding of philosophy, literature, and history. He read extensively in Jefferson’s library. And somehow, from someone—who else could it have been but Jefferson?—he learned how to write.

A distinct difference is evident between Lewis’s writing before 1800 and after 1802. His sense of pace, his timing, his word choice, his rhythm, his similes and analogies all improved. He sharpened his descriptive powers. He learned how to catch a reader up in his own response to events and places, to express his emotions naturally and effectively.

Though his sentences remained convoluted and cried out for punctuation, he managed to carry them off by retaining a flow of narrative interspersed with personal observations and reactions, all held together by using the right phrase at the precise moment in an arrangement of words that stands the ultimate test of being read aloud and making perfect sense while catching the sights and sounds and drama and emotion of the moment in a way that can be compared to the stream of consciousness of James Joyce or William Faulkner, or the run-on style of Gertrude Stein—only better, because he was not making anything up, but describing what he saw, heard, said, and did.

Lewis was able, through his writing, to take us, two centuries later, to the unexplored Missouri River, Rocky Mountain, and Oregon wilderness country of 1804–6, to meet Indian tribes untouched by European influence, to paint their portraits in words that capture the economic, political, and social conditions of their lives, along with their vibrancy, savagery, beliefs, habits, manners, and customs in a way never since surpassed and seldom matched. The journals he wrote are among his greatest achievements and constitute a priceless gift to the American people, all thanks, apparently, to lessons learned from Mr. Jefferson during his two years of intimate contact with the president in his house.


I. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Not until after it had been burned by the British during the raid on Washington in the War of 1812 and was repainted was it called the White House.

II. Jefferson’s precedent lasted until it was broken by another Virginian, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, a professor, could not resist a captive audience.

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