the invisible president -- 10/16/15

Today's selection -- from American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis. Thomas Jefferson was an intentionally inconspicuous president:

"Apart from his daily horseback rides through the woods and on the bridle paths of semirural Washington, [President Thomas] Jefferson made no public appearances whatsoever. This constituted a break with precedent, since both Washington and Adams had delivered periodic public addresses before crowds and had appeared before Congress at least once a year to deliver their annual messages. Jefferson discontinued the practice of presenting his Annual Message as a speech, claiming that a written version was more efficient. It also eliminated the spectacle of the presidential entourage parading up Capitol Hill in conspicuous imitation of European royalty, then placing the members of Congress in the position of subjects passively listening to his proclamation. Jefferson believed that a republican president should be inconspicuous. He wanted to institutionalize a self-consciously nonimperial presidency. As far as we know, the only two public speeches he delivered throughout his eight years in office were his two inaugural addresses.

"The chief business of the executive branch under Jefferson was done almost entirely in writing. Indeed, if we wish to conjure up a historically correct picture of Jefferson as president, he would not be riding or walking toward Capitol Hill for his inauguration but would be seated at his writing table about ten hours a day. He usually rose before daybreak, around five o'clock, worked at his desk alone until nine, when cabinet officers and congressmen were permitted to visit. He went riding in the early afternoon, returning in time for dinner at three-thirty. He was back at his desk between six and seven o'clock and in bed by ten. As he explained to a friend, he was 'in the habit, from considerations of health, of never going out in the evening.' Apart from the months of August and September, when the heat and humidity of Washington drove him back to his mountaintop at Monticello, he was desk-bound. In his first year as president he received 1,881 letters, not including internal correspondence from his cabinet, and sent out 677 letters of his own. This reclusive regimen made him practically invisible to the public. He even seemed determined to obliterate any traces of his written record as president, insisting that all his public correspondence be filed under one of the other executive departments 'so that I shall never add a single paper to those constituting the records of the President's office.'

"It was all of a piece. A minimalist federal government required a minimalist presidency. Political power, to fit the republican model, needed to be exercised unobtrusively, needed neither to feel nor to look like power at all. Jefferson's notoriously inadequate oratorical skills were conveniently rendered irrelevant or perhaps made into a virtuous liability. The real work of the job played right into that remarkable hand, which could craft words more deftly than any public figure of his time, and into Jefferson's preference for splendid isolation, where improvisational skills were unnecessary, control over ideas was nearly total and making public policy was essentially a textual problem.

"Indeed one might most aptly describe Jefferson's self-consciously unimperial executive style as the textual presidency. The art of making decisions was synonymous with the art of drafting and revising texts. Policy debates within the cabinet took the form of editorial exchanges about word choice and syntax. When Jefferson prepared his first Annual Message to Congress, for example, all the department heads were asked to submit memoranda suggesting items for inclusion. He composed a draft based on their written advice and then submitted that draft for their comments. He asked Madison to pay special attention to language: 'Will you give this enclosed a revisal, not only as to matter, but diction. Where strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to in complaisance to the purists of New England. But where by small grammatical negligences the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt.' ...

This extraordinary reliance on the written word had some ironic consequences. On the one hand, it allowed Jefferson to remain one of the most secluded and publicly invisible presidents in American history. On the other hand, it produced a paper trail that has made the decision-making process of his presidency more accessible and visible to historians than any other -- that is, until the installation of electronic recordings under John Kennedy and the sensational revelations produced by the White House tapes of Richard Nixon. And because Jefferson's annual messages were polished documents designed to be read for content -- and because his mastery of language was unmatched by any subsequent American president save Lincoln -- they present a remarkably cogent and peerlessly concise statement of what, in fact and not just in theory, he thought 'pure republicanism' meant."



Joseph J. Ellis


American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson


Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc.


Copyright 1996 by Joseph J. Ellis


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