Thomas Jefferson was born 13 April 1743, in what is now Albemarle County, Virginia. Jefferson was a member of the Continental Congress, author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, minister to France, secretary of state, and vice president, and became the third president of the United States in 1800.
One of America’s most influential but, in his day, controversial leaders, Jefferson was at the center of several important conspiratorial episodes.
The Botanical Expedition
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison set out on a month-long botanizing excursion to New York during April–May of 1791. The intent of the travelers was to observe the flora and fauna of the region and its scenic beauty, and to visit historic sites of revolutionary fame. It is likely that these men welcomed the opportunity to make political inquiries in the towns where they visited. Such activities did not go unnoticed.
In fact, it was the view of some New York Federalists that the secret purpose of their tour was to cement an alliance between the New York Republicans and their Old Dominion counterparts to the south. Jefferson and Madison unified, and established a popular base for, the Republican Party through key political visits on their journey.
Certainly, the Federalists viewed this trip as a threat, and conspiracy theories were abundant. (It may seem strange that the building of a political alliance might be considered a conspiracy, but the very notion of a political party was considered conspiratorial in the era of the Founders.)
New York Governor Clinton “seems not to have noticed the touring Virginians, nor did they call on him”. If any alliances were struck between Jefferson and Clinton, Burr, or anyone else on this trip, they were very secret indeed.
Jefferson as an Agent of France and Revolution
By far the most intense and significant conspiracy theory regarding Jefferson was the widespread Federalist belief that he and his followers were fellow travelers or outright agents of the French Jacobins and their revolutionary agenda of radical republicanism, social egalitarianism, and religious “infidelity.”
This belief first emerged while Jefferson was secretary of state in the early 1790s. As the French declared their nation a republic and executed King Louis XVI, America was riven with controversy over the French Revolution and the resulting series of wars between France and the monarchies of Europe.
Based on a few letters of his that leaked to the press and the statements of his many allies, Jefferson acquired a reputation as the French Revolution’s leading supporter in America. Subsequently the charge that he was not just a friend but a tool of France became a primary theme of Jefferson’s opponents, and would remain so for most of the rest of his political career.
Jefferson-as-conspirator was the subject of one of America’s earliest political cartoons, “The Providential Detection.” This anonymous drawing depicts an American eagle about to claw the eyes of Jefferson as he tries to burn the Constitution on an “Altar to Gallic Despotism,” encapsulating the conservative argument that further democratization in America would inevitably lead to dictatorship as it had in France.
The eagle represents the belligerent, repressive Federalist policies of the John Adams administration, which included the Alien and Sedition Acts, legislation that aimed to crush the Jacobin conspiracy once and for all.
Significantly, the fire on Jefferson’s altar is fueled by copies of the two leading Democratic Republican newspapers, the Philadelphia Aurora and the Boston Independent Chronicle, as well the anti-Christian writings of Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason) and William Godwin.
This reflected the Federalist belief that publications dissenting from established political and religious doctrines were not contributions to public debate, but part of a larger conspiracy against not only the U.S. government, but also the orderly, hierarchical, Christian society that Federalists believed they were defending. Some Federalists even believed that Jefferson and his followers were secretly the American wing of the infamous Bavarian Illuminati.
In politics, the Federalists relied especially on the threats that Jefferson, who held liberal but far from atheistic ideas on religion, allegedly posed to Christianity in America. (During the “Reign of Terror” period in France, Robespierre’s Jacobin regime had converted the churches into Temples of Reason.)
The Philadelphia Gazette of the United States, a nationally read Federalist newspaper, ran notices throughout the election season of September 1800, putting the Federalist message bluntly:
THE GRAND QUESTION STATEDThe religious campaign against Jefferson was most intense in once-Puritan New England, which was both the Bible Belt of early America and the Federalists’ electoral stronghold.
At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart is “shall I continue in allegiance to
GOD—AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT;
or impiously declare for
JEFFERSON—AND NO GOD!!
New England Federalist politicians and clergy bombarded the people of the region with apocalyptic warnings about the consequences of a Jefferson victory in the presidential election of 1800. Former Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames painted this eventuality as “the abasement of all that is venerable ... the transmutation of all that is established”.
Nor did this sort of talk stop once Jefferson was in office. Having lost the nation as a whole but holding New England in 1800, Federalists circled the wagons in the face of intense Democratic Republican efforts to win over the voters of their states. Their warnings about Jefferson grew almost comically hysterical, especially given the relatively modest policy changes that Jefferson’s administration was implementing at the time.
Attempting to rally his home state of Connecticut “to resist a foe, just entering the gates of your fortress,” Theodore Dwight outlined “the consummation of Democratic blessedness” that awaited the Land of Steady Habits if it too succumbed to the revolutionary legions who had already overrun most of Europe and in the recent election “secured ... dominion over a large portion of these United States.”
Unless Connecticut made a stand, her people faced the literally hellish prospect of “a country governed by blockheads, and knaves; the ties of marriage ... destroyed; our wives, and our daughters ... thrown into the stews; our children ... forgotten ... a world full of ignorance, impurity, and guilt; without justice, without science, without affection ... without worship, without a prayer, without a God!”.
This sort of scaremongering rang increasingly hollow as it became obvious that the women and children of New England were in no danger from President Jefferson, and most of that region joined in reelecting him handily in 1804.
Aaron Burr and the Electoral College Deadlock
Jefferson and his supporters had a conspiracy problem of their own in 1800. They were so sure of Jefferson’s imminent victory after key legislative races were won—many states still appointed presidential electors—that they made arrangements to ensure Aaron Burr would receive sufficient votes from southern states to become vice-president.
Jefferson was surprised to learn that the vote in the South fell more heavily to Burr than was expected. The election resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, each with seventy-three electoral votes, which was to be resolved in the House of Representatives.
Bitterly opposed to Jefferson and his Republican ideology, the Federalists conspired to deny him the presidency. The Federalists allied themselves in favor of the challenger, Aaron Burr, in spite of his reported disavowal of candidacy.
In spite of their best efforts, on Tuesday, 17 February, the thirty-sixth ballot in the House of Representatives resulted in Jefferson’s election. “Even in defeat they acted a miserable part, most Federalists withholding their votes from Jefferson to the bitter end”.
As president, Burr would have been beholden to the Federalists who supported him, ensuring their continued influence in the federal government. Relations between Jefferson and Burr deteriorated, and several years later Jefferson pronounced him guilty of treason and called for his arrest.