Administration of Thomas Jefferson
The country had all this time been growing richer and richer. The people were spreading out over the western country, towns were being built, and great tracts of land were being made into thrifty farms. Several new States had already been added to the Union—Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee;—and now Ohio even, which so short a time before had been but an Indian hunting ground, was added, a new star, to those already upon the Flag.
You remember that Spain had at one time refused the Americans the use of the Mississippi River. Spain owned the land from the mouth of the river up to the Falls of St. Anthony; and, although agreements had been made with Spain regarding the use of the river, still the United States much preferred to own the land bordering upon the river, and so be sure of their control of its navigation.
Spain had recently ceded all this country, then called Louisiana, to the French. Jefferson now offered $15,000,000 to France for this country, and, as France was greatly in need of money, the offer was accepted at once. When asked why he did it, Jefferson said, "There is no trouble threatened at present, I know; but I believe in having a good big country, with no troublesome neighbors at the back door, as there might have been had the Spaniards or the French held that country."
Meantime the pirates of the Barbary States were alive again. They began capturing our vessels, taking our men prisoners, and selling them as slaves.
It is wonderful how these pirates had frightened the European nations even, and had kept them in terror for years. Italy was as afraid of them as a mouse is of a cat; Holland and Sweden trembled at the very sound of their name; Denmark every year paid them a large sum of money to keep them at peace; even England preferred to keep out of their way rather than run the risk of meeting them on the ocean.
An unlucky ship, which found itself near the Atlantic coast of Africa, might see at any moment an odd-looking boat with long lateen sails, swooping down upon her from some sheltered inlet or harbor, where she had lain at watch for her prey. In a twinkling she would sail alongside the vessel, grapple her, drop her long sails over the vessel's side, and a host of swarthy Moors, with bare, sharp sabres held between their teeth, belts stuck thick with knives and pistols, would come swarming over, boarding their prizes from all sides at once.
Exasperated with these pirates, the United States sent a fleet to attack them. Decatur, a young officer, steered boldly into their harbor one night; burned one of their vessels, and, before the pirates could get themselves together, sailed coolly out, and was soon beyond their reach. Many other brilliant attacks were made upon them, until the pirates began to understand they had a new sort of foe to deal with. Peace was declared, and there was no more trouble with pirates for a time.
Another important event in Jefferson's administration was the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, in which duel Hamilton was killed.
Hamilton, you remember, had been Secretary of the Treasury; Aaron Burr had been a brave soldier in the Revolutionary times, and was now Vice-president with Jefferson.
Washington had always been suspicious of Burr, even during the war; and Hamilton had always distrusted him fully. These two had been opposed to each other many times in political schemes, but never had quarreled outright.
In those days duels were common. If a man felt that he had been insulted, he would challenge his enemy to meet him in fight. Then these two would stand face to face and shoot at each other.
Notwithstanding that duelling was fashionable among men at this time, the death of Alexander Hamilton, a man so well known, and so much respected, seemed to awaken the whole country to the horror of the deed. Burr was looked upon as no less than a murderer, and from that time he sank in public opinion.
Finding himself now looked upon with such contempt and anger, he left the State, and for a long time wandered about through the western part of the country.
All at once, like a bomb, came the report that Aaron Burr had been detected in a plot against the government. He had been secretly plotting to invade Louisiana, seize the city of New Orleans, stir up a rebellion in these Western States, and so break up the Union.
The country was wild with excitement. Burr was arrested and tried for treason, but nothing could really be proved against him.
The once brilliant Aaron Burr was from thenceforth a disgraced and ruined man; and his name ranked next to that of Benedict Arnold in the opinion of many people.
But the greatest event of these days was the invention of the steam-boat by Robert Fulton. For a long time it had been known that Fulton was trying to make a boat that would go without oars and without sails. Of course people would not believe such a thing could be done, and I am afraid the poor man, like more inventors, had to endure a great amount of ridicule.
At last the boat was ready. At a certain hour it was promised that it should start on its first trip up the Hudson River to Albany. The docks were crowded with people jeering and mocking, ready almost to mob the brave Fulton in case the boat proved a failure.
At last the signal was given. Imagine the anxiety in the heart of Fulton! I fancy his heart almost stopped its beating as he listened for the first thud of the machinery.
But see! the piston rises! now it falls! now a splashing of the water against the pier! and the boat is certainly moving away! On, on, she went, steadily though slowly, scaring all the other vessels from her track. The people on the dock stood with eyes and mouths wide open, staring at the moving boat. Not a jeer nor a laugh; they were too surprised even to speak.
Up the river it passed, sending forth its puffs of black smoke, and bringing the people down to the river-side as it passed along. When darkness had fallen, and the boat went puffing up the river, sending out its showers of sparks, the people who had heard nothing of this wonderful invention ran to their houses in fright. Some thought it a sign from heaven; others thought it surely must be the very Evil One himself.
Jefferson had been elected by the Republicans; that is, by the party who hated all form and ceremony, and who were determined to have no government that was at all like a kingdom.
Jefferson was a man after their own hearts. Although he had been brought up in wealth as Washington had been, his ideas were very different. In Washington's time there had been brilliant social gatherings at the capitol, and Washington himself always rode about in his elegant family coach.
Jefferson at once put a stop to all displays at the capitol, saying that the simple living there should be a lesson to the country. It is said that when he went to the capitol to be made President, he rode on horseback, dressed in his plain every-day clothes; that he leaped from his horse, hitched it near the entrance, and walked in unattended to the hall in which he was to take the President's oath and make his speech.
Of course such a man as this made strong friends and equally strong enemies. His friends could find no language strong enough to express their admiration of him, and even his enemies could not but respect him.
As I told you in the story of the administration of John Adams, Jefferson died on the Fourth of July, 1826. Just as he was passing away, he heard the clanging of the bells. Listening for a second, he said, "This is the Fourth of July." These were the last words of this brave, steadfast soul; this man who had stood so firmly by his country in just that way which had seemed to him right.