Cousins at Odds

Thomas Jefferson battled with his cousin, John Marshall… over the role of the federal judiciary, but also over the direction of our young republic.  Jefferson long feared an unchecked judicial branch during the ratification crisis- Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison only deepened his distrust.

The Court determined at once, that being an original process, they had no cognizance of it; and therefore the question before them was ended. But the Chief Justice went on to lay down what the law would be, had they jurisdiction in the case, to wit: that they should command delivery . . . . Besides the impropriety of this gratuitous interference, could anything exceed the perversion of law?
Yet this case of Marbury and Madison is continually cited by bench and bar, as if it were settled law, without any animadversion on its being an obiter dissertation of the Chief Justice. like gravity by night and day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the states, and the government of all be consoli¬dated into one.” Jefferson 1804

Marshall answered:

“For Mr. Jefferson’s opinion as respects this department, it is not difficult to assign the cause. He is among the most ambitious, and I suspect among the most unforgiving of men. His great power is over the mass of people, and this power is chiefly acquired by professions of democracy. Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is a check on his own power, and he is unfriendly to the source from which it flows. He looks of course with ill will at an independent judiciary.”  Marshall 1807

History Wishes for the New Year – 2020

This historian would like to see…

  • Discourse on the New York Times’s 1619 Project. The current vitriol is unacceptable.
  • Academic historians engage each other in substantive debate, rather than insipid tweeting.
  • Acknowledging contributions and expertise of established scholars in the 1619 Project debate
  • Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and Sean Wilentz must be heard and respected.
  • David McCullough, Evan Thomas, Nate Philbrick, Richard Brookheiser- are considered historians
  • Real discussion on the wisdom and future of the 17th amendment
  • A fair and comprehensive Senate trial on the latest articles of impeachment
  • A fair and reasonable general election
  • The emergence of a new(not third) political party. The current two have far outlived their effectiveness
  • The Electoral College is maintained
  • Americans rediscover the genius of the Founding generation
  • Washington’s birthday becomes a separate holiday again
  • A moratorium on destroying Confederate monuments – particularly anonymous memorials to war dead
  • More US history in high school
  • Less Howard Zinn in college
  • The younger generation embraces living history
  • Frederick Douglass replaces Andrew Jackson on the $20
  • More battlefield preservation
  • A President who is Presidential – returning dignity to the Office.

Christmas on the Mountain

Thomas Jefferson celebrated Christmas… but not with stockings and Christmas trees- modern incarnations of the season didn’t take hold in America until after the Civil War.  Jefferson’s Christmas was a time for family, friends, and as he described it, “merriment.”   Family was all important to the Sage of Monticello, and he described the day”  “the day of greatest mirth and jollity.”


He received the greatest joy from watching his grandchildren… opening gifts and playing games in Monticello.  Describing the scene to a friend, Jefferson observed his youngest grandson; “He is at this moment running about with his cousins bawling out ‘a merry christmas’ ‘(this is) a christmas gift”  His music library included  many Christmas standards including the family favorite, Adeste Fideles. 

Good friends, good food, and good conversation… marked the holiday season at Monticello.  Plenty of wine was on hand to compliment Jefferson’s holiday favorite, mince pie.  Mince at Monticello consisted of  apples, raisins, beef suet(fat), and spices.

Drink Like a Founder

If you seek a historically acceptable wine… for this holiday season, consider Madeira.  The fortified wine is produced in the island group of the same name.  Madeira is fortified with another spirit, typically rum.  The fortification process dates to the 16th century where it prevented spoilage over long ocean voyages.  Tinta Negra Mole grapes are used to produce a pale red wine in a variety of strengths.  Rainwater is  dry served at room temperature making a fine dinner choice.  Malmsey is a heavy, sweet option best served chilled with dessert.  Remember that the fortifying spirit provides an extra ‘bite.’

Madeira was a favorite of the American Founders… including John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.  A riot rattled Boston in 1768 when John Hancock’s sloop, Liberty was seized, loaded with Madeira.  John Adams would enjoy three glasses every night before bedtime.  Jefferson enjoyed Malmsey and Monticello’s wine cellars were well stocked with it.  Later in life, he preferred  lighter French wines.  Most historians agree Madeira was used to toast the Declaration of Independence.

If you raise a glass this holiday season… you can feel closer to our Founders with a glass of Madeira.

Great American Duels- Congressional Violence

Challenger:  Henry Clay- United States Secretary of State, Former Speaker of the  US House of Representatives

Challenged: John Randolph- United States Senator from Virginia, Seven term US Representative from Virginia

The Offense:  On the floor of the US Senate, Randolph challenged the legitimacy of the John Quincy Adams administration and implicated Clay was part of the “Corrupt Bargain” which gave the presidency to Adams.  Clay demanded public satisfaction and was ignored; he quickly challenged Randolph to a duel. 


Background:  The fiercely proud, frontier statesman, Henry Clay had already been wounded in a duel in 1809.  Clay was arguably the most influential politician of the early republic period; guiding the country through the War of 1812, crafting the American System of economics following the war, and transforming the Speaker position to the powerful post we recognize today.  John Randolph of Roanoke was brilliant, eccentric, and unpredictable.  He defied Jefferson in 1807, opposed the War of 1812, and became a loyal Jacksonian; Randolph frustrated many in his native Virginia.  It is believed he suffered from consumption and consumed liberal amounts of opium to manage his pain.  Randolph was a crack shot and many powerful people in Washington approached him on Clay’s behalf- Henry Clay was too valuable to lose in a duel…..


The Field of Honor:  Saturday, April 8, 1825- The duel was held in Virginia, Randolph declared that only Virginia soil could catch his blood.  Dueling was illegal in Virginia, so both men would face criminal charges.  Randolph’s Second, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, tried in vain to settle the dispute; even after Randolph’s pistol discharged early because of a hare-trigger.  Clay demanded a reload and his satisfaction.  At 30 paces, the two men turned and fired….both missed.  Clay shouted, “This is child’s play!”  and pistols were reloaded.  Clay fired first and hit Randolph’s coat, missing the mark again.  The Code Duello demanded that Clay absorb his opponent’s charge.  Randolph took his time, a very tense 2 minutes passed…..he aimed high and fired over Clay’s head.  The two men met halfway and shook hands, Clay asked, “Mr. Randolph are you hurt?”  “No”, Randolph replied, ” but you owe me a new coat.”

Facts in Five- Monticello

Jefferson edition #2-  Monticello

  • Hurry up and finish!  – Jefferson started construction in 1769 and never stopped building until 1809.  Jefferson was the primary architect and a majority of the labor was completed by slaves.
  • The tour seemed rather short-  There are 43 rooms in Monticello, many are on the upper floors which are closed to the public today. 
  • Domes are all the rage-  The dome at Monticello was installed in 1800 and was the first ever seen in America.  All of the glass within the dome was made in Austria. 
  • Privacy please! – The green lattice installed around his bed chamber and office was to keep visitors from peeking in his windows…sorry, conspiracy theorists, it had nothing to do with secret rendezvouses with Sally Hemings
  • Plenty of elbow room-  Monticello is over 11,000 sq. feet including basement space.  There are eight fireplaces and two staircases.  Rooms on the second and third floor only have 8′ ceilings.  The house is 110′ long, 87′ wide, and nearly 45′ high. 

Burnside's Folly- Fredericksburg

Ambrose Burnside had done it…. he outmaneuvered Robert E. Lee.  The reluctant commander  guided the massive Army of the Potomac down the Rappahannock river to Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was scrambling to catch up, but Burnside’s path to Richmond temporarily lay open.  He needed pontoon bridges to get his lengthy supply trains across the river- but they were nowhere to be found- Burnside sat on the Eastern shore waiting.  The bridges arrived a week later, but so did Lee’s army.

With great mustache, comes great responsibility

There was still an opportunity to move… against Lee before his forces could dig in.  Burnside weighed his options and formed a plan to cross the river quickly at fords south of town.  Mother Nature wasn’t playing fair that week, a heavy storm dropped six inches of snow on December 5, forcing Burnside to reconsider.  Lee’s men dug in on the heights west of town and covered the fords to the north and south.  With Winter closing in, Burnside decided to build his bridges and cross at Fredericksburg.

Soldiers do their duty, but… Burnside’s subordinates were not happy with his decision.  Joseph Hooker let it be known in the council-of-war on December 10.  Burnside responded,

“I have heard your criticisms, gentlemen, and your complaints. You know how reluctantly I assumed the responsibility of command. I was conscious of what I lacked; but still I have been placed here where I am and will do my best. I rely on God for wisdom and strength. Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with your advice and hearty service.”

Writing was on the wall

Colonel Samuel Zook minced no words when he learned of the advance, “I expect to be sacrificed tomorrow, Goodbye old Boy & if tomorrow night finds me dead remember me kindly as a soldier who meant to do his whole duty.”    

**special thanks to Don Pfanz for the sources