We are upon a new year and a new political season, as recently-elected governors and legislators take their oaths and move into their offices. Hiring staff is always the first task at hand. Does one “clean house” of the holdovers or retain them?
This question may have had its most relevance in the early American republic when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams and the Federalists for the presidency. It was the first party turnover in a new nation that did not even expect to have political parties—long before we called our states “red” or “blue.” The change was so radical that Jefferson would eventually dub it “The revolution of 1800.”
Thomas Jefferson stated that the decisions about retaining Adams holdovers were the hardest of his new presidency. He did not lack for advice, however, as we find this document evaluating the government employees among the papers of his Secretary of Treasury, Albert Gallatin.
Here we find clerks in the Treasury Department called “A notorious Villain,” followed by one who is “If possible worse.” Another, turns out to be a Republican (meaning a Democratic-Republican of the party of Jefferson), but he apparently shares an office with a “Cut Throat” and a “Moderate.”
This six-page portfolio is charted out in a calligraphic hand. Maybe even more surprising is its brevity: The document covers virtually the entire Federal bureaucracy within the city of Washington. The clerks that served the Departments of State, Treasury, War, and the Navy and Post Office are all listed with their salaries in the left column. The president, attorney general, and congressmen did not have government staffs.
The fancy manuscript even comes with a cover, labeled “Citizen W. Duane,” that takes away some of its mystery. William Duane (the “Citizen” title derives from his sympathy with the French Revolution) was the editor of the rabidly pro-Democratic-Republican Philadelphia newspaper, the Aurora. He had been targeted under the Alien and Sedition laws of the Adams administration, worked tirelessly for Jefferson’s election to the presidency, and was now clearly ready for this new era with a wholesale house-cleaning.
President Jefferson, who famously declared, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists” in his inaugural address of 1801, desired a more measured approach. To be sure, he wanted to create a balance in the federal bureaucracy by filling vacancies with Republicans and had no taste for John Adams’s “midnight appointments” (we are likely to recall that it was Adams’s appointment of “midnight judges” that led to the landmark Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison). Pressure upon Jefferson for more firings of Federalists and followers of Alexander Hamilton came from frustrated Republicans in all directions, but Duane was likely the most insistent. Albert Gallatin confided from Washington, D.C. to Jefferson at Monticello in August of 1801, “Duane has been here, and I have taken an opportunity of showing the impropriety of numerous removals.” It may have been on this occasion that Duane came from Philadelphia and dropped off this neat book of “suggestions.” In any case, Gallatin suspected that while Duane understood the reasoning for restraint, his “feelings” would get the better of him.
It would appear that the clerks left for the new Secretary of State James Madison were the most problematic, being led by a full-fledged Federalist, Jacob Wagner, among three “complete Picaroons,” and including a “Hamiltonian,” “Nothingarian,” and a “Nincumpoop” [the derivation of this insult is not clear, but it has been in use since at least the 1670s].
It turns out that many of these clerks stayed on, serving well into the second term of Jefferson’s presidency. Were they grateful for Jefferson’s, Madison’s, and Gallatin’s forbearance? In some cases, yes, and they did not complain of partisan mistreatment. Nincumpoop Daniel Brent would rise to a senior position, serving nine Secretaries of State that extended into the administration of Andrew Jackson, before going on to become United States consul in Paris. Complete Picaroon Jacob Wagner, however, finally left as chief clerk in 1807 so he could begin a career as a virulently partisan Federalist editor in Baltimore, just in time for the presidential campaign season of 1808.
The insulting terms may have changed, but certainly partisan name-calling is not new. At least these officials didn’t have Twitter where they could proclaim someone “a Big Zero.”
[References: Noble Cunningham, The Process of Government under Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978); William W. Warner, At Peace with all Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, 1787-1860 (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994).]
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections