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"Consensus Politics,” 1800–1805
The idea goes back to the very beginnings of our national history. Then as now, it was built upon human relationships, and these—as Mr. Jefferson found to his sorrow—make a fragile foundation.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
The President was not pleased, and his partnership with his floor leader was dealt a further reeling blow by the Yazoo land frauds, one of the grosser scandals of American political history. In 1795 a Georgia legislature, all of whose members but one had been “bought,” had sold to speculators some thirty-five million acres of land in the Yazoo River country, situated chiefly in what later became the states of Mississippi and Alabama, for the outrageously low price of less than a cent and a half an acre. A new Georgia legislature, elected by indignant voters the following year, rescinded the sale and later, in 1802, ceded the Yazoo country to the United States government. Meanwhile the unprincipled speculators unloaded their holdings on other purchasers. The latter, organized as the New England and Mississippi Land Company, collectively pressed their claims. A cabinet committee looked into the claims and found them dubious, but recommended a settlement to avoid a lengthy and costly lawsuit. In 1805 Randolph was asked to push the necessary legislation through the House.
The request ran head-on into the ivory-pure morality of Randolph; the spark that ignited his wrath was the interesting coincidence that the chief lobbyist of the New England and Mississippi Land Company turned out to be Gideon Granger, who was also Jefferson’s Postmaster General. In that capacity, Granger of course had a barrel of patronage to distribute, as members of the House were well aware.
Randolph concentrated his fire on Granger, recalling his involvement in another unsavory land scheme, the Connecticut Reserve in Ohio. “His gigantic grasp,” Randolph said of the Postmaster General, “embraces with one hand the shores of Lake Erie and stretches with the other to the Bay of Mobile. Millions of acres are easily digested by such stomachs … The retail trade of fraud and imposture yields too small and slow a profit to gratify their cupidity. They buy and sell corruption in the gross. …” Randolph was casting off his mantle as party leader and donning the role of independent moral crusader. Northern Republicans rejected Randolph’s lead and united with northern Federalists (to whose party most investors in the New England and Mississippi Land Company belonged); eventually, once the War of 1812 was over, the landowners’ claims were paid.
Although Randolph’s stand was enormously popular in the South (“Mr. Jefferson himself would lose an election in Virginia, if he was known to favor [the Yazoo compromise],” said Congressman William B. Giles), he paid a high price for his moral display. He had virtually abdicated his leadership position and sacrificed the possibilities of higher office. With one blow he had struck at Jefferson, Madison, his old friend Gallatin, and leading northern Republicans who could not be affronted with impunity. Madison in particular, his eye on the presidential succession, possessed a vital interest in what we would call today the “image” of the Jefferson administration.
Things grew worse rather than better between Randolph and Jefferson. Their relations got badly snarled in some presidential sleight-of-hand, an occasional element in Jefferson’s political style. In 1804 and after, Jefferson was involved in complex secret negotiations with Talleyrand and Spain for United States acquisition of the Floridas. There were ample grounds for contending, as the United States often did, that West Florida had been included in the Louisiana Purchase. Talleyrand appeared to speak for Spain as well as for France; in fact he saw in the proceeds of the sale an opportunity to recover some of the money Spain owed his country. He let it be known that the Floridas could be acquired—if the United States would come up with more cash.
In effect, Jefferson, who desperately wanted the territory, was being asked to repurchase what he had already paid for. To limit the potential political embarrassment, he resorted to subterfuge. He dispatched a vigorous public message to Congress boldly recommending military preparations, presumably against Spain. Next, he sent to a select House committee, of which Randolph was chairman, a secret and confidential message saying that what he really wanted was an appropriation of two million dollars to purchase the Floridas. When he first learned the substance of the message—in a meeting with the President—Randolph was appalled. Bluntly he told Jefferson that he could not agree to support the appropriation: it had not been requested in any public message, and Randolph would not shift to his own shoulders or those of the House a responsibility that properly belonged to the Executive.
Jefferson anxiously sent Madison, and then Gallatin, to bring Randolph around. But Randolph would not sacrifice principle to friendship. With utter candor, he pointed out to Gallatin that the administration had taken good care of its own reputation in Jefferson’s bellicose public message, and was now trying to browbeat Congress into assuming responsibility for playing Talleyrand’s dirty game. He had a reputation of his own, Randolph said, that he did not propose to jeopardize for the administration’s convenience.