Captain Meriwether Lewis arrived in Washington on April 1, 1801, to take up his duties as Jefferson’s private secretary. Since Jefferson handled most of his own correspondence personally, most of Lewis’s duties consisted of taking care of mundane office business. He composed and copied routine government paperwork, carried messages to Congress, and handled all manner of other household chores, such as hunting for game for the president’s dinner. He also helped the president make a list of all officers in the U.S. Army, with coded symbols for their political leanings. (Those men who were coded as “violently opposed to the administration” soon found themselves in need of a job.)
Since Jefferson was a widower, Dolly Madison sometimes served as hostess at the rare official functions. Most days, Lewis dined at the president’s oval dinner table, sometimes with cabinet luminaries and Jefferson confidantes James Madison and Albert Gallatin. Much of the time, however, the President’s House had the austere air of a bachelor’s quarters. Lewis lived in a drafty, unfinished room that later became the East Room. Jefferson wrote that “Captain Lewis and I are like two mice in a church.”
But politics, then as now, was never boring. Jefferson had been supported in the 1800 election by radical, muckraking Republican journalist James Callender. Callender’s vicious invective against John Adams had gotten him fined and jailed for sedition. After Adams left office, Jefferson ended up pardoning Callender and ordering the government to refund his $200 fine. Soon after Jefferson took office, Callender came to D.C. seeking his money.
Unfortunately, the refund was delayed, so Captain Lewis was dispatched to meet with the journalist, give him fifty dollars, and assure him the check was in the mail. The meeting did not go well. Callender demanded full repayment of his fine, plus a plum postmaster job in Richmond, Virginia.
“His language to Captain Lewis was very high-toned,” Jefferson wrote later. “He intimated that he was in possession of things which he could and would make use of in a certain case.” Jefferson added that Callender seemed to consider the fifty dollars as “hush money.” He declared, “He knows nothing of me which I am not willing to declare to the world myself.”
Unfortunately, Callender did know something about Jefferson’s private life, and it was damaging indeed. Soon after his visit from Lewis, Callender published a series of articles that alleged that Jefferson had fathered a number of children by his slave, Sally Hemings. The scandal inspired the following piece of doggerel, set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle:”
Of all the damsels on the green,
On mountain, or in valley,
A lass so luscious ne’er was seen,
As Monticellian Sally.
Yankee Doodle, who’s the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock,
The blackamoor’s the dandy.
Callender’s information came from rumors and speculation by Jefferson’s neighbors, who had long noticed the resemblance between Sally Hemings’ children and the Sage of Monticello. No doubt Lewis had seen Sally and her children while attending the president at Monticello. What he might have thought about it, we have no idea. Like most of Jefferson’s associates, he never wrote a word.
Jefferson himself, while embarrassed by the revelation, was able to weather the storm by simply saying nothing. In fact, in all the voluminous correspondence he left behind, he left not one statement, not even in his private journals, that directly confirmed his relationship with Sally Hemings—an omission that has enabled his defenders to claim the love affair never happened.
Next in this series: Preparing for the Expedition