Recently I embarked on an extremely difficult task and that was to determine who was the worse Secretary of State, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. It was such depressing and loathsome research that I decided to expand my investigation further into the past into other more interesting Secretaries of State, who were perhaps not quite so controversial but who had run into some difficulties, as it were.
I made an astonishing discovery. I found who was, by far, the worst secretary of state this nation has had in its 240 + years.
His name was Thomas Jefferson.
He was also our first Secretary of State, and he was appointed by our first and greatest President, George Washington. One might be able to offer a defense of his generally reprehensible behavior as our nation’s first chief diplomat by offering the excuse that he didn’t have a precedent, but any moral and honorable man would have managed to at least remain loyal to the man who appointed him to his office, much less a man as fine as General George Washington.
And that is only one of the many transgressions of Jefferson’s while serving as America’s first Secretary of State.
Thomas Jefferson was known for his enthusiastic, no, his passionate support for the French Revolution, even during its bloody excesses of the Terror, which lasted for a large part of France’s long national nightmare. As Jefferson said to a Revolutionary friend in 1793: “In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death, but…it was necessary to use the arm of the people, blind to a certain degree, as a few of their cordial friends met at their hands the fate of enemies.” Jefferson also claimed that “Was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated.”
Unfortunately, as this vastly overstepped the duties of his American diplomatic office, Jefferson did not stop at just supporting the French Revolutionary efforts with words to its supporters, he also “covertly assisted the clandestine operation of French agent Andre Michaux, who traveled into the western reaches of the U.S. under the guise of a botanical expedition, but whose real intent was to organize opposition to British and Spanish outposts from Louisiana to Canada.”
He did this, among other things, within the State Department knowing full well of George Washington’s strongly expressed policy of total non-intervention in European affairs, especially in the Revolutionary goings on in France, which General Washington loathed. Thomas Jefferson knew full well how General Washington felt about the Revolution in France, but quite frankly nothing that was important to General Washington mattered at all to Jefferson.
As if these actions were not bad enough, in 1793, Citizen Edmond Charles Genet arrived in America, and was championed by Jefferson. This was a shocking affair, as Genet was basically a madman sent by the French Revolutionary government as their chief diplomat to France to do what damage he could to any relations that existed between England and America. And Genet decided he would undertake this assignment by going over the head of the American President and offering himself to the American people as an alternative to Washington as President of the United States, among other offensive and undiplomatic actions he undertook while serving as the Revolutionary representative in America. His actions became so outrageous that he was eventually recalled by the Revolutionary government in France, but knowing that Genet’s life would probably be in danger, General Washington, ever the gentleman, allowed him to leave the diplomatic service and stay in America. He was, perhaps, one of America’s first French refugees, as it were.
Jefferson effectively spent his entire tenure as Secretary of State betraying General Washington, this most honorable man who not only appointed him to this great office, but until he had no choice, believe in and trusted Jefferson. Jefferson even “placed a political operative on his State Department payroll whose primary function was to write anti-administration editorials.”
Jefferson provided this fellow, named Philip Freneau, with “information from the highest levels of the nascent American government,” with the primary intention of destroying Alexander Hamilton, but also to question George Washington’s patriotism. It turned out to be a side benefit for Jefferson that Hamilton was in fact basically destroyed by the “revelations of the latter’s extramarital affair,” which, at the time, seemed to include “an instance of financial misconduct on the part of the treasury secretary.” That turned out not to be the case, but the Treasury Secretary was never the same afterwards.
Perhaps it was only justice that another Jefferson hatchet man involved in this affair, James Callender, who published the first account of Hamilton’s affair, would “later turn on his mentor and reveal Jefferson’s alleged relationship with his slave Sally Hemings.”
In questioning General Washington’s patriotism, Jefferson accused the president of “surrendering to the seductive allure of the ‘harlot England’” by virtually committing “treason in negotiating the Jay Treaty.” This, according to Jefferson, was “an alliance between England and the Anglomen of this country against the legislature and people of the United States.” Jefferson’s hatred of England and all people and things English “was so great he that he was opposed in principle to any treaty with the evil empire.”
There was so much vitriol between Jefferson and Hamilton during George Washington’s Presidency, which could be tempered only by the General himself, that Washington finally after years of trying to persuade both individuals to stay on in their positions and work together, finally let them resign, Jefferson in 1793, and Hamilton, in 1795. While Hamilton had actually worked while Treasury Secretary and achieved a great deal in establishing his new country financially, Jefferson, it seemed, did little beyond causing mischief, mayhem and harm to the man who did nothing but trust and honor him.
Washington eventually would have nothing to do with Jefferson, and at the time of his death in 1799 at Mount Vernon, where the memorial service was held, there was such a serious rift between the two men that Thomas Jefferson did not attend the service. General Washington’s wife of nearly 40 years, Martha, who deeply loved her husband, was so disgusted with Jefferson’s behavior toward Washington that she later made the observation that “the two worst days of her life were the day her husband died, and the day in 1801 when President-elect Jefferson paid her a courtesy call at Mount Vernon.”
One has to be pretty bad to be worse than John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, but Thomas Jefferson outdoes both of those unworthy characters as Secretary of State.
Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects.. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.