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Blackmail, bribery, and the president

For The Madera Tribune Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.


Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, has been generally embraced by American History as a demigod and one of our founding fathers. There is one area of his life, however, that has drawn considerable scrutiny. Rumors have been afloat for over 200 years that he had a long-standing affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. As to the truth of the allegation, no one knows for sure, but one thing is certain. When the story broke in 1802, President Jefferson unsuccessfully tried to hush it up. If only he had put forth just a little more effort, he might not have a stain on his reputation today.

The culprit who was responsible for impugning Jefferson was James Callender, a former political ally. During the latter part of John Adams’ term as our second Federalist President, Callender, in concert with the political opposition, which included Jefferson, excoriated the President in public. This act of vile partisanship won James a term in prison under the Alien and Sedition Acts and a burdensome fine.

By 1801, Callender was out of prison, but he still had the fine to pay, so he decided to make an appeal to what he thought would be a sure source of help — Thomas Jefferson, who was by now the President of the United States.

Callender felt that Jefferson owed him a lot; therefore, he was not at all bashful about asking for assistance. The President responded with the offer of a job — postmaster in Richmond, which Callender peremptorily dismissed as woefully inadequate. He packed his bags and headed for Washington to see Secretary of State James Madison.

During his meeting with Madison, Callender explained that he thought Jefferson owed him much, much more. James pointed out that he had done Jefferson’s dirty work for him by publicly criticizing President Adams and had paid the price for his service. Now it was Jefferson’s turn to be loyal, and to insure this, Callender whispered in Madison’s ear that he had some dirt on Jefferson that would be most embarrassing if ever it were leaked. James assured Madison that if the President weren’t more helpful, the threatened revelation would surely come to pass.

When Madison shared Callender’s threat with Jefferson, the shocked President called his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, into the room and ordered him to send his former ally some money. It was, however, to no avail. When Callender received his hush money, he was insulted. You see, Jefferson had sent him $50 to keep him quiet. Sadly for the President, the amount hardly satisfied the needs of his nemesis.

In a traitorous twist in time, James Callender then went to the press with his allegation that President Thomas Jefferson was keeping a domestic slave in Monticello as his concubine, and that’s how the cat was let out of the bag — a cat that is still running around to this very day.

For his part, Thomas Jefferson neither confirmed nor denied Callender’s allegation, and the rumor went forth throughout the land all because the President’s bribes didn’t satisfy the demands of his blackmailer.

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