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Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria: A Tale of Two Visits

Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria: Gadsby's Tavern, March 14, 1801

Thomas Jefferson was exuberant. It had been a hard-fought election, but he had come out on top. On February 17, 1801, after the 36th ballot cast by the House of Representatives, Thomas Jefferson was elected America's third president over Aaron Burr, who assumed the office of vice president. President Jefferson's inauguration occurred on March 4. Ten days later, on the evening of March 14, Alexandria welcomed the newly elected president and vice president to an inaugural dinner at the City Tavern more commonly known as Gadsby's Tavern.

Ballroom of Gadsby's Tavern
Ballroom of Gadsby's Tavern

Jefferson and his political movement had finally taken the reins of power. As he peered around the ballroom of Gadsby's Tavern in Alexandria, Jefferson must have basked in the thrill of victory. Nevertheless, he was conscious of his political detractors. In Alexandria, there were a lot of them. But, on that evening, the swords of Jefferson’s opponents were temporarily sheathed. For a moment, each side let down their arms. However, old wounds and past grievances wouldn’t die so easily.

Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria: Wise's Tavern, March 11, 1790

Eleven years before Jefferson’s inaugural dinner at Gadsby’s Tavern, there was another celebration held for him in Alexandria at Wise’s Tavern. In fact, both taverns were owned by John Wise. However, when Jefferson arrived in March 1790, the large City Tavern known as Gadsby's had not been built yet. Wise's Tavern was located at the northeast corner of Cameron St. and N. Fairfax St. It was only one block from where Gadsby's Tavern was built in 1792. John Gadsby ran the City Tavern from 1796 to 1808, and it was, therefore, called Gadsby's during that time. Today, it still operates as a restaurant and museum under the name Gadsby's Tavern. Wise's Tavern is now private residences.

Wise's Tavern
Wise's Tavern on Cameron and N. Fairfax St.

When Jefferson arrived at Wise's Tavern in March 1790, the mood was jovial and the prospects for Alexandria were auspicious. While there were nascent political divisions in America, Jefferson did not represent the face of those divisions as he would in 1801. In 1790, the cheer and goodwill would have been more genuine than what was forced in 1801.

During the evening of March 11, the Mayor of Alexandria thanked Jefferson for his support of Alexandria’s economy specifically stating how he had “freed commerce from its shackles” while Jefferson was the U.S. Minister to France. Furthermore, the young republic was in the middle of a debate about where America’s capital seat would be permanently located. The citizens of Alexandria lobbied hard for it to be on the Potomac River. They knew that Jefferson had a lot of influence in the process, which he did.

So, Jefferson was seen as a friend to Alexandria in 1790 as he was a friend to George Washington. But, over a decade later, when Jefferson came back to celebrate his inauguration in Alexandria, everything had changed.

Early Political Movements: The Potomac Company and the Articles of Confederation

When Alexandria was founded in 1749, her citizens and leaders saw the cities’ destiny as a commercial center tied to the Potomac River. It is hard to fathom but Alexandria was once a frontier town. It was considered the launching point to the vast interior of America. This was most notable during the French and Indian War when it was a staging area for the Braddock Campaign in the spring of 1755.

After the French and Indian War, westward expansion continued. George Washington surveyed and acquired western land along the Potomac River. Washington was inspired by the idea that the Potomac River might be a central waterway into the heartland of America. It could unite the commercial centers in the east with the growth of America’s west.

After the Revolutionary War, this vision for the Potomac River accelerated and led to the creation of Alexandria's most promising startup: The Potomac Company. The goal of the company was to build a system of canals and locks that could bypass the Great Falls upriver from both Alexandria and Georgetown. If the company was successful, then the Potomac Company would profit by collecting tolls as products from America's heartland were shipped to the port in Alexandria. George Washington and his Alexandria friends spearheaded the companies creation in 1785.

The Great Falls
The Great Falls of the Potomac River

But the Potomac Company had problems that were commonplace in early America. First, the company had political problems under the Articles of Confederation. The political problems included disputed water rights with the state of Maryland. In resolving these issues, Virginia and Maryland undertook the initial steps that led to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In fact, the string of meetings began in Alexandria in March 1785. The meetings continued at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the same month, followed by Annapolis in 1786, and then Philadelphia in 1787.

Assembly Hall in Alexandria, VA
Assembly Hall where representatives from Virginia and Maryland met on March 22, 1785.

In March 1789, the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and fixed many of the political problems that existed. However, they did not fix the financial problems that America faced. For the Potomac Company, those financial problems involved unreliable and inconsistent sources of capital. The Revolutionary War had cut off American businesses from their creditors in England. It is hard to fathom the poor state of America’s financial system in 1790, but inflation was rampant and the national debt was high.

The U.S. monetary system was also non-existent as each state had their own currency. To illustrate how precarious America's financial system was in 1789, consider the fact that for most of George Washington’s lifetime, tobacco had been one of the principal sources of currency and was used to facilitate financial transactions in colonial Virginia.

During the Revolutionary War, states and the Congress printed money that had no material support from commodities like gold or silver. This was an early form of fiat currency. Inflation was rampant to the point in which the phrase “not worth a Continental” became a popular jab at the uselessness of the paper money. Debts ballooned not only at the national level but also at the state level. Something needed to be done to get America's economic house in order. Washington and his neighbors in Alexandria knew that once the financial mess was fixed, ambitious enterprises like the Potomac Company would have reliable sources of capital that would allow them to grow and flourish.

Birth of the Two Parties: Federalists vs. Republicans

After Thomas Jefferson assumed the role of Secretary of State on March 22, 1790, he quickly became embroiled in conflict with Alexander Hamilton, who served as Secretary of the Treasury. The two members of Washington's cabinet had opposite views over the direction of the national government. The fight centered around Hamilton's ambitious economic system that he ultimately implemented with Washington's backing. These policies included a national bank, which would lay the foundation for the entire U.S. banking system.

The catalyst behind Hamilton's economic proposals was the dismal state of America's post-war finances. As mentioned, debt continued to plague the states. Ultimately, this led to the assumption of state debts, but with a compromise. The seat of the nation's capital would be in the South. Thus, the Potomac River was selected as an ideal location. The Residence Act of 1790 passed and the states of Virginia and Maryland agreed to give land on both sides of the Potomac River. In the process, they helped create a 100-square mile capital city. Alexandria was incorporated into the southern portion of the capital. The first survey stone of the 10x10 mile city was laid in Alexandria near what is today Jones Point.

Thomas Jefferson came to regret the compromise because it was the first step toward Hamilton's economic program that included a national bank. Jefferson was no fan of the national bank. It was anathema to his vision of an American economy comprised of yeoman farmers. In Jefferson's view, banks had all the trappings of monarchy and would usher in an aristocratic class that was anti-democratic.

As Hamilton pushed sweeping economic changes, the rivalry between him and Jefferson intensified. Jefferson eventually worked with James Madison to form a political party that was known as the Republicans. They stood in opposition to Hamilton's political party known as the Federalists.

Foreign policy also fueled the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry. The French Revolution and the European wars that followed it were the dominant foreign policy issues for President Washington and his cabinet. The war between France and Britain split the Republicans and Federalists. Jefferson’s sympathies were with the French. Hamilton and other Federalists were much more sympathetic to the British and European monarchies fighting to contain the radical republicans and the Jacobin threat unleashed within France.

In response to the European wars, George Washington ultimately declared a policy of neutrality in 1793. Moreover, Washington’s neutrality proclamation was followed by the Jay Treaty, which was signed between America and Britain and quickly became a political lightning rod. In negotiating the Jay Treaty, war was averted with Britain. However, the treaty was politically unpopular while simultaneously opening the possibility of war with France. Indeed, President John Adams confronted this issue during what was known as the Quasi-War between the United States and France from 1798-1800.

By the time Washington left office in 1797, the domestic fight over the national bank and the foreign policy divide over France and Britain helped drive the establishment of America’s first two political parties. Hamilton's Federalists stood opposed to Jefferson's Republicans. While Washington did not see himself as a member of a political party. By supporting the Jay Treaty and the national bank, Washington was effectively a Federalist.

Alexandria Gets a Bank

For Alexandria, the Residence Act of 1790 was an auspicious start to the 1790s. In fact, the decade saw an economic boom for the port city as the population increased by 81% from 2,748 in 1790 to 4,971 by 1800. Furthermore, the national bank initially held enormous promise for Alexandria. After the national bank was chartered by Congress on February 25, 1791, Alexandria citizens quickly petitioned for a branch bank to be in their city. However, this did not happen. While losing a national branch bank was a small setback, Alexandria’s citizens were undeterred and took the issue to the Virginia government. At this time, Alexandria was still formally part of Virginia. The nation’s capital did not officially move from Philadelphia to its permanent location until 1800. After that year, Alexandria was formally incorporated within Washington D.C. and was known as Alexandria D.C. until retrocession was completed in 1847.  

Original Bank of Alexandria location
Historic Location of the Bank of Alexandria on Cameron Street

As a result, the Virginia general assembly authorized and approved the charter of the first bank in Virginia, which was known as the Bank of Alexandria. The bank was located at 305 Cameron Street in between Wise's and Gadsby's Tavern. The bank was chartered in 1792, and officially opened for business on April 9, 1793. The Bank of Alexandria became the most prominent banking institution not only in Virginia but also south of Washington D.C. There were other well capitalized banks in Philadelphia and Baltimore. But, Alexandria citizens hoped that with the new bank and the new capital, their city could rival those two great American cities and perhaps others like New York and Boston.

With the establishment of the new bank, Alexandria's business class could also shift their wealth from purchasing assets like land and slaves to capital stock. Cash could be invested in the Bank of Alexandria, and people could receive a return on their investment in the form of cash dividends. The bank could in turn use its cash reserves to loan money at interest to encourage new business and entrepreneurship.

Furthermore, the Bank of Alexandria, like the Potomac Company, also engendered a shift in political attitudes. Jefferson and the Republicans feared concentrations of capital in geographically small commercial centers of America's major cities. In the 1790s, Alexandria's citizens were ambitiously working to become one of those major cities. In doing so, the cities' political sentiments were veering far from Jefferson's American vision and finding a comfortable political home with the Federalists.

Alexandria's Business Class and Political Elite Become Federalists

Alexandria's business class was dominated by merchants who owned warehouses and wharfs along the waterfront. They were not only involved in commercial enterprises but also in positions of civic leadership. During the early years of the American republic, the Alexandria business class became staunchly Federalist.

The merchants and business elite who comprised the political class in Alexandria were Federalists for several reasons. First, many were veterans of the Revolutionary War and in some cases the French and Indian War. The Revolutionary War had a profound impact on the political consciousness of veterans like Hamilton and Washington. These veterans could vividly recall the ineptitude of the Continental Congress especially at critical moments like the winter at Valley Forge. They could recall the myriad of ways in which the Congress and the states came to an impasse over arming, supplying, and providing the necessary manpower to support the military campaigns that took place. Therefore, it is not hard to trace the nationalist political impulse of the Federalists to their frustrations with a decentralized and inefficient government during America's fight for independence.

Second, Alexandria's merchant class owned and operated wharfs, warehouses, and in some cases both near the Potomac River. Being connected to a system of international trade and American mercantile interests drove them into the Federalist camp. Jefferson and the Republicans saw the American economic system in terms of agrarian interests and favored policies that supported farming and agriculture. They perceived the concentration of wealth in large American port cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia as a threat to democracy and republican virtue. Alexandrians did not agree with this assessment.

Third, prominent Alexandria merchants became members of the Potomac Company when it was incorporated in 1785. As previously discussed, the Potomac Company was an ambitious enterprise whose ultimate victory was political rather than financial. Furthermore, the companies' highs and lows were tied to a mixture of labor issues and inconsistent financing. Perhaps a strong and efficient capital markets system could have alleviated the companies early financial strains.

Fourth, they supported ratification of the U.S. Constitution. While Jefferson did support the Constitution, anti-ratification political sentiment would later find a home in Jefferson's Republican party. Furthermore, the two Fairfax County members of the Virginia House of Delegates, Colonel Charles Simms and David Stuart, voted to ratify the Constitution at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention in 1788. Simms and Stuart were both Federalists from Alexandria.

Fifth, members of the merchant and business class became stockholders and involved in the creation of the Bank of Alexandria. Far from being opposed to the national bank, Alexandria's business and political leaders had hoped to be part of it with a branch bank. Ultimately, when that failed, receiving a banking charter from Virginia was the next best option.

Finally, Alexandria's most prominent citizens were friends with George Washington and actively involved in supporting his administration even as Jefferson left it. One of the notable appointments was that of Charles Lee, who became Attorney General of the United States during Washington’s second term and throughout John Adams’s administration. In fact, Lee had previously lived at 305 Cameron Street prior to the Bank of Alexandria being established there in 1792. Charles Lee's brother, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee was a Revolutionary War cavalry officer, three term Virginia governor, and Federalist member of the House of Representatives. When Washington died in 1799, Henry Lee wrote the eulogy in which he said, Washington was "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." What is well-known about Henry Lee is that his son became Confederate General Robert E. Lee. What is less well-known about Henry Lee was his maddening hatred for Thomas Jefferson.

Washington fit nearly every criteria of the Alexandria Federalist profile with the exception of owning and operating a wharf or warehouse. Nevertheless, he did business with the owners of the wharfs and warehouses in Alexandria and many of them were his friends. After Jefferson left Washington's cabinet in 1793, a rift grew between him and Jefferson, which endured to the end of Washington's life on December 14, 1799. For Washington's Alexandria friends taking sides in the fallout was an easy decision. They were all firmly in Washington's corner.

Notable Federalists

Two notable examples of men who fit the Federalist profile are Colonel Robert T. Hooe and Col. John Fitzgerald. While Jefferson was Minister to France in 1787, he asked Washington about prominent merchants in Alexandria who had connections in the fur trade. In a letter of response dated May 30, 1787, Washington recommended Fitzgerald and Hooe.

It is not hard to see why both Fitzgerald and Hooe were politically aligned with the Federalists. They were Revolutionary War veterans, operated warehouses for their merchant businesses, became directors of the Potomac Company, and members of the Bank of Alexandria. Furthermore, they were pro-Constitution. In the 1780s, Alexandria merchants like Fitzgerald and Hooe would have appreciated Jefferson's support for their business. However, by the late 1790s, they would have no longer viewed Jefferson as favorably.

Fitzgerald and Hooe were joined by other merchants and Washington friends, who collectively made up a core of business elites that were Federalists. Consequently, they were outliers in Virginia politics. Virginia, was still dominated by landowners and farmers, whose political allegiances were closer to Jefferson than Hamilton. In fact, this also made Washington an outlier from many of his fellow Virginia politicians like Jefferson and Madison.

Thus, when President Washington did not seek a third term, Virginia supported its other native son, Thomas Jefferson, in his 1796 failed presidential bid. John Adams served his first and only term as America's second president. Jefferson made a second and this time successful presidential run in 1800. Again, while Alexandria was not in Jefferson's camp, the rest of Virginia firmly backed his candidacy.

During the election of 1800, Hamilton threw his support behind Thomas Jefferson. Despite their differences, in Jefferson's run-off between Aaron Burr, Hamilton had to decide which of the two men he disliked less. Even though Burr was a Federalist, Hamilton hated him more than Jefferson. Thus, in February 1801, with an assist from his political rival, Thomas Jefferson secured the honor of being elected America's third president. He promptly prepared for his inauguration on March 4, 1801.

The Inaugural Dinner at Gadsby’s Tavern

It was a big party on March 14, 1801. According to the Alexandria Advertiser, this was the largest party to date in Alexandria. John Gadsby had been tavernkeeper since 1796, and had built a strong reputation for running a first-class establishment. As the nation's capital was still in its infancy, Gadsby’s Tavern was the finest tavern in the region.

Gadsby's Tavern Sign
Gadsby's Tavern Sign

Jefferson's visit was not only an occasion to celebrate but also an attempt to reach across the political aisle. Alexandria was prepared to let political divisions rest in a moment of solidarity. After all, the honor of a presidential visit was important. So, cavalry units escorted President Jefferson and Vice President Aaron Burr to Gadsby's. Cannons fired to signal their arrival. The tavern beamed with light and warmth. Throughout the evening, sixteen toasts were delivered. A glass was raised and a toast was given for “Prosperity to the town of Alexandria.” Another toast was to the memory of General George Washington, who had been deceased two years and three months. A third toast was to President Jefferson, and was accompanied by 16 cheers.  During the sixteenth toast, everyone at Gadsby’s Tavern raised a glass and the toast read as follows:

The people of the United States- let harmony and affection forever guide their social intercourse, without whose benign influence liberty, and even life itself, would be but dreary things.

In March 1801, the Jeffersonian era began in America. But, eventually the confetti was swept away and the partygoers sobered up. The merriment was most definitely gone by 1807 with the passage of the Embargo Act. Foreign policy issues between France and Britain continued to impact the United States. The Embargo Act hurt commercial centers in America to include Alexandria. It was a period of dreariness for the port city.

Perhaps many of the Alexandrians who toasted Jefferson in March 1801 regretted doing so. However, most of them probably understood that Jefferson’s political prerogatives might hurt them at some point. Robert T. Hooe discovered this fact quickly as his appointment as a justice of the peace was never recognized by Jefferson and his Secretary of State James Madison. As a result, Hooe and two other Alexandrians, William Harper and Dennis Ramsay, became plaintiffs in the most important case in Supreme Court history, Marbury v. Madison.

Thus, for a few hours on March 14, 1801, the Federalists and Republicans put aside their differences at a tavern that still stands on the southwest corner of Cameron and Royal St. in the heart of Old Town Alexandria. Jefferson and his political opponents briefly bonded over their common affection for the American republic and its first president. But, George Washington died in 1799. He could no longer unify the republic as he had in the early 1790s. And just as they are today, on March 15, 1801, the two parties returned to being firmly, if not permanently, enmeshed into the American political landscape.

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