Tuesday, March 4, 2014

 
Pickering Could Never Be Happy in Heaven
 
The son of a Massachusetts Tory, having served George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Timothy Pickering was President Washington’s postmaster general from 1791 to 1795, his secretary of war in 1795, and after December 1795 his secretary of state. He was a major leader of what John Hancock derisively dubbed the Essex Junto, a Massachusetts association of personages united by their patrician view of mankind. Social changes fostered by the American Revolution disturbed them greatly. Favoring a patriarchal society ruled by an elected aristocracy of elites, they supported strongly Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and his financial program. They vehemently opposed Hamilton’s rival, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

For two decades war between England and France on the continent and on the seas threatened America’s independent existence. Impressment of American sailors and curtailment of American commerce with foreign countries forced Washington and his immediate successors to strive mightily to maintain America’s neutrality. Strongly supportive of England, Pickering advised otherwise.

Weary of his conflict with cabinet members -- Hamilton especially -- Thomas Jefferson resigned as secretary of state December 31, 1793. Fellow Virginian Edmund Randolph replaced him Jan. 2. The new secretary continued Jefferson’s efforts to maintain close relations with France and counteract Alexander Hamilton’s influence on the President. When Washington chose to accept the Jay Treaty, which secured commercial ties with Great Britain, Randolph strongly objected. Trade with neutral countries, and especially U.S. shipping to France, would be severely disrupted. Political intrigue against Randolph spiraled. Pickering produced a slanted translation of French documents intercepted by the British Navy that implied that Randolph had disclosed confidential information to the French and that he had solicited a bribe. Having lost Washington’s trust, Randolph resigned Aug. 20, 1795. Pickering filled his position.

Pickering continued on as secretary of state under John Adams. Fearful of "French influence" in American politics, Pickering believed that Jeffersonian Republicans were subversives. He used the Sedition Law to punish them. The Senate’s ratification of the Jay Treaty worsened U.S.-French relations. France’s hostile reaction -- the decision not to receive a U.S. Minister and the seizure of American merchant ships trading with Great Britain – cemented Pickering’s pro-British position. Working closely with Alexander Hamilton, he broke with the president when Adams initiated for a second time peace negotiations with the French. Pickering now supported waging war against France. He advocated establishing a large permanent army with Alexander Hamilton its commanding general. Pickering’s continued public attacks against Adams forced Adams to request Pickering’s resignation. Pickering refused. He was fired May 10, 1800.

As a United States senator from Massachusetts, 1803-1811, Pickering opposed vigorously Jeffersonian ideals and policy. Not surprisingly, he opposed the purchase of the Louisiana Territory. During the spring of 1804 Vice President Aaron Burr, having failed to win the presidency four years earlier, due largely to the opposition of his own Federalist Party leader, Alexander Hamilton, ran as a third party candidate for governor of New York. Burr had the backing of Tammany Hall and the secret support of many Federalists -- Pickering included -- who viewed the nation as “too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty.” Pickering specifically schemed to have Burr, once elected, appointed the leader of a seceded confederacy encompassing the New England states, New York, and New Jersey. Hamilton’s candidate defeated Burr in the New York election. Blaming Hamilton for his two political defeats, Burr killed the former Secretary of the Treasury in a clandestine duel.

Jeffersonian Republicans swept the northeastern states in the 1810 Congressional elections. Pickering found himself but one senator of a tiny Federalist Party minority. When he returned to Washington in December, he wanted desperately to discredit the President and Republican members of the Senate. Six weeks earlier, American settlers had seized West Florida, declared the region independent of Spain, and requested U.S. annexation. Claiming it to be a part of the Louisiana Purchase, President James Madison had obliged. Here was an issue Pickering believed he could exploit. Debating Madison’s action on the Senate floor, Pickering introduced a letter written by French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand that President Thomas Jefferson had submitted to the Senate five years earlier. Talleyrand had pointed out that the United States had no legitimate claim to the West Florida region under the Louisiana Purchase. After Pickering had read Talleyrand’s letter, Senator Samuel Smith, a Maryland Jeffersonian, asked whether the letter had ever been made public. It hadn’t. Pickering had broken a Senate rule that forbad the public reading of a secret executive department document.

Pickering was charged with jeopardizing the system of presidential communication with the Senate and the Senate's constitutional power to advise and consent. He disagreed. He insisted that his action had not been indiscreet. Because he had over the years insulted Federalist colleagues, he had few allies. The Senate censured him, by a 20 to 7 vote. He was the first of nine senators in our nation’s history to be censured.

Defeated for reelection in 1811, he returned to Washington to serve in the House of Representatives, from 1813 to 1817. Retired thereafter from national public office, Pickering wrote about the Revolutionary War and the early years of the Republic. He planned to write a biography of Alexander Hamilton. In 1824 he wrote a polemical pamphlet that criticized John Adams. To demonstrate his longstanding contempt for his former boss, he endorsed Andrew Jackson instead of John Quincy Adams during the 1828 presidential campaign.

Pickering died in Salem, Massachusetts, January 29, 1829.

“A Pickering could never be happy in heaven, because he must there find and acknowledge a superior.” – John Adams