Jeffersonian Democracy

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JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY has never been described more economically or elegantly than in Thomas Jefferson's inaugural address in 1801. For twelve years after George Washington's inauguration, the infant federal government had been directed by a Hamiltonian design for national greatness. The election of 1800, Jefferson informed one correspondent, was "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form"; it rescued the United States from policies that had endangered its experiment in popular self-governance and had undermined the constitutional and social groundwork of a sound republican regime, from leaders whose commitment to democracy itself had seemed un-certain. The Jeffersonian Republicans would set the Revolution back on its republican and popular foundations. They would certainly, as most historians would see it, loose a spirit of equality and a commitment to limited government that would characterize the nation for a century or more to come.

As Washington's secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had faced toward the Atlantic and supported rapid economic growth, envisioning the quick emergence of an integrated state in which the rise of native manufactures would provide materials for export and a large domestic market for the farmers. Supported by a broad interpretation of the Constitution, his economic and financial policies were intended to equip the young nation with institutional foundations comparable to those that had permitted tiny Britain to compete effectively with larger nation-states, and he carefully avoided confrontation with that power. The Republicans, by contrast, were more concerned about the preservation of the relatively democratic distribution of the nation's wealth. While they had always advocated freeing oceanic commerce and providing foreign markets for the farmers, they believed that Federalists had rendered the United States subservient to Britain and had actually preferred a gradual reintroduction of hereditary rule.

Jeffersonian ambitions for the nation focused much more on the West, where a republic resting on the sturdy stock of independent farmer-owners could be constantly revitalized as it expanded over space. Under Jefferson's (and then James Madison's) direction, the central government would conscientiously withdraw within the boundaries that they believed had been established when the Constitution was adopted, assuming that the states, "in all their rights," were "the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies." The national debt would be retired as rapidly as preexisting contracts would permit, not clung to for its broader economic uses while the interest payments steadily enriched a nonproductive few and forged a dangerous, corrupting link between the federal executive and wealthy moneyed interests. State militias, not professional armed forces, would protect the nation during peacetime. Internal taxes, during peacetime, would be left to the states. The federal government would cultivate "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." Committed to "equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political," to religious freedom, freedom of the press, and other constitutional protections (many of which, as Jefferson conceived it, had been gravely threatened during the final years of Federalist rule), the Jeffersonians would conscientiously pursue "a wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." The Jeffersonian Republicans, as Jefferson or Madison conceived it, were quintessentially the party of the people and the champions of the republican Revolution. Their principles democratized the nation, profoundly shaping its religious landscape as well as its political institutions and ideas. They may also have protected slavery, produced a war with Britain, and contributed essentially to both sides of the argument that led to civil war.


Banning, Lance. The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Hatch, Nathan. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

McCoy, Drew R. The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.


See alsoFederalist Party ; Republicans, Jeffersonian .

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Jeffersonian Democracy

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