Thomas Jefferson

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson's inauguration as the third president on 4 March 1801 marked the first successful transfer of power in the new nation's history. The previous Federalist administrations were dominated by proponents of "energetic" national government, including department heads appointed by George Washington (1789–1797) and kept in office by his successor John Adams (1797–1801). As the candidate of the increasingly well organized Republican opposition, Jefferson promised a radical transformation of men and measures. Incumbent Federalists, anticipating a massive purge, warned that Jefferson's election would undercut their state-building efforts, unleashing centrifugal forces that would destroy the Union. The new president signaled a moderate course in his conciliatory First Inaugural Address, however, and his performance in office reassured most rank and file Federalists that the federal regime would survive.

The tie in the electoral college between Jefferson and his putative running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, set the stage for the transfer of power. Before passage of the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution in 1804, votes for president and vice president were not distinguished; because Republican electors, anxious to secure their fragile interstate alliance, failed to withhold one of Burr's votes, the two candidates each tallied seventy-three votes. When, as the Constitution required, the election was thrown into the lame-duck, Federalist-controlled Sixth Congress, Federalists sought to exploit the impasse by cutting a deal with Burr or gaining concessions from Jefferson on Federalist officeholders. While the outcome remained uncertain through thirty-five ballots, rumors circulated that Jefferson's enemies planned to steal the election and thus thwart the people's will. By raising the specter of a High Federalist coup, the electoral crisis of 11 to 17 February—finally resolved by Jefferson's election on the thirty-sixth ballot—underscored the moderation of the new Republican administration. Jefferson's most obdurate opponents finally capitulated, recognizing that their further resistance would jeopardize the survival of the regime they so ostentatiously sought to preserve.

partisan president

Jefferson's status as party leader proved crucial in smoothing the transition. The new president demanded unswerving loyalty from his subordinates on the basis of subscription to party principles, the "federal and republican" values he sketched out in his Inaugural Address. Jefferson would thus eschew the more personal mode of leadership that secured support for the great Washington—but not for Adams—and the "corrupt" appeals to personal interest that marked Alexander Hamilton's tenure as secretary of the Treasury (1789–1795). Jefferson's new cabinet, led by his close political ally James Madison at the State Department and Albert Gallatin, a leading Pennsylvania Republican, at Treasury, epitomized the new regime of principled partisan "friends." Madison and Gallatin remained in place through both Jefferson administrations, providing stability and continuity that had eluded preceding Federalist administrations. (Less important appointees, such as Henry Dearborn of Massachusetts at the War Department, also stayed the course with Jefferson.)

The demands of party loyalty were more modest at lower levels of the bureaucracy and at a greater distance from Washington. On one hand, Jefferson had to satisfy demands of party functionaries for a share of the loaves and fishes that had long been denied them; on the other, it made sense to placate suspicious Federalists and recruit as many as possible into the Republican coalition. Jefferson's policy therefore was to purge Federalist officeholders who would not trim their sails, relying on the resulting vacancies to provide his followers with a fair share of federal patronage. This prudent approach could not make everyone happy: some disgruntled Federalists believed that Jefferson had (at least tacitly) agreed during the electoral crisis to leave the bureaucracy largely intact, and Republican loyalists were distressed to see so many of their former enemies still in office. But Jefferson succeeded in keeping most of his troops in line while preempting the development of an effective Federalist opposition party.

The most serious challenge to the Republican ascendancy came from entrenched Federalist judicial appointments who were beyond the new president's control and therefore immune to his emollient appeal. The Republican Seventh Congress moved quickly to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1801, a blatant attempt by lame-duck Federalists to secure control of the judiciary by reducing the number of Supreme Court justices to five (so preempting Republican appointments) and establishing sixteen circuit courts, with federal judges and other personnel (the "mid-night appointments") named by the outgoing Adams administration. Jefferson and his congressional followers also launched impeachment proceedings against the most obnoxiously partisan (or incompetent) federal judges, including John Pickering of New Hampshire (convicted and removed from office in March 1804) and Supreme Court judge Samuel Chase of Maryland (acquitted in March 1805). The outcome of the Republican war against the judiciary was ambiguous: Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia (Jefferson's distant cousin) and his Federalist-dominated Court survived but kept a low profile, avoiding further risky political confrontations. For his part, Jefferson remained deeply hostile to an undemocratic and unresponsive Court that would remain a bastion of Federalism—and a threat to states' rights—long after Jeffersonian Republicans had consolidated their control over the rest of the federal government. The war against the judiciary revealed the limits of Republican party-building, thus sustaining the ideological animus against counterrevolutionary enemies that inspired Jeffersonian oppositionists in the 1790s. The much exaggerated threat of the Marshall Court served to counter centrifugal tendencies within an increasingly tenuous Republican coalition that may have been too successful for its own good.

Jefferson was most successful managing Congress during his first term when the threat of a Federalist revival remained most compelling. Jefferson's "friends" in Congress—including Virginians John Randolph, William B. Giles, and Wilson Cary Nicholas, and Caesar Rodney of Delaware—kept Republican troops in line as they orchestrated majorities for administration measures. Jefferson led with a light hand, reinforcing commitment to party principle by cultivating his political friends and promoting the inspiring fiction that the administration truly represented—and spoke for—the American people. Jefferson's famous White House dinner parties where he entertained guests with fine food and wine and dazzling conversation strengthened bonds between Republican congressmen and the administration while neutralizing—or at least blunting the edge of—hostile Federalist partisans. Strengthening the link between the executive and the legislature served simultaneously to limit, though not altogether preempt, the emergence of hostile Republican factions in Congress. High turnover in Congress also mitigated against factionalism, as did the tenuous links among highly volatile Republican factions in the states.

The key to Jefferson's success was a unified cabinet. Jefferson dispensed with weekly cabinet meetings, thus minimizing conflict and collusion among his subordinates. Department heads' primary relationship was with Jefferson, not with cabinet colleagues. Secretaries were thus less likely to combine to influence, or undermine, Jefferson, and they were also secure against the kind of humiliation Jefferson had experienced at Hamilton's hands during his unhappy years in Washington's cabinet (1789–1793). Jefferson's Circular Order of 6 November 1801 was important in setting up procedures that guaranteed good behavior and preempted ministerial turf wars. Directing all executive correspondence to flow through his secretaries to his own desk, Jefferson could be assured that his administration would speak with a single, unified voice. Ideological and political harmony meant that department heads enjoyed a high degree of operational autonomy within their respective spheres; dealing directly with the president, they were in turn drawn into his widening circle of political friends, reinforcing their loyalty to Jefferson and thus participating in his imaginative identification with the American people.

federalism and foreign policy

Jefferson did not dismantle the administrative apparatus—including the first Bank of the United States—established by his predecessors, but he did reverse strong Federalist tendencies toward political centralization and intrusive federal governance. Jefferson eliminated the controversial direct taxes that had spurred Republican mobilization in the late 1790s and allowed other emergency measures adopted by the Federalists during the war scare with France to lapse. Import duties continued to provide the bulk of federal revenues, but Treasury secretary Gallatin now used them to pay down the consolidated Revolutionary War debts, which—despite major expenditures such as $15 million for the Louisiana Purchase—were reduced from $83 million at Jefferson's inauguration to $57 million at the end of his second term. Taking advantage of a brief interval of peace during the Napoleonic Wars, the administration economized on defense and scaled back on the new nation's diplomatic establishment.

Fearful Federalists imagined that Jefferson, the "Jacobin" atheist, would follow the radical lead of the French revolutionaries in revolutionizing American society. But despite his well-known Fran-cophilia, Jefferson had always had reservations about the French Revolution, particularly concerning its destruction of provincial liberties and consolidation of authority in a powerful central government. Jefferson's goal as president was to redress the balance between federal and state governments that the Federalist centralizers, like the French, threatened to destroy. Jefferson and Madison defined the proper role of the states against federal encroachment in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, the "Principles of 1798" that became the Republicans' creed. But if the sovereign states had their own legitimate sphere of authority, the federal government was sovereign within its own domain, notably in providing for collective security. Relations among the states—the character of the federal Union itself—remained ambiguous in the Jeffersonian scheme. In theory, the Union was consensual and noncoercive: the states were drawn together by shared republican values and common interests. But the theory was tested when Jefferson's embargo on foreign commerce (1807–1809) imposed unequal burdens on different parts of the country. The great question for Jeffersonian federalism was whether the spheres of state and federal authority could be clearly defined and secured in practice.

Invoking the memory of the Americans' victory over Britain in the Revolution, Jefferson called the United States "the strongest government on earth" in his Inaugural Address. Jefferson's faith in the American people's ability to mobilize against any external threat justified demobilizing the conventional navy, relying instead on a new generation of "gun-boats" for a first line of defense. Jefferson also authorized the establishment of a new military academy at West Point, New York, to expedite mobilization in the event of any future land war. He had no doubts about the federal government's constitutional authority over war and peace, nor about his own role as commander in chief. If, in the absence of any immediate foreign threat, the national interest was best served by scaling back on defense expenditure, when a clear and compelling interest seemed to be at stake Jefferson did not hesitate to fight and spend. Certainly he was willing to stretch the definition of "defense" when he launched a naval campaign in the distant Mediterranean in response to the depredations of the Barbary states on American merchant vessels. Jefferson's bold strike led to a peace treaty with the pasha of Tripoli in June 1805, though Americans continued to pay tribute to Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis for the next decade.

Jefferson's greatest accomplishment in his first term, the completion of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty—signed by American negotiators James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston in Paris on 2 May 1803 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on 20 October—also demonstrated his readiness to act decisively in the national interest. The Purchase accelerated a process of territorial expansion—adding 828,000 square miles and doubling the nation's size—that set the stage for the emergence of the United States as a continental and hemispheric power. But Jefferson's immediate concern was defensive: the prospect of a strong French presence at the mouth of the Mississippi and the volatility of loyalties in its vast hinterland threatened the survival of the American Union. The first law of nature, self-preservation, demanded decisive action. Jefferson's misgivings about Louisiana focused on incorporating "foreign" territory into the Union without violating a strictly construed federal Constitution: Jefferson's robust conception of executive authority over foreign affairs thus seemed to come into conflict with federalism. Heeding Gallatin and congressional advisors, Jefferson suppressed his scruples, recognizing any delay would give Napoleon the opportunity to change his mind and Federalists in the Senate the opportunity—and the arguments—to defeat the treaty.

second term

The successful outcome of the Louisiana crisis led directly to Jefferson's landslide victory in the 1804 presidential election, with New York's George Clinton now taking Burr's place as vice president. Jefferson and Clinton amassed 162 of 176 electoral votes in the contest against Federalists Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York: in New England, the Federalist heartland, only Connecticut held out against the Republican juggernaut. Jefferson sought to cement the new Republican ascendancy in New England by actively promoting and defending the region's mercantile interests, embracing a broad conception of "neutral rights" when the Napoleonic Wars resumed and American shipping was under assault from both the British and the French. As depredations mounted and diplomatic efforts to protect American interests failed, Jefferson initiated a ban on all foreign shipping in his Embargo Act, effective 22 December 1807. Jefferson's motives remain ambiguous: certainly he hoped that the embargo, by forcing concessions from combatants desperate for American staples (and increasingly reliant on American shipping) would be an alternative to war; but an embargo could also signal a determination to prepare for war. In 1812 Jefferson's successor, James Madison, led the United States into another war with Britain—for which the nation was woefully unprepared. Meanwhile, the embargo wreaked havoc in mercantile centers, particularly in New England, raising demoralizing questions about the costs of commercial warfare and reviving sectional tensions. Jefferson's quixotic effort to avoid or postpone war led to draconian enforcement measures that subverted the rights of local and state governments and jeopardized individuals' civil liberties. Enforcing the embargo was the moral equivalent of making war, and war—by creating a large military establishment and expanding executive authority—threatened to subvert the federal and republican principles that Jeffersonians had sought to vindicate in their struggle against Federalism.

The success of Jefferson's first term, culminating in the Louisiana Purchase, contrasts markedly with an increasingly troubled and politically incoherent second term. In both cases, foreign affairs were determinative, suggesting that it would be a mistake to give the third president too much credit or blame for developments beyond his control. A second-rank neutral power on the periphery of the European balance of power could hardly hope to shape the outcome—or avoid the implications—of the Napoleonic Wars. As Federalist critics (and some Republicans) argued, an earlier accommodation with Britain might well have been prudent: surely the War of 1812 could have been avoided. But though Jefferson and his Republican successors squandered considerable political capital, particularly in the commercial Northeast, they continued to command the loyalties of the majority of patriotic Americans across the continent. The Republicans successfully articulated a new political consensus: the federal government would rule with a light hand (in peacetime at least), state governments would vigorously promote internal improvements and economic development, and ordinary (white) American men would pursue happiness according to their own lights. The measure of Jefferson's success was the perpetuation of the Republican ascendancy with the transfer of authority to his lieutenant Madison in 1809 and then to Monroe in 1817. The botched Quasi-War with France in the late 1790s led to Jefferson's "Revolution of 1800." The foreign policy failures of Jefferson and his successors gave Federalism a lease on life in various parts of the country but did not lead to serious challenges to the Republican regime.

See alsoAdams, John; Barbary Wars; Constitution: Twelfth Amendment; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Embargo; European Influences: The French Revolution; European Influences: Napoleon and Napoleonic Rule; Federalism; Federalist Party; Federalists; Judiciary Acts of 1801 and 1802; Louisiana Purchase; Madison, James; Marshall, John; Quasi-War with France .


Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Process of Government under Jefferson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time. Vol. 4: Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805. Vol. 5: Jefferson the President: Second Term, 1805–1809. Vol. 6: The Sage of Monticello. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970–1981.

McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Onuf, Peter S. Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Onuf, Peter S., and Leonard J. Sadosky. Jeffersonian America. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2001; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

Tucker, Robert W., and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Young, James Sterling. The Washington Community, 1800–1828. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Peter S. Onuf