The Jeffersonian Revolution

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The Jeffersonian Revolution


A Wise and Frugal Government. The revolution of 1800, as Thomas Jefferson called his presidential election, was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form. Federalists had attempted to insult the Republicans by calling them Democrats, but public endorsement of their policies meant that the term Democratic-Republican was now an acceptable and honorable name. Symbolically, Jefferson


With his political career ruined after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in July 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr began plotting a conspiracy whose objects included the invasion of Mexico or the separation of the western states from the United States, depending on whom he was trying to interest in his plans. On 25 July 1806 Burr described the status of his enterprise in a letter to a coconspirator, Samuel Swartwout:

Protection of England is secured. navy of the United States are ready to join, and final orders are given to my friends and followers. It will be a host of choice spirits. Burr guarantees the result with his life and honorthe lives, the honor, and fortune of hundreds, the best blood of our country. The people of the country to which we are going [Mexico] are prepared to receive us: their agents, now with Burr, say that, if we will protect their religion, and will not subject them to a foreign Power, in three weeks all will be settled. The gods invite to glory and fortune: it remains to be seen whether we deserve the boon.

After coconspirator Gen. James Wilkinson informed President Thomas Jefferson of the conspiracy, Burr was indicted for treason. He was acquitted on 1 September 1807 after Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that he was not actually or constructively present during an overt act of treason.

Sources: Thomas P. Abernethy, The South in the New Nation, 17891819, volume 4 of A History of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967);

Papers on the Burr Conspiracy in Debates in the Ninth Congress, in Annals of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Gale & Seaton, 18341856);

Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 18011815 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968).

marked the end of aristocracy in government by walking to the Capitol to take his oath of office instead of riding in a carriage accompanied by a military honor guard and by delivering his addresses to Congress in writing, not in person. In his first Inaugural Address in March 1801 Jefferson promised a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which 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 Republican Congress repealed all internal taxes, including the unpopular whiskey tax; reduced the army, navy, and federal bureaucracy; and let the Sedition Act expire. Jefferson pledged to return the federal government to its legitimate and limited role of protecting life, liberty, and property. A Republican administration would also create economic opportunity for the small farmers and other productive citizens whose interests had been sacrificed to merchants and speculators by the Federalists. Jeffersons wise and frugal government would endure because of the support of the independent, property-owning farmers it protected. The transfer of power from Federalists to Republicans also marked a shift from pessimism about human nature, democracy, and progress to optimism about the American people and their ability to make wise decisions about the political future of the United States. As Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams in 1804: One [party] fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them.

Removals from Office. The overwhelming Republican victory in Congress in 1800 testified to popular support for the Republican Party. Secretary of State James Madison, a founder of the Republican Party, and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, a Republican congressional leader from Pennsylvania, headed the cabinet. President Jefferson had the option of strengthening the peoples endorsement of Republican policies by removing all Federalist officeholders. Within a month of taking office Jefferson emphasized that good men were in no danger of being removed from office just because they were Federalists. But in July 1801 he explained to a committee of New Haven merchants protesting his removal of a Federalist customs collector that the Federalist monopoly of government office, especially after President Adamss midnight appointments to the federal judiciary, could not be tolerated because it obstructed the will of the nation. Jeffersons first priority was to remove all appointments made after 12 December 1800, when Adamss defeat was confirmed, and all officers guilty of misconduct. He also planned to appoint Republicans as U.S. attorneys and federal marshals to protect the republican part of our fellow citizens from the Federalist-controlled judiciary. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin in August 1801 Jefferson suggested that one half of government offices should be held by Republicans, and by July 1803 only 130 of 316 offices were held by Federalists. By this time, however, continuing Federalist opposition had convinced Jefferson that Republicans were entitled to a much larger proportion of the offices based on their status as the majority political party. When that point was reached, Jefferson would disregard political affiliation in future appointments.

Louisiana Purchase. News that Spain had secretly ceded Louisiana to France in October 1800 threatened President Jeffersons plan for the United States to remain a nation of farmers exporting surplus crops to foreign markets. Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison instructed diplomats Robert Livingston and James Monroe to try to purchase New Orleans and as much of Spanish Florida as possible. By April 1803 Frances ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, had lost interest in a New World empire after failing to reassert control over rebellious slaves in Saint Domingue. In need of money to resume European war, Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million. (The region was 885, 000 square miles and stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada.) Despite his concern that the Constitution did not authorize the purchase and incorporation of new territory, Jefferson approved the Louisiana Purchase as an act of national interest. The peaceful acquisition of this vast territory, doubling the size of the United States, would avoid the expense of war to secure access to the Mississippi, expand economic opportunity and independence through landownership and the growth of commercial agriculture, and supplement the national revenue through land sales. Establishing control over this large, diverse region inhabited by Native Americans, French, Spanish, American settlers, and free blacks was essential, especially after former vice president Aaron Burr organized a complicated plot in 18061807 involving foreign conspirators and western settlers in an attempt to establish an independent state. Jefferson and the Republican Congress passed territorial government acts that brought representative government to the regions inhabitants, including Spanish and French residents who were allowed to keep their own legal systems. Explorations of lands west of the Mississippi by Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark (18041806) and by Lt. Zebulon Pike (18051806) uncovered valuable information that stimulated interest in the region. National land policies, Indian removal, and a National Road, all approved during the Jefferson administration, dramatically increased westward migration after the War of 1812, as did the decision to allow slavery in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase. Ironically, by the 1830s the Empire of Liberty had become a reality for millions of white Americans at the expense of Native Americans and African American slaves whose land and labor made democracy possible.

Foreign Policy. In his first Inaugural Address, President Jefferson announced a foreign policy based on peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nationsentangling alliances with none. Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison believed that commerce could be the means of peaceable coercion that would make war unnecessary. Unfortunately, other nations did not share their respect for freedom of the seas. When the Barbary state of Tripoli threatened to plunder American ships in demand for annual tribute, Jefferson authorized military force, blockading and bombarding Tripoli and resulting in the capture of Derna and the signing of a peace treaty in 1805. That same year Britain decided to stop allowing Americans to profit from the war with France by trading with French and Spanish colonies and reexporting goods to Europe. Britain invoked the Rule of 1756, prohibiting neutral ships from trading during wartime with ports that were closed during peacetime. Soon Americas neutral trade was caught between retaliatory British and French restrictions. Britain also seized American ships and impressed, or forcibly removed, crew members whom they believed to be deserters from the Royal Navy. In April 1806 Congress passed a Non-Importation Act prohibiting the importation of British goods to protest British policies. In June 1807 the H.M.S. Leopard opened fire on the U.S.S. Chesapeake off Norfolk, Virginia, killing three Americans and wounding eighteen in the process of impressing four alleged British deserters. On 22 December 1807 President Jefferson signed the Embargo Act, forbidding the export of American commerce to any foreign ports. Jefferson and Madison overestimated the value of American trade to France and Britain and underestimated Britains determination to maintain what it considered to be necessary policies on neutral trade and impressment. Opposition to the Embargo Act also revived the Federalist Party. Days before leaving office in March 1809, Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act, allowing the resumption of foreign trade except with Britain and France until they removed their trade restrictions. For the next two years Jeffersons successor, James Madison, and Congress tried diplomacy and various nonintercourse acts, but the Republican alternative to war was now just a delaying tactic. On 23 June 1812 a new British ministry, answering the pleas of merchants and manufacturers hurt by the loss of American markets, repealed the restrictions on neutral trade, but it was too late. Days earlier the United States had decided that war against Britain was necessary to defend American honor.


Noble E. Cunningham Jr., The Jeffersonians in Power: Party Operations, 18011809 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963);

Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (New York: Norton, 1982);

Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 18011815 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968);

Leonard D. White, The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 18011829 (New York: Macmillan, 1956).