Jefferson, Thomas

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Thomas Jefferson

Merrill D. Peterson

THOMAS JEFFERSON was inaugurated third president of the United States on 4 March 1801 in the infant capital on the Potomac. Raw, brash, and eager, a sprawling village of three thousand people"a place with a few bad houses, extensive swamps, hanging on the skirts of a too thinly peopled, weak and barren country"Washington was a fitting symbol of the new nation itself. Two "shining objects" relieved the dismal scene: the President's House, gleaming under its coat of whitewash, and the Capitol, looking like some truncated Roman monument, its north wing alone awkwardly perched on the summit of a hill.

Surrounded by friends, Jefferson walked to the Capitol from a nearby boardinghouse; at noon, without pomp or ceremony, he entered the crowded Senate chamber and took his place on the platform between Aaron Burr, his successor as vice president, and John Marshall, the chief justice of the United States. The election that brought Jefferson to the presidency had been bitterly contested by the two political parties, Federalists and Republicans, and only finally terminated on 17 February in the choice by the House of Representatives between himself and his Republican running mate, Burr. Now, after Marshall administered the oath of office, the fifty-seven-year-old Virginian, tall and lanky, with a ruddy face, bright hazel eyes, and graying hair, rose to deliver his inaugural address.

The addressa political touchstone for a century to comecombined a lofty appeal for the restoration of "harmony and affection" with a brilliant summation of the Republican creed: "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists." Believing that the mass of Americans, regardless of party, were fundamentally united in their political sentiments, Jefferson hoped to extinguish the strife, hatred, and fanaticismthe spirit of European politicsthat had rocked the Republic during its first decade.

The new president looked to the disappearance of parties and "a perfect consolidation of political sentiments" as the government was restored to its true principles. These principles he traced back to the American Revolution. Equal justice to all men; freedom of speech, press, and religion; majority rule and minority rights; supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense; the encouragement of agriculture and commerce; peace and commerce with all nations, but entangling alliances with nonethese should be "the creed of our political faith," said Jefferson. He spoke of preserving "the whole constitutional vigor" of the general government yet called for "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." His point was not to place liberty and government in irreconcilable opposition but, rather, to declare his conviction that a free and democratic government, for all its weakness by Old World standards, was, in fact

the strongest government on earth. I believe it is the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

In retrospect, Jefferson called the Republican ascendancy "the revolution of 1800." It was, he said, "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people."

Early Career

Born on 13 April 1743 in Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Virginia, and educated at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson rose to fame as the draftsman of revolutionary state papers, first in Virginia and then in the Continental Congress, where, of course, he became the author of the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration's celebrated preamble, Jefferson reduced the "natural rights" philosophy of the age to a set of first principles that had a profound influence on the course of the American Revolution. Proceeding from these principles, Jefferson himself sought far-reaching reforms in his native state. He was only partially successful. The Virginia assembly in 1786 enacted his Statute for Religious Freedom; it rejected much more, including his comprehensive plan of public education, although in Jefferson's opinion it was essential to the citizen-republicanism of the new nation. He was governor of Virginia (17791781)his first executive officeduring the trying circumstance of war and invasion, and left office under a cloud of criticism that was never completely dispelled.

In 1784, after a brief turn in Congress, Jefferson was sent to Europe on a diplomatic mission. The following year he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France. From that vantage point, he observed the coming of the French Revolution. Closely associated with liberal, enlightened circles in Paris, he sympathized with the revolutionary impulse but sought to direct it into moderate and pacific channels of reform. Although he never confused France with America, Jefferson became an ardent friend of the French Revolution and in time assimilated some of its radical doctrine into his political philosophy.

In 1790, Jefferson was named secretary of state in the new national government. He had approved of the Constitution, especially with the promised addition of a bill of rights, and accepted high office under President George Washington out of a sense of loyalty to him and responsibility to the new experiment. In the conduct of the nation's foreign affairs, Jefferson sought to lessen American dependence on British commerce and to open freer channels of trade in a commercial system centered on France. He sought to redeem the trans-Appalachian West from the colonialism of the Spanish to the south and the British to the north, which would contribute as well to the pacification of the Indian tribes. He also sought to take advantage of any war that might occur between European powers by the manipulation of American trade and neutrality.

Pursuing these goals, Jefferson was frustrated by events and also by the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, whose fiscal system turned on British trade, credit, and power and who was as hostile to the French Revolution as Jefferson was friendly. The conflict with Hamilton extended to domestic policy and came to involve fundamentally different conceptions of republican government under the Constitution. Along this division, opposing political parties formed. Washington tried to keep peace in his official family, but the task proved to be impossible. At the end of 1793, Jefferson, who had little taste for political combat, resigned and retired to his Virginia home, Monticello.

Elected vice president in 1796, Jefferson at first hoped for a restoration of political concord in the administration of his old friend John Adams. Instead, partisanship reigned as the nation was again plunged into a foreign crisis growing out of the protracted war between the French republic and the monarchical coalition headed by Great Britain. The administration was Federalist; and Jefferson, who had expected that the vice presidency would be "honorable and easy," while the presidency was but "splendid misery," found himself thrust into the leadership of the opposition party. Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the war hysteria of 1798 brought the conflict between these infant parties to a head.

Considering the laws oppressive, unconstitutional, and designed to cripple the Republican party, Jefferson went outside the general government, fully controlled by the Federalists, to start "a revolution of opinion" against them. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (17981799), authored respectively by Madison and Jefferson, invoked the authority of these two state legislatures to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. The resolutions were assertions of states' rights doctrine, and as such they posed the issue on which the Civil War would later be fought. More important, however, they originated in a desperate struggle for political survival and addressed the fundamental issue of freedom and self-government descending from the American Revolution. By going outside the government, opening peaceful channels of change through the agitation of public opinion, and building a party in the broad electorate, the Jeffersonian Republicans rose to power in 1800.

Jefferson's Presidential Leadership

Jefferson's inaugural address was a commitment to ongoing change through the democratic process. He named "absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority the vital principle of republics, from which there is no appeal but to force." The principle demanded freedom of opinion and debate, including the right of any minority to turn itself into a new majority. "If there be any among us," Jefferson said, "who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." This was the authentic revolution of 1800. Because of it, the Constitution became an instrument of democracy, change became possible without destruction, and government could go forward with the continuing consent of the governed.

The new president named to his cabinet men known to be moderate Republicans. The Federalists' fears were assuaged; Republicans of a more radical persuasion were disappointed. James Madison, the secretary of state, had been Jefferson's political friend and partner for many years. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn and Attorney General Levi Lincoln were Massachusetts Republicans appointed, in part, to nudge that important state into the Republican column. Robert Smith, the secretary of the navy, owed his appointment to his brother, Samuel Smith, the influential representative of Baltimore's mercantile Republican interests. Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania was the only controversial appointment. His Swiss birth, forensic prowess, and wizardry with treasury figures had combined to make the forty-year-old congressman a Federalist whipping boy. But Jefferson prized Gallatin's abilities, and the new secretary, who had been a sharp critic of Hamilton's fiscal policies, proved to be a force for moderation in the administration. The stability and harmony of this cabinet would never be equaled. In the eight years of Jefferson's presidency, only the part-time office of attorney general changed hands.

The model of executive unity, concentrating all powers of decision in the president, had been established by Washington, then had broken down under Adams. Jefferson restored it, but he dominated his administration more surely and completely than Washington had done. To the formal authority of the office, Jefferson added the authority of party leader. He had enormous public prestige as the spokesman of republican principles and national ideals. By some personal magnetism he drew men to him, persuaded them to follow, and inspired their loyalty. His style of leadership was averse to dissension and controversy. He sought to engender amiability and, wherever possible, to grasp "the smooth handle." Business was conducted through day-to-day consultation with the secretaries. The cabinet met infrequently, but when it did, usually on critical foreign problems, Jefferson invariably managed to produce a consensus. He led without having to command; he dominated without ruling.

Jefferson also dominated Congress. In 1801, for the first time, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. The Federalists were a shrinking minority, yet they were by no means powerless. Their obstructionist tactics would have proved very damaging if the Republicans had not stuck together. In Republican theory, borrowed from the Whig theory of the Revolution, Congress was superior to the executive and the executive should not interfere in legislative business. Jefferson honored the theory, at least in official discourse, but he recognized that practically the government demanded presidential leadership if any majority, whether Federalist or Republican, was to carry out its program. Congress could not lead. During the Federalist decade it had performed best under Hamilton's ministerial guidance. The problem had been easier for the Federalists, for they had no "least government" dogmas to overcome, no deep-seated fears of "monarchical" power; and compared to the Republicans, they formed a fairly cohesive body. The Republican majority was a loose coalition of jarring interests, experienced only in opposition and jealous of executive power.

How, then, could the Republican president overcome the "separation of powers" and make Congress an effective instrument for realizing the administration's objectives? The solution was found partly in the personal influence Jefferson commanded and partly in the network of party leadership outside constitutional channels. As the unchallenged head of the Republican party, Jefferson acted with an authority he did not possessindeed, utterly disclaimedin his official capacity. His long arm reached out, usually through cabinet officers, to Capitol Hill, where the leaders of both houses were his political lieutenants. Presidential leadership was thus locked into congressional leadership. And despite the weak structural organization of the Republican party in Congress, it was a pervasive functional reality. The president chose a newspaper, the National Intelligencer, in the capital as the administration organ; he kept up a steady stream of communication with Congress and party leaders; he turned his house into a kind of social club and spent countless weary hours and a substantial part of his $25,000 salary entertaining congressmen. (A widower, he had no "first lady", Dolley Madison sometimes performed that role, as did Jefferson's elder daughter, Martha, on her visits to the capital.)

The president was not only chief magistrate but chief legislator as well. Nearly all the legislation during eight years originated with the president and his secretaries. Lacking staff support of any kind, Congress depended on executive initiatives and usually followed them. Federalist congressmen complained of the "behind the curtain" or "backstairs" influence of the president. Eventually some Republicans rebelled. But the system of presidential leadership worked with unerring precision during Jefferson's first term. It worked less well once the Republicans, with virtually no opposition to contend against, began to quarrel among themselves, as they did during Jefferson's second term; and it would not work at all under his successor, Madison, who lacked both his public authority and personal magnetism.

During the early months, Jefferson found the task of making appointments to office exceedingly irksome. Not counting military officers, postmasters, and other minor civil functionaries, there were 316 major offices in the gift of the federal executive. They were monopolized by Federalists. Jefferson's preference was to remove as few as possible, with a view to converting the mass of Federalists to the Republican cause. He was repelled by the principle, already reduced to practice in New York and Pennsylvania, of making party affiliation the sole or primary test of public appointment. The politics of spoils and proscription degraded republican government. Nothing more should be asked of civil servants, he said, than that they be honest, able, and loyal to the Constitution. As important as the principle was in the abstract, it was more important in practice because of its obvious fitness to the attainment of the political harmony and consolidation envisioned in the inaugural address.

Many Republicans, whether from partisan principle or interest, disagreed with this strategy. The Federalist leaders, some said, were incorrigible; any temporizing with them would only disgust the mass of Republicans and jeopardize the administration. Others hungered for the spoils of victory. If the expulsion of Federalists and the appointment of Republicans "should not be the case, for what, in the name of God, have we been contending?" they asked. At the outset, Jefferson held his ground. He limited removals to two classes of officeholders. The first was Adams' "midnight appointments"indeed, all appointments except judgeships in good behavior made after 12 December 1800, when the president knew he had been defeated. This office-packing by a lame-duck administration was intolerable, and Jefferson considered all these appointments "nullities." The second class included officials found guilty of misconduct. Jefferson especially had in mind federal marshals and attorneys who had forfeited the public trust by their enforcement of the Sedition Act. By January 1802 he counted twenty-one removals of midnight appointments and fifteen removals for misconduct of any kind.

Within a few months partisan pressures from both sides caused the president to modify his patronage policy. The issue came to a head in Connecticut, where the Federalists controlled everything; the Republicans were weak, systematically excluded from the state government, and treated as outcasts of society. Only by federal appointment could they get a political foot in the door. When Jefferson removed a midnight appointment and named a Republican in his place as collector of the port of New Haven, the local merchants and Federalists angrily remonstrated. In reply, Jefferson defended his actions and the right of the Republicans to a fair share of the federal offices. Continued Federalist monopoly defeated the will of the people. "If a due participation of office is a matter of right, how are vacancies to be obtained?" he asked. "Those by death are few; by resignation, none. Can any other mode than that of removal be proposed?" Heretofore the answer had been yes, the mode of conciliation and conversion; and the idea that party allegiance alone was just ground for removal or that the subordinate offices should rotate with the popular will had been rejected. Proposing now, in the summer of 1801, before this demonstration of Federalist intransigence to give the Republicans "a proportionate share" of the offices, Jefferson introduced the partisan standard of removal and appointment in the federal government. In practice, he showed a good deal of flexibility, adapting the policy to varying local situations. By the end of 1803, he had appointed Republicans to one-half the major offices. Federalist patronage, like the party, had been elitist. Jefferson broadened the base of the civil establishment, taking in more westerners and more men of talent without wealth, privilege, or status, thereby making it more representative of American society.

The Republican ascendancy embittered the shrinking Federalist minority. Thomas Paine's return to the United States at the president's invitation in 1802 started up the old slanders of Jacobinism and infidelity. At the same time Jefferson faced a new libel by the grubstreet journalist and disappointed office-seeker James T. Callender, adopted by some of the Federalists, that he had for many years kept an "African concubine," Sally Hemings, at Monticello and was the father by her of several slave children. Thus began the prolific career of a story that would on occasion figure prominently in accounts of Jefferson's personal life, which were necessarily speculative because of his care in guarding his privacy. As with other libels about him, he never replied publicly to this one, doubtless on the theory that any reply would only stimulate rather than arrest it. Moreover, he was committed to what he called his "experiment" in unfettered freedom of the press; and although he twice acquiesced in state prosecutions for libel, he did no injury to that experiment. Almost two centuries later, in the fall of 1998, the results of DNA testing of Jefferson and Hemings descendents provided support for the idea that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings' children, Eston. But in the absence of direct documentary evidence either proving or refuting the allegation, nothing conclusive can be said about Jefferson's relations with Sally Hemings.

Fiscal and Judiciary Reform

Republican reform was grounded on fiscal policy. In the Jeffersonian scripture, public debt and taxes were evils of the first magnitude. The debt drained money from the mass of citizens, diverted it from the productive enterprise of individuals, and led to a system of privilege, coercion, and corruption that was the bane of every government and fatal to a free one. The alternatives were clear: "Economy and liberty, profusion and servitude." The debt, which had actually increased under the Federalists, stood at $83 million and consumed in annual interest almost half the federal revenue. Gallatin developed a plan to extinguish the debt in sixteen years by large annual appropriations but, amazingly, to reduce taxes at the same time. All the internal taxesHamilton's whiskey excise, the land tax of the Adams administrationwould be repealed. The government would depend entirely on the revenue of the customhouses. The plan required deep retrenchment: reductions in the army and navy, in foreign embassies, and in civil offices, beginning with the tax collectors.

The plan, which Jefferson outlined in his first annual message to Congress, was liable to two main objections. It assumed peace, and although the principles of the Peace of Amiens had been agreed upon, this was a risky assumption in the world of William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte and seemed to jeopardize the nation's defense in favor of niggardly economy. Moreover, the plan rested on a doubtful theory of political economy for a developing nation. The theory looked to economic growth through release of the energies, talents, and resources of free individuals without the direct aid or favor of the government. The opposite theory, of which Hamilton was an early practitioner, assigned to the government a positive role in economic development. It supposed that a nation might grow out of debt by going deeper into debt to promote development. The logic of this escaped Jefferson, but he knew that Hamilton's system of debt and taxes involved powers and privileges that were incompatible with republican government under the Constitution.

Jefferson's fiscal program placed the administration on unassailable ground with Republicans in Congress. Men rubbed their eyes in disbelief at the spectacle of the chief magistrate renouncing taxes, patronage, and power. It promised, said an English observer, "a sort of Millennium in government." The program was rapidly put in place. During the next seven years the nation was liberated of $33 million of debt. In the end, of course, the program was derailed by foreign crisis and war. Thirty-four years would pass before retirement of the national debt.

Pitched on the horns of his dilemma, reformation or reconciliation, the president agonized a good deal about the Hamiltonian fiscal system. He reflected in 1802,

When the government was first established, it was possible to have kept it going on true principles, but the contracted, English, half-lettered ideas of Hamilton destroyed that hope in the bud. We can pay off his debt in 15 years, but we can never get rid of his financial system. It mortifies me to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious, but the vice is entailed on us by the first error.. . . What is practicable must often control pure theory.

A clear case in point was Hamilton's Bank of the United States. Jefferson thought it an institution of "the most deadly hostility" to republican government, yet the bank's national charter ran to 1811. Gallatin, meanwhile, found the bank a highly serviceable institution and actually expanded its operations. The demand for credit in a thriving economy was insatiable. State-chartered banks multiplied, and a banking interest grew up in the Republican party. Although it played havoc with his ideal of a plain and dignified republican order, Jefferson could neither injure nor ignore it. "What is practicable must often control pure theory."

The federal judiciary furnished the principal political battleground of Jefferson's first term. There were three battles and many skirmishes in the so-called war on the judiciary. The first was fought over the Federalist Judiciary Act of 1801. This eleventh-hour act of a dying administration created a whole new tier of courts and judgeships; extended the power of the federal judiciary vis-à-vis the state courts; and reduced the number of Supreme Court justices beginning with the next vacancy, thereby depriving Jefferson of an early opportunity to reshape the court.

Republicans were enraged by the act because of its manifest partisanship and its wanton increase of judicial power. Jefferson promptly targeted the act for repeal. The Federalists had retired to the judiciary as a stronghold, he said. "There the remains of Federalism are to be preserved and fed from the treasury and from that battery all the works of Republicanism are to be beaten down and erased." The experience of the Sedition Act had demonstrated, in his opinion, the prostration of the judiciary before partisan purposes.

Soon after assuming office, Jefferson took executive action to pardon victims of the Sedition Act, which he condemned as null and void, and to drop pending prosecutions. He wished to make judges more responsible to the people, perhaps by periodic review of their "good behavior" tenure; and while conceding the power of judicial review, he did not think it binding on the executive or the legislature. It was his theorya corollary of the separation of powersthat each of the coordinate branches of government is supreme in its sphere and may decide for itself on the constitutionality of actions by the others. Congress, after heated debate, repealed the offensive act and, with minor exceptions, returned the judiciary to the footing it had occupied in 1800.

The second battle centered on the case of Mar-bury v. Madison. William Marbury and three others alleged that they had been appointed justices of the peace for the District of Columbia on 3 March 1801 but that their commissions, complete in every respect, had been withheld by the incoming administration. They sued Madison, in whose department the matter belonged, and the Supreme Court granted a "show cause" order on delivery of the commissions. Finally, in 1803, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that the plaintiffs had a legal right to the commissions and, moreover, that the requested writ of mandamus to the secretary of state was the appropriate remedy. He went on to read the executive a lecture on the duty of performing valid contracts but chose to avoid a showdown with Jefferson by declaring that the power of the court to issue writs of mandamus, contained in the Judiciary Act of 1789, was unconstitutional.

In later years the decision would be seen as the cornerstone of the whole edifice of judicial review, but in 1803 it was understood essentially as a duel between the executive and the judiciary. The Republicans criticized Marshall not because of theoretical claims of judicial power but because he traveled outside the case, pretending to a jurisdiction he then disclaimed, in order to take a gratuitous stab at the president. Politics alone could explain such behavior. Obviously, although they were constantly at swords' points, neither Jefferson nor Marshall wanted to press the issue to conclusion.

The Jeffersonian campaign, halting though it was, also contemplated the impeachment of federal judges who violated the public trust. In 18031804, Congress impeached, tried, and convicted Judge John Pickering of the federal district court in New Hampshire. The case was a hard one because Pickering's bizarre conduct on the bench proceeded less from his politics than from intoxication and possibly insanity, but in the absence of any other provision for removal, the Republicans took the constitutional route of impeachment and convicted him of "high crimes and misdemeanors." In 18041805 the House impeached, and the Senate tried, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. A high-toned Federalist, he had earned Republican enmity as the presiding judge in several sedition trials and in harangues to grand juries assailing democracy and all its works. Inevitably, Chase's impeachment was a political act.

The fact that Chase was indicted the same day the Senate convicted Pickering seemed to substantiate Federalist fears of wholesale prosecution. Actually, this was never the president's intention. He sought only to make an example of a particularly obnoxious Federalist justice. And when the Senate finally voted to acquit Chase, Jefferson turned away from impeachment in disgust. He remained anxious about the unchecked power of the judiciary. He faced still other encounters with John Marshall. But the Jeffersonian war on the judiciary, if such it was, ended without serious disturbance to the foundations of judicial power. Jefferson could rule the cabinet; he could charm, persuade, and cajole Congress; he could provide inspirational leadership for the American people; but in dealing with the judiciary he found little scope for these talents and, of course, felt awkward in a confrontational role.

Louisiana Purchase

When Jefferson became president, peace was pending in Europe and he could look forward to disentangling the nation from the vices and alliances of foreign politics. "Peace is my passion," he repeatedly affirmed. Yet he was no pacifist. One of his first executive acts was to send a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to enforce peace without tribute on the piratical Barbary states. The Tripolitan War, as it was called, met with partial success: a treaty with Tripoli in 1805.

Far more important, of course, was the burgeoning crisis on the Mississippi, which would end in the triumph of the Louisiana Purchase. By the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in October 1800, as Jefferson learned six months later, Spain ceded the great province of Louisiana (Jefferson suspected the Floridas as well) to France, conditional on an Italian throne for the duke of Parma, Charles IV's brother-in-law. The retrocession of Louisiana, which France had lost in 1763, announced the revival under Napoleonic auspices of old French dreams of empire in the New World. Over the years the United States had worked out an accommodation with Spain on the Mississippi. The Pinckney Treaty (or Treaty of San Lorenzo) of 1795 granted the Americans free navigation of the river through Spanish territory to the mouth, together with the privilege of deposit and reshipment of goods at New Orleans. This was an enormous, indeed essential, boon to western development. American trade at New Orleans dwarfed that of the Spanish.

Spain was a weak and declining power, and given the pace of American expansion across the continent, Jefferson confidently expected that the river, the Floridas, and Louisiana would all fall to the Americans in due time. But Louisiana in the hands of France was another matter. In Napoleon's grand design, Louisiana and the Floridas would provide the necessary economic and strategic support for an overseas empire centered on St. Domingue (Hispaniola), the richest of the French colonies, then in the control of rebel blacks led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. The reconquest of the island was therefore the first step toward realizing the design. This would not be short work, as Jefferson recognized.

Considering all the difficulties and imponderables of Napoleon's plan, the president made as little noise as possible, kept his patience, and put Louisiana in the track of diplomacy. His strategy was one of delay and maneuver improvised to meet events as they unfolded. His first and minimal concern was to ensure that if France did actually come into power at New Orleans, Americans in the West would be accorded the same commercial rights and privileges as under the Spanish. In Washington the secretary of state constantly drummed into the French envoy the grave danger to his country of making enemies of the American people on the Mississippi issue; and the envoy, Louis Pichon, transmitted these perturbations to Paris. In Paris the American minister, Robert R. Livingston, composed a memoir setting forth in detail the great American interest in Louisiana and the Floridas. He was unheeded and unheard, however. "There never was a government in which less could be done by negotiation than here," he wrote home. "There is no people, no Legislature, no councillorsOne man is everything."

In April 1802, Jefferson decided it was time to strike out on a bold new course. Through the good offices of a mutual friend, Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours, who was returning to France, Jefferson gave stern warning to Napoleon:

There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce, and contain more than half our inhabitants.. . . The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark. It seals the union of two nations who in conjunction can maintain exclusive possession of the ocean. From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.

The fact that Jefferson, whose foreign politics had always been friendly to France and hostile to Britain, could contemplate a diplomatic turnabout of this kindeven an alliance with Britaindisclosed the gravity of the situation.

While Jefferson flourished this thunderbolt, Madison quietly worked up the project to purchase New Orleans and the Floridas, assuming the latter were France's to sell. This was a startling idea, which could only have originated with an administration bent on settling international disputes without resort to military force. Jefferson was still playing for time, which in this affair, as in all things, he believed was on the American side. Napoleon had yet to make good his policy. Yellow fever and rebel arms annihilated one French army after another in St. Domingue. The expedition mounted for New Orleans never sailed. Spain remained in control there and, it was reported, sickened at the bargain it had made with France. War clouds again gathered in Europe.

In October 1802 the clock was turned ahead dramatically for the United States. The intendant at New Orleans abruptly closed the port to the Americans. Had he acted on Napoleon's dictate or was Charles IV trying to create havoc for the French? The Spanish minister in Washington, the Marqués de Casa Yrujo, assured Jefferson that the intendant had acted on his own authority, in response to abuses of entrepôt privileges; and before much damage could be done Yrujo and Madison negotiated an end to the crisis.

Meanwhile, westerners threatened to take their fate into their own hands, and Federalist congressmen, always eager to embarrass the administration, clamored for war against France and Spain. Something tangible was needed to calm the West and deflate the Federalists. Jefferson moved to appoint his friend James Monroe, who was popular in the West, minister extraordinary to join Livingston in treating for the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas for up to $10 million. Monroe was instructed to take the country's problem to London if he failed in Paris.

But the problem would be resolved just as Monroe arrived in Paris in April 1803. Neither he nor Livingston had much to do with the result. The Louisiana Purchase was made in France, not in America, and it owed more to the vagaries of Napoleon's ambition than to Jefferson's cautious diplomacy. With his dream of New World empire fading, Napoleon revived his older dream of empire in the EastEgypt, the Levant, Indiaand he renounced Louisiana. He could not defend, or even possess, Louisiana while marching to the East; he needed assurances of American neutrality in that venture; and he needed money to fuel his war machine.

The purchase treaty was quickly arranged. It was neither the bargain Jefferson had sought nor within the price he had authorized. It included the whole of Louisiana, which had never been contemplated, together with New Orleans, but omitted the Floridas, which remained Spanish. "They ask for only one town of Louisiana," Napoleon remarked, "but I already consider the colony completely lost." The United States thus acquired an immense uncharted domain, stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains or beyond. No one knew its exact boundaries or size, but at one stroke the Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the land area of the United States. The total price, which included the government's assumption of about $3 million worth of debts owed to France by American citizens, was $15 million.

Jefferson never boasted that he bought Louisiana, but he resented the grumblers and doubters who, from one side of the mouth, denounced him for acquiring a "howling wilderness" and, from the other side, denied him any credit for the good it might contain. The whole proceeding was, in truth, an impressive demonstration of the ways of peace in American affairs. In the end Jefferson was saved by the return of European war. But the probability of renewed warfare, like the probability of French defeat in St. Domingue, had entered into Jefferson's calculations from the beginning. He weighed the imponderables in the European power balance, shrewdly threatened to throw the country into the British scale, worked up an attractive proposition for Napoleon, and was therefore prepared to take advantage of the démarche when it came. It came sooner than he had expected, and it brought the United States much more than he sought. The trans-Mississippi West had not been an object. The United States was not threatened there; it lay almost a thousand miles from the frontier in Ohio. This is not to say that Jefferson had no eyes for Louisiana. In his inaugural address he spoke of the United States as "a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation." Surely he did not mean the country bounded by the Mississippi but rather the country of his continental vision, which would materialize as Americans multiplied and pressed westward. Louisiana, coming all at once in 1803, altered the timetable of American expansion but not its destination.

For several months Jefferson had been planning a voyage of discovery across the continent. Now, by happy coincidence, Captain Meriwether Lewis, whom he had chosen to lead this expedition, set forth from Washington on 5 July 1803 amid public rejoicing over the Louisiana Purchase. The plan of the expedition was thoroughly characteristic of the president. Presenting it to Congress and hoping to head off constitutional objections, he emphasized its commercial purpose: to chart a continuous line of navigation along the Missouri River route to the Pacific. But Jefferson had larger scientific ends in view. Much of the country was terra incognita, so he instructed Lewis to observe everything:

. . . the soil and face of the country . . . the animals . . . the remains . . . the mineral productions of every kind . . . volcanic appearances . . . climate . . . the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearances of particular birds, reptiles or insects.

The expedition proved to be a spectacular success. Lewis, Lieutenant William Clark, and their crew went up the Missouri, crossed the Stony Mountains, and in 1805 descended the Columbia River to its mouth. After wintering there, the expedition returned overland to St. Louis in 1806. Many years would be required to absorb the knowledge gathered by the expedition. Of course, it failed in its commercial aim. The gap between the Missouri and the Columbia turned out to be 350 miles of formidable terrain. Jefferson and the many Americans who shared his continental vision of an "empire of liberty" were not discouraged. In its appeal to the imagination, the Lewis and Clark expedition foreshad-owed the American future.

Senate ratification of the Louisiana treaty was a foregone conclusion. Yet it did not escape opposition. "Adopt this Western World into the Union," warned a Federalist senator, "and you destroy at once the weight and importance of the Eastern States and compel them to establish a separate and independent empire." Feelings of this kind contributed to an abortive New England disunionist conspiracy in 1804.

Jefferson himself worried about the constitutionality of the treaty. As he explained to a Republican senator, John Breckinridge of Kentucky,

The Constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less of incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The executive in seizing a fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of this country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind them metaphysical subtleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must . . . throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized what we know they would have done for themselves had they been in a situation to do it.

Jefferson therefore drafted a constitutional amendment to sanction the acquisition retroactively. The amendment also sought to control the future of the trans-Mississippi West by, among other things, prohibiting settlement above the thirty-third parallel, which would become a vast Indian reserve.

The proposed amendment found little support either in the cabinet or in Congress. Spain, still in possession of Louisiana, expressed unhappiness with the treaty, raising fears it might be lost by delay. Weighing the risks, Jefferson backed away from the amendment. He was still troubled, however. "Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution," he observed. "Let us not make it a blank paper by construction." As his friends felt differently in this instance, he yielded the point while reserving the principle. A revolution in the Union perforce became a revolution in the Constitution as well.

Jefferson spent much time and effort gathering information on the new territory and its peoplethe Indian tribes scattered throughout but especially the Creoles of the more thickly inhabited portion below the thirty-third parallel, the northern boundary of the later state of Louisiana. To the territory as a whole, the treaty gave no precise limits. Not surprisingly, Jefferson tried to make the most of the situation. After a detailed inquiry into the boundaries, he concluded that there were respectable grounds for claiming Texas to the Rio Grande, West Florida to the Perdido, and the westernmost limits of the Stony Mountains. From this position he would offer Spain $2 million and half of Texas for East Florida. Spain disdained the overture, of course, insisting that the lower boundaries were the Iberville (now Bayou Manchac) and the Sabine. Jefferson's relentless scheming for the Floridas vitiated his diplomacy abroad and exposed him to attack at home for the next five years.

The treaty provided for the incorporation of Louisiana, with its "foreign" and slave populace, into the Union; but Jefferson concluded from his study of the Creolestheir laws, institutions, and mannersthat they were unprepared for republican citizenship. A period of apprenticeship was necessary during which Americans would be encouraged to settle in Louisiana, and society there would be gradually reformed.

The Creole sugar planters reacted angrily to this plan, demanding immediate self-government and admission to the Union, together with retention of most of their customary laws and institutions. They threw back at Jefferson his own eloquent words in the nation's birthright on human rights and liberties and self-government. In this potentially dangerous conflict, the president again showed flexibility and moderation. In 1805 he yielded to the demand for a representative assembly in the territory. With the loyal assistance of his handpicked governor, William C. C. Claiborne, Jefferson found the path of political conciliation in Louisiana, and the Territory of Orleansthe first of many from the purchase landswould be admitted to the Union as the state of Louisiana in 1812. This was a vindication of his own principles, even in the face of doubt, including the idea of an expanding union of equal self-governing states.

An event of the magnitude of the Louisiana Purchase affected everything to come after. The prospects of the Union were at once grander and more terrifying than before, and the government would have to assume new responsibilities addressed to this condition. The nation's destiny was firmly oriented westward; hundreds of millions of acres of landthe heartland of the continentguaranteed that the economy would remain primarily agricultural for decades to come and that dispersal rather than concentration would characterize American society and government. All this undergirded Jeffersonian ideals. The United States acquired much greater security on its own borders as well as greater power and self-assurance in international affairs. Finally, the Louisiana Purchase enabled the Republicans to tighten their political grip on the nation, causing them to grow bold in power and making bigots and bunglers of the opposition.

Jefferson's reelection to a second term was never in doubt. The Republican caucus in Congress renominated him in February 1804. Burr was replaced as the vice presidential candidate by George Clinton, his rival in New York politics. Burr's undoing began with the suspicions that he had solicited Federalist votes in the House election of 1801. The Twelfth Amendment, then in the course of ratification, would prevent a repetition of that election, with more Federalist maneuvering to defeat Jefferson, by requiring separate votes for president and vice president. The factional struggle between Burrites and Clintonians culminated in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, featuring Burr as a candidate. Jefferson pleaded neutrality in this contest, although he secretly favored the Clintonians and stood by silently as they drove Burr out of the Republican party.

The Federalist caucus nominated Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York. They were little noticed, as the Republicans again ran against the record of John Adams. The contrast between four years of Adams and four years of Jefferson was striking: new taxes versus no taxes; profusion versus economy; mounting debt versus debt retirement; oppressive army and wasteful navy versus defensive arms only; multiplication of offices versus elimination of judges, tax collectors, and useless functionaries; alien and sedition laws versus freedom and equality; judicial arrogance versus judicial chastisement; monarchical forms and ceremonies versus republican simplicity; war and subservience to foreign power versus peace, independence, and national expansion.

The election resulted in 162 electoral votes for Jefferson and Clinton against 14 for Pinckney and King. Only Delaware and Connecticut, with two stray Maryland electors, voted Federalist. Even Massachusetts entered the Republican column. This was particularly gratifying to Jefferson, who saw in it proof that the "perfect consolidation" he had prophesied four years before was indeed coming to fruition.

A self-congratulatory tone pervaded Jefferson's second inaugural address. Contrasting it with the first, he said, "The former was promise ; this is performance." Because of the rapid liberation of the revenue from debt it was not too soon to plan for national internal improvements"rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufacturing, education, and other great objects"and he subsequently proposed a constitutional amendment to this end. The Louisiana Purchase gave an urgency to this undertaking that overrode the restraints of Republican dogma. Jefferson rebuked the fainthearted who feared that the Union would become too big to survive. "But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively?" he asked.

Jefferson spoke glowingly of his policy of peaceful acquisition of Indian lands and of drawing Indians into the paths of civilization. The policy would result, during eight years, in fifteen treaties with Indian tribes and the cession of 95 million acres of land to the United Statesan astounding achievement. Jefferson boasted, too, of the "experiment" he had made in freedom of the press to determine whether, despite the reign of falsehood and defamation, the people were able to detect the truth and act upon it. The experiment had been tried, and the election had given the verdict"honorable to those who had served them, and consolatory to the friend of man, who believes he may be intrusted with his own affairs."

But if Jefferson's first term was a triumph, his second proved to be an ordeal. His method of working with Congress through unofficial channels of personal and party leadership lost its charm. The Republicans began to quarrel among themselves, especially after Jefferson's decision against seeking a third term became known, and the Federalists grew more desperate as their numbers shrank.

In 1805 president and cabinet worked up a secret diplomatic project to obtain the Floridas through Napoleon's influence with Spain. The policy was one of peace and bargain; its effectiveness required, however, a warlike posture in public. It required, too, the silent appropriation of $2 million by Congress in behalf of the secret project. John Randolph of Roanoke, the Republican leader in the House, balked at this. He objected to "this double set of opinions and principlesthe one ostensible, the other real," and believing the money would flow into Napoleon's coffers, he denounced the project as "a base prostration of the national character, to excite one nation by money to bully another nation out of its property."

The Two Million Bill was enacted over Randolph's opposition. But the ensuing diplomacy failed, mainly, the president thought, because Randolph had "assassinated" the project in its infancy. Only a handful of doctrinaire Republicans followed Randolph into opposition. Jefferson continued to control Congress. His loss was less one of followers than of prestigethe aura of invincibility that had surrounded himand as prestige waned, so did the zeal, the trust, and the unity of the Republicans.

Conflict with Britain and the Burr Trial

The Burr conspiracy presented Jefferson with problems of another kind. With his political career ruined in New York and under indictment for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Burr turned his adventuresome gaze to the broiling southwestern frontier. He enlisted a bizarre following: General James Wilkinson, commander of the United States Army in the West; John Smith, senator from Ohio; and Harmon Blennerhassett, a romantic Irishman whose island in the Ohio River was the staging area of the conspiracy. Whether Burr plotted western separation and the creation of a new confederacy on the Mississippi or the filibustering conquest of Mexico, or both together, it is difficult to say. But when Burr, with his flotilla carrying sixty or more plotters, descended the Ohio in the fall of 1806, it became the president's duty to hunt him down and bring him to justice. The Burr conspiracy ran through Jefferson's second term like a disquieting minor theme.

The major theme, of course, and Jefferson's heaviest burden, was in foreign affairs. With the formation of the Third Coalition against Napoleon in 1805, all Europe was engulfed in war. The United States became the last neutral of consequence, in effect the commercial entrepôt and the carrier for the European belligerents. The neutral trade was exceedingly profitable. It was, superficially, a perfect case of America profiting from Europe's distresses. In 1790, American exports were valued at $2 million; they rose steadily during the wars of the French Revolution and then in 1805 began to soar, until they reached $108 million two years latera peak not again scaled for twenty years. Unfortunately, each side, the British and the French, demanded this trade on its own terms, and submission to one entailed conflict with the other.

While Jefferson might try, as in the past, to play off one power against the other, little leverage was left for this game. After Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in the fall of 1805, Britain was supreme at sea, and after Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in November, France was all-powerful on land. "What an awful spectacle does the world exhibit at this instance," Jefferson observed. "One nation bestriding the continent of Europe like a Colossus, and another roaming unbridled on the ocean." One could play fast and loose with the United States in the Atlantic, while the other lay beyond the reach of retaliation. Neither nation feared war with the United States, whose president prided himself on peace and had neither army nor navy to speak of. Both nations willfully violated American neutrality, although Britain, the sea monster, was the chief aggressor in Jefferson's eyes, with much more power than France to injure the United States.

In his annual message to Congress in December 1805 the president called attention to British aggressions at sea and moved to counteract the mistakenly pacifistic reputation of the administration. Without abandoning his conviction that nations would be led by their own reason and interest to treat the United States justly, he went on to say, "But should any nation deceive itself by false calculations, and disappoint that expectation, we must join in the unprofitable contest of trying which party can do the other the most harm." And he called upon Congress for defensive preparations: harbor fortifications, a fleet of gunboats, and a revitalized militia.

The conflict with Britain turned on two main issues: the neutral trade and impressment of seamen. The decision of a British vice admiralty court in the case of the ship Essex in 1805 marked a return to strict interpretation of the so-called Rule of 1756, under which a colonial trade closed in time of peace could not be opened in time of war. Thus ended British acquiescence in the burgeoning reexport trade of West Indian cargoesSpanish and French as well as Britishfrom American ports. In 1805 over half of American exportsthe basis of prosperitywere, in fact, reexports. The United States government claimed that these belligerent cargoes were "neutralized" after passing through American customs and, upon reexport, were protected under the rule of "free ships make free goods." But Britain now declared this American trade fraudulent, representing "war in disguise" in tacit alliance with the French enemy, since its effect was to negate British maritime and naval superiority. British survival, it was said, demanded this more rigorous policy.

Jefferson viewed the Essex decision as only the latest chapter in the prolonged British campaign to subvert American wealth and power. The real aim was to put down a dangerous commercial rival and force the Atlantic trade back into channels profitable to Britain. Reason revolts, Jefferson observed, at the idea "that a belligerent takes to itself a commerce with its own enemy [France and the Continent] which it denies to a neutral, on the ground of its aiding that enemy in the war." After the Essex decision British cruisers hovered off American harbors and plundered American trade. Every ship, not only those carrying cargoes of colonial origin, was at risk; and the losses were heavy.

No less irritating and, in principle, more important was the British practice of impressment. Especially in wartime, British subjects were forcibly impressed into His Majesty's Navy. Many American seamen were caught in the net. In 1806, three years after the resumption of hostilities, Madison reported that 2,273 known American citizens had been impressed. Britain argued that many of them were in fact British subjects who had deserted, enlisted in the American merchant marine, and perhaps been furnished with fraudulent naturalization papers, all with the connivance of the government. There was some truth in this. The United States did not claim that the American flag protected absconding British subjects; neither did Britain claim the right to impress American citizens. But who was British and who was American? They spoke the same language, physical identification was impossible, and efforts to persuade seamen to carry nationality papers were unavailing.

The root of the problem lay in a conflict of laws. No natural-born British subject could throw off his allegiance. American naturalization laws were therefore ineffectual. In Jefferson's view, impressment assaulted the very existence of American nationality. "Certain it is," he wrote indignantly, "there can never be friendship, nor even the continuance of peace with England so long as no American citizen can leave his own shore without being seized by the first British officer he meets." Every seizure was a stinging reminder of past colonial servitude.

American diplomatic initiatives to settle these issues in 1806 produced a treaty negotiated by James Monroe and William Pinkney, the team of envoys in London. Pitt's sudden death and the formation of a new government that brought Charles James Fox, a longtime friend of the United States, into the foreign ministry, had brightened the prospects for reconciliation. They were quickly dashed, however, by Fox's untimely death. Negotiations were resumed under his successor, Lord Howick, but Jefferson abandoned hope of a favorable outcome.

When the Monroe-Pinkney treaty finally reached Washington in March 1807, Jefferson took one look at it, saw that it omitted the American ultimatum to end impressment and failed to secure crucial neutral rights claims as well, and angrily refused even to send it to the Senate. What Congress or the people might have thought of it would never be known; but in the present-day judgment of some diplomatic historians, the treaty went a long way toward meeting American claims and, had it been ratified, might have restored amicable relations between the two countries.

Instead, relations rapidly deteriorated. In June the Chesapeake-Leopard affair inflamed the entire country against Britain. The frigate Leopard, one of a British squadron patrolling off Hampton Roads, ordered the American frigate Chesapeake to submit to search for deserters, and when refused, the Leopard poured repeated broadsides into the defenseless frigate, killing three and wounding eighteen before its flag could be struck. Four alleged deserters were removed from the Chesapeake before it limped back to port.

The country rose up in wrath, regardless of party or section. There had been nothing like it since the Battle of Lexington, said Jefferson. War only awaited the snap of his fingers. He wanted no war, however, and chose to cool the crisis. Quietly, without fanfare, Jefferson ordered certain military preparations, but he declined to convene Congress immediately and, unlike his predecessor Adams, manufactured no war hysteria. Jefferson's hope, rather, was to use the affair as a potent new lever in negotiations with Britainalas, to no avail.

"I suppose our fate will depend on the successes or reverses of Bonaparte," the president mused that summer. This was a hard fate indeed. "It is really mortifying that we should be forced to wish success to Bonaparte and to look to his victims as our salvation." Several months earlier the French emperor had issued the Berlin Decree, inaugurating his own system of economic warfare, the Continental System. The decree purported to place the British Isles in a state of blockade, making lawful prize of all ships trading with Britain. American carriers were exempted, so the decree did not overtly attack American neutrality. The fact that Napoleon could not possibly enforce such a blockade scarcely lessened its nuisance value.

Britain retaliated by an order-in-council throwing a blockade over that portion of the continental coast under French control. Then, in November 1807, after the surrender of Czar Alexander I to the Continental System, Britain closed all Europe to American trade except on monopolistic British terms. Only vessels that passed through British customs would be given clearance to open ports on the Continent. Napoleon replied by extending the Berlin Decree to the Americans and by issuing, in December, the Milan Decree, declaring that all vessels adhering to the British orders would be "denationalized" and made subject to seizure and condemnation as British property. Between the emperor's tightening Continental System and the British orders, American commerce was caught in the jaws of a vise, a maniacal war of blockades from which there seemed to be no appeal to reason or justice.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr was pursued and captured with his fellow conspirators; he was then brought to trial at Richmond, Virginia, in April 1807. Jefferson had been slow to move against Burr, partly because of the mystery surrounding his plans and partly because of the risk of arresting the evidence of crime before it was ripe for execution; but once he became satisfied of Burr's complicity in treason, he moved with vigor and dispatch.

Never doubting that the conspiracy would fail, Jefferson made its suppression a clear test of the loyalty of the West and of the strength of republican government over a vast territory. The outcome vindicated his faith in both. Announcing suppression of the conspiracy to Congress, Jefferson unfortunately declared that Burr's guilt had been "placed beyond question." This was certainly the popular verdict. "But," as John Adams remarked at Quincy, "if his guilt is as clear as the noonday sun, the first magistrate of the nation ought not to have pronounced it so before a jury had tried him."

Jefferson busied himself in the difficult task of securing evidence to convict Burr. He was, in a sense, his own attorney general, and when Burr and his confederates came to trial at Richmond, Jefferson directed the prosecution from the White House. John Marshall was the presiding judge. Toward him Jefferson could not be detached, for he distrusted, even feared, Marshall more than he did Burr, and from the first moment, when Marshall decided to hold the culprit on no higher charge than misdemeanor and to release him on bail, Jefferson believed the trial would be made a party question. The little sect of Richmond Federalists, of whom Marshall had long been the chief, lionized Burr and made his cause their own.

During the grand jury proceedings, Marshall subpoenaed the president to appear in court with certain letters bearing on the actions of General Wilkinson, the conspiracy's chief betrayer. Jefferson refused to appear, citing his responsibilities as chief executive: "The Constitution enjoins his constant agency in the concerns of six millions of people. Is the law paramount to this, which calls on him on behalf of a single one?" The court backed off. Nothing required Jefferson's presence. He cooperated fully in the request for papers and offered to give testimony by deposition, but this was never requested.

The grand jury, heavily freighted with Republicans, returned an indictment for treason on 24 June. Under the Constitution conviction for treason required the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act. As the trial went forward that summer, it gradually became apparent that the prosecution could not furnish the requisite testimony to such an act as constituted "levying war" against the United States. Marshall, in effect, instructed the jury to bring in a verdict of acquittal, which it did on 1 September.

Jefferson was angry but hardly surprised. In his opinion, the whole conduct of the trial had been political, and the verdict had been in view from the beginning. It was, he said, "equivalent to a proclamation of impunity to every traitorous combination which may be formed to destroy the Union." Counting on the public backlash against the decision, he proposed to mount a new campaign to restrain the power of the federal judiciary. That fall he laid the trial proceedings before Congress and urged it to furnish some remedy. Several state legislatures instructed their respective delegations to work for a constitutional amendment rendering judges removable by the president on the address of both houses of Congress. Since both president and Congress were preoccupied with foreign affairs, nothing came of this effort. This was fortunate, for in the long run the nation was better served by Marshall's political bias in the Burr case than by Jefferson's. Better that the scoundrel go free than be convicted on evidence that would introduce into American law the ancient English principle of "constructive treason." Jefferson could not indulge the luxury of this philosophy, of course. He had invested too muchpolitically, emotionally, ideologicallyin another outcome.

Embargo of 18071809

Jefferson and his cabinet met for several days near the end of November 1807 to survey the deteriorating foreign situation. Diplomacy had failed, leaving three possible courses of action open to the United States: acquiescence in the commercial decrees, war against one or both belligerents, or a total embargo of American trade. Three weeks later Jefferson sent to Congress a confidential message recommending the embargo. Congress moved swiftly and, virtually without debate, passed the Embargo Act on 22 December 1807. A self-blockade of the nation's commerce, it prohibited American vessels from sailing to foreign ports and foreign vessels from loading cargo in the United States. At the same time, the selective Nonimportation Act, adopted in 1806 but heretofore suspended, went into effect. The government thus launched an experiment of incredible magnitude, one that dwarfed all previous undertakings and held momentous consequences for the peace of the United States and perhaps the world.

At the outset no one, certainly not Jefferson, fully understood the implications, or foresaw the problems, of the embargo. The aims and purposes of the policy were unclear. In part, it was simply an honorable alternative to war. In part, however, it was a measure preparatory to war, for almost six months would be required to bring home American ships, cargoes, and seamen on the high seasa vital resource in the event of warduring which time the resources already at home would be secure. Finally, it was in some part an experiment to test the effectiveness of "peaceable coercion" in international affairs.

The idea that the United States might enforce reason and justice on European nations by restraining or withholding its commerce was a first principle of Jeffersonian statecraft and a leading article of Jeffersonian Republicanism. The dependence of European colonies in the West Indies on American provisions, especially in wartime; the importance of American neutral carriers and their cargoes for European belligerents; and the enormous value of access to the American market, above all to Great Britain, placed in American hands an ultimate weapon of peace, "another umpire than arms," Jefferson believed, that might not only secure his own country from the ravages of war but also, when put to the test, demonstrate the efficacy of peaceable coercion to peoples everywhere. With the passage of time, as the administration persisted in the embargo long after its short-range purposes were achieved, this larger moral and philosophical aim became the primary one.

Jefferson never explained his experiment to the American people. So often ridiculed as a "visionary," he had no desire to run that gauntlet again. As a result, the people were asked to bear hardships and sacrifices for the sake of a policy they never really understood. This was a critical failure of leadership, which was surprising in a president who had a keen appreciation of the educational function of the office.

Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin, with the corps of customs officers, labored diligently to enforce the embargo. As loopholes were disclosed, as problems of control arose, Congress enacted supplementary legislation. Coastal infractions were serious from New York eastward. Along the Canadian frontier, smugglers carried on a brisk trade by boat, wagon, and sled. In April, Jefferson issued a proclamation placing the Lake Champlain region in a state of insurrection. Escalating penalties for violation of the embargo, combined with arbitrary actions to enforce it, ill comported with Jefferson's political principles. Normal federal law enforcement machinery finally proved inadequate in the eastern states, although the embargo was remarkably well obeyed elsewhere.

Measured in economic terms, the embargo's effectiveness was all too obvious. Treasury receipts dwindled, wiping out the large surplus Jefferson had committed to a program of national improvements. Agricultural prices plummeted, with particularly devastating effects in the southern states. As many as thirty thousand seamen were thrown out of work. Although stories of ships rotting at the wharves and grass growing in the streets were doubtless exaggerated, the most dramatic effects of the embargo could be seen in the seaports. Merchants who had made their fortunes in foreign trade began to divert their capital to new manufacturing enterprises. Jefferson rejoiced in this development, appeared at his Fourth of July reception in 1808 in a suit of homespun, and amid all the loss and suffering caused by the embargo found its redeeming economic virtue in the rise of domestic manufactures.

Politically, the embargo had no redeeming virtue. New England Federalists mounted the dragons of discontent in a bold bid to return to power. Their reckless leaders bitterly assailed the embargo as a national disaster. Why had Jefferson called for it? First, they said, because Napoleon had demanded it and Jefferson was his puppet. Second, because of Virginia Republicanism's hostility to northern commerce. Jefferson expressed little concern about political damages at home from the Federalists' attack, but he was deeply worried about its effects abroad. "They are endeavoring to convince England that we suffer more by the embargo than they do, and if they will hold out awhile, we must abandon it." This was a dangerous game, for if they succeeded, Jefferson said, war with Britain must followthe unintended outcome of their propaganda.

Although enacted as an impartial measure, operating equally on the belligerents, the embargo actually had very unequal effects. Britain necessarily felt it more than France. Jefferson hoped that Napoleon would understand this and, as if in gratitude, revoke his decrees against American commerce and force Spain to cede the Floridas. Instead, the emperor toyed with Jefferson. When American vesselsfugitives from the embargoentered French ports, he confiscated them and then declared he was only helping Jefferson enforce the embargo.

In the president's diplomatic strategy, success with one power would likely produce success with the other, since neither could risk war with the United States; and if neither power recognized American rights, and the time came to lift the embargo, the United States would choose the enemy. British colonials, merchants, and manufacturers began to feel the effects of the embargo in the spring. A group of liberal Whigsbankers, merchants, members of Parliamentlaunched a campaign against the orders-in-council, but they were no match for George Canning and the Tory ministry. Jefferson attributed British obstinacy to two causes. First was the false belief aroused by New England Federalists that the embargo must produce a political revolution in the United States. Second was the astonishing Spanish revolt against Napoleonic domination, which not only revived Great Britain's fortunes in the war but opened vast new markets, in Spain and the colonies, to British commerce.

In this "contest of privations," as Jefferson called it, time was not on the American side. The pressures on Jefferson to yield were both greater and more urgent than the pressures on Canning or Napoleon. How long could the end of peaceable coercion abroad be supported in the face of economic deprivation, loss of liberty, disobedience to law, division of the Union, and Republican collapse at home? Despite rising opposition, Jefferson stood firmly by the policy. Perhaps he recalled his experience in another crisis, when he, as Virginia's governor, was accused of jeopardizing the safety of the commonwealth by feeble and temporizing measures. To Gallatin, who complained that the embargo could be saved only by new and arbitrary enforcement powers, Jefferson replied, "Congress should legalize all means which may be necessary to obtain its end," not excluding military force.

A storm of protest rolled over New England in the fall, and Federalists trooped back to Congress demanding embargo repeal. Soon several New England Republicans joined them. Unhappily, the president reported the failure of embargo diplomacy in his last State of the Union message, on 8 November 1808. Without indicating any new direction, he asked Congress "to weigh and compare the painful alternatives out of which choice is to be made."

Abandoning the policy to Congress was an act of folly. His own choice was to continue the embargo for six months, with war to follow if necessary; but for the first time in his presidency, he abdicated leadership. Why? "On this occasion," he explained, "I think it is fair to leave to those who are to act on them, the decisions they prefer, being . . . myself but a spectator." Jefferson's retreat from responsibility was hardly a favor to James Madison, his chosen successor. As president-elect, Madison had no authority, and lacking Jefferson's prestige and a sure sense of the right course, he could not give direction to Congress. As a result, policy formation fell to a leaderless herd of the fainthearted, the demoralized, and the disgusted. Finally, Congress enacted repeal of the embargo; it would expire with the expiration of Jefferson's presidency. Its replacement, the Non-intercourse Act, reopened trade with all countries except Britain and France. Neither Jefferson nor Madison approved of this feeble measure. A trade open to the rest of the world was in fact a trade open to Britain and France. Yet Jefferson signed the measure into law. It exposed the United States to all the risks of war without the coercive benefits of the embargo. Its only merit was profit.

Jefferson went into retirement convinced that the embargo, if borne for a while longer, would have forced justice from Britain and therefore put a stop to the long train of degradation that led to the War of 1812. Such an outcome was not absolutely fore-closed, although it found little support in the actual circumstances. Jefferson became a victim of his own idealism. Henry Adams observed, "Few men have dared to legislate as though eternal peace were at hand, in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood; but this was what Jefferson aspired to do." And as it failed abroad, the "peace policy" produced at home most of the evils Jefferson feared from war: debt, distress, disobedience, disunionism in short, the debauchery of Republican principles and hopes. Continued adherence to the embargo in these circumstances would have required more power than the government could command and more obedience than a free people could give.


Jefferson's popularity, though shaken, remained high to the end, and he retired to his beloved Monticello with the gratitude and the affection of the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Not the least of his political accomplishments was the control of the presidential succession, first to Madison and then to Monroe, so that the next sixteen years continued the Republican dominance he began. More than most former presidents he exercised an influence on his successors, although the extent of this was often exaggerated by political enemies. He rejoiced at "shaking off the shackles of power," wanting nothing so much as to return to his farm, his family, and his books, which had always been his supreme delights.

For three years the nation drifted toward war. When it finally came, Jefferson expressed mingled feelings of satisfaction and disappointment. On the one hand, the war would be "the second weaning from British principles, British attachments, British manners and manufactures," and in that light would introduce "an epoch in the spirit of nationalism." On the other hand, what was war itself but the curse of the Old World blighting the hopes of the New? The country was meant to be "a garden for the delight and multiplication of mankind," Jefferson mournfully observed. "But the lions and tigers of Europe must be gorged in blood, and some of ours must go, it seems, to their maws, their ravenous and insatiable maws."

Monticello was more than a home, it was a republican mecca. Men came from far and near to see the renowned Sage of Monticello, who was not only a statesman but a scientist, architect, agriculturist, educator, and man of letters. In retirement, as throughout his life, mind and hand were never idle. Jefferson kept up a lively correspondence; that with John Adams, the revolutionary friend and then political foe, with whom he was reconciled in 1812, stands as a literary monument of the age.

Beginning in 1814, Jefferson concentrated his energies on the "holy cause" of education in his native state. In his philosophy, freedom and enlightenment depended on each other; education, therefore, was a paramount responsibility of free government. He revived the general plan of education he had proposed for Virginia during the Revolution. Again the legislature rejected Jefferson's farsighted plan. It approved, however, a major part, the state university, which was close to his heart.

Jefferson was the master planner and builder of the University of Virginia in all its parts, from the grounds and the buildings to the curriculum, faculty, and rules of governance. When it came time for him to write his epitaph, "Father of the University of Virginia" was one of the three achievements, together with authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for which he wished to be remembered. Many have often remarked upon his omission of the presidency and much else besides. Perhaps in that he silently testified to his own sense of values.

Jefferson's declining years were etched with sadness. His health began to fail in 1818. At the same time, his personal fortune was doomed. He owned a large estateten thousand acres of land and the slaves to work thembut years of embargo, nonintercourse, and war had crippled Virginia agriculture, and recovery had only begun when the Panic of 1819 struck. New debts were piled upon old, some descending from before the Revolution, some descending from his years in the White House, and drove Jefferson into bankruptcy. In the end, even Monticello would be lost.

Jefferson was also deeply troubled by the course of national affairs. The Missouri Compromise "fanaticized" politics on a sectional line dividing free and slave states; the Supreme Court, realizing his worst fears, became "a subtle corps of sappers and miners" of the Constitution; and the drift toward consolidation in the national government threatened both individual liberty and the federal balance on which the Union depended. Under these blows, Jefferson retreated to the safety of old Republican dogma and gave aid and comfort to the revival of states' rights politics in Virginia. Through all this, nevertheless, he preserved his deep faith in freedom, self-government, enlightenment, and the happiness and the progress of mankind.

The Sage of Monticello died there on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, 4 July 1826. Ten days earlier, barely able to hold pen in hand, he had declined an invitation to attend ceremonies in Washington marking this golden anniversary. Seizing as if by foreknowledge this last opportunity to embellish a legend, Jefferson made his letter an inspiring last testament to the American people:

all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

Death would not end Jefferson's influence. Generations of Americans turned to him for inspiration and guidance in the successive crises of the nation's affairs. And thus it was that John Adams, who also died on that fateful day of jubilee, uttered a prophetic truth in his last words, "Thomas Jefferson still survives."


Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 30 vols. to date (Princeton, N.J., 19501995), promises to be the definitive edition of Jefferson's writings. As of this writing the project has not yet reached the period of Jefferson's presidency, for which two earlier works remain serviceable: Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (New York, 18921899), and A. A. Lipscomb and A. E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 vols. (Washington, 19041905). See also Thomas Jefferson, Writings (New York, 1984), ed. by Merrill D. Peterson.

Among biographies, the fullest and most authoritative is Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, 6 vols. (Boston, 19481981). Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (New York, 1970), runs to 1,000 pages, while Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge, La., 1987), runs to 350 pages. Peterson is the editor of the multi-authored Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography (New York, 1986). Peter S. Onuf, ed., Jeffersonian Legacies (Charlottesville, Va., 1993), is a contemporary assessment by sixteen scholars. Other studies of Jefferson's thought include Garrett Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore, 1991), and David N. Mayer, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville, Va., 1994). A seminal study is I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison (New York, 1995).

For the presidency, Henry Adams, History of the United States of America During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson, 2 vols. (New York, 1930), is still an important and immensely readable source. Other more specialized or broadly interpretive books on the subject are Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (Lawrence, Kans., 1976); Robert M. Johnstone, Jr., Jefferson and the Presidency: Leadership in the Young Republic (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978); and Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., The Process of Government Under Jefferson (Princeton, N.J., 1978). See also Leonard D. White, The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 18011829 (New York, 1951), and James Sterling Young, The Washington Community, 18001828 (New York, 1966). Foreign affairs are the focus of Bradford Perkins, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 17951805 (Philadelphia, 1955), and Prologue to War: England and the United States, 18051812 (Berkeley, Calif., 1961); Burton Spivak, Jefferson's English Crisis: Commerce, Embargo, and the Republican Revolution (Charlottesville, Va., 1979); and Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1990).

Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York, 1960), pursues the Jefferson theme and symbol in American thought and imagination. The best guide to the historical literature is Frank Shuffelton, Thomas Jefferson: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, 18261980 (New York, 1983), with a supplement (1992).

Recent works include Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1997).

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated Jun 11 2018

Jefferson, Thomas 1743-1826


Thomas Jeffersons interests and pursuits presaged many substantive and methodological concerns of the modern social sciences. Jefferson exemplified the spirit of the Enlightenmentthat great, diverse intellectual movement that dominated Atlantic civilization from the late seventeenth century to the dawn of the nineteenth century. The sorting and synthesizing habits characteristic of Enlightenment thought formed the core of his thinking. Not just intellectual curiosity spurred Jefferson, however. The challenges posed by the American Revolution (17751783)creating a new nation, defining its form of government and politics, and shaping the kind of nation that the United States would become and the kind of people it would havelent practical urgency to Jeffersons investigations of the natural, social, and political world.

Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, on April 13, 1743, the son of a gentleman planter determined to secure the best possible education for his son. At the College of William and Mary, Jefferson found his two mentors. Professor William Small (17341775) introduced Jefferson to Enlightenment thought and the study of natural philosophy (his eras term for science), and the attorney George Wythe (17261806) inspired Jefferson to join the bar. Wythe supervised Jeffersons legal training, insisting that he not only master the law but see it as a learned profession. Under Wythes tutelage, Jefferson situated his legal knowledge within a wide and deep classical, historical, and philosophical education. Though his legal practice lasted less than a decade, his legal training continued to shape his work as a politician and a scientific and political thinker.

Jeffersons lifelong commitment to public service began with his election in 1768 to the Virginia legislature. Jefferson watched with anxiety the growing dispute between Great Britain and its North American colonies over the scope of British power to tax the colonists and legislate for them. In 1774 Jefferson drafted a set of instructions for the Virginia delegation to the First Continental Congress. His draft, judged too radical, nonetheless appeared as a pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jeffersons eloquence and cogency won him acclaim, but his willingness to lecture King George III (17381820) on his duty to his American subjects provoked hostility in London.

In 1775 Jefferson was named a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Though he rarely took the floor, he won his colleagues respect by his ability as a draftsman to synthesize their clashing views. His ultimate challenge came when, in June 1776, Congress named him to a committee, with John Adams (17351826), Benjamin Franklin (17061790), Robert R. Livingston (17461813), and Roger Sherman (17211793), to draft a declaration of independence; the committee assigned the task to Jefferson. Jefferson always preferred his draft to Congresss version, complaining that Congress had ruined his work by cutting key portions of his argument, including a passage blaming George III for the American institution of chattel slavery; by contrast, most historians maintain that Congresss edits improved the documents cogency and force. The Declaration of Independence has three parts: (1) a preamble invoking Lockean social-contract theory to lay the intellectual groundwork for the Americans assertion of the right of revolution; (2) an indictment of George III for violating the unwritten English constitution as the Americans understood it, thus dissolving Americans obligations to remain loyal to him; and (3) a closing incorporating the congressional resolution declaring independence. The Declaration looks backward, tying off the constitutional argument with Great Britain, and forward, delineating the core principles of an independent America. Further, the eloquent preamble of the Declaration inspired democratic revolutions for generations thereafter.

Recognizing that independence required legitimate government, Congress authorized the thirteen colonies to frame new constitutions. For Jefferson, new-modeling constitutions and laws was integral to creating a good American society. Sweeping away such vestiges of feudalism as primogeniture (a system of inheritance naming the oldest son sole heir) and entail (a system of land ownership allowing the original owner to restrict transfer of his lands to heirs of his family) would, he thought, advance the cause of democracy and republican government. The resulting society would be a true republic committed to the ideals of the Revolution.

For these reasons, when he returned to Virginia, Jefferson focused his energies on legal reform. With his mentor George Wythe and Wythes rival Edmund Pendleton (17211803), Jefferson launched a project to revise the states laws. Their 1779 report included such pathbreaking proposals as Jeffersons Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, his Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments, and his Bill for Establishment of a System of Public Education. This compilation crystallized Jeffersons vision of the good society, forming his political agenda for Virginia for the rest of his life. The legislature, however, tabled the report. In the 1780s, Jeffersons ally, James Madison (1751-1836), spearheaded efforts to enact some of the reports bills, including the 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.

Two of the three key measures of Jeffersons lawmaking had to do with the life of the mind and individual liberty; all three embodied his devotion to Enlightenment ideals. Arguing that any alliance between church and state was dangerous to individual liberty and the health of the political realm, Jefferson insisted on strict separation of church and state, denying government any power to direct what citizens should believe or do in matters of religious belief and observance. Jeffersons proposed system of public education embodied his view that an informed citizenry was essential to the success of republican government. Finally, his measure for proportioning crimes and punishments reflected the profound influence of Marquis Cesare di Beccarias (17381794) Treatise on Crimes and Punishments (1764), in particular Beccarias commitment to humanizing law and setting aside old barbarous punishments as inconsistent with a modern, just legal system.

In 1779 the legislature elected Jefferson governor of Virginiaa post with many responsibilities but little power. Jefferson served two one-year terms, but in 1781 his governorships closing weeks, when he faced a British invasion of Virginia, provoked criticism souring him on public life, and he decided to retire. One incident of his governorship has lasting significance for his role in the social sciences. François de Barbé-Marbois (17451837), a French diplomat, sent the governors of all thirteen states a questionnaire about each states geography, history, resources, people, and laws. Jefferson restructured this list of queries and made it the skeleton of his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which occupied him, on and off, for the next six years. It distracted him from his sorrows after his wifes sudden death in 1782, and it gave him an intellectual focus while he returned to public life, first as a delegate to the Confederation Congress and then as American minister to France (17841789).

Published privately in Paris in 1785 and in a revised form in London in 1787, Notes on the State of Virginia embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment. It gave Jefferson the chance to advocate some of his cherished ideas, such as the need for religious liberty and separation of church and state, the excellence and desirability of republican government, and his love for his native land, which he promoted as a welcoming refuge from the corruptions of the Old World and a model of what a good society could be. Jefferson offered a powerful defense of America against the strictures of such European thinkers as the Comte de Buffon (17071788), who argued that nature and humanity degenerated in the New World. In particular, Jefferson defended Native American peoples against charges that they were lesser beings than Europeans, foreshadowing his lifelong interest in ethnography. At the same time, Notes presents Jeffersons agonized struggles with the issue of slavery. Jefferson, himself a slaveowner, wrote eloquently about slaverys injustice but offered a tortured case for slavery based on his claim that people of African descent were inferior to Europeans in intellect, morals, and physical beauty, and thus could not be trusted with liberty. Though such thinkers as Immanuel Kant (17241804) and David Hume (17111776) had voiced racist views of Africans, these were casual asides. By contrast, Jefferson expounded a defense of slavery based on what later generations would call racial science.

While Jefferson was in France, he began a sexual relationship with his slave Sally Hemings (17731835), a daughter of Betty Hemings (17351807), who had been both the slave and the mistress of Jeffersons father-in-law. (Thus, Sally was half-sister to Jeffersons wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson [17481782].) The teenaged Sally Hemings came to France with Jeffersons younger daughter, Maria Jefferson (17781804), whom he had summoned to live with him and his older daughter, Martha (17721836). According to Sally Hemingss son Madison Hemings (18051877), the two became lovers in France, and Sally extracted from Jefferson a promise that if she returned with him to Monticello, he would free all her children. The liaison continued for more than two decades. When Jefferson died, the only slaves that he freed were children of Sally Hemings and others connected with the Hemings family.

During Jeffersons presidency, James Thomson Callender (17581803), a muckraking journalist furious that Jefferson had not rewarded his support with a government job, revealed the Jefferson-Hemings liaison in the Richmond Enquirer. Jeffersons allies, family, and most biographers rejected the accusation as a political smear. In 1997, however, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed of New York Law School reexamined the evidence and the controversys history, challenging assumptions that influenced previous scholars (such as black people lie, white people tell the truth and slaves lie, slaveowners tell the truth). Her rigorous assessment convincingly showed that the Jefferson-Hemings liaison was more probable than not. In 1998 a DNA analysis of evidence from descendants of Eston Hemings (1808c.1853) and descendants of Jeffersons uncle Field Jefferson (17021765) found a match indicating that a male member of Jeffersons family was the father of Eston Hemings. That finding, combined with Gordon-Reeds analysis of the historical evidence and the discovery that every time Sally Hemings gave birth Jefferson was in the vicinity nine months before the delivery, reversed the scholarly consensus from rejection to acceptance of the liaison between Jefferson and Hemings.

While he served as American minister to France, Jefferson became a mentor to such French politicians as Lafayette (17571834) and Mirabeau (17151789). Indeed, in 1789 Jefferson was an informal adviser to the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. He also traveled widely in Europe; his travel diaries and letters reveal him to be an astute observer of society and politics. His letters recurring themes include his contrast of European corruption with American innocence. His approval of the French Revolution (17891799)though its excesses horrified many of his friends, such as John and Abigail Adams (17441818) and William Short (17591849)was rooted in his conviction of the horrifying injustices perpetuated by the ancien régime and his belief that revolutionary violence was not too high a price to pay to end those abuses.

In late 1789 Jefferson returned to America for a leave of absence. Instead, he accepted President George Washingtons (17321799) offer of the post of secretary of state in the new government under the Constitution. When Jefferson took office in May 1790, still in the grip of his impressions of Europe, he was horrified by what he found. In his eyes, Americans were falling under the spell of corrupting doctrines from Great Britain privileging commerce and speculation, undermining his vision of an honest agrarian republic of yeoman farmers. These realizations caused Jefferson to become increasingly doctrinaire and rigid.

The fiscal policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (17551804) formed the first flashpoint of contention, followed by clashing views about Americas relations with the revolutionary French Republic. Unlike Jefferson, the prophet of agrarian democracy, Hamilton argued for a national economic system in which agriculture, trade and commerce, and manufacturing would form the three pillars of a healthy and prosperous nation. Hamilton also favored a vigorous national governmentwhich Jefferson saw as a threat to American liberty. Finally, Jefferson hailed the French Revolution as the first salvo of a worldwide democratic revolution that he hoped would reshape the world, whereas Hamilton saw it as a threat to stability, religion, property, and good orderthe props of a stable republic.

Until Jefferson stepped down from Washingtons cabinet at the end of 1793, and for a decade thereafter, his epic political and constitutional battles with Hamilton helped to define key polarities of American politicsstrict versus broad interpretation of the Constitution, agrarianism versus commerce and trade and industry, and decentralized versus centralized government. In response to what he saw as Hamiltons threat to liberty, republican government, and the success of the American Revolution, Jefferson and Madison helped lay the groundwork for partisan politics under the Constitution. Frustrated and exhausted by partisan battles, Jefferson retired in 1793, not returning to politics until his election as vice president in 1796, under his old friend and political adversary, President John Adams.

The Adams presidency was plagued by strife over the French Revolution and the wars convulsing Europe. Facing the quasi-war with France (17981800), the Adams administration rammed through Congress laws restricting rights of aliens and defining federal power to punish criticism of the government. Jefferson and Madison covertly penned two sets of resolutions against these measures that the Kentucky (Jefferson) and Virginia (Madison) legislatures adopted. These resolutions argued that the federal laws were unconstitutional and that the states had varying means to resist unconstitutional federal laws, helping to fuel generations of controversy over the nature of the American union and the powers of the federal government over the states.

In 1801, after an electoral deadlock that threatened to shake the government to its foundations, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as the nations third president. With the support of solid Republican majorities in Congress, Jefferson set out to undo what he viewed as Federalist corruption of American principles, outlining in his inaugural address his approach to American government: a wise and frugal government overseeing a union of states that would keep its distance from the wars convulsing Europe.

When Jefferson took office, access to the Mississippi River was a key political and diplomatic issue. Determined to secure that access and American claims to the trans-Mississippi West, Jefferson devised a combined scientific and military expedition, blending the goal of scientific research into the geography, flora, fauna, and native peoples of the region with the equally important goal of assertion of American power. At the same time, he sent American diplomats to Paris to find a means to acquire the vital port of New Orleans. By good fortune and deft diplomacy, these diplomats secured from France the entire Louisiana Territory, including New Orleans. Jefferson then set in motion his plans for the expedition, to be commanded by captains Meriwether Lewis (17741809) and William Clark (1770-1838). Jeffersons confidential instructions to Lewis set an ambitious research agenda and became a model for all later American expeditions of science and discovery. The Lewis and Clark expedition ranks with the Louisiana Purchase among the greatest achievements of Jeffersons presidency.

Jeffersons first term was notably successful, in great measure because he could control the development of events; his second was less so, as increasingly he had to react to events beyond his control in the international realm. Seeking to end European hostilities threatening American shipping, Jefferson imposed an embargo on the warring nations, hoping to use American economic power to coerce Britain and France to make peace. The policy backfired, forcing Jefferson to adopt ever-more draconian enforcement measures, creating the very model of a strong central government that he had so long opposed. It was with relief that he retired from the presidency in 1809.

Jeffersons life followed a pattern of ventures into public life followed by retreats into retirement at his home, Monticello. In the early 1770s, Jefferson leveled a hilltop inherited from his father and began to build a house, deriving its design from the works of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (15081580), himself strongly influenced by classical models. Not only did Palladio please Jeffersons aesthetic sense, his work echoed Jeffersons belief that classical architecture fostered values associated with the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. For a decade, Jefferson worked to make Monticello a model of classical refinement. When in 1789 he returned from France, he recast his plans for Monticello; from 1793 to the early 1820s he undertook a massive program of pulling down and building upa plan interrupted by his service as vice president, continued in fits and starts during his presidency, and resumed after his retirement in 1809. In this period, Monticello acquired its present forma house designed to appear from outside as a single story, with a low dome and porticos on both fronts. Monticello also was a stage set where Jefferson could welcome visitors as the sage of Monticello.

Monticello is only one of Jeffersons architectural achievements. The second example is the Virginia capitol, which he modeled on the Maison Carrée at Nîmes, France. The third example is Jeffersons country home, the octagonal Poplar Forest, completed in 1809, which was his refuge from the pressure of visitors at Monticello. With the University of Virginia, these projects were pivotal in popularizing classical ideas and ideals of architecture in the United States.

The former president became a figure of interest for the hundreds of travelers and fellow-citizens who hoped to meet him. He also dealt with a massive correspondence, drudging at the writing-table (as he told John Adams, with whom he resumed friendship in 1812). Jefferson used his letters to explore issues of democracy and republican government that had preoccupied him since the Revolution. He argued that laws and constitutions must change with changing times and circumstances and that each generation ought to be able to make its own laws and create its own government without being held hostage by the work of previous generations. Dearest to his heart was his idea that society and government should be divided into wards or hundreds, which would form counties, which would form states linked together in a union of shared affection, sentiments, and interests and needing only a weak government to superintend foreign relations. Jefferson was not a rigorous political theorist, however, and never produced a sustained work of political philosophy.

Jefferson devoted his last years to two great endeavors in the social sciences. Building on the work of his friend, the chemist and theologian Reverend Joseph Priestley (17331804), he prepared a short book for his own use, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, removing from the Gospels what he deemed false and fraudulent material attributable to priestcraft. Published for the first time in 1804 by Congress, this book, a pioneering example of historical criticism of the Bible, has acquired the (mistaken) title The Jefferson Bible.

Closest to Jeffersons heart, and in many ways his last great struggle, was his campaign to create a new university for Virginia, not allied with any religious sect or denomination. It was the capstone of his plan of a system of public education, but he now realized that the university was all that he would have a chance to create. At Jeffersons urging, the Virginia legislature created a commission that he would chair. He wrote its report, shepherded it through the legislature, and began to design the University of Virginia. He picked the professors, defined the curriculum, laid out the campus, and designed all the buildings. When it opened in 1825, with Jefferson as its first rector, it was the culmination of his lifes work.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, at the age of eighty-three. A few hours after he died, his friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams, died at the age of ninety. The coincidence of these deaths seemed to their fellow citizens an event of almost biblical proportions, as if the almighty had called the two patriarchs to heaven to honor their political labors.

In his epitaph, drafted in the last months of his life, Jefferson codified his legacy: Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. This summation distilled his commitment to the revolution of ideas that reshaped the world in the late eighteenth century. In addition, these achievements helped to shape a world in which the social sciences could evolve into powerful tools by which human beings could come to understand their world and reshape it for the better. And yet, Jeffersons life and thought also show the dangers as well as the hopes of uncritically relying on the social sciences to make the world anew.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Americanism; Constitution, U.S.; Declaration of Independence, U.S.; Education, USA; Enlightenment; Ethnography; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Presidency, The; Republicanism; Slavery; Washington, George


Adams, John, Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. 1959. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Ed. Lester J. Cappon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Bedini, Silvio A. 1990. Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science. New York: Macmillan.

Bernstein, R. B. 2003. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. 1997. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Jefferson, Thomas. [1787] 1955. Notes on the State of Virginia. Ed. William Peden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Library of America.

Jordan, Winthrop D. 1968. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 15501812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture.

McLaughlin, Jack. 1987. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. New York: Holt.

Onuf, Peter S., ed. 1993. Jeffersonian Legacies. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

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

Onuf, Peter S. 2007. The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Peterson, Merrill D. 1970. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press.

R. B. Bernstein

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated Jun 11 2018

Thomas Jefferson

Born April 13, 1743 (Shadwell, Virginia)
Died July 4, 1826 (Monticello, Virginia)

U.S. president, vice president, secretary of state, scientist, inventor,
philosopher, foreign diplomat, architect

Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owning aristocrat and philosopher who believed in reason, science, and education, was the primary spokesman for the common people in the early years of the United States. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he had a strong ability to connect with the common person; he also had a talent for writing in plain, direct, yet eloquent language. His revolutionary thought profoundly influenced the direction of American independence. Though he spent most of his career in public office, Jefferson always considered himself a common citizen rather than a politician.

Jefferson rejected all existing European notions of society and governmental authority. He contended that government derives its authority from the consent of the people it governs. Believing in self-government by the people, Jefferson argued that the ideal society was that of landowning farmers living under as little government control as possible. This ideal became known as Jeffersonian democracy.

"Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

While many of the other Founding Fathers focused on designing the best possible government structure for the United States, Jefferson was more concerned about protecting individual liberties. Jefferson was also the leading early advocate for keeping government out of religious matters, such as designating official state churches. This idea became known as "separation of church and state." Because of his views on such matters, Jefferson became a lasting worldwide symbol of individual liberty.

In addition to his invaluable political contributions in shaping the new nation, Jefferson was also a scientist, philosopher, architect, promoter of arts and music, founder and architect of the University of Virginia, and inventor of many innovations at his Monticello home. The incredible diversity of his achievements makes him an impressive historical figure, yet he left behind little information about his personal life. Beyond all of his many public roles, Jefferson was a very private person.

A learned youth

Thomas Jefferson was born in April 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia, later Albemarle County, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a farmer and surveyor, carving out an estate on the frontier. Peter served as justice of the peace, a member of the House of Burgesses (the colonial Virginia legislature), and a colonel in the Virginia militia. His mother, Jane Randolph, was from one of the most prominent families in Virginia. Thomas had a younger brother and six sisters. He enjoyed a much closer relationship with his father than with his mother.

Jefferson's father placed a high value on education, which strongly influenced young Thomas. In 1757, Peter died, leaving fourteen-year-old Thomas, the eldest son, a 5,000-acre estate with a number of slaves. Wives at that time, even widows, could not own property. A guardian managed the property until Jefferson was twenty-one years of age.

Jefferson was over 6 feet tall, lanky, and redheaded, with a light complexion. He stood upright and walked with firmness, yet he was shy in crowds and nervous about public speaking. In 1760, after being educated by private tutors and clergymen, Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Already well-read in literary classics, Jefferson studied relentlessly at college. Three scholars greatly influenced Jefferson: Dr. William Small (1734–1775) in mathematics, philosophy, and science; George Wythe (1726–1806) in law; and Francis Fauquier (1703–1768), who taught Jefferson the social ways of the upper class. Jefferson completed his studies at William and Mary in 1762. Then he began to study law under Wythe. By 1767, Jefferson passed the Virginia bar (law exam) and became a lawyer.

Lawyer and young politician

Jefferson's views always coincided more with the views of frontier settlers around his home than with those of the wealthy aristocrats in coastal towns. Therefore, Jefferson decided to establish a country law practice, and it was quite successful. He mostly represented small farmers in land disputes.

After a fire destroyed the family home, Jefferson began construction of a new home on top of a tall hill near Shadwell. He named it Monticello. Starting the project in 1768, Jefferson applied his interest in architecture and various innovations as construction continued over the next forty years (see box).

Jefferson was elected to his first public office in 1769, when voters of Albemarle County sent him as their representative to the House of Burgesses. He served in the legislature for seven years. Jefferson entered political office just as the revolt against British taxation was building. Four years earlier, in 1765, Jefferson had listened to legislator Patrick Henry (1736–1799) give his famous speech against new British tax policies. Now serving in the same legislature, Jefferson became a strong supporter of Henry, who strongly objected to the increasingly heavy hand of British rule.

In 1772, Jefferson married a young widow, Martha Wayles Skelton (1748–1782), the daughter of a wealthy lawyer. They had six children, but only two lived to adulthood. The death of Martha's father in 1773 provided Jefferson another large estate in the Virginia low country on the James River and in Bedford County. This inheritance more than doubled Jefferson's landholdings. Jefferson now owned over 10,000 acres and some 180 slaves, a major responsibility. However, he also inherited family debts to British merchants that plagued him throughout the remainder of his life.

Exceptional writing skills demonstrated

In 1774, the British Parliament passed a harsh series of laws called the Coercive Acts. In reaction, Jefferson drafted resolutions for Albemarle County proclaiming Parliament's lack of legal authority and recognizing certain natural rights held by all persons. He then wrote a seven-thousand-word essay more fully expressing his ideas. He took it to a meeting of the members of the House of Burgesses, who were secretly gathering on August 1 in Williamsburg in revolt against the policies of the British king. Jefferson's essay asserted that Americans had a natural right to govern themselves and that this took a higher priority than governmental laws. Therefore, the colonists had


Thomas Jefferson's home, which he built and rebuilt over a forty-year period, is considered to be his own self-made monument. He spent much of his life during breaks from public service designing it, more than once. Architecture was one of Jefferson's most passionate interests, and he was greatly influenced by his travels in Europe early in his career. In May 1768, Jefferson, at twenty-five years of age, began leveling the top of a 987-foot hill. Construction began by 1770. He named the site Monticello, meaning "little mountain" in Italian.

The house was largely completed in 1782. However, after his tour in Europe as U.S. minister to France in the late 1780s, Jefferson returned with new architectural ideas. The walls of Monticello started coming down in 1796 to make way for new expansion; the home doubled in size. The enhanced structure was completed in 1809, the year Jefferson retired from the presidency. The final structure has a distinctive dome over the entranceway. He built in skylights and two indoor privies (toilets), a rarity in America at the time. A cellar level included a kitchen, a smokehouse, and a series of storage rooms. When completed, the house contained thirtythree rooms and about 11,000 square feet of living space. There were eight fireplaces and two openings for stoves. Visitors from Europe frequently commented on the uniqueness of Jefferson's Monticello as compared to other early American architecture.

Jefferson experimented with many ideas at Monticello. He invented a revolving wall with shelves that allowed servants to serve guests in the dining room without entering the room. He built in dumbwaiters (small elevators) for delivery of wines from the cellar. Among the more unusual features was a bed situated in a wall, which was designed to let him choose which room to get up in each morning. He also developed a revolving chair and desk.

a right not to obey the new British laws. It stated that British Parliament had no real authority over the colonies and therefore no authority to tax the colonists.

Most members at the meeting considered Jefferson's position too radical. They still recognized British legal authority but opposed Parliament's decisions. Some who sympathized with Jefferson's viewpoint published his essay without Jefferson's permission. Titled "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," the essay was quickly reprinted in Philadelphia and in Britain. Jefferson's essay was a major statement on the path to independence and became the foundation for a future document, the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was elected as a Virginia delegate to the First Continental Congress, but he became ill and missed the sessions.

Declaring independence

In 1775, Jefferson served as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He had a growing reputation for his writing skills and a continuing awkwardness at public speaking, so Congress assigned him tasks such as drafting official papers, including resolutions.

In June 1776, Congress appointed Jefferson to be part of a five-man committee that was asked to draft a statement of independence; the committee included John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1) of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1) of Pennsylvania. Adams assigned Jefferson the task of writing the first draft. It was to be a statement of reasons why the American colonies should break from Britain, and it was to be presented in the form of a legal argument. Several days later, Jefferson presented his draft to Adams and Franklin for review. They recommended only minor changes before sending it to the full Congress. After intense debate that began on July 2 and resulted in a number of changes, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described the philosophy behind the American Revolution, the colonists' grievances against the British king, George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820), and the causes of the rebellion. Importantly, the Declaration asserted that the colonists were protecting God-given natural rights, not rebelling against authority in general.

Though it was years later before people knew that Jefferson was the author, the Declaration clearly reflected Jefferson's thinking—a bold, plain, direct statement filled with philosophy about the natural rights of man, human equality, and political independence. The document provided the nation with a high moral reason for going to war. Social activists would use it as a statement of liberty for the next two centuries. It is the most important political document in U.S. history.

A return to Virginia

Jefferson resigned from Congress following adoption of the Declaration and returned to Virginia that fall. He had no interest in serving in the military, so he chose to be a political leader instead. Jefferson entered Virginia politics again, this time as a member of the House of Delegates, a legislative body established by a new state constitution adopted during his time in Philadelphia. However, Jefferson did not like the Virginia constitution at all. Over the next three years, he tried repeatedly to push through reforms to create a form of state government that would be more responsive to the common people rather than the long-established upper class of Virginia.

Jefferson pressed for support of public education, reform of land inheritance laws, and separation of religion from civic government. He unsuccessfully sought to establish a public education system in Virginia ranging from elementary school through university study. He believed that a republican government (a government by consent of the people and for the benefit of the people through elected representatives) would work only if citizens were educated.

Regarding religion, in 1777, Jefferson drafted the Statute of Religious Freedom, the most complete statement of religious freedom yet developed in the young nation. The Virginia government did not adopt it until 1786, after years of heated debate. However, the statute strongly influenced the religious freedom section of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Jefferson's statute remained the main statement concerning the separation of church and state until the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791.

Jefferson also proposed that Virginia provide gradual freedom for slaves. He himself was a slave owner, so his philosophical ideas about equality and the natural rights of human beings presented a contradiction. Though he despised slavery, Jefferson did not think that a stable racially mixed society was possible. Therefore, he supported the idea of shipping freed slaves to Africa. Jefferson quickly realized that freeing slaves was not a possibility in Virginia and the rest of the South, so he did not pursue it.

Virginia governor

As war raged on, the Virginia Assembly elected Jefferson governor in June 1779; they reelected him the following year for another one-year term. Jefferson worked to supply men and materials to the Continental Army in the North for the war effort. With little military capability left in the colony, he was surprised by a British invasion of Virginia in January 1781. By the spring, Jefferson and the government had to flee from Richmond to Charlottesville, near Monticello, pursued by the British army under General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805). Many people blamed Jefferson for Virginia's vulnerability to invasion and criticized him for running away from the enemy.

Disheartened by his experience as governor, Jefferson left public office and returned to his home. He repeatedly turned down offers of serving in various public posts. While at home, Jefferson wrote a book called Notes on the State of Virginia from 1781 to 1783. Jefferson got the idea for the book from questions asked by the French foreign minister to the United States. The book is historically important for its descriptions of various aspects of the state. His scientific inquiry into geography and climate, his detailed notes on native plants, animals, and minerals, and his philosophical discussions about society won Jefferson wide acclaim after the volume was published in 1785. The book established Jefferson's reputation as a scholar and scientist.

In September 1782, while Jefferson was still writing his book, his wife, Martha, died following a difficult childbirth. Jefferson became very depressed. In an effort to relieve his sorrow, Jefferson finally agreed to enter public life again. He served as a member of Congress in 1783 and early 1784. During that time, Jefferson devised the U.S. currency system adopted by Congress. He also drafted a land ordinance in 1784 that identified how U.S. lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were to be governed. They were not to be treated as colonies; instead, they would be granted statehood after meeting certain conditions. Though the draft ordinance was not adopted in 1784, it provided a basis for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The ordinance expanded Jefferson's ideas of self-government and liberty to include the territories. Citizens living in the territories and new states would have the same rights to elected representation in Congress as citizens in the original thirteen states. Jefferson also greatly influenced the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established a regular survey system of grids for the western lands. This system divided land into squares measuring 6 miles by 6 miles called townships. Each township was divided into 36 sections, 1 square mile (640 acres) each.

Minister to France

In May 1784, Congress sent Jefferson to join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in France. They were there to negotiate trade treaties with European nations, but they did not have much success, because the powerful European nations did not respect the young United States. In 1785, Franklin resigned as the U.S. minister to France, and Jefferson replaced him. Jefferson hoped to increase French importation of U.S. farm products, but he saw few results. France was not focused on trade opportunities; instead, the country was becoming consumed with internal political turmoil.

Jefferson spent five years in France and thoroughly enjoyed his stay. His two daughters joined him there. Jefferson enjoyed the music, theater, fine wines, and food, and he learned much about European architecture. However, he despised the French aristocracy and the rule of the monarchy (rule by a single person). He was sympathetic to French revolutionaries and hoped they would eventually establish a republican form of government with representative legislatures, just as the American revolutionaries had done in the United States. He increasingly believed the success of the French Revolution would influence the future of freedoms in the United States. Jefferson wrote letters to James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), lead author of the Constitution, demanding that a bill of rights be added.

Jefferson returned to Virginia in November 1789. It was during this time that rumors began that he was fathering children with a young mulatto (the child of one black parent and one white parent) slave named Sally Hemings (1773–1835). Publicly, Jefferson opposed sexual relations between the two races. He was also becoming less opposed to slavery, perhaps because the antislavery statements he made in his book had caused a negative reaction among some readers, especially in Virginia and elsewhere in the South. Jefferson owned as many as two hundred slaves at one time.

Secretary of state

After Jefferson returned to the United States, the newly elected president, George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2), asked him to serve as the nation's first secretary of state. Jefferson began serving in his new post on March 21, 1790, in New York, the temporary location of the nation's new government. He hoped to improve relations with Britain while still favoring France; expand international trade; remove remaining European influences from North America; and ease tensions with Native Americans on the frontier. However, Jefferson had little success in any of these endeavors over the next several years.

The political rivalry between Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) quickly grew. Hamilton favored a strong central government, controlled by the wealthy, and an economy driven by industrial growth and banking. Jefferson promoted individual liberties, a farm-based economy, strong state governments (states' rights), and ordinary citizens' involvement in self-government. Jefferson argued that the primary purpose of government is to protect the rights of individuals. He feared Hamilton's plans would establish rule by the wealthy and lead to corruption of the political system. He also thought Hamilton was placing too large of a tax burden on the farmers. His interest in strengthening an alliance with the French revolutionaries conflicted with Hamilton's sweeping economic plans, which relied heavily on trade with Britain at the expense of good relations with France if necessary.

The rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton led to the growth of two political factions in the nation. One group, calling themselves Federalists, saw Hamilton as their leader. The other, calling themselves Republicans, aligned with Jefferson and James Madison, then a leading member of the House of Representatives.

When war erupted between France and Britain in 1793, Jefferson and the Republicans wanted the United States to back France. Hamilton and the Federalists favored Britain. President Washington sought a middle course of neutrality (taking no sides), which Jefferson reluctantly supported. The arrival of the French diplomat to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet (1763–1834), complicated matters for Jefferson. Genet became an embarrassment to Americans who supported France, because he ignored normal international diplomatic procedures and barnstormed the nation to recruit Americans to fight for the French cause. Jefferson demanded that France recall Genet before the backlash against the French and the Republicans who supported them grew any larger.

Back to Monticello

The conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson grew deeper as Hamilton continued to meddle in foreign affairs; such matters were technically the responsibility of the secretary of state. It was clear that President Washington favored Hamilton's advice and policies. Therefore, in December 1793, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state and eagerly returned to the quiet of Monticello. He started an extensive remodeling program at Monticello and pursued agricultural experiments.

In 1796, Jefferson's political supporters nominated him as a presidential candidate. He reluctantly accepted the nomination, as he had been enjoying his time at Monticello. The faction that supported him, the Republicans, had become a political party. They now called themselves Democratic-Republicans. Meanwhile, in his September Farewell Address, President Washington announced he would not seek a third term. The Federalists, now officially the Federalist Party, chose Washington's vice president, John Adams, to run against Jefferson. In the early years of the nation, presidential candidates did not actively campaign for themselves. Nonetheless, representatives of the two parties launched intense campaigns for the candidates. The policies of the Washington administration since Jefferson's departure had deepened political divisions. For example, the Jay Treaty of 1794 brought the United States and Britain into closer alliance, at the expense of U.S. relations with France.

Jefferson and Adams were not the only two candidates in the race, but they were the top two vote getters. Jefferson came in second, and according to the election procedures at the time, that earned him the position of vice president. However, he was a Democratic-Republican vice president who would have to serve in Adams's Federalist administration. As a result, Jefferson played little role in developing policies. Instead, he focused on his role as leader of the U.S. Senate, a standard part of the vice president's job. He also prepared a procedural guide titled Manual of Parliamentary Practice. It was still in use two centuries later.

As pro-French sentiment grew in America, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The set of four laws eased procedures for deporting aliens (citizens of one country living in another country) and led to the arrest of newspaper editors and writers who produced articles critical of the Adams administration. The laws were aimed at quieting Democratic-Republican opposition to Federalist foreign policies. These laws attacked the freedoms Jefferson had long promoted, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and Jefferson sprang into action to oppose them. He anonymously drafted a state resolution for Kentucky, proclaiming the federal law unconstitutional. Madison drew up a similar resolution for Virginia. To their dismay, other states chose not to adopt the resolutions. However, through their actions Jefferson and Madison kept Democratic-Republican principles alive while the Federalists controlled government.

The turbulent election of 1800

Jefferson was again chosen as the Democratic-Republican candidate for president in 1800, along with Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1) for vice president. Adams was running for reelection for the Federalists, along with vice presidential candidate Thomas C. Pinckney (1757–1824). With the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans becoming much more organized since 1796, this presidential campaign was the first between two distinct political parties. As a result, each party presented one candidate for each position (though former U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Jay [1745–1829; see entry in volume 1] did pick up an errant Federalist electoral vote). Presidential and vice presidential candidates were still listed on the same ballot, so the candidate with the most votes was elected president, while the second-place vote-getter became vice president. Whereas in the past, a higher number of candidates meant a wider distribution of votes, in 1800, voting from among only two candidates from one's party led to a tie vote between Jefferson and Burr. Adams came in third.

The tie sent the election to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives for resolution. Jefferson was clearly the favorite among the public, and Burr immediately stated he would not compete against Jefferson. Though he did not campaign for himself, Burr did not withdraw either, as some expected. In an effort to embarrass Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, the House voted for weeks. Each ballot remained a deadlock between Jefferson and Burr. Finally on the thirty-sixth ballot, about two weeks before the scheduled inauguration, some Federalist members of the House did not vote, sending the election in Jefferson's favor. The election crisis led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1804. The amendment provides for the presidential and vice presidential candidates to be voted for on separate ballots.

The third U.S. president

Jefferson became the first U.S. president inaugurated in the newly built capital city of Washington, D.C., and the first to begin his term in the President's House, later called the White House, though it was still unfinished. (The previous November, President Adams had moved in for the final few months of his term.) More importantly, though, the occasion represented the first peaceful transfer of power between two political parties. Jefferson referred to this peaceful event as the "revolution of 1800," and he called for unity among all Americans. This reduced the Federalists' fear that Jefferson would cause great political turmoil with his anti–federal government viewpoints.

Jefferson's personal charm, his ability to persuade others in private meetings, and his exceptional writing skills made him a powerful leader in the presidential office. He established a good working relationship with Congress. Unlike the Federalists, whose main support came from the wealthy merchants and financiers of New England and the East Coast, Jefferson surrounded himself with men from the West who had more humble backgrounds; he appointed some of them to his Cabinet. Still strongly believing that the future of the United States lay in its farmers, not big cities and industry, he consistently promoted policies to strengthen the agricultural economy.

Jefferson did not enjoy public speaking, so he held very few Cabinet meetings. Cabinet members usually submitted their advice to him in writing, which he then edited and returned. His annual message to Congress was also delivered in writing. The only public speeches that Jefferson was known to make as president were his two inaugural addresses.

Since his wife had died eighteen years earlier and Jefferson had not remarried, his daughter Martha sometimes served as official hostess at the President's House. Dolley Madison (1768–1849; see entry in volume 2), wife of Secretary of State James Madison, also served in this role. Jefferson hired a young army captain named Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809; see Lewis and Clark entry in volume 2) to be his personal secretary and help with presidential business. Jefferson's reception of guests, including foreign dignitaries, was known for its informality and lack of order. This approach clearly distinguished the American presidency from the pomp of European monarchs and ruling aristocracy. Despite this informality at the President's House, Jefferson did keep a French chef and served fine European wines. He also made some architectural changes to the building.

Jefferson and the courts

Though much of government remained unchanged from Adams's presidency, Jefferson proceeded to undo some Federalist policies. The federal court system quickly attracted his attention. Before Jefferson's inauguration in March 1801, the Federalist-controlled Congress had passed legislation that added new federal courts to the existing system. President Adams then filled the new courts with Federalist judges, making some two hundred last-minute appointments, called "midnight appointments." Adams intended to keep the federal courts under Federalist control even after Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, took office. However, Adams did not have time to issue some judges their commissions before the day of Jefferson's inauguration. Jefferson immediately ordered Secretary of State Madison not to issue the commissions.

This battle between the political parties led to the historic 1803 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marbury v. Madison. The Court ruled in favor of Jefferson's actions and stated that Madison did not have to deliver commissions to the judges who had not yet received them. However, Marbury v. Madison had a larger and unforeseen consequence: By ruling on the case, the Court established the principle that it had constitutional authority to review actions by the executive and legislative branches and declare federal laws unconstitutional. When the Democratic-Republicans gained control of Congress in 1802, they repealed the legislation that had added new courts, and the original judicial system was thus restored.

Jefferson also led the charge to impeach (formally accuse a government official of misconduct) Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase (1741–1811). The president accused Chase of blatantly interjecting his Federalist perspectives into Court decisions. However, in the impeachment trial in 1805, the Senate voted not to remove him from the court.

Federal finances

Jefferson sought to eliminate the taxes on U.S. citizens such as the whiskey tax that Alexander Hamilton had introduced a decade earlier, when he was secretary of the treasury. The taxes often weighed heavily on farmers, a group Jefferson always supported. Jefferson also wanted to reduce government spending by reducing the military that President Adams had built up in the late 1790s; the threat of war with France had disappeared, so Jefferson saw no reason to maintain extra troops. Jefferson wanted to get rid of the national bank that Hamilton had established. However, his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin (1761–1849; see entry in volume 1), considered the bank very useful in carrying out the nation's finances, so it stayed. Jefferson was fortunate in having his first four-year term as president free from war. The economy boomed, and the national debt decreased.

The Louisiana Purchase

During Jefferson's first term, new American settlements continued expanding westward past the Appalachian Mountains. The port of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, both under Spanish control, were critical for transporting American produce from the West to towns on the east coast. In 1801, Jefferson heard rumors that France was about to regain control of New Orleans from Spain. Jefferson sent former Virginia governor James Monroe (1758–1831; see entry in volume 2) to France, where he would team up with Robert Livingston (1746–1813), the U.S. minister there. Jefferson instructed them to try to purchase New Orleans; Congress authorized them to spend no more than $2 million. However, the leader of France, Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), needed cash for his war with Britain and offered them a much larger piece of land, then known as Louisiana, for $15 million, a real bargain. It was an unexpected stroke of luck—too good to pass up. Because there was no way to rapidly communicate with the president back in the United States, Monroe and Livingston had to make the decision to spend the extra money and then act on their own to conclude the purchase.

On April 2, 1803, Monroe and Livingston signed a treaty to purchase the entire territory. This land deal doubled the size of the United States. The Louisiana Purchase stretched from New Orleans northward to the Canadian border and westward from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The purchase secured navigation rights to the Mississippi and the port of New Orleans.

When word of the purchase arrived, Jefferson was both elated and worried. He agonized that as president he likely had no constitutional authority to make such a purchase without prior congressional approval. This bothered Jefferson greatly because he had always argued for a strict interpretation of the Constitution when debating with Hamilton and the Federalists. Nonetheless, Jefferson reasoned that he had the authority to make treaties, and the purchase was made through a treaty. The U.S. Senate readily ratified (approved) the purchase. Now the nation had plenty of land for farmers and other settlers to use.

Also in 1803, Jefferson obtained funding from Congress to send an expedition westward, beyond the Mississippi. His secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark (1770–1838; see Lewis and Clark entry in volume 2) led the expedition crew, who were known as the Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark's journey fulfilled Jefferson's long-standing ambition to explore the Far West, past the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast. The expedition embarked from St. Louis in May 1804. For the next three years, the Corps achieved the goals Jefferson outlined in his instructions to Lewis, including mapping the region, exploring the new Louisiana Purchase and lands beyond, making scientific observations, determining if a river route to the Pacific Ocean existed, extending friendship to the numerous Native American tribes along the route, and establishing an American presence in the Pacific Northwest, a region still largely unclaimed by European powers. The Corps arrived back in St. Louis in September 1806.

A second presidential term

Flush with success over the Louisiana Purchase and a healthy national economy, Jefferson easily won reelection in 1804 over Federalist candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825), defeating him with a tally of 162 electoral votes to 14. Unfortunately, his second term as president was to be far more troubled than his first.

War between France and Britain resumed in 1803, and although America still claimed neutrality, both the French and the British were seizing its ships. Even worse, U.S. sailors were being captured and forced to serve in the British navy, a practice called impressment. For a while, U.S. trade continued to flourish. But the British impressments of thousands of American sailors directly challenged U.S. sovereignty. Jefferson pursued diplomatic solutions, but without success; meanwhile, public outrage over the situation escalated. In June 1807, a British warship named Leopard approached the U.S.S. Chesapeake, and the British captain demanded to board the ship. When the Chesapeake resisted, the Leopard fired on the U.S. ship, killing several American sailors. After this incident, the cries for war grew louder.

Also in 1807, Jefferson failed in an effort to convict his former vice president, Aaron Burr, on treason charges. Some thought Burr was attempting to lead forces against Mexico and perhaps split the western territories from the United States. Jefferson had Burr arrested and brought to Richmond, Virginia, to stand trial. However, Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall (1755–1835; see entry in volume 2) defined the act of treason so narrowly to the jury that conviction was impossible. Jefferson was furious.

By December 1807, Jefferson and Congress took decisive action through peaceful commercial means. They believed that if they cut off American trade with Britain and France, the two nations would suffer economically and agree to stop fighting. In December, Congress passed the Embargo Act to ban all foreign trade. It was a heavy-handed federal action of the kind that Jefferson had long opposed. Unexpectedly, the embargo backfired, crippling American businesses far more than it affected Britain and France. Seaports grew quiet, unemployment skyrocketed, and produce piled up on wharves with no market to ship to. As a result, both American pride and the U.S. economy plummeted during 1808, the last full year of Jefferson's presidency. Not willing to seek a third term, Jefferson at age sixty-five once again retreated from politics to his home at Monticello. Congress replaced the Embargo Act with a less stringent measure as he left office in March 1809.


Though he left office weary and under a dark cloud of international troubles, Jefferson remained highly popular after his forty years of public service. He received guests on a regular basis at Monticello. He had so many guests, sometimes fifty at a time, that he built a separate house 90 miles away in Bedford in order to spend some time alone. At Monticello, he enjoyed working in his garden and experimenting with new crops and farming techniques. He took long daily horseback rides on his property and enjoyed frequent visits from his daughter Martha and her twelve children.

In retirement, Jefferson could also concentrate more on his intellectual interests. He continued as president of the American Philosophical Society until 1815, having been elected in 1797. When Congress lost its library to fires set by British soldiers in August 1814 during the War of 1812 (1812–15), Jefferson sold some six thousand volumes to the government to establish a new library. These books became the core of the Library of Congress collections.

Jefferson renewed a close friendship with John Adams in 1812. They had lost touch during the political turmoil of the 1790s and its aftermath. Now, rising above their political differences, they began corresponding regularly, exchanging 158 letters over a fourteen-year period. They discussed a wide range of topics including politics, religion, science, and philosophy. The letters are considered the most impressive political and philosophical exchanges between two leading American statesmen in U.S. history. Though Jefferson authored no books in his retirement, he wrote many notes and essays on various topics and carried on extensive correspondence. He wrote 1,268 letters in one year alone.

Jefferson also gained a state charter for a public university in 1819. He established the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, near Monticello. He surveyed the layout of the campus, designed its main buildings, and closely watched its construction. The campus brought Jefferson great architectural acclaim over the next two centuries. He also hired the faculty, established the courses that would be taught, and created the library. The University of Virginia was the only school at that time that had no religious affiliation or religious requirements. Reflecting Jefferson's belief in self-government, the university had no president, school administration, or code of conduct. In addition to the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Religious Freedom that Jefferson wrote for Virginia, the university was one of his proudest achievements.

Jefferson's health had begun to fail in 1818. Like his friend John Adams, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was buried next to his wife, Martha, at Monticello.

For More Information


Bedini, Silvio A. Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Koch, Adrienne. Jefferson and Madison. New York: Knopf, 1950. Reprint, Birmingham, AL: Palladium Press, 2000.

McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. New York: H. Holt, 1988.

Miller, John C. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York: Free Press, 1977. Reprint, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.

Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978. Reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Web Sites

Monticello: The Home of Thomas Jefferson. (accessed on August 14, 2005).

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated Jun 08 2018

Jefferson, Thomas

Excerpt from "Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis"

Delivered April 1803; published in The Journals of Lewis and Clark,
edited by Bernard DeVoto, 1953

The Louisiana Purchase, the vast expanse of land acquired by the United States in 1803, was unknown country to all but a few people. Not long after the purchase, President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) ordered that the area be explored, and within a few years, the explorers' reports would make the region less mysterious to Americans. Jefferson had long been interested in exploration of the land west of the Mississippi River. In the 1790s, land-hungry pioneers had flooded into the region just west of the Appalachian Mountains, creating settlements as far west as the Mississippi River. It seemed inevitable that Americans would eventually move across the Mississippi. By the late 1790s, people in Britain, France, and Spain thought that the United States might one day reach all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson, too, envisioned America stretching westward to the Pacific.

In November 1802, President Jefferson had discussed with a few people the possibility of sending an exploration party across the vast region then known as Louisiana to a distant land called Oregon. On January 18, 1803, Jefferson had secretly sent a message to Congress requesting funds for such an expedition, and Congress had granted his request. Jefferson thus planned the exploration of the West at least six months before the United States had the unexpected opportunity to purchase the entire Louisiana region. Historians believe that Jefferson had decided the United States would ultimately extend to the Pacific Ocean. Many think he had already formed this opinion by the time he was inaugurated as president in March 1801. This would explain why Jefferson was eager to send an exploratory party westward as soon as possible.

When Jefferson received the terms of the Louisiana Purchase in mid-May 1803, he was astounded. He had never expected to acquire the entire parcel of land at one time and so easily. His expedition plans took on a new urgency. Now he could officially send an exploratory force into the area, which would soon be part of the United States (the Senate still had to ratify, or approve, the purchase, and that did not happen until October 20, 1803).

In late April 1803, President Jefferson had written a letter to Captain Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) of the First Infantry, U.S. Army, instructing him on how to conduct an expedition through the vast region called Louisiana. Lewis had considerable military and wilderness experience, but he had been serving as Jefferson's private secretary since Jefferson offered him the position in February 1801. It is likely that Jefferson already knew he wanted Lewis to lead an expedition west and therefore appointed him as one of his closest colleagues so they could discuss expedition plans for the future. As soon as Congress authorized funds for the expedition in January 1803, Jefferson appointed Lewis as the expedition leader.

Captain Lewis, who was twenty-nine years old at the time, chose thirty-three-year-old William Clark (1770–1838) of Virginia to be the coleader of the expedition. Clark served in the American Revolution (1775–83) and fought in the successful Fallen Timbers campaign in 1794 led by Brigadier General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796). Clark was also the younger brother of American Revolution hero George Rogers Clark (1752–1818).

Several of Jefferson's goals for the Lewis and Clark expedition are clearly spelled out in the following excerpt. There were three clear goals: (1) to find a water route connecting the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean; (2) to learn as much as possible about the plants, animals, geography, and climate of the region; and (3) to befriend the Native Americans living in the region so as to pave the way for trading.

The chief goal of the expedition was finding a water route for trade along the Missouri River and connecting rivers all the way to the Pacific. By 1803, American ships had established an extensive trade of fur products taken from the Pacific Northwest; the furs were transported either around the southern tip of South America, Cape Horn, and northward to the east coast of the United States and to Europe, or around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. The trading trips would take months if not years. If a water route could be found acrossNorth America, it would take considerably less time and cost considerably less money to ship the furs and other products. Various French, British, and Spanish explorers had tried unsuccessfully to find such a passage, commonly called the Northwest Passage. However, Jefferson still had hope that it existed. The search for the Northwest Passage also fit in with one of Jefferson's unspoken goals: He hoped that with the discovery of new water routes, American trappers could tap into the rich Canadian fur trade just east of the Rocky Mountains and transport the furs to the United States.

The second goal of the expedition fed Jefferson's scientific interests. He was eager to learn as much as he could about the plants, animals, geography, and climate of the West. He instructed Lewis and Clark to take samples and carefully record their findings. The third goal pertained to Jefferson's desire to befriend the Native Americans by having Lewis and Clark learn as much as possible about their ways of life. Jefferson also wanted the explorers to tell the Native Americans that "the Great Leader"—that is, the president, Jefferson himself—now resided in Washington, D.C., not London or Paris. The United States now controlled these lands, or intended to very soon, rather than more distant European nations. Jefferson hoped that several chiefs would travel to Washington to meet him and that a general peace between the tribes of the West and the white settlers could be achieved.

The expedition had some hidden goals, too. For example, Jefferson expected that U.S. forces would at some point have to defend the Louisiana Purchase against the Spanish. Therefore, in his instructions, he asked Lewis to learn all he could about the geography of the land south of the Missouri River, especially the areas through which the Río Bravo (present-day Rio Grande) and the Colorado River flow. This land was held by Spain. Jefferson needed to know its surrounding geography in order to plan for the defense of the new U.S. territory.

Jefferson had another hidden goal: If the expedition was successful and the explorers were able to travel all the way west through Oregon to the Pacific, he hoped that would give the United States a more solid claim to Oregon. At that time, Oregon was a region that extended north of Spanish California into Canada; its eastern border ran along the Rocky Mountains. Britain still held a claim to Oregon, but in 1792 Captain Robert Gray (1755–1806), an American, had sailed from the Pacific into a broad river that he named after his ship, the Columbia. Jefferson reasoned that Gray's discovery of the Columbia River, coupled with a successful trip through Oregon by Lewis and Clark, would give the United States a solid claim to Oregon.

Between forty-five and fifty men made up the expedition. They called themselves the Corps of Discovery. Lewis was the scientist, recording the plants and animals he observed. Clark was the navigator, journal keeper, and mapmaker; he also had extraordinary negotiation skills that he used when the expedition encountered Native Americans. The expedition members packed their boats with gifts for the Native Americans, including glass beads, mirrors, and metal peace medallions.

The Corps of Discovery left St. Louis on May 14, 1804. Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri River northwest across the Great Plains, then wintered with the Mandan Indians in North Dakota. There they hired French Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau (1758–1843) as a Native American interpreter for the journey over the Rockies to the Pacific. His wife, Sacagawea (c. 1786–1812), also accompanied the party. Sacagawea was a Native American from the Shoshone tribe, so she was very useful to the expedition. She translated Native American languages, showed the men where to hunt and fish, instructed them in the use of wild plants for food and medicine, and helped them acquire horses for the trip over the Rockies.

Finding their way down the Columbia River, the party spent the rainy winter of 1805–6 on the present-day Oregon coast at Fort Clatsop. They had to build the fort themselves when they arrived. The expedition returned to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, and met with cheers of surprise. The explorers had been given up for lost a few months earlier.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis":

  • When Jefferson penned the instructions, he had not received word of the Louisiana Purchase. He assumed the expedition members would not be traveling in U.S. territory.
  • Jefferson carefully outlined the goals of the expedition. The key aspect of the mission was to find a water route to connect the Pacific Ocean with the Mississippi River.
  • In general, Jefferson's two main interests were scientific inquiries and agriculture. His instructions to Lewis indicated his eagerness to learn about the natural world and to perhaps someday expand U.S. holdings of land so American agriculture would have room to grow.
  • Variant spellings and Jefferson's frequent spelling errors and aversion to capitalization are evident in his letter to Lewis.

Excerpt from "Jefferson's Instructions to Lewis"

To Meriwether Lewis, esquire, Captain of the 1st regiment of infantry of the United States of America: Your situation as Secretary of the President of the United States has made you acquainted with theobjects of myconfidential message of Jan. 18, 1803, to the legislature. you have seen the act they passed, which, tho' expressed in general terms, was meant tosanction those objects, and you are appointed tocarry them into execution.

Instruments forascertaining, bycelestial observations, the geography of the country thro' which you will pass, have already been provided. light articles forbarter, & presents among the Indians, arms for your attendants, say for from 10 to 12 men, boats, tents, & other travelling apparatus, with ammunition, medicine, surgical instruments & provisions you will have prepared with such aids as the Secretary atWar can yield in his department; & from him also you will recieve authority toengage among our troops, by voluntary agreement, the number ofattendants above mentioned, over whom you, as their commanding officer, areinvested with all the powers the laws give in such a case.

As your movements while within the limits of the U.S. will be better directed by occasional communications, adapted to circumstances as they arise, they will not benoticed here. what follows willrespect your proceedings after your departure from the U.S.

Your mission has been communicated to the Ministers here from France, Spain & Great Britain, and through them to their governments; and such assurances given them ..., as we trust will satisfy them. the country of Louisiana having beenceded by Spain to France, the passport you have from the Minister of France, the representative of the presentsovereign, of the country, will be a protection with allit's subjects; And that from the Minister of England will entitle you to the friendly aid of any traders of that allegiance with whom you may happen to meet.

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it'scourse & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes ofcommerce.

Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will takeobservations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognised hereafter. the courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass, thelog-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. the variations of the compass too, in different places, should be noticed.

The interesting points of theportage between theheads of the Missouri & the water offering the best communication with the Pacific Ocean should also befixed by observation, & the course of that water to the ocean, in the same manner as that of the Missouri.

Your observations are to be taken with great pains & accuracy, to be entered distinctly & intelligibly for others as well as yourself, to comprehend all the elements necessary, with the aid of the usual tables, to fix the latitude and longitude of the places at which they were taken, & are to berendered to the war office, for the purpose ofhaving the calculations madeconcurrently by proper persons within the U.S. several copies of these, as well as of your other notes, should be made at leisure times, & put into the care of the most trustworthy of your attendants, to guard, by multiplying them, against the accidental losses to which they will be exposed. a further guard would be that one of these copies be written on the paper of the birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.

The commerce which may be carried on with thepeople inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of those people important. you will thereforeendeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of thenations & their numbers; the extent & limits of their possessions; their relations with other tribes or nations; their language, traditions, monuments; their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts, & theimplements for these; their food, clothing, & domestic accommodations; the diseases prevalent among them, & the remedies they use; moral & physical circumstances which distinguish them from the tribes we know; peculiarities in their laws, customs &dispositions; and articles of commerce they may need or furnish, & to what extent.

And, considering the interest which every nation has in extending & strengthening the authority of reason & justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them, as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them, to adapt their measures to the existing notions & practises of those on whom they are tooperate.

Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country, it's growth & vegetable productions; especially those not of the U.S.; the animals of the country generally, & especially those not known in the U.S.; the remains and accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct; the mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, &saltpetre; salines & mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, & such circumstances as may indicate their character; volcanic appearances; climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy & clear days, by lightening, hail, snow, ice, by theaccess & recess of frost, by the winds prevailing at different seasons, the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles or insects.

Altho' your route will be along the channel of the Missouri, yet you will endeavor to inform yourself, by enquiry, of the character & extent of the country watered by it's branches, & especially on it's southern side. The North river orRio Bravo which runs into the gulph of Mexico, and the North river, or Rio colorado which runs into the gulph of California, are understood to be the principal streamsheading opposite to the waters of the Missouri, and running Southwardly. whether the dividing grounds between the Missouri & them are mountains or flatlands, what are their distance from the Missouri, the character of the intermediate country, & the people inhabiting it, are worthy of particular enquiry. The Northern waters of the Missouri are less to be enquired after, because they have beenascertained to a considerable degree, and are still in a course of ascertainment by English traders, & travellers. but if you can learn anything certain of the most Northern source of the Missisipi, & of its position relative to thelake of the woods it will be interesting to us. some account too of the path of the Canadian traders from the Missisipi, at the mouth of theOuisconsin river, to where it strikes the Missouri and of the soil & rivers in it's course, is desireable.

In all yourintercourse with the natives treat them in the most friendly &conciliatory manner which their own conduct willadmit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercialdispositions of the U.S. of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to acommercial intercourse with them;confer with them on the points most convenient as mutualemporiums, & the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us. if a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, and furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the U.S. to have themconveyed to this place at the public expence. if any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct & take care of them. such a mission, whether of influential chiefs, or of young people, would give some security to your own party. [Jefferson believed the Native Americans would be less likely to start conflicts with members of the expedition if some of their own people were back east with the Americans.] carry with you some matter of thekinepox, inform those of them with whom you may be of it'[s]efficacy as a preservative from the small-pox; and instruct & incourage them in the use of it. this may be especially done wherever you winter.

As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be recieved by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe the exact degree ofperseverance with which you are to pursue your journey. we value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals, or of small parties: but if a superior force, authorised, or not authorised, by a nation, should bearrayed against your further passage, & inflexibly determined toarrest it, you must decline it's further pursuit, and return. in the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. by returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew theessay with better calculated means. to your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk, & the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, & to bring back your party safe, even if it be with less information.

As far up the Missouri as the white settlements extend, an intercourse will probably be found to exist between them and the Spanishposts at St. Louis, oppositeCahokia, orSte. Genevieve oppositeKaskaskia. From still further up the river, the traders may furnish aconveyance for letters. beyond that, you may perhaps be able to engage Indians to bring letters for the government to Cahokia or Kaskaskia, on promising that they shall there receive such specialcompensation as you shall havestipulated with them. Avail yourself of these means to communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes & observations of every kind, putting intocypher whatever might do injury if betrayed.

Should you reach the Pacific ocean ... inform yourself of the circumstances which may decide whether the furs of those parts may not be collected as advantageously at the head of the Missouri (convenient as is supposed to the waters of the Colorado & Oregon or Columbia) as atNootka sound, or any other point of that coast; & that trade be consequently conducted through the Missouri & U.S. more beneficially than by thecircumnavigation now practised.

On your arrival on that coast endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea-vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes. and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be eminently dangerous, then ship the whole, & return by sea by way ofCape Horn, or thecape of good Hope, as you shall be able. as you will bewithout money, clothes or provisions, you must endeavor to use thecredit of the U.S. to obtain them; for which purpose openletters of credit shall be furnished you, authorising you to draw upon theExecutive of the U.S. or any of its officers in any part of the world, on whichdrafts can be disposed of, and to apply with our recommendations to the Consuls, agents, merchants, or citizens of any nation with which we have intercourse, assuring them in our name that any aids they may furnish you, shall honorably repaid, and on demand. ...

Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party around by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so; making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct or confirm those made on your outward journey.

On re-entering the U.S. and reaching a place of safety, discharge any of your attendants who may desire & deserve it,procuring for them immediate paiment of allarrears of pay & cloathing which may haveincurred since their departure, & assure them that they shall be recommended to theliberality of the legislature for thegrant of a souldier's portion of land each, as proposed in my message to Congress &repair yourself yourpapers to the seat of government.

To provide, on the accident of your death, against anarchy, dispersion & the consequent danger to your party, and total failure of the enterprise, you are hereby authorised, by any instrument signed & written in your own hand, to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease, and by like instruments to change the nomination from time to time, as further experience of the characters accompanying you shall point out superior fitness. ...

Given under my hand at the city of Washington, this 20th day of June 1803.

What happened next ...

A water route connecting the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean was not found. At last, it was accepted that no such route existed. However, Lewis and Clark caught the

American Philosophical Society

Founded in 1743 at the urging of American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), the American Philosophical Society was the first scholarly society in the New World, as Europeans at that time called North and South America, devoted to the expansion of scientific knowledge. The society's goal was to learn more about "natural philosophy," or nature and the physical universe.

Established in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Franklin's hometown, the society gained international fame by supporting studies of astronomy in the 1760s. Scientist David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) set up his telescope on the grounds of the Pennsylvania State House (the building now known as Independence Hall) and made observations of the planet Venus.

In 1780, Pennsylvania donated a portion of land next to the Pennsylvania State House to the society. There, the society built its headquarters, Philosophical Hall, between 1785 and 1789. At the hall, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark received instruction on plant and animal life, geography, and Native American life in preparation for their expedition through the territories of Louisiana and Oregon. Lewis and Clark's journals and the plant and animal specimens they collected on the expedition are still on display at Philosophical Hall.

By the late 1700s and early 1800s, many of America's most famous Founding Fathers were members of the Philosophical Society, including the first four presidents: George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97), John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9), and James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17). Such leaders encouraged studies to improve agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation, all of which strengthened the young nation's economic base.

Simply being elected to membership in the society is a great honor. A sampling of members from the nineteenth and twentieth century includes inventor of the steamboat Robert Fulton (1765–1815), ornithologist John J. Audubon (1785–1851), biologist and evolution theorist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), inventor Thomas Edison (1847–1931), scientific genius Albert Einstein (1879–1955), poet Robert Frost (1874–1963), scientist Marie Curie (1867–1934), and anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the society has over seven hundred members worldwide (85 percent live in the United States). During the twentieth century, two hundred of its members received the Nobel Prize, a highly prestigious worldwide award given every year to several individuals for intellectual achievement.

interest and imagination of Americans. Clark's mapping was very accurate, and Lewis's description of abundant wildlife excited trappers. Many Americans believed that the nation's future was in the West. The first to follow the early explorers' footsteps were rugged, solitary "mountain men," fur trappers from Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. They went to the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest to trap and make their fortune in furs. Many of the mountain men headed to areas that Lewis and Clark recommended for trapping, including the valley of the Yellowstone River (present-day Yellowstone National Park). Wealthy American businessman John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) established his Pacific Fur Company at Fort Astoria (present-day Astoria, Oregon) in 1811. The establishment of Astor's company strengthened America's claim to Oregon. Americans began to think of the Oregon region as their own.

In 1809, Meriwether Lewis died in a remote cabin in Tennessee, where he was staying on his way from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. Lewis had frequently suffered from bouts of depression, so many people think he may have taken his own life. Whatever the circumstance, his death caused a delay in the final report of the expedition. However, many of his notes on Native Americans had been transferred back to the War Department in Washington, D.C., during the expedition. They were published in A Statistical View of the Indian Nations Inhabiting the Territory of Louisiana. The publication was the first survey of Native American tribes west of the Mississippi. Nicholas Biddle's History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark is the first detailed account of the expedition. Biddle (1786–1844) wrote History from Lewis and Clark's notes. Published in 1814, his book was eagerly read in the United States and Europe.

Bernard DeVoto, editor of The Journals of Lewis and Clark, states that the most important result of the expedition was "the beginning of knowledge of the American West." The vast territories of Louisiana and Oregon had largely been a blank to Americans before the expedition. After Lewis and Clark returned, Western rivers and mountains and the Pacific Ocean all became real—they could be read about and looked at on a map.

Did you know ...

  • Lewis and Clark brilliantly led the expedition chiefly because they worked so well together. As they traveled, both men carefully thought out their next moves, and each had a talent for making the right decisions and taking the correct turns to find favorable routes.
  • Very few emergencies occurred on the trip—a sign of excellent leadership and planning. Only one member of the expedition died, and that was Charles Floyd (c. 1782–1804). His death in August 1804 was believed to have been caused by a ruptured appendix, a medical emergency that would have been fatal in any situation in 1804.
  • Clark had a better ability to communicate with the Native Americans than Lewis. As a result, communications were frequently peaceful though many Native American groups were skeptical of their message of friendship. The show of guns by the expedition kept Native American groups cautiously friendly. Known as the Red-Headed Chief, Clark eventually gained the status as a leader in Native American relations among U.S. citizens.

Consider the following ...

  • Outline the instructions and find the various goals of the expedition embedded in the instructions.
  • Considering the detailed instructions he wrote, how long do you think Jefferson might have been planning the expedition—only a short while or for a long time? Explain your answer.
  • Why did Jefferson instruct Lewis to make so many copies of the expedition notes while the trip was still in progress? Find all the actions Jefferson instructed Lewis to take to be sure copies got back to Washington, D.C.
  • Obtain a twentieth- or twenty-first-century edition of Lewis and Clark's journals. Read for yourself the Lewis and Clark adventures.

Objects: Substance.

Confidential: Secret.

Sanction: Authorize.

Carry them into execution: Complete them.

Ascertaining: Determining.

Celestial observations: Observing the position of the stars.

Barter: Trade.

Engage among: Sign up.

Attendants: Soldiers.

Invested: Authorized.

Noticed: Mentioned.

Respect your proceedings: Pertain to your travels.

Ceded: Formally turned over.

Sovereign: Ruler.

Its subjects: French citizens you should meet.

Course & communication: Path and connections.

Commerce: Business.

Observations of latitude & longitude: A system for recording any specific location in the world using a commonly agreed upon square grid.

Log-line: A one-sentence description of what feature you are locating.

Portage: Passage.

Heads: Beginning points.

Fixed by observation: Location measured by making latitude and longitude calculations.

Rendered: Delivered.

Concurrently: At the same time.

People inhabiting the line you will pursue: Native Americans living along the route of the expedition.

Renders a knolege of those people important: Requires essential knowledge of these people.

Endeavor: Try.

Nations: Native American tribes.

Implements: Tools.

Dispositions: Characteristics.

Operate: Manage.

Saltpetre: Salts.

Access & recess: The pattern of cold frosts that would hinder agriculture by affecting the growing seasons.

Rio Bravo: The present-day Rio Grande; the name means "big river" in English.

Heading opposite to: Flowing to the south and west rather than to the east.

Ascertained: Learned about.

Lake of the Woods: A lake in northern Minnesota very near the Canadian border.

Ouisconsin: Wisconsin.

Intercourse: Communications.

Conciliatory: Agreeable.

Admit: Allow.

Allay all jealousies: Remove all fears.

Dispositions: Natures.

Commercial intercourse: Profitable association.

Confer: Discuss.

Emporiums: Trade locations.

Conveyed: Brought.

Kinepox: Cowpox vaccination.

Efficacy: Effectiveness.

Perseverance: Persistence.

Arrayed: Organized for battle.

Arrest: Stop.

Essay: Attempted expedition.

Posts: Property.

Cahokia: A major Native American settlement in Illinois across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

Ste. Genevieve: A Missouri settlement on the Mississippi River.

Kaskaskia: An Illinois settlement on the Mississippi River.

Conveyance: Means of transportation.

Compensation: Payment.

Stipulated: Agreed to.

Cypher: Coded message.

Nootka sound: West coast of Vancouver Island in present-day British Columbia, Canada.

Circumnavigation: Travel by boat around the southern tip of South America or South Africa.

Cape Horn: The southern tip of South America.

Cape of Good Hope: The southern tip of South Africa.

Credit: Good name; repute.

Letters of credit: Documents stating that the U.S. government will pay for all supplies.

Executive: President.

Drafts can be disposed of: Money may be obtained.

Procuring: Obtaining.

Arrears: Unpaid debts.

Incurred: Accumulated.

Liberality: Generosity.

Grant: Gift.

Repair yourself: Go.

Papers: Expedition records.

Given under my hand: Signed.

For More Information


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

DeVoto, Bernard, ed. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953.

Duncan, Dayton. Lewis and Clark: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Slaughter, Thomas P. Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Web Sites

American Philosophical Society. (accessed on July 18, 2005).

"Fill Up the Canvas ... Rivers of Words: Exploring with Lewis and Clark." American Memory, Library of Congress. (accessed on July 18, 2005).

"The Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery." U.S. National Park Service. (accessed on July 18, 2005).

Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, Inc. (accessed on July 18, 2005).

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated Jun 27 2018

Jefferson, Thomas

Excerpt from "Jefferson's First Inaugural Address"

Delivered on March 4, 1801
Published in Documents of American History, edited by
Henry S. Commager, 1943

America experienced a series of revolutions in the late 1700s. First the Declaration of Independence of 1776 announced that America would separate from Britain and become its own nation. The United States secured its independence from Britain in 1783, after defeating the British in the battles of the American Revolution. In 1787, American leaders wrote the revolutionary U.S. Constitution. It was presented to the states in September 1787 and approved by mid-1788. The Constitution established the United States as a republic, a nation governed by representatives elected by the people. Then, after the presidential election of 1800, Americans witnessed another remarkable event: the calm and orderly transfer of power from the defeated political party to the opposing party. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9), the winner of the election, referred to this as a revolution. At that time, government leadership changes throughout the world usually involved violence, bloodshed, and confusion, so the peaceful transfer of power was truly revolutionary.

The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans (originally known as Republicans) were the two political parties competing for votes in the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson, who became the nation's third president, was a Democratic-Republican. The sitting president he defeated, John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801), was a Federalist. Adams and George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97), America's first president, had both dreaded the formation of political parties. Political parties are organized groups of people who have similar viewpoints or philosophies about how to run the government. Washington and Adams believed that political parties supported their own interests instead of the common good. The writers of the Constitution assumed political parties would not develop in the United States and therefore provided no framework to prevent or control their development. However, the emergence of political parties proved unavoidable, because people tend to associate with others who think as they do. Although they were not as highly organized as the political parties of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans had emerged as two distinct parties by the 1790s.

Despite their distrust of political parties, Washington and Adams both thought like Federalists. Adams, known as a Federalist by 1796, ran successfully for president. Federalists were wealthy, highly educated men, many of whom were gifted speakers. Federalists favored a strong national government for the United States. They promoted industry and manufacturing over agricultural interests, favored taxes to support the national government, and created the nation's first national bank.

Although Federalists played the key role in shaping the U.S. government from 1789 through 1800, Americans were ready for a change in the November 1800 presidential election. The Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson, gained widespread popularity. The Democratic-Republicans sharply differed with the Federalists over governmental policies. Democratic-Republicans favored a limited national government; they preferred to have the states hold a great deal of power. They promoted agricultural interests over industry and manufacturing. Jefferson wanted America to be a farming nation, not an industrial power. Britain's aristocracy, the class of powerful people holding riches and privileges, had gained their wealth and power from industrial might. British wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. Jefferson wished to avoid this same fate for America. Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans opposed a national bank because its policies seemed to favor Federalist businessmen and bankers by concentrating the nation's wealth in their hands.

By the 1800 presidential election, Democratic-Republican support came from farmers throughout the country and from most Southerners. Jefferson was especially supportive of farmers, and nine out of ten Americans were farmers. Federalist support was strongest in the urban industrial centers of the Northeast, including New York and New England.

Candidates were not elected by a direct vote of the people. Instead, the people of each state voted for electors, and the electors then cast votes for the candidates. The number of electors each state could have was equal to its total number of representatives in the House and Senate. For the first four U.S. presidential elections, each elector cast two votes. This election system was different from the one used in twenty-first-century America: In 1800, the candidate with the most votes became president, and the runner-up became vice president.

The Federalists chose Adams as their presidential candidate and selected Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825) of South Carolina as the second candidate, or the intended vice presidential candidate. The Democratic-Republicans chose Jefferson and former U.S. senator Aaron Burr (1756–1836) of New York. The election turned very ugly. Both parties attacked the character of the opposing candidates.

The voting results brought an election crisis. Jefferson and Burr, the two Democratic-Republican candidates, each received 73 electoral votes. Burr refused to concede the election to Jefferson. Adams received 65 votes, and Pinckney received 64, so they were both eliminated. The House of Representatives had to resolve the tie. Each of the sixteen states had one vote. Jefferson needed a simple majority of nine votes to win. It took thirty-six ballots before Jefferson finally emerged as the winner.

Federalists did not believe that the everyday American had the ability to make correct decisions for the young country. In contrast, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans championed the common people and their ability to discuss issues and cast an informed vote. Jefferson came from a wealthy family, but Americans believed he would defend ordinary people and increase their opportunities. Jefferson's presidency was eagerly awaited.

On March 4, 1801, Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835) administered the presidential oath of office to Jefferson in the Senate chamber of the newly constructed Capitol in Washington, D.C. Jefferson promised to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. In his eloquent inaugural address, Jefferson called for all to unite for the common good. This appeal would be echoed in almost every inaugural address given thereafter.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "Jefferson's First Inaugural Address":

  • Through his address, Jefferson hoped to make peace between the two political parties and encourage unity in the nation.
  • Jefferson first expressed his understanding that the job he was undertaking had immense responsibilities. He asked for "guidance and support" from those who would be working with him in high offices of the government.
  • Jefferson acknowledged that citizens agreeing with the majority opinions in America held a great deal of influence, but he reminded his listeners that the minority possessed equal rights protected by law. Next, in a statement of unity, Jefferson reminded both Democratic-Republicans and Federalists that they were all Americans and needed to unite their efforts for the common good: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." Jefferson stated that America was, in his opinion, the "strongest Government on earth."
  • Jefferson presented a glowing summary of the opportunities America presented: room for greatly expanded settlement, the right to freely pursue new industries or businesses, and respect for one another based on what a person accomplishes, not who they are related to, such as hereditary titles in Europe.
  • In the second half of his address, Jefferson summarized what he calls the "essential principles of our Government." In a little over two hundred words, he described concisely the core of American democratic principles that have endured from 1787 into the twenty-first century.

Excerpt from "Jefferson's First Inaugural Address"

Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, Iavail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks... to declare a sincereconsciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awfulpresentiments which the greatness of thecharge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land,traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged incommerce with nations who feel power andforget right, advancing rapidly todestinies beyond the reach of mortal eye —when I... see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country... and theauspices of this day, Ishrink from thecontemplation, and humble myself before themagnitude of the undertaking. Utterly,indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the otherhigh authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and ofzeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with thesovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety thevessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

During thecontest of opinion through which we have passed theanimation of discussions and ofexertions has sometimesworn an aspect which mightimpose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would beoppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to socialintercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land thatreligious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if wecountenance a political intolerance asdespotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions . ... But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names... the same principle. We are allRepublicans, we are allFederalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed asmonuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the... fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibilitywant energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, wouldfly to the standard of the law, and would meetinvasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trustedwith the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from theexterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; ... possessing achosen country, with room enough for ourdescendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation;entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our ownfaculties, to theacquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but fromour actions and their sense of them; enlightened by abenign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of theminculcating honesty, truth,temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overrulingProvidence, which by all itsdispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise andfrugal 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. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary toclose the circle of our felicities.

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what Ideem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I willcompress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations,entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surestbulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as thesheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people... ;absoluteacquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics... ; a well disciplinedmilitia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of thecivil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightlyburthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as itshandmaid; thediffusion of information... ; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of thehabeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form thebright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution andreformation. The wisdom of oursages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to theirattainment. They should be thecreed of our political faith, the text ofcivic instruction, thetouchstone by which totry the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

Irepair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me. With experience enough insubordinate offices to have seen the difficulties of this the greatest of all, I have learnt to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it. Withoutpretensions to that high confidence youreposed inour first and greatest revolutionary character, whosepreeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country's love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history, I ask so much confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal administration of your affairs. I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask yourindulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. ...

Relying, then, on thepatronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work . ... And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead ourcouncils to what is best, and give them a favorableissue for your peace and prosperity.

What happened next...

By the end of Jefferson's inauguration day, it was clear that the transfer of power from the Federalist administration to Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans would be peaceful. Federalists had feared that the Democratic-Republicans might try to destroy everything the Federalists had worked for over the last twelve years. They thought Jefferson might call for revolutionary changes, such as slashing the national government's budget or abolishing the national bank. However, Jefferson's inaugural speech showed that he intended to unite the country, not divide it. His inauguration day marked the first of continuous peaceful leadership changes from one political party to another for the U.S. government—from the very early nineteenth century into the twenty-first century.

Jefferson's first four years in office were indeed peaceful compared to the preceding decades. His main battles were with the U.S. Supreme Court. During the early 1800s, the three branches of government—executive (presidential), legislative (Congress), and judicial (courts)—were just learning their place in the Constitution's checks and balances system. This system was designed to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. There were limits (checks) on the powers of each branch, and strategically distributed responsibilities (balances) ensured that they would all hold an equal amount of power. Despite Jefferson's misgivings because he believed in a weak central government, Chief Justice Marshall succeeded in establishing the principle of judicial review, which serves as a check (limit) on the powers of Congress and the president. Under judicial review, the Supreme Court rules whether laws passed by Congress and approved by the president are constitutional—that is, whether the law agrees with the intent of the Constitution. Judicial review became a cornerstone of the judicial branch of American government.

In 1803, during President Jefferson's first term in office, the United States bought a huge piece of land west of the Mississippi River. The acquisition was called the Louisiana Purchase. The land extended from New Orleans in the south to Canada in the north and stretched west all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The United States gained more than 800,000 square miles of territory at a bargain price; France had offered to sell the land for $15 million. The purchase doubled the size of the United States and placed the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans under U.S. control.

By the summer of 1804, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans were riding a wave of popularity. President Jefferson easily won reelection that fall over his Federalist opponent, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Jefferson delivered his second inaugural address with a great deal of pride. He held America up to the world as an example that the democratic process of people governing themselves was working.

Jefferson's second term began in March 1805 with a sense of peace and goodwill. Unfortunately, before the year was over, war in Europe would disrupt U.S. tranquillity.

Did you know...

  • Chief Justice John Marshall, who administered the oath of office to Jefferson, was a Federalist. Marshall and Jefferson were distant relatives, but they were political enemies. Just before leaving office, defeated Federalist president John Adams had appointed Marshall as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Adams's intention was to place an individual with strong Federalist views at the head of the Court so these views would be expressed for years to come despite the defeat of his party. This same strategy has been used by each American president since then to make sure his values are expressed in the courts for years after he leaves office.
  • Although President Adams worked late at the Capitol on his final night as chief executive, he then left Washington D.C., and did not attend Jefferson's inauguration the next morning.
  • The term "democracy" does not appear anywhere in Jefferson's speech. During the late 1700s, political leaders generally avoided the term because it was understood to mean rule by mob action. However, after Jefferson took office, he began using the word to mean rule by the people in a free society. This positive meaning stuck, and "democracy" became a regular part of political speechmaking. Jefferson would emphasize democracy during his entire presidency.

Consider the following...

  • Examine the "essential principles of our Government" mentioned by Jefferson in his inaugural speech. List five or six of his principles. Are the principles still a part of U.S. government in the twenty-first century? Explain why or why not.
  • Research the growth of U.S. political parties from the late 1700s until the twenty-first century. What parties existed, what were their main beliefs, and how long did they exist?
  • Jefferson was the first president inaugurated in Washington, D.C. Research the planning of the nation's capital city, the building of the Capitol and the President's House (the initial name of the White House), and what Washington was like in the early 1800s.

Avail myself: Take advantage.

Consciousness: Belief.

Presentiments: Apprehensions.

Charge: Responsibility.

Traversing: Crossing.

Commerce: Trade.

Forget right: Often fail to respect America's shipping rights and steal cargo and enslave American sailors.

Destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye: Events or fortunes of the distant future.

Auspices: Favorable signs.

Shrink from: Cringe at.

Contemplation: Thought.

Magnitude: Largeness.

High authorities: Representatives serving in government.

Zeal: Eager enthusiasm.

Sovereign: Great and supreme.

Vessel: The United States.

Contest of opinion: Election of 1800.

Animation: Liveliness.

Exertions: Vigorous efforts.

Worn an aspect: Presented a picture.

Impose on: Be confusing to.

Oppression: Cruel and unjust exercise of power.

Intercourse: Interaction.

Religious intolerance: Unwillingness to accept religious beliefs other than one's own.

Countenance: Permit.

Despotic: Oppressive.

Republicans: Members of the Democratic-Republican Party, who favored a weak central government and strong state governments.

Federalists: Members of the Federalist Party, who favored a powerful central government.

Monuments of the safety: Symbols of the freedoms enjoyed in America.

Want: Lack.

Fly to: Support.

Invasions of the public order: Public disturbances such as antigovernment demonstrations.

Exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe: War and devastation in Europe.

Chosen country: A nation blessed by God.

Entertaining: Contemplating.

Faculties: Abilities.

Acquisitions: Building.

Our actions and their sense of them: Individual efforts recognized by others.

Benign: Kindly and not overpowering.

Inculcating: Teaching.

Temperance: Self-control.

Providence: God.

Dispensations: Actions.

Frugal: Not wasteful with money.

Close the circle of our felicities: Ensure that Americans continue enjoying the freedoms they won in the Revolutionary War.

Deem: Consider.

Compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear: Describe them very briefly.

Entangling alliances: Formal commitments.

Bulwarks: Guards.

Sheet anchor: A large anchor used in dangerous emergencies.

Acquiescence: Compliance without protest.

Militia: An organized military force of state citizens.

Civil: Elected, nonmilitary.

Burthened: Taxed.

Handmaid: Helper.

Diffusion: Spread.

Habeas corpus: Right of a person to be brought before a judge to determine if he or she can be legally detained.

Bright constellation: Desirable guiding principle.

Reformation: Improvement.

Sages: Knowledgeable leaders.

Attainment: Achievement.

Creed: Formal statement.

Civic instruction: Government practice.

Touchstone: Standards.

Try: Examine.

Repair: Go.

Subordinate: Lower.

Pretensions to: Claiming.

Reposed: Entrusted.

Our first and greatest revolutionary character: George Washington.

Preeminent: Outstanding.

Indulgence: Tolerance.

Patronage: Support.

Destinies: Future events.

Councils: Deliberations by government leaders.

Issue: Outcome.

For More Information


Dunn, Susan. Jefferson's Second Revolution: The Election Crisis of 1800 and the Triumph of Republicanism. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Padover, Saul K. Jefferson. New York: Mentor Books, 1970.

Risjord, Norman K. Jefferson's America, 1760–1815. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1991.

Simon, James F. What Kind of Nation: Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and the Epic Struggle to Create a United States. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated May 21 2018


Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743–4 July 1826) was the most gifted writer among the founding fathers. He was, among other things, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, governor of Virginia, minister to France, secretary of state, vice president, president, founder of the University of Virginia, president of the American Philosophical Society, naturalist, architect, and philosopher of democracy. A sentence from his prologue to the Declaration has become a sacred text for Americans and many others: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Jefferson's father, Peter, was a pioneer of Albemarle County, Virginia, a successful planter, surveyor, lieutenant of militia, and member of the General Assembly. He died when Thomas was fourteen, leaving a fine estate, a small library, and an example of personal distinction. Less is known about the talents of his wife, Jane Randolph, who belonged to one of the most prominent families in Virginia. Young Thomas was blessed with advantages and opportunities available to very few of his contemporaries. What set him apart even among those few was the remarkable use he made of them. Well prepared through his own appetite for study and the guidance of the Reverend James Maury, Jefferson in 1760 entered the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. His wide learning, musical abilities, polished manners, and active mind won him the friendship of the lieutenant governor and de facto governor, Francis Fauquier and two outstanding teachers, William Small (mathematics) and George Wythe (law).

After college, Jefferson returned often to Williamsburg, studying and then practicing law. Beginning in 1769 he sat in the House of Burgesses. In 1772 Jefferson married a young widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, who brought land and slaves in abundance, but also debts that would plague Jefferson

for the rest of his life. The newlyweds settled in a cottage on the little mountain near Charlottesville that would eventually be world famous as Jefferson's Monticello. Martha Jefferson died after ten years of marriage and six children. Three daughters survived her: Martha (Patsy) and Mary (Polly, Maria), who would live to marry and have children, and Lucy, who lived less than three years.

jefferson and the american revolution

Jefferson's political fame spread beyond Virginia in 1774 with the publication of his pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British North America. He argued, powerfully if not quite accurately, that England's colonists had settled, developed, and defended their American homes with their own lives and treasure and were under no obligation to accept taxation from an imperial government already enjoying great profits from commerce with the colonies. Jefferson's literary powers earned him membership in Virginia's delegation to the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia in 1775. Before departing he helped draft a plan for organizing the militia of Virginia and wrote a firm reply to Lord North's proposal for peace, based on submission to parliamentary taxation. In Philadelphia he collaborated with John Dickinson on A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (1775). In June 1776 he became the principal draftsman of the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams modified it slightly; the full Congress eliminated an entire section that denounced the slave trade and blamed the King of England for continuing it. Historically the charge was doubtful, and many members of Congress owned and traded slaves.

For the next several years Jefferson labored in Virginia. Resuming membership in the House of Burgesses, he served with George Wythe and Edmund Pendleton in undertaking a thorough revision of the laws of Virginia. Jefferson succeeded immediately in abolishing the entailing of landed estates, a practice tending toward hereditary aristocracy. He also moved to abolish primogeniture, but that reform had to wait several years before Madison and other allies accomplished it. That was also true of Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), which completed the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed that all religious organizations would be voluntary and separate from government. The assembly rejected Jefferson's proposals for universal public education, for reducing suffrage requirements, and for representation on the basis of population. He succeeded, however, in liberalizing the criminal code. Though Virginia's slave code remained much as it had been in colonial times, the state did outlaw the further importation of slaves in 1778. Jefferson also reported, in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, completed and first published in France in 1785, that he drew up a proposal for the gradual emancipation and deportation of Virginia's slaves. But this proposal never came before the assembly.

In June 1779 Jefferson followed Patrick Henry as governor. Virginia's constitution gave very little independent authority to its governor, whom the General Assembly elected for one-year terms, with three consecutive terms the maximum allowed. During his two terms, Jefferson was able to support George Rogers Clark's military successes in the West and managed to send some Virginia forces to the defense of the Carolinas. Unfortunately, a series of British invasions overtaxed the resources of the state. Jefferson spent much of his time searching for arms, supplies, and manpower while moving state papers and military supplies from one place to another, trying to evade British troops. Considering that his fellow Americans had been unable to hold New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, or several other key positions, Jefferson's military failures were fairly typical of the Revolutionary War, but some legislators demanded an inquiry into his actions. Vindicated but still offended, Jefferson refused the third year offered to him.

Jefferson's retirement in June 1781 proved relatively brief and was marred by the death of his wife in September 1782. Though immobilized with grief for several weeks, Jefferson soon agreed to serve again in the Continental Congress. In only five months his legislative achievements were remarkable. He worked out the plan for U.S. currency that has been the basis of American money ever since: a decimal system based on the Spanish dollar. He developed plans for the survey and future government of the western territories ceded by various states. His two ordinances of 1784—Congress adopted one, concerning local self-government and the means toward statehood, but rejected the second, dealing with land surveys and sales—were changed in many details by the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, both written when Jefferson was in France. But most of the essential principles originated with Jefferson, including the rights of people to form states that, once admitted to the Union, would be equal to the original thirteen. Jefferson, following a suggestion from Timothy Pickering, wished to prohibit slavery in all western territories after 1800; the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery immediately, but only north of the Ohio River.

minister to france

In July 1784 Jefferson left for France to assist in the drafting of commercial treaties with European powers. In 1785 Congress made him U.S. minister to France; Benjamin Franklin, seventy-nine and in declining health, was eager to return home. In Paris, Jefferson enjoyed a commodious dwelling, a French cook, a growing circle of political and philosophical friends, and sufficient leisure to travel. He completed his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, intended for European philosophers and printed privately in an edition of two hundred copies. A pirated edition appeared in Philadelphia in 1788, somewhat embarrassing the author for its severe strictures on slavery and slaveholders. Jefferson also enjoyed a long flirtation with an English painter, educated and steeped in Italian culture, Mrs. Maria Cosway. As a diplomat Jefferson tried vigorously to advance the interests of the United States, but was frustrated by the fact that neither he nor the Congress could bind individual states to commercial agreements with foreign nations. He was also furious that Congress, lacking a navy, had to pay protection money to Morocco and other Muslim states in North Africa to permit American merchant ships to sail in the Mediterranean Sea. Corresponding with friends in the United States, Jefferson criticized certain aspects of the Constitution of 1787. However, his experience in France caused him to advocate a far stronger government for the United States, with powers to pass and enforce commercial regulations and a power of taxation sufficient to build and maintain a navy as well as guarantee the security of western territories. Before leaving France in October 1789, Jefferson enjoyed witnessing and playing an advisory role in the early stages of the French Revolution. His close friendship with the Marquis de Lafayette enabled Jefferson to contribute advice on the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) and other matters.

secretary of state and vice president

Expecting to return to his diplomatic post in the spring of 1790, Jefferson was surprised when President George Washington nominated him secretary of state in September 1789. Jefferson accepted and, assuming the post the following March, became an actor in most of the great political events and controversies of the next eighteen years. The new government began its career in New York City, where Jefferson joined his friend Madison in brokering a political deal in mid-1790: a few less Virginia votes against the assumption scheme of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (the federal government would assume responsibility for all state debts incurred during the Revolution) in exchange for a few Pennsylvania votes supporting the permanent location of the U.S. capital on the Potomac River. Before moving to the Potomac, however, the government would settle in Philadelphia for ten years.

Jefferson and Madison came by degrees to oppose the policies of Hamilton, who they believed exerted an improper influence on Washington. In fact, Hamilton's view of things had long been more in harmony with Washington's than with theirs. When Hamilton late in 1790 asked Congress to charter a National Bank, Jefferson argued that the Constitution gave no such authority to Congress. Hamilton advocated conciliatory diplomacy with Britain; Jefferson preferred strengthening the alliance with France while taking a tough line against Britain and Spain. In 1791 Jefferson hired Philip Freneau as a translator in the State Department, but his real job was editing an anti-Hamilton—and eventually an anti-Washington—newspaper, the National Gazette. Jefferson shared confidential papers with Freneau and ghostwrote some of his material. This was part of a larger policy of organizing an opposition party, the Democratic Republicans, from whom Jacksonian Democrats later claimed direct descent.

Following the creation of a French republic, Jefferson advocated immediate recognition and meeting scheduled debt payments, while Hamilton urged delay and caution. President Washington took Jefferson's position, maintaining diplomatic relations with France. However, when France declared war on England, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality (1793). In Jefferson's view, this gave protection to Britain without requiring any reciprocal concessions. The energetic new French diplomat, Edmond Charles Genet spent much of 1793 using the United States as a base for attacks on Spanish territory and British shipping. This was too much even for Jefferson; he had to spend much of his last year as secretary of state restraining Genet and trying to repair the damage done to Franco-American relations. He hoped that his final Report on Commerce would move Congress to take a firmer line against British trade restrictions, and encourage increased trade with France.

Jefferson resigned at the end of December 1793, weary of partisan politics and eager to look after his family and estates. Since 1784 he had spent but a few months of vacation at his beloved Monticello. He maintained an extensive political correspondence, however, and in 1796 became his party's candidate for president against Federalist John Adams, Washington's vice president. Under the terms of the Constitution in its original form, the odd result was Jefferson's serving a full term as vice president under his increasingly bitter rival, Adams, having received the second-highest number of electoral votes. Jefferson was discreet about his opposition. Many years passed before the world learned that he had written the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, claiming the right of a state to nullify acts of Congress that were unconstitutional—in this case the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). In public, he was a model vice president, systematizing the Senate's procedures with rules that are still in use.


The election of 1800 produced an unexpected result when Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of votes in the electoral college. This threw the election into the lame-duck, Federalist-controlled House of Representatives. Burr, whose probably treasonable acts were still in the future, appeared a preferable candidate to many Federalists, so a deadlock persisted from 11 February to 17 February 1801. Finally, on the latter date, two Federalists—possibly influenced by Hamilton—stopped voting for Burr, permitting Jefferson's victory. Hamilton had the satisfaction of seeing Jay's Treaty (1794) honored until its term (and Hamilton himself) had expired. Jefferson also retained the Bank of the United States, which established additional branches under the new secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania.

Jefferson's first term was extremely successful. Trade expanded, Ohio entered the Union as a state in 1803, the Indiana Territory grew, revenues improved, and expenditures were reduced. A serious crisis in relations with France ended spectacularly when Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States (1803). Instead of continuing the practice of paying bribes, Jefferson sent a small fleet to the Mediterranean in 1801, eventually forcing the pasha of Tripoli, by a treaty in 1805, to leave American commerce alone. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803–1806), originally conceived as military reconnaissance, turned into a valuable exploration of new U.S. territory. Congress repealed the tax on distilled liquors and the Federalists' lame-duck Judiciary Act of 1801, which created judgeships for many otherwise unemployed politicians. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, provided that the president and vice president should be elected separately. During the same year, Congress removed an incompetent federal judge, John Pickering of New Hampshire, by impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate. An attempt to remove a justice of the Supreme Court, Samuel Chase of Maryland, failed. Chase had proved anything but impartial when presiding over a trial under the Sedition Act. But while he was impeached late in 1804, early the next year his opponents failed to muster two-thirds of the Senate to convict. Meanwhile, Jefferson was not amused by Chief Justice John Marshall's assertion of the Supreme Court's right to nullify federal laws (euphemistically known as judicial review) in Marbury v. Madison (1803).

Jefferson won the election of 1804 in a landslide victory, with fair hopes for a second term as successful as his first. It was not to be. At war once more, France and Britain each tried to prevent the United States from trading with the other. Because thousands of British sailors sought safer and higher-paid employment with the commercial ships of the United States, the British navy increasingly stopped American ships on the high seas and impressed sailors they identified, correctly or not, as British subjects. Failing to secure recognition of neutral rights from the belligerents and following the attack of a British warship on the new, not fully fitted United States frigate Chesapeake (22 June 1807), Jefferson resorted to an embargo, lasting from 22 December 1807 to 15 March 1809. Unfortunately the United States suffered more from this measure than either France or Britain. Another distraction was Aaron Burr's western conspiracy, his arrest in 1807, and his trial for treason later that year, at which he was acquitted. Historians still dispute Burr's intentions, if indeed he ever had a distinct plan. However, it is known that he proposed to a gullible British minister a plan for separating the western states from the United States and sought money from Spain to engineer a coup d'état in Washington, D.C. John Randolph of Virginia, a pillar of strength in the House of Representatives during Jefferson's first term, became a caustic and persistent critic of the administration during the second. Nevertheless, James Madison easily won the election of 1808.

the sage of monticello

Jefferson enjoyed an active retirement. He continued to maintain an extensive correspondence, notably with a reconciled John Adams. Perfecting Monticello occupied him, as did designing an elegant, new, octagonal house for his Poplar Forest plantation. Jefferson wished his grandson Francis Eppes, the only child of Polly, who had died young, to inherit Poplar Forest; he designated Monticello for the most accomplished of Patsy's children, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. The University of Virginia was Thomas Jefferson's last major achievement. He cajoled funds from the General Assembly, chose the location in Charlottesville, designed the buildings, and recruited faculty. The nation noticed with awe that Jefferson and John Adams died on 4 July 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson opposed any sort of hereditary privilege or established religion; he also advocated the free exchange of ideas, natural science, universal education, and political democracy. In other respects he was not so progressive: he thought freedom would last only so long as Americans owned and worked their own farms; he thought himself a friend of Native Americans, but ran them off their land as fast as any president before or since; he wrote eloquently about the evils of African American slavery, but did nothing effectual to limit its growth after 1800, let alone to begin its unwinding. There was one notable exception: he secured from Congress and promptly signed a law as soon as the Constitution permitted outlawing the importation of foreign slaves (1808).

Recent DNA evidence has given added credence to the story that Jefferson was the father of the children of his slave Sally Hemings. Although Jefferson brushed the charge off when it was first made in 1802 by the journalist James Thomson Callender, it long circulated in abolitionist circles and in the black community, as well as among those who claimed descent from Jefferson and Hemings, including one of Hemings's sons, Madison, who told his family's story in his 1873 memoirs. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife and both the daughter and granddaughter of white men. Her children with Jefferson were seven-eighths white, making them legally white at the time, but still legally Jefferson's slaves. Presumably in accordance with the pledge he made their mother, Jefferson freed Hemings's four surviving children when they reached the age of twenty-one, and after his death, Jefferson's daughter Martha quietly freed Sally Hemings as well.

legacy and iconography

Thomas Jefferson's incomparable phrases have been repeated for over two centuries: by Whigs and Democrats, by the new Republicans of 1854 and by the founders of the Confederate States of America, by capitalists and communists, and by segregationists and integrationists. His benign pronouncements can be claimed by virtually anyone. On other points his messages remain clear. He favored reason over revelation, feared religious establishments, promoted natural science, advocated education at all levels, and favored the fine arts. His actual practices regarding freedom of the press were no better than those of his contemporaries, but his pronouncements in favor of intellectual freedom ring through the ages.

The spirit of Jefferson illuminates his restored mansion and plantation at Monticello and the buildings he designed for the University of Virginia, two miles away in Charlottesville. Poplar Forest has also been restored and is now open for visitors; it is located near Lynchburg. Jefferson sat for many portraits, which have been reproduced in countless books and prints. Among the finest are those of Mather Brown (1786; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution); Charles Willson Peale (1791; Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia); Rembrandt Peale (1800; White House); Gilbert Stuart (1805; Colonial Williamsburg); and Thomas Sully (1821; American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia). Jean-Antoine Houdon executed a fine marble bust in 1789 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). On the bicentennial of Jefferson's birthday, 13 April 1943, the United States dedicated the Jefferson Memorial on the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. John Russell Pope captured Jefferson's own style in the architecture, and Rudolph Evans executed an imposing bronze statue, nineteen feet tall. Jefferson's likeness is rarely seen on paper money: someone assigned him to two-dollar bills. This neglect is redeemed by the five-cent coin, with its fine profile of Jefferson on one side and his home at Monticello on the other.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Declaration of Independence; Democratic Republicans; Election of 1796; Election of 1800; Embargo; Federalist Party; Hamilton, Alexander; Hamilton's Economic Plan; Louisiana Purchase; Madison, James; Politics: Political Parties; Politics: Political Thought; Presidency, The: George Washington; Presidency, The: Thomas Jefferson; Virginia; Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom .


Appleby, Joyce. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Times Books, 2003.

Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997.

Kennedy, Roger G. Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Levy, Leonard. Emergence of a Free Press. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Onuf, Peter S., ed. Jeffersonian Legacies. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

Peterson, Merrill D. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

——. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Robert McColley

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated May 23 2018

Jefferson, Thomas

3rd president, 1801–1809

Born: April 13, 1743

Died: July 4, 1826

Vice Presidents: Aaron Burr, George Clinton

First Lady: none

Children: Martha, Mary, Jane Randolph, Lucy, Lucy

Although Thomas Jefferson is usually remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence, he was also a farmer, an architect, an inventor, and a musician. He was governor of Virginia, the country's minister to France, secretary of state, and John Adams's vice president. Amazingly, his tombstone does not mention the fact that he was a president.

Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in Albemarle County, Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary College in 1762, Jefferson became a lawyer. In 1772, he married Martha Wayles Skelton. They had five children, but only two daughters, Martha and Mary, lived past childhood.Jefferson's wife died in 1782.

  • Thomas Jefferson was the first president to deliver his Inaugural Address in Washington, D.C.
  • Jefferson invented the swivel chair, the pedometer, a lettercopying machine, and a machine that made fiber from hemp.
  • Presidents Jefferson and Adams were the only presidents to sign the Declaration of Independence; they both died on its 50th anniversary, July 4, 1826.
  • Jefferson did not include the fact that he had served as president of the United States in his self-written epitaph.

When Jefferson ran for president in 1800, there was no position designated for vice president on a party's ticket. As a result, Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Republicans, each received 73 electoral votes. For the first time, the House of Representatives decided the election, choosing Jefferson as president after thirty-six votes. The 12th Amendment, passed in 1803, required parties to nominate candidates specifically for president and vice president.

Among his many achievements while in office, Jefferson was responsible for purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France. This purchase, which was an area of land that doubled the size of the country, was made for just $15 million.

When Jefferson Was in Office

The U.S. Military Academy opened in West Point, New York.
Chemist John Dalton developed the theory that all matter is made of atoms.
The Louisiana Purchase doubled the area of the United States.
Ohio became the 17th state.
The Lewis and Clark expedition set out from St. Louis to explore the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
The steam-powered locomotive was invented, revolutionizing transportation.
Aaron Burr, Jefferson's first vice-president, killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
Noah Webster published the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language.
A law banned the sale of slaves brought from Africa.

After a second term as president, Jefferson retired to Monticello, his plantation, where he studied science and created inventions that included the swivel chair and the dumbwaiter.

On Jefferson's First Inauguration Day

On March 4, Jefferson left the boarding house where he was living and walked down a narrow lane called Pennsylvania Avenue in the new capital. The city had no hotels or libraries. The Capitol building had no roof. Between that building and the President's Palace—as the White House was called—lay a swamp.

Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address

In Washington, D.C., Wednesday, March 4, 1801

Friends and Fellow-Citizens:

CALLED upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. 1 During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—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. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people—a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

I repair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me. With experience enough in subordinate offices to have seen the difficulties of this the greatest of all 2, I have learnt to expect that it will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it. Without pretensions to that high confidence you reposed in our first and greatest revolutionary character 3, whose preeminent services had entitled him to the first place in his country's love and destined for him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history, I ask so much confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal administration of your affairs. I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. The approbation implied by your suffrage is a great consolation to me for the past, and my future solicitude will be to retain the good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance, to conciliate that of others by doing them all the good in my power, and to be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.

Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.

Quotes to Note

  1. "we have yet gained..." The election of 1800 was one of the most bitter in U.S. history and led to the demise of the Federalist party.
  2. "With experience enough..." Jefferson served as secretary of state under Washington and as vice president under Adams.
  3. "Without pretensions..." Jefferson honors Washington and says that he can never measure up to the "greatest revolutionary."

On Jefferson's Second Inauguration Day

By the time of his second Inaugural Address, Jefferson had completed one of the most successful terms in American history. Foreign trade had grown. The national debt had shrunk. And, with the Louisiana Purchase, the United States now stretched past the Mississippi River all the way across the North American continent.

Thomas Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address

In Washington, D.C., Monday, March 4, 1805

PROCEEDING, fellow-citizens, to that qualification which the Constitution requires before my entrance on the charge again conferred on me, it is my duty to express the deep sense I entertain of this new proof of confidence from my fellow-citizens at large, and the zeal with which it inspires me so to conduct myself as may best satisfy their just expectations.

On taking this station on a former occasion I declared the principles on which I believed it my duty to administer the affairs of our Commonwealth. My conscience tells me I have on every occasion acted up to that declaration according to its obvious import and to the understanding of every candid mind.

In the transaction of your foreign affairs we have endeavored to cultivate the friendship of all nations, and especially of those with which we have the most important relations. We have done them justice on all occasions, favored where favor was lawful, and cherished mutual interests and intercourse on fair and equal terms. We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties, and history bears witness to the fact that a just nation is trusted on its word when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others.

At home, fellow-citizens, you best know whether we have done well or ill. 1 The suppression of unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses, enabled us to discontinue our internal taxes. These, covering our land with officers and opening our doors to their intrusions, had already begun that process of domiciliary vexation which once entered is scarcely to be restrained from reaching successively every article of property and produce. If among these taxes some minor ones fell which had not been inconvenient, it was because their amount would not have paid the officers who collected them, and because, if they had any merit, the State authorities might adopt them instead of others less approved.

The remaining revenue on the consumption of foreign articles is paid chiefly by those who can afford to add foreign luxuries to domestic comforts, being collected on our seaboard and frontiers only, and incorporated with the transactions of our mercantile citizens, it may be the pleasure and the pride of an American to ask, What farmer, what mechanic, what laborer ever sees a taxgatherer of the United States? These contributions enable us to support the current expenses of the Government, to fulfill contracts with foreign nations, to extinguish the native right of soil within our limits, to extend those limits, and to apply such a surplus to our public debts as places at a short day their final redemption, and that redemption once effected the revenue thereby liberated may, by a just repartition of it among the States and a corresponding amendment of the Constitution, be applied in time of peace to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each State. In time of war, if injustice by ourselves or others must sometimes produce war, increased as the same revenue will be by increased population and consumption, and aided by other resources reserved for that crisis, it may meet within the year all the expenses of the year without encroaching on the rights of future generations by burthening them with the debts of the past. War will then be but a suspension of useful works, and a return to a state of peace, a return to the progress of improvement.

I have said, fellow-citizens, that the income reserved had enabled us to extend our limits, but that extension may possibly pay for itself before we are called on, and in the meantime may keep down the accruing interest; in all events, it will replace the advances we shall have made. I know that the acquisition of Louisiana had been disapproved by some from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union. But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family? 2 With which should we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?

In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.

The aboriginal inhabitants of these countries I have regarded with the commiseration their history inspires. Endowed with the faculties and the rights of men, breathing an ardent love of liberty and independence, and occupying a country which left them no desire but to be undisturbed, the stream of overflowing population from other regions directed itself on these shores; without power to divert or habits to contend against it, they have been overwhelmed by the current or driven before it; now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter's state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts; 3 to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existence and to prepare them in time for that state of society which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of the mind and morals. We have therefore liberally furnished them with the implements of husbandry and household use; we have placed among them instructors in the arts of first necessity, and they are covered with the aegis of the law against aggressors from among ourselves.

But the endeavors to enlighten them on the fate which awaits their present course of life, to induce them to exercise their reason, follow its dictates, and change their pursuits with the change of circumstances have powerful obstacles to encounter; they are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudices of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them who feel themselves something in the present order of things and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they did must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel in their physical, moral, or political condition is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety and knowledge full of danger; in short, my friends, among them also is seen the action and counteraction of good sense and of bigotry; they too have their antiphilosophists who find an interest in keeping things in their present state, who dread reformation, and exert all their faculties to maintain the ascendancy of habit over the duty of improving our reason and obeying its mandates.

In giving these outlines I do not mean, fellow-citizens, to arrogate to myself the merit of the measures. That is due, in the first place, to the reflecting character of our citizens at large, who, by the weight of public opinion, influence and strengthen the public measures. It is due to the sound discretion with which they select from among themselves those to whom they confide the legislative duties. It is due to the zeal and wisdom of the characters thus selected, who lay the foundations of public happiness in wholesome laws, the execution of which alone remains for others, and it is due to the able and faithful auxiliaries, whose patriotism has associated them with me in the executive functions.

During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us 4, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness and to sap its safety. They might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved to and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation, but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.

Nor was it uninteresting to the world that an experiment should be fairly and fully made, whether freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is not sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth—whether a government conducting itself in the true spirit of its constitution, with zeal and purity, and doing no act which it would be unwilling the whole world should witness, can be written down by falsehood and defamation. The experiment has been tried; you have witnessed the scene; our fellow-citizens looked on, cool and collected; they saw the latent source from which these outrages proceeded; they gathered around their public functionaries, and when the Constitution called them to the decision by suffrage, they pronounced their verdict, honorable to those who had served them and consolatory to the friend of man who believes that he may be trusted with the control of his own affairs.

No inference is here intended that the laws provided by the States against false and defamatory publications should not be enforced; he who has time renders a service to public morals and public tranquillity in reforming these abuses by the salutary coercions of the law; but the experiment is noted to prove that, since truth and reason have maintained their ground against false opinions in league with false facts, the press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint; the public judgment will correct false reasoning and opinions on a full hearing of all parties; and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness. If there be still improprieties which this rule would not restrain, its supplement must be sought in the censorship of public opinion.

Contemplating the union of sentiment now manifested so generally as auguring harmony and happiness to our future course, I offer to our country sincere congratulations. With those, too, not yet rallied to the same point the disposition to do so is gaining strength; facts are piercing through the veil drawn over them, and our doubting brethren will at length see that the mass of their fellow-citizens with whom they can not yet resolve to act as to principles and measures, think as they think and desire what they desire; that our wish as well as theirs is that the public efforts may be directed honestly to the public good, that peace be cultivated, civil and religious liberty unassailed, law and order preserved, equality of rights maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his father's. When satisfied of these views it is not in human nature that they should not approve and support them. In the meantime let us cherish them with patient affection, let us do them justice, and more than justice, in all competitions of interest; and we need not doubt that truth, reason, and their own interests will at length prevail, will gather them into the fold of their country, and will complete that entire union of opinion which gives to a nation the blessing of harmony and the benefit of all its strength.

I shall now enter on the duties to which my fellow-citizens have again called me, and shall proceed in the spirit of those principles which they have approved. I fear not that any motives of interest may lead me astray; I am sensible of no passion which could seduce me knowingly from the path of justice, but the weaknesses of human nature and the limits of my own understanding will produce errors of judgment sometimes injurious to your interests. I shall need, therefore, all the indulgence which I have heretofore experienced from my constituents; the want of it will certainly not lessen with increasing years. I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.

Quotes to Note

  1. "At home, fellow citizens..." Jefferson's first term was one of the most successful in history. Taxes were lowered or abolished, the economy grew, and the nation doubled in size.
  2. "is it not better..." Before the United States bought the Louisiana territory, France controlled the mouth of the Mississippi and had planned to settle colonies west of the river.
  3. "now reduced within limits..." Jefferson says that the Native Americans must give up their traditional ways and adapt to a new way of life in farming and industry.
  4. "the artillery of the press..." Jefferson's actions in revoking the policies of Adams, in his purchase of Louisiana, and in his disagreements with the Supreme Court were heavily criticized by the press.

Thomas Jefferson

views updated Jun 11 2018

Thomas Jefferson

American philosopher and statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the third president of the United States. A man of broad interests and activity, he exerted an immense influence on the political and intellectual life of the new nation.

Thomas Jefferson was born at Shadwell, Va., on April 13, 1743. His father had been among the earliest settlers in this wilderness country, and his position of leadership descended to his eldest son, together with 5,000 acres of land.

Jefferson became one of the best-educated Americans of his time. At the age of 17 he entered the College of William and Mary, where he got exciting first glimpses of "the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed." Nature destined him to be a scientist, he often said; but there was no opportunity for a scientific career in Virginia, and he took the path of the law, studying it under the tutelage of George With as a branch of the history of mankind. He read widely in the law, in the sciences, and in both ancient and modern history, philosophy, and literature. Jefferson was admitted to the bar in 1767; his successful practice led to a wide circle of influence and to cultivated intellectual habits that would prove remarkably creative in statesmanship. When the onrush of the American Revolution forced him to abandon practice in 1774, he turned these legal skills to the rebel cause.

Jefferson's public career began in 1769, when he served as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses. About this time, too, he began building Monticello, the lovely home perched on a densely wooded summit that became a lifelong obsession. He learned architecture from books, above all from the Renaissance Italian Andrea Palladio. Yet Monticello, like the many other buildings Jefferson designed over the years, was a uniquely personal creation. Dissatisfied with the first version, completed in 12 years, Jefferson later rebuilt it. Monticello assumed its ultimate form about the time he retired from the presidency.

His Philosophy

Jefferson rose to fame in the councils of the American Revolution. Insofar as the Revolution was a philosophical event, he was its most articulate spokesman, having absorbed the thought of the 18th-century Enlightenment. He believed in a beneficent natural order in the moral as in the physical world, freedom of inquiry in all things, and man's inherent capacity for justice and happiness, and he had faith in reason, improvement, and progress.

Jefferson's political thought would become the quintessence of Enlightenment liberalism, though it had roots in English law and government. The tradition of the English constitution gave concreteness to American patriot claims, even a color of legality to revolution itself, that no other modern revolutionaries have possessed. Jefferson used the libertarian elements of the English legal tradition for ideological combat with the mother country. He also separated the principles of English liberty from their corrupted forms in the empire of George III and identified these principles with nascent American ideals. In challenging the oppressions of the empire, Americans like Jefferson came to recognize their claims to an independent nationality.

Jefferson's most important contribution to the revolutionary debate was A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). He argued that Americans, as sons of expatriate Englishmen, possessed the same natural rights to govern themselves as their Saxon ancestors had exercised when they migrated to England from Germany. Only with the reign of George III had the violations of American rights proved to be "a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery." Though the logic of his argument pointed to independence, Jefferson instead set forth the theory of an empire of equal self-governing states under a common king and appealed to George III to rule accordingly.

Declaration of Independence

The Revolution had begun when Jefferson took his seat in the Second Continental Congress, at Philadelphia, in June 1775. He brought to the Congress, as John Adams recalled, "a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent for composition." It was chiefly as a legislative draftsman that he would make his mark. His great work was the Declaration of Independence. In June 1776 he was surprised to find himself at the head of the committee to prepare this paper. He submitted a rough draft to Adams and Benjamin Franklin, two of the committee, who suggested only minor changes, revised it to Jefferson's satisfaction, and sent it to Congress. Congress debated it line by line for 2 1/2 days. Though many changes were made, the Declaration that emerged on July 4 bore the unmistakable stamp of Jefferson. It possessed that "peculiar felicity of expression" for which he was noted.

The Declaration of Independence crisply set forth the bill of particular grievances against the reigning sovereign and compressed a whole cosmology, a political philosophy, and a national creed in one paragraph. The truths declared to be "self-evident" were not new; as Jefferson later said, his purpose was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments …, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject." But here, for the first time in history, these truths were laid at the foundation of a nation. Natural equality, the inalienable rights of man, the sovereignty of the people, the right of revolution—these principles endowed the American Revolution with high purpose united to a theory of government.

In Virginia

Jefferson returned to Virginia and to his seat in the reconstituted legislature. A constitution had been adopted for the commonwealth, but it was distressingly less democratic than the one Jefferson had drafted and dispatched to Williamsburg. He sought now to achieve liberal reforms by ordinary legislation. Most of these were contained in his comprehensive Revision of the Laws. Although the code was never enacted in entirety, the legislature went over the bills one by one. Of first importance was the Statute for Religious Freedom. Enacted in 1786, the statute climaxed the long campaign for separation of church and state in Virginia. Though Jefferson was responsible for the abolition of property laws that were merely relics of feudalism, his bill for the reform of Virginia's barbarous criminal code failed, and for the sake of expediency he withheld his plan for gradual emancipation of the slaves. Jefferson was sickened by the defeat of his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. A landmark in the history of education, it proposed a complete system of public education, with elementary schools available to all, the gifted to be educated according to their ability.

Jefferson became Virginia's governor in June 1779. The Revolutionary War had entered a new phase. The British decision to "unravel the thread of rebellion from the southward" would, if successful, have made Virginia the crucial battleground. Jefferson struggled against enormous odds to aid the southern army. He was also handicapped by the weakness of his office under the constitution and by his personal aversion to anything bordering on dictatorial rule.

Early in 1781 the British invaded Virginia from the coast, slashed through to Richmond, and put the government to flight. Jefferson acted with more vigor than before, still to no avail. In May, Gen. Charles Cornwallis marched his army into Virginia. The government moved to safer quarters at Charlottesville. The Redcoats followed, and 2 days after his term of office expired but before a successor could be chosen, Jefferson was chased from Monticello. The General Assembly resolved to inquire into Jefferson's conduct, and months after the British surrender at Yorktown, he attended the legislature on this business. But no inquiry was held, the Assembly instead voting him resolution of thanks for his services.

Nevertheless, wounded by the criticism, Jefferson resolved to quit public service. A series of personal misfortunes, culminating in his wife's death in September 1782, plunged him into gloom. Yet her death finally returned him to his destiny. The idealized life he had sought in his family, farms, and books was suddenly out of reach. That November he eagerly accepted congressional appointment to the peace commission in Paris. He never sailed, however, and wound up in Congress instead.

During his retirement Jefferson had written his only book, Note on the State of Virginia. The inquiry had begun simply, but it grew as Jefferson worked. He finally published the manuscript in a private edition in Paris (1785). Viewed in the light of 18th-century knowledge, the book is work of natural and civil history, uniquely interesting as a guide to Jefferson's mind and to his native country. He expressed opinions on a variety of subjects, from cascades and caverns to constitutions and slavery. An early expression of American nationalism, the book acted as a catalyst in several fields of intellectual activity. It also ensured Jefferson a scientific and literary reputation on two continents.

Service in Congress

In Congress from November 1783 to the following May, Jefferson laid the foundations of national policy in several areas. His proposed decimal system of coinage was adopted. He drafted the first ordinance of government for the western territory, wherein free and equal republican states would be created out of the wilderness; and his land ordinance, adopted with certain changes in 1785, projected the rectilinear survey system of the American West.

Jefferson also took a leading part in formulating foreign policy. The American economy rested on foreign commerce and navigation. Cut adrift from the British mercantile system, Congress had pursued free trade to open foreign markets, but only France had been receptive. The matter became urgent in 1783-1784. Jefferson helped reformulate a liberal commercial policy, and in 1784 he was appointed to a three-man commission (with Adams and Franklin) to negotiate treaties of commerce with the European powers.

Minister to France

In Paris, Jefferson's first business was the treaty commission; in 1785 he succeeded Franklin as minister to France. The commission soon expired, and Jefferson focused his commercial diplomacy on France. In his opinion, France offered imposing political support for the United States in Europe as well as an entering wedge for the free commercial system on which American wealth and power depended. Louis XVI's foreign minister seemed well disposed, and influential men in the French capital were ardent friends of the American Revolution. Jefferson won valuable concessions for American commerce; however, because France realized few benefits in return, Britain maintained its economic ascendancy.

His duties left Jefferson time to haunt bookstores, frequent fashionable salons, and indulge his appetite for art, music, and theater. He toured the south of France and Italy, England, and the Rhineland. He interpreted the New World to the Old. Some of this activity had profound effects. For instance, his collaboration with a French architect in the design of the classical Roman Capitol of Virginia inaugurated the classical revival in American architecture.

About Europe generally, Jefferson expressed ambivalent feelings. But on balance, the more he saw of Europe, the dearer his own country became. "My God!" he exclaimed. "How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy. I confess I had no idea of it myself…."

Secretary of State

On Jefferson's return to America in 1789, President Washington prevailed upon him to become secretary of state. For the next 3 years he was chiefly engaged in fruitless negotiations with the European powers. With Spain he sought to fix the southern United States boundary and secure free navigation of the Mississippi River through Spanish territory to the Gulf of Mexico. With Britain he sought removal of English troops from the Northwest and settlement of issues left over from the peace treaty. In this encounter he was frustrated by the secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, whose ascendancy in the government also checked Jefferson's and James Madison's efforts for commercial discrimination against Britain and freer trade with France. In Jefferson's opinion, Hamilton's fiscal system turned on British trade, credit, and power, while his own system turned on commercial liberation, friendship with France, and the success of the French Revolution. Hamilton's measures would enrich the few at the expense of the many, excite speculation and fraud, concentrate enormous power in the Treasury, and break down the restraints of the Constitution. To combat these tendencies, Jefferson associated himself with the incipient party opposition in Congress.

Developing Political Parties

As the party division deepened, Jefferson was denounced by the Federalists as the "generalissimo" of the Republican party, a role he neither possessed nor coveted but, finally, could not escape. When war erupted between France and Britain in 1793, the contrary dispositions of the parties toward these nations threatened American peace. Jefferson attempted to use American neutrality to force concessions from Britain and to improve cooperation between the embattled republics of the Atlantic world. In this he was embarrassed by Edmond Genet, the French minister to the United States, and finally had to abandon him altogether. The deterioration of Franco-American relations did irreparable damage to Jefferson's political system.

Jefferson resigned his post at the end of 1793, again determined to quit public life. But in 1796 the Republicans made him their presidential candidate against John Adams. Losing by three electoral votes, Jefferson became vice president. When the "XYZ affair" threatened to plunge the United States into war with France in 1798, Jefferson clung to the hope of peace and, in the developing war hysteria, rallied the Republicans around him. Enactment of the Alien and Sedition Laws convinced him that the Federalists aimed to annihilate the Republicans and that the Republicans' only salvation lay in political intervention by the state authorities. On this basis he drafted the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, in which he elaborated the theory of the Union as a compact among the several states, declared the Alien and Sedition Laws unconstitutional, and prescribed the remedy of state "nullification" for such assumptions of power by the central government. Kentucky did not endorse this specific doctrine, but the defense of civil liberties was now joined to the defense of state rights. Though the celebrated resolutions did not force a change of policy, by contributing to the rising public clamor against the administration they achieved their political purpose.

President of the United States

Republicans doubled their efforts to elect the "man of the people" in the unusually bitter campaign of 1800. Jefferson topped Adams in the electoral vote. But because his running mate, Aaron Burr, received an equal number of votes, the final decision went to the House of Representatives. Only after 36 ballots was Jefferson elected.

Jefferson became president on March 4, 1801, in the new national capital, Washington, D.C. His inaugural address—a political touchstone for a century or longer— brilliantly summed up the Republican creed and appealed for the restoration of harmony and affection. "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists." Jefferson extended the hand of friendship to the Federalists and, although Federalists monopolized the Federal offices, he attempted to limit his removals of them. Even after party pressures forced him to revise this strategy, moderation characterized his course.

Reform was the order of the day. Working effectively with Congress, Jefferson restored freedom of the press; lowered the residency period of the law of naturalization to 5 years; scaled down the Army and Navy (despite a war against Barbary piracy); repealed the partisan Judiciary Act of 1801; abolished all internal taxes, together with a host of revenue offices; and began the planned retirement of the debt. The Jeffersonian reformation was bottomed on fiscal policy; by reducing the means and powers of government, it sought to further peace, equality, and individual freedom.

The President's greatest triumph—and his greatest defeat—came in foreign affairs. Spain's cession of Louisiana and the port of New Orleans to France in 1800 posed a serious threat to American security, especially to the aspirations of the West. Jefferson skillfully negotiated this crisis. With the Louisiana Purchase (1803), America gained an uncharted domain of some 800,000 square miles, doubling its size, for $11,250,000. Even before the treaty was signed, Jefferson planned an expedition to explore this country. The Lewis and Clark expedition, like the Louisiana Purchase, was a spectacular consummation of Jefferson's western vision.

Easily reelected in 1804, Jefferson soon encountered foreign and domestic troubles. His relations with Congress degenerated as Republicans quarreled among themselves. Especially damaging was the insurgency of John Randolph, formerly Republican leader in the House. And former vice president Aaron Burr mounted an insurgency in the West; but Jefferson crushed this and, with difficulty, maintained control of Congress. The turbulence of the Napoleonic Wars, with American ships and seamen ravaged in the neutral trade, proved too difficult. France was not blameless, but Britain was the chief aggressor.

Finally there appeared to be no escape from war except by withdrawing from the oceans. In December 1807 the President proposed, and Congress enacted, a total embargo on America's seagoing commerce. More than an alternative to war, the embargo was a test of the power of commercial coercion in international disputes. On the whole, it was effectively enforced, but it failed to bring Britain or France to justice, and the mounting costs at home led to its repeal by Congress in the waning hours of Jefferson's presidency.

Active Retirement

In retirement Jefferson became the "Sage of Monticello," the most revered—by some the most hated—among the remaining Revolutionary founders. He maintained a large correspondence and intellectual pursuits on a broad front. Unfinished business from the Revolution drew his attention, such as revision of the Virginia constitution and gradual emancipation of slaves. But the former would come only after his death, and the failure of the latter would justify his worst fears. He revived his general plan of public education. Again the legislature rejected it, approving, however, a major part, the state university. Jefferson was the master planner of the University of Virginia in all its parts, from the grounds and buildings to the curriculum, faculty, and rules of governance. He died at Monticello on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, July 4, 1826.

Further Reading

There are several editions of Jefferson's writings: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Paul Leicester Ford (10 vols., 1892-1899); The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (20 vols. in 10; 1905); and Papers, edited by Julian P. Boyd and others (17 vols., 1950-1965). The Boyd work, though complete only to November 1790, is the best edition; a good companion piece is The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear, Jr. (1966).

The major biography is Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time (4 vols., 1948-1970), complete to 1805 and still in process. Less comprehensive is Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1970). Accounts of Jefferson's elections are given in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed., History of American Presidential Elections (4 vols., 1971). Jefferson as president is brilliantly, if not quite fairly, portrayed in the first four volumes of Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (9 vols., 1889-1891).

Other studies of Jefferson's life and thought include Fiske Kimball, Thomas Jefferson: Architect (1916); Roy J. Honeywell, The Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson (1931); Adrienne Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (1943); Karl Lehman, Thomas Jefferson: American Humanist (1947); Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948); Edwin T. Martin, Thomas Jefferson: Scientist (1952); Caleb Perry Patterson, The Constitutional Principles of Thomas Jefferson (1953); Phillips Russell, Jefferson: Champion of the Free Mind (1956); and Merrill D. Peterson, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Profile (1967), collects essays by historians of Jefferson's era as well as modern ones. Jonathan Daniels, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr (1970), an account of the intertwining political careers of these three, is part biography and part history. □

Jefferson, Thomas

views updated May 21 2018

Thomas Jefferson

Born April 13, 1743
Shadwell, Virginia
Died July 4, 1826
Charlottesville, Virginia

President and vice president of the United States, lawyer, philosopher, writer

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man with broad-ranging interests who greatly influenced the political and intellectual life of America. His gift for language made him the most eloquent leader of the American Revolution. His vision for America helped make him one of its most respected presidents.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, to Peter Jefferson, a pioneer farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane Randolph Jefferson. The family was not wealthy, but Jeffer son's mother was from a well-respected Virginia family. As a teenager, Jefferson boarded with the local schoolmaster to learn Latin and Greek. In 1760, at age seventeen, he attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Jefferson was an excellent student who sometimes studied fif teen hours a day.

After graduation in 1762 he studied law in Williams burg for five years, then began practicing law on his own. He mostly defended small-scale planters in land claims cases. He was well prepared and knowledgeable about the law, but he was not a great speaker.

In 1768 Jefferson began building his beautiful moun taintop home, Monticello, on land he had inherited from his father. He taught himself architecture by reading books. Mon ticello was a labor of love and he worked on it for the rest of his life.

Becomes active in politics

Jefferson's political career began in 1769 with his election to the Virginia House of Burgesses, the lower house of the legislature (where laws were made). "As a young man Jefferson has been described as tall, loose-jointed, [and] sandy-haired," Mark M. Boatner III wrote. "He was a skillful horseman, an expert violinist, a good singer and dancer and [a lively companion.]" As he got older, the more serious side of Jefferson emerged.

Beliefs about people and government

Jefferson believed that everyone could and should be educated so they could participate intelligently in their gov ernment. He believed that the position a person attains in soci ety should depend on his abilities. He believed that everyone had certain rights that could not be denied to them by kings. He opposed the idea that a nation should be governed by peo ple such as kings who inherited their positions or gained them because of wealth.

Jefferson expressed some of those views in his 1774 pamphlet titled Summary View of the Rights of British America. At the time the pamphlet was written, some Americans were challenging England's right to tax the colonists (to raise money to pay off British war debts) without their consent. Putting those views in writing went a step further. Jefferson declared that Great Britain had no right at all to exercise authority over the colonists. He said that England's King George III see entry was merely the "chief officer of the people," not someone chosen specially by God to rule. He also accused King George and his advisers of being responsible for crimes against the colonists. Summary View helped establish Jefferson as one of the early leaders of the American Revolution.

Writes Declaration of Independence

In May 1775 Jefferson was elected to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. During this convention the delegates debated whether the colonies should officially go to war against Great Britain (fighting had begun a month earlier, with the battle of Lexington and Concord). Like the citizens of the colonies, the congress was deeply divided on the matter of war, but as hostilities escalated over the next year, war was inevitable.

In June 1776 Jefferson was chosen by Congress to serve on a committee to write the Declaration of Independence, the document that established the United States as a nation. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin see entry made only small changes to Jefferson's draft before the document was sent on for the approval of Congress. For two and one-half days, the delegates in Congress examined and argued it line by line. In the end, the Declaration passed with many changes, but it still largely reflected the style and ideas of Jefferson, including the equality of all human beings, that certain rights belong to all people and cannot be taken away, and that people have the right to govern themselves.

Works for reform of Virginia laws

The Second Continental Congress adjourned in the fall of 1776. Jefferson returned home to Virginia and to his seat in the state legislature. There he was able to get lawmakers to consider passing some far-reaching reforms to Virginia's existing laws. The first, the one he considered most important, did not go into effect until 1786. It was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which provided for the separation of church and state. Jefferson believed that government must allow its citizens freedom to practice the religion they choose, and must be prevented from favoring any particular religion or establishing a state religion.

Jefferson also got a reform passed making it possible for a child other than a first-born son to inherit his father's estate. But many of Jefferson's reform efforts failed. At that time, Virginia had a list of more than one hundred offenses that could bring the death sentence; most of the listed offenses were minor. Jefferson urged that some criminal offenders be reformed rather than executed. But he was unsuccessful in his attempts to change Virginia's harsh policy for the treatment of criminals.

Slavery was another subject on which Jefferson had strong—though conflicting—views. He spoke of his opposition to slavery, though he himself owned slaves. Still, Jefferson tried to get a plan passed for gradually freeing the slaves.

He was especially disappointed with the failure of his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge. The bill would have set up a complete system of public education, featuring free elementary schools for all citizens.

Elected governor of Virginia

In 1778 the Revolutionary War shifted to the South. In June 1779 Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry see entry as governor of Virginia. The times called for a governor who could make instant decisions, but as Patrick Henry had already discovered, the Virginia governorship was largely a ceremonial position. Furthermore, Jefferson's kind temperament and deliberate way of looking at matters did not well suit him to govern in a time of great immediate danger.

In May 1781 the British invasion of Virginia's capital city, Richmond, forced government officials to flee to Charlottesville, near Jefferson's home. Believing that his term as governor had expired, Jefferson stepped down from the position, despite the fact that a new governor had not been chosen. He sent his family from Monticello to an estate on Virginia's Carter's Mountain, where he soon joined them. The war ended on October 18, 1781, with the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Virginia. Jefferson's political opponents now called him a traitor. They called his move to Carter's Mountain a flight from the British, and they criticized what they called his lack of leadership during the war years. Nothing ever came of their charges, and in the end Virginia legislators expressed their gratitude to Jefferson for his services.

Wife dies; Jefferson joins Congress

The mere suggestion of misconduct wounded Jefferson deeply, and he vowed never again to serve in public office. But then he was beset by a series of personal misfortunes, climaxing with the death of his wife, Martha, in September 1782. Jefferson had married Martha Wales Skelton, an attractive and wealthy young widow, ten years earlier. To his sorrow, three of the couple's six children had died before Martha, and only two survived to adulthood.

With his dream of family life on the plantation no longer a possibility, Jefferson returned to public life. In November 1782 he accepted an appointment by Congress to serve at the peace commission in Paris, France, to work on a treaty to end the Revolutionary War. But the treaty was signed before Jefferson sailed for France.

Congressional activities

In the next stage of his career, Jefferson became a member of the U.S. Congress from Virginia and served on nearly all of the important congressional committees. During the winter of 1783–84, Jefferson helped form American policy in a variety of areas. His proposal for a decimal system (based on the number ten) of American coins was adopted. He drafted a policy for governing America's western region, an area that always fascinated him. His policy suggested a workable method of creating states out of the wilderness.

Serves as Minister to France

Jefferson also had an influence on American foreign policy. By the mid-1780s the U.S. economy was in trouble, in part because of huge war debts. The nation hoped to set up trade relationships with foreign countries, but France was one of the few countries that seemed interested.

In 1784 Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were appointed to a commission to negotiate commercial (trade) treaties with France and the major European powers. He sailed to Paris, and in 1785 he succeeded Franklin as minister to France. He focused his efforts on improving trade with that country.

Jefferson enjoyed his five years in France, made the most of its cultural offerings, and visited much of Europe. Some of the things he accomplished there had lasting effects on developments in America. For example, the designs he worked out with a French architect for the Capitol of Virginia helped to bring about a revival in America of the architectural styles of ancient Greece and Rome.

Faces challenges as Secretary of State

After his return to America in 1789, the forty-seven-year-old Jefferson became secretary of state under President George Washington see entry. He was mainly responsible for the conduct of the nation's foreign affairs. During the three frustrating years he served in the post, Jefferson's negotiations resulted in few benefits to America. This was partly because he faced opposition from political rivals. Jefferson wanted America to build on its commercial alliance with France and also to have much freer commerce with other European nations. But Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton see entry was against the development of free trade with France. He wanted to keep closer economic ties with England, France's longtime enemy.

Jefferson feared that Hamilton's policies would make just a few Americans rich and would also concentrate too much power in the office of the secretary of the treasury. So Jefferson allied himself with those who opposed Hamilton.

Becomes U.S. vice-president

War broke out between France and England in 1793 and threatened American peace. As secretary of state, Jefferson tried to keep America out of the war while maintaining ties with both France and Great Britain. In the case of France, he was unsuccessful, and his plans for a good trade relationship with France came to nothing. He resigned his office at the end of 1793.

After his resignation Jefferson was determined to quit public life once and for all. But in 1796 members of his Republican Party convinced him to run for president against John Adams. Jefferson barely lost the election, but because of the way the election system worked at the time, he became vice-president under Adams.

By 1798 relations between France and the United States were so bad that the two countries nearly went to war. Although war was avoided, Jefferson did not approve of the way President Adams handled the situation and the relationship between the two men—and their Republican and Federalist political parties—was badly strained.

Reacts to Alien and Sedition Acts

One way Adams handled the situation with France was to convince Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. (Aliens are foreigners; sedition is behavior or language intended to incite others to rebel against the authority of the government.) The Alien Acts were really intended to weaken the Republican Party, which was made up of many recent immigrants who were criticizing Adams's policies. The Alien Acts made it harder to become an American citizen and threatened to force people from "enemy" nations to go back home. The Sedition Acts tried to restrict the public activities of Americans critical of Adams's policies. Jefferson saw the acts as an attempt by Adams to make the federal government far more powerful than the individual states.

In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson secretly wrote the Kentucky Resolutions. They declared the Alien and Sedition Acts illegal and claimed that individual states did not have to abide by such laws. Although Jefferson's planned legislation did not pass, it contributed to the public's demand that Adams stop trying to expand the federal government's power. Jefferson continued to believe that the states should be governed with as little interference from the federal government as possible. Like Adams and Jefferson did, politicians today still argue about the proper role of the federal government.

Serves as U.S. president

In 1800 Jefferson ran for president as a Republican and won. On March 4, 1801, he was inaugurated in the nation's new capital, Washington, D.C. The speech he made that day urged friendship between Republicans and Federalists, the nation's two political parties. "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle," he said. "We are all republicans: we are all federalists."

Jefferson's speech also called for "a wise and [economically sound] 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" by overtaxing. When members of his own Republican Party pressured him to favor them over the Federalists, he tried to remain fair to both parties.

Historians disagree about whether or not Jefferson was a strong and effective president during his two terms of office (1801–09). Some say he did not exercise authority when a strong hand was needed. But others point out that Jefferson enjoyed many successes. He got reforms passed regarding freedom of the press, made it easier for immigrants to become American citizens, and greatly improved the country's financial status. During his two administrations, the national debt was reduced by about 40 percent.

Foreign affairs

Foreign affairs was the area of Jefferson's greatest triumph and greatest defeat. With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France, Jefferson gained for the United States an area of 800,000 square miles. For this expansion he paid the remarkably small sum of less than $15 million. He approved the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition (1803–06), which helped to acquaint Americans with their new western lands.

Jefferson was easily reelected in 1804, but he soon found himself involved in yet another quarrel between France and England. It was Jefferson's idea to try and resolve the quarrel by way of an embargo. The embargo prohibited foreign commercial ships from entering or departing American ports. The embargo was unpopular at home and had little effect on the behavior of France and Great Britain. Congress finally brought an end to the embargo in 1809 during the last days of Jefferson's presidency.

Life in retirement

After his retirement from politics, Jefferson seldom ventured farther than a few miles from Monticello. He enjoyed a long and active retirement. He corresponded with many people, maintained an interest in the latest happenings in a variety of fields, and welcomed visitors to his home from all over America and Europe. Although he still had political enemies, he was enormously popular among the American people.

Jefferson's efforts to revive plans for public education in his home state resulted in the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819. Jefferson was involved in all aspects of the project, from planning the grounds and buildings to choosing the teachers and classes.

During his later years Jefferson's health began to fail and he suffered a number of financial losses. At the time of his marriage, Jefferson had inherited both property and debts from his wife's family. His involvement in national affairs meant that sometimes he failed to pay close enough attention to his own personal finances on the plantation. Money difficulties became part of his life. In 1815 he had to sell his ten-thousand-volume library to the federal government to help relieve his financial difficulties. His books served as the core of the collection of the Library of Congress, the large public library he had helped establish in Washington, D.C., in 1800. The library was inspired by Jefferson's belief that in order to do its job, a democratic legislature needed information of all kinds.

Death of America's hero

Thomas Jefferson died at his home on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of American independence. His colleague, John Adams, passed away on the same day. Jefferson was buried next to his wife on a little hill at Monticello.

As he had done in life, Jefferson carefully controlled aspects of his death. He had designed his own tombstone and wrote the words he wished to appear on it: "Here was buried / Thomas Jefferson / author of the Declaration of American Independence / [and] of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom / And Father of the University of Virginia."

Biographer Willard Sterne Randall pointed out how curious it was that in composing the words for his stone, Jefferson "did not think it important enough to mention that he had been twice elected and served as the president of the United States."

For More Information

Allison, Robert J. "Thomas Jefferson" in American Eras: The Revolutionary Era, 1754–1783. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 222-23.

Boatner, Mark M., III. "Jefferson, Thomas" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 553-58.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula K. Byers. "Jefferson, Thomas" in Encyclopedia of World Biography, Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 238-41.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson, the Virginian, Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1948, p. 204.

Peterson, Merrill D. "Jefferson, Thomas" in American National Biography, Vol. 11. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 909-18.

Randall, Willard Sterne. Thomas Jefferson: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993.

Jefferson, Thomas (1743-1826)

views updated May 23 2018

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)


Member of congress, secretary of state, vice president and president of the united states

Unlikely Democrat. Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father most associated with the democratic ideals that have become the basis of American society, was an unlikely champion of democracy. This slaveowning Virginia aristocrat was most definitely not one of the common people, but he put his faith in the power of reason, science, and education to enlighten the common people so that they could be trusted with the political power to establish a democratic republic that would protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Early Career. Thomas Jefferson was born on 13 April 1743 at Shadwell, his familys farm in Albemarle County, Virginia. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a self-made man, a slaveowning planter, surveyor, mapmaker, justice of the peace, and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, was from one of Virginias oldest and most prominent families, guaranteeing Jefferson a privileged position in colonial society. Jefferson spent most of his childhood at Tuckahoe, the plantation of his mothers late cousin William Randolph, where his father acted as guardian of Randolphs children. His education began at age five at Tuckahoe, followed by attendance at the Latin school of Rev. William Douglas beginning at age nine. At fourteen, after his fathers death, Jefferson prepared for college under the direction of Rev. James Maury. At the College of William and Mary (17601762) Dr. William Small introduced Jefferson to the world of science, mathematics, and the Enlightenment, a European philosophical movement stressing the use of reason and observation to understand the natural world and human behavior. After college Jefferson studied law with George Wythe. He practiced law from 1767 to 1774 and managed his inheritance of nearly five thousand acres of land and twenty-two slaves. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a young widow and daughter of a prosperous lawyer, and brought her to live at Monticello, the home he had begun building in 1770 after fire destroyed his family home.

Revolutionary Leadership. As a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1775, Jefferson joined a group of younger men, including Patrick Henry, who led Virginias resistance to British rule. Never an eloquent speaker, Jefferson was more persuasive in legislative committees and in his writing. In 1772 he helped draw up resolves proposing an intercolonial system of committee of correspondence. In 1774 he wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which anticipated much of his argument in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson asserted that Parliament has no right to exercise authority over us, that King George III was no more than the chief officer of the people and consequently subject to their superintendance, and that the colonists possessed rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their free magistrate. In 1776 Jeffersons Reputation of a masterly Pen won him the assignment of drafting the Declaration of Independence for Congress. Years later Jefferson wrote that the Declaration was intended to be an expression of the American mind. The principles of equality, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the consent of the governed that he proclaimed in the Declaration have become the most cherished beliefs in American society.

Return Home. Jefferson returned to Virginia in September 1776 and spent the next three years in the House of Delegates revising Virginias laws. He drafted 126 bills aimed at creating a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient and future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican. Jefferson introduced bills abolishing inheritance laws that perpetuated an aristocracy based on birth and wealth and a bill establishing complete freedom of religion. He also proposed the Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which recommended state funding for educating the most promising male scholars through college in order to create a natural aristocracy, but the only part of the bill that survived in 1796 was authorization for three years of public education for all children. His bills on religious freedom and education reflected Jeffersons belief in the necessity of freedom of thought and an educated citizenry to support republican government. From 1779 to 1781 Jefferson was governor of Virginia. He endured great difficulty balancing the demands of supplying arms, men, and money for the national war effort while defending the state from imminent invasion. On 4 June 1781 Jefferson barely avoided capture when the British raided Monticello. His term of office having expired two days earlier, Jefferson moved his family to safety instead of waiting for the legislature to choose a new governor on 12 June. In December the legislature absolved Jefferson of any wrongdoing, but during the presidential election of 1800 his opponents charged Jefferson with cowardice and dereliction of duty as governor.

Short Retirement. From 1781 to 1783 Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia in response to questions from François Marbois, secretary to the French minister in Philadelphia. In a wide-ranging analysis that included observations on climate, geography, and Native Americans; a catalogue of native minerals, trees, flowers, and animals; and criticism of inadequate political representation in Virginia, Jefferson also revealed his complex thoughts about slavery. He condemned slavery, but he also thought that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. The real distinctions which nature has made between the races convinced him that the only solution was gradual emancipation and colonization. Mrs. Jeffersons death in September 1782 destroyed Jeffersons happy return to private life and scholarly study. He accepted a term in Congress in 1783 and made several important contributions, including proposals for extending republican government and prohibiting slavery in the western territories. In May 1784 Congress appointed him minister plenipotentiary to assist John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in negotiating commercial treaties in Europe, and the following year he replaced Franklin as minister to France. During his five years of diplomatic service, Jefferson gained commercial concessions from Prussia and France. He also witnessed the beginning of the French Revolution, which had a significant impact on his political ideas. He returned to America determined to create a republican government that would remove the economic, social, and political inequalities that had led to the French Revolution.

Secretary of State. When Jefferson brought his two daughters home in November 1789, he intended to return to France. Instead, he agreed to become secretary of state. Jeffersons certainty that only a nation of small, property-owning farmers would have the independence to make political decisions and preserve republican government guided his foreign policy. In Jeffersons view Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamiltons financial policies imposed an unfair burden on taxpaying farmers. Deprived of their property, farmers would fall under the political control of men upon whom they relied for their economic survival, resulting in political corruption, class conflict, and revolution. Hamilton, however, envisioned the United States as a commercial nation in close alliance with Britain, and he used every opportunity to push his foreign policy objectives. Jefferson wanted to be forceful with Britain, using commercial discrimination and American neutrality as negotiating tactics to persuade Britain to evacuate its posts in the Northwest, grant commercial concessions, and respect Americas rights on the high seas. But Jefferson lost his bargaining power after Hamilton blocked tariff discrimination against Britain in Congress and held meetings with British diplomats, during which he criticized Jeffersons policies and assured them that the United States wanted a friendly relationship with Britain. In 1793 Jefferson thwarted Hamiltons attempt to break the 1778 treaty of alliance with France and gained diplomatic recognition for the first minister of the French republic to ensure that the United States would maintain a fair neutrality in the war between Britain and France. Bitter political divisions drove Jefferson from office in December 1793, but those same divisions guaranteed his return to public service.

Vice President. President George Washingtons decision not to seek a third term ended Jeffersons retirement. Jefferson thought that James Madison, his close friend and the driving force in the Republican Party, was the logical choice to oppose John Adams in the presidential election of 1796, but Madison pushed for Jeffersons candidacy. Adamss victory, however, put Jefferson in the uncomfortable position of being a Republican vice president in a Federalist administration. With no influence over policy, Jefferson carried out his duties as presiding officer of the Senate. He also began preparing a manual of parliamentary practice, which was published in 1801 and is still used in the Senate. Madisons retirement from Congress in 1797 made Jefferson the leader of the Republican Party, and he willingly accepted the responsibility. Just a few months before he died Jefferson proudly recalled his role as vice president in heading opposition to the federal principles and proceedings, during the administration of Mr. Adams. While the Federalists were leading the nation into war with France and depriving the people of liberty through the establishment of a large standing army, the imposition of high taxes, and especially the Alien and Sedition Acts, he and Albert Gallatin, leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, kept Republicans in Congress united until the state legislatures acted to protect the people from Federalist tyranny. Jefferson did not claim credit for writing the Kentucky Resolutions, but he stated that the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions saved the constitution at its last gasp. In 1800 Vice President Jefferson was an effective, behind-the-scenes campaigner for the presidency, circulating his partys political principles through pamphlets, newspapers, and letters.

President. Jeffersons fondness for philosophical study and his preference for communicating political ideas privately rather than through public debate led Federalists to predict that Jefferson would be a weak, indecisive, and deceitful president. President Jefferson exhibited a flexibility in adapting his principles to execute his goals that caused Federalists to denounce him as an untrustworthy demagogue. However, Jefferson, president of the American Philosophical Society from 1791 to 1815, believed that philosophical principles were useless unless they had a practical application. His persuasiveness in private meetings, conversations, letters, and written addresses allowed him to convey his ideas effectively to the public, coordinate policies with his cabinet, and supervise the passage of legislation through the Republican-controlled Congress. In Jeffersons first term (18011805) the repeal of internal taxes; reductions in the army, navy, and federal expenses; and the expiration of the Sedition Act conformed to his principles of restoring a republican government that protected liberty, equality of opportunity, freedom of conscience, and consent of the governed. In 1803 Federalists attacked the Louisiana Purchase as a hypocritical abandonment of Jeffersons strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution. For Jefferson the Louisiana Purchase required him to modify his strict constructionist philosophy in order to achieve his goal of establishing an Empire of Libertyan American republic of independent, property-owning farmers. The Embargo Act of 1807 was the great failure of Jeffersons second term (18051809) because he never clearly communicated to Congress or the public whether the embargo was a delaying tactic until the nation was prepared for war or an alternative to war. In addition Jefferson, the advocate of limited government, came under attack by Federalists for an extraordinary expansion of executive authority to enforce the embargo, including the use of the army, navy, and militia. President Jefferson, weary and disappointed by his second term, looked forward to retiring to Monticello.

The Sage of Monticello. Jefferson retired to his beloved Monticello in 1809, surrounded by his daughter and her family. His grandchildren always remembered him with a book in his hand, and when he and John Adams reconciled in 1812, many of their letters involved discussions of books on philosophy and religion. Presidents Madison and James Monroe consulted him for political advice, and a steady stream of visitors came for an audience with The Sage of Monticello. He experimented with several agricultural techniques and other economic ventures in attempts to revive his estate. In his final years Jefferson became less hopeful about the eventual abolition of slavery and more pessimistic about the federal governments consolidation of power. Yet Jefferson put his faith in reason, science, and education to enlighten his fellow citizens and improve the rights of man. Jeffersons final achievement was the establishment of the University of Virginia in March 1825. He spent years designing buildings, planning curricula, and choosing faculty for the university, which fulfilled his belief that a democracy required educated citizens. When Thomas Jefferson died on 4 July 1826, he wanted to be remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as the Father of the University of Virginia.


Noble E. Cunningham Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987);

Adrienne Koch, ed., Great Lives Observed: Jefferson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971);

Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, 6 volumes (Boston: Little, Brown, 19481981).

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