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The Jefferson Presidency Introduction

In A Nutshell

In 1819, Thomas Jefferson recalled his own election as president nearly two decades earlier as a "revolution" in American politics. "Revolution" is a strong word, but it was probably the right word, for the Democratic-Republican Party Jefferson led into power in 1801 was dramatically different from the Federalist Party that had governed since 1789. But Jefferson's use of the word signified more than a mere transition from one party to another; Jefferson believed that the Federalists he defeated represented not just a different political vision, but a dangerously wrong political vision—one that threatened to restore the antidemocratic principles and institutions of the British government Americans had rejected in 1776.

For Jefferson, therefore, the election of 1800 represented more than a simple changing of the guard. It signified the restoration of America's Revolutionary vision, the return of the great ideals of 1776. And in Thomas Jefferson's mind—as in the minds of his followers—Jefferson himself, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, was just the man to lead this second revolution.

Were they right?


Why Should I Care?

Every generation has a voice—a Jack Kerouac, a Bob Dylan, a Kurt Cobain, a Maya Angelou—a philosopher, poet, or songwriter who captures the generation's ideals and its anxieties, its dreams as well as its fears. For the generation of 1776, that voice belonged to 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson, a red-haired, freckle-faced, stuttering young planter from Virginia. He burst onto the national scene in 1774 by publishing a controversial pamphlet that boldly asserted that Parliament had absolutely "no right to exercise authority over us."1 Most Americans had not yet arrived at so complete a denial of Parliament's authority. Still trying to carve out a political compromise, these moderates deemed Jefferson's position too radical. But other Patriot leaders, like John Adams, saw in the shy young man the sort of brash clarity needed to frame the nation's statement of separation from England.

In June, 1776, Jefferson was therefore named to the committee charged with drafting a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain. Jefferson made the best of this literary assignment. His Declaration of Independence succinctly summarized the young nation's grievances against the King, as well as its theory of government and human rights. The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration on the fourth of July, 1776. George Washington summoned his troops into formation for a reading of the seminal document; newspapers from Massachusetts to Georgia published the statement on their front pages. More than two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence remains one of the most important documents in American history.

It was a promising start for the young intellectual. And in the chaotic world of Revolutionary America, a philosopher with a talent for the evocative phrase could aspire to more than a life of book talks and lecture halls; Jefferson ultimately rode his philosophical clarity and literary talent all the way to the White House. He managed to achieve the sort of political power modern-day philosophers and poets can only dream about. And in the process he offered an interesting test-case for the intellectual in politics.

What happens when the people most capable of constructing and communicating our ideals enter the political arena? How suited are our philosophers and poets for the gritty world of politics and statecraft? What would happen if Bob Dylan were elected president?

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