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The Jefferson Presidency

The Jefferson Presidency

 Table of Contents

Politics in The Jefferson Presidency

The Election of 1800/01

Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1801 provided an appropriate finale to the political drama of the preceding half decade. The bitter controversy surrounding the Jay Treaty, the explosive reaction to the XYZ Affair, the assault on civil liberties embodied by the Alien and Sedition Acts, the brawl between Congressmen Lyon and Griswold on the floor of the House... America's first political parties had emerged with a particularly loud partisan bang. Therefore, when the Electoral College votes cast in December 1800 were counted on 11 February 1801, and it was revealed that there was a tie for the presidency—not between Jefferson, a Republican, and John Adams, his Federalist opponent, but instead between Jefferson and his Republican running mate, Aaron Burr—the political craziness seemed complete.

For starters, the election had revealed a glitch in the Constitution's presidential selection process. The members of the Electoral College each possessed two votes. They were meant to cast one for their choice for president and one for their vice-presidential choice. But these ballots were not tabulated separately; that is, the presidential and vice-presidential elections were not treated as two separate contests. Instead, both ballots were tossed in the same box, with the first and second place winners serving as president and vice-president.

What the constitutional framers had expected was what had occurred four years earlier in 1796: the two most prominent candidates would finish first and second, and serve as president and vice-president. (In 1796, that meant President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson.) It was (somewhat naively) hoped that, even though the two men had been rivals during the election, they would set aside their differences in true republican fashion in order to serve the common good.What the founders did not anticipate was the formation of political parties that would run presidential and vice-presidential candidates as a team. Instead, they had assumed that the electors' choices would be more diverse, and the likelihood of an entire bloc of electors casting both their ballots for the same two candidates would be a statistical impossibility. But with the formation of parties and running mates, this was exactly what did occur—and in 1800, the Republican pairing of Jefferson and Burr failed to plan carefully to avoid a tie between them. As Jefferson watched events unfold from his Monticello home, he fumed that "it was badly managed not to have arranged with certainty what seems to have been left to hazard."20

The Constitution stipulated that in the case of a tie, the House of Representatives would select the president. But this provision did not bring the political maneuvering to an end. To the contrary: Federalists saw in the strange circumstance a chance to defeat Jefferson, their nemesis, by courting his erstwhile running mate, Aaron Burr. Burr was also a Republican, it was true, but he was perceived as something of an opportunist. He might be willing to trade favors with the Federalists in exchange for the power of the presidency. Just how seriously Burr entertained their offers is not clear, but Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton feared that Burr was just the sort of man who could be seduced by such a corrupt scheme, and therefore he urged his Federalist friends to abandon their intrigue and allow Jefferson his victory. Hamilton hated Jefferson, but he believed Burr lacked integrity—and in the final analysis, he decided he'd rather see the White House fall to his greatest philosophical opponent than to a scoundrel. (In a strange twist of fate, that same scoundrel, Aaron Burr, would go on to kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel just three years later.)

We Are All Federalists. (But for the Most Part) We Are All Republicans

Ironically, then, Thomas Jefferson's election was ultimately secured by one of his greatest enemies. We might speculate that Hamilton's gesture generated a similar one from Jefferson; in his inaugural address, the new president reached out to his Federalist opponents with a rhetorical proclamation of unity. "We are all republicans," Jefferson said. "We are all federalists."21 It was a nice statement, and perhaps one offered in a genuinely conciliatory spirit—but probably not, for having rhetorically denied real differences between the parties, Jefferson proceeded in his speech to lay out a new agenda for his presidency that essentially repudiated the Federalist program of the preceding decade. After twelve years of federal government expansion, Jefferson promised to reduce the power and size of government. Whereas John Adams had built a navy, and the Federalist Congress had authorized a 22,000-man army, Jefferson reminded Americans that a militia, a temporary citizen army, would really provide their best defense. Whereas Hamilton had refunded the national debt in such a way that it would probably never be paid down, but instead circulated perpetually as a means of linking Americans to the federal government, Jefferson urged that the debt be paid off rapidly. Whereas the Federalist presidents had financed their government-expanding plans through a series of new taxes, Jefferson promised to repeal almost all of them.

In short, Jefferson signaled from the very start that his would be a Republican administration, that his presidential course would be defined by the principles of his political philosophy rather than by some form of bipartisan cooperation or pragmatism.And indeed, during his first term in office, Jefferson would methodically pursue his Republican agenda, largely succeeding in winning its implementation. To begin with, he repealed most of the taxes imposed during the Federalist administrations of George Washington and John Adams. Taxes on carriages, whiskey, and certain forms of property were repealed. Only a few import taxes were retained.

These tax cuts were balanced by a series of budget cuts. Perhaps most dramatically, Jefferson slashed the defense budget by freezing the army at 3,500 men, roughly its size at the time of his inauguration. In a national crisis, Jefferson said, the citizen militia would be called upon to defend the country. It would be not only cheaper, but also safer to rely on this citizen army than on a large standing army that might develop its own ambitions on power.

Next, Jefferson went about rapidly paying down the national debt. He feared that Hamilton's perpetual debt would create a class of people dependent on the government—not only the bond holders, but also the Treasury Department officers employed in the debt's management. These bond holders and treasury officials might unite behind a set of self-serving policies, he argued, and therefore the debt must be quickly retired.

Reduced taxes, a streamlined federal government, and rapid repayment of the national debt: all of these policies fulfilled Jefferson's inaugural pledge and advanced his ideological vision. In 1804, as he reviewed the work of his first term, Jefferson was pleased; in place of a bloated federal government, rapaciously taxing the public and breeding a class of bureaucratic leeches, he oversaw a more streamlined, minimalist federal government, one that trusted the public to manage its own affairs and to rise voluntarily in national emergencies to defend its collective interests. But what doubtless gave him his greatest satisfaction was the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. In 1803, Jefferson's administration negotiated the purchase of this vast tract of land from France, doubling the physical size of the United States while removing a potentially hostile foreign presence from the western frontier.

The Louisiana Purchase

Prior to 1800, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had nursed grand plans for the Louisiana Territory. He believed its rich soils would provide the food needed to feed the slaves working valuable French sugar and coffee plantations in the West Indies. But by 1802, these plans were falling apart. A slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (later named Haiti), France's largest and most profitable Caribbean colony, sent white planters into exile and proved impossible to quell. When slave armies and yellow fever wiped out more than half the troops sent to restore French control of the island, Napoleon called it quits: "D--n sugar, d--n coffee, d--n colonies . . . I renounce Louisiana."22

From across the Atlantic, Jefferson was not fully aware of Napoleon's change of plans. Therefore, when he sent a delegation to France in 1802, he sent them with a more modest ambition: the purchase of New Orleans. Jefferson worried that French control of that port city endangered American commerce on the Mississippi River; if French officers shut down American access to New Orleans, American settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains would lose all access to eastern markets. Therefore, at a bare minimum, Jefferson wanted reassurances from France that Americans would enjoy continued access to the city that linked the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and the larger Atlantic world beyond. When Napoleon unexpectedly offered the entire territory—not just the city of New Orleans but a vast swath of land, more than 800,000 square miles stretching all the way from the Mississippi Delta to the crest of the Rocky Mountains—for a mere $15 million, the American delegation jumped at the offer. Though they worried about exceeding their orders, and lacked confidence that a purchase of this sort was even constitutional, the offer was simply too good to refuse.

Thomas Jefferson agreed. When the delegation delivered news of the deal, he was thrilled. He also worried about the constitutional question; there was no clause in the Constitution that expressly granted the president the power to acquire new territory. Jefferson, as a strict constructionist, was philosophically opposed to reading between the lines to find new "implied powers" in the Constitution. But the Louisiana Purchase treaty allowed only a six-month window for ratification, and Spain was already pressuring France to renege on the deal, so Jefferson ignored his constitutional worries and rushed the treaty through the Senate.

Jefferson's sudden conversion to loose constructionism—a willingness to broadly interpret the meaning of the Constitution—struck many at the time and since as nakedly hypocritical. But, to Jefferson, what it really indicated was a willingness to sacrifice a small point of principle for a much larger one. And with the securing of these vast new territories—territories that doubled America's size—he advanced his grand vision of a republican America. For the foreseeable future, the purchase guaranteed America's agrarian future, providing the cheap farmland necessary to ensure that "our workshops" would "remain in Europe" while America would remain a nation of farmers, the "chosen people of god."23 But even more grandly, the acquisition of this territory played to Jefferson's vision of an expanding "empire of liberty." While some worried that the vast expanse of Louisiana would prove difficult to govern, Jefferson confidently envisioned the emergence of a series of "sister republics" stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps these republics would be part of the United States, perhaps they would not—it made little difference to Jefferson. For united by a common ideology and a shared interest in protecting their republican ideals, these republics would blur the traditional understanding of nationhood and further advance history's progressive course.

The Philosopher Succeeds—With a Little Help

One year after securing the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson was re-elected to a second term. His first term had been a good one, filled with concrete achievements. In many ways, his first term served to demonstrate that republican ideals could be turned into policy, and that the philosopher could succeed in politics.

Sort of.

What Jefferson refused to acknowledge was that a great deal of his success was only made possible by the very un-Republican achievements of his Federalist predecessors. Most importantly, his entire program was being financed by the commercial profits made possible by the policies of George Washington and John Adams. When Washington had pushed the Jay Treaty through the Senate in 1795, Jefferson had been outraged. He believed it a humiliating submission to British power, further evidence of Alexander Hamilton's Anglophilic influence. Most important, he complained, Britain had refused to recognize Americans' rights as neutral shippers; that is, Britain refused to accept the American argument that as a neutral in the conflict between France and Britain, American ships should be allowed to trade freely with both nations. But in the year following the Jay Treaty, within the improved diplomatic climate, Britain did embrace a relaxed position on neutral carriers—and American ships were allowed to transport both British and French goods without interference. In 1800, Adams negotiated a similar treaty with the French. The result was that, by the time Jefferson became president, the United States was beginning to realize huge profits as a neutral carrier, hauling the cargoes of both warring nations, generating large profits for the American shipping industry, and in the process increasing government revenues collected in American ports.

It was these increasing import tax revenues that allowed Jefferson to pay down the national debt despite the elimination of all other taxes. These same revenues also allowed him to take on a new government expense—the Louisiana Purchase—without breaking the treasury. On this transaction, moreover, Jefferson had even bigger help. American negotiations with France would have gone much differently had Napoleon not faced such a military crisis in Haiti. Could even New Orleans have been purchased? What price would the United States have had to pay just to access the Mississippi River, much less to acquire vast lands spanning the interior of the continent?

All in all, the jury remained out on Thomas Jefferson at the end of his first term. During his second term, world events would force Jefferson to concentrate on foreign policy. And this time around, fortune would not look so generously on his efforts.

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