In 1801, Thomas Jefferson won election as the third president of the United States. The man who had written that "all men are created equal," the philosopher who had provided the emerging nation with its founding statement of human and national rights, was now rewarded with the presidential office. But while his supporters judged this appropriate—one might even say poetically appropriate—his qualifications for the office were questioned by many. How suited was a philosopher for the presidency? Was a person of such a speculative temperament really qualified for the nation's highest political office?
To his critics, Jefferson's political resume did not provide much reassurance. He had arrived on the national scene as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. But his place on the Virginia delegation was more the work of his political mentor, Peyton Randolph, than the result of any great achievements back home. In 1774, Jefferson had earned a reputation as a skilled writer with his Summary View of the Rights of British America—a summary of American grievances against current British colonial policies—and this reputation would lead to his being asked to draft the colonies' Declaration of Independence. The famous result was one of the most cherished documents in American history.
But when Jefferson returned to Virginia to face a different sort of challenge, he did not perform nearly so well. Serving as governor between 1779 and 1781, he struggled to organize the state's military resources. And when the traitor Benedict Arnold landed a hostile army in 1781 and marched on the capital of Richmond, Jefferson had to take flight and watch the city burn from the surrounding hills. Later, serving as minister to France from 1785 to 1789, Jefferson's diplomatic achievements were relatively few. Jefferson returned to the United States to serve as Secretary of State during George Washington's first term, but Washington's most significant foreign policy achievements (the Jay Treaty improving American commercial relations with Britain, the Treaty of San Lorenzo securing American navigation rights on the Mississippi River from Spain) were all achieved after Jefferson resigned in 1793. And finally, in his role as vice-president from 1797 to 1801, Jefferson spurned President John Adams's invitation to play a meaningful role in the administration, choosing instead to retreat to his home at Monticello in preparation for his own 1800 bid for the presidency.
Jefferson's credentials as a politician thus left much to be desired, but by 1796 he had emerged as the leader of the opposition. At that point he was known, somewhat ironically, as much for his opposition to the government of George Washington as he was for his earlier eloquent denunciation of British tyranny. But in Jefferson's own mind, and in the minds of his supporters, the opposition movements of 1796 and 1776 were much the same. Less than a decade after the ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson had become convinced that the government created by the American Revolution had steered badly off course. Alexander Hamilton, the influential (and, in Jefferson's judgment, antidemocratic) Secretary of the Treasury, had corrupted the administration of George Washington, putting the ideals secured in America's war for independence in serious jeopardy.
In retrospect, the political worldview expressed in Jefferson's correspondence from this period seems embarrassingly apocalyptic. His condemnation of Hamilton and his "monarchical aristocratical party" appears wildly exaggerated and out of sync with the reasoned analysis Jefferson usually championed as man of the Enlightenment6. His critics have added that Jefferson's analysis was as naive as it was hyperbolic, rooted in an inability to appreciate the complexities of international finance and trade. But however we might explain Jefferson's somewhat unreasoned reaction to Hamilton, Jefferson's Enlightenment ideals did reassert themselves in his proclamation that the nation's course could still be corrected—and that it was "the people" who would restore the government to its "true principles."7
Jefferson's election in 1801 was thus a reassuring moment for him—an affirmation of the people's ultimate ability to chart history's best course. He would later refer to his election as the "revolution of 1800," but what he really meant was the "re-revolution"—the restoration of the course set in 1776, the preservation of the ideals he had himself enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the rededication of the nation to the social and political direction embodied in that statement.8 But the task set before him now as president was, in many ways, more complex than the task he undertook in 1776. For now Jefferson had to go beyond rhetoric; he had to transfer ideals into action by turning his social and political philosophy into a concrete set of policies. For Thomas Jefferson, with an administrative and diplomatic record that was to this point not particularly impressive, the presidency would test just how effectively the philosopher could function as a politician.