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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: President Jefferson

It's a great irony of history that Jefferson ended up owing his presidency to his greatest political rival. Jefferson's vice-presidential running mate in 1800 was the sordid Aaron Burr, an opportunist from New York. Because of poor planning by Republican electors and a quirk in the way the Electoral College worked at the time, Burr and Jefferson finished the presidential race in an exact tie. As a result, per the Constitution's instructions, it fell to the House of Representatives to decide the winner. Since the new Republican Congress had yet to take office the House was still controlled by the Federalists—who now had a great opportunity to make mischief. Although Jefferson was clearly intended to be the presidential candidate and Burr his vice-president, Federalist leaders thought of giving the presidency to Burr in exchange for special political favors. Hamilton was incensed. He may have opposed Jefferson, and hated Adams, but he loathed Burr. Hamilton judged Burr dishonest and untrustworthy. When he heard what his Federalist peers were planning, he campaigned vigorously for his old rival Thomas Jefferson, ensuring his selection. The whole episode left Jefferson deeply suspicious of Burr, who would play almost no role in Jefferson's administration—until, of course, he killed Alexander Hamilton in their infamous 1804 duel by pistols.

Although Jefferson arrived in office in 1801 preaching reconciliation, his political program was frankly partisan. Jefferson wanted nothing less than to dismantle the Federalists' government. He appointed his Republican protégés to cabinet posts, repealed the Federalists' 1801 Judiciary Act, freed those imprisoned under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and dedicated the vast bulk of the government's revenues to paying down Hamilton's national debt.
His fight against the Federalists made Jefferson very popular. Many ordinary citizens saw the president as a man of the people, fighting against the aristocratic Federalists. They even sent him gifts to show their support. Famously, Massachusetts farmers sent Jefferson a massive 1235-pound wheel of Cheddar Cheese, which the president was fond of showing to foreign dignitaries.5 Jefferson had run for president in order to dismantle the Federalists' vision for America and he was, by and large, very successful at doing so once in office.

But that isn't what we usually remember Jefferson's presidency for, at least not today. When we think back on Jefferson's presidency, we tend to recall two related events—his purchase of the Louisiana Territory, and his organization of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Jefferson had always been interested in the West. During his brief service in the Continental Congress, he had helped author the Northwest Ordinance, which structured how the West would be settled. Jefferson saw westward expansion as the country's future. In 1803, after learning that the French had acquired Louisiana from the Spanish, Jefferson saw an opportunity to see that future realized. He dispatched representatives to Napoleon in Paris, with instructions to try to purchase the city of New Orleans. When Napoleon offered them the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 Million (about four cents an acre), Jefferson jumped at the opportunity, forcing the treaty through Congress before Napoleon could change his mind. The Louisiana Purchase effectively doubled the size of the United States overnight.

For months before, Jefferson had been planning a reconnaissance of Western North America. At the time, it was widely believed that a "Northwest Passage" of rivers and lakes connected the eastern United States to the Pacific Ocean. If this Northwest Passage could be found, it would open up new markets for American goods, and so prove a huge boon to American manufacturing. Jefferson had enlisted his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to lead the search for the Passage. Planning for the expedition was already in full swing when Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory. With so much new country to explore, Jefferson tweaked the aim of Lewis's trip, encouraging him to map the Territory and make diplomatic contact with inland American Indian tribes. The trip was to be a huge success.

Between the expansion of the western frontier and the fight against the Federalists, Jefferson became a popular hero. Despite a vicious election campaign, Jefferson and his Republicans cruised to another landslide victory in 1804. But in his second term, Jefferson's boldness started to catch up with him. In his zeal for Republican causes, Jefferson could be a little un-Republican. The Louisiana Purchase impressed Congress, but some Republicans worried that Jefferson's had violated the Constitution. Where did it say the President had the power to purchase land? Their anxieties mounted when Jefferson pushed for newspaper censorship during the 1804 presidential election. His continuing attempts to buy Florida from Spain finally drove some Republicans into the opposition. They formed a third party, the Tertium Quids, which harassed Jefferson's plans in Congress. About the same time Aaron Burr, Jefferson's former VP, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and then fled to the Southwest. There he started planning half-brained military campaigns that force Jefferson to seek his arrest.

With Jefferson facing an insurrection in Congress and a former VP on the loose, international pressures began to mount as the wars in Europe grew more intense. England and France were locked in a battle for continental dominance, and Britain was hungry for more manpower. His Majesty's Navy increased its impressment of American sailors, putting the United States in a tough spot. Jefferson did not want to risk war with Britain or build up a large navy to protect the American fleet, but he felt he had to do something. He pushed for a boycott of British goods, to try and weaken the British economy. Why he thought it might work is a mystery. The 1807 Embargo Act, which Jefferson forced through Congress, destroyed much of the United States' shipping industry and created a massive smuggling trade up the Saint Lawrence River, without inflicting any significant cost on the British. The embargo has been recognized as one of the ten worst presidential blunders in US history.6 Needless to say, impressment continued unabated.

The stress seems to have gotten to Jefferson. By the end of his second term, Jefferson had retreated so far into himself that James Madison had already assumed responsibility for most of the president's duties. As he did whenever he felt beaten, Jefferson dreamed of heading home. When Madison won the next presidential election in 1808, Jefferson was finally able to fulfill his long-stated goal of retiring from politics. On 4 March 1809, he hung around Washington just long enough to see Madison's inauguration before departing for Monticello. This time, he swore, he was going home for good. For once, he was right.

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