Study Guide

The Jefferson Presidency Introduction

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The Jefferson Presidency Introduction

Jefferson would've had a killer cover letter for a government job. Why? Because he was passionate. About democracy.

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.

He was a believer in the ideals of the American Revolution through and through. As a 32-year-old planter from Virginia, he made a name for himself by challenging the authority and power of Parliament in the colonies. His message to them was, loosely, "back off, y'all."

His fervor for democracy and liberty gained him a front row seat and feather quill at the Second Continental Congress where he drafted the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence:

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.

These are the words that flowed from Jefferson's pen and they were the vision he believed in for America.

According to Jefferson, this was a vision that was being flushed down the proverbial toilet under the Federalist Party. The election of 1800 was his mandate from the people to get America back on track as a nation dedicated to liberty and democracy without the intervening chokehold of big government. This was his time to cut back on the excesses of the Federalists and right the wrongs that had been committed during their reign.

This would be a new era of democracy. Jefferson himself, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, was just the man to lead this second "revolution," as he'd later call it.

What is The Jefferson Presidency About and 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, and 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."blank">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 July 4th, 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? 

And uh, how do you think Bob Dylan would be as president?

The Jefferson Presidency Resources


Joseph Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997)
Ellis doesn't get lost in the mythology of Jefferson. Instead, he explores the curiosities and contradictions within Jefferson's thought and life from his arrival on the public scene in 1775 until his death in 1826.

James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, Peter Onuf, eds., The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic (2002)
While several essays explore the impact of Jefferson on American politics and culture in this collection, there's also an emphasis on the international developments that framed, and even made possible, Jefferson's election.

Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter Onuf, eds., Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture (1999)
Published shortly after the release of the DNA evidence solidly establishing a sexual relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, this collection of essays by Jefferson scholars provides an interesting introduction to the significance of this relationship.

Forrest McDonald, The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1976)
For the nuts and bolts of Jefferson's presidency, this volume of the American Presidency Series published by the University Press of Kansas is extremely useful. Straightforward in its purpose and prose, this short book (200 pages) describes Jefferson's presidency from its chaotic beginning to disappointing conclusion.

Merrill D. Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson (1975)
To really understand Thomas Jefferson, you need to read his own words. This is the most useful, concise collection of Jefferson's letters, major writings, and public papers and addresses.


The Itinerant Band, Jefferson and Liberty (2001)
The Itinerant Band plays both period and modern instruments on this lively sampling of early republic classics inspired by the political career of Thomas Jefferson.

Various Artists, Music of the Federal Era (2000)
A fantastic collection of late-18th and early-19th-century compositions performed on rare instruments crafted during the period, it includes an array of classic marches, hymns, and dance melodies.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
An exciting offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

Barry Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down (1992)
Barry Phillips' collection of popular music from the Revolutionary and Federalist eras includes quaint folk songs, lively dance tunes, and other elegant compositions played in homes, taverns, and even on the war front.


A Presidential Portrait
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.

Controversial Lineage
Descendents of Sally Hemings and, most probably, Thomas Jefferson gather at Monticello in 1999.

The Chief Justice
John Marshall by William James Hubbard, 1834.

Recording History for Posterity
The north wing of the new United States Capitol, by William Birch in 1800.

The Turtle Impression Fails Miserably
Jefferson's embargo of 1807 was labeled a "terrapin policy"—one that would "shut up the nation in its own shell." In this cartoon, the embargo's repeal in 1809 is graphically celebrated.

Quite a Place to Hang Your Hat
Jefferson's mountaintop home, Monticello, painted by Jane Pitford Braddick Peticolas, circa 1827.

Maria Cosway, the young woman with whom Jefferson became infatuated. This engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi, after a painting by Maria's husband, Richard Cosway, hangs in the parlor at Monticello.

The Rumors Abound
A cartoon by James Akins (circa 1804) portraying Jefferson as a "philosophic cock" courting a hen with a dark complexion and a slave's headdress.

Movies & TV

John Adams (2008)
This Emmy-nominated miniseries follows the life of John Adams during the Revolutionary period and the early years of the republic. Actor Stephen Dillane plays Thomas Jefferson, a prominent character in the series as Adams' most formidable political nemesis.

Slavery and the Making of America (2005)
Presented by PBS, this four-part television series uses archival sources to trace the long and complex history of American slavery, from its beginnings in the colonies to its solidification with the signing of the U.S. Constitution to the post-Civil War years.

American Experience: "The Duel" (2000)
This episode of the highly acclaimed PBS series explores the backgrounds of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and the evolution of their political antagonism from their days as New York lawyers to the deadly end of their dispute at Weehawken in 1804.

Founding Fathers (2000)
It may be impossible to comprehend the significance of the election of 1800 without understanding the role that Thomas Jefferson played in the founding of the United States. This four-part television documentary explores the early stages of nation-building before, during, and after the American Revolution.

Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000)
Actor Sam Neill (The Tudors) is Thomas Jefferson, and Carmen Ejogo (Law & Order) plays Sally Hemings in this fictional tale based on historical events surrounding the controversial relationship between Jefferson and his slave mistress.

Thomas Jefferson: A Film by Ken Burns (1996)
This is typical Ken Burns—striking images, excerpts form Jefferson's writings, and a soundtrack heavy on the fiddles. He interviews a solid lineup of Jefferson scholars and touches on the complexity of Jefferson as a person and an intellectual.

Jefferson in Paris (1995)
This is a bad movie, with Nick Nolte ridiculously miscast as Jefferson. But as a period piece, it may be of some interest. The costumes are richly detailed, and the intellectual excitement within the Paris salons is nicely portrayed.


Home Sweet Home
Monticello, Jefferson's famous Virginia home, can be explored at this nicely constructed website. It includes an extensive collection of images—furniture, instruments, art, and architectural drawings—as well as narrated tours that explore the house, gardens, and "domestic life." The site has a digital collection of family correspondence, and offers links to the report on the Jefferson-Hemings relationship.

The Jeffersonian Legacy
The Library of Congress has constructed a website which explores the "extraordinary legacy" of Thomas Jefferson. It provides a useful introduction to the range of Jefferson's contributions and is illustrated with digital images from the Library's vast Jefferson holdings. The site also offers a detailed biographical timeline and provides a link to Jefferson Papers held by the Library of Congress which are accessible electronically to the public.

The Jefferson Biography
The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia maintains a site on Jefferson that offers a series of short essays on his life and career, as well as short biographical sketches of his vice presidents and Cabinet.

Commenting on TJ
The companion site for Ken Burns' film on Thomas Jefferson isn't particularly great, but it does include the complete transcripts of the interviews used in making the film.

Historical Documents

A Founder's Works
The Thomas Jefferson Papers held by the Library of Congress are available online. Transcripts of the digital documents aren't provided, but the site also provides a small collection of scholarly articles, and a very thorough biographical timeline of Jefferson.

The Thoughts of a (Conflicted) Genius
The Jeffersonian Cycolpedia is a searchable collection of Jefferson quotes and philosophical and political observations.

A Controversial Treatise and More
Jefferson's public papers and addresses are available through the Avalon Project at Yale Law School. His messages to Congress, inaugural addresses, and Notes on the State of Virginia are included in this collection. A small sampling of his private correspondence is also made available here.

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