Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, spent his childhood roaming the woods and studying his books on a remote plantation in the Virginia Piedmont. Thanks to the prosperity of his father, Jefferson had an excellent education. After years in boarding school, where he excelled in classical languages, Jefferson enrolled in William and Mary College in his home state of Virginia, taking classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. He also studied law, and by the time he was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1767, many considered him to have one of the nation's best legal minds.

Shaping America's Political Philosophy

Jefferson was shy in person, but his pen proved to be a mighty weapon. His pamphlet entitled "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," written in 1774, articulated the colonial position for independence and foreshadowed many of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, the work for which he is most famous. By 1774, Jefferson was actively involved in organizing opposition to British rule, and in 1776, he was appointed to the Second Continental Congress. As a powerful prose stylist and an influential Virginia representative, Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. This document is a brilliant assertion of fundamental human rights and also serves as America's most succinct statement of its philosophy of government.

Before becoming the nation's third President, Jefferson served as delegate to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he drafted legislation that abolished primogeniture, the law that made the eldest son the sole inheritor of his father's property. He also promoted religious freedom, helping to establish the country's separation between church and state, and he advocated free public education, an idea considered radical by his contemporaries.

During the Revolution, Jefferson served two years as governor of Virginia, during which time he barely escaped capture by British forces by fleeing from Monticello, his home. He was later charged with being a coward for not confronting the enemy. After the war, Jefferson served as America's minister to France, where he witnessed firsthand the dramatic events leading up to the French Revolution.

While abroad, Jefferson corresponded with members of the Constitutional Convention, particularly his close associate from Virginia, James Madison. He agreed to support the Constitution and the strong federal government it created. Jefferson's support, however, hinged upon the condition that Madison add a Bill of Rights to the document in the form of ten amendments. The rights that Jefferson insisted upon—among them were freedom of speech, assembly, and practice of religion—have become fundamental to and synonymous with American life ever since.

Presidential Politics

Jefferson served as secretary of state under Washington, but quarrels with Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton over his vision of a centralized national bank caused Jefferson to resign his post in 1793. In the election of 1796, Jefferson was the favorite of Democratic-Republican opponents of the Washington administration. He came in second to Federalist John Adams in electoral college votes and became Adams's vice president.

In 1800, however, the political tide had turned against the Federalist Party of Adams and Hamilton. After a bitterly contested election, a tie vote in the electoral college, and a protracted deadlock in the House of Representatives, Jefferson finally emerged as the winner—thanks, in part, to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which gave states with large slave populations additional votes. In his inaugural address, Jefferson pled for national unity in an attempt to heal the wounds of a vicious campaign and to gain support from the Federalist-controlled Congress. Due to a relatively placid first term, prosperity, lower taxes, and a reduction of the national debt, Jefferson won a landslide victory in 1804.

Defining the Powers of the Government

Jefferson believed in a "wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another" but which otherwise left them free to regulate their own affairs. In an effort to minimize the influence of the central government, he reduced the number of government employees, slashed Army enlistments, and cut the national debt. Similar to his predecessor, John Adams, Jefferson had to deal with the political war waged between his Republican Party and the Federalists. The battles were focused on the nation's judiciary branch. The landmark ruling in Marbury v. Madison, which established the independent power of the Supreme Court, was handed down during Jefferson's presidency.

Foreign affairs dominated his day-to-day attentions while President, often pushing him toward Federalist policies that contrasted with his political philosophy. To ensure the safety of American ships on the high seas, Jefferson attempted to put an end to the bribes that the United States had been paying to the Barbary states for many years. This resulted in a war with Tripoli, in which Jefferson was forced to use his navy and to rethink his policy of reducing the U.S. military. While the United States at first enjoyed an economic boom due to the war between England and France, the British navy's practice of forcing American sailors into British service led to Jefferson's disastrous suspension of trade with both France and England. This trade war devastated the economy, alienated the hard-hit mercantile Northeast, and propelled America into war with England.

His brilliant negotiation and ties to France led to the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million, doubling the size of the nation. Nonetheless, the deal troubled Jefferson, who did not wish to overstep the central government's powers as outlined by the Constitution, which made no mention of the power to acquire new territory. It was Jefferson who authorized the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), led by Meriwether Lewis, a military officer who was Jefferson's clerk at the White House.

A Private Portrait of Contradictions

Jefferson preferred to live a simple lifestyle during his time in office, often greeting his dinner guests in old homespun clothes and a pair of worn bedroom slippers. Having lost his beloved wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, in 1782 to childbirth, Jefferson relied on his two married daughters and the wife of his secretary of state, Dolley Madison, as his official hostesses. Although he disliked pomp and circumstance, Jefferson knew how to live well; his wine bill upon leaving the presidency exceeded $10,000. In 1809, Jefferson retired to his Virginia plantation home, Monticello, where he continued pursuing his widely diverse interests in science, natural history, philosophy, and the classics. Jefferson also devoted himself to founding the University of Virginia.

Contemporary debates continue to rage—as they did during Jefferson's own lifetime—concerning his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson's slaves, after Martha's death. Recent DNA evidence presents a convincing case that Jefferson was indeed the biological father of Heming's children, and most historians now believe that Jefferson and Hemings had a long-term sexual relationship. Jefferson was ambivalent about slavery throughout his career. As a young politician, he argued for the prohibition of slavery in new American territories, yet he never freed his own slaves. How could a man responsible for writing the sacred words "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal" have been a slave owner? He never resolved his internal conflict on this issue.

After carrying on a long and fascinating correspondence with John Adams while both men were in the twilight of their lives, Jefferson died on July 4, 1826—exactly fifty years to the day from the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, at Shadwell plantation in western Virginia. His first childhood memory, at age three, was of the fifty-mile horseback ride he took with his father's slave into the Virginia wilderness. This journey was undertaken with his family as they moved to a plantation that Jefferson's father was to manage, acting as executor of a friend's estate. Along with his parents and three siblings—three other sisters and one brother were later born to the family—Jefferson spent the next six years roaming the woods and studying his books.

Intellectual Beginnings

At age nine, Jefferson began his formal studies, boarding with a minister-teacher nine months out of the year. He continued boarding school until age sixteen, excelling in classical languages. In 1760, Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary, taking classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. The precocious Jefferson fell under the influence of Professor William Small, who had brought the latest Enlightenment thinking to Williamsburg from his native Scotland, and dined frequently with Governor Francis Fauquier and other luminaries in the provincial capital. From 1762 to 1767, Jefferson pursued legal studies under George Wythe, who also taught John Marshall and Henry Clay, two of the most outstanding figures in American history. Under Wythe's tutelage, Jefferson emerged as perhaps the nation's best-read lawyer upon his admission to the Virginia bar in April 1767. For Jefferson, the study of law, as directed by Wythe, was more than just a means of earning a living; Jefferson felt that examining legal issues enabled one to consider many aspects of society, including its history, politics, culture, institutions, and the moral conscience of its people.

During Jefferson's time, few colonial Americans could afford the quality and personal education that he received. He owed his good fortune to the financial success of his father, Peter Jefferson, a planter of some means. By the time of his death in 1757, the elder Jefferson owned 7,000 acres of land in western Virginia. He had also made a name for himself as the commander of the local militia, a talented surveyor, and a country politician. His early death, when Thomas was fourteen, caused his teenage son to look to his teachers for fatherly advice and direction. Little is known about Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, who died in 1776.

Law, Love, and Political Insurgency

As a young country lawyer, Jefferson practiced law on a circuit, following the meetings of the colonial court as it traveled to various district seats throughout Virginia. It was during these unsettled years that he met and fell in love with twenty-three-year-old Martha Wayles Skelton, a wealthy widow and daughter of a prominent Virginia lawyer and landowner. Her first husband and infant son had died two years earlier. Martha and Thomas married on January 1, 1772, moving into a stark one-room brick house at Jefferson's Virginia plantation, which he called Monticello. Over the years, the house would become an architectural gem designed and built by Jefferson and his slave laborers. Much of the fine furniture in the house was built by his slaves, who were highly skilled designers and craftsmen.

A member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1769 to 1774, Jefferson played an active role in the organization of the Virginia Committee of Correspondence. Colonial resentment against Britain was fomenting, and committees such as this one represented an underground group of political agitators which worked to oppose British domination of the colonies. In presenting his arguments, Jefferson wrote "Summary View of the Rights of British America" in 1774. This document propelled him into the larger spotlight. He became known as a man of immense abilities in articulating the colonial position for independence. Before long, he was known to stand with Patrick Henry as one of the leading radicals who argued that the British Parliament had no authority at all to make laws for the colonies.

Declaring Independence

When the reluctantly revolutionary Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1776, Jefferson found himself appointed with four other delegates to write a declaration of independence. This group of five men was destined to lead the new nation. The other four committee members, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, strategically deferred to Jefferson to draft the document. Jefferson's selection was based upon his powerful writing style and the fact that he represented the interests of Virginia, the most influential southern colony. Virginia's leadership in stating the colonial cause was a key in creating a united front against Britain. The respected Benjamin Franklin backed off from penning a first draft, saying that he would never write anything for others to edit. John Adams handed the task over to Jefferson, expressing his admiration of Jefferson's superior writing skills. Adams said that the young Virginian was unmatched in his eloquence and his penetrating mind. He later regretted not writing the document to his dying day.

Jefferson wrote the draft and defended it before the committee as a simple piece designed to present in plain and firm terms the "common sense" of independence. The document's structure included a statement of principles and then a list of grievances. After deleting Jefferson's biting attack on King George III for trafficking slaves and debating other issues of substance for three days, Congress approved "The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America" on July 4—the Continental Congress never officially called it the Declaration of Independence.

The document's assertion of fundamental human rights provided a compact statement of government that underlies the Republic. In Jefferson's mind, the Declaration of Independence would provide the foundation for the creation of an American society truly representative and egalitarian. Authoring this important document positioned Jefferson as one of the new nation's most important Founding Fathers—equal to Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, and John Adams.

From Beliefs to Actions: The Virginia House of Delegates Years

From 1776 to 1779, Jefferson served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, where he successfully sought to abolish entail and primogeniture, legal devices that preserved land estates and passed them on to eldest sons, exclusive of any other family members, upon the father's death. Jefferson's efforts to abolish primogeniture would strike a blow at inherited concentrations of wealth. It was a difficult fight, but he eventually prevailed.

Jefferson also helped to break the traditional link between religion and government by authoring the famous Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was finally passed into law thanks to the efforts of Jefferson's friend James Madison. As an avowed deist, Jefferson believed in a divine creator who had set creation in motion according to a set of natural laws that required no further intervention by a deity in the universe. For Jefferson, God was not a personal savior, and he looked upon all established religions as cultural artifacts. Accordingly, he opposed the use of religion by government as a means of granting privileges or imposing duty upon the citizenry. Jefferson argued that such a misuse enslaved the human mind and thus violated the principle of liberty upon which a democracy should rest. He also feared that religion would hinder the development of a national elite, a moral and ethical group of aristocrats who would lead the nation.

Similarly, Jefferson advocated a radical system of free public education. All white male Virginians, he argued, should be educated to literacy at lower schools while the naturally superior of mind and talent should be supported in a system of higher education. These intellectually talented men would then become the natural leaders of the nation. Jefferson asserted that the only barrier to a student's admittance to the university should be his own intellectual limits.

Governor of Virginia

During the Revolutionary War, Jefferson served two years as governor of Virginia. The governor had no veto power over legislation and was subject to the decisions of an eight-man council of state that decided policy. When the British overran much of Virginia, the administration was forced to abandon the capitol at Richmond. Jefferson fled from his home at Monticello, barely escaping capture by a British raiding party. Unfortunately, this decision became the object of public ridicule when it was portrayed as a cowardly refusal to stand his ground. The charge followed Jefferson for the rest of his public life.

Notes on Virginia

Feeling rejected, embarrassed, and desperately concerned about the health of his wife, Jefferson retired to Monticello. On November 6, 1782, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson died in childbirth. It was her sixth pregnancy. Completely shattered, Jefferson threw himself into the solitary world of his writing, penning his only book, entitled Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson defended his plans for freedom of religion and universal education while advocating a wide distribution of property as the only means of insuring a free and independent people. At the same time, he expressed his fears for the future of the country. Jefferson worried that after the Revolution, the passion and quest for civility and virtue in public life would be supplanted by greed as men searched for opportunities leading to individual fortune.

Thoughts on Slavery and Statehood

Included in the Notes is a discussion of slavery in which Jefferson states both his opposition to the institution and his belief in the racial inferiority of blacks. Jefferson concluded, although not with absolute certainty—because he had not studied the subject with scientific rigor—"that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind." Historians view Jefferson's reasoning as an example of how even the most brilliant of minds can fail to escape the cultural baggage and context of its age.

Virginia sent Jefferson as its representative to the Confederation Congress in 1783, where he worked to establish the decimal system as the nation's basis of measurement. More importantly, in 1784, Jefferson drafted an ordinance providing for the temporary government of western territories under congressional control. The national domain was to be divided into ten districts, and once the population of each district reached 20,000, the residents could call a convention and establish a territorial constitution and government of their own choosing. When the territorial population then reached a size equal to the smallest of the original thirteen states, the residents could petition Congress for statehood. Jefferson's original proposal included a provision prohibiting slavery in the new states, but Congress rejected this part by a vote of seven to six. In 1784, Jefferson also helped draft an ordinance for surveying and selling congressional lands; though superseded by the Land Ordinance of 1785, Jefferson's ordinance established the basic framework of federal land policy. The 1784 Territorial Government Ordinance was replaced with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which did prohibit slavery in those lands organized north of the Ohio River. The ordinance also replaced Jefferson's guarantee of initial self-government with congressionally appointed governors and judges.

Representing America in France

For four years, beginning in 1785, Jefferson served as America's minister to France, a position equivalent to today's ambassador. In this post, he negotiated commercial treaties and closely observed the disorderly events leading up to the French Revolution. As a widower, Jefferson enjoyed his years in France, living there with his two daughters, Martha, age twelve, and Mary, age seven. He partook fully of French culture, intellectual salons, and the like. Upon his departure from France, he was convinced that French Enlightenment thought, as expressed by its philosophers and artists, would eventually prove the foundation for a new world order to the great benefit of all humanity.

It was also during these years that Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings began. Hemings was the daughter of his wife's father and a slave woman in his household. Fourteen years old, Sally accompanied Jefferson's daughter Mary to Europe in 1787.

While fulfilling his duties in France, Jefferson corresponded with members of the Constitutional Convention during 1787 and 1788. In particular, Jefferson communicated with James Madison about the events surrounding the creation of a new form of government. Having kept abreast of the discussions and developments, Jefferson supported the ratification of the U.S. Constitution but also strongly emphasized the need for a bill of rights, amendments to the Constitution that would safeguard basic civil liberties, such as the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, the right to bear arms, and the right to have a speedy trial by a jury of one's peers.

Service under President Washington

Jefferson reluctantly agreed to serve as Washington's secretary of state in the nation's first administration, beginning in 1790. As department head, Jefferson efficiently organized government business, operating with only a handful of employees and a budget of just $10,000. He supported closer relations with France and viewed England with skepticism. At that time, England and France were at war, and Hamilton won Washington's agreement to honor a pro-British policy of neutrality rather than the treaty providing for assistance to France, which Jefferson favored. Thus, Jefferson's effectiveness in foreign policy was blunted by Washington's insistence on a more neutral stance.

Although he enjoyed Washington's complete confidence, Jefferson found that the President was increasingly influenced by Alexander Hamilton, who had been his aide during the war and in the first administration served as his secretary of treasury. As Jefferson's chief rival for the President's attention, Hamilton succeeded in swaying Washington in favor of a strong centralized government. Hamilton's successful policy agenda included federally funding state debts that were incurred during the war with England, creating a national bank, supporting commerce and manufacturing as the economic foundation of the new Republic, and using England as an economic model.

The Campaign and Election of 1796

From 1794 to 1797, Thomas Jefferson operated as the informal leader of what would become the nation's first opposition political party, the Democratic-Republicans. This party vocally challenged Hamilton's political views. When Washington declined to run for a third term in 1796, Jefferson allowed his name to be nominated by a caucus of Democratic-Republican leaders who were against John Adams's run for the presidency. Adams served as vice president under Washington. As was the aristocratic custom of the day, neither Adams nor Jefferson personally campaigned. Rather, the campaign battles were waged between the political party newspapers, a propaganda device rooted in the anti-British pamphlets of the American Revolution. These publications mercilessly criticized their respective opposing candidates.

All attention was on the mid-Atlantic states because it was clear that Jefferson would carry the South while the New England states would certainly go to Adams. In those days, most southern states chose presidential electors to the electoral college by direct vote. In the mid-Atlantic states, however, state legislatures selected the presidential electors, and the election of 1796 would be decided by the political scheming within those assemblies. In the electoral college balloting, Jefferson came in second to Adams (71 to 68 votes), principally because Adams had won the behind-the-scenes battle for the New York legislature. While the vice president received only two electoral votes south of the Potomac, Jefferson won only eighteen votes outside of the South, thirteen of which came from Pennsylvania.

In those days, the candidate receiving the second-highest vote became the vice president. In a scheme to deny Adams the presidency, Alexander Hamilton influenced South Carolina's Federalist electors to withhold their votes from Adams. This would have made Adams's running mate, Thomas Pinckney, President, with Adams as vice president. But New England Federalists, learning of the scheme, withheld their votes from Pinckney to counter Hamilton's ploy. As a result of the Federalist intraparty conflicts, Jefferson compiled more votes than Pinckney for second place and became vice president.

Although Jefferson strained under the largely ceremonial duties of the vice president, he fulfilled his responsibilities as presiding officer of the Senate efficiently and fairly. In his spare time, Jefferson wrote A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which remained the guiding text for congressional meetings for years to come. He also pursued his renaissance interests in architecture, astronomy, botany, animal husbandry, mechanical engineering, gardening, natural history, classical languages, and book collecting.

Most importantly, Jefferson—although vice president—did little to inhibit, and in fact encouraged, the growing Republican opposition to the Adams administration. When Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to curb Republican opposition to his foreign policy, Jefferson authored the Kentucky Resolution of 1798. Jefferson's statement presented a compact theory of the Constitution, challenging these federal laws enacted under Adams as unconstitutional. James Madison joined Jefferson by writing a similar resolution adopted by Virginia. Both resolutions established the states' rights position that was employed in the nineteenth century to oppose high tariffs, the Second Bank of the United States, and the abolition of slavery. By the end of Adams's term of office, a raging debate, which was presented in brutal and uncivil political cartoons and newspaper articles, swept over the land. It was in this atmosphere of undeclared political war that Jefferson sought and won the presidency in the 1800 election.

The Campaign and Election of 1800

Jefferson approached the 1800 presidential election well organized for victory and determined to win. One factor that elevated Jefferson's chances of becoming President was the general mood of the country. During the Adams presidency, public discontent had risen due to the Alien and Sedition Acts, a direct tax in 1798, Federalist military preparations, and the use of federal troops to crush a minor tax rebellion led by John Fries in Pennsylvania. Consequently, Jefferson enjoyed quite a lot of popular support for his opposition to Adams's policies.

The Federalist candidate, the incumbent John Adams, led a split party. Many of his party's members opposed his candidacy because of his refusal to declare war on France—when a naval war did occur, Adams used diplomacy to end it when many Federalists would have preferred the war to continue. Jefferson understood that to win he would have to carry New York, thus his running mate, Aaron Burr of New York, was brought onto the ticket. When the New York legislature turned out its Federalist majority in 1799, prospects looked good for Jefferson.

Given the intense rivalry and conflict involved, it is not surprising that the 1800 election reached a level of personal animosity seldom equaled in American politics. The Federalists attacked the fifty-seven-year-old Jefferson as a godless Jacobin who would unleash the forces of bloody terror upon the land. With Jefferson as President, so warned one newspaper, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." Others attacked Jefferson's deist beliefs as the views of an infidel who "writes aghast the truths of God's words; who makes not even a profession of Christianity; who is without Sabbaths; without the sanctuary, and without so much as a decent external respect for the faith and worship of Christians."

The luckless Adams was ridiculed from two directions: by the Hamiltonians within his own party and by the Jeffersonian-Republicans from the outside. For example, a private letter in which Hamilton depicted Adams as having "great and intrinsic defects in his character" was obtained by Aaron Burr and leaked to the national press. It fueled the Republican attack on Adams as a hypocritical fool and tyrant. His opponents also spread the story that Adams had planned to create an American dynasty by the marriage of one of his sons to a daughter of King George III. According to this unsubstantiated story, only the intervention of George Washington, dressed in his Revolutionary military uniform, and the threat by Washington to use his sword against his former vice president had stopped Adams's scheme.

When the electoral votes came in, Jefferson and Burr had won 73 votes each. Adams and his running mate, Charles C. Pinckney, the brother of Thomas Pinckney who ran in 1796, won 65 and 64 votes respectively. No one had expected these results, although the possibility was perfectly plausible—if all Republican electors cast their votes in unison for the two Republican candidates, which they did in this case, the result would be a tie. In those days, the U.S. Constitution contained no means for electors to differentiate between their choices for President and vice president, yet in 1804, the nation ratified the Twelfth Amendment, which required electors to vote separately for President and vice president.

With no clear majority, the vote was thrown into the Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress. After much intrigue and arguing, and thirty-five ballots, Alexander Hamilton, who despised Burr as an unprincipled scoundrel, convinced a few Federalists who had supported Burr in the balloting to turn in blank ballots rather than vote for either Republican candidate. This move on Hamilton's part gave the victory to Jefferson. Hamilton's support for Jefferson, his old enemy, enraged Burr. Several years later, Burr killed Hamilton with a shot to the chest during a duel over mutual insults.

The Campaign and Election of 1804

In his first inaugural address in March 1801, Jefferson pleaded for national unity, insisting that differences of opinion were not differences of principle. Then he said, with much hope, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." His landslide 1804 reelection suggested that his words were more prophetic than wishful. Largely due to a relatively peaceful first term on both the domestic and foreign scenes, along with prosperity, lower taxes, and a reduction in the national debt, it appeared to most astute observers on the eve of the election that Jefferson was unbeatable.

In February 1804, more than 100 Republican congressmen met in Washington and nominated Jefferson and George Clinton of New York by acclamation. It was the first official nominating caucus in the nation's history. The Federalists, demoralized and too disorganized to hold a caucus, agreed informally to back Charles C. Pinckney, the vice-presidential candidate in 1800, and Rufus King, the Federalist senator from New York.

Jefferson called the Federalists a prigarchy, a play on the words "prig" and "aristocracy," because of their unwillingness to open the party to populist elements. The Federalists denounced Jefferson's immensely popular Louisiana Purchase (see Foreign Affairs section) as unconstitutional. They also desperately exposed the President's alleged relations with his slave, Sally Hemings, as a national scandal. Jefferson kept a public silence on his relationship with Hemings.

The avalanche of presidential electors voting for Jefferson returned him to the White House with 162 votes to Pinckney's 14. Only Connecticut, Delaware, and two Maryland electors stood firm against the wave of republicanism. Jefferson was overjoyed. He wished only that George Washington had lived to see the day when the divisive factions of party had become a new unity of mind and politics for the nation.

In Thomas Jefferson's mind, the first order of business for him as President was the establishment of a "wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another" but which would otherwise leave them alone to regulate their own affairs. He wanted a government that would respect the authority of individual states, operate with a smaller bureaucracy, and cut its debts. Jefferson also felt that the country should eliminate Hamilton's standing army by relying on a "disciplined militia" for national defense against invasion. Most importantly, he believed that good government would promote "the encouragement of agriculture." Commerce, in his mind, should be the "handmaiden" of agriculture rather than its driving force.

Accordingly, he reduced, though not substantially, the 316 employees subject to presidential appointment while leaving intact most of the nation's 700 clerks and 3,000 postal workers. The Army was cut to two regiments, one infantry and one artillery (3,500 total), with similar reductions in the Navy. He pressured Congress to abolish the direct tax of 1798 and to repeal the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were still in operation. To emphasize his opposition to the acts, Jefferson personally pardoned the ten victims of those laws who were still in prison. Even after paying $15 million in cash for the Louisiana Purchase (see Foreign Affairs section), the national debt fell from $80 million to $57 million during his two years of service.

War on the Judiciary: Federalists v. Republicans

Although Jefferson was no "blood-soaking" radical, as many of his Federalist opponents had charged, and no reign of terror occurred when he took office, a number of more radical Republicans pressured Jefferson and the Republican-dominated Congress to make war on the Federalist judiciary. Briefly told, the Federalist-controlled Congress under Washington and Adams had created a system of circuit courts that was presided over by the individual justices of the Supreme Court, all of whom were Federalists in 1800. Most of the lower judges on the circuit were also Federalists who had actively enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts, mainly against Jeffersonian-Republicans—by 1800, the terms "Democratic-Republican" and "Jeffersonian-Republican" had become interchangeable.

To make matters worse, just before Jefferson's inauguration, the lame-duck Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. This piece of legislation reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, thus limiting Jefferson's ability to make Republican appointments. To further hinder the incoming Republican administration, the act created a new system of circuit courts with sixteen new judges and many more federal attorneys, clerks, federal marshals, and justices of the peace. On his last day in office, Adams worked until late in the night signing commissions for these judicial officers, all of whom were strong Federalists. However, the commissions remained in the government offices when Jefferson became President and Madison became secretary of state, and Madison refused to deliver the commissions, keeping some of the new Federalist judges off the bench.

Jefferson was powerless at first to dismiss the federal judges because they were appointed for life, but he did replace most of the marshals and other court officers with Republicans. Then, in 1802, the Republican-controlled Congress simply repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, thus doing away with Adams's "midnight appointees." Still, the Federalist-dominated Supreme Court, with justices who were appointed for life and were led by the recently appointed Chief Justice John Marshall, greatly irritated most Jeffersonians.

Two impeachment proceedings were initiated to test the waters for removal of the Federalist justices by trial. According to the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge can be removed from office only for "high crimes and misdemeanors." In the first test, Justice John Pickering, a highly partisan Federalist who was also an alcoholic and undoubtedly insane, was tried by the Senate, based upon articles of impeachment drawn up by the House. Pickering was removed from office by a strict party vote. The other target for impeachment was Justice Samuel Chase, an able but nearly fanatic anti-Jeffersonian who frequently delivered streams of abuse from the bench. Fortunately for Chase, he had defenders among moderate Republicans in the Senate who feared overreaching their congressional authority. In the latter case, the Senate vote failed to carry the two-thirds majority in favor of conviction.

Chief Justice John Marshall was a loyal Federalist who demonstrated his commitment to a strong national government in the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Jefferson's secretary of state, James Madison, had refused to deliver a last-minute justice of the peace commission to William Marbury, a wealthy land speculator in Washington, D.C., who was appointed in the final hours of the Adams administration. Marbury, claiming that his appointment could not be denied him, petitioned for a writ of mandamus, or a formal order of delivery, compelling delivery of the commission.

After hearing the case, the Supreme Court—without dissent—denied the writ although it agreed that the petitioners were entitled to their commissions. Chief Justice Marshall held that the Constitution did not give the Supreme Court the authority to issue writs of mandamus. In making this ruling, the Court declared unconstitutional that portion of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which gave the Court the power to issue such writs. This ruling established for the first time the principle that the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress void if it is inconsistent with the Constitution. A landmark case, Marbury v. Madison established the basis for judicial review of congressional and executive actions on the grounds of their constitutionality. The Republican Congress repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 rather than challenge Marshall head on. Jefferson, who admired Marshall's intelligence, agreed with those moderate Republicans who believed that Marshall's support of an independent judiciary posed no threat to republican liberties.

Although Thomas Jefferson came to power determined to limit the reach of the federal government, foreign affairs dominated his presidency and pushed him toward Federalist policies that greatly contrasted with his political philosophy. The first foreign episode involved Jefferson's war with the Barbary pirates. For the previous century or so, Western nations had paid bribes to the Barbary states, which would later become Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripolitania, to keep them from harassing American and merchant ships. When the Pasha of Tripoli raised his demands in 1801, Jefferson refused to pay the increase, sent warships to the Mediterranean, blockaded the small nation, and tried unsuccessfully to promote a palace coup in Tripoli. This was one of the first covert operations in American history. The war ended with agreements that involved one last payment of tribute, at least to Tripoli. Jefferson's action on this matter caused him to rethink the need for a well-equipped navy and halted his move to reduce the force to a mere token size.

Doubling the Nation's Size: The Louisiana Purchase

When Jefferson learned that Spain had secretly ceded Louisiana to France in 1800, he instructed his ministers to negotiate the purchase of the port of New Orleans and possibly West Florida. Jefferson strategically made this move in order to insure that American farmers in the Ohio River Valley had access to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River—the river was a key to the farmers' economic well-being, as they needed a vent for their surplus grain and meat. Even before the French took over Louisiana, the Spaniards had closed the Mississippi River in 1802. While Jefferson was known to be partial to the French, having the Emperor Napoleon's driving interests for world domination next door was not an attractive prospect; thus, Jefferson acted swiftly.

To his surprise, Napoleon, needing funds to finance a new European war with England, offered to sell Jefferson most of the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. His price of $15 million amounted to approximately four cents per acre for 828,000 square miles, doubling the size of the nation. Although Jefferson understood that the U.S. Constitution said nothing about the purchase of foreign territory, he set aside his strict constructionist ideals to make the deal—Congress approved the purchase five months after the fact. Jefferson then outfitted a twenty-five man expedition to explore the new lands. Led by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Army Captain William Clark, these adventurers took two and one-half years to cover 8,000 miles. They traveled up the Missouri River, across the Continental Divide, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific before retracing their steps to St. Louis. The expedition is considered one of the great exploratory quests in human history.

Navigating Trade and Impressment Disputes

Several weeks after buying Louisiana, Napoleon declared war on Great Britain. At first, the European fighting benefited the United States since Americans functioned as the merchants carrying supplies to the warring powers. Consequently, between 1803 and 1807, total U.S. exports jumped from $66.5 million to $102.2 million. This service provided by American ships often involved reexporting, meaning European and colonial goods were picked up by American ships for transport to U.S. ports where they were reloaded onto other U.S. ships for export to Europe. During the same four-year period, reexports quadrupled, rising from $13.5 million to $58.4 million. Then, the bottom fell out of the trade industry as England and France each independently outlawed virtually all American commerce with their opponent.

The British navy also began seizing American ships with cargoes bound for Europe and impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy. The problem partly stemmed from the practice of British sailors jumping ship to join U.S. merchant vessels. Thousands of such deserters were considered fair prey by the British navy, which also routinely impressed American citizens on the pretext that they were British deserters, many of whom were in fact just that. Tensions mounted, and in the summer of 1807, the British warship Leopard fired on the American naval frigate Chesapeake, killing three Americans, when the ship refused boarding orders. Cries for war erupted throughout the nation.

Jefferson banned all British ships from U.S. ports, ordered state governors to prepare to call up 100,000 militiamen, and suspended trade with all of Europe. He reasoned that U.S. farm products were crucial to France and England and that a complete embargo would bring them to respect U.S. neutrality. By spring 1808, however, the Embargo Act that was passed by Congress in December 1807 had devastated the American economy. American exports plummeted from $108 million to $22 million. Economic desperation settled upon the mercantile Northeast. Finally, Jefferson backed off in the last months of his administration, and Congress replaced the Embargo Act with the Non-Intercourse Act, which banned trade with England and France but allowed it with all other countries. Eventually, the trade war would propel America into a fighting war with England during the administration of Jefferson's successor, James Madison.

With the inauguration of his handpicked successor, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson retired to his Virginia plantation home, Monticello. The former President was happy to be free from executive duties and eager to satisfy his boundless curiosity for life. In retirement, Jefferson pursued science and natural history through research, experimentation, and invention. He continued in his post as the elected president of the American Philosophical Society until 1815. He tackled Plato's Republic in the original Greek as well as Greek versions of the Bible. All the while, he kept up an extensive private correspondence with friends and acquaintances all over the world. Nothing, however, attracted Jefferson's attention more than his pet project, the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed all of its campus buildings, set up its curriculum, selected its faculty, and joyfully nurtured it into existence. He proudly thought his work on the university a fitting conclusion to his life of public service.

Even as he struggled to make ends meet, Jefferson enjoyed his popularity until becoming ill in early 1826. He had sold much of his private library to the federal government to replace the books burned by the British when they occupied Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812, but his expenses were large. The onetime master of over 150 slaves still owned many of them although most had been used as collateral for borrowed money. Indeed, at his death, Jefferson freed no slaves partly because he worried about what would happen to them as free people but mostly because they had been mortgaged to his creditors. Jefferson's debts reflected his often conspicuous lifestyle. He loved to entertain his guests with fine wine and foods. Monticello frequently overflowed with guests; sometimes as many as fifty people stayed the night.

Racked with pain from rheumatism and an enlarged prostate, Jefferson could barely move when invited to attend the celebration of the 1826 Fourth of July festivities in Washington, D.C. He and John Adams, who was also alive but too ill to attend, were to be the honored guests on the fiftieth anniversary of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence by the revolutionary Continental Congress. Barely conscious, Jefferson lapsed into a coma and died, perhaps willfully, after hearing from his doctor the whispered words that he had lived until the Fourth. Adams died the same day.

The simplicity of Thomas Jefferson's first inauguration set the social tone of his administration. He thereafter reduced the number of presidential balls, state dinners, and formal parties while greatly expanding private dinners, evening discussions, and gatherings of guests for readings in philosophy and science, which he hosted with great enthusiasm. His wine bill upon leaving the presidency exceeded $10,000. A longtime widower, Jefferson cared little for formal dress and presided over state meals without wearing a "Federalist wig;" he would often greet his dinner guests in old homespun clothes and a pair of worn bedroom slippers. Jefferson frequently dined with members of Congress at the Washington boardinghouses where most of them lived. Sitting at their tables, he could exercise effective policy leadership in an informal setting.

Something of a solitary person and embarrassed by his tendency to mumble—which was the reason he stopped delivering his annual address to Congress in person—Jefferson hated appearing in public. He gave only two public speeches during his entire presidency, but he spent up to ten hours each day at his writing desk. A typical day had him up by dawn, doing official business in the morning, followed by his cabinet meetings during the noon hour. In the afternoon, Jefferson liked to exercise by horseback riding for two or three hours. He then dined at around 3:30 in the afternoon with invited guests. He seldom accepted evening invitations and liked to work three or four hours before bed, which came at about 10:00 in the evening.

For his official hostess, Jefferson relied on the wife of his secretary of state, the enthusiastic Dolley Madison. Few women were as accomplished as Mrs. Madison in the art of combining a serious political agenda with wonderfully entertaining social affairs. She regularly attended Senate debates, led a drive to provide supplies for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and publicly defended Jefferson when given the opportunity. Jefferson liked having her around and felt so comfortable with her decisions on proper presidential behavior that he usually deferred to her good sense, but her role was necessarily limited by Jefferson's dislike for grandeur and ceremony.

Jefferson's two daughters had married political figures, and they sometimes lived with their husbands at the White House. When they were in residence, one or the other served as official hostess. In 1804, the youngest daughter, Mary, died at age twenty-five after giving birth to her second child. It was on the occasion of her death that Abigail Adams, who had cared for the young girl in England while Jefferson served as U.S. minister to France, ended the Adams family's long hostility by extending her written condolences.

Although the so-called Revolution of 1800 saw no revolutionary changes in the American political scene, it was the dawning of a new age. The willingness of the Federalists to peacefully hand over power and to accept political defeat was extraordinary in a world controlled by kings and military leaders. In most states, property qualifications still limited the vote to white males owning as least a fifty-acre plot of land. This voting limitation upheld Thomas Jefferson's commitment to a rural republicanism that rested on the widespread farm ownership of relatively independent adult males. It was this republican vision that had motivated Jefferson to make the Louisiana Purchase—even though its constitutionality was in question—and to oppose primogeniture. The first promised to open up thousands of acres to farmers, thus assuring the continuation of an agrarian republic, while the latter blocked the creation of landowning dynasties controlled by inheritance to the eldest son.

Important changes, however, were afoot that would transform America from an agrarian republic to a mass democracy over the next two decades. For one thing, new, more egalitarian states had been carved out of the backcountry given to America by the British after the American Revolution. By 1803, four new frontier states had entered the Union: Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), and Ohio (1803). Louisiana would follow in 1812. Most of these new states eliminated the property and taxpaying qualifications for voting, and most eastern states soon followed suit. In all, there were sixteen states in the Union in 1800. According to census figures that year, the nation's population had increased from 3.9 million to 5.3 million—a jump of 35 percent—since the date of the first census in 1790.

At the same time, however, most of these new states and many old ones explicitly limited the franchise to white males. In New Jersey, for example, women and free blacks who owned property had voted until 1807, when the state abolished all property qualifications but limited suffrage to white men. The revolutionary constitutions of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, which had granted the vote to free blacks, soon joined with New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Tennessee, and North Carolina in denying suffrage to African Americans regardless of their education or property.

Thomas Jefferson's presidency initiated the quarter-century rule of the "Virginia Dynasty" (1801-1825), including the presidencies of loyal Jeffersonians James Madison (1809-1817) and James Monroe (1817-1825). As the center of political gravity shifted southward with the Republican ascendancy, the party gained new strength to the north, progressively marginalizing Federalists as an effective national opposition party. But the founders' fantasy of faction-free politics was not to be fulfilled. Emerging splits among Republicans themselves pitted orthodox, strict constructionist "Old Republicans" against "National Republicans" who favored a more positive and activist (according to critics, Hamiltonian) conception of federal power. Quarrels among Jeffersonian-Republicans foreshadowed the division between Jacksonian Democrats, self-proclaimed legatees of Jeffersonian orthodoxy, and Whigs who promoted a neo-Federalist, National Republican policy agenda while warning against "King Andrew's" dangerous consolidation of authority.

Executive Power

Jefferson's performance as President justified divergent conceptions of executive power. Known for his hostility to strong central government and the judicial overreach of the Supreme Court under John Marshall, Jefferson nonetheless jettisoned strict construction when the nation's vital interests were threatened. Self-preservation—the first law of nature and nations—took precedence over the constitutional limitations that he scrupulously observed in peacetime. Andrew Jackson embraced this robust conception of his presidential power, even as Whig opponents drew inspiration from Jefferson's anti-monarchical precepts.

The Private and Public

Jefferson has been a great democratic icon precisely because he so eloquently articulated fundamental tensions in Americans' understanding of the people's power. The United States had "the strongest Government on earth," Jefferson told his fellow Americans in his first Inaugural Address on March 4, 1801. Yet the people's great and irresistible power was a function of their devotion to a free government that guaranteed their rights: this was the only government "where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern." Where an enlightened people determined their own destiny, Jefferson promised, there was no necessary or inevitable conflict between private rights and public good.

Rights, Rhetoric, and Reality

Jefferson will always be celebrated for articulating the American national creed, the fundamental and universal principles of self-government that he set forth in the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, those very principles—most notably, that "all men are created equal"—have been turned against him, as successive generations of critics have condemned him as a hypocritical slave owner. Jefferson cannot escape criticism: he failed to emancipate his own slaves and he presided over the "peculiar institution's" rapid expansion to the South and West. Yet the conflicts that shaped the new nation's history—and Jefferson's career—defied easy solutions. Jefferson and his contemporaries struggled, often unsuccessfully, to reconcile the conflicting claims of nation-building and natural rights, of power and liberty, and of slavery and freedom. Their legacy to us is the history of the conflicts that engaged them—and should engage us—in fulfilling the American Revolution's promise, to the nation and the world.