Interpreting the constitution (strict vs. loose);

Jefferson and HamiltWhen the Federalist party was organized in 1791, those people who favored a strong central government and a loose constitutional interpretation coagulated and followed the ideals of men such as Alexander Hamilton. The first opposition political party in the United States was the Republican party, which held power, nationally, between 1801 and 1825. Those who were in favor of states rights and a strict construction of the constitution fell under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson. These Jeffersonian republicans, also known as anti-federalists, believed in strict adherence to the writings of the constitution. They wanted state’s rights and individual rights, which they believed could only be granted under strict construction of the constitution. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, and James Madison, his successor, were close friends and lifelong political associates. Long regarded as advocates for liberty, Jefferson and Madison believed in the principles of government and sought to restore the spirit of the revolution of 1776. These republicans spoke out against anti-monarchial attitudes and opposed the aristocratic and elitist attitudes of the federalists (Peterson, 1975). A weaker central government by the people was the goal of the republican party. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were two presidents who believed in the theory of the republican party, but due to circumstances within the parties and the increasing conflicts between Britain and France abroad, they found it increasingly difficult to act in a manner which coincided with their republican beliefs and at times had to reconcile their actions.

Jefferson’s victory in the presidential election is notable because this was the first transfer of national authority from political group to another that was accomplished by peaceful and strictly constitutional means. He began his presidency with a plea for reconciliation and described his election as a recovery of the original intentions of the American Revolution (Ellis, 2000). In his true ideology, Jefferson said that a republic did not require a powerful central government to flourish. In fact, he felt that the health of the nation was inversely proportional to the power of the federal government. ******In Document A, Jefferson writes of the preservation of the constitution and the principles on which it was adopted. He wrote: “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government” and that “The true theory of our constitution is the surely the wisest and best that the states are independent as to everything with themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations.” Jefferson believed that a weaker central government would be more beneficial for domestic policy, but for foreign policy, the central government, might have to take a stronger hand.
From early times in his public career, Jefferson was the subject of attacks on religious grounds. Although he kept his opinions regarding religion very much to himself, and considered this a very private concern his insistence of the complete separation of church and state was well-known. In a now famous letter to Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson wrote “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god…their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” This letter affirmed Jefferson’s belief that church and state should be separated and includes the celebrated phrase, “a wall of eternal separation” (Maier, 2000). His views on religion are also expressed in Document B******, Jefferson states, “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises…Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority….”.

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The acquisition of the Louisiana territory in 1803 was the most notable achievement of his presidency, yet there inconsistency between his actions and his beliefs. Because the acquisition of this territory would change the union, it seemed to him that it should be authorized by a constitutional amendment. The process of amendment was very slow and Jefferson realized that there was no time for strict constructionalism. This purchase violated his constitutional morals and was regarded as a bold, executive action (Peterson, 1975).
The popularity that Thomas Jefferson held during his first term as president, quickly changed during his second term in office. Jefferson’s second term was less a triumph than an ordeal. His major disappointment had its origins in Europe and because of the Napoleonic Wars, the naval blockades in the Atlantic and Caribbean severely curtailed American trade and pressured the United States government to take sides. Jefferson’s response to all this was the passing of the Embargo Act in 1807, which virtually closed American Ports to all foreign imports and exports. The enforcement of the Embargo act required the use of exactly those coercive powers by the federal government that Jefferson has been opposing all along (a strong central government). In the enforcement of this embargo, the government was infringing on the liberties of individuals which was inconsistent with Jefferson’s principles (Ellis, 1996). Document C**** is a political cartoon, used as propaganda for the Federalist Party. An American is portrayed trying to smuggle American exports into British ships. The American Snapping-turtle, or OGRABME (embargo spelled backwards) caught the smuggler and the smuggler is screaming, “Oh this cursed Ograbme embargo!”. Alexander Anderson is clearly expressing the Federalists’ distaste towards Jefferson and his decision to enact the Embargo Act of 1807. The feeling that Jefferson had violated his principles was felt throughout his country. This law led to Jefferson’s public embarrassment and humiliation. The Federalists seized the opportunity to ridicule the president and proclaimed the embargo unconstitutional.

James Madison succeeded Jefferson as President in 1808. At the time he was the only man who could carry forth the concepts of the Jeffersonian republicans. Upon his election, Madison accepted the repeal of the Embargo Act. The eight years of his presidency were dominated by continuing growing tensions between the United States and the governments of France and Britain. He replaced the Embargo Act with the Non-Intercourse act to limit American trade but it soon became apparent that this was having no effect on the European powers. In May 1810, this act was repealed and trade was resumed with France and Britain. Madison’s efforts to find other paths to peace through commercial retaliation became increasingly more difficult. With the support of the newly elected War Hawks, who had gained seats in congress and Britain’s arrogant assaults on American ships and sea men, Madison asked for and received a declaration of War on June 1812 (Ketcham, 1990). Madison’s devotion to his republican ideals stopped him from building a formidable army and navy during peace time. Therefore, it was difficult for him to organize an effective war machine. Amidst opposition from New England Federalists, whose shipping had greatly suffered, and the bold acts by Britain, the United States was drawn in to the war. The army was very weak and Madison needed to fill the army by compulsion. In Document D*****, Daniel Webster, a Federalist, claimed that the Madison administration did not adhere to strict constructionalism when they compelled soldiers to fight in the war of 1812. Webster expresses a fear that congress can create a dictator in the government by compelling men to fight for wars the government engages. In 1814, with both sides tired of war, the Treaty of Ghent brought peace and restored and prewar boundaries and insured American National Independence.

In the United States, the War of 1812 produced economic and political effects. With the threat of disunion ending, the path was open for westward expansion and the nation was confident of its security in the world. Madison felt that he had to respond to this nationalist mood. At this time, the Federalist party saw its downfall because of their opposition to this war. Although the Jeffersonian republicans saw this as an advantage, the result was internal weakness within the republican party. In urging certain actions to guide and stimulate the economy, Madison cast aside some of his republican ideals about weak government in favor or some measures which he had so strongly opposed years before (Rutland, 1994). He proposed a wide ranging, domestic program in 1815. He recommended a charter of the national bank and a tariff to protect young industries growing within the country. In Document F*****, John Randolph, a Democratic Republican, implies that Madison has surrendered his republican ideals and is emulating a more federalist point of view when the administration called for the tariff of 1816. He said: “Sir, I am convinced that it would be impolitic, as well as unjust, to aggravate the burdens of the people, for the purpose of favoring the manufacturers.” Madison’s actions did not coincide with the original ideals of his party.
Madison also recommended federal support for roads and canals that would “bind more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy”. Such a measure of funding by the federal government did not fit in with what Madison preached or would have agreed to in previous years. One of his last acts as president was to veto an Internal Improvements bill in 1817. In Document H*****, Madison said: “The power to regulate commerce among the several states cannot include a power to construct roads and canals…” and that “…a power in the national legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the constitution and believing that it cannot be deduced from any part of it without an inasmissable latitude of construction and a reliance on insufficient precedents.” Though Madison set aside his certain republican ideals, he still opposed internal improvement schemes under a constitutional amendment. The public approved of his new national republicanism and he was reclaimed on his retirement.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, although devoted to the ideals of the Jeffersonian Republicans, were compelled to cast aside their beliefs in the face of mounting difficulties abroad and within political parties at home. In the years 1801 to 1807, Jeffersons policies initially reflected these Republican priorities, which meant decreasing the power of the federal government and the army and navy, and ending federal taxation as well as placing the national debt on the road to extinction. By 1807, circumstances dictated that Jefferson take some actions which seemed to contradict his ideals. From 1808 to 1817, threats to the United States’s strength as a nation and domestic and political struggles, forced James Madison to also veer away from the ideology that he initially preached. Both men exhibited a conflict between idealogy and practice of that idealogy.
1. Ellis, Joseph. J, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.

New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

2. Ellis, Joseph. J; Maier, Pauline, et al. Thomas Jefferson: Genius of Liberty.

New York: Viking Studio, 2000.

3. Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison; a Biography.

Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

4. Peterson, Merrill, D. The Portable Thomas Jefferson.

New York: Penguin Books, 1975.
5. Rutland, Robert A.,ed. James Madison and the American Nation, 1751-1836: An Encyclopedia.

New York: Random House, 1994