Thomas Jefferson

.. t could never die. Because of his absence in Europe, Jefferson had no direct part in the framing or ratification of the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, and at first the document aroused his fears. His chief objections were that it did not expressly safeguard the rights of individuals, and that the unlimited eligibility of the president for reelection would make it possible for him to become a king. He became sufficiently satisfied after he learned that a bill of rights would be provided and after he reflected that there would be no danger of monarchy under George Washington.

Secretary of State Although his fears of monarchical tendencies remained and colored his attitude in later partisan struggles, it was as a friend of the new government that he accepted Washington’s invitation to become secretary of state. During Jefferson’s service in this post from 1790 to 1793, Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury, defeated the movement for commercial discrimination against Britain, which Jefferson favored. Hamilton, also, connived with the British minister George Hammond to nullify Jefferson’s efforts in 1792 to gain observance of the terms of peace from the British, and especially to dislodge them from the northwest posts. Jefferson’s policy was not pro-French, but it seemed anti-British. Hamilton was distinctly pro-British, largely for financial reasons, and he became more so when general war broke out in Europe and ideology was clearly involved.

In 1793, Jefferson wanted the French Revolution to succeed against its external foes, but he also recognized that the interests of his own country demanded a policy of neutrality. Such a policy was adopted, to the dissatisfaction of many strong friends of democracy in America, and was executed so fairly as to win the reluctant praise of the British. Jefferson was greatly embarrassed by the indiscretions of the fiery French minister, Edmond Charles Genet, who arrived in Washington in the spring of 1793, but he skillfully brought about Genet’s recall and avoided a breach with the revolutionary government of his country. Jefferson helped Hamilton gain congressional consent to the assumption of state debts, for which the location of the federal capital on the Potomac was the political return. His growing objections to the Hamiltonian financial system were partly owing to his belief that the treasury was catering to commercial and financial groups, not agricultural, but he also believed that Hamilton was building up his own political power by creating ties of financial interest and was corrupting Congress. The issue between the two secretaries was sharply joined by 1791, when the Bank of the United States was established. They gave to the president their rival interpretations of the Constitution in this connection.

The victory at the time and in the long run was with Hamilton’s doctrine of liberal construction, or interpretation, of the Constitution and his assertion of broad national power. But Jefferson’s general distrust of power and his reliance on basic law as a safeguard have enduring value. By late 1792 or 1793 the opponents of Hamiltonianism constituted a fairly definite national party, calling itself Republican. Jefferson’s recognized leadership of this group can be more easily attributed to his official standing and his political philosophy than to his partisan activities. In the summer and autumn of 1792, by means of anonymous newspaper articles, Hamilton sought to drive Jefferson from the government. The alleged justification was the campaign being waged against Hamilton by the editor of the National Gazette, Philip Freneau. Jefferson had given Freneau minor employment as a translator for the State Department, but he claimed that he never brought influence to bear on him, and there is no evidence that he himself wrote anything for the paper.

But he had told Washington precisely what he thought of his colleague’s policies, and had already said that he himself wanted to get out of the government. Early in 1793 the Virginians in CONGRESS vainly sought to drive Hamilton from office or at least to rebuke him sharply for alleged financial mismanagement. Jefferson undoubtedly sympathized with this attack and probably drafted the resolutions that were introduced by Rep. William Branch Giles (Va.) and soundly defeated. A degree of unity was forced on the president’s official family by the foreign crisis of 1793, which also caused Jefferson to delay his retirement to the end of the year.

Vice President During a respite of three years from public duties, he began to remodel his house at Monticello and interested himself greatly in agriculture, claiming that he had wholly lost the “little spice of ambition” he had once had. He was outraged by Washington’s attack on the Democratic societies, which were identified with his party, and by what he regarded as the surrender to the British in Jay’s Treaty, but at this stage he was playing little part in politics. Nonetheless, he was supported by the Republicans for president in 1796, and, running second to John Adams by three ELECTORAL VOTES, he became VICE PRESIDENT. His Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1801) was a result of his experience as the presiding officer over the Senate. His papers on the extinct megalonyx and on the moldboard of a plow invented by him attested to his scientific interests and attainments.

These papers were presented to the American Philosophical Society, of which he became president in 1797. A private letter of his to his friend Philip Mazzei, published that year, severely criticized Federalist leaders and was interpreted as an attack on Washington. Jefferson’s partisan activities increased during his vice presidency. He deplored the FEDERALIST exploitation of a dangerous quarrel with France, although Jefferson’s own sympathy with France had declined. The notorious Alien and Sedition Acts were the principal cause of Jefferson’s disapproval of the Adams administration. Jefferson’s grounds were both philosophical and partisan. The historic Republican protest against laws that attempted to suppress freedom of speech and destroy political opposition was made in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions (1798).

Jefferson wrote the former, as James MADISON did the latter. Jefferson’s authorship was not known at the time. In the Kentucky Resolutions he carried his states’-rights doctrines to their most extreme point in his career. In invoking the authority of the states against laws that he regarded as unconstitutional, his resolutions were in the tradition that finally led to nullification and secession. But they were also in the best tradition of civil liberties and human rights.

President: First Term Jefferson’s victory over John Adams in the presidential election of 1800 can be partially explained by the dissension among the Federalists, but the policies of the government were unpopular, and as a party the Federalists were now much less representative of the country than were the Republicans. Jefferson’s own title to the presidency was not established for some weeks, because he was accidentally tied with his running mate, Aaron BURR, under the workings of the original electoral system. The election was thrown into the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, where the Federalists voted for Burr through many indecisive ballots. Finally, enough of them abstained to permit the obvious will of the majority to be carried out. Jefferson later said that the ousting of the Federalists and the accession of his own party constituted a “revolution,” but that statement was hyperbole. He was speaking of the principles of the government rather than of its form, and his major concern was to restore the spirit of 1776.

He regarded himself as more loyal to the U. S. Constitution than his loose-constructionist foes were, though in fact he was less a strict constructionist in practice than in theory. Although he had objected to features of Hamilton’s financial system, he had no intention of upsetting it now that it was firmly established. Instead, the purpose he had in mind, and was to be highly successful in carrying out, was to obviate some of the grave dangers he saw in the system by reducing the national debt. Jefferson’s accession to the presidency is notable in American history because it marked the first transfer of national authority from one political group to another, and it is especially significant that, despite Federalist obstructionism for a time, the transition was effected by peaceful and strictly constitutional means.

Jefferson himself emphasized this in his conciliatory inaugural address. These events set a precedent of acquiescence in the will of the majority. The new president described this as a “sacred principle” that must prevail, but he added that, to be rightful, it must be reasonable and that the rights of minorities must be protected. His accession removed the threat of counterrevolution from his country. The government he conducted, in its spirit of tolerance and humanity, was without parallel in his world.

His first term, most of it in a period of relative international calm, was distinctly successful. He was the undisputed leader of a party that had acquired cohesion during its years in opposition. In James Madison as secretary of state and Albert Gallatin as secretary of the treasury, he had lieutenants of high competence whom he treated as peers but whose loyalty to him bordered on reverence. By virtually ruling himself out of the party, Vice President Aaron Burr relieved Jefferson of a potential rival. Working through the Republican leaders in Congress, whom he treated with the utmost respect, Jefferson exercised influence on that body that was unexampled in previous presidential history and was to be rarely matched in later administrations.

Because of his own commitment, and that of most of his countrymen, to the doctrine of division of powers between the executive and legislative branches, his leadership, except in foreign affairs, was indirect and generally unadmitted. He also shared with most of his fellows a rather negative concept of the functions of the federal government in the domestic sphere. The policy of economy and tax reduction that the favorable world situation permitted him to follow served to reduce rather than increase the burdens of his countrymen, and it contributed no little to his popularity. Dispute with the Judiciary Jefferson restored the party balance in the civil service, but he was relatively unsuccessful in his moves against the judiciary, which had been reinforced by fresh Federalist appointees at the very end of the Adams administration. In the eyes of Jefferson and the Republicans, the federal judiciary constituted a branch of the opposing party and could be expected to obstruct the administration in every possible way. He treated as null and void late appointments by Adams that seemed of doubtful legality, and the Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 with his full approval.

But he was rebuked by Chief Justice John Marshall in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) for withholding the commission of a late-hour appointee as justice of the peace. The effort to remove partisan judges by impeachment was a virtual failure, and the Federalists remained entrenched in the judiciary, though they became less actively partisan. The Louisiana Purchase These partial political failures were more than compensated by the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the most notable achievement of Jefferson’s presidency.