Jeffersonian Republicanism and the Democratization of America

Jeffersonian Republicanism and the Democratization of America

Free and enslaved black Americans were not the only ones pushing against political hierarchies. Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 represented a victory for ordinary white Americans in their bid to assume more direct control over the government. Elites had made no secret of their hostility toward pure democracy, that is the direct control of government by the people. In both private correspondence and published works, many of the nation’s founders argued that pure democracy would lead to anarchy. “The power of the people, if uncontroverted, is licentious and mobbish,” Massachusetts Federalist Fisher Ames maintained in language echoed by many of his colleagues. Ames believed that the writers of the Constitution intended for the government to be a republic, rather than a democracy, since the latter depended upon public opinion, which he argued “shifts with every current of caprice.” Jefferson’s election, for Federalists like Ames, heralded a slide “down into the mire of a democracy.”

Indeed, many political leaders and non-elite citizens believed Jefferson embraced the politics of the masses. “[I]n a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate… to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” Jefferson wrote in 1810. Nine years later, looking back on his monumental election, Jefferson again linked his triumph to the political engagement of ordinary citizens: “The revolution of 1800…was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76 was in it’s form,” he wrote, “not effected indeed by the sword…but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage [voting] of the people.” Jefferson desired to convince Americans—and the world—that a government that answered directly to the people would lead to lasting national union, not anarchic division, proving that free people could govern themselves democratically.

Jefferson set out to differentiate his administration from the Federalists. He defined American union by the voluntary bonds of fellow citizens toward one another and toward the government. In contrast, the Federalists supposedly imaged a union defined by expansive state power and public submission to the rule of aristocratic elites. For Jefferson, the American nation drew its “energy” and its strength from the “confidence” of a “reasonable” and “rational” people.

Republican celebrations often credited Jefferson with saving the nation’s republican principles. In a move that enraged Federalists, they used the image of George Washington, who had passed away in 1799, linking the republican virtue Washington epitomized to the democratic liberty Jefferson championed. A contributor to the Alexandria Expositor argued that the Federalists had abused their power in the administration by raising “a large army” and naval force, which exemplified the ways they had appeared to be “hastily swallowing up all that remained of our liberties.” Leaving behind the military pomp of power-obsessed Federalists, Republicans had peacefully elected the scribe of national independence, the philosopher-patriot who had battled tyranny with his pen, not with a sword or a gun.

The celebrations of Jefferson’s presidency and the defeat of the Federalists expressed many citizens’ willingness to assert greater direct control over the government as citizens. The definition of citizenship was changing. Early American national identity was coded masculine, just as it was coded white and wealthy; yet, since the Revolution, women had repeatedly called for a place in the conversation. Mercy Otis Warren (Figure 16) was one of the most noteworthy female contributors to the public ratification debate over the Constitution of 1787 and 1788, but women all over the country were urged to participate in the discussion over the Constitution. “It is the duty of the American ladies, in a particular manner, to interest themselves in the success of the measures that are now pursuing by the Federal Convention for the happiness of America,” a Philadelphia essayist announced. “They can retain their rank as rational beings only in a free government. In a monarchy…they will be considered as valuable members of a society, only in proportion as they are capable of being mothers for soldiers, who are the pillars of crowned heads.” American women were more than mothers to soldiers; they were mothers to liberty.

Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren
Figure 16 — Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Historians have used the term Republican Motherhood to describe the early American belief that women were essential in nurturing the principles of liberty in the citizenry. Women would pass along important values of independence and virtue to their children, ensuring that each generation cherished the same values of the American Revolution. Because of these ideas, women’s actions became politicized. Republican partisans even described women’s choice of sexual partner a crucial to the health and well-being of both the party and the nation. “The fair Daughters of America” should “never disgrace themselves by giving their hands in marriage to any but real republicans,” a group of New Jersey Republicans asserted. A Philadelphia paper toasted “The fair Daughters of Columbia. May their smiles be the reward of Republicans only.” Though unmistakably steeped in the gendered assumptions about female sexuality and domesticity that denied women an equal share of the political rights men enjoyed, these statements also conceded the pivotal role women played as active participants in partisan politics. (3)

Jefferson as President

Buttressed by robust public support, Jefferson sought to implement policies that reflected this rhetoric and political activity. He worked to reduce taxes and cut the government’s budget believing that this would cause the economy to expand and prosper. His cuts included national defense and Jefferson restricted the regular army to three thousand men. England may have needed taxes and debt to support its military empire, but Jefferson was determined to live in peace — and that belief led him to successfully reduce America’s national debt while getting rid of all internal taxes during his first term. In a move that became the crowning achievement of his presidency, Jefferson authorized the acquisition of Louisiana, from France in 1803, in what is considered the largest real estate deal in American history. During the massive reorganization of North American property following the Seven Years’ War, France ceded Louisiana to Spain in exchange for West Florida. Jefferson was concerned about the American use of Spanish-held New Orleans, which served as an important port for western farmers. His worries multiplied when the French secretly reacquired Louisiana in 1800. Spain remained in Louisiana for two more years while U.S. Minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, tried to strike a compromise.

Fortunately for the U.S., the pressures of war in Europe and the slave insurrection in Haiti forced Napoleon to rethink his vast North American holdings. Rebellious slaves coupled with a yellow fever outbreak in Haiti defeated French forces, stripping Napoleon of his ability to control Haiti (the home of his profitable sugar plantations). Deciding to cut his losses, Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million — roughly equivalent to $250 million today. Negotiations between Livingston and Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, succeeded more spectacularly than either Jefferson or Livingston could have imagined.

Map showing the area of the Louisiana Purchase. The states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana are highlighted, along with portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada.
Figure 17 — A derivative from the original work , Louisiana Purchase by William Morris, Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Jefferson made an inquiry to his cabinet regarding the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, but he believed he was obliged to operate outside the strict limitations of the Constitution if the good of the nation was at stake as his ultimate responsibility was to the American people. Jefferson felt he should be able to “throw himself on the justice of his country” when he facilitated the interests of the very people he served. He believed that a strong executive was essential to a lasting republican nation.

Jefferson’s foreign policy, especially the Embargo of 1807, elicited the most outrage from his Federalist critics. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies moved across Europe, Jefferson wrote to a European friend that he was glad that God had “divided the dry lands of your hemisphere from the dry lands of ours, and said ‘here, at least, be there peace.'” Unfortunately, the Atlantic Ocean soon became the site of Jefferson’s greatest foreign policy test, as England, France, and Spain refused to respect American ships’ neutrality. The greatest offenses came from the British, who resumed the policy of impressment, seizing thousands of American sailors and forcing them to fight for the British navy.

Many Americans called for war when the British attacked the USS Chesapeake in 1807. The president, however, decided on a policy of “peaceable coercion” and Congress agreed. Under the Embargo Act of 1807, American ports were closed to all foreign trade in hopes of avoiding war. Jefferson hoped that an embargo would force European nations to respect American neutrality. Historians disagree over the wisdom of peaceable coercion. At first, withholding commerce rather than declaring war appeared to be the ultimate means of nonviolent conflict resolution. In practice, the Embargo hurt America’s economy and Jefferson’s personal finances even suffered. When Americans resorted to smuggling their goods out of the country, Jefferson expanded governmental powers to try to enforce their compliance, leading some to label him a “Tyrant.”

Criticism of Jefferson’s policies began to use the same rhetoric that his supporters trumpeted. Federalists attacked the American Philosophical Society and the study of natural history, believing both to be too saturated with Democratic Republicans. Some Federalists lamented the alleged decline of educational standards for children. Moreover, James Callender published accusations (confirmed much later by DNA evidence) that Jefferson was involved in a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Callender referred to Jefferson as “our little mulatto president,” suggesting that sex with a slave had somehow compromised Jefferson’s racial integrity. Callender’s accusation joined previous Federalist attacks on Jefferson’s racial politics, including a scathing pamphlet written by South Carolinian William Loughton Smith in 1796 that described the principles of Jeffersonian democracy as the beginning of a slippery slope to dangerous racial equality.

Arguments lamenting the democratization of America were far less effective than those that borrowed from democratic language and demonstrated how Jefferson’s actions were, in fact, undermining the sovereignty of the people. Historian David Hackett Fischer has written that the Federalists set out to “defeat Jefferson with his own weapons.” As Alexander Hamilton argued in 1802: “[W]e must consider whether it be possible for us to succeed without in some degree employing the weapons which have been employed against us.” Indeed, when Federalists attacked Jefferson, they often accused him of acting against the interests of the very public he claimed to serve. In response to the Embargo, a citizen going by the pseudonym “A True Republican” wrote to the president: “You are a friend to the disturber of the peace & greatest enemy of the whole world.”

The Federalists’ appropriation of this language to critique Jefferson’s administration represented a pivotal development. As the Federalists scrambled to stay politically relevant, it became apparent that their ideology — rooted in eighteenth century notions of virtue, paternalistic rule by wealthy elite, and the deference of ordinary citizens to an aristocracy of merit — was no longer tenable. The Federalists’ adoption of republican political rhetoric signaled a new political landscape where both parties embraced the direct involvement of the citizenry. The Republican Party rose to power on the promise to expand voting and promote a more direct link between political leaders and the electorate. The American populace continued to demand more direct access to political power. Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe sought to expand voting through policies that made it easier for Americans to purchase land. Under their leadership, seven new states entered the Union. By 1824, only three states still had rules about how much property someone had to own before he could vote. Never again would the Federalists regain dominance over either the Congress or the presidency; the last Federalist to run for president, Rufus King, lost to Monroe in 1816. (3)