Jefferson as President

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson on a victory banner.

Thomas Jefferson’s victory over John Adams in the election of 1800 was celebrated through everyday Americans’ material culture, including this victory banner. Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History.

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.

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.”

Attack of the Chesapeake

The attack of the Chesapeake caused such furor in the hearts of Americans that even 80 years after the incident, an artist sketched this drawing of the event. Fred S. Cozzens, “The incident between HMS ‘Leopard; and USS ‘Chesapeake’ that sparked the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair,” 1897.

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.