Merrill D Peterson. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated third president of the United States on 4 March 1801 in the infant capital on the Potomac. Raw, brash, and eager, a sprawling village of three thousand people—”a place with a few bad houses, extensive swamps, hanging on the skirts of a too thinly peopled, weak and barren country”—Washington was a fitting symbol of the new nation itself. Two “shining objects” relieved the dismal scene: the President’s House, gleaming under its coat of whitewash, and the Capitol, looking like some truncated Roman monument, its north wing alone awkwardly perched on the summit of a hill.
Surrounded by friends, Jefferson walked to the Capitol from a nearby boardinghouse; at noon, without pomp or ceremony, he entered the crowded Senate chamber and took his place on the platform between Aaron Burr, his successor as vice president, and John Marshall, the chief justice of the United States. The election that brought Jefferson to the presidency had been bitterly contested by the two political parties, Federalists and Republicans, and only finally terminated on 17 February in the choice by the House of Representatives between himself and his Republican running mate, Burr. Now, after Marshall administered the oath of office, the fifty-seven-year-old Virginian, tall and lanky, with a ruddy face, bright hazel eyes, and graying hair, rose to deliver his inaugural address.
The address—a political touchstone for a century to come—combined a lofty appeal for the restoration of “harmony and affection” with a brilliant summation of the Republican creed: “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans: we are all federalists.” Believing that the mass of Americans, regardless of party, were fundamentally united in their political sentiments, Jefferson hoped to extinguish the strife, hatred, and fanaticism—the spirit of European politics—that had rocked the Republic during its first decade.
The new president looked to the disappearance of parties and “a perfect consolidation of political sentiments” as the government was restored to its true principles. These principles he traced back to the American Revolution. Equal justice to all men; freedom of speech, press, and religion; majority rule and minority rights; supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense; the encouragement of agriculture and commerce; peace and commerce with all nations, but entangling alliances with none—these should be “the creed of our political faith,” said Jefferson. He spoke of preserving “the whole constitutional vigor” of the general government yet called for “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” His point was not to place liberty and government in irreconcilable opposition but, rather, to declare his conviction that a free and democratic government, for all its weakness by Old World standards, was, in fact
the strongest government on earth. I believe it is the only one 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. Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
In retrospect, Jefferson called the Republican ascendancy “the revolution of 1800.” It was, he said, “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”
Born on 13 April 1743 in Goochland (now Albemarle) County, Virginia, and educated at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson rose to fame as the draftsman of revolutionary state papers, first in Virginia and then in the Continental Congress, where, of course, he became the author of the Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration’s celebrated preamble, Jefferson reduced the “natural rights” philosophy of the age to a set of first principles that had a profound influence on the course of the American Revolution. Proceeding from these principles, Jefferson himself sought far-reaching reforms in his native state. He was only partially successful. The Virginia assembly in 1786 enacted his Statute for Religious Freedom; it rejected much more, including his comprehensive plan of public education, although in Jefferson’s opinion it was essential to the citizen-republicanism of the new nation. He was governor of Virginia (1779-1781)—his first executive office—during the trying circumstance of war and invasion, and left office under a cloud of criticism that was never completely dispelled.
In 1784, after a brief turn in Congress, Jefferson was sent to Europe on a diplomatic mission. The following year he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France. From that vantage point, he observed the coming of the French Revolution. Closely associated with liberal, enlightened circles in Paris, he sympathized with the revolutionary impulse but sought to direct it into moderate and pacific channels of reform. Although he never confused France with America, Jefferson became an ardent friend of the French Revolution and in time assimilated some of its radical doctrine into his political philosophy.
In 1790, Jefferson was named secretary of state in the new national government. He had approved of the Constitution, especially with the promised addition of a bill of rights, and accepted high office under President George Washington out of a sense of loyalty to him and responsibility to the new experiment. In the conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs, Jefferson sought to lessen American dependence on British commerce and to open freer channels of trade in a commercial system centered on France. He sought to redeem the trans-Appalachian West from the colonialism of the Spanish to the south and the British to the north, which would contribute as well to the pacification of the Indian tribes. He also sought to take advantage of any war that might occur between European powers by the manipulation of American trade and neutrality.
Pursuing these goals, Jefferson was frustrated by events and also by the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, whose fiscal system turned on British trade, credit, and power and who was as hostile to the French Revolution as Jefferson was friendly. The conflict with Hamilton extended to domestic policy and came to involve fundamentally different conceptions of republican government under the Constitution. Along this division, opposing political parties formed. Washington tried to keep peace in his official family, but the task proved to be impossible. At the end of 1793, Jefferson, who had little taste for political combat, resigned and retired to his Virginia home, Monticello.
Elected vice president in 1796, Jefferson at first hoped for a restoration of political concord in the administration of his old friend John Adams. Instead, partisanship reigned as the nation was again plunged into a foreign crisis growing out of the protracted war between the French republic and the monarchical coalition headed by Great Britain. The administration was Federalist; and Jefferson, who had expected that the vice presidency would be “honorable and easy,” while the presidency was but “splendid misery,” found himself thrust into the leadership of the opposition party. Passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the war hysteria of 1798 brought the conflict between these infant parties to a head.
Considering the laws oppressive, unconstitutional, and designed to cripple the Republican party, Jefferson went outside the general government, fully controlled by the Federalists, to start “a revolution of opinion” against them. The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions (1798-1799), authored respectively by Madison and Jefferson, invoked the authority of these two state legislatures to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. The resolutions were assertions of states’ rights doctrine, and as such they posed the issue on which the Civil War would later be fought. More important, however, they originated in a desperate struggle for political survival and addressed the fundamental issue of freedom and self-government descending from the American Revolution. By going outside the government, opening peaceful channels of change through the agitation of public opinion, and building a party in the broad electorate, the Jeffersonian Republicans rose to power in 1800.
Jefferson’s Presidential Leadership
Jefferson’s inaugural address was a commitment to ongoing change through the democratic process. He named “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority the vital principle of republics, from which there is no appeal but to force.” The principle demanded freedom of opinion and debate, including the right of any minority to turn itself into a new majority. “If there be any among us,” Jefferson said, “who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” This was the authentic revolution of 1800. Because of it, the Constitution became an instrument of democracy, change became possible without destruction, and government could go forward with the continuing consent of the governed.
The new president named to his cabinet men known to be moderate Republicans. The Federalists’ fears were assuaged; Republicans of a more radical persuasion were disappointed. James Madison, the secretary of state, had been Jefferson’s political friend and partner for many years. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn and Attorney General Levi Lincoln were Massachusetts Republicans appointed, in part, to nudge that important state into the Republican column. Robert Smith, the secretary of the navy, owed his appointment to his brother, Samuel Smith, the influential representative of Baltimore’s mercantile Republican interests. Albert Gallatin of Pennsylvania was the only controversial appointment. His Swiss birth, forensic prowess, and wizardry with treasury figures had combined to make the forty-year-old congressman a Federalist whipping boy. But Jefferson prized Gallatin’s abilities, and the new secretary, who had been a sharp critic of Hamilton’s fiscal policies, proved to be a force for moderation in the administration. The stability and harmony of this cabinet would never be equaled. In the eight years of Jefferson’s presidency, only the part-time office of attorney general changed hands.
The model of executive unity, concentrating all powers of decision in the president, had been established by Washington, then had broken down under Adams. Jefferson restored it, but he dominated his administration more surely and completely than Washington had done. To the formal authority of the office, Jefferson added the authority of party leader. He had enormous public prestige as the spokesman of republican principles and national ideals. By some personal magnetism he drew men to him, persuaded them to follow, and inspired their loyalty. His style of leadership was averse to dissension and controversy. He sought to engender amiability and, wherever possible, to grasp “the smooth handle.” Business was conducted through day-to-day consultation with the secretaries. The cabinet met infrequently, but when it did, usually on critical foreign problems, Jefferson invariably managed to produce a consensus. He led without having to command; he dominated without ruling.
Jefferson also dominated Congress. In 1801, for the first time, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. The Federalists were a shrinking minority, yet they were by no means powerless. Their obstructionist tactics would have proved very damaging if the Republicans had not stuck together. In Republican theory, borrowed from the Whig theory of the Revolution, Congress was superior to the executive and the executive should not interfere in legislative business. Jefferson honored the theory, at least in official discourse, but he recognized that practically the government demanded presidential leadership if any majority, whether Federalist or Republican, was to carry out its program. Congress could not lead. During the Federalist decade it had performed best under Hamilton’s ministerial guidance. The problem had been easier for the Federalists, for they had no “least government” dogmas to overcome, no deep-seated fears of “monarchical” power; and compared to the Republicans, they formed a fairly cohesive body. The Republican majority was a loose coalition of jarring interests, experienced only in opposition and jealous of executive power.
How, then, could the Republican president overcome the “separation of powers” and make Congress an effective instrument for realizing the administration’s objectives? The solution was found partly in the personal influence Jefferson commanded and partly in the network of party leadership outside constitutional channels. As the unchallenged head of the Republican party, Jefferson acted with an authority he did not possess—indeed, utterly disclaimed—in his official capacity. His long arm reached out, usually through cabinet officers, to Capitol Hill, where the leaders of both houses were his political lieutenants. Presidential leadership was thus locked into congressional leadership. And despite the weak structural organization of the Republican party in Congress, it was a pervasive functional reality. The president chose a newspaper, the National Intelligencer, in the capital as the administration organ; he kept up a steady stream of communication with Congress and party leaders; he turned his house into a kind of social club and spent countless weary hours and a substantial part of his $25,000 salary entertaining congressmen. (A widower, he had no “first lady”, Dolley Madison sometimes performed that role, as did Jefferson’s elder daughter, Martha, on her visits to the capital.)
The president was not only chief magistrate but chief legislator as well. Nearly all the legislation during eight years originated with the president and his secretaries. Lacking staff support of any kind, Congress depended on executive initiatives and usually followed them. Federalist congressmen complained of the “behind the curtain” or “backstairs” influence of the president. Eventually some Republicans rebelled. But the system of presidential leadership worked with unerring precision during Jefferson’s first term. It worked less well once the Republicans, with virtually no opposition to contend against, began to quarrel among themselves, as they did during Jefferson’s second term; and it would not work at all under his successor, Madison, who lacked both his public authority and personal magnetism.
During the early months, Jefferson found the task of making appointments to office exceedingly irksome. Not counting military officers, postmasters, and other minor civil functionaries, there were 316 major offices in the gift of the federal executive. They were monopolized by Federalists. Jefferson’s preference was to remove as few as possible, with a view to converting the mass of Federalists to the Republican cause. He was repelled by the principle, already reduced to practice in New York and Pennsylvania, of making party affiliation the sole or primary test of public appointment. The politics of spoils and proscription degraded republican government. Nothing more should be asked of civil servants, he said, than that they be honest, able, and loyal to the Constitution. As important as the principle was in the abstract, it was more important in practice because of its obvious fitness to the attainment of the political harmony and consolidation envisioned in the inaugural address.
Many Republicans, whether from partisan principle or interest, disagreed with this strategy. The Federalist leaders, some said, were incorrigible; any temporizing with them would only disgust the mass of Republicans and jeopardize the administration. Others hungered for the spoils of victory. If the expulsion of Federalists and the appointment of Republicans “should not be the case, for what, in the name of God, have we been contending?” they asked. At the outset, Jefferson held his ground. He limited removals to two classes of officeholders. The first was Adams’ “midnight appointments”—indeed, all appointments except judgeships in good behavior made after 12 December 1800, when the president knew he had been defeated. This office-packing by a lame-duck administration was intolerable, and Jefferson considered all these appointments “nullities.” The second class included officials found guilty of misconduct. Jefferson especially had in mind federal marshals and attorneys who had forfeited the public trust by their enforcement of the Sedition Act. By January 1802 he counted twenty-one removals of midnight appointments and fifteen removals for misconduct of any kind.
Within a few months partisan pressures from both sides caused the president to modify his patronage policy. The issue came to a head in Connecticut, where the Federalists controlled everything; the Republicans were weak, systematically excluded from the state government, and treated as outcasts of society. Only by federal appointment could they get a political foot in the door. When Jefferson removed a midnight appointment and named a Republican in his place as collector of the port of New Haven, the local merchants and Federalists angrily remonstrated. In reply, Jefferson defended his actions and the right of the Republicans to a fair share of the federal offices. Continued Federalist monopoly defeated the will of the people. “If a due participation of office is a matter of right, how are vacancies to be obtained?” he asked. “Those by death are few; by resignation, none. Can any other mode than that of removal be proposed?” Heretofore the answer had been yes, the mode of conciliation and conversion; and the idea that party allegiance alone was just ground for removal or that the subordinate offices should rotate with the popular will had been rejected. Proposing now, in the summer of 1801, before this demonstration of Federalist intransigence to give the Republicans “a proportionate share” of the offices, Jefferson introduced the partisan standard of removal and appointment in the federal government. In practice, he showed a good deal of flexibility, adapting the policy to varying local situations. By the end of 1803, he had appointed Republicans to one-half the major offices. Federalist patronage, like the party, had been elitist. Jefferson broadened the base of the civil establishment, taking in more westerners and more men of talent without wealth, privilege, or status, thereby making it more representative of American society.
The Republican ascendancy embittered the shrinking Federalist minority. Thomas Paine’s return to the United States at the president’s invitation in 1802 started up the old slanders of Jacobinism and infidelity. At the same time Jefferson faced a new libel by the grubstreet journalist and disappointed office-seeker James T. Callender, adopted by some of the Federalists, that he had for many years kept an “African concubine,” Sally Hemings, at Monticello and was the father by her of several slave children. Thus began the prolific career of a story that would on occasion figure prominently in accounts of Jefferson’s personal life, which were necessarily speculative because of his care in guarding his privacy. As with other libels about him, he never replied publicly to this one, doubtless on the theory that any reply would only stimulate rather than arrest it. Moreover, he was committed to what he called his “experiment” in unfettered freedom of the press; and although he twice acquiesced in state prosecutions for libel, he did no injury to that experiment. Almost two centuries later, in the fall of 1998, the results of DNA testing of Jefferson and Hemings descendents provided support for the idea that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings’ children, Eston. But in the absence of direct documentary evidence either proving or refuting the allegation, nothing conclusive can be said about Jefferson’s relations with Sally Hemings.
Fiscal and Judiciary Reform
Republican reform was grounded on fiscal policy. In the Jeffersonian scripture, public debt and taxes were evils of the first magnitude. The debt drained money from the mass of citizens, diverted it from the productive enterprise of individuals, and led to a system of privilege, coercion, and corruption that was the bane of every government and fatal to a free one. The alternatives were clear: “Economy and liberty, profusion and servitude.” The debt, which had actually increased under the Federalists, stood at $83 million and consumed in annual interest almost half the federal revenue. Gallatin developed a plan to extinguish the debt in sixteen years by large annual appropriations but, amazingly, to reduce taxes at the same time. All the internal taxes—Hamilton’s whiskey excise, the land tax of the Adams administration—would be repealed. The government would depend entirely on the revenue of the customhouses. The plan required deep retrenchment: reductions in the army and navy, in foreign embassies, and in civil offices, beginning with the tax collectors.
The plan, which Jefferson outlined in his first annual message to Congress, was liable to two main objections. It assumed peace, and although the principles of the Peace of Amiens had been agreed upon, this was a risky assumption in the world of William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte and seemed to jeopardize the nation’s defense in favor of niggardly economy. Moreover, the plan rested on a doubtful theory of political economy for a developing nation. The theory looked to economic growth through release of the energies, talents, and resources of free individuals without the direct aid or favor of the government. The opposite theory, of which Hamilton was an early practitioner, assigned to the government a positive role in economic development. It supposed that a nation might grow out of debt by going deeper into debt to promote development. The logic of this escaped Jefferson, but he knew that Hamilton’s system of debt and taxes involved powers and privileges that were incompatible with republican government under the Constitution.
Jefferson’s fiscal program placed the administration on unassailable ground with Republicans in Congress. Men rubbed their eyes in disbelief at the spectacle of the chief magistrate renouncing taxes, patronage, and power. It promised, said an English observer, “a sort of Millennium in government.” The program was rapidly put in place. During the next seven years the nation was liberated of $33 million of debt. In the end, of course, the program was derailed by foreign crisis and war. Thirty-four years would pass before retirement of the national debt.
Pitched on the horns of his dilemma, reformation or reconciliation, the president agonized a good deal about the Hamiltonian fiscal system. He reflected in 1802,
When the government was first established, it was possible to have kept it going on true principles, but the contracted, English, half-lettered ideas of Hamilton destroyed that hope in the bud. We can pay off his debt in 15 years, but we can never get rid of his financial system. It mortifies me to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious, but the vice is entailed on us by the first error … What is practicable must often control pure theory.
A clear case in point was Hamilton’s Bank of the United States. Jefferson thought it an institution of “the most deadly hostility” to republican government, yet the bank’s national charter ran to 1811. Gallatin, meanwhile, found the bank a highly serviceable institution and actually expanded its operations. The demand for credit in a thriving economy was insatiable. State-chartered banks multiplied, and a banking interest grew up in the Republican party. Although it played havoc with his ideal of a plain and dignified republican order, Jefferson could neither injure nor ignore it. “What is practicable must often control pure theory.”
The federal judiciary furnished the principal political battleground of Jefferson’s first term. There were three battles and many skirmishes in the so-called war on the judiciary. The first was fought over the Federalist Judiciary Act of 1801. This eleventh-hour act of a dying administration created a whole new tier of courts and judgeships; extended the power of the federal judiciary vis-à-vis the state courts; and reduced the number of Supreme Court justices beginning with the next vacancy, thereby depriving Jefferson of an early opportunity to reshape the court.
Republicans were enraged by the act because of its manifest partisanship and its wanton increase of judicial power. Jefferson promptly targeted the act for repeal. The Federalists had retired to the judiciary as a stronghold, he said. “There the remains of Federalism are to be preserved and fed from the treasury and from that battery all the works of Republicanism are to be beaten down and erased.” The experience of the Sedition Act had demonstrated, in his opinion, the prostration of the judiciary before partisan purposes.
Soon after assuming office, Jefferson took executive action to pardon victims of the Sedition Act, which he condemned as null and void, and to drop pending prosecutions. He wished to make judges more responsible to the people, perhaps by periodic review of their “good behavior” tenure; and while conceding the power of judicial review, he did not think it binding on the executive or the legislature. It was his theory—a corollary of the separation of powers—that each of the coordinate branches of government is supreme in its sphere and may decide for itself on the constitutionality of actions by the others. Congress, after heated debate, repealed the offensive act and, with minor exceptions, returned the judiciary to the footing it had occupied in 1800.
The second battle centered on the case of Mar-bury v. Madison. William Marbury and three others alleged that they had been appointed justices of the peace for the District of Columbia on 3 March 1801 but that their commissions, complete in every respect, had been withheld by the incoming administration. They sued Madison, in whose department the matter belonged, and the Supreme Court granted a “show cause” order on delivery of the commissions. Finally, in 1803, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that the plaintiffs had a legal right to the commissions and, moreover, that the requested writ of mandamus to the secretary of state was the appropriate remedy. He went on to read the executive a lecture on the duty of performing valid contracts but chose to avoid a showdown with Jefferson by declaring that the power of the court to issue writs of mandamus, contained in the Judiciary Act of 1789, was unconstitutional.
In later years the decision would be seen as the cornerstone of the whole edifice of judicial review, but in 1803 it was understood essentially as a duel between the executive and the judiciary. The Republicans criticized Marshall not because of theoretical claims of judicial power but because he traveled outside the case, pretending to a jurisdiction he then disclaimed, in order to take a gratuitous stab at the president. Politics alone could explain such behavior. Obviously, although they were constantly at swords’ points, neither Jefferson nor Marshall wanted to press the issue to conclusion.
The Jeffersonian campaign, halting though it was, also contemplated the impeachment of federal judges who violated the public trust. In 1803-1804, Congress impeached, tried, and convicted Judge John Pickering of the federal district court in New Hampshire. The case was a hard one because Pickering’s bizarre conduct on the bench proceeded less from his politics than from intoxication and possibly insanity, but in the absence of any other provision for removal, the Republicans took the constitutional route of impeachment and convicted him of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In 1804-1805 the House impeached, and the Senate tried, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. A high-toned Federalist, he had earned Republican enmity as the presiding judge in several sedition trials and in harangues to grand juries assailing democracy and all its works. Inevitably, Chase’s impeachment was a political act.
The fact that Chase was indicted the same day the Senate convicted Pickering seemed to substantiate Federalist fears of wholesale prosecution. Actually, this was never the president’s intention. He sought only to make an example of a particularly obnoxious Federalist justice. And when the Senate finally voted to acquit Chase, Jefferson turned away from impeachment in disgust. He remained anxious about the unchecked power of the judiciary. He faced still other encounters with John Marshall. But the Jeffersonian war on the judiciary, if such it was, ended without serious disturbance to the foundations of judicial power. Jefferson could rule the cabinet; he could charm, persuade, and cajole Congress; he could provide inspirational leadership for the American people; but in dealing with the judiciary he found little scope for these talents and, of course, felt awkward in a confrontational role.
When Jefferson became president, peace was pending in Europe and he could look forward to disentangling the nation from the vices and alliances of foreign politics. “Peace is my passion,” he repeatedly affirmed. Yet he was no pacifist. One of his first executive acts was to send a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to enforce peace without tribute on the piratical Barbary states. The Tripolitan War, as it was called, met with partial success: a treaty with Tripoli in 1805.
Far more important, of course, was the burgeoning crisis on the Mississippi, which would end in the triumph of the Louisiana Purchase. By the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in October 1800, as Jefferson learned six months later, Spain ceded the great province of Louisiana (Jefferson suspected the Floridas as well) to France, conditional on an Italian throne for the duke of Parma, Charles IV’s brother-in-law. The retrocession of Louisiana, which France had lost in 1763, announced the revival under Napoleonic auspices of old French dreams of empire in the New World. Over the years the United States had worked out an accommodation with Spain on the Mississippi. The Pinckney Treaty (or Treaty of San Lorenzo) of 1795 granted the Americans free navigation of the river through Spanish territory to the mouth, together with the privilege of deposit and reshipment of goods at New Orleans. This was an enormous, indeed essential, boon to western development. American trade at New Orleans dwarfed that of the Spanish.
Spain was a weak and declining power, and given the pace of American expansion across the continent, Jefferson confidently expected that the river, the Floridas, and Louisiana would all fall to the Americans in due time. But Louisiana in the hands of France was another matter. In Napoleon’s grand design, Louisiana and the Floridas would provide the necessary economic and strategic support for an overseas empire centered on St. Domingue (Hispaniola), the richest of the French colonies, then in the control of rebel blacks led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The reconquest of the island was therefore the first step toward realizing the design. This would not be short work, as Jefferson recognized.
Considering all the difficulties and imponderables of Napoleon’s plan, the president made as little noise as possible, kept his patience, and put Louisiana in the track of diplomacy. His strategy was one of delay and maneuver improvised to meet events as they unfolded. His first and minimal concern was to ensure that if France did actually come into power at New Orleans, Americans in the West would be accorded the same commercial rights and privileges as under the Spanish. In Washington the secretary of state constantly drummed into the French envoy the grave danger to his country of making enemies of the American people on the Mississippi issue; and the envoy, Louis Pichon, transmitted these perturbations to Paris. In Paris the American minister, Robert R. Livingston, composed a memoir setting forth in detail the great American interest in Louisiana and the Floridas. He was unheeded and unheard, however. “There never was a government in which less could be done by negotiation than here,” he wrote home. “There is no people, no Legislature, no councillors—One man is everything.”
In April 1802, Jefferson decided it was time to strike out on a bold new course. Through the good offices of a mutual friend, Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours, who was returning to France, Jefferson gave stern warning to Napoleon:
There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half of our whole produce, and contain more than half our inhabitants …The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence which is to restrain her forever within her low water mark. It seals the union of two nations who in conjunction can maintain exclusive possession of the ocean. From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.
The fact that Jefferson, whose foreign politics had always been friendly to France and hostile to Britain, could contemplate a diplomatic turnabout of this kind—even an alliance with Britain—disclosed the gravity of the situation.
While Jefferson flourished this thunderbolt, Madison quietly worked up the project to purchase New Orleans and the Floridas, assuming the latter were France’s to sell. This was a startling idea, which could only have originated with an administration bent on settling international disputes without resort to military force. Jefferson was still playing for time, which in this affair, as in all things, he believed was on the American side. Napoleon had yet to make good his policy. Yellow fever and rebel arms annihilated one French army after another in St. Domingue. The expedition mounted for New Orleans never sailed. Spain remained in control there and, it was reported, sickened at the bargain it had made with France. War clouds again gathered in Europe.
In October 1802 the clock was turned ahead dramatically for the United States. The intendant at New Orleans abruptly closed the port to the Americans. Had he acted on Napoleon’s dictate or was Charles IV trying to create havoc for the French? The Spanish minister in Washington, the Marqués de Casa Yrujo, assured Jefferson that the intendant had acted on his own authority, in response to abuses of entrepôt privileges; and before much damage could be done Yrujo and Madison negotiated an end to the crisis.
Meanwhile, westerners threatened to take their fate into their own hands, and Federalist congressmen, always eager to embarrass the administration, clamored for war against France and Spain. Something tangible was needed to calm the West and deflate the Federalists. Jefferson moved to appoint his friend James Monroe, who was popular in the West, minister extraordinary to join Livingston in treating for the purchase of New Orleans and the Floridas for up to $10 million. Monroe was instructed to take the country’s problem to London if he failed in Paris.
But the problem would be resolved just as Monroe arrived in Paris in April 1803. Neither he nor Livingston had much to do with the result. The Louisiana Purchase was made in France, not in America, and it owed more to the vagaries of Napoleon’s ambition than to Jefferson’s cautious diplomacy. With his dream of New World empire fading, Napoleon revived his older dream of empire in the East—Egypt, the Levant, India—and he renounced Louisiana. He could not defend, or even possess, Louisiana while marching to the East; he needed assurances of American neutrality in that venture; and he needed money to fuel his war machine.
The purchase treaty was quickly arranged. It was neither the bargain Jefferson had sought nor within the price he had authorized. It included the whole of Louisiana, which had never been contemplated, together with New Orleans, but omitted the Floridas, which remained Spanish. “They ask for only one town of Louisiana,” Napoleon remarked, “but I already consider the colony completely lost.” The United States thus acquired an immense uncharted domain, stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains or beyond. No one knew its exact boundaries or size, but at one stroke the Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the land area of the United States. The total price, which included the government’s assumption of about $3 million worth of debts owed to France by American citizens, was $15 million.
Jefferson never boasted that he bought Louisiana, but he resented the grumblers and doubters who, from one side of the mouth, denounced him for acquiring a “howling wilderness” and, from the other side, denied him any credit for the good it might contain. The whole proceeding was, in truth, an impressive demonstration of the ways of peace in American affairs. In the end Jefferson was saved by the return of European war. But the probability of renewed warfare, like the probability of French defeat in St. Domingue, had entered into Jefferson’s calculations from the beginning. He weighed the imponderables in the European power balance, shrewdly threatened to throw the country into the British scale, worked up an attractive proposition for Napoleon, and was therefore prepared to take advantage of the démarche when it came. It came sooner than he had expected, and it brought the United States much more than he sought. The trans-Mississippi West had not been an object. The United States was not threatened there; it lay almost a thousand miles from the frontier in Ohio. This is not to say that Jefferson had no eyes for Louisiana. In his inaugural address he spoke of the United States as “a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Surely he did not mean the country bounded by the Mississippi but rather the country of his continental vision, which would materialize as Americans multiplied and pressed westward. Louisiana, coming all at once in 1803, altered the timetable of American expansion but not its destination.
For several months Jefferson had been planning a voyage of discovery across the continent. Now, by happy coincidence, Captain Meriwether Lewis, whom he had chosen to lead this expedition, set forth from Washington on 5 July 1803 amid public rejoicing over the Louisiana Purchase. The plan of the expedition was thoroughly characteristic of the president. Presenting it to Congress and hoping to head off constitutional objections, he emphasized its commercial purpose: to chart a continuous line of navigation along the Missouri River route to the Pacific. But Jefferson had larger scientific ends in view. Much of the country was terra incognita, so he instructed Lewis to observe everything:
… the soil and face of the country … the animals … the remains … the mineral productions of every kind … volcanic appearances … climate … the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower, or leaf, times of appearances of particular birds, reptiles or insects.
The expedition proved to be a spectacular success. Lewis, Lieutenant William Clark, and their crew went up the Missouri, crossed the Stony Mountains, and in 1805 descended the Columbia River to its mouth. After wintering there, the expedition returned overland to St. Louis in 1806. Many years would be required to absorb the knowledge gathered by the expedition. Of course, it failed in its commercial aim. The gap between the Missouri and the Columbia turned out to be 350 miles of formidable terrain. Jefferson and the many Americans who shared his continental vision of an “empire of liberty” were not discouraged. In its appeal to the imagination, the Lewis and Clark expedition foreshad-owed the American future.
Senate ratification of the Louisiana treaty was a foregone conclusion. Yet it did not escape opposition. “Adopt this Western World into the Union,” warned a Federalist senator, “and you destroy at once the weight and importance of the Eastern States and compel them to establish a separate and independent empire.” Feelings of this kind contributed to an abortive New England disunionist conspiracy in 1804.
Jefferson himself worried about the constitutionality of the treaty. As he explained to a Republican senator, John Breckinridge of Kentucky,
The Constitution has made no provision for our holding foreign territory, still less of incorporating foreign nations into our Union. The executive in seizing a fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of this country, have done an act beyond the Constitution. The Legislature in casting behind them metaphysical subtleties, and risking themselves like faithful servants, must … throw themselves on their country for doing for them unauthorized what we know they would have done for themselves had they been in a situation to do it.
Jefferson therefore drafted a constitutional amendment to sanction the acquisition retroactively. The amendment also sought to control the future of the trans-Mississippi West by, among other things, prohibiting settlement above the thirty-third parallel, which would become a vast Indian reserve.
The proposed amendment found little support either in the cabinet or in Congress. Spain, still in possession of Louisiana, expressed unhappiness with the treaty, raising fears it might be lost by delay. Weighing the risks, Jefferson backed away from the amendment. He was still troubled, however. “Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution,” he observed. “Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” As his friends felt differently in this instance, he yielded the point while reserving the principle. A revolution in the Union perforce became a revolution in the Constitution as well.
Jefferson spent much time and effort gathering information on the new territory and its people—the Indian tribes scattered throughout but especially the Creoles of the more thickly inhabited portion below the thirty-third parallel, the northern boundary of the later state of Louisiana. To the territory as a whole, the treaty gave no precise limits. Not surprisingly, Jefferson tried to make the most of the situation. After a detailed inquiry into the boundaries, he concluded that there were respectable grounds for claiming Texas to the Rio Grande, West Florida to the Perdido, and the westernmost limits of the Stony Mountains. From this position he would offer Spain $2 million and half of Texas for East Florida. Spain disdained the overture, of course, insisting that the lower boundaries were the Iberville (now Bayou Manchac) and the Sabine. Jefferson’s relentless scheming for the Floridas vitiated his diplomacy abroad and exposed him to attack at home for the next five years.
The treaty provided for the incorporation of Louisiana, with its “foreign” and slave populace, into the Union; but Jefferson concluded from his study of the Creoles—their laws, institutions, and manners—that they were unprepared for republican citizenship. A period of apprenticeship was necessary during which Americans would be encouraged to settle in Louisiana, and society there would be gradually reformed.
The Creole sugar planters reacted angrily to this plan, demanding immediate self-government and admission to the Union, together with retention of most of their customary laws and institutions. They threw back at Jefferson his own eloquent words in the nation’s birthright on human rights and liberties and self-government. In this potentially dangerous conflict, the president again showed flexibility and moderation. In 1805 he yielded to the demand for a representative assembly in the territory. With the loyal assistance of his handpicked governor, William C. C. Claiborne, Jefferson found the path of political conciliation in Louisiana, and the Territory of Orleans—the first of many from the purchase lands—would be admitted to the Union as the state of Louisiana in 1812. This was a vindication of his own principles, even in the face of doubt, including the idea of an expanding union of equal self-governing states.
An event of the magnitude of the Louisiana Purchase affected everything to come after. The prospects of the Union were at once grander and more terrifying than before, and the government would have to assume new responsibilities addressed to this condition. The nation’s destiny was firmly oriented westward; hundreds of millions of acres of land—the heartland of the continent—guaranteed that the economy would remain primarily agricultural for decades to come and that dispersal rather than concentration would characterize American society and government. All this undergirded Jeffersonian ideals. The United States acquired much greater security on its own borders as well as greater power and self-assurance in international affairs. Finally, the Louisiana Purchase enabled the Republicans to tighten their political grip on the nation, causing them to grow bold in power and making bigots and bunglers of the opposition.
Jefferson’s reelection to a second term was never in doubt. The Republican caucus in Congress renominated him in February 1804. Burr was replaced as the vice presidential candidate by George Clinton, his rival in New York politics. Burr’s undoing began with the suspicions that he had solicited Federalist votes in the House election of 1801. The Twelfth Amendment, then in the course of ratification, would prevent a repetition of that election, with more Federalist maneuvering to defeat Jefferson, by requiring separate votes for president and vice president. The factional struggle between Burrites and Clintonians culminated in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, featuring Burr as a candidate. Jefferson pleaded neutrality in this contest, although he secretly favored the Clintonians and stood by silently as they drove Burr out of the Republican party.
The Federalist caucus nominated Charles Cotes-worth Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York. They were little noticed, as the Republicans again ran against the record of John Adams. The contrast between four years of Adams and four years of Jefferson was striking: new taxes versus no taxes; profusion versus economy; mounting debt versus debt retirement; oppressive army and wasteful navy versus defensive arms only; multiplication of offices versus elimination of judges, tax collectors, and useless functionaries; alien and sedition laws versus freedom and equality; judicial arrogance versus judicial chastisement; monarchical forms and ceremonies versus republican simplicity; war and subservience to foreign power versus peace, independence, and national expansion.
The election resulted in 162 electoral votes for Jefferson and Clinton against 14 for Pinckney and King. Only Delaware and Connecticut, with two stray Maryland electors, voted Federalist. Even Massachusetts entered the Republican column. This was particularly gratifying to Jefferson, who saw in it proof that the “perfect consolidation” he had prophesied four years before was indeed coming to fruition.
A self-congratulatory tone pervaded Jefferson’s second inaugural address. Contrasting it with the first, he said, “The former was promise; this is performance.” Because of the rapid liberation of the revenue from debt it was not too soon to plan for national internal improvements—”rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufacturing, education, and other great objects”—and he subsequently proposed a constitutional amendment to this end. The Louisiana Purchase gave an urgency to this undertaking that overrode the restraints of Republican dogma. Jefferson rebuked the fainthearted who feared that the Union would become too big to survive. “But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively?” he asked.
Jefferson spoke glowingly of his policy of peaceful acquisition of Indian lands and of drawing Indians into the paths of civilization. The policy would result, during eight years, in fifteen treaties with Indian tribes and the cession of 95 million acres of land to the United States—an astounding achievement. Jefferson boasted, too, of the “experiment” he had made in freedom of the press to determine whether, despite the reign of falsehood and defamation, the people were able to detect the truth and act upon it. The experiment had been tried, and the election had given the verdict—”honorable to those who had served them, and consolatory to the friend of man, who believes he may be intrusted with his own affairs.”
But if Jefferson’s first term was a triumph, his second proved to be an ordeal. His method of working with Congress through unofficial channels of personal and party leadership lost its charm. The Republicans began to quarrel among themselves, especially after Jefferson’s decision against seeking a third term became known, and the Federalists grew more desperate as their numbers shrank.
In 1805 president and cabinet worked up a secret diplomatic project to obtain the Floridas through Napoleon’s influence with Spain. The policy was one of peace and bargain; its effectiveness required, however, a warlike posture in public. It required, too, the silent appropriation of $2 million by Congress in behalf of the secret project. John Randolph of Roanoke, the Republican leader in the House, balked at this. He objected to “this double set of opinions and principles—the one ostensible, the other real,” and believing the money would flow into Napoleon’s coffers, he denounced the project as “a base prostration of the national character, to excite one nation by money to bully another nation out of its property.”
The Two Million Bill was enacted over Randolph’s opposition. But the ensuing diplomacy failed, mainly, the president thought, because Randolph had “assassinated” the project in its infancy. Only a handful of doctrinaire Republicans followed Randolph into opposition. Jefferson continued to control Congress. His loss was less one of followers than of prestige—the aura of invincibility that had surrounded him—and as prestige waned, so did the zeal, the trust, and the unity of the Republicans.
Conflict with Britain and the Burr Trial
The Burr conspiracy presented Jefferson with problems of another kind. With his political career ruined in New York and under indictment for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Burr turned his adventuresome gaze to the broiling southwestern frontier. He enlisted a bizarre following: General James Wilkinson, commander of the United States Army in the West; John Smith, senator from Ohio; and Harmon Blennerhassett, a romantic Irishman whose island in the Ohio River was the staging area of the conspiracy. Whether Burr plotted western separation and the creation of a new confederacy on the Mississippi or the filibustering conquest of Mexico, or both together, it is difficult to say. But when Burr, with his flotilla carrying sixty or more plotters, descended the Ohio in the fall of 1806, it became the president’s duty to hunt him down and bring him to justice. The Burr conspiracy ran through Jefferson’s second term like a disquieting minor theme.
The major theme, of course, and Jefferson’s heaviest burden, was in foreign affairs. With the formation of the Third Coalition against Napoleon in 1805, all Europe was engulfed in war. The United States became the last neutral of consequence, in effect the commercial entrepôt and the carrier for the European belligerents. The neutral trade was exceedingly profitable. It was, superficially, a perfect case of America profiting from Europe’s distresses. In 1790, American exports were valued at $2 million; they rose steadily during the wars of the French Revolution and then in 1805 began to soar, until they reached $108 million two years later—a peak not again scaled for twenty years. Unfortunately, each side, the British and the French, demanded this trade on its own terms, and submission to one entailed conflict with the other.
While Jefferson might try, as in the past, to play off one power against the other, little leverage was left for this game. After Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in the fall of 1805, Britain was supreme at sea, and after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in November, France was all-powerful on land. “What an awful spectacle does the world exhibit at this instance,” Jefferson observed. “One nation bestriding the continent of Europe like a Colossus, and another roaming unbridled on the ocean.” One could play fast and loose with the United States in the Atlantic, while the other lay beyond the reach of retaliation. Neither nation feared war with the United States, whose president prided himself on peace and had neither army nor navy to speak of. Both nations willfully violated American neutrality, although Britain, the sea monster, was the chief aggressor in Jefferson’s eyes, with much more power than France to injure the United States.
In his annual message to Congress in December 1805 the president called attention to British aggressions at sea and moved to counteract the mistakenly pacifistic reputation of the administration. Without abandoning his conviction that nations would be led by their own reason and interest to treat the United States justly, he went on to say, “But should any nation deceive itself by false calculations, and disappoint that expectation, we must join in the unprofitable contest of trying which party can do the other the most harm.” And he called upon Congress for defensive preparations: harbor fortifications, a fleet of gunboats, and a revitalized militia.
The conflict with Britain turned on two main issues: the neutral trade and impressment of seamen. The decision of a British vice admiralty court in the case of the ship Essex in 1805 marked a return to strict interpretation of the so-called Rule of 1756, under which a colonial trade closed in time of peace could not be opened in time of war. Thus ended British acquiescence in the burgeoning reexport trade of West Indian cargoes—Spanish and French as well as British—from American ports. In 1805 over half of American exports—the basis of prosperity—were, in fact, reexports. The United States government claimed that these belligerent cargoes were “neutralized” after passing through American customs and, upon reexport, were protected under the rule of “free ships make free goods.” But Britain now declared this American trade fraudulent, representing “war in disguise” in tacit alliance with the French enemy, since its effect was to negate British maritime and naval superiority. British survival, it was said, demanded this more rigorous policy.
Jefferson viewed the Essex decision as only the latest chapter in the prolonged British campaign to subvert American wealth and power. The real aim was to put down a dangerous commercial rival and force the Atlantic trade back into channels profitable to Britain. Reason revolts, Jefferson observed, at the idea “that a belligerent takes to itself a commerce with its own enemy [France and the Continent] which it denies to a neutral, on the ground of its aiding that enemy in the war.” After the Essex decision British cruisers hovered off American harbors and plundered American trade. Every ship, not only those carrying cargoes of colonial origin, was at risk; and the losses were heavy.
No less irritating and, in principle, more important was the British practice of impressment. Especially in wartime, British subjects were forcibly impressed into His Majesty’s Navy. Many American seamen were caught in the net. In 1806, three years after the resumption of hostilities, Madison reported that 2,273 known American citizens had been impressed. Britain argued that many of them were in fact British subjects who had deserted, enlisted in the American merchant marine, and perhaps been furnished with fraudulent naturalization papers, all with the connivance of the government. There was some truth in this. The United States did not claim that the American flag protected absconding British subjects; neither did Britain claim the right to impress American citizens. But who was British and who was American? They spoke the same language, physical identification was impossible, and efforts to persuade seamen to carry nationality papers were unavailing.
The root of the problem lay in a conflict of laws. No natural-born British subject could throw off his allegiance. American naturalization laws were therefore ineffectual. In Jefferson’s view, impressment assaulted the very existence of American nationality. “Certain it is,” he wrote indignantly, “there can never be friendship, nor even the continuance of peace with England so long as no American citizen can leave his own shore without being seized by the first British officer he meets.” Every seizure was a stinging reminder of past colonial servitude.
American diplomatic initiatives to settle these issues in 1806 produced a treaty negotiated by James Monroe and William Pinkney, the team of envoys in London. Pitt’s sudden death and the formation of a new government that brought Charles James Fox, a longtime friend of the United States, into the foreign ministry, had brightened the prospects for reconciliation. They were quickly dashed, however, by Fox’s untimely death. Negotiations were resumed under his successor, Lord Howick, but Jefferson abandoned hope of a favorable outcome.
When the Monroe-Pinkney treaty finally reached Washington in March 1807, Jefferson took one look at it, saw that it omitted the American ultimatum to end impressment and failed to secure crucial neutral rights claims as well, and angrily refused even to send it to the Senate. What Congress or the people might have thought of it would never be known; but in the present-day judgment of some diplomatic historians, the treaty went a long way toward meeting American claims and, had it been ratified, might have restored amicable relations between the two countries.
Instead, relations rapidly deteriorated. In June the Chesapeake-Leopard affair inflamed the entire country against Britain. The frigate Leopard, one of a British squadron patrolling off Hampton Roads, ordered the American frigate Chesapeake to submit to search for deserters, and when refused, the Leopard poured repeated broadsides into the defenseless frigate, killing three and wounding eighteen before its flag could be struck. Four alleged deserters were removed from the Chesapeake before it limped back to port.
The country rose up in wrath, regardless of party or section. There had been nothing like it since the Battle of Lexington, said Jefferson. War only awaited the snap of his fingers. He wanted no war, however, and chose to cool the crisis. Quietly, without fanfare, Jefferson ordered certain military preparations, but he declined to convene Congress immediately and, unlike his predecessor Adams, manufactured no war hysteria. Jefferson’s hope, rather, was to use the affair as a potent new lever in negotiations with Britain—alas, to no avail.
“I suppose our fate will depend on the successes or reverses of Bonaparte,” the president mused that summer. This was a hard fate indeed. “It is really mortifying that we should be forced to wish success to Bonaparte and to look to his victims as our salvation.” Several months earlier the French emperor had issued the Berlin Decree, inaugurating his own system of economic warfare, the Continental System. The decree purported to place the British Isles in a state of blockade, making lawful prize of all ships trading with Britain. American carriers were exempted, so the decree did not overtly attack American neutrality. The fact that Napoleon could not possibly enforce such a blockade scarcely lessened its nuisance value.
Britain retaliated by an order-in-council throwing a blockade over that portion of the continental coast under French control. Then, in November 1807, after the surrender of Czar Alexander I to the Continental System, Britain closed all Europe to American trade except on monopolistic British terms. Only vessels that passed through British customs would be given clearance to open ports on the Continent. Napoleon replied by extending the Berlin Decree to the Americans and by issuing, in December, the Milan Decree, declaring that all vessels adhering to the British orders would be “denationalized” and made subject to seizure and condemnation as British property. Between the emperor’s tightening Continental System and the British orders, American commerce was caught in the jaws of a vise, a maniacal war of blockades from which there seemed to be no appeal to reason or justice.
Meanwhile, Aaron Burr was pursued and captured with his fellow conspirators; he was then brought to trial at Richmond, Virginia, in April 1807. Jefferson had been slow to move against Burr, partly because of the mystery surrounding his plans and partly because of the risk of arresting the evidence of crime before it was ripe for execution; but once he became satisfied of Burr’s complicity in treason, he moved with vigor and dispatch.
Never doubting that the conspiracy would fail, Jefferson made its suppression a clear test of the loyalty of the West and of the strength of republican government over a vast territory. The outcome vindicated his faith in both. Announcing suppression of the conspiracy to Congress, Jefferson unfortunately declared that Burr’s guilt had been “placed beyond question.” This was certainly the popular verdict. “But,” as John Adams remarked at Quincy, “if his guilt is as clear as the noonday sun, the first magistrate of the nation ought not to have pronounced it so before a jury had tried him.”
Jefferson busied himself in the difficult task of securing evidence to convict Burr. He was, in a sense, his own attorney general, and when Burr and his confederates came to trial at Richmond, Jefferson directed the prosecution from the White House. John Marshall was the presiding judge. Toward him Jefferson could not be detached, for he distrusted, even feared, Marshall more than he did Burr, and from the first moment, when Marshall decided to hold the culprit on no higher charge than misdemeanor and to release him on bail, Jefferson believed the trial would be made a party question. The little sect of Richmond Federalists, of whom Marshall had long been the chief, lionized Burr and made his cause their own.
During the grand jury proceedings, Marshall subpoenaed the president to appear in court with certain letters bearing on the actions of General Wilkinson, the conspiracy’s chief betrayer. Jefferson refused to appear, citing his responsibilities as chief executive: “The Constitution enjoins his constant agency in the concerns of six millions of people. Is the law paramount to this, which calls on him on behalf of a single one?” The court backed off. Nothing required Jefferson’s presence. He cooperated fully in the request for papers and offered to give testimony by deposition, but this was never requested.
The grand jury, heavily freighted with Republicans, returned an indictment for treason on 24 June. Under the Constitution conviction for treason required the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act. As the trial went forward that summer, it gradually became apparent that the prosecution could not furnish the requisite testimony to such an act as constituted “levying war” against the United States. Marshall, in effect, instructed the jury to bring in a verdict of acquittal, which it did on 1 September.
Jefferson was angry but hardly surprised. In his opinion, the whole conduct of the trial had been political, and the verdict had been in view from the beginning. It was, he said, “equivalent to a proclamation of impunity to every traitorous combination which may be formed to destroy the Union.” Counting on the public backlash against the decision, he proposed to mount a new campaign to restrain the power of the federal judiciary. That fall he laid the trial proceedings before Congress and urged it to furnish some remedy. Several state legislatures instructed their respective delegations to work for a constitutional amendment rendering judges removable by the president on the address of both houses of Congress. Since both president and Congress were preoccupied with foreign affairs, nothing came of this effort. This was fortunate, for in the long run the nation was better served by Marshall’s political bias in the Burr case than by Jefferson’s. Better that the scoundrel go free than be convicted on evidence that would introduce into American law the ancient English principle of “constructive treason.” Jefferson could not indulge the luxury of this philosophy, of course. He had invested too much—politically, emotionally, ideologically—in another outcome.
Embargo of 1807-1809
Jefferson and his cabinet met for several days near the end of November 1807 to survey the deteriorating foreign situation. Diplomacy had failed, leaving three possible courses of action open to the United States: acquiescence in the commercial decrees, war against one or both belligerents, or a total embargo of American trade. Three weeks later Jefferson sent to Congress a confidential message recommending the embargo. Congress moved swiftly and, virtually without debate, passed the Embargo Act on 22 December 1807. A self-blockade of the nation’s commerce, it prohibited American vessels from sailing to foreign ports and foreign vessels from loading cargo in the United States. At the same time, the selective Nonimportation Act, adopted in 1806 but heretofore suspended, went into effect. The government thus launched an experiment of incredible magnitude, one that dwarfed all previous undertakings and held momentous consequences for the peace of the United States and perhaps the world.
At the outset no one, certainly not Jefferson, fully understood the implications, or foresaw the problems, of the embargo. The aims and purposes of the policy were unclear. In part, it was simply an honorable alternative to war. In part, however, it was a measure preparatory to war, for almost six months would be required to bring home American ships, cargoes, and seamen on the high seas—a vital resource in the event of war—during which time the resources already at home would be secure. Finally, it was in some part an experiment to test the effectiveness of “peaceable coercion” in international affairs.
The idea that the United States might enforce reason and justice on European nations by restraining or withholding its commerce was a first principle of Jeffersonian statecraft and a leading article of Jeffersonian Republicanism. The dependence of European colonies in the West Indies on American provisions, especially in wartime; the importance of American neutral carriers and their cargoes for European belligerents; and the enormous value of access to the American market, above all to Great Britain, placed in American hands an ultimate weapon of peace, “another umpire than arms,” Jefferson believed, that might not only secure his own country from the ravages of war but also, when put to the test, demonstrate the efficacy of peaceable coercion to peoples everywhere. With the passage of time, as the administration persisted in the embargo long after its short-range purposes were achieved, this larger moral and philosophical aim became the primary one.
Jefferson never explained his experiment to the American people. So often ridiculed as a “visionary,” he had no desire to run that gauntlet again. As a result, the people were asked to bear hardships and sacrifices for the sake of a policy they never really understood. This was a critical failure of leadership, which was surprising in a president who had a keen appreciation of the educational function of the office.
Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin, with the corps of customs officers, labored diligently to enforce the embargo. As loopholes were disclosed, as problems of control arose, Congress enacted supplementary legislation. Coastal infractions were serious from New York eastward. Along the Canadian frontier, smugglers carried on a brisk trade by boat, wagon, and sled. In April, Jefferson issued a proclamation placing the Lake Champlain region in a state of insurrection. Escalating penalties for violation of the embargo, combined with arbitrary actions to enforce it, ill comported with Jefferson’s political principles. Normal federal law enforcement machinery finally proved inadequate in the eastern states, although the embargo was remarkably well obeyed elsewhere.
Measured in economic terms, the embargo’s effectiveness was all too obvious. Treasury receipts dwindled, wiping out the large surplus Jefferson had committed to a program of national improvements. Agricultural prices plummeted, with particularly devastating effects in the southern states. As many as thirty thousand seamen were thrown out of work. Although stories of ships rotting at the wharves and grass growing in the streets were doubtless exaggerated, the most dramatic effects of the embargo could be seen in the seaports. Merchants who had made their fortunes in foreign trade began to divert their capital to new manufacturing enterprises. Jefferson rejoiced in this development, appeared at his Fourth of July reception in 1808 in a suit of homespun, and amid all the loss and suffering caused by the embargo found its redeeming economic virtue in the rise of domestic manufactures.
Politically, the embargo had no redeeming virtue. New England Federalists mounted the dragons of discontent in a bold bid to return to power. Their reckless leaders bitterly assailed the embargo as a national disaster. Why had Jefferson called for it? First, they said, because Napoleon had demanded it and Jefferson was his puppet. Second, because of Virginia Republicanism’s hostility to northern commerce. Jefferson expressed little concern about political damages at home from the Federalists’ attack, but he was deeply worried about its effects abroad. “They are endeavoring to convince England that we suffer more by the embargo than they do, and if they will hold out awhile, we must abandon it.” This was a dangerous game, for if they succeeded, Jefferson said, war with Britain must follow—the unintended outcome of their propaganda.
Although enacted as an impartial measure, operating equally on the belligerents, the embargo actually had very unequal effects. Britain necessarily felt it more than France. Jefferson hoped that Napoleon would understand this and, as if in gratitude, revoke his decrees against American commerce and force Spain to cede the Floridas. Instead, the emperor toyed with Jefferson. When American vessels—fugitives from the embargo—entered French ports, he confiscated them and then declared he was only helping Jefferson enforce the embargo.
In the president’s diplomatic strategy, success with one power would likely produce success with the other, since neither could risk war with the United States; and if neither power recognized American rights, and the time came to lift the embargo, the United States would choose the enemy. British colonials, merchants, and manufacturers began to feel the effects of the embargo in the spring. A group of liberal Whigs—bankers, merchants, members of Parliament—launched a campaign against the orders-in-council, but they were no match for George Canning and the Tory ministry. Jefferson attributed British obstinacy to two causes. First was the false belief aroused by New England Federalists that the embargo must produce a political revolution in the United States. Second was the astonishing Spanish revolt against Napoleonic domination, which not only revived Great Britain’s fortunes in the war but opened vast new markets, in Spain and the colonies, to British commerce.
In this “contest of privations,” as Jefferson called it, time was not on the American side. The pressures on Jefferson to yield were both greater and more urgent than the pressures on Canning or Napoleon. How long could the end of peaceable coercion abroad be supported in the face of economic deprivation, loss of liberty, disobedience to law, division of the Union, and Republican collapse at home? Despite rising opposition, Jefferson stood firmly by the policy. Perhaps he recalled his experience in another crisis, when he, as Virginia’s governor, was accused of jeopardizing the safety of the commonwealth by feeble and temporizing measures. To Gallatin, who complained that the embargo could be saved only by new and arbitrary enforcement powers, Jefferson replied, “Congress should legalize all means which may be necessary to obtain its end,” not excluding military force.
A storm of protest rolled over New England in the fall, and Federalists trooped back to Congress demanding embargo repeal. Soon several New England Republicans joined them. Unhappily, the president reported the failure of embargo diplomacy in his last State of the Union message, on 8 November 1808. Without indicating any new direction, he asked Congress “to weigh and compare the painful alternatives out of which choice is to be made.”
Abandoning the policy to Congress was an act of folly. His own choice was to continue the embargo for six months, with war to follow if necessary; but for the first time in his presidency, he abdicated leadership. Why? “On this occasion,” he explained, “I think it is fair to leave to those who are to act on them, the decisions they prefer, being … myself but a spectator.” Jefferson’s retreat from responsibility was hardly a favor to James Madison, his chosen successor. As president-elect, Madison had no authority, and lacking Jefferson’s prestige and a sure sense of the right course, he could not give direction to Congress. As a result, policy formation fell to a leaderless herd of the fainthearted, the demoralized, and the disgusted. Finally, Congress enacted repeal of the embargo; it would expire with the expiration of Jefferson’s presidency. Its replacement, the Non-intercourse Act, reopened trade with all countries except Britain and France. Neither Jefferson nor Madison approved of this feeble measure. A trade open to the rest of the world was in fact a trade open to Britain and France. Yet Jefferson signed the measure into law. It exposed the United States to all the risks of war without the coercive benefits of the embargo. Its only merit was profit.
Jefferson went into retirement convinced that the embargo, if borne for a while longer, would have forced justice from Britain and therefore put a stop to the long train of degradation that led to the War of 1812. Such an outcome was not absolutely fore-closed, although it found little support in the actual circumstances. Jefferson became a victim of his own idealism. Henry Adams observed, “Few men have dared to legislate as though eternal peace were at hand, in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood; but this was what Jefferson aspired to do.” And as it failed abroad, the “peace policy” produced at home most of the evils Jefferson feared from war: debt, distress, disobedience, disunionism —in short, the debauchery of Republican principles and hopes. Continued adherence to the embargo in these circumstances would have required more power than the government could command and more obedience than a free people could give.
Jefferson’s popularity, though shaken, remained high to the end, and he retired to his beloved Monticello with the gratitude and the affection of the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. Not the least of his political accomplishments was the control of the presidential succession, first to Madison and then to Monroe, so that the next sixteen years continued the Republican dominance he began. More than most former presidents he exercised an influence on his successors, although the extent of this was often exaggerated by political enemies. He rejoiced at “shaking off the shackles of power,” wanting nothing so much as to return to his farm, his family, and his books, which had always been his supreme delights.
For three years the nation drifted toward war. When it finally came, Jefferson expressed mingled feelings of satisfaction and disappointment. On the one hand, the war would be “the second weaning from British principles, British attachments, British manners and manufactures,” and in that light would introduce “an epoch in the spirit of nationalism.” On the other hand, what was war itself but the curse of the Old World blighting the hopes of the New? The country was meant to be “a garden for the delight and multiplication of mankind,” Jefferson mournfully observed. “But the lions and tigers of Europe must be gorged in blood, and some of ours must go, it seems, to their maws, their ravenous and insatiable maws.”
Monticello was more than a home, it was a republican mecca. Men came from far and near to see the renowned Sage of Monticello, who was not only a statesman but a scientist, architect, agriculturist, educator, and man of letters. In retirement, as throughout his life, mind and hand were never idle. Jefferson kept up a lively correspondence; that with John Adams, the revolutionary friend and then political foe, with whom he was reconciled in 1812, stands as a literary monument of the age.
Beginning in 1814, Jefferson concentrated his energies on the “holy cause” of education in his native state. In his philosophy, freedom and enlightenment depended on each other; education, therefore, was a paramount responsibility of free government. He revived the general plan of education he had proposed for Virginia during the Revolution. Again the legislature rejected Jefferson’s farsighted plan. It approved, however, a major part, the state university, which was close to his heart.
Jefferson was the master planner and builder of the University of Virginia in all its parts, from the grounds and the buildings to the curriculum, faculty, and rules of governance. When it came time for him to write his epitaph, “Father of the University of Virginia” was one of the three achievements, together with authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for which he wished to be remembered. Many have often remarked upon his omission of the presidency and much else besides. Perhaps in that he silently testified to his own sense of values.
Jefferson’s declining years were etched with sadness. His health began to fail in 1818. At the same time, his personal fortune was doomed. He owned a large estate—ten thousand acres of land and the slaves to work them—but years of embargo, nonintercourse, and war had crippled Virginia agriculture, and recovery had only begun when the Panic of 1819 struck. New debts were piled upon old, some descending from before the Revolution, some descending from his years in the White House, and drove Jefferson into bankruptcy. In the end, even Monticello would be lost.
Jefferson was also deeply troubled by the course of national affairs. The Missouri Compromise “fanaticized” politics on a sectional line dividing free and slave states; the Supreme Court, realizing his worst fears, became “a subtle corps of sappers and miners” of the Constitution; and the drift toward consolidation in the national government threatened both individual liberty and the federal balance on which the Union depended. Under these blows, Jefferson retreated to the safety of old Republican dogma and gave aid and comfort to the revival of states’ rights politics in Virginia. Through all this, nevertheless, he preserved his deep faith in freedom, self-government, enlightenment, and the happiness and the progress of mankind.
The Sage of Monticello died there on the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, 4 July 1826. Ten days earlier, barely able to hold pen in hand, he had declined an invitation to attend ceremonies in Washington marking this golden anniversary. Seizing as if by foreknowledge this last opportunity to embellish a legend, Jefferson made his letter an inspiring last testament to the American people:
All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day, forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Death would not end Jefferson’s influence. Generations of Americans turned to him for inspiration and guidance in the successive crises of the nation’s affairs. And thus it was that John Adams, who also died on that fateful day of jubilee, uttered a prophetic truth in his last words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”