Friday, February 16, 2007

Number 3: Thomas Jefferson

(February 2007, revised November 2008 and January 2009)

Years in office: 1801-1809

Pre-service occupations: delegate to the first and second Continental Congress, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, secretary of state (Washington administration) vice president (Adams administration)

Key events during his administration: Louisiana purchase (1803), Lewis & Clark expedition (1804-1806), Barbary Coast war (1801-1805), Embargo Act (1807), outlaw of international slave trade (1808), Ohio admitted to the Union (1803)

Nicknames: “Mad” Tom, the Sage of Monticello, the “Negro President”

Presidential rating: First term: highly successful and very popular; second term: somewhat unsuccessful and ultimately unpopular.


Nearly every day of my college career at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I’d pass the Thomas Jefferson marker on the Quad. The small obelisk is Jefferson’s original tombstone, which was awarded to Missouri in 1883 when Congress made a new grave marker for the Virginian. It reads:


Notice something missing?

Jefferson left specific instructions that his marker have nothing added. So, no mention at all that he was president, despite the fact that he was immensely popular, won re-election in a landslide and succeeded wresting the government from the arch-Federalists, who believed they were the government.

Jefferson is an enigma to historians, which makes writing about him a challenge. If you read one of the recent biographies about George Washington, you come to dislike Jefferson as duplicitous and scheming. If you read about John Adams, you come to detest him until late in Adams’ life. But if you read about Jefferson himself, you’re sometimes left scratching your head. He either doesn’t quite live up to the hype of fawning admirers, nor down to the depths of critics’ damnations. Rather, he occupies an often-contradictory place of his own.

A contradictory champion of the common man

Thomas Jefferson was, in historian Robert Rutland’s words, the “unquenchable idealist.” His eloquent and even beautiful words embodied the Revolution, and he guarded that embodiment jealously. He, along with fellow Virginian James Madison, was particularly keen that America had permanently overthrown the monarchy, and would spend his entire post-war life making sure it never came back. There’s no question that he loved the country he helped bring about, and was wary of anyone he thought would bring it down—hence his suspicions of one-time close friend Adams, and especially Hamilton and the Federalists.

Jefferson couched the election of 1800 in terms of a second Revolution, where the government wouldn’t be accessible just for elites, but for everybody (”everybody” then meaning propertied white men). There is a lot of truth to this, and we truly owe Jefferson a debt of gratitude for it. He believed that the “common” man, not a governmental elite, should control the government, the latter of which had been the staple of classical political thought since Aristotle. These republican values meant that in a decentralized agrarian society, free men could govern their own affairs and would—or should—reject the commerce/manufacturing nation envisioned by Hamilton coupled with the stronger central “elite” government of the Federalists.

While Jefferson’s vision of a gentile agrarian paradise never came to fruition, his opening of government to ordinary Americans had lasting impact.

Indeed, Jefferson’s belief in the common man over the elite still stirs the American soul.Not only that, Jefferson also held that each successive generation should be free to decide its affairs, and not be beholden to the past. It was not a call to overthrow the government each generation, but rather allow for an infusion of new ideas each generation. Writes biographer Joyce Appleby,

“In countries left free, the forms of social existence would be emergent and fluid. Without set practices, sacred constitutions, and inhibiting authorities, experience itself would flourish men and women with the material for making decisions. Liberated once and for all would be man the doer, the inventor, the adapter, the improver—home faber—the universal man hidden from himself by tyrants, priests and overlords. One can see in all of these expectations the source of Jefferson’s enduring appeal, for his were the values that continue to flourish in the United States today.” (p.49-50) (And yes, Appleby’s biography is very much pro-Jefferson.)

In opposing the Federalists, he often chased phantom monarchists—a “reverse red-scare” as John Adams’ biographer John Patrick Diggins labeled it—and even though he envisioned himself the champion of liberty and justice, he strangely embraced the tyranny and terrorism of the French Revolution and shed no tears for the murders carried out for “liberty, equality and fraternity” in Paris. He was suspicious of anyone who didn’t see his point of view—ironically, living the type of republican government that Adams believed was necessary; for what is constitutional government with its checks and balances, if it’s not built on a healthy modicum of suspicion of the other branches?

Thus, Jefferson was truly the most radical of the founding fathers; so, naturally he found the cautious nature—the conservatism, if you will—of Washington, Adams, the Federalists and his arch-foe, Hamilton, difficult to stomach.

The president in slippers

Personally, Jefferson was truly a fascinating character, and to be invited to dine with the president at his decidedly informal Presidential Mansion (not yet called the White House) would have been an event to be treasured for life. He could carry on about any subject: biology, agriculture, letters, politics, architecture, religion, you name it. (President Kennedy, once holding fourth with a group of Nobel laureates, famously said that it was the greatest gathering of minds in the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”)

His loathing of the formalities and elitism of the Federalists led him to develop a super-relaxed presidency, one that even today we couldn’t fathom, what with the incredible security needs and schedule of the modern president. Practically anyone was welcome to drop by. Even Jefferson himself would answer the door.

He insisted that foreign ministers and heads of state be treated no differently than the gentleman farmer down the lane, which led to this funny incident in 1803: England’s new foreign minister, the delightfully named Anthony Merry, arrived in the new capitol city and came calling at the Presidential Mansion with all appropriate English pomp and circumstance and wearing full diplomatic regalia. Merry, of course, expected the American head of state to receive him with the proper decorum. But for several minutes, Secretary of State Madison was unable to find the president. Finally Jefferson appeared, wearing slippers and what could only be charitably described as business casual.

Merry was not amused, and never called on Jefferson again. But it wasn’t so much of a tweak of a stuffy Brit by a Francophile than the tossing away of all convention by a pure radical.The portrait of Jefferson I chose to illustrate this entry, painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1805, shows the president wearing a fur-lined robe—not at all the garb one would expect a head of state to wear, especially in a portrait! Compare that picture of Jefferson to this one of England's King George III, painted shortly after his coronation, and you can begin to understand just how much Jefferson hated elitism—and why he wouldn’t consider himself a hypocrite to be master of Monticello yet “champion” of the common man.

On a more personal level, the charge persists that Jefferson had an affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, and fathered several of her children. A DNA test in 1998 provided some scientific proof that a male Jefferson did in fact sire Hemmings children. The charge became a factor in the 1804 election, and fodder for those seeking to charge Jefferson with hypocrisy (hence the unflattering nickname "Negro President.") Personally, here, I don’t care, because although it was a juicy slur or scandal (depending on one's point of view), this scurrilous election issue didn't have much of a bearing on his presidency. (Fascinating note: Descendents of both Jefferson and Hemmings now attend Jefferson family reunions together.)

So, knowing something of his political philosophy and personality, then, what kind of president did he make? When the Democrats get together for their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, are they celebrating the man who co-founded what became their party, or the man of the “revolution of 1800,” or the president, or all three? Jefferson’s reputation as president has had its ups and downs; let’s see what he actually did.

Mr. President: The title Jefferson wanted to forget

Jefferson’s presidency lasted two terms, a pattern repeated by his two successors, also fellow Virginians.

Jeffersonianism stretched through the 16 years of Madison and Monroe, and inched through the four years of John Quincy Adams until the party he founded gained a new champion in Andrew Jackson.Jefferson’s presidency made a lasting impact in four areas. I’ve already talked about one: his republicanism and belief in democracy. The other areas are the use of executive authority as it relates to the Louisiana Purchase, the Barbary Pirates and the disastrous 15-month embargo; the purging of the Federalists, which led to the unintended creation of judicial review; and the end of the slave trade.

A strong executive when it suited him

The events that most people immediately associate with the presidency of Thomas Jefferson are 1) the purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon, and 2) the Corps of Discovery, otherwise known as the Lewis and Clark expedition. Initially, Jefferson was only interested in the port city of New Orleans, seeking to buy it from the ailing Spanish empire. Without getting into the long, winding history of the purchase, suffice it to say in the final deal, Jefferson had instructed his ministers to purchase New Orleans and some of the surrounding land. They were prepared to pay $10 million. Napoleon surprised the American ministers by offering the entire Louisiana territory for $15 million.

The purchase brought Jefferson some grief. Jefferson’s aversion to Adams’ version of the strong executive seems to have been overlooked here. The Federalists pointed out truthfully—and smarmily—that the purchase violated his stated beliefs on executive power. Now, the Constitution does give the president the authority to negotiate treaties—but not purchase land, and certainly not annex a huge swath of territory. Jefferson, aware of the Constitutional pickle he was in, even drafted several versions of a Constitutional amendment to address the issue. But Secretary of State Madison, the author of the Constitution, said little. Congress and the country accepted the purchase regardless of its seemingly questionable constitutionality.

Nevertheless, the purchase doubled the size of the United States; however, it brought hundreds of thousands of new people unwillingly into the new nation: Indians. The President’s policy on the tribes, those both east and west of the Mississippi, was to turn the “savage” nomads into farmers, push them out of U.S. territory or exterminate them. Remember, Jefferson’s rights of man extended only to white men, not Africans or Indians, who he—and to be fair, most everyone else—considered inferior. (When Lewis and Clark set up relations between tribes and the “Great White Father” Jefferson, they thought they were setting up a superior/inferior relationship. The tribes, naturally, believed they were being received as equals.)

Regardless, the purchase was eventually seen as a proper use of executive authority, and Jefferson deserves praise for his foresight. He also deserves praise for another first-term foreign policy venture, taking on the Muslim Barbary pirates.

Relations with Congress and the Barbary Pirates

Jefferson sought a good working relationship between the executive and legislative branches to get things done, particularly because he was better with the personal appeal than with a speech. Of course, it helped greatly that his party enjoyed strong majorities in both Houses, so I can’t help but wonder what he would have done had the Federalists retained the majority.For instance, would a Federalist majority have howled in outrage at Jefferson’s actions against the Barbary Pirates? The Republican majority didn’t, even though Jefferson sent in the Navy and the Marines without a declaration of war. (The Federalists probably wouldn’t have.)

In the 21st century we tend to make more of Jefferson’s fight with the Barbary Pirates than was made at that time. I don’t mean to say that it wasn’t a major affair; I’m just more concerned with how Jefferson did it. First off, he used the Navy that Adams had built up during the Quasi-War, regardless of the fact that he sought to cut that Navy’s funding. Second, he never asked Congress for a declaration of war. He simply did it, and informed Congress. Both actions, while not unconstitutional, nevertheless appear to have once again violated the spirit of Thomas Jefferson the radical revolutionist, the man who fought so hard against Adams’ idea of the strong executive.

But they actually didn’t, because Jefferson had argued for fighting the pirates back during Washington’s administration. And like his predecessor acting to protect American ships at sea from French corsairs during the Quasi-War, Jefferson believed quite correctly that he was within his authority to send a fleet and Marines to the Africa coast to deal with the Muslim pirates—without seeking Congressional authority to declare war. It’s probably the nature of the attacks by self-proclaimed pirates and not a major nation-state that negated Jefferson’s need to declare war—unlike the continuing troubles with the Royal Navy, which produced the disastrous Embargo.

Troubles with the British and the cursed “O-grab-me”

The American economy was quite good during the first half of Jefferson’s term. It’s due in part to Hamilton’s vision, but also to the Republican ideal of opening America up to “everyone.” But America had yet to create a solid manufacturing base of its own, and relied largely upon overseas trade with England and France and other European nations. President Jefferson had no intention of involving American in the Napoleonic wars, which teetered on the edge and finally resumed midway through Jefferson’s administration. (The concept of “no entangling alliances” is sometimes credited to Washington, but it is a firm Jeffersonian statement.)

Britain’s Royal Navy didn’t take too kindly to its sailors deserting to America, and England didn’t much like America trading with Napoleon, either; so, RN ships stopped U.S. Navy and civilian ships to catch the deserters. In one bad incident, a British ship fired on the USS Chesapeake, killing her captain and wounding several sailors. One deserter was found. The incident, though, outraged America and anger against England and war fever became similar to the fever of the XYZ Affair during Adams’ administration.

But Jefferson didn’t want war with England, despite the repeated outrages against American ships—which may seem surprising, considering how much he favored France over England. Jefferson, rather than risk an all-out shooting war with England, ran with Madison’s idea of an embargo of shipping to all European powers; Congress agreed and voted the embargo into law in 1807. But by agreeing with Madison’s proposal, he made a critical mistake in judgment. He believed he could use American shipping and commerce as a diplomatic weapon rather than engage in a shooting war—declared or otherwise—and that European, especially English, markets would be so hurt by the loss of American goods that the impressments of American sailors would end and America’s status as neutral shipper to the belligerents in Europe would be preserved. He was wrong, especially because the policy, which lasted 15 months, hurt the wrong economy—the American economy.

The “O-grab-me,” as one political cartoon lampooned the embargo, hit the Federalist and manufacturing stronghold of New England hard, and also every port on the northern Atlantic coast. Many shippers turned to smuggling, and many industrious people turned to manufacturing on their own—a mini-industry that collapsed when the embargo lifted. Jefferson even declared a portion of New York in a state of insurrection in late 1808 due to smuggling and violations of the embargo.

Jefferson brings no glory to himself in how he handled the demise of the embargo; he removed himself entirely from the matter and left its repeal up to Congress, which did so three days before he left office. Jefferson figured that his hand-picked successor, James Madison, would deal with the matter, as Madison created the embargo (and even sought to use it again when he was president!). But that doesn’t score Jefferson well in the leadership department.In the end, it was a terribly failed policy that also dinged Jefferson’s reputation badly. But it showed the power of the federal government, even in those early years, to control trade. (And using American commerce as a diplomatic weapon was a sound policy, albeit about a century before its time.) And problems with England didn’t dissipate, but simmered throughout his successor’s first term.

A vengeful president leads to a strong Supreme Court

Jefferson used the federal government in another way; while the embargo was a proper exercise of executive and legislative authority (regardless of the failure of the policy) his and his party’s treatment of Federalist office-holders and bureaucrats left much to be desired.
When he first took office, Jefferson’s immediate concern was to purge the government—there’s no kinder word for it—of Federalist influences. He spoke magnanimously that “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.” But he didn’t mean it in a conciliatory manner. He sought to bury Federalism.

As I wrote earlier, Jefferson comes off badly when writing about Washington and Adams; even though the Federalists could be just as petty. Jefferson immediately attacked Federalist policies, as would be expected; nothing unusual or outrageous in that, no matter how much Federalists screamed and howled. We take it as a matter of course today that presidents of opposing parties attempt to undo previous administrations’ policies. For example, Jefferson reduced the size of the federal government, eliminated taxes, cut the size of the army to two regiments, and made similar reductions in the Navy.

But regardless of Jefferson’s lofty rhetoric about the rights of man and democracy, he began a practice that still exists today that, frankly, stinks. While it could be argued that the politics of revenge had its genesis in Adam’s administration with the Sedition Act, it really began with Jefferson’s administration and the Jeffersonian congress. Pursuing the opposite party’s office-holders and bureaucrats just because they are of the opposite party has got to be one of the greatest failings not only of Jefferson’s presidency but also of American republic-democracy. And it hurts Jefferson’s legacy; but without Jefferson’s attempted purge—specifically, his and the Republicans’ attempted purge of the courts—the judicial system in this country might not be anywhere near as strong or independent as it is today.

One of John Adams’ “midnight” judicial appointments was a man named William Marbury. Before he donned his robes as chief justice, John Marshall, as secretary of state, had literally left a pile of Federalist judicial appointments on the secretary of state’s desk. Incoming secretary of state James Madison, after conferring with Jefferson, refused to physically deliver the commissions, meaning Marbury and the rest could not take their seats as judges and justices of the peace. Jefferson argued that because the commissions were not delivered, they were void. Marbury sued directly to the Supreme Court. In 1803, John Marshall delivered a brilliant ruling, of which the end result was the establishment of judicial review—the power of the court to strike unconstitutional laws. You can read about the case here.

Long story short, in trying to be petty, Jefferson let a critical change happen to the government: the elevation of the Supreme Court to equal footing with the other two branches.

Elsewhere in the judiciary, Republicans tried to remove Federalist judges through impeachment. Again, the “crime” was being a Federalist. In one case, against a judge named Pickering, the case was actually more on solid ground because of the judge’s seeming incompetence and drinking. But another one, against Judge Chase, was purely partisan. Not that Chase himself wasn’t a partisan either; he had been one of the most outspoken of the Sedition Act judges. The case went to the Senate, but the charges were dismissed. Jefferson was not at all happy with how these cases were resolved, but there was little he could do about it.

A noble act

Regardless of his tortured personal odyssey with slavery—and the Sally Hemmings allegations—Jefferson’s only action regarding slavery nevertheless was quite significant. One of Jefferson’s final acts as president had lasting implications: He signed the order outlawing the international slave trade from America in 1807, which took effect in 1808. The Constitution had prevented the banning of the importation of slaves before 1808; Jefferson could just have easily have vetoed this bill when it came out of Congress in 1807. But never again would the United States accept slaves from Africa. Though slaves would come in from the Caribbean, the international slave trade was effectively dead in America (although the Royal Navy would end the slave trade on the high seas). It had the effect of making slavery turn inward for new slaves (e.g. from the slaves themselves).

Jefferson was really in a tight spot with slavery. Giving him the benefit of the doubt—that he really did want to rid America of slavery—we still must recognize that this self-styled champion of democracy would see democracy as a whites-only establishment. As president, he would not—could not—embrace the slave revolt in Haiti that led to the establishment of a second republic in the western hemisphere. Jefferson gave lofty rhetoric against slavery, but he embraced it fully in practice. Slave owners, Jefferson said, had the “wolf by the tail” with slavery. It was a wretched system to keep, but in his view too dangerous to let go because of Haiti and the possibility of a similar revolt in America. The end of slavery in America would await another president. But at least the international slave trade was ended in America.

Church and state: Separate?

Questions about constitutionality in Jefferson’s terms bring up another point. Long an aspect in the argument on the intent of the founders, Thomas Jefferson really did believe that a wall of separation existed in the Constitution between church and state, even though no such wording can be found there. Jefferson actually voiced the principal in a letter; the Supreme Court codified this in the 20th century, though that body’s reasoning is, putting it charitably, curious.

Without rehashing the arguments, Jefferson violated his principles concerning church and state with his Indian policy when he deemed that Christian missionaries should be sent to the tribes by the federal government with the express purpose of Christianizing them. (Note: both Jefferson and Madison worked on separation of church and state opinions, though the concept is identified more with Jefferson; Madison, however, wrote a portion of it into Virginia law before he even met Jefferson.)

Walking away from the presidency

During the final four months of his last year in office, Jefferson essentially walked away from the presidency—figuratively and literally. The failure of the embargo, and his near-dictatorial tactics used in enforcing it, had soured the presidency for him—and soured him with the public.
There is precedence for this in Jefferson’s past. When he was governor of Virginia during the Revolution, British soldiers attacked Richmond. Jefferson vacated the capital and retreated to Monticello. All well and good, but he essentially abdicated any further responsibility for defending the state. And while serving as Adam’s vice president, he left his duties in the Senate (e.g., president of the Senate) to campaign behind the scenes to undermine the very administration he served.

So, in 1808, we find Jefferson once again retreating to Monticello, leaving the whole mess of the hugely unpopular embargo to the hands of its architect, Madison, and its authorizers, Congress. Jefferson argued that since Madison would soon be president, it was proper for him to deal with it anyway.

What piffle. Jefferson was president of the United States until the moment James Madison was sworn in. He walked away from his presidency four months before it officially ended. It’s the equivalent of a boy taking his toys and going home because he doesn’t want to play anymore.

Final Assessment

Thomas Jefferson is honored throughout the nation: He’s one of the four men on Mount Rushmore; his memorial anchors a corner of the Mall in D.C.; and Missouri’s capital is named in his honor, as is the museum and park attached to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. His beloved Monticello remains a favored attraction in Virginia. He appears on the nickel, and if you happen to find one, the 2 dollar bill. And there’s still that small obelisk that students unwittingly pass by everyday at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

So, why did he want us to “forget”—or at least not focus on—his presidency, which was truly one of the most consequential presidencies of them all? It’s part of the mystery of the man. Certainly his first term was more pleasant than the second; even though he won re-election in a landslide, his first term ended with the literal bang of scoundrel Vice President Burr’s duel-induced death of Hamilton and Burr’s mechanizations out west. The second term was actually somewhat bitter; despite the triumph of Lewis and Clark’s return in 1806, Jefferson’s second term was marred by more shenanigans from Burr, defections from the Republican party because Jefferson wasn’t a pure enough Republican (!) due to his executive actions, and the 15 months of the unpopular and harmful embargo. During that failed policy, Jefferson ironically used the same type of power against American ship owners that he had decried against King George III—again, displaying that his lofty spoken and written ideals sometimes took a back seat to presidential necessity.

Perhaps that is ultimately the reason why Jefferson didn’t want his presidency remembered as a crowning achievement.

But overall, Jefferson moved the presidency and the nation forward in many positive ways. The idea that the United States government was one for the common man is certainly his most endearing contribution: Lincoln drew upon it in the nation’s darkest hour, FDR used it to contrast liberty with fascism, and many a politician today claims to speak “for the people.” The idea that local government should have more control of affairs than a central government still resonates as well—especially among modern-day conservatives—despite the seeming discredit of states’ rights in 1865. No other president added so much land to the nation in one stroke than did Jefferson. (Polk is right up there with him, though.) And no one can deny the power of judicial review, for good or ill, even though it was most certainly not a Jeffersonian intention!

In the final assessment, President Thomas Jefferson was a mostly successful president—even unintentionally so, as relates to the judiciary—and also largely popular until the final year, when his second term ended badly. The apparent contradictions between his stated ideals and actual workings of executive power can be explained in that he stayed within the bounds of the Constitution.


Jefferson is such a study in contradictions—and such a Sphinx, as one biographer labeled him—that biographers are often left frustrated with their subject. You can read Joyce Appleby’s entry on Thomas Jefferson in the American Presidents series (2003) but the effort is a less satisfying than R.B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson (2003), which is an excellent and balanced examination of Jefferson’s entire life. Bernstein finds Jefferson less confusing than previous biographers because he looks at every aspect of Jefferson in context and does not compartmentalize anything—as Jefferson himself was wont to do.

Appleby sometimes seems too much of a cheerleader for Jefferson. She takes Jefferson’s own criticisms of the Federalists at face value, even using his and his allies’ own language, and rarely examines whether they had merit; her biography suffers for it, but it's otherwise worthwhile. The real value of Appleby’s volume is that it is not organized chronologically, but thematically around Jefferson’s philosophy, politics and goals.


Rembrandt Peale painted this wonderful picture of Jefferson in 1805.

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