Term in Office: 3rd president, 1801-1809
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Home State: Virginia
I begin with an apology: all of my really good notes on Jefferson (including 10 books I read on the man as part of an ill-advised independent study in grad school) are thousands of miles away at my parents’ home in upstate New York. So, in evaluating Jefferson, I need to fully admit that I am running the ferris wheel without the manual on hand.
As we discussed with James Madison, Jefferson is the sort of figure whose singular contributions outside of the presidency cannot but color our interpretation of his administration. Jefferson’s words are so deeply intertwined in our national psyche that Americans of every stripe like to believe that Jefferson is on their side. Modern-day champions of limited government flock to Jefferson, and some have even channeled his Kentucky Resolution to support states’ rejection of Obamacare. And Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was a long, prophetic riff on the text of the Declaration of Independence. Joseph Ellis had it right in his study on Jefferson, American Sphinx: the man “hovers over the political like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams.”
Jefferson’s contributions to public life before the presidency are probably too well known to require any more than the most rudimentary of summations. He obviously wrote the Declaration, but it is also important to remember his work securing French naval support for the American Revolution, his work with Adams to obtain critical loans from the Dutch, and his executive experience. An instructive moment can be seen in his brief, disastrous tenure as governor of Virginia. He refused to keep a sizable standing militia in place in Virginia, believing the citizens would rise up spontaneously if the needed arose. When the British started attacking Virginia, Jefferson was shocked that a competent militia did not come out of the Old Dominion woodwork to defend the capital, and he retreated in disgrace. Similarly, his work in Europe to secure America’s international financial standing showed him that the system of government under the Articles of Confederation, in which the central government was nearly impotent, was inadequate. Dutch bankers wondered with amazement how a functional government could not demand that taxes be collected, and were reluctant to back a country that could not get its fiscal house in order. Slowly, these problems warmed Jefferson to the idea of the Constitution, which he was originally inclined to see as too centralizing and granting the president powers of a dangerous magnitude. As much as he would prefer otherwise, a functional government needed the power of the purse and the power of the sword. His lofty, High Enlightenment ideals would have to yield to political reality and the messy complexities of human nature.
Jefferson was the first president to fully embrace the idea that the chief executive needed to be, for better or worse, a party leader as well. Gone were Washington’s, and to a lesser extent Adams’s, pretensions of being apolitical. He was also committed to ridding the presidency of any remaining monarchial pretensions. He curtailed levees where he might have presented himself to the public. He put a kibosh on the triumphal processions across the country that Washington and Adams performed. And he discontinued the practice of the president delivering his State of the Union address to Congress in person (Jefferson thought it too similar to the king’s annual address to Parliament). The custom would not be revived again until Woodrow Wilson. And, as the legends that come down to us suggest, he cultivated a studied informality, wearing bathrobes, slippers rather than faux-military dress. Jefferson moved the tone of the presidency in a decidedly small-r “republican” direction.
For all of this, Jefferson was a surprising moderate, whose temperate governing style shocked Federalists who morbidly expected Jacobin-style reprisals. Aside from immediate cabinet offices, he kept almost all low-level federal appointees in place, showing a respect for tenure in office, but making sure that the department heads were on his side. (And this is an important point; Jefferson realized what Adams arrived at far too late: your immediate subordinates don’t have to love you, but they do need to be loyal to you.) Nor did he, like Jackson, declare war on a National Bank that he often saw as a symbol of a dangerous mercantile dominance in American society. He assembled a fine cabinet, with the able James Madison as Secretary of State and the severely underrated Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. A poor public speaker, Jefferson thrived instead in small groups, meeting with cabinet members individually, and often making informal dinner parties the site where policy was agreed on, and compromise could be hammered out. Always, Jefferson strived for cordiality, and disagreement and rancor seemed to unsettle him.
With Jefferson, and moreover, with all the Founding Fathers from Virginia, we have to address the lingering question of their contradictory views on American liberty and American slavery, so unintelligible to today’s sensibility. I have often wished that there was a word in English to describe an essential contradiction or inconsistency, without which, one’s worldview would collapse. For Jefferson’s, as countless historians have discussed, it is that the one of the Revolution’s loudest voices of liberty was also a slaveholder. This isn’t just a contradiction, but a crucial part of Jefferson’s worldview; ironically, he could not believe in liberty or equality without it. Colin Woodard encapsulates this in American Nations, a brilliant exploration of the major geographic regions of North America and their histories. Tidewater gentlemen of Jefferson’s station assumed that “most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and this was a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all…a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens) and most people had no say at all (slaves.) Liberties were valuable because most people did not have them and were thought meaningless without the presence of a hierarchy.” Woodard nails it on understanding the Jeffersonian contradiction; only something valuable and precious and rare was worth defending; from his point of view, it makes sense to view liberty and freedom in such a way— it was precisely their scarcity that made them valuable. It also explains why Jefferson, a man we think of as the most radical in the Founding Fathers’ starting lineup, was also among the least bothered by slavery. (Even Washington made provisions to free most of his slaves in his last will and testament.)
One other thing that may seem ephemeral but does much to explain Jefferson as a president is his visionary character. More than any president I can think of, he was a dreamer, a tinkerer, and viewed the art of nation-making with the same wonder and awe with which he crafted new gadgets at Monticello. His natural curiosity was one factor in his commissioning the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a valuable trek that made Americans more knowledgable than ever before about his wondrous continent they lived upon. Charles Faber, in his book ranking presidential performance, noted that perhaps out of all the presidents, Jefferson was the one who was capable of planning not months or years ahead, but centuries ahead.
Speaking of Lewis and Clark, we need to look at what made that journey possible in the first place. Jefferson pursued a policy of legal expansion, attempting to purchase New Orleans and the Floridas. His diplomatic team in France found out that Napoleon was willing to sell the entire Mississippi Territory for a song, eager to expand his holdings in Europe, rather than waste valuable resources in the New World. Since communication with the mainland would take months, the diplomatic team (which included James Monroe) signed the agreement. The trouble is that this maneuver was not quite a treaty, but a territorial purchase, something the Constitution did not explicitly allow. Knowing this, Jefferson agonized over whether to personally sign off on the Louisiana Purchase. He did so, even if it meant curbing his instincts for limited government and strict constructionism. Today, few would seriously doubt that he made the right choice, having doubled the nation’s size, and incorporating a vast river system, wide prairies and daunting mountains into his country. Ironically, this Hamiltonian tactic of interpreting the Constitution broadly allowed Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian republic to more fully come to pass; we should not have had Kansas, or Nebraska, or the Dakotas, or Colorado without it.
While his intellectual privilege was made possible by the toil of his slaves, Jefferson at least recognized its evils in the abstract, and was able to persuade Congress to end the slave trade, putting (at least on paper) an end to the importation of Africans via the Middle Passage. It’s important to remember that Jefferson was possibly the only person in America who could have made that happen; a Northerner would have been seen as a closet abolitionist, and a less able Southerner would have failed. On this level, Jefferson’s “Value Over Replacement Player” is through the roof; I can’t think of another American I would have preferred to see as president at the very beginning of the 19th century.
Jefferson may have pursued some cockamamie ideas, but it is difficult to deny that he was a first-class administrator, and he savored the political elements that came with the president; in some ways, he was the first president who didn’t simply preside, who viewed the role as something more than the mix of ceremony and bureaucracy that informed Washington and Adams’ approach. He funneled ideas to Congress, worked closely with the Democratic-Republican leaders, used the partisan press, and made use of political lieutenants. Nobody doubted that he was the acting head of the Democratic-Republican Party.
This creates something of a paradox— Jefferson, the first-generation president most enamored of Enlightenment universalism was also its most avowed partisan. Sometimes personal feuds were created when Jefferson feared an ally was becoming erstwhile or insufficiently committed to revolutionary ideals; he tended to view as roguish most men who were not aligned with him, even concluding sadly that Washington himself was an apostate after he had signed the seemingly pro-British Jay Treaty. And he engaged in a number of public feuds: with Burr (even pursuing him during his semi-treasonous operations in the west with more zeal than a strict constructionist might deem necessary), with his old friend Adams, with his cousin John Marshall, and above all, a nation-shaping rivalry with Alexander Hamilton. (But it also needs to be said that he had a strikingly high number of loyal apostles from nearly all corners of the country, and his capacity for friendship was also unmatched.) Jefferson never quite got over his anti-British feeling (In fact, Jefferson is credited with introducing the word “Anglophobia” to the English language.), nor did he fully trust those who were not, like himself, planters of the soil.
Speaking of Anglophobia, Jefferson’s idealism and pragmatism also played out in the difficult foreign relations during his second term. Opposed to a standing army, Jefferson tried to keep the military as small as possible (but still in existence— he did learn his lesson as governor of Virginia!). However, as Britain and France swooped around each other on course for war, the U.S. was often caught in the middle, undermanned, under-gunned, and undertrained. Both sides effectively banned the United States from trading with their rival, and Britain had even taken to seizing U.S. ships and impressing its soldiers into their cause. Jefferson’s desire for peace is commendable; and starting a war with either power would have been a disastrously bad move. Instead, Jefferson pursued an embargo, putting an end to foreign trade in order to punish both powers into ending America’s neutrality at sea. Of course, the embargo turned out to be a disaster, something far more ruinous to the United States than to either Britain or France, and as I alluded in my piece on John Adams, Jefferson went out of his way to find and punish those who violated the embargo. It was a bad policy in the midst of a bad situation, but I consider the age in which he lived and the alternatives available— it was surely better than war, and in some ways, it was better than military build-up. Generally, I agree with those who say “sanctions before war,” and Jefferson’s policy is an early manifestation of that idea.
Remember, Jefferson’s term coincided neatly with the apex of the Napoleonic era, where the romantic ideal of the republican revolutionary soldier was at high tide, and in the process, France’s republic gave way to military rule. Fearful of such a fate for the U.S., Jefferson refused to mobilize in any meaningful way. We’ll never know, but I think it is worth mulling over how fortunate the U.S. was in avoiding a home-grown Napoleon, whether it would have been Hamilton, Burr, Burr’s conspirator Wilkenson, Andrew Jackson, or someone else entirely. Keeping a lean military prevented any one man from gaining too popular a footing among soldiers and avoiding war averted men making political careers out of military glory. All of this is awkwardly trying to prove a negative, but it is a counter-factual worth pondering.
In Jefferson, I see a persistent, hard-earned triumph of good sense over ideology from a man intellectually hardwired to be a raging ideologue. He took what made him great- his imagination, his vision, his hatred of arbitrary force, and slowly and wisely tempered them into a competent government. Jefferson doesn’t necessarily deserve much credit for the Louisiana Purchase— it was Napleon’s decision to sell it for pennies on the dollar; Jefferson had merely to accept. But an earlier Jefferson might just have refused, simply on the grounds that the constitution made no direct provisions for the purchase of land. Maybe he learned things the hard way; maybe he was horrified at the French Revolution, which he earnestly supported early on, and privately resolved to pursue a more moderate course. If we give Adams credit for stepping down from the presidency when the electorate wanted him out, we need to also give Jefferson credit for establishing that a new regime does not make reprisals against the party now out of power. In the end, paradox wins. Only a slaveholder could have ended the slave trade, only a partisan man could get away with declaring “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” in his inaugural address, and only a strict constructionist could legitimate a somewhat extra-constitutional purchase of Louisiana. And only a man of letters and liberal learning could have created a rough-hewn, pragmatic presidency such as this.