Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

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Jefferson (1800)

The presidency of Thomas Jefferson began on March 4, 1801, when Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as President of the United States, and ended on March 4, 1809. Jefferson, the third United States president, took office after defeating incumbent President John Adams in the 1800 presidential election. The election was a realigning election in which the Democratic-Republican Party swept the Federalist Party out of power, ushering in a generation of Democratic-Republican dominance in American politics. It also exposed a serious flaw in the original procedure established in the Constitution of the United States for electing the president and vice president. Under it, members of the Electoral College were authorized to vote for two names for president. The candidate with the most electoral votes would become president and the candidate with the second most would become vice president. In the 1800 election however, Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of votes and tied for first. The election was then put into the hands of the outgoing House of Representatives, which, after 36 votes, elected Jefferson as president.

In domestic affairs Jefferson sought to put the principles of republicanism into action. He succeeded in limiting the size of government by reducing taxes and the national debt. He established a military academy, used the Navy to protect merchant ships from Barbary pirates in North Africa, and developed a plan to protect U.S. ports from foreign invasion by the use of small gunboats (a plan that proved useless when war came in 1812).

In foreign affairs, the major developments were the acquisition of the gigantic Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, an embargo against trade with both Great Britain and France, and worsening relations with Britain as the United States tried to remain neutral in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars that engulfed Europe. The war's effects reached throughout the Atlantic. While remaining "neutral," from early 1802 Jefferson allowed contraband goods and arms to reach Saint-Domingue during its slave rebellion and refused financial credit to France, aiding the slave and mulatto resistance that achieved independence in 1804. After that, however, with France removed and Congressional resistance high, he refused to recognize Haiti, and embargoed trade with it, causing severe difficulties for the second nation to attain independence in the Western Hemisphere. He also called for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Rising tensions between the United States and Great Britain were of major concern to Jefferson during his second term, as the two nations were engaged in a trade war after the Royal Navy began humiliating the American Navy by impressing sailors from American ships into its service. Jefferson rejected war and instead used economic threats and embargoes that hurt the U.S. more than Britain. With unrest in the Northeast escalating, the embargo was dropped as Jefferson left office.

During his second term, Jefferson's attention was also focused on the trial of then former Vice President Burr for treason, which resulted in an Acquittal, and on the issue of slavery, specifically the importation of slaves from abroad. In 1806, he denounced the international slave trade as a "violations of human rights" and called upon Congress to criminalize it. Congress responded by approving the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves the following year.

Jefferson is usually ranked by historians in the top five of all U.S. presidents.

Jeffersonian democracy[edit]

Jefferson's agenda was to implement his Democratic–Republican vision for the nation. In what historians later call Jeffersonian democracy, the new president set out an agenda that was marked by his belief in agrarianism and strict limits on the national government. The most powerful appointees were James Madison as Secretary of State and Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson worked smoothly at first with John Randolph of Roanoke and other leaders of his party in Congress, as the Federalist Party continued to weaken.

Jeffersonian democracy brought about two revolutions in American political life. It increased the turnout percentages of eligible voters, and it increased the numbers enfranchised to vote. Prior to the 1790s, campaigning was considered interference with each citizen’s right to think and vote independently. Without competition for office, voter turnouts were often low, sometimes fewer than 5 percent of eligible men.[1] By the 1790s and the emergence of the First Party System, voter participation was up to 20 percent. With two party competition, turnout "took on an importance it had never quite had before”, with turnout up to 80 percent of the enlarged white male electorate.[2]

Under pressure from Jeffersonian Republicans, states achieved universal white manhood suffrage by eliminating property requirements. By 1825 only three had not, Rhode Island, Virginia and Louisiana. Expanding suffrage and appeals to ordinary people meant that increasingly ordinary people became government officials, especially in the North.[3] At the same time, states such as New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky for the first time placed racial restrictions on voting, and New Jersey in 1807 closed a loophole that allowed some widows to vote. Wood says, "by the standards of the early nineteenth century America possessed the most popular electoral politics in the world."[4]

In reaction, even Federalists began to adopt partisan techniques such as party organization, newspapers and auxiliary societies. They created networks of caucuses and committees state by state reaching to county level, determined to mobilize public opinion to court popular favor. American politics was forever transformed.[5]

Historians have long portrayed the contest between Jefferson and Hamilton as iconic for the politics, political philosophy, economic policies and future direction of the United States. For example, in the 1920s Claude Bowers, a historian and Democrat, wrote a best-seller that pitted good versus evil in Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America (1925). The Jeffersonian position—called Jeffersonian democracy—won out in 1800 and Hamilton's Federalism died out (except on the Supreme Court of John Marshall). The historian Sean Wilentz in 2010 identified a scholarly trend in Hamilton's favor:

"In recent years, Hamilton and his reputation have decidedly gained the initiative among scholars who portray him as the visionary architect of the modern liberal capitalist economy and of a dynamic federal government headed by an energetic executive. Jefferson and his allies, by contrast, have come across as naïve, dreamy idealists. At best according to many historians, the Jeffersonians were reactionary utopians who resisted the onrush of capitalist modernity in hopes of turning America into a yeoman farmers' arcadia. At worst, they were proslavery racists who wish to rid the West of Indians, expand the empire of slavery, and keep political power in local hands—all the better to expand the institution of slavery and protect slaveholders' rights to own human property."[6]



Jefferson had been elected Vice President under John Adams in the 1796 election, though he grew increasingly hostile to Adams while working for him. Working closely with Aaron Burr of New York, Jefferson rallied his party, attacking the new taxes especially, and ran for the Presidency himself 1800. Under the election system in force at the time, the members of the Electoral College were permitted to vote for two names for President. The candidate with the most electoral votes would become President and the candidate with the second most would become Vice President. The Democratic-Republicans had planned for one of its electors to abstain from casting his second vote for Burr, which would have led to Jefferson receiving one electoral vote more, and making him President with Burr becoming Vice President. The plan, however, was mishandled. Each elector who voted for Jefferson also voted for Burr, resulting in a tied electoral vote. As a result the next president would be elected by the outgoing House of Representatives. When the contingent election was held on February 17, 1801, Jefferson was elected President on the thirty-six ballot over Burr, who became Vice President. Jefferson owed his election victory to the South's inflated number of Electors, which counted slaves as part of the population for representation under the three-fifths compromise.[7][8] After his election in 1800, some called him the "Negro President", with critics such as the Mercury and New-England Palladium of Boston stating that Jefferson had the gall to celebrate his election as a victory for democracy when he won "the temple of Liberty on the shoulders of slaves."[8][9]

To rectify the flaw in the original presidential election mechanism, the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, was added to the United States Constitution. It called for electors to make a discrete choice between their selections for president and vice-president.

Jefferson's first inauguration, on March 4, 1801, was first to be held in the nation's new capital, Washington, D.C..[10] That morning an artillery company on Capitol Hill had fired shots to welcome the daybreak, and in a first for a newspaper, Jefferson gave a copy of his speech to the National Intelligencer for it to be published and available right after delivery.[11] He delivered a 1721 word speech in the United States Capitol's Senate Chamber. He was not a strong speaker, and the audience could barely catch his words, which called for national unity. The speech was widely reprinted and celebrated by Democratic-Republicans across the country as a clear statement of the party's principles.[12] The presidential oath of office was administered by Chief Justice John Marshall.[10] Outgoing President John Adams, who lost reelection, left the capital that day, without attending the ceremony.


In the 1804 election, Jefferson easily defeated Federalist Charles Pinckney by an electoral vote of 162–14 and was re-elected. With little strength outside of New England, the Federalists seemed to be fading away, but they became rejuvenated after his term during the War of 1812. Railing against the moderate Democratic-Republicanism of Jefferson, Congressmen John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline broke with the president and called for a return to the "principles of '98," and a small weak national government. Known as the "Old Republicans" (or sometimes called Quids), the men targeted Madison and Gallatin as the primary sources of Democratic-Republican weakness. When Jefferson became embroiled in the Yazoo Land Fraud controversy, Randolph began to attack the president from the floor of the House. Randolph's actions had little effect other than to alienate the Quids from the rest of the Democratic-Republican Party.[13] The Supreme Court finally resolved the Yazoo issue in the case of Fletcher v. Peck. While Marshall reluctantly agreed to support Jefferson's interpretation of the controversy, he was also able to increase the power of the Court by giving it the right to review the constitutionality of state laws.

Jefferson's domestic policies[edit]

Lewis and Clark and other expeditions[edit]

In October 1805, Jefferson's Corps of Discovery meet the Chinook tribe on the Columbia River, Painting by Charles Marion Russell, 1905

After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson now needed to have this mostly unknown part of the continent explored and mapped, for expanding westward settlement and trade. Influenced of members of the American Philosophical Society, two years into his presidency he persuaded Congress to fund an expedition. In 1804 he appointed his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark, as its leaders, dubbing it the Corps of Discovery. The expedition returned with a wealth of scientific and geographical knowledge.[14][15]

Conferring with Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin about requesting funds for the expedition, Jefferson was advised to make a request via a secret message, due to poor relations with the opposition party in Congress.[16][17]

Jefferson was influenced by exploration accounts of both Captain James Cook's A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784), and Le Page du Pratz'z The History of Louisiana ... (1763). He considered it important for the United States to establish a claim of "Discovery" to the Pacific Northwest and Oregon territory by documenting and establishing an American presence there before Europeans made any claims.[18] Hoping to find a long-sought-for Northwest Passage to the Pacific Jefferson believed such a passage would greatly promote commerce and trade for the country.[19] Knowledge of the western continent was limited to what had been learned from trappers, traders, and explorers. Jefferson chose Lewis to lead the expedition rather than someone with only the best scientific credentials because of Lewis' military experience in the woods and "familiarity with the Indian manners and character, requisite for this undertaking." In the months leading up to the expedition, Jefferson tutored Lewis in the sciences of mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, and astronomy/navigation. Lewis demonstrated a marked capacity to learn.[14] In his library at Monticello Jefferson possessed the largest collection of books in the world on the subject of the geography and natural history of the North American continent, along with an impressive collection of maps, and gave Lewis full access to that library.[20] Jefferson also introduced Lewis to the American Philosophical Society and connected him with Caspar Wistar, the famed botanist Benjamin Smith Barton, and mathematics professor Robert Patterson, and Dr. Benjamin Rush all of whom offered their expertise to Lewis, Jefferson, and his proposed expedition.[21][22][23] Lewis and Clark recruited a company of 45 men and spent a winter preparing near St. Louis.[24]

Detailed map drawn by Clark showing route taken by the expedition from the Missouri River to Pacific Ocean depicting rivers, mountains and locations of Indian tribes.

Guided by Sacagawea and various Native-American tribes along the way, the expedition, traveling on the Columbia River, reached the Pacific Ocean by November 1805. After the winter thaw the expedition began their return trip on March 22, 1806, and returned to St. Louis on September 23 that year, successfully adding a wealth of scientific and geographical knowledge of the vast territory, along with knowledge of the many Indian tribes, including the Chinooks, with whom Jefferson hoped to develop trade.[25] The expedition was considered a success with the loss of only one life because of illness. The duration of this perilous expedition lasted from May 1804 to September 1806,[26] and it led the way for the Oregon Trail.[27] Two months after the expedition's end Jefferson made his first public statement to Congress giving a one sentence summary about its success before asserting the justification for the expenses involved.[19] At the conclusion of the Expedition the American Philosophical Society ultimately became the repository for many of its findings, including seeds, fossils, plant, and other specimens along with the original journals and logs that were authored by Lewis, Clark, and other members of the expedition.[28][29]

In addition to the Corps of Discovery, Jefferson organized three other western exploration expeditions including the William Dunbar and George Hunter expedition on the Ouachita River (1804–1805), the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedition (1806) on the Red River, and the Zebulon Pike expedition (1806–1807) into the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest.[30] All of the exploration expeditions sent out under Jefferson's presidency produced valuable information about the American frontier and wilderness.[30]

Handling of Federalist policies[edit]

Jefferson continued the basic Hamiltonian programs of the national bank and tariffs. After the Sedition Act expired on schedule in 1801, and one of the Alien acts was repealed, those who were imprisoned under the Sedition Act were released. The Federalists also allowed Jefferson to select his own cabinet members and other high level appointees.

Aim to eliminate the national debt[edit]

Jefferson wanted to eliminate the national debt because he saw it as a cesspool of patronage and corruption. He warned his Treasury Secretary that debt would commit the nation "to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution."[31] Nevertheless, the Louisiana Purchase was such a golden opportunity that Jefferson borrowed the gold in England with Treasury bonds to pay for it.

Jefferson believed that the nation did not need to carry a line of debt in order to build foreign credit, a policy that Hamilton vigorously advocated while in the Washington cabinet. Jefferson repealed many Federalist taxes including the tax that prompted the Whiskey Rebellion which was made up of many Democratic-Republican supporters. Jefferson believed that the federal government was able to operate exclusively on customs revenue and need no direct taxation. While initially successful, this policy would later prove disastrous when trade to the United States was interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars between Great Britain and France.

Jefferson also cut the size of the military, which he believed was an unnecessary drain on the resources of the republic. Much of the navy that was created under the Adams administration was mothballed. When Federalists criticized this policy as leaving the nation vulnerable to foreign attack, Jefferson responded that he believed citizen soldiers would arise to defend the country in case of attack, much as they did in 1775. Recognizing that military leadership would be more crucial when taking civilians into battle, Jefferson did create the Army Corps of Engineers and established the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802 in order to train republican officers untainted with Federalism.

Patronage and the Federalists[edit]

When Adams took office in 1796, he carried many of Washington's supporters over into his new administration. As a result, there was little change in the federal government when the first national transition of power occurred. With Jefferson's election in 1800, there was a transfer of power between parties, not simply a transition. As president, Jefferson had the power of appointment to fill many government positions that had long been held by Federalists. It was widely anticipated that this use of patronage was the privilege of a new party when it assumed power. Jefferson resisted the call of his fellow Democratic-Republicans to remove all Federalists from their appointed positions. Instead he felt that it was his right to replace the top government officials, such as the cabinet and the politically motivated midnight judges appointed by Adams. Feeling that most Adams Federalists, who were more moderate in outlook than the High Federalists who followed Hamilton, could be turned to the Democratic-Republican Party, Jefferson kept most in their existing positions. Jefferson's refusal to call for a complete replacement of federal appointees under the spoils system was followed by U.S. Presidents until the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828.

While Jefferson preferred to practice political moderation towards the Federalists, the party itself was torn apart by political in-fighting. Keeping with their high-minded roots, the Federalists refused to accept the political campaigning practiced by the Democratic-Republicans and were aghast at populist appeals made by that party. Federalist leaders John Adams and John Jay retired from public life and Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr. As the nation began to expand (Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee became states in the 1790s and Ohio joined in 1803), the ideas of Jeffersonian democracy appealed more to the voters than the Federalist calls for stronger central government and higher taxation. By 1805, the Federalists remained strong only in the New England states and Delaware while moderate Federalists joined the Democratic-Republican Party, most notably John Quincy Adams, son of Federalist President John Adams.


Jefferson was highly suspicious of the judges appointed by his predecessors; his opinion of good judges was much higher: one of his arguments for a bill of rights would be the power they would give the judiciary.[32] At his urging, Congress repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, and abolished the numerous district courts created at the end of the Adams presidency. The battle to repeal the Judiciary Act was not an easy one. Federalists argued that once the courts were created and judges were appointed, the Constitution directs that they serve for life unless impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors". The Democratic-Republican leadership, prompted by Jefferson, chose not to argue the political manipulation of the courts but instead chose to attack them based on the cost to the nation. Since many of the courts were created to pack the judiciary with lifetime Federalist judges, in some circumstances, Jefferson's administration thought there no need for a court at all.[citation needed] The Democratic-Republicans argued that the unwarranted nature of the courts, combined with their excessive cost, justified repeal for the Judiciary Act. This argument required a "loose" interpretation of the Constitution, a strategy which Jefferson rallied against when he fought the creation of Hamilton's First Bank of the United States, but the Congress was successful in reversing the law.

Numerous Federalist "midnight judges" were left without positions. Since the creation of these "midnight judge" positions was done to protect the courts from Democratic-Republican appointees, Jefferson felt justified in not awarding the commissions creating the new federal judges. One commission that he was unable to prevent was the appointment of former Secretary of State John Marshall to the position of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Although Marshall was a cousin of Jefferson, he was a strong Federalist in the tradition of John Adams. Marshall's influence on the Court would help to develop the supremacy of the federal government. One of the first cases Marshall was asked to decide was that of William Marbury, one of the "midnight judges" who was requesting that the Court issue a writ of mandamus to Secretary of State James Madison ordering the delivery of the judicial commissions. The resulting case, Marbury v. Madison, set the landmark precedent of judicial review for the Supreme Court.

The Democratic-Republicans next planned to impeach existing federal judges to remove them from office. The first case was John Pickering, a Federalist judge who exhibited signs of insanity and public drunkenness. At Jefferson's instigation, the House of Representatives impeached Pickering in 1804 and the Senate removed him from the bench later that year. Jefferson next set his sights on the Supreme Court. Reading that Federalist Justice Samuel Chase told a grand jury that the Democratic-Republicans threatened "peace and order, freedom and property," Jefferson urged Congressional leaders to begin impeachment hearings based on sedition. Believing that this accusation was too reminiscent of the Federalist Sedition Act that had been repealed early in Jefferson's presidency, Democratic-Republicans were unwilling to remove a Supreme Court justice on purely political accusations. The Senate acquitted Chase of all charges in 1804. The case of Samuel Chase has been the only impeachment trial of a Supreme Court justice in United States history. By rebelling against Jefferson's wishes, the Democratic-Republican Senators sent a message that the independence of the judiciary was not open to political manipulation.[citation needed]

Jefferson's foreign policies[edit]

The Louisiana Purchase[edit]

Main article: Louisiana Purchase
Louisiana Purchase approximate outline in black. In the early 1800s Mississippi and Ohio Valley trade flowed south to New Orleans in the Purchase territory

In 1803, during a temporary truce in the midst of the Napoleonic wars between France and Britain, Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase from France that doubled the size of the United States. Napoleon gave up on an empire in North America to use the purchase money to help finance Continental wars.[33][34]

Jefferson had sent James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston to Paris in 1802 with a much smaller mission: to purchase the city of New Orleans and adjacent coastal areas. Napoleon offered to sell the entire territory for $15 million and the diplomats agreed. Most contemporaries thought that this was an exceptional opportunity, apart from any Constitutional reservations.[35] Secretary of State James Madison gave his assurances that the Purchase was well within even the strictest interpretation of the Constitution, the Senate quickly ratified the treaty, and the House immediately authorized funding.[33] Jefferson first asked Lafayette then subsequently Jefferson twice asked Monroe to become the governor,[36] and finally William Claiborne was appointed to the post.[37] Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin financed it through bonds sold to London banks for gold that was shipped to Paris. Federalists complained that the Purchase was unconstitutional but their real fear was that it meant the expansion of the Jeffersonian agrarian base.

The Purchase territory marked the end of French ambitions in North America which threatened American control of the Mississippi River and further expansion west.[38] On December 20, 1803, the Louisiana territory was transferred from France to the United States.[38][39]

Burr conspiracy[edit]

Further information: Aaron Burr and Burr–Hamilton duel
Aaron Burr mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804.

On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr mortally wounded Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton, George Washington's former Secretary of Treasury, in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey.[40] Hamilton had been a key factor in Burr's defeat in running for the Governor of New York.[40] Hamilton had made callous remarks regarding Burr. Believing his honor had been offended, Burr had challenged Hamilton to a duel in which Hamilton was mortally wounded. Burr was indicted for Hamilton's murder in New York and New Jersey causing him to flee to Georgia, although he remained President of the Senate during Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase's impeachment trial. The two Burr indictments were "quietly allowed to die".[40] President Jefferson casually acknowledged Hamilton in a letter to his daughter three days after Hamilton's funeral. Hamilton had been Jefferson's primary political enemy for fourteen years.[41]

After Aaron Burr was disgraced in the duel of 1804 and his own presidential ambitions were ended, he was reported by the British Ambassador as wanting to "effect a separation of the western part of the United States [at the Appalachian Mountains]". Jefferson believed that to be so by November 1806, because Burr had been rumored to be variously plotting with some western states to secede for an independent empire, or to raise a filibuster to conquer Mexico. At the very least, there were reports of Burr's recruiting men, stocking arms, and building boats. New Orleans seemed especially vulnerable, but at some point, the American general there, James Wilkinson, a double agent for the Spanish, decided to turn on Burr. Jefferson issued a proclamation warning that there were U.S. citizens illegally plotting to take over Spanish holdings. Though Burr was nationally discredited, Jefferson feared for the very Union. In a report to Congress January 1807, Jefferson declared Burr's guilt "placed beyond question". By March 1807, Burr was arrested in New Orleans and placed on trial for treason in Richmond, Virginia, with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. On June 13, Jefferson was subpoenaed by Burr to release documents that favored Burr's defense.[42] Jefferson stated he had no loyalty to Burr and only released a few documents Burr had requested having invoked executive privilege.[42] Jefferson refused to appear at Burr's trial.[42] The weak government case led to Burr's acquittal, but with his reputation ruined he was never able to mount another adventure.[43]

Florida and Haiti[edit]

The Prairie Dog is an anti-Jefferson satire, relating to Jefferson's covert negotiations for the purchase of West Florida from Spain in 1804.

Jefferson wanted to follow up the acquisition of the Louisiana territory with the acquisition of Florida. Jefferson thought that Florida could be acquired as readily as Louisiana, but did not realize the different circumstances with Spain. He issued vague threats while offering to purchase the land, but Spain would not consider his offers.[44] Jefferson claimed jurisdiction over west Florida, but Spain ignored that. After early 1802, when he learned that Napoleon intended to regain a foothold in Saint-Domingue and Louisiana, Jefferson proclaimed neutrality in relation to the slave rebellion there. The US allowed war contraband to "continue to flow to the blacks through usual U.S. merchant channels and the administration would refuse all French requests for assistance, credits, or loans."[45] When Jefferson's concerns related to the balance of power in the Caribbean, the "geopolitical and commercial implications" of Napoleon's plans outweighed his fears of a slave-led nation.[46]

After the rebels in Saint-Domingue proclaimed independence from France in the new republic of Haiti in 1804, Jefferson refused to recognize the nation. In part he hoped to win Napoleon's support over the Florida issue.[47] American slaveholders had been frightened and horrified by the slave massacres of the planter class during the rebellion and after, and a southern-dominated Congress was "hostile to Haiti."[48] They feared its success would encourage slave revolt in the American South. The historian Tim Matthewson notes that Jefferson "acquiesced in southern policy, the embargo of trade and nonrecognition, the defense of slavery internally and the denigration of Haiti abroad."[49] The historian George Herring suggests that, for reasons of race and diplomatic expediency, Jefferson ceded to the British the wealth of the sugar island trade and moral leadership in the western hemisphere.[50] Haiti, the first republic outside of the United States in the western hemisphere, was deprived of United States recognition until 1862. According to the historian George Herring, "the Florida diplomacy reveals him [Jefferson] at his worst. His lust for land trumped his concern for principle."[50]

In this case, unlike that of the Louisiana Territory, the dynamics of European politics worked against Jefferson. Napoleon had played Washington against Madrid to see what he could get, but by 1805 Spain was his ally. Spain had no desire to cede Florida, part of its leverage against an expanding America. Revelations of the bribe which Jefferson offered to France over the matter provoked outrage and weakened Jefferson's hand, and he subsequently gave up on Florida.[51]

The Barbary War[edit]

Main article: First Barbary War
Map. Barbary Coast of North Africa 1806.
The Barbary Coast of North Africa 1806. The map left is Morocco at Gibraltar, the center map is Tunis; right, Tripoli stretches east

The First Barbary War was the only declared war that occurred during Jefferson's two terms as president and it marked the first war the United States engaged in on foreign soil and seas. With the government still recovering from the political division that occurred under John Adams, Jefferson's focus was on political reconciliation between the rival Republicans and Federalists. Subsequently, Jefferson made no statements regarding foreign policy during his inauguration speech and gave no indication that he would soon be embarking on a war in North Africa against the Barbary Corsairs.[52]

For decades, North African pirates had been capturing American merchant ships, pillaging valuable cargoes and enslaving crew members, demanding huge ransoms for their release.[53] Before Independence, American merchant ships were protected from the Barbary pirates by the naval and diplomatic influence of Great Britain—protection which came to end after the colonies won their independence.[54] Jefferson had opposed paying tribute to the Barbary States since as far back as 1785.[53]

Shortly after the American Revolution began, American ships were protected by the 1778 alliance with France, which required the French nation to protect "American vessels and effects against all violence, insults, attacks ...".[55] On December 20, 1777, Morocco's Sultan Mohammed III declared that the American merchant ships would be under the protection of the sultanate and could thus enjoy safe passage into the Mediterranean and along the coast.[56]

Upon independence the United States now had to protect its own merchant vessels. At this time the United States was paying $80,000 to the Barbary States as a 'tribute' for protection against piracy, as did Britain and France. After Tripoli made new demands on the new President for an immediate sum of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000, President Jefferson refused and at that point decided it would be easier to fight the pirates than give into their continuing demands. As a result, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States on May 10, 1801, and the First Barbary War began.[57] Before being elected President, Jefferson had opposed funds for a Navy to be used for anything more than a coastal defense, but the continued pirate attacks on American shipping interests in the Atlantic and Mediterranean and the systematic kidnapping of American crew members could no longer be ignored.

On May 15, Jefferson's cabinet voted unanimously to send three frigates and a schooner to the Mediterranean with orders to make a show of force but opt for peace; if a state of war existed they could use their own discretion. The frigates were the famous USS Philadelphia, USS President, and the USS Essex along with the schooner USS Enterprise, and became the first American naval squadron to cross the Atlantic. Under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, the squadron sailed into the Mediterranean on July 1 where it stopped at Gibraltar for supplies and information. Here Dale learned that Tripoli had already declared war upon the United States.[58] Jefferson and the young American navy forced Tunis and Algiers into breaking their alliance with Tripoli which ultimately moved it out of the war. Jefferson also ordered five separate naval bombardments of Tripoli, which restored peace in the Mediterranean for a while,[59] although Jefferson continued to pay the remaining Barbary States until the end of his presidency.[60]

Native American relations[edit]

When Jefferson assumed power, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa were leading raids against American settlements in the Ohio Valley, with munitions provided by British traders in Canada. Attempting to form a confederation of Indian people in the Northwest Territory, the two brothers would be a continual source of irritation to westward settlers. The Indian Nations followed Tenskwatawa (the Shawnee Prophet and the brother of Tecumseh, who had a vision of purifying his society by expelling the "children of the Evil Spirit" (the American settlers).[61] The success of the Indians gave Britain hope that it could create an Indian satellite nation in parts of the American territory.[62] The raids became a major cause of the later War of 1812.[63]

Jefferson, while he studied and admired the native people, could not tolerate their attacks on settlers. He felt that they should be assimilated into a more "civilized" culture or be removed to the west. Under Jefferson the first Indian relocation began from the southern states. Only the Five Civilized Tribes were allowed—for the moment—to retain their ancestral territory and this was because they adapted to white culture.

Banning the slave trade[edit]

During his presidential term, Jefferson was disappointed that the younger generation was making no move to abolish slavery; he largely avoided the issue until 1806. He did succeed in convincing Congress to block the foreign importation of slaves into the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.[64] The President immediately instructed the Navy to concentrate its efforts on stopping the smuggling of slaves into Louisiana.[65]

Seeing that in 1808 the twenty-year constitutional ban on ending the international slave trade would expire, in December 1806 in his presidential message to Congress, he called for a law to ban it. He denounced the trade as "violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, in which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe." Jefferson signed the new law and the international trade became illegal in January 1808. The legal trade had averaged 14,000 slaves a year; illegal smuggling at the rate of about 1000 slaves a year continued for decades.[66] "The two major achievements of Jefferson's presidency were the Louisiana Purchase and the abolition of the slave trade," according to historian John Chester Miller.[67]

Relations with Europe[edit]

In Jefferson's second term, the Napoleonic Wars broke out in Europe as Great Britain and France battled for international supremacy. Initially following Washington's Neutrality Act, Jefferson did not commit the United States to either side and continued to trade with both nations. Needing sailors, the British Royal Navy seized hundreds of American ships and impressed 6,000 sailors from them, angering Americans.[68] The British also issued the Orders in Council which barred any trade with the European continent. Napoleon responded with the Berlin Decree in 1806 and the Milan Decree in 1807, both of which effectively cut Europe from British trade and threaten seizure of neutral ships. Jefferson became increasingly agitated with both nations as American neutrality was ignored. Tensions flared when the Chesapeake-Leopard Incident took place off the coast of Virginia. A British warship, The Leopard ordered the American ship The Chesapeake to submit to a search. The American captain refused and shots were exchanged leaving three men dead and eighteen wounded.[69] Public outrage demanded that Jefferson take action.[70]

In response, Jefferson decided on economical Warfare; Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807. The act was designed to force Britain and France into respecting US neutrality by cutting off all American shipping to either nation. Almost immediately the Americans began to turn to smuggling in order to ship goods to Europe.[71] Jefferson was forced to call out the military and expand the power of the federal government by patrolling the American coast, cutting off trade routes to Canada, seizing the ships of suspected smugglers, and ordering that no ship could be loaded without the approval of a customs officer and the military. The effects of the Embargo Act backfired on the Republicans. New England, which depended on trade for economic survival, turned again to the Federalist Party. Jefferson lost many supporters who resented the intrusion into their personal lives by the national government. Even Britain and France scoffed at the Act as neither economy was severely damaged due to smuggling. By the time Jefferson surrendered the presidency to James Madison in 1808, his reputation was severely damaged by his support of the Embargo Act.[72]


State of the Union Address[edit]

Jefferson, a poor public speaker, ended the tradition of delivering a State of the Union speech and instead just sent a copy, which Congress then published. Woodrow Wilson restored the personal appearance of the president before Congress.

Administration and Cabinet[edit]

The Jefferson Cabinet
Office Name Term
President Thomas Jefferson 1801–1809
Vice President Aaron Burr 1801–1805
George Clinton 1805–1809
Secretary of State James Madison 1801–1809
Secretary of Treasury Samuel Dexter 1801
Albert Gallatin 1801–1809
Secretary of War Henry Dearborn 1801–1809
Attorney General Levi Lincoln Sr. 1801–1804
John Breckinridge 1805–1806
Caesar A. Rodney 1807–1809
Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert 1801
Robert Smith 1801–1809

Judicial appointments[edit]

Jefferson appointed the following Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States:

States admitted to the Union[edit]

  • Ohio – March 1, 1803

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wood, Gordon S., Empire of Liberty: a history of the early republic, 1789–1815. 2011. ISBN 978-0-199-83246-0, p. 160.
  2. ^ Wood, Gordon S., 2011, p. 302.
  3. ^ Wood, 2011, p. 330.
  4. ^ Wood, 2011, p. 302.
  5. ^ Wood, Gordon S., 2011, pp. 305–06.
  6. ^ Sean Wilentz, "Book Reviews," Journal of American History, September 2010, v. 97# 2, p. 476.
  7. ^ Kenneth C. Davis, "An American History Lesson For Pat Buchanan", Huffington Post, July 18, 2009.
  8. ^ a b Thomas Jefferson, the 'Negro President', Garry Wills on The Tavis Smiley Show, February 16, 2004.
  9. ^ " Review of Garry Wills, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power", WNYC, February 16, 2004 Archived December 8, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ a b "Inauguration of President Thomas Jefferson, 1801". Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. Retrieved 2009-01-22. 
  11. ^ Hayes, Kevin J. (2008). "The First Inaugural Address". The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-530758-0. 
  12. ^ Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, pp. 655–59.
  13. ^ Norman K. Risjord, The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson (1965).
  14. ^ a b Ambrose, 1996, p. 76.
  15. ^ Rodriguez, 2002, pp. 112, 186.
  16. ^ Rodriguez, 2002, pp. xxiv, 162, 185.
  17. ^ Ambrose, 1996, pp. 78, 83.
  18. ^ Ambrose, 1996, pp. 154, 450.
  19. ^ a b Ambrose, 1996, p. 418.
  20. ^ Ambrose, 1996, pp. 54, 80.
  21. ^ Ambrose, 1996, pp. 91, 102.
  22. ^ Thomas Jefferson Foundation: Benjamin Smith Barton
  23. ^ Thomas Jefferson Foundation: The American Philosophical Society and Western Exploration
  24. ^ Ambrose, 1996, p. 128.
  25. ^ Fritz, 2004, p. 3.
  26. ^ Ambrose, 1996, chap. VI.
  27. ^ Ambrose, 1996, p. 483.
  28. ^ Thomas Jefferson Foundation: American Philosophical Society
  29. ^ Ambrose, 1996, p. 126.
  30. ^ a b Editor's: Trey Berry, Pam Beasley, and Jeanne Clements (2006), The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805: The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar and Hunter, Editors Introduction, p. xi.
  31. ^ Letter to Albert Gallatin, 1809, in John P. Foley, ed. The Jeffersonian cyclopedia (1900), p. 236.
  32. ^ Letter to Madison, March 15 1789: "In the arguments in favor of a declaration of rights, you omit one which has great weight with me, the legal check which it puts into the hands of the judiciary. This is a body, which if rendered independent & kept strictly to their own department merits great confidence for their learning & integrity. In fact what degree of confidence would be too much for a body composed of such men as Wythe, Blair & Pendleton?."
  33. ^ a b Rodriguez, 2002, p. 97.
  34. ^ Peterson, 1970, p. 754.
  35. ^ Wilentz, 2005, p. 108.
  36. ^ Kennedy, 2003, pp. 210, 217.
  37. ^ Kennedy, 2003, p. 279.
  38. ^ a b Ellis, 2008, p. 208.
  39. ^ Miller Center: Key Events' Thomas Jefferson
  40. ^ a b c Banner (1972), p. 34.
  41. ^ Chernow (2004), p. 714.
  42. ^ a b c (2014) Thomas Jefferson subpoenaed in Aaron Burr's treason trial, viewed on August 6, 2014.
  43. ^ Meacham (2012), pp. 405, 419–22.
  44. ^ Herring (2008), p. 106.
  45. ^ Matthewson, Tim. "Jefferson and Haiti", The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995), p. 221.
  46. ^ Matthewson (1995), pp. 226–27.
  47. ^ Herring (2008), p. 107.
  48. ^ Matthewson (1996), p. 22.
  49. ^ Matthewson, Tim. "Jefferson and the Non-recognition of Haiti", American Philosophical Society 140, no. 1 (March 1996), p. 22.
  50. ^ a b Herring (2008), p. 108.
  51. ^ Herring (2008), p. 109.
  52. ^ Wheelan, 2003, pp. 1–2.
  53. ^ a b Fremont-Barnes, 2006, p. 36.
  54. ^ Fremont-Barnes, 2006, p. 32.
  55. ^ Wheelan, 2003, pp. 79–80.
  56. ^ Nanjira, 2010, p. 208.
  57. ^ Mariner's Museum: The Barbary Wars, 1801–1805
  58. ^ Guttridge, 2005, pp. 257–60.
  59. ^ Bernstein. 2003, p. 146.
  60. ^ Fremont-Barnes, 2006, pp. 32–36.
  61. ^ John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (1999), p. 144.
  62. ^ Dwight L Smith, "A North American Neutral Indian Zone: Persistence of a British Idea", Northwest Ohio Quarterly (1989) 61 (2-4): 46–63.
  63. ^ Timothy D. Willig, Restoring the Chain of Friendship: British Policy and the Indians of the Great Lakes, 1783-1815 (2008)
  64. ^ Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, pp. 781, 783.
  65. ^ Gene A. Smith, "U.S. Navy Gunboats and the Slave Trade in Louisiana Waters, 1808–1811," Military History of the West, 1993, Vol. 23 Issue 2, pp. 135–47.
  66. ^ Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the President: Second Term, 1805-1809 (1974), pp. 543–44.
  67. ^ Miller, John Chester, The wolf by the ears: Thomas Jefferson and slavery (1980), p. 142.
  68. ^ Robert E. Cray, "Remembering the USS Chesapeake: The politics of maritime death and impressment." Journal of the Early Republic (2005) 25#3 pp. 445–74. online
  69. ^ Spencer Tucker, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (Naval Inst Press, 1996)
  70. ^ Marshall Smelser, The democratic republic, 1801–1815 (1968. ch. 7).
  71. ^ Jeffrey A. Frankel, "The 1807–1809 Embargo Against Great Britain." Journal of Economic History (1982) 42#2 p.: 291–308. in JSTOR
  72. ^ Robert W. Tucker, and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of liberty: the statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 1990), ch. 17–23.


  • Adams, Henry. History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson. Library of America edition, (1986). Classic in-depth history.
  • Channing, Edward. The Jeffersonian System, 1801–1811 (1906) full text online, older scholarly survey
  • Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power: Party Operations 1801–1809 (1963), highly detailed party history
  • Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. The Process of Government Under Jefferson (1978)
  • McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1987), intellectual history approach to Jefferson's presidency
  • Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: First Term 1801–1805; v. 5: Jefferson the President: Second term, 1805–1809; v.6: The Sage of Monticello (1948–70), the standard scholarly biography; short bio by Malone; a standard scholarly biography
  • Peterson, Merrill D. Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (1986), long, detailed biography by leading scholar; online edition; also excerpt and text search; a standard scholarly biography
  • Peterson, Merrill D. ed. Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography. (1986), long essays by scholars
  • Smelser, Marshall. The Democratic Republic: 1801–1815 (1968), standard scholarly history of presidencies of Jefferson and Madison
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. (2005), broad-scale interpretation of political history

Foreign policy[edit]

  • Cogliano, Francis D. Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy (Yale University Press, 2014). 320 pp. online review
  • Kaplan, Lawrence. Jefferson and France (Yale University Press, 1967)
  • Kaplan, Lawrence. Entangling Alliances with None: American Foreign Policy in the Age of Jefferson (Kent State University Press, 1987).
  • LaFeber, Walter. “Jefferson and an American Foreign Policy,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf (1993), pp. 370–91;
  • Rodriguez, Junius, ed. The Louisiana Purchase: An Encyclopedia (2002)
  • Tucker, Robert W. and David C. Hendrickson. Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (1992), best guide to foreign policy excerpt and text search, diplomatic history

External links[edit]

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U.S. Presidential Administrations
Preceded by
J. Adams
Jefferson Presidency
Succeeded by