Thomas Jefferson: The Third Retrospective (1801-1809)
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
The election of 1800 set two precedents. It was the first peaceful transfer of political power from one party to another, and it was the first election where the press played a major role.
Of all the presidents, Thomas Jefferson, owner of as many as 237 slaves at one point, may have been the most conflicted over slavery.
On the one hand, Jefferson wrote that slavery was a “great political and moral evil” involving “the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other …. Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” He even referred to the international slave trade as an “execrable commerce” in a preliminary draft of the Declaration of Independence.
On the other hand, Jefferson personally owned hundreds of slaves, some of whom he sold to pay off debts. Jefferson also included “25. negroes little and big” in his daughter Martha’s marriage dowry, and he put slave children to work in his textile factory beginning at age 10 and working as long as 14 hours per day.
On the one hand, Jefferson viewed Black people as inferior to Whites in reasoning ability, holding that “one could scarcely be found capable of … comprehending the investigations of Euclid,” and he opposed sexual relations between Black and White people, writing of Blacks: “Their amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.”
On the other hand, DNA evidence strongly suggests that Jefferson himself created such an amalgamation with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.
On the one hand, Jefferson wrote that he had “scruples about selling negroes but for delinquency, or on their own request.”
On the other hand, between 1784 and 1794 Jefferson sold or gave away an estimated 161 people. He even sold 10- to 14-year-old slave children or transferred them from one plantation to another.
On the one hand, Jefferson wrote of slavery: “There is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach.”
On the other hand, Jefferson never emancipated the 200+ slaves he owned, and the closest he came to supporting the abolition of slavery was to favor the removal and colonization of slaves outside the United States.
States Admitted Into The Union
- Ohio was admitted as the 17th state on March 1, 1803 partially from the Northwest Territory
- The 12th Amendment was passed by Congress December 9, 1803, and ratified June 15, 1804,
We Are All Federalists; We Are All Republicans
President Jefferson viewed his election as a second American revolution. He felt government was on a bad path, but he would save it. The Federalists (Washington and Adams) had put too much power in the central government. Jefferson felt government is best which governs least. Does this dichotomy seem familiar to anyone?
Man of the People
Jefferson portrayed himself as a common man while residing in Monticello , the most luxurious estate in America. He sent Congress written messages as he was not a great public speaker, apparently having a very soft speaking voice.
Brilliant and Cunning Politician
Jefferson was able to wield power in a way that made people think he wasn’t using it. He handled the press and media extremely well although they did not always give him a free pass.
In 1802, James Calendar was first to report Jefferson for an affair he had with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Hemings was the half sister of his wife, the daughter of his father-in-law and a slave woman.
19th Century Public Relations
Jefferson did nothing amidst all of the allegations and stories floating in the press concerning Hemings. He never responded to any inquiries on the relationship. He simply ignored the controversy, an example of early spin control from a master politician. The bottom line is Jefferson never talked about anything that he didn’t want to discuss.
The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the territory of Louisiana by the United States from France in 1803. In return for fifteen million dollars, or approximately eighteen dollars per square mile, the United States nominally acquired a total of 828,000 sq mi (530,000,000 acres). However, France only controlled a small fraction of this area, most of it inhabited by American Indians; for the majority of the area, what the United States bought was the “preemptive” right to obtain Indian lands by treaty or by conquest, to the exclusion of other colonial powers.
The Kingdom of France had controlled the Louisiana territory from 1699 until it was ceded to Spain in 1762. In 1800, Napoleon, the First Consul of the French Republic, regained ownership of Louisiana as part of a broader project to re-establish a French colonial empire in North America. However, France’s failure to put down a revolt in Saint-Domingue, coupled with the prospect of renewed warfare with the United Kingdom, prompted Napoleon to consider selling Louisiana to the United States.
Acquisition of Louisiana was a long-term goal of President Thomas Jefferson, who was especially eager to gain control of the crucial Mississippi River port of New Orleans. Jefferson tasked James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston with purchasing New Orleans. Negotiating with French Treasury Minister François Barbé-Marbois (who was acting on behalf of Napoleon), the American representatives quickly agreed to purchase the entire territory of Louisiana after it was offered. Overcoming the opposition of the Federalist Party, Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison persuaded Congress to ratify and fund the Louisiana Purchase.
The Louisiana Purchase extended United States sovereignty across the Mississippi River, nearly doubling the nominal size of the country. The purchase included land from fifteen present U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, including the entirety of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; large portions of North Dakota and South Dakota; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; the northeastern section of New Mexico; northern portions of Texas; New Orleans and the portions of the present state of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River; and small portions of land within Alberta and Saskatchewan. At the time of the purchase, the territory of Louisiana’s non-native population was around 60,000 inhabitants, of whom half were African slaves. The western borders of the purchase were later settled by the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain, while the northern borders of the purchase were adjusted by the Treaty of 1818 with Britain.
Jefferson didn’t know if the Louisiana Purchase was constitutional. In fact, many said privately that he didn’t think it was constitutional. If he stayed true to his small government principles, he never would have done it. He did it anyway, and ironically used Alexander Hamilton’s system of financing to fund it (a policy he publicly decried for 15 years).
As President, Jefferson was now governing in the same manner as the Federalists he fought. They attacked his hypocrisy as Jefferson was the biggest opponent of the federal government doing too much and taking on too much power. How could he justify acquiring one third of the continent while proposing military governors to preside over it? That was the very definition of big government.
Furthermore, Jefferson approved a secret exploration of the newly acquired territory known as The Lewis and Clark Expedition from May 1804 to September 1806. When he sent a secret message to Congress asking them to fund it, his opponents screamed it was an unconstitutional military foray. He did it anyway.
Lewis and Clark Expedition
The Lewis and Clark Expedition from August 31, 1803, to September 25, 1806, also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was the United States expedition to cross the newly acquired western portion of the country after the Louisiana Purchase. The Corps of Discovery was a select group of U.S. Army and civilian volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark. The expedition made its way westward, and crossed the Continental Divide of the Americas before reaching the Pacific Coast.
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to explore and to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and to establish an American presence in this territory before European powers attempted to establish claims in the region. The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to establish trade with local Native American tribes. The expedition returned to St. Louis to report its findings to Jefferson, with maps, sketches, and journals in hand
Embargo Act of 1807
The Embargo Act of 1807 was a general trade embargo on all foreign nations that was enacted by the United States Congress. As a successor or replacement law for the 1806 Non-importation Act and passed as the Napoleonic Wars continued, it represented an escalation of attempts to coerce Britain to stop any impressment of American sailors and to respect American sovereignty and neutrality but also attempted to pressure France and other nations in the pursuit of general diplomatic and economic leverage.
In the first decade of the 19th century, American shipping grew. During the Napoleonic Wars, rival nations Britain and France targeted neutral American shipping as a means to disrupt the trade of the other nation. American merchantmen who were trading with “enemy nations” were seized as contraband of war by European navies, and The British Royal Navy impressed American sailors who had either been British-born or previously serving on British ships, even if they now claimed to be American citizens with American papers. Incidents such as the Chesapeake–Leopard affair outraged Americans.
Congress imposed the embargo in direct response to these events. President Thomas Jefferson acted with restraint, weighed public support for retaliation, and recognized that the United States was militarily far weaker than either Britain or France. He recommended that Congress respond with commercial warfare, a policy that appealed to Jefferson both for being experimental and for foreseeably harming his domestic political opponents more than his allies, whatever its effect on the European belligerents. The 10th Congress was controlled by his allies and agreed to the Act, which was signed into law on December 22, 1807.
The embargo proved to be a complete failure. It failed to improve the American diplomatic position, highlighted American weakness and lack of leverage, significantly (and only) damaged the American economy, and sharply increased domestic political tensions. Both widespread evasion of the embargo and loopholes in the legislation reduced its impact on its targets. British commercial shipping, which already dominated global trade, was successfully adapting to Napoleon’s Continental System by pursuing new markets, particularly in the restive Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America. Thus, British merchants were well-positioned to grow at American expense when the embargo sharply reduced American trade activity.
The embargo undermined American unity by provoking bitter protests, particularly in New England commercial centers. Support for the declining Federalist Party, which intensely opposed Jefferson, temporarily rebounded and drove electoral gains in 1808. The embargo simultaneously undermined Americans’ faith that their government could execute laws fairly and strengthened the European perception that the republican form of government was inept and ineffectual.
Replacement legislation for the ineffective embargo was enacted on March 1, 1809, in the last days of Jefferson’s presidency. Tensions with Britain continued to grow and eventually led to the War of 1812.
Jefferson took the oath of office vowing to change the Presidency and he did just that, though not in the way many expected. While Jefferson was an advocate of small government, when in power, he expanded government tremendously. This would become a tradition in the Presidency and his bold leadership had him overwhelmingly reelected to his second term where he was largely ineffectual.
Those who were caught up in the personal lives of our elected officials began to peak their heads out during Thomas Jefferson’s era. Unfortunately, many felt stymied by a press that was sympathetic to a larger than life figure holding the Presidency who promised to fundamentally change the office.
Where have I heard this before?
This was also a time when those who decried officials for saying one thing and doing another when in office sprang to life. How dare he preach small government, but do nothing but expand his power? The demands of the office go far beyond what most citizens can comprehend, but that didn’t stop them from bitching at Jefferson even though the people themselves were indeed changing. Afterall, they elected him after our first two presidents were Federalists.
Thomas Jefferson “spoke softly and carried a big stick ” 100 years before Teddy Roosevelt uttered those words. It is no coincidence that they are both on Mt. Rushmore. In fact, all four of the presidents on Mt. Rushmore (in order of appearance: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln) were tremendous expanders of the federal government and the executive branch. Three of the four were Republicans.
- Biography of Meriwether Lewis. (n.d.). The Virginia Center for Digital History at The University of Virginia. https://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/lewisandclark/biddle/biographies_html/lewis.html
- Biography of William Clark. (n.d.). The Virginia Center for Digital History at The University of Virginia. https://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/lewisandclark/biddle/biographies_html/clark.html
- Harriss, J. A. (2003, April 1). “How the Louisiana purchase changed the world.” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-louisiana-purchase-changed-the-world-79715124/
- (n.d.). Home | Discovering Lewis & Clark ®. https://www.lewis-clark.org/
- “How did Thomas Jefferson’s punitive law backfire?” (n.d.). ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/embargo-act-of-1807-1773316
- “Monticello is done avoiding Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings” (Published 2018). (2018, June 18). The New York Times – Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/16/us/sally-hemings-exhibit-monticello.html
- (n.d.). Celebrating the history and culture of Northwest Georgia | Bandy Heritage Center. https://www.bandyheritagecenter.org/Content/Uploads/Bandy%20Heritage%20Center/files/1812/The%20Chesapeake-Leopard%20Affair%20(1807).pdf
- (n.d.). Monticello. https://www.monticello.org/
- Non-importation act (1806). (n.d.). what-when-how â�� In Depth Tutorials and Information. https://what-when-how.com/the-american-economy/non-importation-act-1806/
- Robert R. Livingston statue, U.S. capitol for New York | AOC. (n.d.). Architect of the Capitol | Architect of the Capitol. https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/robert-r-livingston
- “Thomas Jefferson“. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=3
James Madison (1809-1817) would follow Thomas Jefferson
John Adams (1797-1801) preceded Thomas Jefferson
It all started with George Washington (1789-1897).
John Quincy Adams (1825 – 1829) was the first President after the founders and would precede the transformative Andrew Jackson (1829 – 1837)
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) would assume the presidency after the Mexican War
Andrew Johnson (1865 – 1869) would assume the presidency after the assassination Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865)
Grover Cleveland (1885 – 1889) and would assume the presidency again from 1893-1897
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Harry Truman (1945 – 1953) would assume the presidency after the death of the iconic FDR (1933 – 1945)
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.