Thomas Jefferson: The Third Retrospective
“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.
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 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.
Expansion of Executive Power
Apparently, when Jefferson said he wanted limited government, he meant it for those not in office. The very definition of the expansion of executive power is the Louisiana Purchase doubling the size of the country for the bargain price of $15 million in 1803.
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.
Jefferson, similar to Washington and unlike Adams, was also unable to effectively deal with the rising international crisis of the time: the Anglo-French War. Jefferson didn’t want America to be involved with Europe. He wanted to focus on matters within our boarders, and ignore the world beyond us.
The problem is that we traded with both nations, each of which demanded America’s loyalty. Jefferson’s answer was to issue the Embargo Act of 1807 prohibiting trade with all nations which proved disastrous for New England commerce.
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.
James Madison would follow Thomas Jefferson
John Adams preceded Thomas Jefferson
It all started with George Washington.