1743-1826, intellectual, statesman, and third president of the United States. Although Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, minister to France, secretary of state, vice president, and president, he is remembered in history less for the offices he held than for what he stood for: his belief in the natural rights of man as he expressed them in the Declaration of Independence and his faith in the people’s ability to govern themselves. He left an impact on his times equaled by few others in American history. Introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment as a student at the College of William and Mary,Order now
Jefferson displayed throughout his life an optimistic faith in the power of reason to regulate human affairs. As a young member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson questioned British colonial policies and was an early advocate of American rights. His forceful pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) gained him the reputation that placed him on the committee of the Continental Congress charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. As its principal author, Jefferson gave eloquent expression to the principles of the natural rights of man, among which, he affirmed, was self-government.
Jefferson’s intellectual prowess led some political opponents to dismiss him as a visionary, but he was remarkably successful in politics. As leader of the opposition to the Federalist policies of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, Jefferson was put forward by his supporters to run against Adams in the election of 1796 to succeed George Washington as president. He lost that contest but four years later defeated Adams to preside over the first transfer of political power from one party to another in the history of the young Republic.
In his inaugural address in 1801, he set the ship of state on a epublican course based on faith in majority rule, simplicity and frugality in government, limited central authority, and protection of civil liberties and minority rights. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America five years after Jefferson’s death, declared Jefferson to be “the greatest democrat whom the democracy of America has as yet produced. ” On the eve of his inauguration as vice president in 1797, Jefferson had been elected president of the American Philosophical Society, a post he retained until 1815.
In many ways he found more pleasure in holding that office than in being president of the United States. A oundless intellectual curiosity fueled his interests in science and natural history, the classics, music, and the arts. He once reflected: “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the times in which I have lived have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself on the boisterous ocean of political passions. Jefferson translated his intellectual pursuits into action. His study of natural law and political thought informed his commitment to republican government. His devotion to science inspired numerous agricultural pursuits. His interest in architecture and the arts was manifest in the design of his home at Monticello. His concern about education led to proposals for public education in his state and to the founding of the University of Virginia, for which he was champion, architect, and academic planner.
The most versatile intellectual to occupy the presidential office, Jefferson was a complex man. He opposed an aristocracy and slavery, yet he enjoyed a life of privilege and owned slaves, optimistically hoping that the next generation would end that violation of natural law. Jefferson’s sense of priorities was strikingly revealed when he nstructed that his tombstone be inscribed only with the words that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia.
Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. , In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987); Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (1970). Jefferson Memorial Monument in Washington, D. C. , honoring Thomas Jefferson. Dedicated in 1943, the domed white marble structure was designed by the American neoclassical architect John Russell Pope; it houses a 19-ft (5. -m) statue of Jefferson by Rudulph Evans. Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987); Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (1970). Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. See Also Constitution Declaration of Independence Deism Elections: 1796, 1800, 1804 Jeffersonian Democracy Republicanism Revolution Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions For events during Jefferson’s administration, see Barbary Wars Embargo Act of 1807 Impressment Controversy Lewis and Clark Expedition Louisiana Purchase Marbury v. Madison The Reader’s Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
All rights reserved. JEFFERSONIAN DEMOCRACY Looking back on the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson described it as being “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people. Jefferson saw his election as reversing an earlier trend away from republicanism.
The departure from true republican principles, as he judged it, had begun with the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton favoring financial and manufacturing interests and the strengthening of the national government at the expense of the states. During John Adams’s presidency, Jefferson was further alarmed by the threats to civil liberties posed by the Alien and Sedition Laws restricting freedom of speech, assembly, and the press.
Under the administrations of both George Washington and Adams, Jefferson was also concerned that the rituals of the presidency resembled too closely the monarchical models of Europe, which he detested. By 1800 Jefferson was convinced that the government must be put on more republican tack if the new Republic were to succeed, and he directed his efforts in the election of 1800 toward that end. In a nation of farmers, Jefferson’s belief in the virtues of an agrarian republic of independent farmers won wide support.
The Republicans also drew support from artisans and workers in towns and cities, where Jefferson’s opposition to an aristocracy of privilege gained him the image of a man of the people. The Jeffersonian Republicans found little support among the banking, manufacturing, and commercial interests attracted to Hamilton’s vision of an industrial America. As a slaveholder who nevertheless opposed the institution of slavery, Jefferson drew support from both slaveholders and opponents of slavery; the Jeffersonian Republicans, however, did not include emancipation in their democratic agenda.
The philosophical roots of Jeffersonian Democracy are to be found in the ideas of the Enlightenment and in natural law that Jefferson expounded in the Declaration of Independence. In an address in 1790, he reiterated his faith in “the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs” and stressed that “the will of the majority, the Natural aw of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of man. ” This faith in the people was basic to the creed he enunciated in the election of 1800 and implemented as president.
He wished to keep the government close to the people. “I am not for transferring all the powers of the States to the general government, and all those of that government to the Executive branch,” he wrote at a time when a Federalist Congress had given the president extraordinary power over aliens. With civil liberties threatened by the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson reaffirmed his commitment to the Bill of Rights.
In a period of rising military expenditures and mounting debt, he promised a government “rigorously frugal and simple,” reducing the army and navy and applying the savings to discharging the national debt. The desire to decrease the army also reflected a republican fear of standing armies that had roots in radical English thought. Jefferson restated these principles in his inaugural address on March 4, 1801. That speech provides the best and most succinct statement of Jeffersonian Democracy.
Reaffirming his commitment to an “absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority” as a vital principle of epublicanism, Jefferson added the “sacred principle that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression. ” In responding to Federalists’ efforts to suppress minority opinions, Jefferson more clearly defined a basic tenet of American democracy.
Intermingling general principles and specific policies, Jefferson promised “equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political,” and pledged a vigilant protection of ivil liberties. He also vowed to protect the rights of states while preserving the general government in its whole constitutional vigor. The new president declared that he favored reliance on a well-disciplined militia for defense, the supremacy of civil over military authority, economy in public expenditures, the payment of debts, and the encouragement of agriculture and of commerce as its “handmaid. Though an agrarian republic was Jefferson’s ideal, he recognized the necessity of commerce, and as president he was committed to its protection.
President Jefferson promptly initiated simplicity and frugality in overnment. With a Republican majority in Congress, government expenditures were reduced, taxes cut, and progress made in paying off the national debt. The Republicans also reduced the army and the navy and the diplomatic establishment abroad. Altered circumstances, however, led to the modification of many of these policies before the end of his second term.
Renewed war in Europe and interference with American commerce led to the imposition of an embargo and increased military expenditures. The purchase of Louisiana required alterations in the schedule to pay off the national debt and also posed a hallenge to his strict construction of the Constitution. Initially inclined to push for a constitutional amendment, he yielded to the opinion of advisers that the treaty-making power provided adequate constitutional grounds.
But strict construction remained a tenet of Jeffersonian Democracy. Jefferson reduced the ceremonial role of the presidency that had developed under Washington and Adams. Setting a more democratic tone for the executive, he began by walking to his inauguration. His dress was that of an ordinary citizen, “without any distinctive badge of office,” one reporter noted. That was a sharp contrast to Washington and Adams, who had dressed elegantly and worn swords at their inaugurations.
Instead of appearing in person to deliver an annual address to Congress, as had been the practice of Washington and Adams, Jefferson sent a written message to be read by a clerk. He also eliminated formal presidential receptions, or levees, which his predecessors had held, and he ignored the formal European rules of diplomatic etiquette by receiving foreign diplomats informally and offering no seating by rank at diplomatic dinners. Despite earlier expressions of concern about executive power,
Jefferson exerted strong presidential leadership, and with the enactment of an embargo in 1807 the federal government became more intrusive than Jeffersonian principles envisioned. But the embargo was repealed before Jefferson left office, and when he retired from political life, he left a legacy of faith in the people and a widening popular participation that continued to shape the development of American democracy. Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of Party Ideology (1978); Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. , The Process of Government under Jefferson (1978).