America’s Long Journey: Jefferson’s revolution

When Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office on March 4, 1801, he was the focus of political hatred and fear run wild: The man was French at heart, in fact a Jacobin! He was an enemy of religion! He intended to set up guillotines in public squares! It was the end for people of property, the end to the rule of law! He was the “Negro President” because his majority depended on the slave states, each of which had been given an extra three-fifths of a man representation for every slave owned (and therefore, by implication, he wasn’t “really” the legitimate winner of the presidential contest).

We, of a later date, see that the fears were ludicrous, but they were real enough to induce honest, sensible John Adams to sign the Midnight Judges act in a desperate attempt to erect judiciary bulwarks against the incoming Jacobins. We, who have seen similar paroxysms of hatred and fear, are better able to understand this, perhaps, than generations who lived in more tranquil times.

Jefferson did all he could to calm the fears. Alluding to the names of the contending parties, he pointed out, “we are all republicans, we are all federalists.” But the opposition was not in the mood to accept reassurances. Rather than arguments, over the next eight years he gave them facts.

As mentioned in discussing Gallatin, the national debt when Jefferson assumed office was $83 million. He and Gallatin did what they could to replace Hamilton’s system with one stressing republican simplicity and economy. Jefferson said, “if this administration shall not reduce taxes, they never will be permanently reduced.” He initiated a policy of strictest economy, which allowed him to eliminate all internal federal taxes, subsisting on only tariffs as a source of revenue, and still, as noted earlier, in several years paid down a significant portion of the national debt.

He was fortunate in that England and France, in their eighth year of war, had not yet begun the interference with neutral shipping that would become so troubling in a few years. Jefferson inherited few foreign complications, and in 1802 England and France would sign a peace treaty. It would last only a year, but the respite helped. Meanwhile, there was enough to do domestically. He pardoned those who had been imprisoned under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which we will discuss, and got the acts repealed. He got the Judiciary Act of 1801 repealed, as well, thus removing nearly all of Adams’ midnight judges from office (and setting up Marbury v. Madison). He and Congress agreed to authorize the funding and construction of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, on the Hudson River, as a national institution for military education, specifically a corps of engineers but in general to provide well-trained officers for a professional army.

On March 1, 1803, Ohio became the first state to enter the union from the Northwest Territory (between the Ohio and the Great Lakes). Because of the Northwest Ordinance – which Jefferson had authored in 1787 – it was the first state to enter the union with slavery legally prohibited in advance. Also in 1803, as we have seen, he purchased the Louisiana Territory, and then he sent Lewis and Clark to see what he had purchased.

Throughout all this time, people’s fears were gradually being allayed. The turning-out of one party and the turning-in of another – the first such overthrow in the nation’s history – had not resulted in proscriptions or prosecutions (let alone persecutions). There was no reign of terror, not even a wholesale supplanting of Federalist office holders with Republicans. There was no religious persecution, and somehow he and his party neglected to install guillotines in public places.

The result? Federalist leaders remained unreconciled, of course, but their followers melted away. In February, 1804, the Republican congressional caucus nominated Jefferson for a second term, to run with George Clinton of New York against Charles Pinckney of South Carolina. Jefferson could run on a platform of governmental economy, lower taxes, general prosperity, and the doubling of the country through the Louisiana Purchase. The result was a blowout, with 162 electoral votes for Jefferson and only 14 for Pinckney. What else could have been expected?

His second term would not be as successful, not as happy. The problems he would meet would be more difficult – some of them insoluble. There were a few achievements yet in store: In his annual message of December, 1806, he denounced the international slave trade, and called on Congress to criminalize it on the first day possible. (The Constitution had protected the slave trade for 20 years.) On the first day of his final full year in office, he was able to sign an act established severe punishment against the international trade. But such victories would be few.

Didn’t matter. In bringing forth a revolution without violence, in dissolving his opposition by showing the rank and file that their fears had been needless, he enabled the republic to take a giant step toward an enduring stability.


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