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Jeffersonian Republicans, 1801-1825

Politics was rougher then than they are now. Each political party or faction founded its own newspapers to promote its cause and castigate it opponents. No effort was made to tell the truth. Lies and half-truths would serve just as well or better. The point was to get votes. The Federalists, for example, accused Jefferson of siring children with Sally Hemings, a slave.(1) Jeffersonian Republicans found equally nasty things to write about the Federalists. Even with one of the political parties there could be divisions.

Thomas Jefferson had trouble getting elected in 1800. The nation had been deeply divided by the undeclared war with France, for the Federalists wanted the war and the Jeffersonians did not. The Federalists used such slurs as "poison-sucking toads" and questioned the patriotism and integrity of the Jeffersonians because they did not automatically agree with Federalist war aims. The Jeffersonian Republicans(2) were leftists, for, unlike the Federalists, they would give more power to the people. Jefferson himself was an admirer of the French Revolution, which had overthrown conservatism, even when it went to excess. Tension had gotten so high in 1798 that the Virginia assembly under the control of the Jeffersonians began preparing for civil war; the Federalist president, John Adams, secretly brought arms into the White House in case he needed them. Adams might have won the presidency again in 1800 had he not offended the Hamiltonian faction of the Federalist Party by not declaring war on France but finding a diplomatic solution. So Hamilton and his faction withdrew their support. In the Electoral College, Adams, who got 65 votes, was beaten by Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, each of whom got 73. The House of Representatives had to elect the president.

Burr, who actually was the Vice Presidential candidate of the Jeffersonian Republicans, tried to become president. He was an ambitious man. Vote after vote was taken until Hamilton ordered the Federalists to vote for Jefferson as the lesser of two evils. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson won 10-4 (each state having only one vote).(3)

In his inaugural address in 1801, Jefferson, while promising the carry out his program, offered the olive branch to the Federalists. He said that "we are all Republicans and we are all Federalists." He could afford to be magnanimous. His party had taken the majority of seats in the House and the Senate.

He did not dismantle the entire Federalist program. Jefferson did not end the Bank of the United States, deciding to let its charter run out. They honored the funded debt, even though they had opposed funding it for reneging would cause untold problems. In the course of his administration he paid down the national debt from 83 million dollars in 1801 to 57 million by 1811. With the help of his Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, he ran a frugal government as promised.

Jefferson also ran an informal government, one quite different from the somewhat "aristocratic" governments of Washington and Adams. He walked to his inauguration to emphasize that he represented the people not the elite. His government was plain (but he served good wines and meals). He would sometimes greet ambassadors while wearing house slippers. Although an aristocrat, he wanted people to be comfortable with their government. He reduced the number and cost of official government functions.

His administration repealed the excise tax on whisky, a tax which had prompted the Whiskey Rebellion which Washington had called up a 15,000 man army and led into western Pennsylvania. On the other hand, the US Military Academy at West Point, NY was created, opening in July, 1802. He repealed what remained of the Alien and Sedition Acts. He reduced the size of the army the Federalists had built, fearing that it could be used against citizens. He also reduced the size of the navy and equipped it with one gun boats to guard the coasts. Jefferson was willing to fight, however. The Federalists had been willing to bribe (pay tribute to) the Barbary pirates in the western Mediterranean , but, when the ruler of Tripoli tried to increase the bribe, Jefferson went to war. The US won the Tripolitan War (1801-05). However, the US paid bribes to the other Barbary states until 1816.

He launched an attack on the Federalists in the federal courts, for the courts contained entirely Federalists. In March, 1803, the House impeached and the Senate convicted district judge John Pickering of New Hampshire not because he has committed the requisite "high crimes and misdemeanors" but because he delivered political speeches from the bench. The Jeffersonians impeached Samuel Chase, a Supreme Court justice, but were unable to convict him. Clearly, Jefferson wanted to squelch his opposition and the impeachments tended to have a chilling effect.

His cousin, John Marshall of Virginia, could not be squelched. Named Chief Justice in 1801, this Federalist would preside over the US Supreme Court until 1835 and establish its power. When he could, he retaliated against Jefferson. Adams had insured that by signing the Judiciary Act of 1800, passed by the Federalist majorities in the last days of the session before the Jeffersonian majorities took office in the next Congress, and by appointing as many Federalists as possible to the federal bench. Not all of these "midnight appointees," as they were called received their documents before Jefferson took office. The Jeffersonian Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1800 and Jefferson ordered Secretary of State James Madison to withhold any commissions not delivered.

William Marbury , an ardent Federalist, had been appointed a Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia by Adams but his commission had not been delivered. When Madison refused, Marbury sued in federal court for a writ of mandamus. Marshall played a clever double game. He refused the writ but declared par of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional! The decision in Marbury v Madison (1803) was precedent-setting for Marshall used it to assert that the federal judiciary had the power to determine the constitutionality of Congressional actions and executive actions. Whereas the Federalists had reduced the number of Supreme Court justice to five and increased the number of lower courts, the Jeffersonians, in the Judiciary Act of 1802, increased the number to six. They were not going to let the Federalist dictate the composition of the federal courts.

Federalist fear of the Jeffersonians was so strong that it led to the Northern Confederacy scheme of the Essex Junto and, indirectly, to the death of Alexander Hamilton by Aaron Burr in 1804. The Essex Junto, led by led by Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts planned to establish a Northern Confederacy from the States of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey for they could for see that the states which would be created out of the Old Northwest Territory and the Louisiana Purchase would overwhelm the northeast in Congress. To them, those states promised to be Jeffersonian in outlook, a prospect which arch-Federalists considered anathema. They hoped to elect Burr as governor of New York but failed when Alexander Hamilton opposed this secessionist plan and Aaron Burr. Hamilton saw Burr as "a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government." Burr was offended. Words exchanged led to a duel in July 1804 in New Jersey. Hamilton did not believe in dueling but wanted to prove his courage so that he could lead the nation when the Jefferson government collapsed. Hamilton intentionally missed; Burr did not. Burr fled in the wake of the uproar at killing one of the most important founding fathers. The plot of the Essex Junto died as well.

Burr was still not content and tried to establish an independent republic from the American southwest and adjoining Mexico. One of his allies was General James Wilkinson, the governor of Louisiana. As Burr's expeditionary force moved down the Ohio River towards the Mississippi and New Orleans, Wilkinson changed his mind and reported the plot to Jefferson. Burr fled to the southwestern town of Natchez, Mississippi, then across Spanish Florida, and then into the United States again. Once he was captured, Jefferson, who hated him, wanted him tried and hanged for treason. Chief Justice John Marshall, riding circuit, heard the case. To thwart Jefferson and prevent a political murder, Marshall freed Burr on the grounds that he had not committed treason, which was narrowly defined the Constitution. The United States was not at war and there were no two witnesses to the overt act.

Jefferson was an expansionist; he wanted an "Empire for Liberty."(4) In his writings, he argued for the annexation of Cuba. He wanted to expand the boundaries of the United States to the Pacific coast. He got lucky. Napoleon, defeated by the Haitians and pressured by renewed war in Europe, decided the cut his losses in the New World and sell the Louisiana territory. So, when Jefferson's representative James Monroe arrived in Paris to try to buy New Orleans and West Florida, he was were surprised that they could buy all of the Louisiana Territory (830,000 square miles) for $15 million. Jefferson decided to buy it even though doing so would make him a hypocrite since the Constitution did not give him the explicit power to do it. In other words, his argument for only a strict construction of the Constitution went the window when it was advantageous. Federalist complained about his duplicity, in part because the new west would likely be Jeffersonian in politics. In 1810, during Madison's presidency, Americans created a revolt against Spain in West Florida and created an independent republic. In 1812, the US annexed it. When the Jeffersonians wanted land they, like so many others, abandoned their principle, claiming that they were spreading liberty.

Jefferson launched the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06, an expedition which not only consolidated US claims to the Pacific Northwest but also brought back valuable information about the geography, flora, and fauna of the region. Meriwether Lewis, a Jefferson protégé who stayed with Jefferson in the White House before he left so they could discuss the expedition and Lewis could be tutored by the president, was a brilliant naturalist as well as explorer. He was accompanied by an army captain, William Clark. Fortunately, the Lewis and Clark expedition (recounted so well in Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, met the Shoshoni woman Sacajawea who was invaluable in dealing with the peoples from Wyoming westward. In 1805 and 1806, Zebulon Pike explored the Mississippi River to its source in Minnesota and then into what is now Colorado. Jefferson had an insatiable curiosity about the West.

The Jeffersonians eased land acquisition. Federal land was sold in blocks of 320 acres instead of 640. One could buy on credit or obtain an 8% discount by paying cash. These provisions enabled more people to but land. It was part of Jefferson's desire to create a nation of small, independent farmers in order to have an agrarian democracy.

More states had been created under the Federalists but expansion would speed up under the Jeffersonians. Vermont became a state in 1791, Kentucky in 1792, and Tennessee in 1796. Ohio was supposedly admitted as a state in 1803.(5) Louisiana entered in 1812; Indiana in 1816; Mississippi in 1817; Illinois in 1818; Alabama in 1819; Maine, having been split off from Massachusetts, in 1820; and Missouri in 1821.

He was easily re-elected in 1804 by a 162-14 vote in the Electoral College. He had achieved most of his domestic goals but during Jefferson's second administration the European war entered a more desperate phase. Napoleon controlled almost of Europe. Britain controlled the high seas. The US was caught in the middle of economic warfare. The US argued that neutrals had the right to trade with anyone and everyone, even belligerent powers. It was not realistic to expect Europe to recognize the doctrine the US proclaimed.. The US policy was founded on the belief that the belligerents needed US trade too much to risk war. The US was trying to use commerce as a weapon.(6)

US profits from its international trade were high enough before 1805 to make a profit even with the losses from its ships being taken. The belligerents were willing to pay dearly.

With the Essex Decision (1804), the British outlawed shipments to France from the French West Indies (via the United States?) This was followed by the Orders -in- Council blockading coast . At the same time, British impressment of American seaman increased because it needed more sailors to man its ships.(7)

The US responded by outlawing some British goods that could be produced domestically or bought from non-British sources from US ports by the Non-Importation Act (1806) .

In the Leopard-Chesapeake Affair of 1897, the British ship Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake in or near US territorial waters, killing three and wounding eighteen when the Chesapeake refused to surrender four sailors the British claimed were theirs.. The US protested and passed the Embargo Act (1807) forbidding international trade. The Embargo Act caused an economic depression in many ports, especially in New England, that year. It also encouraged smuggling on a large scale. Congress repealed it in 1809 when Jefferson was gone from office.

James Madison inherited the problem of protecting US neutral rights and prosperity for all those elements in US society which depended upon international trade. He faced a greater problem than his friend Jefferson because French depredations were becoming as bad as the British. With the Berlin-Milan decrees (1805) France closed all European ports to trade with Britain and French privateers began to seize all ships bound for England. The US responded with the Non-Intercourse Act in 1809 which maintained trade with all nations except France and Britain and with the promise that the US would resume trade with the first one that respected that respected its neutral rights claims. US shippers continued trading with both. New Englanders protested loudly. When that did not work, the US tried Macon's Bill# 2 which said the US would trade with both but would stop trading with the opponent of the nation which agreed to respect its neutral rights. In negotiations, the British ambassador agreed but the government in London disavowed it. Napoleon toyed with the US as he tried to buy time. By 1811, it was clear that economic coercion had not worked. The US was caught between the French elephants which was supreme on the continent of Europe and the British whale, supreme on the seas. Madison agreed to use the threat of war.

The US declared war on Great Britain in June, 1812 but he could have just as easily declared war on France or both. The issue of neutral rights had inflamed many Americans and the British seemed the worse offenders, especially because of impressment. Many believed, with some justification, that the British were arming and inciting Indians in the Old Northwest Territory to fight American settlers. William Henry Harrison of Indiana had finally beaten Tecumseh's armies after the Battle of Tippacanoe but the threat remained. "War Hawks" in Congress--Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina being the most prominent--wanted to fight Britain to secure that part of the country and to annex Canada. They also wanted Spanish Florida.

The US was defeated for all practical purposes and only Britain's fatigue from fighting a world war since 1793 kept them from wiping the US clean. The US had a small army and volunteers could not be trained fast enough to become an effective army. Jefferson had pared the navy so that it had little but gunboats to protect its coasts. Mounted with a small cannon, they could not withstand an assault from a regular warship. Their most effective use was at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland where they were beached and their cannon used to cover the retreat of the American force. Britain was able to burn Washington in retaliation for the American burning of the Canadian capital. The Canadians, for their part, repulsed the American invasion. Although the Americans had some victories, they were too few to defeat the mighty British empire.

The war caused widespread dissension and protests, especially in New England, a region that suffered from a war it never wanted. Some New Englanders met in the Hartford Convention in 1814 and, using a state's rights argument, plotted secession.

When Britain and its allies had defeated Napoleon and his allies in 1814, they decided to make peace with the Americans as well. The great powers gathered at Vienna to undo what Napoleon had done and to hammer out a peace which would reward the victors and preserve their dominance. The United States was not there; the British sent their "second string" diplomats to Ghent, Belgium to treat with the Americans. The War of 1812 was a sideshow.

US diplomats--Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, J. A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, and later Albert Gallatin--got nothing that the US requested but won a victory in that the US did not lose any territory. The British did not want French expansion on the continent which might result if the US was too weak. In other words, it got nothing for which it went to war. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December, 1814. The War of 1812 was officially over.

Why do US citizens erroneously think their country won the war? Before the news reached the country that the war had ended, Andrew Jackson beat the British in the Battle of New Orleans. This victory generated national pride and, few understood that it was meaningless as it was for the war was concerned. There was a tremendous burst of nationalism and the anti-war Federalists would soon disappear.

The war had two other important effects. Fights against Britain's Indian allies in the South and Old Northwest broke their power to resist. More important, the US and Britain improved their relations, for the British finally began treating the US as if it would be there in the future. In the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817, the British granted Americans fishing rights in Canadian waters and the two nations agreed upon the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the US. Further, they agreed to occupy the Oregon territory jointly. The British fleet began protecting the US from European invasion because it did not want its rivals to gain better access to the Western Hemisphere.

The US had long wanted the Floridas. It had annexed West Florida in 1812. In 1817, Andrew Jackson took the whole northern coastal area.. Spain, finally recognizing the inevitable, gave the rest of Florida to the United States via the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819.(8) The United States agreed to assume the $5 million in damage claims that Americans had against Spain. The western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase was clearly defined, settling the boundaries all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The US gave up all claims to Texas.

US nationalism was perhaps best expressed by the US-Latin American relations had only been so-so because the US was too weak to help the Latin Americans in their revolts against Spain and Brazil and, except for the Caribbean, had little trade with them. Latinos initially hoped that the Monroe Doctrine might mean more help but they quickly understood that it was an American cock boat in the wake of a British man-of-war. Britain had power and projected it ; the Americans only has words. No one paid attention to the Monroe Doctrine, not even Americans.

Some historians call the period between 1815 and 1820, the "Era of Good Feelings," but this is misleading. It was, essentially, a one-party state but the seeds of discord were there. A closer look reveals the underlying tensions.

Madison could not get the 20,000-man standing army he wanted. Army strength The army went down to 10,000. The gunboats of Jefferson were sold.

The Second Bank of the United States (BUS) chartered in 1816 for twenty years at a $35 million capitalization. President appointed 5 of the 25 directors. Bank paid the government $1.5 million for the charter. Government deposited money without interest. Could borrow money. John C. Calhoun supported its creation as did Henry Clay although he had been opposed to the first Bank of the United States.

Madison's administration also managed to get the Tariff of 1816 passed, a high tariff that maintained the rates created to finance the War of 1812. It was supported by those who thought their districts or states would benefit such as Henry Clay who wanted protection for Kentucky's hemp and John C. Calhoun who hoped to see textile mills created in South Carolina. The Northeast, which would later support high tariffs, split ; industry was growing there as cotton textile mills developed.

Calhoun proposed a Bonus Bill in 1817 to use the bonus money from the BUS and the dividends the bank would pay the government to finance internal improvements. Calhoun argued that such a measure was constitutional under the general welfare clause and because the government had the right to build postal roads. Although the bill passed Congress, New England and part of the South passed it either because it would expand Western influence or the section would not benefit from it. President Madison vetoed it because he believed it to be unconstitutional. What was striking was that this generation of Jeffersonian Republicans were adopting the Hamiltonian "loose construction" argument.

In the 1816 presidential election, James Monroe trounced his Federalist opponent, Rufus King, in the Electoral College by a vote of 183-34 with four abstentions. The Federalist Party would not offer a candidate in 1820. People who held Federalists beliefs did not disappear. By 1824 many would become National Republicans as the Jeffersonian party split. Besides the differences in viewpoint as to what the nation should be, ideological differences as it were, there were the inevitable regional or sectional differences exacerbated by the differing ways different parts of the nation changed or developed.

Several factors coalesced to make the regions/sections of the nation different. New England and parts of the Middle Atlantic States industrialized. The Erie Canal from Albany on the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie provided cheap transportation, allowing the old Northwest Territory to grow in terms of people and produce while stimulating trade in New York.(9) Ships transited between New York City and England on a regular basis, thus enhancing New York's position as the chief port of the United States as well as the financial center. The adoption of Eli Whitney's version of the cotton gin spurred the growing of cotton. It seemed that the road to riches in the South was to acquire lots of cheap land, find gang labor to farm the land, and sell the crop to either New England or British textile mills. The growth of cotton production was so phenomenal that it became a cheap instead of an expensive fiber. The cotton revolution produced western movement into across the South and the expansion of slavery to meet labor demands. The South began to import some of its food from the Midwest.

The Napoleonic Wars, even US participation in them from 1812 to 1814 caused Americans to make their own manufactured products rather than import them and it increased the demand for American food and fiber. When European markets opened further after the wars were open, the demand for American agricultural products increased. As well, Americans began agricultural specialization, led by cotton. In addition, the US population was increasing rapidly. With the euphoria which accompanied the end of the war and the belief that the economy would only get better, people to borrow money to increase manufacturing and to speculate in land. Speculators acquired as much public land as they could using the easy credit terms of the land law of 1800 betting that they would be able to sell the land at a profit, pay their debts, and then buy more on credit to do the cycle again. As long as demand held steady or increased, money could be made. State banks and the Bank of the United States created money, having gotten caught up in the boon fever. In 1817, however, Congress required that specie by used public lands, thus sharply contracting the money supply and credit. Congress canceled the easy credit system, thus putting the breaks o land speculation. By 1819, European demand fell off causing a decline in exports. The boom became a bust with the Panic of 1819. It was the first depression to affect the American people as a whole. People got angry and tried to find scapegoats. The sections dug in and started looking after their own self-interests instead of the national self-interest. The decade of the 1802s , was acrimonious. In order to get Missouri admitted as a free state Maine was cared out of Massachusetts and Congress agreed that slavery would not exist above 36030"" in the Louisiana Purchase (with the exception of Missouri.

Although it is easy to focus on the economic depression which began in 1819, it is important to understand that the Supreme Court had started to lay the necessary rules for a business and industrial society. In the Fletcher v Peck (March 1810), Marshall's court ruled that contracts were inviolate even though the land purchased in this case had been sold because of bribery. Contracts are essential for business . In the case of Dartmouth College v Woodward (February 1819) Marshall again ruled in favor of contracts for Dartmouth College had received a charter (i.e., a contract) from the Crown in 1796 and the government of New Hampshire could not revoke it. The decision also made it clear that the federal courts could declare state legislative acts unconstitutional. In McCullough v Maryland (March, 1819), Marshall ruled that the State of Maryland could not tax the Bank of the United States for it could not override or destroy a creature of the national government, which the bank was. the power. As he put it, the power to tax was the power to destroy. Later, in 1824, Marshall would rule in Gibbons v Ogden that only the United States government could regulate commerce.

Also during Monroe's first administration (1817-21), he vetoed the Cumberland Road bill in 1822. Monroe believed that in order to federal monies to finance internal improvements, a constitutional monument was required. The bill would have provided funds to repair the roads and establish toll booths on the National Road. On the other hand, he signed the Tariff of 1824 which increased the import taxes on lead, glass, iron, hemp, and cotton bagging. Thus, he mixed Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian views. His successor, John Quincy Adams, son of a president, was more Hamiltonian. He served only one term.

See the HTA article Jacksonian politics .

Don Mabry



1. Recent DNA evidence demonstrates that Sally Hemings descendants carry the same DNA from the Jeffersonian male line but does not prove that Jefferson was the father. It could have been another Jefferson male. She spent a lot of time with Thomas Jefferson and availability might have meant that they connected.
2. The party was called the Republicans but the term Jeffersonian Republican is used by historians to distinguish it from the Republican Party created in the early 1850s and which exists today. The Jeffersonians were liberal to radical, quite different from the Republican Party.
3. The 12th Amendment was passed by Congress and the states to specify that separate ballots be cast for the president and vice president in the Electoral College instead of the original plan that the two highest vote recipients would be named president and vice president respectively.
4. See An Empire for Liberty? by James Banner, Jr for a discussion of the contradictory nature of Jefferson's ideas. See Cuban-Spanish-American War (1898) for US-Cuban relations.
5. In the 1960s, it was discovered that the admission of Ohio in 1803 had not followed the correct procedure and, thus, was null and void. Congress quickly admitted Ohio and everyone agreed to act as if nothing had happened because not doing so would cause so many problems.
6. It rarely works. For example, the US has had a trade embargo with Cuba since 1961in an effort to drive Castro out of power. He was still there in 2003.
7. Impressment of US sailors is more complicated than it seems. British seaman, who often had the same accents as Americans or near enough, often joined American ships when they deserted and then claimed that they were American. In addition, Britain did not fully recognize that the United States was a sovereign nation and, citizenship was not as carefully defined as it is today. "Between 1793-1811, the British seized an estimated 10,000 sailors from US ships, especially English-born US citizens...The peak years were 1808-11 when 6,000 were pressed into service... But it should be noted that US merchant marines and navy encouraged British naval deserters to enlist, offering higher wages and much better treatment compared with the strict discipline on British naval ships and also aided British seamen in securing false naturalization papers," says
8. It was not ratified by the US Senate until 1821.
9. See my short article on the Transportation Revolution, 1815-50.