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Jeffersonian Republicanism

After the extreme partisanship of 1800, it was expected by supporters and foes alike that the presidential administration of Thomas Jefferson would pioneer substantial and even radical changes. The federal government was now in the hands of a relentless man and a persistent party that planned to diminish its size and influence. But although he overturned the principal Federalist domestic and foreign policies, Thomas Jefferson generally pursued the course as a chief executive, quoting his inaugural address “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” With true republicans warming most of the seats of power throughout the branches, except in the Judiciary, he saw the tools of government as less of a potential instrument of oppression and more of a means to achieve republican goals.
Jefferson assumed the presidency in the hopes that his election would represent the triumph of the true republican principles of the American Revolution; “……the defeat of those who had reverted in varying degrees to policies derived from monarchism.” His first acts were to reduce the size of the government and to cut spending. He believed the strongest government was that which placed the lightest burden on its citizens. Such is meant in his inaugural address by “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”
Although recognized as an intellectual and scholar, Jefferson was also undoubtedly the first president to become the leader of a political party. He skillfully made use of party politics in making assignations to office pursuing his legislative aims by entertaining members of Congress at the White House as a means of keeping himself in touch and them in line. Jefferson used the powers of his presidential office with an authority that Presidents Washington and John Adams would not have been permitted. His political moderation and enthusiasm to compromise land had won over many of the Adam’s Federalists. At the same time those Republicans who had rallied behind him in hopes of a radical exodus from previous administrations grew increasingly frustrated. Led by the vibrant and unconventional John Randolph, a group of Republicans in the House, who called themselves the Quids, meaning others, objected to what they interpreted as “federalism in the administration‘s policies”. Relying on the Virginia and Kentucky decisions, they advocated a strict construction of the Constitution and state rights. They became the most troublesome of the president’s opponents.

After Republicans won majorities in both the House and the Senate, and the Federalist ticket was defeated for the presidency in 1800, the Federalists in Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. Since appointments to the Federal bench came with a life time guarantee, they projected to extend their control of that branch of government. The Judiciary Act of 1801 created ten new positions on the Federal District Courts and a new category of appellate court, the circuit court of appeals, between the Supreme Court and the district courts. The act also reduced the size of the highest court by one justice. Before leaving office, President John Adams had appointed as many federalists to these new positions as he could. These appointments were known as the “midnight appointments”. Faced with a decidedly hostile Judicial branch, the Republicans quickly took steps to defy the Federalist moves. In March of 1802, Congress repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which eliminated the new judgeships and designated one Supreme Court justice and one district court judge to sit on the traveling appellate courts. Republicans in Congress, with Jefferson’s support, then proceeded to impeach two federal justices who had openly attacked the administration from the bench. The first federal justice, John Pickering of New Hampshire, was mentally deranged presenting a constitutional predicament – “His incompetence fell short of the requirement for removal (high crimes and misdemeanors)”. He was nevertheless convicted by the Senate and removed in 1804.

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Complaining that few died and none resigned, Jefferson removed some Federalists who had been assigned to high offices by George Washington and John Adams. He appointed no Federalists to high office and when there was a vacancy to fill, he instinctively named a trustworthy Republican. However, he resisted the demands of the more radical members of his party for wholesale removals and rarely discarded the competent moderate Federalists. Of course those were the type that he largely succeeded in converting to the Republican cause. In the four years of his first term he was able to replace about half of the Federalist leftovers with Republican appointees. Although the Federalists party made some inroads bye approaching popular appeals to the electorate, their gains were limited to a few states and posed no national threat to Jefferson’s leadership.
Soon after taking office, Jefferson took steps to repeal Alexander Hamilton’s financial program and to reduce and eliminate the national debt. At this time the national debt. was “$83,038,051”. He gained congressional repeal of internal or domestic taxes, including the infamous excise tax. The federal government was to be solely funded from duties on imported goods and from the sale of western land. To reduce government expenditures, Secretary Albert Gallatin proposed sharp cuts in spending by means of “( 1 ) reductions in military and diplomatic expenditures; ( 2 ) strict accounting in the expenditure of all appropriations ; ( 3 ) and a rapid reduction on the principal of the national debt.”
The number of diplomatic missions overseas was reduced from seven to three (Paris, London, and Madrid). The United States army was cut by about a third and was deprived of a general staff. In total left as an authorized force of 3,312. Jefferson backed his actions by bringing to light the dangers posed by standing armies and showing off the civilian militia in the states. The Navy also had is share of drastic reductions. A mere six active ships after a cutting of nineteen captains leaving only nine in active service. A large Navy, Jefferson stated, would give unnecessary weight to the demands of commerce and increase the chances of war by posing a threat to the European powers. By 1802, naval expenditures dropped by more than a half to a total of $915,000. However in response to following international dealings, the budget for the navy increased subsequently.

Not before long, Jefferson learned that Spain had ceded the vast province of Louisiana back to France. Going so far as to suggest to the French that the United States might be willing to join them in overturning Toussaint L‘Ouverture, Jefferson promptly shifted his course. New Orleans was so connected to American interests that if the French gained control of that port, “we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” When the news that the Spanish had suspended the right o Americans to deposit goods in New Orleans reached Washington, Jefferson asked Congress to appropriate a $2 million dollar fund to purchase the port. In company of this, he also requested funds in to increase the army and to build riverboats suitable for a war in the west. Jefferson’s determination was given emphasis when he instructed the American negotiators in Paris to open discussions with the British government just in case the French refused to sell New Orleans.
The attack and seizure of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake by the British warship Leopard in June 1807 just outside of Norfolk gave dramatic emphasis to the British impressments. Although the British government agreed to return the sailors abducted from the Chesapeake and to pay damages, it persisted in claiming the right to board and search foreign vessels to apprehend traitors. Although President Jefferson recognized that the Chesapeake incident had aroused Americans to “a state of exasperation” such which had not been seen since the Battle of Lexington , he knew that the success of his domestic program depended on the maintenance of peace. Having long believed that economic measures could be produced to serve as an effective alternative to war, he was now determined to make the experiment with The Embargo of 1807.

Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison believed that the British, as well as the French, were dependent on American foodstuffs, the principal products carried by American ships. In this light, they also believed that the nation was willing to make sacrifices to gain recompense. So they designed an economic boycott to force the loud-mouths to recognize American neutrality and to observe the neutral right of American sea merchants. In late December of 1807, Congress ratified the administration’s embargo, which prohibited all foreign commerce.
The embargo resulted in a serious economic reduction, which severely disrupted the business of the merchants and ship owners of New England primarily and other states. Those whose livelihood and work depended on foreign commerce unsurprisingly perceived in this policy an obvious bias against the interests of merchants and their accomplices, the farmers. Due to the nation’s vast eastern coastline and extended border with Canada, the embargo proved to be difficult to enforce and relatively easy to evade. And due to this, Congress passed several force acts, some resembling of previous British imperial regulations, to empower customs officials to seize ships and cargoes on the suspicion of the mere intent to sail for Europe. The administration found itself deep in the monitoring of the coastal trade so much that even Jefferson felt it necessary to send troops to upstate New York in order to prevent violations.
With no evidence what so ever to suggest that the boycott was having desired effect on Britain or France the Republican Congress repealed the embargo legislation at the end of Jefferson’s second term. Much was owing to the fact that the Federalist were reaping political gains from the whole ordeal. Commerce with the world was once again permitted, if it was once considered to be impossible.
The Nonintercourse Act of 1809, which replaced the embargo, prohibited all trade with the nation’s principal trading partners, Great Britain and France, until they recognized the maritime rights of neutrals.
James Madison, who succeeded Thomas Jefferson in the presidency of 1809, continued to guide American relations with Europe by the policy of “peaceable coercion.” During his administration, the challenges posed by the Napoleonic Wars became more frequent and menacing.

Jefferson’s election of the presidency put an end to the ideological struggle that had brought the nation to the brink of civil war. In office he fulfilled his promise to reduce government expenditures, taxes, and the national debt ( $83,038,051-$53,173,218 from 1800 to 1809 ). He also expanded his consensus and moved it to the moderate center, gaining the support from Adams Federalists and further eradicating the high Federalists. Faced with challenges to his leadership and opportunities of national import, he demonstrated flexibility, making full use of the tools provided to him by government to establish control and achieve what he regarded to be worthy republican ends.
Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison after him, believed they could alter hostile British policies toward the United Stated by using American commerce and trade as a peaceable weapon, an “alternative to war.” The efforts they took to resolve America’s dependency on and vulnerability to British commercial supremacy were ultimately defeated by events in Europe and the uncertainties of history. Their failed policy did have a positive, although unlikely intended, effect of allowing the new nation time to grow, sparking off the Industrial Revolution, and generating a new spirit of nationalism.
American History


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