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11.1: Jefferson

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    In Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the Federal government, less was more. A smaller government meant less strain on, and more freedom for, the people. To this end, Jefferson set about shrinking the government during his first term in office. He cut back on anything he considered unnecessary, such as the army and navy. At the same time, he funded exploration and expansion to give the young country room to grow.

    Jefferson’s Values

    These acts reflected Jefferson’s values. Jefferson’s well-known love of farming was more than just his personal hobby; it also reflected the tremendous value he placed on an agrarian society. Jefferson believed that the United States would best be served by a strong agricultural base with as many land owners as possible. He believed land ownership supported good citizenship by giving people a tangible reason to be invested in the success and security of their state.

    Jefferson’s values included the relationship of a nation’s government and its citizenry. Jefferson differed from his Federalist predecessors in his view that government should be limited. To Jefferson’s mind, citizens should be allowed to pursue life, liberty, and happiness with minimal interference from the Federal Government. Because of this view, Jefferson opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; when he became president, he pardoned those arrested under them. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were drafted secretly by Jefferson and James Madison in response to the Acts. These Resolutions, which declared that states had the right to judge the constitutionality of Acts of Congress, also provided that states had the right to declare such Acts null if they were found to be unconstitutional. Although the Alien and Sedition Acts expired, the ideas expressed in the Resolutions continued to be supported by states-rights advocates and would eventually contribute to the founding principles of the Confederacy.

    The Napoleonic Wars also called for Jefferson to act upon his values. These wars had been a cause of concern for the United States. Some, such as Adams, wanted ties with Great Britain; others, such as Jefferson, favored France. With the two nations in question at war, many believed the United States would inevitably be drawn into the fray. This very fear had led to Congress authorizing the Direct Tax of 1798 to raise funds to support the military when the conflict came to American shores. Jefferson not only repealed the tax as unnecessary, he also reduced the army to just two regiments, preferring to rely on militia instead; he additionally cut back the navy. By reducing the professional military, Jefferson slashed the defense budget. Although Jefferson felt a large standing army was an expense the nation did not need, he understood the need for professional officers. One of the early problems during the revolution had been the lack of well-trained officers. The solution was the establishment of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. The cadets who attended West Point were drawn from all states in the United States.

    Careful diplomacy kept the United States largely out of the international wars, the exception being the War in Tripoli which was a conflict with the Barbary Pirates of the North African coast. During his first term, therefore, it seemed that Jefferson was right. On the home front, Jefferson also deftly dealt with several issues, including relations with Indians.

    Forging a New Indian Policy

    As a new nation, the United States faced the problem of negotiating a new relationship with the many Indian nations of the region. The most important question that the government faced was a matter of precedence. Should the government follow the patterns established by the British, or should the U.S. forge a new path in Indian policy? The Constitution established that the federal government was the authority in Indian relations. Indian tribes were regarded as foreign powers; Congress held the power to negotiate treaties and set rules for the sale of Indian lands. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory in the Great Lakes area, the first organized territory in the United States. The Ordinance addressed the relationship between the government and Indian nations, stating that the government would observe the “utmost good faith” in its negotiations; the United States would inevitably expand, but Congress desired expansion with honor. In 1790, Congress passed the first in a series of acts that came to be known as the Indian Intercourse Act, which established that no individual or state could trade or negotiate land sales with Indians without the permission of the federal government. Ultimately, the United States held one clear goal that shaped the structure of Indian relations: to assert their claim to the lands east of the Mississippi River while avoiding war with Indians.

    When Thomas Jefferson came to the presidency, he had two main goals for federal Indian policy. First and foremost, he wanted to assure the security of the United States and sought to ally Indian groups with the United States through treaties. Such treaties would prevent the encroachment of European powers through native alliances. These treaties also sought to gain land and promote trade.

    Second, Jefferson sought to acculturate Indian populations through “civilizing” programs, a policy begun under the Federalists. Jefferson believed that the essence of U.S. policy was coexistence with the Indians, which would result in their gradual acculturation to “American” ways. Contact with “civilization,” Jefferson believed, would transform native peoples and bring peace between Indians and settlers. Jeffersonian views were consistent with earlier U.S. Indian policy in that concern about land and expansion deeply informed his ideas. As Indians became “civilized” by replacing hunting with farming, Jefferson argued, they would require less land as their lifestyle and subsistence patterns changed, thereby freeing up land for white settlers. Although Jefferson’s views were progressive for his time, they failed to take into account that many native groups were already highly productive agriculturalists, albeit agriculturalists who did not use Euro-American technology and methods. Instead, Jefferson’s vision for Indians closely resembled his ideal for Americans: the yeoman farmer.

    Jeffersonian Indian policy focused its greatest efforts on this idea of civilizing Indians. To this end, civilizing programs were established to educate native peoples in Euro-American farming methods. Artisans such as blacksmiths worked with Indian apprentices to maintain plows and farming equipment. Jefferson encouraged missionaries from protestant churches to take part in the civilizing process, and hundreds of missionaries established themselves among many groups all over the country and in the territories. Finally, he authorized the dispatch of Indian agents to educate and civilize Indians by persuading them to adopt American agricultural methods. The civilizing programs met with its greatest success in the South.

    While the president did honestly seek coexistence with many native groups, he also recognized that, inevitably, some groups would resist encroachment by white settlers. Jefferson understood that all Indian relations eventually came down to matters of land and expansion, and some groups would be pushed aside in favor of white settlers. Indeed, this was already happening. Individuals and tribes alike were falling into debt with private trading houses. As a result, they were forced to sell their lands bit by bit to pay their debts. For example, in 1773 the Creeks had agreed to cede land to Georgia to cover debts owed to traders. In a letter to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, Jefferson wrote,

    When they [the Indians] withdraw themselves to the culture of a small piece of land, they will perceive how useless to them are their extensive forests, and will be willing to pare them off from time to time in exchange for necessaries for their farms and families. To promote this disposition to exchange lands, which they have to spare and we want, for necessaries, which we have to spare and they want, we shall push our trading uses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals among them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands. At our trading houses, too, we mean to sell so low as merely to repay us cost and charges, so as neither to lessen or enlarge our capital. This is what private traders cannot do, for they must gain; they will consequently retire from the competition, and we shall thus get clear of this pest without giving offence or umbrage to the Indians. In this way our settlements will gradually circumscribe and approach the Indians, and they will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi.

    This method would not be the only means of obtaining Indian lands. Jefferson was the first president to propose removal of tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River. In cases where tribes resisted the civilizing programs, Jefferson argued, their removal to lands west of the Mississippi was the best course of action. He recommended that the Shawnee and the Cherokee be among the tribes removed to the west. Although these groups were not removed under Jefferson, the idea of removal became an important part of the Indian policy of the United States, and ultimately was carried out under the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

    Louisiana Purchase

    Jefferson was opposed to unnecessary expenditures, yet at the same time, with the value he placed on land, he could not pass up a bargain when it came along. The Louisiana Territory had been claimed by Spain and was ceded to France in 1800 during the Napoleonic Wars. While under Spanish control, the United States had been denied access to New Orleans. Jefferson and Congress were in agreement that control of New Orleans and the Mississippi was of vital interest to the United States. The reason why is clear—the Mississippi and its contributing rivers provide access to the interior of the North American continent from the Gulf of Mexico almost to Canada. Any westward expansion of the country would involve the Mississippi. Even so, did Jefferson have the right to make the purchase? Nothing in the Constitution granted Jefferson the power to make such an arrangement. This fact troubled Jefferson and others whose political philosophy was marked by their strict adherence to the Constitution. But Jefferson’s dream of an agrarian society depended on having farmable land for the masses, and that desire outweighed any Constitutional considerations. Jefferson assigned Robert Livingston and James Monroe the task of completing the purchase for the United States. Napoleon, the seller, was motivated to sell, helping to ease the transaction along. On behalf of the United States, Livingston and Monroe signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty and Conventions in Paris on April 30, 1803. The purchase was essentially concluded late in 1803. For $15 million, which worked out to mere pennies per acre, the United States gained enough territory to double in size.

    Lewis and Clark Expedition

    At the same time that the Louisiana Purchase was being debated in Congress, Jefferson asked for a much smaller sum of money, only $2,500, to fund a mission of exploration led by Captain Merriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark. Jefferson was clear about the mission at hand and, with his typical attention to detail, gave instructions covering everything from where the expedition should begin and end, to what equipment and supplies they should have, to how they should take notes and how to handle the natives and even how to organize the leadership of the expedition in the event that the original leaders perished on the journey. What follows are excerpts from Jefferson’s rather lengthy letter:

    20 June 1803

    To Meriwether Lewis esq. Capt. of the 1st regimt. of infantry of the U. S. of A.

    Your situation as Secretary of the President of the U. S. has made you acquainted with the objects of my confidential message of Jan. 18, 1803 to the legislature; you have seen the act they passed, which, tho’ expressed in general terms, was meant to sanction those objects, and you are appointed to carry them into execution.

    The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by its course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregan, Colorado or and other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.

    Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take careful observations of latitude & longitude, at all remarkeable points on the river, & especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, & other places & objects distinguished by such natural marks & characters of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognised hereafter. The courses of the river between these points of observation may be supplied by the compass the log-line & by time, corrected by the observations themselves. The variations of the compass too, in different places, should be noticed.

    The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri, & of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific ocean, should also be fixed by observation, & the course of that water to the ocean, in the same manner as that of the Missouri.

    In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly & conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey, satisfy them of its innocence, make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable & commercial dispositions of the U.S. of our wish to be neighborly, friendly & useful to them, & of our dispositions to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums, and the articles of most desireable interchange for them & us. If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, and furnish them with authority to call on our officers, on their entering the U.S to have them conveyed to this place at the public expense. If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, & taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct & take care of them. Such a mission, whether of influential chiefs or of young people, would give some security to your own party. Carry with you some matter of the kinepox; inform those of them with whom you may be, of it’[s] efficacy as a preservative from the small-pox; & instruct & incourage them in the use of it. This may be especially done wherever you winter.

    As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be recieved by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe the exact degree of perseverance with which you are to pursue your journey. We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorised opposition of individuals or of small parties: but if a superior force, authorised, or not authorised, by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit, and return. In the loss of yourselves, we should lose also the information you will have acquired. By returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with better calculated means. To your own discretion therefore must be left the degree of danger you may risk, and the point at which you should decline, only saying we wish you to err on the side of your safety, and to bring back your party safe even it if be with less information.

    Given under my hand at the city of Washington this 20th day of June 1803.

    Th. Jefferson

    Pr. U.S. of America

    The three-year expedition would travel from the Mississippi across the Northwest to the Pacific. They failed to find the Northwest Passage, a waterway that could be navigated all the way to the Pacific, as none exists, but Lewis and Clark brought back a wealth of other information on the Indians, geography, and the flora and fauna of the areas they explored. Their achievement was quite notable, and yet in their own time, largely ignored.

    Screenshot (243).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Lewis and Clark | This image shows Lewis and Clark while on their journey to find the Northwest Passage. artist: Frederic Remington Source: Library of Congress

    Judicial Issues

    The bad blood and immense distrust between the Federalists and the Republicans created some judicial controversies. Federalists dominated Congress; to stop Jefferson from being able to appoint a Republican to the Supreme Court, they reduced the number of justices from six to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801. This act also created many new judicial positions further down the system, many of which were filled with Adams’s appointees. These included lifetime appointments that Adams filled with one of his last actions as president; however, not all the commissioning documents were delivered before the end of Adams’s term. James Madison, the incoming Secretary of State for Jefferson’s administration, refused to deliver those remaining commissions, in this way keeping several Federalists out of office. One of the last-minute appointees was William Marbury, a rich Federalist. Marbury was determined to have his appointment, and so took his case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, which was packed with Federalists, was led by the Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall, Adams’s Secretary of State was himself one of the last and most significant judicial appointments Adams made. Marshall’s court heard the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison. The court agreed with Marbury that Madison should have delivered the commissions yet ultimately ruled against Marbury because the Court also found that the law under which Marbury made his petition to the Supreme Court, the Judiciary Act of 1789, was unconstitutional. The court’s 1803 decision in that case established the Supreme Court as the final defense of the Constitution with the power to review and strike down any law or portion of a law that it rules as being unconstitutional. With this decision, the Court also demonstrated that although it too is the head of a branch of the Federal Government, it could rise above politics and stand apart from the legislative and executive branches of government, setting the tone for Marshall’s long and distinguished service as Chief Justice.

    Jefferson’s Second Term

    Jefferson’s first term in office was a great success. The nation enjoyed peace, its territory doubled, its debt almost halved, and taxes were reduced. Jefferson’s renomination by his party was assured, though he would choose a new running mate, Governor George Clinton of New York. The glaring problem with the election process that had left Jefferson contending with his own vice-presidential running mate for office in 1800 had been fixed with the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. Jefferson won by a landslide.

    The one dark cloud for Jefferson and his party was his first-term vice president, Aaron Burr. Burr, who had never enjoyed a close relationship or the confidence of Jefferson, and understanding that he would not be considered for the vice-presidency in 1804, looked elsewhere to continue his political career. He set his sights on being governor of New York but lost the election. One figure who contributed to that loss was staunch Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who despised Burr. Their personal enmity dated back over a decade to the time when Burr ran against Hamilton’s father-inlaw for a seat in the Senate and won. Burr was so angered by Hamilton’s interference in his career that he challenged him to a duel. Hamilton accepted for honor’s sake, and they met on the morning of July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey.

    Although illegal in both New York and New Jersey, duels were not uncommon. The duel between Burr and Hamilton followed classic rules: two men, each with a second; two single-shot pistols which they loaded themselves; then, standing 10 paces apart, they fired at will when given the command. Hamilton’s shot missed; Burr’s did not. From the letters and statements of the time, it seems Hamilton intentionally missed. He fell to the ground, mortally wounded. Burr moved towards him but then turned and departed, as was proper. The witnesses agreed the duel was well done. Hamilton sat on the ground with the support of his second and told the attending physician the injury was fatal before passing out. Hamilton was removed to a boat for the trip back to New York with the doctor working to revive him. Hamilton did not die an easy death, lingering until the afternoon of the following day. Hamilton lost his life, but Burr lost his political career. For all his accomplishments, Burr became known primarily as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton. He finished out his term as vice president, then left Washington.

    During Jefferson’s second term, Burr became involved in a scheme that resulted in his being charged with treason in 1806. Burr was determined to make a fortune and looked for opportunity in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. In various conversations with many different people, both American and foreign, Burr expressed the idea that the people of Louisiana were unhappy with American control. He also looked to a possible revolt by Mexico against the Spanish and possible war between the Spanish and Americans as opportunities to gain personal control over territory that belonged to the United States. Some of the people Burr shared his ideas with were alarmed and believed he was talking treason. This news reached Jefferson who then demanded that Burr be charged with treason. He was eventually arrested and brought to Richmond, Virginia for trial, with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall presiding.

    Burr was acquitted due to lack of evidence. There were neither sufficient witnesses nor physical evidence against him, particularly as the most important letter from Burr was lost. Among the evidence the prosecution wanted to use were documents held by Jefferson. The case is interesting because Jefferson argued that the right of executive privilege gave him the power to determine what documents he should turn over to the court for the trial, rather than simply handing over anything the attorneys in the case requested. Jefferson wanted Burr convicted, but felt that defending the independence of the executive branch was of greater importance.

    Foreign Pressures

    One of the reasons for the success of Jefferson’s first term as president was his ability to steer the United States well clear of the conflicts consuming Europe. Jefferson had managed to limit the military engagements to relatively small encounters with Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean. The Napoleonic Wars, particularly between France and Great Britain, threatened the neutrality of the United States. Both Great Britain and France repeatedly stopped U.S. merchant ships, seizing cargo and sailors. Britain was the worst offender, using the excuse of searching for deserters from the Royal Navy. Many sailors indeed deserted from the Royal Navy due to the miserable conditions on British ships: bug-infested food, bad water, harsh punishments, and long voyages all made service in the Royal Navy a difficult experience even for those sailors who had freely enlisted. Many had been forced into the Royal Navy by press gangs under a policy known as Impressment. Impressed men were kidnapped from bars, streets, and other ships because the Royal Navy was desperately short on labor. The gangs were not picky about a new recruit’s nationality. When they boarded the American ships and took sailors away, they claimed to be taking English citizens; in fact, they captured Americans as well. The British captains could not afford to care about the origins of their crews; lacking a full crew could cost a ship a victory, and defeat often meant death for most, if not all, on board.

    The American people were increasingly outraged by stories of American ships being boarded and Americans being impressed into British service. They expected Jefferson to respond. In 1807, the HMS Leopard approached an American military vessel, the frigate USS Chesapeake, and demanded to search the ship for deserters. The captain of the Chesapeake, James Barron, refused. The Leopard opened fire, damaging the Chesapeake, killing three members of the crew, and wounding several others. Barron responded with one shot before surrendering. Members of the Leopard boarded the Chesapeake and removed four men they said were deserters. While all the men had in fact served in the Royal Navy, three were Americans who had been previously press-ganged. The one who was British was subsequently hung for desertion by the Royal Navy.

    Screenshot (244).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Presidential Election map, 1808 | In the 1808 election, Republican James Madison of Virginia easily defeated Federalist Charles Pinckney of South Carolina as well as an independent Republican George Clinton of New York. Author: National Atlas of the United States Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Jefferson wanted to avoid warfare if at all possible. He continued to try diplomacy without success. So, rather than go to war, Jefferson proposed instead to fight an economic battle with the Embargo Act of 1807. The Act was expected to have a negative economic impact on both Great Britain and France of such a degree as to cause both countries to cease their harassment and abuse of American shipping. Instead the Act had little impact on either country, and both continued to ignore American neutrality. American shipping, however, was devastated by the embargo: American merchants were unable to sell their American-produced goods to Britain and France, thus creating economic hardship at home. Jefferson and the Republicans consequently lost favor with the people, who blamed them for not defending American shipping and for causing the financial crisis. The Federalist Party, which had been in decline, suddenly revived, and even Jefferson realized the embargo was a failure, leading to its repeal in 1809. The repeal of the embargo came too late to salvage Jefferson’s second term as president, which was an unexpected disappointment following the tremendous success of his first term.

    Although damaged by the problems of Jefferson’s second term, the Republicans still managed to win the White House once again in the election of 1808, placing James Madison, another Virginian and close confidant of Jefferson, in the presidency. Jefferson retired to his estate, Monticello, while Madison was left to find a solution to the ongoing conflict with Britain and France that had so vexed Jefferson.


    Jefferson believed in small government and supporting an agrarian society. He felt that proper use of diplomacy would avoid international conflicts, making a standing army unnecessary. His first term in office seemed to bear out his ideas, but his second term exposed their flaws, especially in international affairs. Jefferson believed expansion of territory was necessary for the nation to grow. He realized that something had to be done about the Indians, as there was no way to expand the nation without entering Indian territory. Jefferson hoped that the Indians could be drawn peacefully into American society, thereby making territorial expansion a natural outcome for all concerned.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Jefferson believed in Big Government.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Acquisition of land was the most important motivating factor in the formulation of early U.S. Indian policy.

    1. True
    2. False

    Add texts here. Do not delete this text first.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Jefferson’s efforts to use economic pressure to solve the situation with Britain and France were successful.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Lewis and Clark found the Northwest Passage.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{5}\)

    The Louisiana Purchase doubled the territory of the United States.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{6}\)

    Jefferson’s second term was as successful as his first.

    1. True
    2. False


    This page titled 11.1: Jefferson is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Locks, Sarah Mergel, Pamela Roseman, Tamara Spike & Marie Lasseter (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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