Professor Dave here, let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson.
No president was such a combination of intellectual greatness and personal hypocrisy as Thomas
At his best, he was one of the shining lights of the American Revolution, an outstanding
polymath of supreme brilliance when such intellects were plentiful.
He was a true Renaissance man; his interests included philosophy, agriculture, history,
architecture, music, literature, botany, and religion, to name but a few.
Well read in virtually every aspect of human inquiry, his library became the foundation
of the Library of Congress, and his treatise Notes on the State of Virginia, is considered
to be the most important book published in the United States before the 19th Century.
As the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, he will be forever remembered
as the greatest articulator of the rights of man in American history.
Though Jefferson, like most of the Founders, is thought to have been a Deist, who felt
God was removed from human affairs, he found the ethical teachings of Jesus to be sublime.
Jefferson’s edited version of the New Testament, which removed the supernatural elements and
references to Jesus’ divinity, known as the Thomas Jefferson Bible, was given to incoming
members of Congress for years as a moral compass.
He was also a strong advocate for religious liberty, always proud of his authorship of
the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
But Jefferson was also a contradictory figure whose life often undercut the great moral
authority of his writings.
The most obvious example is that he, the author of the phrase, “All men are created equal,”
was a slave owner.
Though Jefferson initially included a condemnation of slavery in his draft of the Declaration,
the Congressional Committee removed it as an obvious impediment to unity; the Southern
states would never have approved it.
But he would prove to be something of a coward and hypocrite throughout his public career.
Despite his advocacy for state’s rights in determining the constitutionality of laws,
Jefferson became one of the most ardent proponents of a strong executive power, and was the first
to claim Executive Privilege.
Unlike George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who had risked their lives in battle, as Governor
of Virginia, Jefferson fled when British troops under turncoat Benedict Arnold came for him
in an invasion of Virginia during the war.
Moreover, his political maneuvering against Washington, Hamilton, and John Adams revealed
him to be a political manipulator, always employing surrogates to carry out his character
assassinations, so he could claim the moral high ground.
This was apparent even during his tenure in the Washington Administration when Jefferson
went around spreading rumors about Washington’s mental incompetence because of political differences.
Washington was furious when word got back to him and was about to sack Jefferson, but
he resigned first.
Washington never spoke to him again.
These political differences reveal how even the greatest of minds can be led astray by
Jefferson was convinced that America must remain an agrarian society in order to retain
its moral purity.
Of course, much of this utopian vision relied on a slave-based economy.
And like the opposing Federalist Party, Jefferson’s ideology was also fear-based.
The Federalists, having witnessed the inability of the colonies to govern effectively, favored
a strong central government and rule of educated elites, fearing the mob uprisings of Shays
Rebellion, and the recent Whiskey Rebellion, where President Washington led troops into
Pennsylvania to put down a tax revolt; a reminder that democratic populism could easily descend
Jefferson and the Republicans harbored an equal fear of the Federalists’ supposed
love of monarchy - the same tyranny the Revolution had fought against.
The Jeffersonian view of democracy was the idealistic belief that Nature had wisely scattered
virtue and talent equally through all.
These two contrary views have formed the great tension in American political thought - the
struggle between freedom and democracy; the first calls for the least amount of government
intrusion possible while the second demands that the government protects the ideal that
all citizens have equal rights under the law.
It is a conflict that can never be absolutely resolved; one inevitably leads to anarchy
while the other leads to tyranny.
This is our great ideological struggle, the incompatible dialectic at the very heart of
American political thought.
Neither side is absolutely right or wrong, therefore the tension can only be resolved
when compromise is achieved and consensus formed.
Jefferson was up for the presidency after Washington but lost to John Adams, under whom
he served as vice president.
With Adams’ penchant for royal titles, and the Federalist Congress passing blatant violations
of the Constitution with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson’s worst fears were realized.
It was during his tenure in Washington’s Cabinet that Jefferson clashed with Treasury
Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who continually outmaneuvered Jefferson.
Washington frequently sided with Hamilton, especially in shaping economic policy.
Frustrated, Jefferson took a vacation with James Madison in 1791 to upstate New York.
Madison, known as “Father of the Constitution” and who, along with Hamilton, had authored
the Federalist Papers urging passage of the Constitution, had also grown apprehensive
at the Federalists’ overreaching.
Together, they decided to create an opposition political party that would be called the Republican
Party, though it has become known to history as the Democratic-Republican Party in order
to differentiate it from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, and acknowledge it as
in some ways the foundation of the modern Democratic Party.
This opposition party opposed the Federalist preference for a strong central government
and would champion the rights of the states to manage their own affairs.
It found its greatest reception with the Southern states, which agreed with its agrarian views
and were suspicious of Hamilton’s economic policies, especially his chartered National
Whereas the Federalist Party was seen as the party of elites, the Democratic-Republican
Party would be the party of the common man.
Where the Federalists were seen to favor England, the Jeffersonians leaned towards France.
The primarily Northern Federalists favored the abolishment of slavery; the Southern-based
Democratic-Republicans saw this as government intrusion into its centuries-old economic
way of life.
The Federalists favored a standing Army and Navy; the opposition party saw these as potential
threats for government tyranny.
Thus, the lines had been drawn for the political divisions that still plague us today, right
at the very dawn of the Republic.
But the most tragic legacy of Jefferson and Madison’s understandable resistance to the
Alien and Sedition Acts was their drafting of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
While correctly stating that the Alien and Sedition acts were unconstitutional, arguing
for a stricter interpretation of the Constitution, Madison and Jefferson included proposals that
would come back to haunt America throughout its history.
These “Principles of ʻ98” included the rejection of Federal legislation by the states.
The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, secretly drafted by Jefferson, argued that each individual
state has the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional and void.
The later Kentucky Resolution of 1799, written by Madison, added that when the states determine
that a law is unconstitutional, nullification by the states is the proper remedy.
Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798 refer to the term “interposition” to express
the idea that the states have a right to prevent harm caused by unconstitutional laws, including
a remedy of joint action by the states.
The resolutions were controversial, eliciting disapproval from ten other state legislatures
and from Washington himself.
The former president was appalled, telling Patrick Henry that if pursued, the resolutions
would dissolve the Union, and we will later see how the Jeffersonians had already initiated
the chain of events that would lead to the Civil War.
The 1800 presidential campaign was the first time there were two rival political parties
engaged in an active campaign, though the two candidates, Adams and Jefferson, did not
do any campaigning themselves, as it was thought unseemly to promote oneself for the office.
But behind the scenes, Jefferson hired the first political consultant, journalist James
Callender, to do his dirty work for him.
Callender engaged in character assassination, a master of what today is known as opposition
Not that it was entirely one-sided: the Federalists claimed Jefferson was an atheist, and Callender
had previously exposed Alexander Hamilton’s extra-marital affair during his tenure as
Secretary of the Treasury, revealing that his mistress’ husband had blackmailed Hamilton,
but then also claimed this was proof that Hamilton was engaged in financial corruption
at the Treasury, which was false.
Jefferson employed Callender to smear his opposition and spread rumors in his newspaper.
But after Jefferson’s victory, when Callender sought his reward, demanding a government
position, Jefferson refused.
Callender immediately turned his wrath against the new President, exposing his long affair
with his slave, Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson had six children.
Ironically, it was none other than Alexander Hamilton who made Jefferson’s victory possible.
Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, had achieved the same number of Electoral
College votes, forcing the election to be decided in the House.
Hamilton, though politically opposed to Jefferson, regarded him as “not so dangerous” as
Burr, and while he felt that Jefferson had the wrong principles, he was infinitely preferable
to Burr, who had no principles at all.
Throwing his support behind his long-time rival, Hamilton persuaded his fellow Federalists
to elect Jefferson.
Burr would never forgive Hamilton and four years later, while still Vice President, he
killed him in a duel.
As President, Jefferson was forced to adjust his long-held opposition to executive powers,
though he continued his opposition to standing armies and navies despite foreign provocation.
The first declared foreign war of the United States occurred during Jefferson’s first
year in office.
After independence, without British Naval protection, the Barbary Pirates often captured
American merchant ships, pillaged cargoes, and held crew members for ransom.
Jefferson had long opposed paying tribute to them and in his first year in office, he
authorized a U.S. Naval fleet to make a show of force in the Mediterranean.
After its first engagement, Jefferson asked Congress for a declaration of war.
The Pasha of Tripoli, who governed over a portion of northern coastal Africa, had captured
the USS Philadelphia, so Jefferson authorized the U.S. Consul to Tunis to lead a force to
restore the Pasha’s older brother to the throne.
The U.S. Navy forced Tunis and Algiers into breaking their alliance with Tripoli, and
Jefferson ordered naval bombardments of Tripoli, forcing the Pasha to sign a treaty restoring
peace in the Mediterranean.
This victory was celebrated as vindication of American free trade and a great triumph
Yet Jefferson allowed the Navy to decline, preferring to rely on small gunboats to protect
the American shores.
This would have severe consequences in Jefferson’s second term.
Jefferson was also forced into stretching executive privilege in his most far-reaching
act, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.
The United States had long coveted the crucial French port of New Orleans, and Jefferson
sent James Monroe to negotiate its purchase from France for ten million dollars.
Engaged in its costly European wars, Monroe was stunned by Napoleon’s counter-offer
to sell him the entire French territory, over 800,000 square miles, for just five million
Jefferson seized the opportunity, though he feared his actions might be unconstitutional,
and secured quick authorization from Congress for the purchase.
Overnight, the size of the United States was doubled, propelling the country towards its
future as a transcontinental nation and the idea of Manifest Destiny.
Jefferson, who was a surveyor himself, was eager to have the new territory explored and
mapped so he drafted an expedition.
The president chose Captain Meriwether Lewis for his military background, feeling such
an undertaking required a strong leadership presence.
Jefferson himself tutored Lewis in mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, astronomy,
Lieutenant William Clark, a close friend of Lewis, was second in command.
Lewis and Clark’s expedition embarked from St. Louis in May 1804 and reached the Pacific
Ocean in November 1805, thus establishing a legal claim for American possession of the
Like many presidents since, Jefferson found his second term fraught with difficulties,
many of his own making.
After Vice President Aaron Burr killed Hamilton, he became a pariah and was dropped from the
After leaving office in April 1805, Burr traveled west with Louisiana Territory governor James
Wilkinson and conspired on a number of plots, such as seizing control of Mexico or Spanish
Florida, or even forming a new secessionist state somewhere in the West.
In the fall of 1806, Burr launched a military flotilla carrying about 60 men down the Ohio
Wilkinson renounced the plot, apparently from self-interested motives.
He reported Burr’s expedition to Jefferson, who immediately ordered Burr’s arrest.
On February 13th, 1807, Burr was captured in Louisiana and sent to Virginia to be tried
Burr’s conspiracy trial became a national issue, with Jefferson attempting to influence
the verdict by telling Congress Burr’s guilt was “beyond question”, but the case came
before his longtime political foe John Marshall, who dismissed the treason charge.
Burr’s legal team subpoenaed Jefferson, but he refused to testify, making the first
argument for Executive Privilege.
Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe continued, and Jefferson, a known supporter of the French
Revolution even in its bloodiest days, was outraged by British ships seizing U.S. vessels
and impressing thousands of American sailors into service aboard British warships.
The British ship HMS Leopard fired upon the USS Chesapeake off the Virginia coast in June
1807, and Jefferson prepared for war, issuing a proclamation banning armed British ships
from American waters.
He then assumed unilateral authority to call up one hundred thousand militia, and ordered
the purchase of arms, ammunition, and supplies, claiming, “The laws of necessity, of self-preservation,
of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation” than strict observance
of written laws.
Jefferson called for a special session of Congress to enact an embargo or to consider
war but it had no appetite for such an action.
Jefferson drafted the Embargo Act, an alternative that allowed the U.S. more time to build up
Historians have noted the irony of Jefferson’s assumption of such sweeping powers, with some
claiming the Embargo Act surpassed the Alien and Sedition Acts in its assertion of so much
Federal power, while others note that Jefferson was pursuing policies resembling those he
had cited in 1776 as grounds for independence and revolution.
The Embargo was ineffective and harmful to the U.S. economy, though Jefferson maintained
it was an innovative, nonviolent measure, which had aided France in its war with Britain,
and that it preserved American neutrality.
He believed its failure was due to selfish traders and merchants showing a lack of “republican
virtue,” and maintained that if it had been widely observed, it would have avoided war
He repealed it shortly before leaving office.
On his last day in office, Jefferson remarked he felt like “a prisoner, released from
Jefferson retired to Monticello and continued his pursuit of educational interests, while
founding and designing the University of Virginia.
Always financially burdened, like many farmers of the era, he offered to sell his vast collection
of books to the Library of Congress after it burned down during the War of 1812.
He advised his former colleague James Monroe on the landmark Monroe Doctrine, which bears
He was buried at Monticello, following his death on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary
of his Declaration of Independence.
His epitaph, which he wrote himself, makes no mention of his presidency.
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON, AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE,
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.