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Thomas Jefferson

1789-1793

Jefferson in France 1784-1789

1793-1800

During Jeffersons absence, the Constitution had been drafted, debated, ratified and made law. Under its provisions, George Washington was elected President in New York in the spring of 1789, with John Adams as his vice president. Deep in debt from the formative years of union, Washington looked to emerge from the financial crisis by tabbing New Yorker Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury. To organize foreign diplomacy, Washington named the returning Jefferson as Secretary of State.

Jeffersons original plan had been to take a furlough at Monticello and then to return to France, but faced with the weight of this important responsibility, he was forced to reconsider the matter. There was widespread support for his appointment in political circles, and though the local population wished him for Jefferson to return to the Virginia Assembly, his close friend and adviser James Madison fully encouraged him to accept Washingtons offer. After two months of debate, Jefferson reluctantly agreed to become the first Secretary of State, thus abandoning his dreams of a return to France.

However, before Jefferson reported for work, he played host at the wedding of his eldest daughter Patsy, who had become engaged to marry her distant cousin Thomas Mann Randolph shortly after arriving at home. Jefferson fully approved of his daughters choice, and the festivities were a most happy occasion. It was a marriage that would eventually produce twelve grandchildren for Jefferson. Randolph, although later tinctured by the stain of alcoholism, would work closely with Jefferson in the management of the family estate down through the years. In establishing the family connection, Jefferson deeded one thousand acres and twenty-five slaves to his new son-in-law, thus passing on the legacy of slavery to the next generation.

En route to fulfill his new position, Jefferson drove through a fierce snowstorm, stopping at Philadelphia to visit an ailing Benjamin Franklin, who was to die shortly thereafter. Finally, in March of 1790, Jefferson was sworn in as Secretary of State in New York, a full year after the rest of the administration had been installed. Apart from Hamilton, the other important members of Washingtons cabinet included Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Jeffersons cousin. While Jefferson was fully equipped to execute his duties, he was displeased to find himself within the well-oiled machine of a functioning bureaucracy.

From the first, Jefferson found himself with a crisis on his hands. Amidst competing claims for territory in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest between Britain and Spain, the United States was courted by both sides as a potential ally. These two powers were also in a back-and-forth battle over Florida, struggling to gain the upper hand in developing an American empire. Jefferson felt that a policy of non-alliance would suit the United States best, as it would allow the emerging nation to trade with both sides, boosting the domestic economy without creating any obligatory foreign ties. In addition, he was wary of the British, and thus outraged to learned that Hamilton had usurped his role by engaging in secret negotiations with a member of Parliament.

This was just the beginning of the dispute between Hamilton and Jefferson. They worked together most conspicuously in arranging the Assumption Plan, by which the new federal government would assume all debts previously held by national and state governments. The southern states, being less indebted, were initially hostile to this plan, but eventually acquiesced in exchange for a shift in the nations capital from New York via a ten-year layover in Philadelphia to an eventual site on the Potomac River. Jefferson, who masterminded this exchange, felt at the time that the costs of assumption were a small price to pay in the interests of a shift of federal power from the north to the south. He would later come to regret this bargain, as it greatly increased the power of the federal government over the states.

In order to guarantee that the south would in fact get its federal city, Jefferson set about to initiate its construction at once. To be named Washington, its presidential namesake was given considerable authority over the establishment and layout of the city. The design of the city was turned over to French architect Pierre Charles LEnfant, who supervised all urban planning. Jefferson also played a major role, contributing several drawings to associated architects.

Although the federal interests began to congeal in the design of this new capital, internal discord was rife in Washingtons cabinet. Over the course of his first administration, two distinct strands of thought began to harden into factions, one led by Hamilton, the other by Jefferson. Because Hamiltons party favored the concentration of federal power, they came to be known as the Federalists. Meanwhile, Jeffersons party, which favored the rights of the states and their constituent members, came to be known as the Democratic- Republicans.

Under Hamilton, the Federalist platform held that the United States needed to expand its centralized powers by taking a loose constructionist view of the Constitution. By this approach, the federal government reserved the right to pursue all action and legislation not expressly denied to it in the Constitution. In support of their view, they cited the so-called elastic clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), which provides the federal government with the power to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for the successful furtherance of the nation. At the time, such initiatives included the establishment of a national bank, the encouragement of industry and the furtherance of an autonomous economy. Pro-alliance, the Federalists tended to reserve their sympathies in foreign affairs for the British.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-Republicans furthered a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, by which the federal government enjoyed only those powers expressly delegated to it in the Constitution. To support their view, they pointed to the Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which states that the powers not delegated to the United States...are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. Thus, the Democratic-Republicans, in support of individual rights and distrustful of king-making policies, opposed the strongly nationalistic measures of the Federalists. In addition, under Jefferson they emphasized the role of agrarian America at the expense of industrialization, and encouraged free trade over political alliance. Insofar as the Democratic-Republicans had an ally, it was France, which was in the process of enacting its own radical egalitarian reforms, to mixed and too often bloody success.

In this early political divide lies the key to much of Americas succeeding political heritage. The first spate of name calling was propagated by Hamilton and Jefferson: Jefferson characterizing Hamilton as the architect of a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country; Hamilton satisfied to pithily assess Jefferson as a contemptible hypocrite. Regional differences also began to emerge more clearly in this difficult era. Out of loyalty to New York, Hamilton looked to foster the interests of big business and industry and wished to establish a strong financial base. Jeffersons loyalty to Virginia manifested itself in his devotion to agricultural interests, free trade and states rights. All of these issues would remain as contentious sores on the face of national unity until they gradually drove the union asunder and into civil war.

The political challenge has always been to steer the difficult middle course between the potential tyranny of Hamiltons system and the potential anarchy of Jeffersons system. The greatest irony of all was that Jefferson, the well-born aristocrat, believed in government by the people, and that Hamilton, the illegitimate son of an island tryst, believed in government by an elite. Such reversals are also a part of Americas political legacy: consider the liberality of the high-toned Franklin D. Roosevelt and the conservatism of the down- home Ronald Reagan.

Whereas Washington trusted Jefferson in matters of foreign policy, he tended to follow Hamilton more closely with regard to domestic affairs. Again, the pattern resurfaces even today, as the United States tends to take a Jeffersonian approach to free trade while assuming a Hamiltonian stance in regard to finance. While Jefferson is revered as the more favored statesman, Hamilton made an equally significant imprint on the character of the federal government during these formative years under Washington.

As Hamilton and Jefferson continued to bicker publicly, Washingtons first term drew to a close. Though Jefferson had once again intended to retire from office, he agreed to remain in place after Washington sought and, unopposed, won a second term. Soon after the election results were in, a crisis developed in France, where the newly-established First Republic took the radical step of executing the deposed King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. Then, in February 1793, the French declared war on Britain and the Netherlands, and later against Spain.

Jefferson immediately urged the maintenance of American neutrality, which Washington adopted. However, the arrival of French minister Edmund Genet did much to test this commitment. When Genet began to recruit citizens for a militia in the hopes of making an advance on Spanish Florida, Jeffersons Francophilia came into conflict with his value of neutrality. Eventually, Washington decided to have Genet recalled from the United States, besmirching Jefferson and effectively causing his resignation as Secretary of State.

Though he stayed on in his cabinet position for a period of months, his work in the service of Washington had more or less reached its conclusion. Jefferson labored throughout the yellow fever outbreak that paralyzed Philadelphia that summer, retiring from his post only at years end. Then, with yet another embarrassing episode to usher him out the door, Jefferson once again retired to Monticello, on the mistaken assumption that at age fifty he had finally finished with the trials of public office for all time.

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