Election and Early Presidency 1800-1802
In the United States Census of 1800, 5.3 million Americans were counted. Nearly 1 million of these were slaves, and factoring in for children, women, the aged, and the infirm, only 1 million of this number were able-bodied males. By contrast, Britain boasted 15 million inhabitants, and France 27 million. Of the major American cities, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore combined numbered only 180,000 strong, and no other town could claim a white population of more than 10,000.
Washington, still very much in the midst of construction, would serve as the new capital to the first administration of a new century. The contestants in the presidential race were the same as they had been four years earlier: the incumbent John Adams leading the Federalist bid, with South Carolinian Charles Pinckney in tow, and Jefferson at the head of the Democratic- Republican ticket, alongside Aaron Burr, a New Yorker known for his unctuous political maneuverings.
Though tradition held that the candidates themselves refrain from public campaigning, the respective parties were quite capable of conducting a brutal campaign on their own. Jefferson himself secretly backed the scandal-mongering of a journalist named James Thompson Callender, whose efforts to defame the character of President Adams landed him in prison under the terms of the Sedition Act. Jefferson later denied all affiliation with Callender, but during the campaign itself he had even more pointed attacks to defend.
The Federalist press jumped on Jeffersons liberal views of religion at once, styling him as an immoral atheist who supported the destruction of society and the rise of anarchy. Due to his affiliations with France, they suggested that he too would effect the type of bloody reign of terror that had occurred there, eventually rising up to a position of unmitigated power as Napoleon Bonaparte had done in the previous year (See the Napoleon SparkNote).
Suspected by Federalists of corrupt and subversive tactics, Jefferson wrote a letter to New England clergyman Cotton Mather Smith insisting on his honesty and integrity. This was not enough to ward off a damaging attack on his character by Yale President Timothy Dwight, who delivered a famous sermon railing against Jeffersons immorality. As President, Jefferson would later attempt to defend his religious perspective by producing a study of the life and morals of Jesus, known today as The Jefferson Bible. But by denying the divinity of Jesus, Jefferson likely lost more supporters than he won in the effort.
Throughout his campaign and well into his administration, the atmosphere in the press was markedly anti-Jefferson. In the months leading up to his election, Federalists circulated false rumors of Jeffersons death in order to try to undermine his campaign. Despite such underhanded tactics, Jefferson refused to show a hint of bitterness, and chose to focus instead on his commitment to a limited and unobtrusive government. In one letter from the period, he explained his preference for an overarching media over an overarching government. This commitment to democracy continued to stoke his popularity at a grassroots level, which ultimately proved more important to Jeffersons chances than the support of the intelligentsia.
As with the election of 1796, the results in 1800 were extremely close. However, this time the Democratic-Republicans emerged victorious, polling 73 votes to 65 for the Federalists. As expected, Adams enjoyed a heavy majority in the north, while Jefferson fared better in the south. The swing state proved to be New York, which went to Jefferson largely on the strength of his affiliation with Burr.
By a legislative oddity, while Jefferson had outpolled Adams, he was technically tied with Burr, as the Democratic-Republican electors had failed to distinguish between the two candidates even though Jefferson was clearly earmarked as the leader. Burr, sensing an unforeseen opportunity to become chief executive, refused to relinquish his claim, and the election was thrown to the House of Representatives for a decision. The Federalists, having lost the election, were now given ample power to decide between the lesser of two evils. Even though Alexander Hamilton had retired from the political scene, he still wielded tremendous influence over the Federalist party, and though he despised Jefferson, he found Burr to be even more despicable. Still, there were plenty of other delegates who, objectionable as Burr was, preferred him to the more radical Jefferson.
Finally, after an extended period of hemming and hawing, Jefferson was named President on February 17, 1801, on an extraordinary thirty-sixth ballot. The process might have been even more protracted but for the impending inauguration, which was a mere fortnight away. In the absence of a clear policy with regard to an inconclusive election, some Federalists had even discussed installing newly appointed Chief Justice John Marshall as President until a clear winner emerged. This plan was aborted just in time, but not before Marshall gained a sense of his own powers that would carry into Jeffersons administration and beyond, radically transforming the role of the judiciary within the federal government framework.
Thus, two weeks after gaining the title of President-elect, Jefferson was sworn in as the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801, in the first inauguration ceremonies to be held at Washington. Never a particularly effective public speaker, Jeffersons First Inaugural Address was delivered with characteristic awkwardness, barely audible to most of the assembled gathering. But if the manner of the speech was wanting for effect, the matter certainly was not. Most significant was Jeffersons famous case for unity in the midst of his unusual succession, encapsulated in his remark that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.
By any account, such a statement was inconsistent with Jeffersons heretofore unabashed hostility toward Federalist policy: here was the victor attempting to patch over the wounds of the defeated. As President, Jeffersons policy decisions frequently measured up more closely to Federalist principles than to Democratic-Republican principles. Under pressure to function as an assertive, strong leader, Jefferson had little choice but to embrace the increasing powers of the federal government in places.
Though perhaps disingenuous at the time, Jeffersons cryptic remark came to possess a measure of truth to it. Over time, as the Democratic-Republican party began to assume more and more Federalist characteristics, distinctions between the two traditions became harder and harder to make. Jeffersons two terms in office were followed by two terms under the leadership of James Madison, who had served as Jeffersons Secretary of State. In turn, Madisons own Secretary of State, James Monroe, served two terms as President. Thus, Jeffersons Democratic-Republican dynasty, marked by the presidencies of three closely aligned Virginians, lasted 24 years. During the presidency of Monroe, known today as the Era of Good Feelings, an opposition party could scarcely be found.
At the time of his First Inaugural Address, Jefferson began to lay out the planks that would mark his transition to from states-rights advocate to a more decidedly federal thinker. In an abrupt about-face on the question of nullification, Jefferson stated the necessity for absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which there is no appeal but force. Recognizing the Federalist nature of this remark, he moderated his stance by promising to advocate for a wise and frugal government, dedicated to peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none and committed to economy in the public expense.
These, like many campaign and election promises that have followed in the two hundred years since, went largely unfulfilled.
Once installed in office, Jeffersons first executive act was to pardon Callender, the muckraking journalist who had been imprisoned under the terms of the Sedition Act for impugning the character of President Adams. Not satisfied with a mere pardon, Callender applied to Jefferson for an appointment as postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. When Jefferson refused him, Callender resolved to expose Jefferson even more fiercely than he had done with Adams.
Callenders first attacks appeared in February of 1802, and included allegations that Jefferson had attempted to seduce a married woman in his youth, that he had carried on an affair with a slave through much of his maturity, and that he had conspired with Callender in the attacks against Adams. Because Callender was a raging alcoholic, who died in a drunken debauch a mere eighteen months later, many have discounted his charges as fabrications. However, in hindsight, all three of the charges may well have been true.
At the time, Jefferson privately owned up to the first indiscretion, but denied an involvement in the others. In public, he kept a characteristically stiff upper lip. Nevertheless, Callenders accusations cast an undeniable shadow over the Jefferson presidency: a presidency marked both by its enormous successes and its intractable trials.
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