The Presidency 1800-1808
Of Jefferson's leadership qualities, Henry Adams noted him to be one of those rare politicians who "dared to legislate as though eternal peace were at hand, in a world torn by wars and convulsions and drowned in blood." In this remark, does the reader apprehend a sense of admiration, or of condemnation, or simply of disbelief? All three sentiments apply equally to the eight years of Thomas Jefferson's presidency: years so replete with controversy, scandal and earth-shaking transformations as to scarcely be believed.
As a new capital city completely lacking in history, Washington was the ideal setting for a man devoted to rural seclusion. In a way, Jefferson was the only game in town for the many domestic and foreign dignitaries who came calling on business. Thus, with the aid of his daughter Patsy and the ever-present Dolly Madison, the President's House became a center of social activity, much like Monticello had been. Thrice-weekly formal dinners were held, noted as much for their moratorium on political discussions as for their distinctive French cuisine, servants, and wines.
In an effort to democratize proceedings, the bow was replaced by the handshake, and round tables took the place of rectangular ones. Eventually, even these reforms proved inadequate, and Jefferson abolished state dinners, considering them to be an undemocratic institution. Nevertheless, he continued to host private functions with vigor throughout his presidency, spending out of his own pocket to keep the standard of entertainment high. He accumulated $4,000 of debt per year in this fashion, and spent over $10,000 on wine alone in his first term in office. After adjusting for inflation, it is by any standard a phenomenal social budget.
Slim, standing six feet, two inches, with a deep, almost ruddy complexion, hair rapidly graying from a reddish-brown, hazel eyes, and a freckled face, Jefferson must have struck visitors as a bizarre combination of awkwardness and distinction. He was described by turns as courteous but reserved, sensitive and perceptive, even-tempered and relaxed, seeming shy and even aloof to some. His leisure activities included a furious mix of reading, letter-writing and horseback riding.
Like the equally haughty Lincoln, Jefferson affected an aggressive manner of rustic simplicity, dressing the part of the aristocratic country farmer, wont to speak in the most down-home, rambling of styles. The President's habit of appearing in rough waistcoats, too-small breeches and down-at-heel slippers, even when receiving honored guests, was a source of surprise to many. In keeping with these democratic window-dressings, Jefferson insisted on what he termed the "pele-mele" approach to entertaining, in which no distinctions of rank were made, and every man was left to place himself rather than relying on a hierarchical seating plan.
As Chief Executive, Jefferson surrounded himself with a cadre of trusted advisers, most prominently James Madison as Secretary of State and Albert Gallatin as Secretary of Treasury. To round out his cabinet, he tabbed a number of loyal Democratic-Republicans, largely replacing the Federalists of the previous administration. Although Jefferson termed these changes as made on the basis of merit, it seems clear that party affiliation played a significant role. For this reason, Jefferson is commonly considered as the father of the modern-day spoils system.
Because of his distaste for public speaking, Jefferson submitted his annual messages to Congress in the form of a written document rather than delivering an oration. This break from precedent became a precedent of its own, and it wasn't until 1913 that President Woodrow Wilson finally resumed the practice of delivering the annual message in a speech. Additionally, the retiring Jefferson spent much time away from Washington, making frequent trips back to Monticello, especially to avoid the swamps during the sickly summer season. The journey included eight river crossings, only three of which were equipped with a bridge or a boat. Despite these hindrances, Jefferson made a concerted effort to return home regularly throughout both administrations.
Via the ideals of Cincinnatus, Jefferson believed that the statecraft was a necessary evil at best, and thus began by attempting to craft policies that would do least to interfere in the everyday lives of citizens. Resolving to repay a significant portion of the national debt while at the same time repealing certain taxes, Jefferson endeavored to cut costs by reducing government expenditures in the maintenance of the federal armed and naval forces. While pursuing his own agenda in earnest, Jefferson also steered clear of many waning Federalist initiatives, allowing measures such as the Alien and Sedition Acts to expire rather than repealing them.
In his own regard, Jefferson began to pursue policies that were virtually Federalist in conception. Although limited in scope, the national bank was retained, for the purposes of limiting debts. An ambitious plan of internal improvements including interstate roads was passed in the wake of Ohio's admission to the Union. Finally, military power was concentrated in the establishment of a national academy at West Point, New York. All of these measures served to boost the power of the federal government, against Jefferson's best intentions to keep it limited.
Even so, Jefferson drew the severe criticisms of his Federalist opponents from the first, especially under the censorious watch of Alexander Hamilton, who bitterly attacked Jefferson in a series of anonymous editorials. In one of his most biting and insightful assessments, Hamilton described Jefferson as the most expert of temporizers, given to "calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage," even in capitulating to the status quo through "the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it."
Democratic-Republican and Federalist interests came into particularly sharp conflict in the judiciary realm. During the waning days of his presidency, John Adams had signed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which provided over two hundred last-minute appointments to judgeships and other high court posts. Many of these were purely political sinecures, highly salaried positions with no specific duties. In this case, the Jefferson administration did encourage and achieve a repeal. Nevertheless, the Federalists maintained a significant majority in the judiciary wing. For lack of a better legal alternative, the Democratic-Republicans this launched a witch hunt in an attempt to impeach as many sitting Federalist justices as possible.
While certain impeachments were successful, the most significant case involved a justice who had been installed under the Judiciary Act of 1801. In hopes of overturning the removal order of a district court, William Marbury applied to the Supreme Court for protection under the right of mandamus, which allowed a high court to place orders upon a lower court . The ensuing decision, known today as Marbury v. Madison, was issued on March 3, 1803 by Chief Justice John Marshall.
Effectively, the Supreme Court denied Marbury's request for protection, not out of an opposition to his claim, but by overturning the legislation that had given them the right to override lower courts in the first place. In nullifying the Judiciary Act of 1789, which had allowed for the right of mandamus, the Supreme Court under Marshall established its right to conclude on the Constitutionality of various legislative measures. This right, known today as judicial review, gave broad powers to the judiciary and laid the foundation for the work of the modern court. Questions of compact and Constitutionality would from this point be decided not by the states themselves, but by the highest federal court.
Although the decision went in favor of the Democratic-Republicans, the implications of the Marbury v. Madison opinion were decidedly pro- Federalist. Jefferson staunchly opposed the right of judicial review, believing that the Supreme Court could not enjoy the exclusive right to interpret the Constitution. To him, the placement of such a right in hands of lifetime appointees was fundamentally contrary to the principles of a republican government.
While Jefferson was of the decided view that "the government must not be the final judge of its own powers," experience would demonstrate to him that such a government is scarcely capable of being called a government at all. Such a formulation reads nobly in abstract terms, but for practical purposes, as President Harry S. Truman later declared, the federal body alone, and the executive within that realm, must ultimately be able to declare that "the buck stops here." In his own version of that time-honored phrase, Jefferson laid down the gauntlet in suspending the Supreme Court for sixteen months in the wake of the Marbury v. Madison decision, abolishing all circuit courts in the process.
In this way, while Jefferson espoused limited government policies, he frequently initiated powerful governing practices. In no case was this more true than in the domain of foreign policy, which Jefferson believed to be the primary domain of the federal government. Thus, even in reducing naval expenditures, he took the bold nationalistic step of initiating a war with the North African principality of Tripoli in the face of escalating tribute demands. But in order to fund the conflict, Jefferson himself was forced to enact a domestic duty on imported goods, in contradiction of his stated view on taxation. Although the United States earned a measure of recognition and a handful of heroes by thus engaging in the so-called Barbary Wars, this was done at the expense of a decade-long fight that culminated indecisively.
Foreign relations with European nations were equally problematic. Because of America's markedly inferior military capacity, Jefferson took the stance that commerce, rather than firepower, was the most reliable diplomatic weapon at his disposal. From the first, agriculture, growing industries and trade routes were crucial to the success of the American experiment. Thus the war with Tripoli; thus the refusal to make alliances and instead to trade freely with all interested parties.
Insofar as Jefferson did wish to ally, he wished to do so on even terms with all European nations. But his ideas for a United-Nations type task force were well ahead of their time, and fundamentally unsuited to the Napoleonic Era. Never so noble as cooperation, relations between the world powers were more often characterized by a strange combination of collusion and conflict. Nowhere was such a state of affairs more evident than in the strange history of the Louisiana Purchase.
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