Regional factionalism in the United States is nothing new: it reached its peak during the Civil War, and persists to this day in subtle economic and political manifestations (See the Civil War SparkNote). Jefferson's administrations were replete with factional intrigue and secessionist plots. And behind every scheme, or so it seemed, was Aaron Burr.
The first winds of secession were stirred by the Louisiana Purchase and its attendant increase in federal power. A group of New England Federalists aspired to bring New York down the road to eventual secession, and believed the support of Burr necessary to such an end. As sitting New York governor George Clinton had been named to replace Burr as Vice President on Jefferson's re-election ticket, a plan was concocted to elect Burr as governor of New York. From there, the secession could proceed as a bipartisan initiative.
It might have worked except for the fact that Alexander Hamilton, powerful as ever within the Federalist Party, blocked Burrs aspirations, not trusting his democratic tendencies. When one of Hamiltons letters impugning Burrs character was published, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, and Hamilton accepted. With this, on July 11, 1804, Burr shot Hamilton dead on an open plain at Weehawken, New Jersey, and immediately fled south to reassess his political future.
Meanwhile, Jefferson was suffering the abuse of another hostile election campaign. Heaps of abuse were piled upon him for his alleged affair with Sally Hemings and for his inconsistencies as a philosopher and a politician. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the public held the Louisiana Purchase in high esteem, choosing to value the acquisition of new lands as a more important factor than the corresponding defamation of the Constitution. In the national election, Jefferson won in a landslide, with 162 electoral votes to 14 for the Federalist candidate, Charles Pinckney. In a surprising turn of events, perhaps precipitated by the death of Hamilton, Jefferson carried every New England state except Connecticut, signaling the death knell of the Federalist Party and the near-total dominance of the Democratic-Republicans.
As leader of the unquestioned ruling party, Jefferson found himself with leeway to pursue his increasingly nationalistic agenda. In his Second Inaugural Address, Jefferson announced that the acquisition of new territory necessitated internal improvements and a stronger military force. Again, while these policies were in contradiction to his earlier stated views on states rights and limited federal authority, changing times called for changing measures. As Ralph Waldo Emerson later put it, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. By all measures, Jefferson's mind was anything but little.
During these middle years of his presidency, Jefferson spent a significant amount of time grieving for personal losses. First and foremost was the loss of his daughter Polly, who died from complications of childbirth at the age of twenty-four. More sinisterly, Jefferson lost his longtime friend and mentor George Wythe. Wythe, who had fathered a son by his slave mistress, was poisoned by a nephew who suspected that Wythe would favor the mulatto son in his will. Such an unusual turn of events must have weighed heavily upon Jefferson, who himself was entangled to various degrees with several mulatto slaves.
But beyond his immediate situation, Jefferson had plenty of unusual factors to concern himself with in the wider national and international scene. Most prominent among these was the bizarre conspiracy afoot under the direction of the beleaguered Burr, who recruited various domestic and foreign charges in an attempt to undermine Jeffersons growing empire. Among the prominent future leaders associated with the conspiracy were Henry Clay, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, who together with Burr discussed the project of effecting a secession of southern and western territories. Under the proposed system, Burr would rule as a benevolent dictator, to be succeeded by his sister Theodosia Allston.
Burrs scheme was supported by several wealthy southern and western landowners who wanted to eradicate the Spanish from Florida and Texas. In addition, he had the support of many French speaking inhabitants of the Louisiana Territory. His one failing was to gain the endorsement of Britain, who refused to recognize his plot despite the promise of diplomatic privilege.
In the midst of this vast conspiracy, Jefferson chose to remain in the bliss of ignorance, rather than take an active role in quashing Burr and his associates. But when word of plans for a Washington coup reached Jefferson, the wind shifted. In the possession of compromising information leaked to him by Deputy Governor of the Louisiana Territory, James Wilkinson, who had been implicated in the conspiracy from early days before abandoning the scheme, Jefferson finally decided to apprehend and try Burr on grounds of treason.
In the trial at Richmond, familiar battle lines developed, as Chief Justice John Marshall presided over a case that Jefferson had a vested interest in. Cognizant of his own oversights in failing to prosecute the matter more carefully, Jefferson was perhaps as criminally negligent as Burr was treacherous. Thus, when Marshall summoned Jefferson to testify with regard to the conspiracy, Jefferson flatly refused, asserting the right of executive privilege over the judicial domain.
In return for this presumption, Marshall acquitted Burr by giving a characteristically narrow interpretation on the matter of treason, and claiming the burden of proof to be unfulfilled. Burr immediately fled to Europe, later returning to New York where he lived out the rest of his life as a low profile attorney. Jefferson was disgraced by what he viewed as a blatant obstruction of justice. Although he later resolved to pursue Marshalls impeachment in consequence, the threat proved empty, and Marshalls judiciary scored yet another moral victory over Jeffersons executive powers.
Weakened in the national balance, Jefferson also suffered in terms of international diplomacy. As his second administration progressed, he took an increasingly insular stance on economic and political questions. Wishing to avoid the complicated alliances of a Europe at war with itself, Jefferson resolved to remain neutral in order to maintain American shipping interests. In truth, the United States was aligned to degrees with both Britain and France, the former as a result of limited treaties by John Jay and thereafter by James Monroe, and the latter by Jeffersons continuing affection for the French.
By staying neutral, United States shipping interests grew rapidly, and trade boomed. Political consequences occurred as more and more British seaman defected from the Royal Navy in order to profit from work on American merchants. In fact, by the first decade of the nineteenth century, well over half of the American merchant marine consisted of British defectors.
To counteract the depletion of their military forces, the British took an active role in reclaiming their losses via the search and seizure of American ships. All sailors under suspicion were prone to impressment, including up to one thousand Americans each year. While America continued to profit in the midst of such impressment, the effrontery of the British Navy was a blot on national pride and sense of sovereignty.
In truth, the United States was essentially powerless to stop such abuses. The British Navy dwarfed the American fleet, and would continue to do so for decades. Thus, to counteract impressment, American legislators were left with their familiar weapon of dollar diplomacy, or war via economics. Even in this realm, the British dwarfed the Americans, as the vast majority of manufactured good in America were British imports. In return, the Americans had an agricultural arsenal, but so did many other parts of the world.
Nevertheless, in a throwback to Revolutionary times, a series of non-intercourse proposals were passed and later suspended, placing a brief spate of economic sanctions upon Britain without actually carrying them through to catastrophic effect. Such a strong measure in restriction of foreign trade, even if temporary, lost Jefferson many supporters within his own party, chief among them his fellow Virginian John Randolph. These opponents once again railed against the increasing powers of the federal government, but were drowned out by Jeffersons manifold supporters.
If America was attempting to throw a wrench into the British trade dynamic, France attempted to grind the system to a complete halt. Via his Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806, Napoleon proposed to blockade all British ports, and further, to seize any neutral ship engaged in traffic with the British. This grandiose and truly global scope of this decree was so sweeping as to be virtually unenforceable. While British ships were placed under a watchful eye, many neutral nations, including the United States, were scarcely pestered in the ensuing twelve months.
Tensions between Britain and America boiled over in the following summer, when the American ship Chesapeake was attacked by the British frigate Leopard. On the brink of war with Britain, Jefferson again pulled back, preferring to negotiate trade terms in hopes of ending further impressments. Recognizing Americas increasing economic influence, and refusing to concede their own naval authority, Britain responded by passing their Orders in Council of November 1807. By this measure, the British imposed a corresponding blockade on France and its various ports. Again, the practicability of such legislation was questionable at best. But more significantly for American relations, the Orders in Council also decreed that American ships would be seized in places where Britain was blockaded, in effect denying the legitimacy of American sovereignty.
When word of the Orders in Council reached American shores, Congress moved quickly and decisively to issue a firm and uncompromising Non-Intercourse Act on December 14, 1807. Days later, the situation became even more dire when word arrived that Napoleon intended to make good on the Berlin Decree, and to prevent the furtherance of British trade with neutral nations. Such a proposal, later formulated as the Milan Decree, was possible because of Napoleons sweeping domination of the European continent.
Refusing to accept such an imposition, but quavering at the prospect of war with such a formidable power, Jefferson helped to push through the Embargo Act of December 22, 1807. By this extreme and unparalleled legislation, all export trade was expressly forbidden, and America became by law an economical island unto itself. Even more notably, no fixed limit was placed on the embargo. In a further expansion of executive power, Congress granted Jefferson latitude to raise a standing army, and to suspend the embargo at his discretion.
With sanctions already laid out by Britain and France in regard to trade, the voice of the United States was but a self-important drop in the global bucket. Britain controlled a massive empire including Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand throughout the nineteenth century. At the height of its power, the French Empire dominated every coastal area of Europe save Denmark. Napoleon had installed family members in various positions of rank across the continent, and was poised to turn his attention to Russia, India, and the Spanish Empire in the Americas. His ultimate intention was to ruin Britain by completely freezing it out of contact with its colonies and other remaining neutral nations. If successful, France would be without peer, and world domination would ensue.
The United States was a minor concern in Napoleons grand scheme, and by dangling Florida as bait in front of an acquisitive Jefferson, France hoped to keep American hostility at bay. As French Foreign Minister Talleyrand phrased it, Florida was an enticement to Jefferson that would in fact only serve to enlarge the circumference of his bubble. But in truth, it was Napoleons bubble that was about to burst. With a tenuous hold on Spain, Napoleon suffered his first major embarrassment in the summer of 1808 with the flight of his brother Joseph from Madrid and the loss of the key port cities of Cadiz and Lisbon. As a result, Napoleons dreams of conquest in the Western Hemisphere were all but evaporated, and his very hold on Europe began to ebb.
Even so, a weakened France was still a strong France, and Britain continued to possess the most powerful navy in the world. Although Jefferson may have profited from an unequivocal alliance with Britain at a judicious moment, he chose to refrain. National sentiment alone precluded him from making open friends with Napoleon, whether he would have or not. Instead of picking sides, Jefferson attempted to continue a middle course, which would ultimately destroy the total progress he had worked so hard to maintain.
For the first seven years of Jeffersons presidency, the United States economy had boomed thanks to the shrewd tactics of Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin. Now, in a matter of months, the entire economy was left in shambles at the hands of an ineffective embargo. For while embargo may have been a policy noble in principle, averting war as it did, it was for all practical intents and purposes a failure. Smuggling became rampant, and law-abiding sailors lay idle while the previously booming export economy ground to an official halt. Energy formerly devoted to profit was subsequently devoted to ineffective law-enforcement. The American trade was virtually decimated, but remained active enough through illicit channels to undermine the intended effect of the embargo. And further than simply outstripping the costs of war, the embargo yielded none of the gains and created internal discord.
Once again, the executive sweep of the embargo motivated talk of secession in New England. To its harshest critics, the embargo was a violation of the fourth amendment, which guaranteed against unreasonable search and seizure. As the economy began to falter, Jeffersons New England opponents banded together to form the Essex Junto. Dissenting voices rang out against what they perceived to be Jeffersons misrule. Congressman Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts labeled Jefferson as a dish of skim milk curdling at the head of our nation. With a cooler head, the town council of Alfred, Maine struck perhaps the most decisive blow to Jeffersons character, resolving that we love liberty in principle but better in practice.
Finally, with James Madison installed as Jeffersons successor by the Election of 1808, steps were taken to repeal the embargo. As a lame duck, Jefferson had little say in the matter, about to be stripped of his executive powers. Thus, on February 2, 1809, Congress voted to repeal the Embargo effective March 4, the date when Madison was poised to be inaugurated President. The problems with Britain and France were by no means eliminated by this decision, but Jeffersons role in the balance had reached its embarrassing end.
Absconding from Washington toward Monticello, Jefferson finally arrived in his sixty-fifth year at the retirement he had so often dreamed of. In his wake, he left behind a White House that he had both designed (along with chief architect Benjamin Latrobe) and defined. In his final years, Jefferson would revert to many of the distrustful anti-federalist policies that had characterized his youthful political philosophy. But, in retrospect, it is hard to take these late shifts seriously in light of the unsurpassed strength that Jefferson brought to the presidency. Once again, Henry Adams offered the perfect assessment when he wrote of Jefferson that he believed the world, except within his own domain, to be too much governed.
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