The fallout from the Alien and Sedition Acts dealt a serious blow to John Adams and the Federalists. Despite the Sedition Act’s attempt to suppress free speech, Democratic-Republicans rallied around the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Also damaging to the Federalists was the internal power struggle between the president and Alexander Hamilton. The two had been opponents within the Federalist Party for years but cut all ties with each other when Adams chose to negotiate peace with the French in 1800. The ideological rift split the party in two and ruined Adams’s chances for reelection.
In the election of 1800 , Thomas Jefferson and New Yorker Aaron Burr—both Democratic-Republicans—received the same number of Electoral College votes. The Federalist Congress therefore had to determine which of their hated rivals would become the next president. After much debate, Congress chose Thomas Jefferson.
Despite the viciousness of the campaign, there were no revolts or riots when the Democratic-Republicans took office. Such a peaceful transition of power from one party to another was almost unprecedented in history. Indeed, many historians call the election of 1800 the “Revolution of 1800”—a crucial moment that confirmed that the new nation would survive. Contemporary Europeans who had believed that the “American experiment” would ultimately fail were also temporarily quieted.
As a strict constructionist, Jefferson believed in limited federal government and, as a result, worked immediately to decrease the size of the government after taking office. He made cuts to the army and navy, reduced the number of federal employees, and strove to eliminate the national debt. He felt that most powers should be reserved for the individual states. These policies ran contrary to all Federalist beliefs in a strong centralized government.
Jefferson received most of his support in the election from the South and from the western frontier, undoubtedly because the Virginian portrayed himself as an advocate of the farmer and common man. Indeed, approximately eighty percent of Americans at this time were farmers. Although some farmed cash crops to resell, the vast majority lived on family farms and grew food for their own subsistence. They built their own houses, raised their own animals, grew their own food, and made their own clothes.
Jefferson firmly believed that these men and women were the heart of American republicanism and that the future of the nation rested upon their shoulders. He abhorred the squalor and gross inequality he saw in the developing factory cities in Europe and wanted to avoid the same inequality in the United States.
Nevertheless, Adams did attempt to seek revenge. During his last days as president, he created several new judiciary positions and filled the posts with Federalist supporters. Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, refused to honor the appointments of these “midnight justices.”
One of the justices, William Marbury, sued Madison for his appointment, and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1803. Chief Justice John Marshall, a die-hard Federalist, sympathized with Marbury but believed that Jefferson would never adhere to a ruling against Madison. Therefore, Marshall ruled in Marbury v. Madison that although Marbury was entitled to the judgeship, the Supreme Court could not force the president to give it to him.
Although the Judiciary Act of 1789 had given the Supreme Court this power, Marshall’s ruling effectively declared that act unconstitutional. Marshall thus simultaneously gave Jefferson his victory and strengthened the Supreme Court with the power of judicial review—the right to declare Congress’s laws unconstitutional.
Despite his belief in limited government, Jefferson seized the opportunity in 1803 to buy the vast expanse of the Louisiana Territory from France. France had reacquired the territory from Spain in 1801, but Napoleon’s costly war in Europe forced him to consider selling the land. Jefferson, fearing that the French would revoke U.S. access to the major Mississippi River port of New Orleans, sent James Monroe to Paris to offer $10 million for New Orleans alone. Napoleon, however, in need of money, offered the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million, and Monroe agreed.
Although the Constitution said nothing about the purchase of new lands, Jefferson swallowed his pride and accepted the Louisiana Purchase. The new territories included present-day Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, as well as parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Oklahoma—all for a mere $15 million. Not only was the purchase the best real estate deal in history by far, it also established a precedent for purchasing lands to expand the United States farther westward.
In 1804, Jefferson dispatched his secretary Meriwether Lewis and army captain William Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory. Lewis and Clark’s famous two-year expedition to the Pacific helped publicize the bountiful new lands. In addition to finding countless natural wonders in the West, the pair traversed the fertile Mississippi Valley, which Jefferson hoped would become the heartland of an agrarian United States.
Relations with Britain soured during Jefferson’s years in office. When war broke out between Britain and Napoleonic France after the turn of the century, neutral American merchants made huge profits shipping food, supplies, and natural resources to both countries. The British Royal Navy, still the dominant world naval power, began to seize American ships and cargos bound for France in 1805.
Moreover, the British navy also began impressing U.S. sailors for forced servitude on British war ships. Though Britain claimed that they impressed only deserters from the Royal Navy, it is estimated that Britain actually took more than 5,000 Americans illegally.
When the British warship HMS Leopard entered American territorial waters and impressed several Americans from the merchant ship USS Chesapeake in 1807, Jefferson was outraged. Fed up with Britain’s and France’s refusal to accept U.S. sovereignty, Jefferson convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Act that same year to punish both nations.
The Embargo Act forbade American ships from sailing to all foreign ports until Britain and France agreed to respect American shipping rights. Jefferson’s plan backfired, however, for he failed to realize that American merchants needed trade with Europe more than European merchants needed trade with America. Economic depression struck the United States very hard, but Jefferson refused to rescind the Embargo Act even when it became evident that it was failing. The act was repealed only in 1809, two days before Jefferson left office.
All in all, Jefferson was much more successful as a statesman during the American Revolution and as Washington’s secretary of state than as president. On one hand, he established several key precedents, such as the purchase of new lands to expand the United States. On the other hand, his Embargo Act and his repeal of Hamilton’s excise tax ran the country into the ground economically.
Fortunately for Jefferson’s reputation, the long-term benefits of the Louisiana Purchase far outweighed the disastrous effects of the economic depression. Also important was the foundation he laid for democracy and agrarianism that the Jacksonian Democrats would later build upon to expand democracy.