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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.
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