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The First Years of the Union (1797-1809)

Jefferson's Early Days in Office

The Election of 1800

The Attack on the Judiciary

Summary

Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, having served as governor of Virginia, secretary of state under George Washington, and vice president under Adams. Jefferson had basically founded the Republican Party upon resigning from Washington's cabinet. He viewed the Republicans as the bastion of equality in America, and eschewed the elitism of the Federalists. Jefferson walked, rather than rode, to his inauguration, dressed in the clothes of the common citizen, and spoke of government free from the pomp of royalty, for the people, by the people. He took office convinced that taxation, standing armies, and despotic leaders had corrupted the system of government the framers had tried to install. He thus rallied to the cause of states' rights. He argued that responsive state governments than would more efficiently and compassionately serve the nation's people than could the central government in Washington.

Following his inauguration, Jefferson set about righting what he saw as the wrongs perpetrated by his Federalist predecessors. He strongly disagreed with the decision to maintain a continuous national debt, a plan devised by secretary of treasury Alexander Hamilton during George Washington's presidency. The debt had grown by $10 million during John Adams' presidency. Even if the United States only paid the interest on the debt, there would need to be taxation. However, Jefferson and his secretary of treasury Albert Gallatin believed that taxes were an undesirable intrusion of government into private life, and planned to abolish them for good. Jefferson and Gallatin devised a plan to lower taxes and cut expenses, with the ultimate goal of an end to taxation. They persuaded Congress to cut almost all internal taxes, and balanced the cut with reductions in the army and other expensive government endeavors. As trade increased and customs receipts grew accordingly, Gallatin made great strides in paying down the national debt. In an especially daring move, Gallatin sold the government's stock in the national bank to the House of Baring in London in 1802, and used the payment to pay an installment on the debt owed to the Dutch.

Though Jefferson and Gallatin intended to cut expenditures in the military, they maintained a portion of the naval force to fight the Barbary pirates. For years the US and many other nations had been forced to pay tribute to Tripoli in return for safe passage. The Barbary pirates off the coast of northern Africa attacked the ships of nations that did not pay tribute. Jefferson believed it would be less costly to go to war with the pirates than to continue paying tribute, and shortly after assuming office, he dispatched apportion of the fleet to the shores of northern Africa. After three years of fighting, the move finally paid off in 1805, when the US signed a peace treaty with Tripoli which cut the yearly cost of tribute in half.

Commentary

Jefferson's presidency was, from the very beginning, more of a rhetorical construction than a string of concrete actions. He had won the confidence of the voters by verbally tearing down the work of the Federalists and glorifying the needs of the common man. He conducted himself with great humility, walking and riding horseback often, rather than riding in elaborate coaches, as had his predecessors. He created, verbally, an image of an administration founded on liberty and, most of all, equality. Generally, it is agreed that his ideals matched up to his rhetoric, but there is evidence which has caused some historians to question his sincerity. Most notable, and most often cited, is the fact that Jefferson was a large slaveholder, and furthermore, that he allegedly engaged in adulterous sexual relations with one of his slaves, fathering her children.

Once in office, Jefferson took action as was needed, but tried extremely hard to limit the scope of his actions to that which did not interfere in the lives of the common citizens. Adhering to the Republican ideal which demanded the separation of the branches of government, Jefferson began the practice of sending a written message to Congress each year, to be read by the clerk, rather than appearing in person. This practice survived until the early twentieth century.

Though he refused to dismiss all Federalist appointees, as many of his Republican colleagues urged, Jefferson did set about doing whatever he saw as within his limited power to reverse the course that the Federalists had set the nation upon. Since secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton, under Washington, had spearheaded much of the offending Federalist policy, Jefferson's secretary of treasury, Albert Gallatin, played the most important role initially in undoing it. Jefferson's views on government involvement in the economy were starkly in contrast to the views set forth by Hamilton's Federalists. While the Federalists had firmly believed that the government must closely regulate the economy, Jefferson and Gallatin believed in the economic theories of Adam Smith, which stated that an unregulated economy would create the greatest amount of wealth. Thus Gallatin set about the task of undoing the bonds between the government and the wealthy that Hamilton had so carefully erected. The most prominent act of this revolution in political-economic theory was the selling off of bank stock to the House of Baring. With this transaction the Republican government eliminated all ties with the odious symbol of Federalist economic policy.

Gallatin was aided by circumstance in achieving his budgetary goals. The army could be cut down without outcry because the British and French signed the Peace of Amiens in 1802, bringing hostilities to a close temporarily, and allowing Jefferson to rest easy, knowing that America would not need to enter the conflict to protect its interests from either or both sides. Jefferson's decision to battle the Barbary pirates with America's remaining military might turned out to be a great success. Defensible under the rubric of free trade, Jefferson's attempts to open the seas for American shipping ingratiated him to many merchants and businessmen who would have formerly counted themselves Federalists, all while preserving the support of the agricultural South, which, freed from heavy taxation along with the rest of the nation, supported Jefferson fully in these early days.

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