Jefferson’s Revolution: The Beginning of Republican Rule
Jefferson’s Revolution: The Beginning of Republican Rule
The election of 1800 marked the beginning of a 28-year period during which Republicans dominated national politics. Jefferson’s party won easily, in part because of the public outrage over the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts; in many ways, the acts proved the undoing of the Federalist Party.
The election was a protracted affair. All of the Republican electors had voted for both Jefferson and Burr, so that both candidates earned the same number of electoral votes for president. Burr, who had been backed by the Republican Party as vice president, now had as legitimate a claim to the presidency as Jefferson did. The task of choosing the president fell to the House of Representatives. After seven days and thirty-six ballots, the House selected Jefferson. To prevent future election deadlocks of this sort, the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, changed the election process so that candidates must be clearly listed as either running for president or vice president.
Jefferson described his victory as the “Revolution of 1800.” He believed that the Republican victory over the Federalists was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” Unlike the Federalists, who had pushed for a strong central government and had favored industrial and commercial interests, the Jeffersonian Republicans aimed to limit central government in favor of states’ rights and individual liberties, and favored an agrarian republic over an urban, industrialized one.
Once in office, Jefferson cut back on federal expenditures and federal bureaucracy. He persuaded Congress to cut almost all internal taxes, and balanced the cut with reductions in military expenditures and other government endeavors. For income, the government relied mostly on land sales and customs duties.
Midnight Judges and Judicial Review
Before the end of his term, John Adams appointed a number of Federalists judges to federal court positions in an effort to mitigate the upcoming Republican rule. Adams signed the judges’ commissions during his final few hours in office—hence the name “midnight judges” or “midnight appointments.” One such appointment was Federalist William Marbury as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. But Adams failed to deliver Marbury’s commission on time. Marbury, in response, asked the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus to force Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison, to deliver the commission and accept the appointment. In February 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall and the court denied Marbury’s request, ruling that Congress had overstepped its constitutional bounds by giving the Supreme Court the authority to issue such a writ in the first place (Congress had issued such authority in the Judiciary Act of 1789). The Marbury v. Madison ruling was the first time that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Marshall’s ruling in the case of Marbury v. Madison asserted the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review and marked the first time the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.
The Louisiana Purchase
In 1800, France acquired the Louisiana Territory from Spain. Fearing that the new French ruler, Napoleon, had plans to build an empire in the Americas, Jefferson sent negotiators to France in an attempt to purchase the territory. The envoy found that Napoleon had abandoned his plan for a colonial empire, in part because a massive slave revolt in Haiti, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had severely depleted Napoleon’s forces. Napoleon thus agreed to sell all of the Louisiana territory in order to finance French efforts in the war in Europe. After some negotiation, the price was set at $15 million in April 1803. With the Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. gained a massive, uncharted piece of land, nearly doubling the country’s size for the price of thirteen and a half cents per acre.
The Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of the U.S. and eliminated the French (and remnant Spanish) control of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.
Jefferson, always a strict constructionist, feared that the purchase would be deemed unconstitutional because the Constitution did not explicitly grant such purchasing and expansionist powers to the federal government. He personally drafted a constitutional amendment authorizing the national government to acquire new lands. He was eventually convinced by fellow Republicans, however, to drop the amendment and directly submit the purchase treaty to the Senate to prevent Napoleon from recanting his sale offer. The Senate speedily ratified the purchase. Thus Jefferson, in spite of his overall aims to restrict the central government’s power, initiated a dramatic expansion of federal powers by backing the purchase.
Westward Exploration
Even before the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson was fascinated with the undiscovered frontier. He envisioned the U.S. as an agrarian republic, not an industrial powerhouse, and therefore sought to open up new farming along the vast and fertile frontier. Once the Louisiana Purchase was negotiated, Jefferson commissioned teams of explorers, including Meriwether Lewis, who was a captain in the army, and Lieutenant William Clark, to map out the new territory. In 1804, Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis with 45 soldiers. In the Dakotas, they met Sacajawea, an Indian woman who proved indispensable as a guide. The group reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and landed back at St. Louis in 1806, having traveled nearly 3,000 miles in two and a half years. The success of the Lewis and Clark expedition inspired increased exploration and settlement of the new territory.
Tension Overseas: The Embargo Act
In 1803, as part of the Napoleonic Wars, France and Britain resumed war against each other. Trading with both nations and clinging to neutrality, the U.S. soon found itself drawn into the battle when the French and British took aggressive measures that violated U.S. neutrality rights. The French policy, known as the Continental System, subjected to seizure any ship that first stopped in a British port. Through a series of countermeasures known as Orders in Council, Britain blockaded French-controlled ports in Europe. The British also began searching American ships for goods from the French West Indies and threatening American crews with impressment into the Royal Navy.
Anglo-American tensions peaked in the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in 1807, when the British frigate HMS Leopard opened fire on the American frigate USS Chesapeake off the Chesapeake Bay, after its request to board the Chesapeake was denied. When the British finally did board, they hanged four crew members and sailed away. Outraged, Jefferson banned all British warships from American waters. Congress then passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited any ship from leaving a U.S. port for a foreign port, effectively ending both exportation and importation. Jefferson and Congress hoped that such a measure would so damage the British and French economies that the countries would be forced to honor U.S. neutrality. Yet such peaceable coercion failed: the Embargo Act hurt the U.S. economy more than England’s or France’s.
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