Thomas Jefferson

Election and Early Presidency 1800-1802

Summary Election and Early Presidency 1800-1802

In the United States Census of 1800, 5.3 million Americans were counted. Nearly 1 million of these were slaves, and factoring in for children, women, the aged, and the infirm, only 1 million of this number were able-bodied males. By contrast, Britain boasted 15 million inhabitants, and France 27 million. Of the major American cities, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore combined numbered only 180,000 strong, and no other town could claim a white population of more than 10,000.

Washington, still very much in the midst of construction, would serve as the new capital to the first administration of a new century. The contestants in the presidential race were the same as they had been four years earlier: the incumbent John Adams leading the Federalist bid, with South Carolinian Charles Pinckney in tow, and Jefferson at the head of the Democratic- Republican ticket, alongside Aaron Burr, a New Yorker known for his unctuous political maneuverings.

Though tradition held that the candidates themselves refrain from public campaigning, the respective parties were quite capable of conducting a brutal campaign on their own. Jefferson himself secretly backed the scandal-mongering of a journalist named James Thompson Callender, whose efforts to defame the character of President Adams landed him in prison under the terms of the Sedition Act. Jefferson later denied all affiliation with Callender, but during the campaign itself he had even more pointed attacks to defend.

The Federalist press jumped on Jeffersons liberal views of religion at once, styling him as an immoral atheist who supported the destruction of society and the rise of anarchy. Due to his affiliations with France, they suggested that he too would effect the type of bloody reign of terror that had occurred there, eventually rising up to a position of unmitigated power as Napoleon Bonaparte had done in the previous year (See the Napoleon SparkNote).

Suspected by Federalists of corrupt and subversive tactics, Jefferson wrote a letter to New England clergyman Cotton Mather Smith insisting on his honesty and integrity. This was not enough to ward off a damaging attack on his character by Yale President Timothy Dwight, who delivered a famous sermon railing against Jeffersons immorality. As President, Jefferson would later attempt to defend his religious perspective by producing a study of the life and morals of Jesus, known today as The Jefferson Bible. But by denying the divinity of Jesus, Jefferson likely lost more supporters than he won in the effort.

Throughout his campaign and well into his administration, the atmosphere in the press was markedly anti-Jefferson. In the months leading up to his election, Federalists circulated false rumors of Jeffersons death in order to try to undermine his campaign. Despite such underhanded tactics, Jefferson refused to show a hint of bitterness, and chose to focus instead on his commitment to a limited and unobtrusive government. In one letter from the period, he explained his preference for an overarching media over an overarching government. This commitment to democracy continued to stoke his popularity at a grassroots level, which ultimately proved more important to Jeffersons chances than the support of the intelligentsia.

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