Ranking Thomas Jefferson

by Jonathan Hobratsch

Today’s blog looks at Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Check my previous posts to find the rankings for Washington and the first Adams. 

Thomas Jefferson 3rd President (1801-1809)

Score: 81/120 total points (67.5% ideal)


Appointments: 6/10

On March 4, 1801, after having barely defeated his new vice president, Aaron Burr, for the presidency, Thomas Jefferson gave a splendid unifying speech at his inauguration.

“We are all Republicans! We are all Federalists!”

As he was the first Republican (posthumously called Democratic-Republican) president, he wanted to assure uneasy Federalists that, in the end, everyone was on the same team.

Soon after, Jefferson went to work purging the government of Federalists, starting with John Adams’s Midnight Judges. Nevertheless, he allowed amiable Federalists to stay in minor offices, which sets Jefferson apart from Jackson, who filled every office with Jackson supporters.

His two most prominent cabinet appointments were Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, a Swiss-born financial genius, and his party’s architect, James Madison, the new Secretary of State. Both men served as Jefferson’s closest advisers and often tried to pull Jefferson in different directions from one another.

Madison was an odd choice because he hadn’t any foreign policy experience. Yet, Madison gets credit for encouraging Jefferson to act on the Louisiana Purchase when Jefferson thought that such a purchase would be unconstitutional. Madison should also get equal credit for his role in the disastrous embargo, which aimed to punish Great Britain and France but punished mercantile New England even more.

Gallatin’s influence is tremendous, as he is the first treasury secretary to veer somewhat from Hamilton’s economic policies. Gallatin used about 75% of the federal revenue (much from Hamilton’s tariffs, no doubt) to cut taxes, reduce the national debt, and pay for the Louisiana Purchase. Gallatin opposed an embargo with Britain on economic grounds (he proved correct). Gallatin, unlike many Jeffersonian Republicans, did not view Internal Improvements as unconstitutional. Jefferson listened to Gallatin on this issue, while Madison was less certain.

One can sense a clear North-South/Urban-Rural divide between the views of Swiss-born Philadelphian Gallatin and Virginian Madison. Jefferson was inherently of Madison’s mentality, but he had also been to Paris.

The rest of Jefferson’s cabinet appointments were not very notable. Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith should be faulted for not doing more to prevent Jefferson from scrapping much of the navy. This will be discussed more fully in another section.

Jefferson also appointed the first three Supreme Court justices that were not Federalists. Yet, the Federalist Chief Justice’s influence was such that Jefferson’s appointees sided often with Marshall. None of his Supreme Court Justices stand out; although, William Johnson—Jefferson’s most independent-minded judge—did serve the court for about 30 years.

Overall, Jefferson’s score, despite mostly mediocre appointments, is somewhat lifted by his appointment of Gallatin, his single outstanding appointment, and because he broke up the Federalist monopoly on the US Supreme Court and in the federal government in general.

Party Leadership: 9/10

Jefferson had a much firmer control over his party than Adams ever had over his. In fact, only Andrew Jackson can claim to rival Jefferson as party leader in the antebellum era.

Jefferson faced little resistance throughout his presidency as he dominated Congress by using his influence in the House of Representatives.  His party’s support flourished under his presidency as he saw his party membership in the US Congress grow from about 55% to over 80% in both houses.

As Jefferson evolved from his 18th-century views to adopt a more 19th-century approach, he was able to pull some moderate Federalists to his party. He was also able to isolate VP Aaron Burr, who was arguably the leader of the powerful New York faction of the Jeffersonian Republicans and who had nearly defeated Jefferson for the presidency. In the end, Jefferson stood as the undisputed leader of his party. This likely set the precedent that the president was also the party leader.

However, not all Jeffersonian Republicans were happy. US Rep. John Randolph of Virginia led an inter-party opposition, now called the Old Republicans. Randolph, the first Ron Paul Libertarian, opposed any sort of elastic interpretation of the Constitution, military adventurism, or an increase in the national debt. The Yazoo land scandal, which will be discussed in another section, was Randolph’s breaking point with the Jefferson administration. Randolph would be in regular opposition with Republican “liberals” Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, despite being of the same party. Nevertheless, Randolph’s faction was too small to be any real hindrance to Jefferson and was reduced mostly to protest.

Overall, because of Jefferson’s control on party leadership, he proved a much stronger executive than Washington or Adams, and he was able to expand executive power because of this, despite his traditional belief opposing executive power. Jefferson would have easily won a 3rd term if he had wanted it.

Economics and Finance: 6/10

Jefferson’s economic policy under the guidance of Gallatin worked to reduce the national debt, cut inflation, restrict government spending and repeal as much of the taxation of the Washington and Adams administrations as possible. However, Jefferson broke with traditional Jeffersonian Republican views by keeping Hamilton’s protective tariff and his National Bank. Either Jefferson recognized the practicality of these Federalist programs, or he was looking to pull some Federalists to his party in an effort to create a one-party state.

Jefferson’s score would rank high in this area if not for the disastrous embargo. The embargo was Jefferson’s attempt at a peaceful retaliation against Great Britain and France for attacks on British shipping, the impressment of sailors, and for trying to interfere in US neutrality in European wars. However, it had little impact on these countries and devastated the US economy—especially in New England—instead. Smuggling became rampant as merchants and traders attempted to conduct trade despite the embargo. Jefferson tried to enforce the embargo with the military but this became both impractical and unpopular. Jefferson refused to admit the embargo was a mistake and would not repeal the embargo until the last few days of his presidency when he realized the embargo was helping Federalists regain strength as an opposition party.

Jefferson’s score in this area is somewhat saved by the fact that the embargo did not occur until the later part of Jefferson’s second term. That is, most of Jefferson’s presidency was economically prosperous. He also repealed the embargo, however reluctant he might have been in doing so.

Business and Labor: 3/5

As was the case with the two previous presidents, this was not a major area for presidential attention.

Jefferson’s embargo was a major blow to both business and labor, especially in New England. Prior to the embargo, business and labor would have benefited from Jefferson’s tax cuts. Prior to eras of labor and social welfare legislation, a tax cut for the American wage worker would be almost wholly good, except for in a time of valid national defense, when the taxation would be necessary to support the war effort.

Social Welfare: 2/5

Jefferson made public and private statements in support of social welfare. For instance, he supported taxation to make education free for boys and girls. Jefferson also supported federal-subsidized healthcare for naval and marine personnel and veterans just as John Adams had. Additionally, Jefferson supported laws for  government-funded and government-run aid for those that were both too poor and too infirm to work. However, excluding, marine healthcare, he desired that these social welfare programs be conducted at the state level.

Jefferson sought to use the federal government to compensate private citizens that were swindled by the Georgia state government in the Yazoo land scandal. Some Georgia politicians had sold land occupied by Native Americans to private citizens, and then retroactively passed a bill that invalidated these citizens claims to land ownership. Jefferson interceded by having the federal government purchase Georgia territory to the west of Georgia’s present borders (future Alabama and Mississippi). He then promised to Georgia, as part of the purchase, to invalidated Native American claims to land ownership. Rep. John Randolph found Jefferson’s actions as both unconstitutional and corrupt, as it was rewarding fraud.

Overall, Jefferson did not act much in this area, even though his thoughts were occasionally with those that support social welfare. His actions in the Yazoo Land Scandal are somewhat controversial for several reasons.

Civil Rights and Liberties: 5/10

Jefferson’s role in expanding civil rights and defending and expanding liberties saw mixed results.

Jefferson promoted the selling of land for cheap in the west as a way of expanding white male suffrage (property was one requirement for voting). He also inspired some states to eliminate the property requirement for voting. He inspired Andrew Jackson to go further in this direction.

While white citizens saw their fortunes rising, non-citizen Native Americans witnessed the early stages of the Indian Removal program. White settlers were eager to own property in the west, but the resident Native Americans posed a problem for a Caucasian migration. While most of the native tribes were peaceful, some were known to attack settlers, especially in self-defense. Unable to easily tell one tribe from another, Jefferson authorized the forced removal of all Indian tribes, except for the five “civilized” tribes that had been westernized: The Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Muscogee, and Choctaw. Their fate would wait for Andrew Jackson.

In a weak attempt to appease New Englanders who feared the extension of slavery westward with both westward migration and the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson banned slavery in the Northwest Territory, where it wouldn’t have been economically profitable to own slaves anyway. His banning of slavery in the Northwest Territory set the precedent for the containment of slavery domestically, and for the eventual banning of slavery by federal law.

Jefferson, a major slaveholder, did feel the weight of the immorality of slavery, as did many slave owners. As such, he banned the slave trade, but could not cut the foul American addiction to high profits and unpaid labor.

Jefferson also gets a lot of credit for undoing most of Adams’s Alien & Sedition Acts, which was liberty restricting.

Ordinarily, Jefferson would receive high marks in this area, but his Indian Removal policy and the fact that he owned slaves himself, even though he was enlightened enough to admit its evils, works mightily against his ranking in this category.

Domestic Unrest and Criminal Justice 6/10

Jefferson didn’t see rebellions as Washington and Adams had. However, the embargo certainly created a level of outrage in New England, but it did not lead to any sort of active unrest.

Jefferson presided over a supposed plot to start an independent empire in the West. This was uncovered and Jefferson ended up arresting his own former vice-president, Aaron Burr, as complicit in the plot. Once Burr was arrested, Jefferson actively fought to get Burr tried and found guilty of treason. However, the killer of Alexander Hamilton was acquitted by Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall after Jefferson refused to release documents that might have placed Burr in a better light and refused to appear at the trial personally. Jefferson’s meddling in a judicial matter was controversial and is an early example of executive branch overreach.

While Jefferson did not get what he wanted, he was probably happy to see that his primary inter-party rival was politically ruined. It can be argued that Jefferson’s involvement in the trial was more of a personal vendetta against Burr, and his refusal to released documents or to appear in person shows that he wasn’t interested in a fair trial for Aaron Burr.

Immigration and Citizenship 4/5

Jefferson removed or expired every party of the Alien and Sedition Acts, except the act regarding the deportation or imprisoning of hostile immigrants from enemy nations during wartime.

Jefferson signed a new naturalization act that reduced the period for naturalization from 14 years to 5 years. With this, Jefferson and his party certainly secured the votes of naturalized immigrants.

Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements 4/5

Jefferson, with Gallatin’s urging, did approve federal funds for the Cumberland Road, the first major improved highway, which shocked the more conservative members of his party, as they believed that such federal payment for internal improvements was unconstitutional. Jefferson deemed a solid trans-Appalachian road necessary and proper for the country.

This more than anything Washington or Adams did assured that federal funds could be used on road projects; although, a few presidents would ignore Jefferson’s precedent and opt against internal improvements, as they considered that Jefferson may have acted unconstitutionally.

Energy, Resources, and Environment 4/5

With new territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson needed to know what he had gained for the country, and so he authorized the Lewis & Clark expedition. This trip was in part to determine the resources of the West. The expedition was a successful survey of the the land and resources west of the Appalachians, as well as helpful expedition for those interested in the natural sciences. With this, Jefferson also set the seeds for Manifest Destiny.

Misc. Domestic 8/10

In 1802, Jefferson sent future president James Monroe and Robert Livingston to Paris to purchase the city of New Orleans but ended up getting a once-in-a-lifetime counter-offer from Napoleon, which included the entire Louisiana Territory. Jefferson was unsure of the constitutionality of the purchase, but Madison convinced him that it was the right thing to do. Congress agreed and eagerly ratified the treaty, which doubled the size of the United States in 1803.  Federalists in New England opposed the purchase, but mainly due to economic self-interest and the fear of more slave states proliferating. With every good policy comes the bad.

Thus, with the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson allowed himself to compromise his values in order to better the country. This show of flexibility may have also been used to attract the more reluctant Federalists to the Republican camp.

Foreign Diplomacy 4/10

Jefferson’s foreign policy revolved around British and French affairs as had been the case with his two predecessors. Also just like them, he aimed to keep the country neutral, despite his traditional pro-French rhetoric. Jefferson the pro-French Revolutionary radical was gone the second he entered the office, but his hatred for the British remained.

Jefferson was able to act on this hatred after a British ship fired on an American vessel that refused to submit to a search, killing three American. Jefferson’s had made deep cuts to the military, especially the navy, which made outright war with a major naval power impractical, so he authorized an embargo to punish both Britain and France, both of whom were interfering in American neutrality. This was to make exports illegal and to force both countries, then at war with one another, to respect America’s neutrality. As mentioned, this Embargo Act proved disastrous.

Jefferson, despite wishing to be neutral, did interfere in France’s war effort. Jefferson aided Haitian rebels by allowing contraband to Santo Domingo during a slave rebellion against France. Once accomplished, however, Jefferson refused to recognize their independence and then embargoed them. He probably wanted to distance himself from the Haitians for two reasons: 1) As the head of state of a slaveholding nation, he couldn’t overtly recognize and support a nation taken through a slave rebellion, and 2) the legendary Napoleon, if given the opportunity, would certainly retaliate if the United States was obviously working against them.

Jefferson also weakened relations with Britain. The Monroe-Pinckney Treaty, which was led by the efforts of future president James Monroe, would have extended the Washington-era Jay Treaty, but Jefferson refused to allow Congress to even see it since the British refused to abandon impressing American sailors. The refusal to resolve issues between Great Britain and America during the Jefferson administration is seen as a cause for the War of 1812.

His relations with Spain was just as aggressive as the rest of his foreign policy. Jefferson made attempts to purchase Spanish Florida but failed. He then resorted to threats, including an attempt to get Spain’s ally, Napoleon, to help him acquire Florida! Ultimately, he back off Florida after diplomat James Monroe was unsuccessful in reaching an agreement in Madrid.

Overall, Jefferson’s major foreign policy actions were risky and they generally backfired.

Peace, Defense, and Warfare 6/10

Jefferson, like Washington and Adams, had to deal with the Barbary Pirates, but rather than continue the traditional payment of tribute, Jefferson refused to pay and used the navy built by John Adams to defeat the pirates in the first Barbary War.

After the brief war, Jefferson sought massive cuts to defense spending. Additionally, he hoped to replace US warships with small gun boat, believing that they were effective for defense. Unfortunately, reports that some of these gunboats were blown inland by strong winds proved embarrassing. Additionally, they had trouble maneuvering across the Atlantic, and it took about 40 of them to equal the fire power of one British frigate. In short, Jefferson’s military cuts allowed for an initially weak navy against the British by the time of the War of 1812.

While Jefferson reduced the military, he did preside during the construction of West Point military academy. Also, like Washington and Adams, Jefferson was able to avoid major wars. Although his embargo with Britain certainly risked war and set the seeds for the War of 1812.

Scandal and Corruption 4/5

While Jefferson was often hypocritical and conniving, he didn’t commit any actions that could be classified as corrupt or scandalous. Jefferson’s actions in Haiti, Spanish Florida, and regarding the Burr Trial come close.

On campaign, Federalists accused Jefferson, a slaveholder, of carrying on an affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings. Jefferson never made a public statement to admit or deny the allegation. DNA has proven that Hemmings’s children are also Jefferson’s children.

I do not fault Jefferson for filling the government with Republicans and purging Federalists, since he did keep some Federalists in lower offices, and the Federalist administration had been equally desiring of monopolizing government offices with politicians of their own party. Overall, Jefferson lacked any major scandals.

Intangibles 10/10

Jefferson was the first president to not personally deliver the State of the Union, this new tradition was carried on until Woodrow Wilson brought the old tradition back. Jefferson apparently had a poor speaking voice.

While his two terms had great successes and disasters, he could have had a third term if he had wanted it. He maintained enough popularity to assure that his successor, James Madison, sailed into the presidency. As great a man as Jefferson was, he was probably our most hypocritical president, as he routinely violated his own political ideology.

I score Jefferson so high in intangibles because he so utterly shifted the country socially and politically, ushering our country into the direction of greater Republicanism and Democracy.



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