By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
Despite his persistent shyness, Thomas Jefferson spent virtually all of his life from 1774 in one form or other of public service. However, apart from the soaring Enlightenment eloquence he poured into the Declaration of Independence, he had accomplished surprisingly little. And though he was able to kick Federalist officeholders into the Federalist abyss, he could not do so with Hamiltonian fiscal policy.
Hamilton’s Bank of the United States
As much as Thomas Jefferson hated Hamilton’s Bank of the United States and the decision to fund the national debt in full, Hamilton had pledged the nation’s honor to funding the debt, and to change that now would hurt Americans who owned federal securities and destroy American credit abroad—where, ironically, that credit was presently boosting the sale of American agricultural products.
Jefferson erupted to Pierre Samuel DuPont in January 1802:
When this government was first established, it was possible to have set it a-going on true principles. But the contract, English, half-lettered ideas of Hamilton destroyed that hope in the bud. We can pay off his debt in 15 years: but we can never get rid of his financial system. It mortifies me to be strengthening principles which I deem radically vicious. But this vice is entailed on us by a first error.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
War with Tripoli
Matters abroad also did not cooperate with Jefferson’s wishes. No sooner had Jefferson canceled the remainder of the Navy’s frigate-building program and mothballed the existing ones in favor of building a fleet of 100 coast-defense gunboats, than the Barbary pirates cheerfully renewed their demands for bribes.
When Jefferson refused, Yusuf Karamanli, the pasha of Tripoli, declared war, and Jefferson was forced to haul the decommissioned frigates out of retirement and send them to the Mediterranean to teach the pirates a lesson—except, of course, that the pirates proved recalcitrant learners.
They captured the frigate, Philadelphia, when it ran aground on the Kaliusa reef, off Tripoli harbor, in October 1803, and enslaved its crew. In 1805, Karamanli finally signed an agreement to end the war, but only after Jefferson had pledged $60,000 to ransom American sailors whom Karamanli was holding.
Learn more about how Hamilton saw debt.
Napoleon Bonaparte and the Louisiana Purchase
Then there was France. In 1799, the last facade of the revolutionary Republic crumbled as Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and, in 1804, crowned himself as Emperor of France.
“I have grieved,” Jefferson wrote, “to see even good republicans so infatuated as to this man, as to consider his downfall as calamitous to the cause of liberty. To whine after this exorcised demon is a disgrace to republicans, and must have arisen either from want of reflection, or the indulgence of passion against principle.”
Nevertheless, he was more than willing to barter with Napoleon if opportunity beckoned, which it did in 1803. Having extorted from Spain title to the enormous western lands stretching west of the Mississippi river, Napoleon Bonaparte soon lost interest in trying to re-establish a French empire in the New World.
He offered to sell to the United States the great entrepôt of New Orleans, and all of the Louisiana province—approximately 830,000 square miles—for $15 million in spot cash.
This Louisiana Purchase was approved by Jefferson before consulting with Congress and justified by him afterward on grounds very close to the invocation of necessary and proper powers, which Hamilton had used for the Bank of the United States.
The Senate ratified the agreement in October, and American officials took formal possession of Louisiana in ceremonies at New Orleans on December 20, 1803.
The Mississippi River Valley
The British were not amused by these dealings with Napoleon. The British had hoped to seize New Orleans for themselves, and thus control the Mississippi River valley in much the same way that their occupation of Gibraltar controlled access to the Mediterranean.
The great British naval victory at Trafalgar in 1805 wrecked Napoleon’s hopes of challenging British pre-eminence at sea; but that only produced a whip-saw response for American shipping.
Learn more about Jefferson’s political philosophy.
Bonaparte declared a continental embargo of Britain in 1806 and threatened to seize any American ships in European waters whom he suspected of trading with Britain; the British responded with fresh Orders-in-Council that demanded search privileges of American shipping they suspected of trading with France.
Ground between these two stones, American shippers lost 1,500 ships to British and French seizure over nine years; in the spring of 1806 alone, one single British ship-of-the-line, HMS Leander, “every morning at daybreak” blithely stopped “the progress of all vessels” leaving New York harbor, searching them for both contraband cargoes and for deserters from the Royal Navy.
This resulted in the piling up of “a dozen, and sometimes a couple of dozen, ships lying a league or two off the port, losing their fair wind” before Leander’s boarding parties had finished searching them.
Jefferson, through his own parsimony, had no fleet at hand. He quite cleverly instead, proposed a pox-on-both-your-houses boycott; the United States would break off all commerce with both Britain and France until they came to their senses and permitted American ships to trade freely once again.
Common Questions about Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Embargo
When Thomas Jefferson refused Yusuf Karamanli’s demands, Yusuf, the pasha of Tripoli, declared war, and Jefferson was forced to haul the decommissioned frigates out of retirement and send them to the Mediterranean to teach the pirates a lesson.
Napoleon Bonaparte offered to sell to the United States the great entrepôt of New Orleans, and all of the Louisiana province—approximately 830,000 square miles—for $15 million in spot cash.
Caught between the British and Napoleon Bonaparte, American shippers lost 1,500 ships to British and French seizure over nine years.