By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College
Thomas Jefferson found the Constitution not much of an improvement on the Articles of Confederation. Twelve years of Federalist rule had only made the defects of the Constitution glare more harshly for Jefferson. Surprisingly, Jefferson’s inaugural address was an eloquent appeal for reconciliation with the Federalists, after the turmoil of the Whiskey Rebellion, the Jay Treaty, and the Quasi-War.
Suspicious and unrepentant Federalists saw an iron hand inside Thomas Jefferson’s velvet glove. “That speech,” snorted one Federalist newspaper, “was but a net to ensnare popularity.”
In 1799, Jefferson wrote to the chronically dissatisfied Elbridge Gerry to outline exactly the plan he meant to follow if elected president.
First, he would, he said, dismantle the administrative apparatus developed by Hamilton in his series of reports as secretary of the treasury. Secondly, he would not only demobilize the Additional Army but slice spending on national defense as a whole to the bone, since spending on armies and navies only created tax burdens which erased the independence of virtuous farmers.
Next, Jefferson promised he would show no favoritism in foreign policy—which, since John Adams’s last important initiative had actually been to end the Quasi- War with France, meant that Jefferson would be showing no favoritism to the British in particular.
I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance, or, joining in the confederacy of kings to war against the principles of liberty.
This made his anti-British sentiments clear.
Learn more about Whiskey Rebellion.
“We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists”
Jefferson in his inaugural address said, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists.” What he actually meant was having no parties at all.
“If we can hit on the true line which may conciliate the honest part of those who were called federalists,” Jefferson wrote to Horatio Gates, “I should hope to obliterate the names of federalist and republican.”
In practice what that meant was – eliminate Federalists and everyone become a Jeffersonian. But whether the Federalists went willingly or not, Jefferson was determined “by the establishment of republican principles to sink federalism into an abyss from which there shall be no resurrection for it.”
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Jefferson’s first strategy for creating the Federalist abyss was to evict Federalists from federal office-holding, which he did with gusto. Of the 316 federal offices under Jefferson’s direct appointment, Jefferson forced-out 146 incumbents—46 percent—most, if not all, of whom were Federalists.
Tax collectors and inspectors, and the whiskey excise they had tried to collect were also eliminated; the Sedition Law was allowed to expire; individuals who had been indicted under the other anti-French acts were pardoned. The diplomatic corps was reduced to just three missions: to Britain, France, and Spain.
The Federal Judiciary
Jefferson then turned his eye on the federal judiciary. In the last weeks of the Adams administration, the Sixth Congress took the opportunity to adopt a Judiciary Act at almost the last minute that re-organized the structure of the federal judiciary, reducing the number of Supreme Court justices to five, and dividing the federal appeals courts into 19 district courts and six circuit courts.
What made this reorganization something less than a mere reshuffling of the deck was the opportunity the Judiciary Act provided to John Adams.
It, firstly, allowed for the more active enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and then to appoint a full slate of Federalists to fill 13 of the new judgeships, starting at the very top with John Marshall as the new Chief Justice. Republicans, like Jefferson, sneered at the appointments as midnight judges, since Adams was supposed to have stayed up late on his last evening in office to sign their appointment papers.
Jefferson could not, constitutionally, dismiss federal judges. But with a 65 to 40 majority in the House and only two votes shy of a majority in the Senate, Jefferson was able to get the Judiciary Act repealed by the Seventh Congress, and replaced in April of 1802, with a new Judiciary Act.
Learn more about Jefferson’s political philosophy.
Impeaching the Judges
The jobs of the midnight judges, appointed by John Adams, thereby simply ceased to exist. One Federalist Supreme Court justice, Samuel Chase, protested that “the circuit Judges cannot, directly or indirectly, be deprived of their offices, or commissions, or salaries, during their lives; unless only on impeachment as prescribed in the Constitution.”
In response, the Congressional Republicans, led by the acerbic John Randolph of Roanoke, impeached Chase on eight counts, and only fell three votes shy in the Senate of convicting him.
Thus, one way or the other, Jefferson was ever more unwavering in his resolve to establish firmly a government based on republican principles and sink federalism into an abyss from which there indeed was no coming back.
Common Questions about Thomas Jefferson and Creating the Federalist Abyss
The first thing Thomas Jefferson planned to do was to dismantle the administrative apparatus developed by Hamilton in his series of reports as secretary of the treasury.
Thomas Jefferson’s first strategy for creating the Federalist abyss was to evict Federalists from federal office-holding, which he did with gusto.
With a 65 to 40 majority in the House and only two votes shy of a majority in the Senate, Thomas Jefferson was able to get the Judiciary Act repealed by the Seventh Congress, and replaced in April of 1802, with a new Judiciary Act.