Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency: A New Departure in American Republicanism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

In his inaugural address as the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson extended what sounded very much like an olive branch. “We have called by different names, brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” Was Jefferson successful in reaching out to his political rivals and was he able to make a new departure in American republicanism? Read on to find the answers. 

Engraved modified reproduction of the painting "Signing of the Declaration of Independence" in 1776.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a major event.  (Image: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab/Shutterstock)

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence was one of the most popular presidents of the United States. The figurehead of the Republicans and one of the gifted writers of his times, Jefferson believed the federal government should have a limited role in the affairs of the state.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Thomas Jefferson’s Presidential Policies

Thomas Jefferson liked to call his new presidency ‘the revolution of 1800’. This was because Jefferson had clear intentions to make a histrionic departure from the federalist ideology of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. He was of the opinion that Hamilton and Adams had betrayed the original spirit of republicanism.

His inaugural address on March 4, 1801, reflected this strong thought process where he indicated that he would dismantle the federal structure, pay off national debt, downsize the military, and show no favoritism in foreign policy.

Fantasies of the President

Jefferson believed that by reducing the national debt, he would be able to do away with both taxation and the Bank of the United States. He also thought the permanent military forces would always be a threat to the independence of a republic.

Further, eager to end the Hamiltonian tariffs, Jefferson announced that he would support free trade and commerce. Yet, he was hesitant to encourage large-scale manufacturing as he believed too much concentration of power in the hands of a single person would reduce too many individuals to wage earners. However, he had no objection to small-scale manufacturing, which was required to complement agriculture, demonstrating that he was not against free commerce.

On the social front, Jefferson had little belief in universal voting rights and when the blacks and women lost their voting rights in a number of states, he had little or no qualms about it.

Learn more about Adams and liberty.

Attempts to Find an Alternative Fiscal Policy

Thomas Jefferson tried to reduce the national debt by cutting down on expenditure and wasteful spending. He struggled to pay off the debt and cancel the taxes that were imposed to service the debt of eighty-three million dollars created by the Federalists.

In fact, he liberated the nation by paying off almost twenty-six million dollars and bringing down the debt to fifty-seven million dollars over the course of his two terms in office.

Jefferson’s Dilemma

Jefferson was unable to figure out how to demolish the financial system that was put in place by Hamilton without harming the American economy. Rather, he was incapable of finding alternatives to Hamilton’s hard-headed fiscal policies. 

Jefferson feared reversing the plans of Hamilton and repudiating the debt outright and was unable to cut it down further. He was also reluctant to interfere with the Bank of United States for the fear of being perceived as an enemy of business.

However, Jefferson was successful in dealing with the finances of the army and downsized the army to just 3,000 regulars and 172 officers. He also went on to cancel the ship construction program authorized by his predecessor John Adams, a decision he was to regret soon after.

Learn more about creating the Constitution.

Negotiations with the Barbary Pirates

The North African coast was brimming with pirates and most countries including the United States bribed these pirates to stay away from their expedition.

When the Pasha of Tripoli, a pirate and one of the many rulers of the North African Islamic private kingdoms learnt about a waning American naval presence, he upped the ante of his annual payoff from the United States. Jefferson did not relent and declared a war on the pirates.

The decision proved dear to Jefferson as the Barbary pirates proved to be too sly for the American Navy. When finally the Pasha was brought to the bargaining table in 1804, he was paid 60,000 dollars just to leave the American ships alone. Yet there was no peace treaty signed with the Barbary States.

Learn more about Hamilton’s Republic.

The Embargo Act of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson always wanted to free himself and the country from the grasp of Federalism. In the process, he created some difficult moments for himself and the United States.

His policy towards France was a reflection of his belief and he went on to provoke a renewal of France’s war with Britain. And so, the American Merchant Marine ships were once again caught between the British and the French. Between 1803 and 1807 alone, the British seized over five hundred American ships while the French captured another three hundred.

The painting shows HMS Leopard (right) firing upon Chesapeake.
The attack on American frigate Chesapeake by the British frigate Leopard triggered widespread outrage in America.
(Image: Fred S. Cozzens / Public domain)

Chesapeake-Leopard affair

In June of 1807, the British frigate Leopard stopped the American frigate Chesapeake to demand the return of British deserters rumored to be among the American crew. When the American frigate refused the British demand, the British opened fire and boarded the Chesapeake, killing three Americans, wounding eighteen and also hauled off with four suspected deserters.

The humiliation triggered widespread outrage and infuriated the Americans. But, the President’s The republican effort to lower government spending and Jefferson’s frugality had left the United States with hardly any fleet to respond with. Instead, the expedient he hit upon was a universal boycott to counter the high handedness of both Britain and France.

And hence in the December of 1807, an infuriated Republican Congress passed the Embargo Act. The embargo halted all trade with both the warring countries and demanded permission for American ships to trade freely.

The Effect of the Embargo Act

Jefferson believed that both Britain and France would suffer as they were dependent on the United States for agricultural products. However, this inference was completely flawed. The Embargo Act had no effect on Britain and France as they learnt to import from elsewhere.

Instead, it stifled the American economy and businesses; exports dropped from 108 million dollars to 22 million dollars while imports plummeted to 57 million dollars from 138 million dollars. 

Not only did American port cities go bankrupt, but people who were dependent on the ports and ships for their livelihood were flung into unemployment. Though Jefferson refused to admit his mistake, by the end of his second term in office he had given up trying to enforce the Embargo Act.

Common Questions about Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency: A New Departure in American Republicanism

Q: Was Thomas Jefferson able to reduce the national debt?

Yes, Thomas Jefferson succeeded in reducing the national debt from 83 million dollars to 57 million dollars over the course of his two terms of office.

Q: What was the Chesapeake-Leopard affair?

During Jefferson’s presidency, the British frigate Leopard attacked the American frigate Chesapeake when the latter refused to return the deserters from the British Navy. This affair triggered widespread outrage and infuriated the Americans.

Q: How did Thomas Jefferson deal with the pirates and the Pasha of Tripoli?

Thomas Jefferson declared a war on the pirates. Warships were hauled into the action and the frigates were sent to the Mediterranean to guard the American trade ships. Later, he paid the Pasha of Tripoli 60,000 dollars just to leave the American ships alone.

Keep Reading
Thomas Jefferson and the History of U.S. Foreign Policy
Thomas Jefferson’s Books
An Icon of History: Thomas Jefferson’s Bible
The Inauguration of Thomas Jefferson
The Most Influential Characters in the American Revolution