ESTABLISHING A FEDERAL REPUBLIC
Although Thomas Jefferson was in
France serving as United States minister when the Federal Constitution
was written in 1787, he was able to influence the development
of the federal government through his correspondence. Later his
actions as the first secretary of state, vice president, leader
of the first political opposition party, and third president of
the United States were crucial in shaping the look of the nation's
capital and defining the powers of the Constitution and the nature
of the emerging republic.
Jefferson played a major role in the planning, design, and construction
of a national capitol and the federal district. In the various
public offices he held, Jefferson sought to establish a federal
government of limited powers. In the 1800 presidential election,
Jefferson and Aaron Burr deadlocked, creating a constitutional
crisis. However, once Jefferson received sufficient votes in the
electoral college, he and the defeated incumbent, John Adams,
established the principle that power would be passed peacefully
from losers to victors in presidential elections. Jefferson called
his election triumph "the second American Revolution."
While president, Jefferson's principles were tested in many
ways. For example, in order to purchase the Louisiana Territory
from France he was willing to expand his narrow interpretation
of the Constitution. But Jefferson stood firm in ending the importation
of slaves and maintaining his view of the separation of church
and state. In the end, Jefferson completed two full and eventful
terms as president. He also paved the way for James Madison and
James Monroe, his political protégés, to succeed him in the presidency.
Toward a Federal Constitution
"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with
the blood of patriots & tyrants"
Writing to William Smith (1755-1816), John Adams' secretary
and future son-in-law, Thomas Jefferson seemed to welcome Shays'
Rebellion in Massachusetts: "god forbid we should ever be twenty
years without such a rebellion . . . the tree of Liberty must
be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots &
tyrants. it is it's natural manure." Jefferson was confident that
rather than repression, the "remedy is to set them right as to
facts, pardon & pacify them."
"Our liberty depends upon the
freedom of the press"
Eighteenth-century political philosophers concerned themselves
with the balance between the restrictions needed to make a government
function and the individual liberties guaranteed by that government.
Jefferson's efforts to protect individual rights including freedom
of the press were persistent, pivotal, and not always successful.
Jefferson was a staunch advocate of freedom of the press, asserting
in a January 28, 1786, letter to James Currie (1745-1807), a Virginia
physician and frequent correspondent during Jefferson's residence
in France: "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and
that cannot be limited without being lost."
Jefferson objects to absence
of Bill of Rights
Thomas Jefferson's December 20, 1787, letter to James Madison
contains objections to key parts of the new Federal Constitution.
Primarily, Jefferson noted the absence of a bill of rights and
the failure to provide for rotation in office or term limits,
particularly for the chief executive. During the writing and ratification
of the constitution, in an effort to influence the formation of
the new governmental structure, Jefferson wrote many similar letters
to friends and political acquaintances in America.
Thomas Jefferson's annotated copy
of the Federalist Papers
Thomas Jefferson called the collected essays written by Alexander
Hamilton (1755-1804), James Madison, and John Jay (1745-1829),
the "best commentary on the principles of government which ever
was written." Jefferson, like many other contemporary Americans,
tried to determine which essays had been written by each of the
three authors. On this inside cover sheet Jefferson credited Madison
with authorship of more than a dozen essays. The question of who
wrote each of the essays has never been definitively answered.
"Rebellion to tyrants is
obedience to God"
On July 4, 1776, in addition to approving the Declaration of
Independence, Congress chose Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and
Benjamin Franklin to design a great seal for the new country.
Franklin proposed the phrase "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience
to God," a sentiment Jefferson heartily embraced and included
in the design for the Virginia seal and sometimes stamped it on
the wax seals of his own letters. Although Congress rejected the
elaborate seal, it retained the words "E Pluribus Unum," which
became the country's motto.
Erecting a Federal Edifice
Federal Hall, home of the
First Federal Congress
Federal Hall in New York was the site of the meeting of the
First Federal Congress in 1789. As secretary of state, Jefferson
dealt with Congress here for less than one year before the Federal
Government relocated to Philadelphia in 1790, as part of the agreement
to create a permanent federal capital district. Jefferson was
instrumental in building the national capital district both in
his role as secretary of state, and, later, as president.
Jefferson's plan of the
Federal District, 1791
In his 1791 plan for the Federal District, Jefferson envisioned
a compact, simple republican design. During his service as secretary
of state, Jefferson was responsible for the early planning and
surveying of the nation's capital district.
Jefferson seeks plans for
Capitol building, 1792
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson drafted this advertisement
for a national competition offering a $500 prize for a capitol
building design. The results were disappointing. An amateur architect,
Jefferson prepared his own sketch for a circular Capitol, which
was submitted anonymously and rejected by President Washington
and the commissioners. In 1793 the commission selected an exterior
design by another amateur architect William Thornton (1759-1828)
and an interior design by Stephen Hallet (1755-1825), the only
professional architect to enter the competition.
Jefferson advocates limited
power of constitution
Thomas Jefferson's February 15, 1791, opinion on the constitutionality
of a national bank is considered one of the stellar statements
on the limited powers and strict construction of the Federal Constitution.
Alexander Hamilton, a proponent of the broadest interpretation
of the constitution based on the implied powers of the Federal
Constitution, was the leading advocate for the national bank.
Jefferson and Hamilton quickly became outspoken leaders of two
opposing interpretations of national government.
This manual was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and is based
on the Parliamentary Pocket-Book or commonplace book and his experience
during his tenure as vice-president and presiding officer of the
United States Senate, 1797-1801. The Manual was
first printed by Jefferson's friend and political ally, Samuel
Harrison Smith (1772-1845), in 1801 and still serves as a basis
for parliamentary practices in the Senate.
Charles Willson Peale's vibrant life portrait shows Jefferson
as he looked when serving as secretary of state in President Washington's
cabinet. The portrait of Jefferson at aged forty-eight hung in
Peale's famous museum of science, art, and curiosities in Philadelphia
until the collection was dispersed in 1854. The portrait was then
purchased for and installed at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence
Hall) in the very room where the Declaration of Independence was
approved by the Continental Congress in 1776.
Charles Willson Peale.
Copyprint of oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park Collection,
President George Washington was near the end of his second presidential
term in 1796 when he sat for this portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).
Washington's portrait by Stuart became the favorite of nineteenth-century
lithographers, who made and sold thousands of copies.
National Partisan Politics
Jeffersonians claim extreme
rights for states
The Kentucky Resolutions were drafted in secret by Thomas Jefferson
and James Madison in the fall of 1798 to counter the perceived
threat to constitutional liberties from the Alien and Sedition
Acts. These federal laws limited naturalization rights and free
speech by declaring public criticism of government officials to
be seditious libel, punishable by imprisonment and fines. Jefferson's
draft resolutions claimed states had the right to nullify federal
laws and acts that violated the Constitution. The Kentucky
Resolutions were passed, and the role Jefferson and Madison
played in drafting them was kept secret throughout their years
of public service.
The Jeffersonian Republicans'
Partisan politics spurred newspaper growth in the United States
from 92 in 1790 to 329 at the end of Thomas Jefferson's presidency.
All but 56 were identified with a political party. Philip Freneau's
National Gazette was the first official Republican newspaper.
Jefferson and James Madison provided encouragement, money and
a position in Jefferson's Department of State to Freneau to establish
a Republican newspaper. The National Gazette was
the leading critic of Federalist political programs durings its
two year existence.
Jeffersonians expose Hamilton's
James Callender's (1758-1803) History of the United States
for 1796 was the original public venue for reports of
financial dealings by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton
as well as his 1792 adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds (b.
1768), the wife of James Reynolds, a United States Treasury employee.
Jefferson's political lieutenant, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives,
and later first Librarian of Congress John James Beckley was the
immediate source of the confidential documents used by Callender
to discredit Hamilton. Callender was one of the political pamphleteers
supported by Jeffersonians to attack their Federalist opponents.
The Library of Congress
not have permission to display
this image online.
The Richmond Recorder,
September 1, 1802.
Courtesy of the Virginia State
Library, Richmond (117a)
Jefferson experiences the political
limits of freedom of the press
President Jefferson's support for freedom of the press was sorely tested in 1802 when James
Callender publicly charged that Jefferson "keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine,
one of his slaves. Her name is Sally." The Richmond Recorder, first printed
Callender's account of Jefferson's intimate relationship with his wife's half sister, Sally
Hemings, but controversy has surrounded the accusation and the relationship to the present day.
Callender, whose vitriolic attacks on Federalist opponents of Jefferson in the 1790s had been
secretly funded by Jefferson and Republican allies, turned against Jefferson when the president
failed to give him a patronage position.
Jefferson urges supporters to
write newspaper attacks
Thomas Jefferson seldom wrote articles or essays for the press,
but he did urge his supporters such as James Madison, James Monroe
(1758-1831), John Beckley (1757-1807), and David Rittenhouse (1732-1796)
to publicly counter the Federalists. In this July 7, 1793, letter,
Jefferson urges Madison to attack the ideas of Alexander Hamilton:
"for god's sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most
striking heresies, and cut him to peices [sic] in the face of
the public." Both Republicans and Federalists engaged in critical
attacks on their opponents.
The Providential Detection
Copyprint of lithograph.
Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts
"The Providential Detection"
depicts Jefferson attempting to
destroy the Constitution
In this cartoon, Thomas Jefferson kneels before the altar of
Gallic despotism as God and an American eagle attempt to prevent
him from destroying the United States Constitution. He is depicted
as about to fling a document labeled "Constitution & Independence
U.S.A." into the fire fed by the flames of radical writings. Jefferson's
alleged attack on George Washington and John Adams in the form
of a letter to Philip Mazzei falls from Jefferson's pocket. Jefferson
is supported by Satan, the writings of Thomas Paine, and the French
The Second American Revolution
"The true principles of the
revolution of 1800"
Jefferson viewed the presidential election of 1800, which won
him the presidency, as a second American Revolution. Jefferson
believed in "the true principles of the revolution of 1800. for
that was as real a revolution in the principles of our government
as that of 76. was in it's form; not effected indeed by the sword,
as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform,
the suffrage of the people. The nation declared it's will by dismissing
functionaries of one principle, and electing those of another
in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their
"We are all republicans:
we are all federalists"
Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated third president of the United
States on March 4, 1801, after being elected by the House of Representatives
on February 17, 1801, on the thirty-sixth ballot in one of the
nation's closest and most divisive presidential contests. In this
first inaugural address President Jefferson reached out to heal
the political wounds by appealing to non-partisan political unification.
This draft shows the careful preparation, including the insertion
of a paragraph, with key phrases, such as "we are all republicans:
we are all federalists," that are still used in political arenas.
Federal prohibition of foreign importation of slaves
In his "Sixth Annual Message to Congress" on December 2, 1806, President Jefferson, at the
earliest moment allowed by the Constitution, called on Congress to abolish the importation of
slaves from outside the United States. The United States Constitution had forbidden Congress to
abolish "the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall
think proper to admit" prior to 1808. Congress readily complied with the president's request and
the importation of slaves was prohibited as of January 1, 1808.
Separation of church and state
Thomas Jefferson believed strongly in religious freedom and
the separation of church and state. While President, Jefferson
was accused of being a non-believer and an atheist. Jefferson
attended church services in the Capitol and on several occasions
expressed his beliefs including this letter explaining his constitutional
view. "I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by
the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions,
their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only
from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment,
or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves
to the states the powers not delegated to the US."
Presidents house in 1807
Charles Jansen sketched the President's House in 1807 during
the second term of Jefferson's presidency. The president's house
was not called the White House until it was painted white after
the British burned it during the War of 1812.
"A Philosophic Cock,"
Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804.
Courtesy of the American Antiquarian
Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140)
Political attack ads in the
era of the founding fathers
In this critical cartoon, Thomas Jefferson as the cock or rooster, courts a hen, portrayed as Sally
Hemings. Contemporary political opponents of Jefferson sought to destroy his presidency and
his new political party with charges of Jefferson's promiscuous behavior and his ownership of
slaves. The cock was also a symbol of revolutionary France, which Jefferson was known to
admire and which, his critics believed, Jefferson unduly favored.
Jefferson's plans to improve
the Urban Environment
Nicholas King's (1771-1812)sketch of Thomas Jefferson’s plans for Lombardy poplars to line Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the President's House in Washington, D.C., was sent in 1803 to Jefferson by Thomas Munrow (1771–1852), superintendent of the
city of Washington. Jefferson's landscaping ideas were influenced
by the elegant avenues and gardens in Paris and contemporary concepts
that trees and plants would purify the air in cities.
"Infant Liberty Nursed by Mother Mob"
The conservative Federalist Party still had hopes of regaining
the presidency when this anti-Jefferson political cartoon appeared
in The Echo, a book critical of Jefferson, published
by New Englanders. The creators of the cartoon attempted to link
fears of excesses of "republican" mobs, Irishmen, blacks, and
Democratic Clubs, such as Tammany Hall. Their effort failed. James
Madison, Jefferson's closest political protege was elected the
fourth president of the United States.
Washington in 1801
The north wing of the Capitol housed the Congress, the Supreme
Court, and Library of Congress when the federal government moved
to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1800. At that time, the north
wing, designed to house the United States Senate, was the only
finished part of the Capitol. Beyond the Capitol is a view westward
towards the President's House and Georgetown.
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