The Political Impact of Jefferson in the 19th Century Thomas Jefferson

The Hamilton Years: The Formation of the Republican Party

From the Hamilton-Jefferson political rivalry during the early American republic, we have inherited a certain confusion over Jefferson's true political character. In opposition to Hamilton, who sought to emulate the financial model of England, Jefferson established himself as a liberal democrat and economic libertarian who believed in the virtue of the agrarian state. While Jefferson came to be appropriated by succeeding generations of politicians, and physically embodied and memorialized in Monticello and the University of Virginia, Hamilton's memory was more directly tied to the economic fortunes of the country, and he never received the government-sanctioned elevation to American Hero-status--i.e. the Monument--that Jefferson did. Ever since Jefferson's tenure at the White House, however, the question of Jefferson's "character"--and thus "the Jefferson image."1--has been called into question, stemming from the contradictory actions of Jefferson himself as well as the historical distortions by various political figures, historians, teachers and artists.

With the close of the First Congress on May 3, 1791, Jefferson saw the outlines of Hamilton's economic program and feared its implications. Unlike Jefferson, Hamilton believed that man is fundamentally selfish, and that government should be formulated with that reality in mind. Hamilton thought in global terms: with the establishment of a nationally administered, manufacturing economy based on a publicly funded debt and foreign investment, he hoped to foster the emergence of America as a world financial force. In response to Alexander Hamilton's outline for a mercantilist society, Thomas Jefferson helped to found the first American political party, the Republican party, to uphold the agrarian ideal and fight for a market economy in which men could trade freely, without the tampering and controlling measures of government. A classical republican who feared the potential for corruption in even the most balanced of governments, Jefferson especially feared the potential for corruption in Hamilton's scheme, in which power seemed to be concentrated in the hands of an elite few, who could, like Robert Walpole, subvert representative democracy through patronage and privileged influence. 2

Of utmost importance to Jefferson was the sanctity of the individual's liberty and property rights, and he saw government's primary purpose as the preservation of those rights. In his First Inaugural Address, he states the "the sum of good government" as a "wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men fom injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread that it has earned." The reach of the government should never encroach upon an individual's autonomy and privacy--the fear of tyranny was always at the forefront of Jefferson's mind. Jefferson envisioned a republic in which the citizen (male citizen, but that's another essay 3) could hold property with security and actively participate in civic affairs. Jefferson trusted the people as instinctively virtuous and humanitarian, and he designed the new republic in order to best cultivate those impulses.

Jefferson defeated Federalist President John Adams in what Jefferson termed "the revolution of 1800," a revolution that was "as real a revolution in the principle of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." 4 Jefferson and his followers hailed their victory as an affirmation of representative democracy and an assurance that the voice of the people would indeed be heard through the election process. As an opposition party, the Jeffersonian Republicans had employed populist rhetoric to level charges against the Treasury and the publicly funded debt as steps backward to the very evil that America had revolted against: a corrupt and privileged executive power, based--in Jefferson's eyes--on ministerial influence and financial chicanery, designed to benefit only an economic and political elite. The Republicans ran on a platform of strict constitiutional construction and the protection of states' rights, and won. 5

Though Jefferson immediately moved to abolish internal taxes in 1800, charges were soon leveled against his seemingly Federalist bent in office. Henry Adams is one of the most influential figures, in both contemporary and present-day letters, to raise doubts about Jefferson's character. Adams wrote that "[Jefferson] was a gentle leader, not a commander, who valued principle less than popularity and power." In Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory, Adams saw an abandonment of a fundamental plank in the Republican platform--the retirement of national debt--and, perhaps even more alarming, "the powers of the national government had been increased to a point that made blank paper of the Constitution." Adams spoke for an emerging minority faction within the Republican Party, the Old Republicans, when he decried the maintenance of a strong navy, the burgeoning national debt, and the growth of the national bank, and called for a return to what had been the rallying cry during the years of opposition: States' rights! 6

We have arrived at one of the chief contradictions imbedded in the Jefferson image: As President, did Jefferson practice what he preached while in opposition? Did Jefferson stick to his principles while in office? A defense can easily be constructed: his purchase of Louisiana ensured the nation's security, and he had taken significant steps toward reducing the national debt before the Purchase; under his guidance, Congress had reduced not only appropriations to the navy but reduced the army to three thousand men as well; a good number of Federalists had been removed from office; and the abolition of internal taxes represented a clear reversal of Adams' economic policy. 7

More examples could be raised, but what is important to stress here is that the record of Jefferson's Presidency raised doubts about the strength of his principles. We are forced to grapple with the Jefferson image; we cannot merely embrace it. 8

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Signed left side of column, H. Powers;

Sculpted, 1863; marble, 8';

Purchased by contract, 1859; placed, 1863, in House wing, second floor, east corridor.

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