03 Thomas Jefferson


  • Identify the key events of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency
  • Discuss the issues surrounding Jefferson’s decision in purchasing the Louisiana Territory
  • Evaluate Jefferson’s presidency

In 1800, Democratic Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent—an office holder who seeks re-election—Federalist John Adams for the Presidency.  Adams and the Federalist controlled Congress were voted out because of the people’s dissatisfaction with the events that took place during their terms (specifically because they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts).  The peaceful transition of power between the two parties is considered one of the great things about the American system of government.  In his iconic inaugural address, Jefferson, attempting to cut the tension made from the two political parties during the election said, “we are all Federalists; we are all Republicans [meaning Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, not the modern day party].”

This transition was not without controversy, as indicated by the famous Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court case.  In the lag time before the change of office (called the “lame-duck” period), the Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, creating several new judicial positions for Adams to appoint right before leaving office.  Adams picked Federalists to assume all of these new positions.

The appointments were literally done last minute—these are what are called “midnight appointments”—and not all of them were delivered before Jefferson took office.  So Jefferson told his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver them, including Federalist William Marbury’s appointment to the position of Justice of the Peace for the District of Columbia.  As a result, Marbury sued Madison, trying to force him to give him his commission.

In the Supreme Court decision of Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall (the same guy who didn’t get all the appointments delivered in time, ironically) ruled against Marbury, declaring the Judiciary Act of 1801 unconstitutional.  The case is important for reasons that have nothing to do with Marbury.  It established a precedent that was far more important the facts of the case.  The Supreme Court created an additional check and balance in the American government by creating judicial review, the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down laws that are in violation of the Constitution.

Another major decision during Jefferson’s presidency was the Louisiana PurchaseNapoleon Bonaparte decided to “cut his losses” in the New World and offered to sell the territory to the United States.  Jefferson, who had been a strict interpreter of the Constitution up until this time, had a dilemma.  The Constitution did not mention anything about the government buying land. Jefferson decided to adopt a loose interpretation of the Constitution in this one instance and the United States doubled its size.

The Louisiana Purchase was important for two main reasons.  First, it secured the Mississippi River valley and the valuable port of New Orleans for the United States now that both were part of the country.  Second, it changed the focus of the United States toward westward expansion.  Shortly after the purchase, Jefferson sent explorers under the command of Lewis and Clark into the Louisiana Territory and beyond to find a westward waterway across the continent (that doesn’t exist).  They also collected information on the newly acquired land.

Another important decision made during Jefferson’s presidency was the Embargo of 1807.  The Napoleonic Wars, between Britain and France, put America in the middle.  Both sides wanted the Americans to stop trading  with the other.  In an effort to avoid war with either country, Jefferson had the Embargo Act of 1807 passed.  American companies were forbidden, by law, to trade with either country.  The Embargo was an economic disaster.   It caused both the north and the south to suffer.

In the last sixteen days of Jefferson’s presidency (while in his lame duck period), Congress passed a law that modified the Embargo Act.  The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809 removed the ban on trade with all foreign nations and only forbade trade with Britain and France.  After the Act passed the House and the Senate, Jefferson signed it into law.  The law could not easily enforced and it also caused problems like the law it replaced.  Because of America’s refusal to trade with Britain, both of these Acts contributed to the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, though that wouldn’t happen until after Jefferson was out of office.

Jefferson’s presidency is interesting because despite his insistence in limiting the power of the federal government, he also continued the trend of Washington and Adams of strengthening the national government.

Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

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BEFORE: 2 – Adams

AFTER: 4 – Madison

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