Thomas Jefferson

President

The Republicans triumphed easily at the polls in what is sometimes called "the Revolution of 1800," but in the Electoral College vote, Aaron Burr (who had been slated for the office of Vice President) was found to have tied Jefferson for President. The choice was automatically left to the House of Representatives, where Jefferson was elected after a long deadlock, largely because Hamilton advised the Federalists to support Jefferson as less dangerous than Burr.

Jefferson was the first President inaugurated in Washington, D.C., a city he had helped to plan. He instituted a republican simplicity in the new capital, cut expenditures in all branches of government, replaced Federalist appointees with Republicans, and sought to curb the powers of the judiciary, where he felt that the Federalists were attempting to entrench their philosophy. He believed that the federal government should be concerned mostly with foreign affairs, leaving the states and local governments free to administer local matters.

Despite his contention that the Constitution must be interpreted strictly, he pushed through the Louisiana Purchase, even though such an action was nowhere expressly authorized. His eager interest in the West and in exploration had already led him to plan and organize the Lewis and Clark expedition. He held that West Florida was included in the Louisiana Purchase, but his attempts to secure Spanish agreement caused rifts in the party and made him the butt of sarcastic attacks by John Randolph in Congress.

During his second administration, however, the chief difficulties resulted from attacks on neutral American shipping by warring Britain and Napoleonic France. Jefferson placed his faith in diplomacy backed by economic pressure as represented first by the Nonimportation Act (1806) and then by the Embargo Act of 1807. To enforce them, unfortunately, meant the impoverishment of classes that had supported him and the infringement of the individual liberty he cherished. Shortly before he left office a rebellious people forced him to yield in his aims, although he maintained that the embargo had not been in effect long enough to achieve its objective.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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