Historians and presidential scholars have argued for decades over which president was the greatest and most influential of all time. It is an argument without end.
On this Presidents’ Day week, one must stand out above all others. Thomas Jefferson must be ranked as our greatest president, especially for all those who love liberty and the values of the American Revolution.
Many Americans, even conservatives, consider George Washington occupant of the White House. He should be ranked high, for he and he alone held the nation together as no one else could. Had Washington not supported the new Constitution, the experiment most definitely would have failed. No one can dispute this irrevocable fact.
But as president, Washington’s record is less than stellar. He followed the lead of his trusty Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and supported every piece of his liberal agenda, all of which Jefferson opposed.
President Washington supported the accumulation of all state debts into the hands of the federal government. Jefferson eventually got behind the plan but only as a means to secure the national capital near Virginia, where the new government could be watched with a suspicious eye. Later he regretted that any deal had ever been struck.
Washington also backed the establishment of the Bank of the United States, the forerunner to the Federal Reserve. He maintained Hamilton’s tax schemes, which made British tea taxes pale in comparison. The new federal government taxed almost everything, including houses, land, slaves, documents, and even snuff.
It was enough to make one wonder why any war for independence had been fought. As the late economist Murray Rothbard has noted, to the “average American, the federal government’s assumption of the power to impose excise taxes did not look very different from the levies of the British crown.”
And when a tax revolt broke out in Western Pennsylvania, Washington used the military to put it down.
All of Washington’s actions horrified Mr. Jefferson. He worried that the federal government would soon “swallow up all of the delegated powers” reserved to the states by the Constitution.
Washington and Hamilton believed in a loose or expansive interpretation of the Constitution, using legalism to derive at ways to expand power. Jefferson understood that the Constitution must be viewed historically, what today is called Original Meaning.
“On every question of construction,” he wrote, “let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
After Washington’s two terms, and a disastrous four years under John Adams, Americans were more than ready for a change. In the elections of 1800, Jefferson’s Republican Party, created solely to oppose Hamilton’s Federalists, swept into power, taking over both house of Congress and the Presidency.
Many historians claim that Jefferson, as President, did not institute much change once he won the White House. This is wholly untrue. Jefferson made monumental changes during his presidential tenure, beginning with his inaugural ceremony, completely altering the decorum of the presidency.
Washington dressed gracefully for his ceremony and arrived in a fancy carriage pulled by a team of six white horses. His entourage included marching bands and formations of soldiers. Adams had arrived at his ceremony in 1797 in a more modest but elegant carriage with two horses. He wore a grey broadcloth suit, but topped it off with a sword and cockade. His hair was also well powdered in the finest aristocratic tradition.
None of this would suit Jefferson. Rather than be escorted to the new Capitol building in grand style, Jefferson chose to make the brief walk with a few friends and supporters. Today presidents walk part of the way up Pennsylvania Avenue after the inaugural address as a tribute to Jefferson.
Even Jefferson’s inaugural attire was carefully crafted, right down to his “republican” shoes, which were laced rather than with the traditional, and more aristocratic, buckle.
As president, Jefferson abolished the practice of publicly delivering the State of the Union message to Congress, preferring to send a written copy instead, as he felt this was too close to the British monarch’s practice of publicly addressing Parliament. This tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1913.
Jefferson insisted on answering the White House door himself, sometimes only in his robe and slippers. The British ambassador once paid a visit to the White House and was quite astonished to find the President of the United States standing at the door in his sleeping attire.
He dressed plainly and often times served food and wine to guests himself rather than having a servant do it. He also took out the rectangular dining table in favor of a circular one, so all who dined would seemingly be equal.
To Jefferson he was a servant of the people, not their master.
His very election caused disruption within the Northern states where a move was underway to secede from the Union. Northern Federalists did not want any part of a republic led by a “radical republican” from Virginia.
But Jefferson did not respond to the threat of disunion as Lincoln would 60 years later. In his inaugural address, one of the great speeches in American history, he did not threaten war with those who sought to secede. “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
He also summed up what he considered an ideal government for America. The people needed “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, 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 it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
He believed in “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies” and “the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith.”
Once in office, he set about dismantling the Federalist political and fiscal infrastructure.
By the time he left the presidency in 1809, all of Hamilton’s taxes had been abolished, to prevent what he called “the bottomless abyss of public money.”
The federal budget under the Federalists amounted to some $5 million per year. President Jefferson cut this by more than half, to $2.4 million. The national debt was reduced from $80 million to $57 million. In addition, the treasury accumulated a surplus of $14 million.
Jefferson’s regard for the public money even included the new Executive Mansion, as he selected the furnishings himself and paid for them out of his own pocket rather than charge taxpayers.
He also went after laws designed to restrict liberty. The Alien and Sedition Acts, a predecessor to the Patriot Act, had been passed by Congress and signed by President Adams in 1798 in response to war hysteria created by a diplomatic feud with France.
The most controversial was the Sedition Act. It provided fines of up to $2,000, a massive amount in 1798, and jail sentences of up to two years for anyone who publicly criticized the president or other members of the administration, by publishing “any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame…or bring either into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States.” The law also forbade anyone from “opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States.”
It was a clear violation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press outlined in the First Amendment, which was then just six years old. Furthermore, Federalist judges all over the country were upholding the laws as constitutional and actively enforcing them.
With Republicans in control, all of the Alien and Sedition Acts were either repealed or allowed to expire. President Jefferson pardoned and released all prisoners held under those nefarious acts and even returned money the convicted had paid in fines. And he did not wait until his last day in office to do it, like modern-day presidents, but did it immediately upon taking power.
Jefferson also used every conceivable option at his disposal to keep the nation out of a war with France, a conflict the fledgling young republic could ill afford to wage.
Though his embargo failed miserably, and hurt the nation’s finances for a time, he should be credited with attempting to avert a war that could have been suicidal.
To be fair, President Jefferson did make his fair share of mistakes, as all chief executives do. His disastrous embargo, a policy of free trade that he later admitted was a mistake, and his cuts to the U.S. Navy, which had to be re-instated when the War of 1812 came along, were not the best policies for the young nation.
Yet his “Republican Revolution” of 1800, reversing the early liberalism of the Federalists, did more to keep the Republic in line with the values of the American Revolution than any other president. Only Lincoln’s war on Southern Independence, six decades later, destroyed those principles and began the slow but sure road toward socialism that we now find ourselves on.