On April 13, those of us who love liberty and value the ideals of the American Revolution should reflect on the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, one of our greatest presidents.
After penning the words of the Declaration of Independence, and serving in a variety of public offices, Jefferson stood for election to the presidency in 1800. Americans were more than ready for a change after twelve years of Federalist rule, and as a result, Jefferson’s Republican Party swept into power by taking over both houses of Congress in addition to the Presidency.
Many historians erroneously claim that President Jefferson did not institute much change once he entered 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. He wore simple clothing and walked to the Capitol rather than arrive in grand style. Today newly inaugurated presidents walk part of the way up Pennsylvania Avenue as a tribute to Jefferson.
He also 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 too closely resembled the British monarch’s practice of publicly addressing Parliament. This tradition continued until Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1913.
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.”
In the address 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.”
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, Jefferson followed a strict construction of the Constitution, understanding that it 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.” This was a reversal of Federalist loose construction practices that had expanded government under Washington and Adams.
He also set about dismantling the Federalist big government infrastructure. By the time he left the presidency in 1809, all of Hamilton’s internal taxes had been abolished to stop 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.
He also abolished laws designed to restrict liberty. In 1798 Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts 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 those days, 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 as outlined in the First Amendment, which was then just seven years old. Furthermore, Federalist judges all over the country were upholding the laws as constitutional and actively enforcing them.
But 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 and his cuts to the U.S. Navy, which had to be reinstated when the War of 1812 came along, were not the best policies for the country. Yet his “Republican Revolution” of 1800, which reversed the early progressivism of the Federalists, did more to keep the American Republic in line with the values of the American Revolution than any other President. Only Lincoln’s war on Southern Independence destroyed those principles and began the slow but sure road toward socialism that we now find ourselves on. We need a new Jefferson to return us to our founding ideals.
Originally published in the Laurel Leader Call, April 13, 2013