After years of fighting with Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson finally had his chance to control the federal government. Will 1804 prove his policies were more popular? Or will the political dominance of the Pinckney brothers finally be established? Let’s find out!
The Last Four Years
Jefferson’s main focus as president was to dismantle the policies of the Federalist party, which had controlled the executive branch for America’s first twelve years under the Constitution. He repealed the Whiskey Tax and ended the Alien and Sedition Acts. As tensions between Britain and France cooled, he was also able to shrink the military. To some surprise, he did keep Hamilton’s national bank. All in all though, it was a pretty relaxed time for federal power.
And ya know what? It worked! Things were going pretty well. Jefferson valued a rural and agrarian America. Agriculture was booming and trade was up. This allowed the government to tax trade instead of direct citizens, and still allowed for a huge reduction in the national debt.
However, there was one notable exception to Jefferson’s adherence to small government, the Louisiana Purchase.
France had acquired the territory from Spain in a treaty just a few years earlier. Napoleon planned to restore France’s colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere, but he soon faced a slave rebellion in Saint Domingue (now known as Haiti). The Haitian Revolution was a success and established the only nation in the world run by former slaves. Napoleon was sad that his colonists could no longer be slave-owning assholes, so he gave up on his plan for the Americas. He decided it was time to sell off France’s assets in the middle of the continent. Jefferson sent his pal, former Virginia governor James Monroe, to negotiate. 1804, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. What a steal!
Lewis & Clark Pause!
So you just doubled the size of the country. Now what? Well, you go see what’s out there! And more importantly, you make it known that Americans will be headed west right away! Back off, Spain!
Meriwether Lewis was a Virginian and, since all Virginians knew each other back then, he was a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson picked Lewis to lead the expedition into the new land. Lewis chose his close friend, William Clark, as his second-in-command. Their expedition party was awesomely named The Corps of Discovery and had over 30 members. The Corps departed eastern Missouri in May 1804. As expected, they had several run-ins with the Native Americans who were already occupying the land. In what is now North Dakota, they met up with a French-Canadian fur trapper and his pregnant Shoshone wife, Sacagawea. She mostly served as an interpreter for the expedition and as a symbol of peace to the other Native American tribes they encountered. They reached the Pacific Ocean in November 1805, then solemnly realized they had to turn around and do it all again.
Politicians on both sides questioned the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase. It was unclear if the federal government had the ability to make deals like that. Republicans like Jefferson and Monroe typically favored the strictest interpretation of the Constitution as a way to limit the powers of the federal government. Though the addition of new territory was obviously beneficial to a growing United States, many pointed out that the purchase was a far reach of the government’s abilities. It was surely something Jefferson would have argued against, if it had been Hamilton doing the purchasing. That’s a lot of money to spend, and many did not see the initial benefit. However hypocritical, Jefferson followed his gut to obtain more land for American’s farmers.
Jefferson’s worst controversy, however, was his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. Despite his famous words that all men are created equal, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves throughout his life. Sally was the daughter of John Wayles (Jefferson’s father-in-law) and his slave, Betty, making her a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife. The Hemings family was inherited by the Jeffersons after Wayles’ death. In the 1780s, while Jefferson was serving as the US Minister to France, Sally traveled to Paris with his daughter to visit him. Jefferson’s wife had died a few years earlier. At the age of 14, Sally became pregnant. Although slavery had been outlawed during the French Revolution, Jefferson convinced Sally to return with him to his home at Monticello, Virginia, promising to free any children she had when they turned 21. Sally eventually had six children, four of which survived into adulthood. Later in life, Jefferson kept his word and freed them, either in his will, or by allowing them to escape.
In 1802, a journalist revealed to the public that Thomas Jefferson was likely the father of Sally’s children. Whether based on true moral objection, or for pure political gain, this provided fuel for the president’s critics. Jefferson never publicly spoke on the matter, though he denied it in personal letters. Over two hundred years later, the issue has never truly been solved. A modern DNA test proved that Sally’s descendants shared the Jefferson heritage. Skeptics still argue that other male Jeffersons living at Monticello could have fathered Sally’s children. But that still leaves her first pregnancy in Paris as an outlier. Notably, it is the position of the Monticello Foundation that Thomas Jefferson had a decades long sexual relationship with Sally and was the father of her children.
Republicans were in a great spot. They had pushed the Federalists back to a few remaining enclaves in New England. They were poised for another victory with their boy, TJ!
Meanwhile, the Federalists were in crisis. The Revolution of 1800 was a huge embarrassment. Worse yet, their fearless leader, Alexander Hamilton, had put himself in a dangerous position.
(Re-)Enter: Aaron Burr. Remember Burr from the last election? Hamilton had screwed him at the last minute by endorsing his long-time rival Jefferson in the presidential run-off election. Burr came in second, making him VP to someone he had just tried to steal the presidency from. Awkward! Jefferson could no longer trust Burr and shunned him from official matters. Frustrated that he would not be chosen for Jefferson’s 1804 ticket, he instead ran for governor of New York.
Aaaaaand yet again, Hamilton intervened. He attacked Burr in the press, causing him to lose again (to another Democratic-Republican, not even Hamilton’s party!). Tensions escalated quickly. On July 11th, 1804, Hamilton and Burr met for a pistol duel along the banks of the Hudson river. Duels were not uncommon in this era, but mostly served as a tradition to defend men’s fragile egos, not actually as a way to murder someone. But, not everything goes as planned. As the duel started, Hamilton and Burr took their steps and turned. Hamilton aimed high and intentionally shot above Burr’s head, proving his masculine ability to stand in front of a loaded gun, but preserving his honor as not a murderer. Burr, however, aimed squarely at Hamilton and shot him in the abdomen. He was rushed to the home of a nearby friend and died the next day.
The Federalists, struggling to recover from their political losses, were now without their strongest voice.
Aaron Burr Pause!
Following Hamilton’s death, Burr was wanted for murder in New York and New Jersey, but never stood trial. He fled to South Carolina for a time, but eventually returned to Washington to finish his term as VP. With his political career ruined, Burr traveled west and tried to form a new settlement. He believed war with Spain was imminent, as they would feel threatened by the US expansion of the Louisiana Purchase. Burr and his crew prepared for the war, hoping that the chaos would allow them to claim more land for themselves. Jefferson interpreted this land-grab as treason and ordered his arrest. He was eventually acquitted.
To contrast Jefferson’s southern roots, the Republican ticket was balanced with our old pal, New York politician, George Clinton.
The Federalists honored Hamilton’s legacy by nominating Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who Hamilton had tried to get elected over Adams four years earlier. As a refresher, Pinckney fought in the Revolution and became a major political figure in South Carolina, along with his brother. As a rare southern Federalist, he helped campaign to ratify the Constitution. He was the US Minister to France under Washington, making him a key player in the XYZ Affair. Unlike most Federalists, he supported slavery. The strategy was to steal southern votes from Jefferson. His VP pick was also a New Yorker, Rufus King.
Map update! In 1803, one of the worst tragedies in history befell the United States, the state of ohio was admitted to the Union, along with their completely false territorial claim of Toledo.
In better news, the 12th Amendment had finally passed! This meant that electors could now vote for president and vice president in separate votes, instead of grouping all candidates together and awarding the VP spot to the second place finisher. It’s the same system we use today! In a way, the amendment acknowledged the existence of political parties, which Washington had feared. Never would there be an election where electors simply voted for the two best candidates to win. The American political world was forever divided.
Alright, let’s check out those numbers… ooooh boy, not looking good for the Federalists.
Thomas Jefferson won in a huge landslide! 162-14, even winning some New England states. Complete domination.
What Did It Say About America?
America was feelin’ fine with Jefferson. He ushered in an era of Republican political dominance, cooling the divisiveness that had engulfed the last two elections.
I think Jefferson’s vision of America is the closest to what today’s conservatives consider the values of the founding fathers. He focused on rural farmers, small government, and populism (though all power was still held by white men). I think he might also be the most American figure, personifying our country at its best, and at its worst. The words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence set about a revolution, not just in America, but around the world. He was a towering symbol of democracy. Even other founding fathers, as much as they hated King George, didn’t truly trust the will of the people like he did. BUT, he was also incredibly hypocritical. It’s difficult to imagine Jefferson supporting a Hamilton-lead Louisiana Purchase. And though he often questioned the morality of slavery, he owned hundreds of slaves and rarely used his political influence to end the institution. And of course, he more than likely raped his fourteen-year-old slave, Sally.
Was It The Right Decision?
Jefferson was seriously flawed. In the context of this election, yes I think he was better than Pinckney, who was also a slave owner and more directly supportive of the institution. It’s impossible to say if Thomas Jefferson was more good than bad, overall. History, and people, are too complex than that. The ideas he introduced were very good. Sometimes, the things he did were very, very bad. Like Hamilton, he had a vision for America that truly shaped its future. He could have done more, but what he did do set in motion a continuous expansion of democracy that we enjoy today.