Sept. 25, 2021

The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

Join me this week as I dive into the presidential administration of one of our most complicated and controversial figures, Thomas Jefferson.

A man filled with contradictions, Jefferson could be both a brilliant visionary and a walking hypocrite. He supported limited government, until the Louisiana Purchase; opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts until he was attacked.

Complex and challenging, Jefferson remains one of the most interesting and controversial figures in American history.


“Barbary War (1801-1805).” National Museum of the U.S. Navy. Accessed August 28th, 2021.  (LINK)

“Barbary Wars, 1801–1805 and 1815–1816.” Office of the Historian, Foreign Service Institute. Accessed August 28th, 2021. (LINK)

Bernstein, R.B. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "First Barbary War." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 7, 2021. Accessed August 28th, 2021. (LINK)

“From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas McKean, 19 February 1803,” Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 39, 13 November 1802–3 March 1803, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 552–555.] (LINK)

Shafer, Ronald G. The impeachment trial presided over by Alexander Hamilton’s killer. The Washington Post. February 13, 2021. (LINK)

“The Barbary Wars.” American Battlefield Trust. Accessed August 28th, 2021. (LINK)

“Thomas Jefferson and the Indian Nations.” Monticello. Accessed August 27th, 2021. (LINK)

“Thomas Jefferson to John Dickinson, August 9, 1803,” with Copy , from The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition. Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Library of Congress. (LINK)

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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 


Hey peeps, welcome back. 

I think it is fair to say when studying history that there is no such thing as a perfect human being. Humans by nature are complex individuals; they can be both brilliant and act in despicable or questionable ways. For me, no one else in our founding highlights this more than the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. 

He demonstrated his intellectual might in his various essays and his crafting a narrative with his draft of the Declaration of Independence. However, he was also a bit of hypocrite with his stance on executive power and in his plea that all men were created equal. So this week, I am going to dive into the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.

Grab your cup of coffee peeps, lets do this. 

The morning of March 4th, 1801, as outgoing president John Adams was taking his leave, Thomas Jefferson made arrangements for his opening remarks as president. Dedicated to the imagery of being a man of the people, Jefferson opted for understated attire and walked the route to the still unfinished Capitol building to take his oath of office. 

While an arguably brilliant writer, Jefferson was not much of a public speaker and avoided the task whenever possible. The first president to be inaugurated at the Capitol, Jefferson stood in front of those who gathered to make his first address as president, yet the soft spoken Jefferson could only be heard by the first few rows. 

Published later in newspapers, the new president’s address was aimed at healing the nation. Jefferson realized the country had gone through a long and tough election cycle and he saw it as his charge to begin the healing process. It was in his inauguration that he infamously made reference to the country being all federalists and all republicans. 

Outlining his political philosophy of republican self-government, Jefferson said: “sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

In Jefferson’s mind, the people were thirsty for a limited government and elected him into office as a result of the over centralization from prior administrations. Calling it the Revolution of 1800, Jefferson was ready to institute his ideas of a limited government that was truly representative of “the people.” Of course, do not forget that when we refer to “the people” it was limited to white, land owning elite men.

He had a few goals with his administration: undo Hamilton’s fiscal policies, reduce the pomp and circumstance he believed were too reminiscent of the parliament and purge the federal judiciary, who he was convinced would work to undermine his administration through their decisions on the bench. Learning from his experiences in Washington’s administration, Jefferson built strong relationships with members of his cabinet and utilized both these relationships and those with republican leaders in congress to work towards achieving his goals.  

In his own precedent setting move, Jefferson neglected to deliver a state of the union to congress in person, deciding instead to issue a written message for a clerk to read to the chamber. Jefferson claimed to do this because he felt the process of speaking in front of congress was a replica of parliament. I am sure his dislike of public speaking had nothing to do with it. This decision to forgo speaking in front of Congress remained a practice until Woodrow Wilson broke the tradition over a hundred years later. 

One of the first tests of Jefferson’s administration was a foreign policy issue involving piracy. Working for the Barbary states, which consisted of the Ottoman Regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, and independent Morocco, pirates were capturing American sailors and detaining them, requiring a ransom payment for their release. They required a “tribute” from any country sailing through their waters and when countries failed to pay, would force the issue by seizing merchant ships and holding men hostage until the payments were made. 

In 1801, the pasha of Tripoli, known today as Libya, demanded the United States government pay $225,000 in tribute and an annual stipend of $25,000 in exchange for passing through their waters. Jefferson initially said no, leading to a declaration of war by the pasha and pirates seizing American ships and their crews. 

This conflict dragged on for several years, with pirates seizing The Philadelphia after it ran aground and detaining the captain and crew. In 1805, Captain William Eaton and Commodore John Rogers invaded Tripoli, rescuing the crew of the Philadelphia. Seeking an end to the conflict, Jefferson signed a treaty providing for a $60,000 payment for each remaining hostage. Things remained fairly calm between the United States and the Barbary states for a few years, but pirates would strike again leading to another conflict after Jefferson’s presidency during the War of 1812. 

On the home front, Jefferson turned his attention to the native population. Hoping to further protect the country and cultivate support from the indigenous tribes, Jefferson worked to both secure more land and civilize the various tribal nations. In comparison to some later presidents, Jefferson’s approach to indigenous populations was mild. He maintained friendly relations, sending christina missionaries to establish schools and educate and convert them to a more euro-centric way of living. 

And while Jefferson on one hand instructed his staff that Indigenous Americans should never be coerced into giving up their lands, he wasn’t above scheming to force their hand. In a letter to William Henry Harrison, Jefferson suggested enticing Native people to purchase goods on credit which would inevitably lead to their going into debt, providing an opportunity for the government to use their land as repayment for debts owed. 

Arguably one of the most celebrated accomplishments of Jefferson’s tenure is the Louisiana Purchase. I covered briefly in a previous episode how the land mass was purchased, but what exactly prompted Jefferson to take the gamble on the land, especially since he initially questioned whether he had the authority to make the offer. Like most major decisions, several factors were at play. One factor was the access to the port city of New Orleans and access to the Mississippi River. An emerging trading post, access to the river and New Orleans would be critical to the country’s economic viability. 

There was also concern about the settlements along the then established southern border. As France and Spain laid claim to the territory in the south, Jefferson worried the citizens living on the frontier would join the Spanish and create separate nation states, thereby limiting the control of the United States. 

However, as a proponent of a strict interpretation of the constitution, Jefferson realized he had a bit of a problem - there was nothing in the constitution allowing the president to buy land. Writing, “the General Government has no powers but such as the Constitution gives it… it has not given it power of holding foreign territory, and still less of incorporating it into the Union. An amendment of the Constitution seems necessary for this.” 

In his estimation, an amendment was required and he went so far as drafting a proposed amendment. However, after consulting with his cabinet, Jefferson changed his mind and proceeded with making the largest land purchase in United States history. 

Jefferson, the man who for the entirety of his political career was a proponent of limited power, made one of the broadest assertions of presidential authority in history. Rationalizing his decision, Jefferson later wrote in 1810, “it is incumbent on those who accept great charges to risk themselves on great occasions.”  

The other big domestic event during Jefferson’s tenure is the infamous court case Marbury v Madison. I already covered the details in a prior episode, so go check it out. This court decision only further angered Jefferson and cement his belief the federalist stacked judiciary was working to undermine his administration. In the aftermath of the decision, Jefferson tacitly approved his allies pursuing politically motivated efforts at impeaching judges. 

The republican controlled senate successfully impeached and removed one judge, before Vice President Aaron Burr stepped in during the trial for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase and blunted the efforts to oust judges for purely political reasons.  

During his bid for re-election, Jefferson faced criticism and political attacks in the press. One of the attacks was the revelation of his relationship with enslaved woman Sally Hemings, which I also covered in a previous episode. And while Jefferson publicly said nothing, behind the scenes he supported prosecution of federalist printers, arguing that federalist leaning journalists had perverted the profession by spreading lies. Writing to Pennsylvania Governor Thomas McKean, Jefferson said the press, quote “ought to be restored to its credibility” end quote and that, quote “a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect.” 

Jefferson felt publishers could and should be prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition acts for the spreading of “seditious libel.” And here is where I remind you, dear listeners, of Jefferson’s prior stance on the Alien & Sedition acts. If you remember from my episode on Adams’ presidency, Jefferson was vehemently against the laws, arguing they made the government tyrannical in his authorship of the Kentucky resolutions. Jefferson was against the acts; until he wasn’t and then once he changed his mind, tied himself up in knots trying to avoid admitting his hypocrisy. 

Jefferson tried to argue his support of prosecutions did not contradict his opposition to the Alien and Sedition acts because he felt the first amendment did not bind state governments and therefore states could sue individuals for libel. Supporters went so far as to file a case, People v Croswell where they presented a case for seditious libel. Alexander Hamilton argued that when considering whether someone is guilty of libel, the defendant should be allowed to provide evidence of the truthfulness of the statements labeled as false. While he didn’t win the appeal, New York adopted his argument and added it to their state constitution.

Another troubling aspect of Jefferson’s presidency occurred during his second term. No fan of Aaron Burr, Jefferson chose George Clinton of New York to replace Burr as running mate. Burr, politically ostracized due to his lethal duel with Alexander Hamilton and non-existent relationship with Jefferson, headed out west to reinvent himself politically. 

Burr entertained disaffected citizens who openly complained about the government in the east and professed a desire to break with the United States. Rumors started flying about Burr’s true intention. Was he there to lead a secession from the union? Was he setting himself up to take over the southern half of the United States and set up his own country? While there is enough evidence to suggest Burr was up to something, there was no tangible evidence outlining any specific plot and various witnesses were all inconsistent, However once Jefferson heard rumors regarding Burr, he became convinced he was dangerous and guilty of the worst form of betrayal. 

Using the weight of his office, Jefferson sent a notice to congress outlining the information he received and pushed for Burr’s immediate arrest. Captured on February 19, 1807, Burr was arrested and tried for treason. However, the evidence against him was shaky at best, with the key piece of evidence being a doctored letter from General Wilkinson. Burr was acquitted due to insufficient evidence. 

One of the last acts Jefferson took as president was the Embargo Act of 1807. Hoping to protect American ships from ongoing conflicts in Europe the act prohibited U.S based ships from trading with or carrying goods for any european power. Jefferson hoped the embargo would hurt their European trading partners and convince the British navy to stop the impressment of American sailors. 

Unfortunately, the embargo only caused more damage to the U.S economy and Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act as he was preparing to leave the white house on March 1, 1809 just days before the end of his administration. The non-intercourse act effectively repealed the embargo and replaced it with more mild restrictions in trade. Tensions continued to escalate between the United States and Britain, leading to the eventual clash during the War of 1812. 

Jefferson left office on March 4th, 1809 and returned home to his plantation in Virginia. He never left Virginia again, dedicating his remaining time to improving his Monticello estate. He infamously passed away on the same day as his frenemy John Adams, July 4th, 1826. 

Some other important milestones occurred during Jefferson’s tenure, including the passage of the twelfth amendment to the constitution, which provides for two separate votes for president and vice president. Ohio became a state under Jefferson’s watch, entering the union on February 19th, 1803 and Jefferson oversaw the end of the international slave trade, supporting legislation proposed by congress in December of 1806. 

Jefferson is a challenging figure in American history. For me, he is a quagmire and a walking contradiction. He purported the belief that all men were created equal, yet kept hundreds of people in bondage. He could be progressive but also incredibly patronizing, finding black and brown people mentally inferior and in need of paternalistic assistance to improve their quality of life. And above all else, he was a hypocrite; a man who before the presidency was a proponent of the strict interpretation of the constitution and against executive overreach, only to compromise those beliefs when faced with the right opportunity. Or be opposed to the Alien & Sedition acts until he was attacked. 

History is filled with imperfect people and Thomas Jefferson is one of many. A brilliant writer and visionary in so many ways, he remains one of the most complicated and controversial figures in American history.

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Thanks peeps. 

Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.