Monday, May 2, 2016

Thomas Jefferson: A Small Government President

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd president of the United States. If you rank a president's greatness by how much he increased the scope and size of government, Jefferson was not your man.  However, if you rank a president's greatness by his ability to defend and protect the Constitution, then Jefferson ranks among the better presidents.

The election of 1800 had Jefferson running against incumbent John Adams.  It was among the most bitter campaigns ever, and saw Federalists and Democratic-Republicans tossing vitriol violently back and forth. Keep in mind, however, that neither Jefferson nor Adams participated in the campaigning, as presidential candidates at this time thought that doing so would be seen as immodest.

Aaron Burr
The results of the election were that Jefferson received 73 electoral votes and Adams received 65.  A problem ensued as every one of Jefferson's electors were so loyal to the party that they each cast a vote for vice president Aaron Burr as well.  This meant that Jefferson was tied with Burr for the presidency.  This meant that the House had to decide who would be president.

Federalists made trouble by voting for Burr, and after 35 ballots no decision had been made.  However, on the 36th ballot, Hamilton abstained.  This time ten states voted for Jefferson and only four voted for Burr. This made Thomas Jefferson our third President and Burr our third Vice President.

Jefferson referred to the campaign as "The Revolution of 1800."  He said this because it was the first time in the new nation that power was transferred from one party to another.  During his inaugural speech on March 4, 1801, he said, "We are all Republicans -- We are all Federalists."  Such words were needed, or so he thought, to allay tensions created during the campaigning.

During the remainder of his speech he promised to govern under the following principles of government:
  1. Strict Construction of the Constitution. He promised to protect and defend the Constitution to the best of his ability.  In other words, he promised to rule by limited government actions, and therefore to protect and defend state's rights.  
  2. Decentralized Government.  Jefferson trusted the people to make the right decisions for themselves, and therefore, he would not use the government actions to intrude into the lives of citizens. He believed this would empower the individual to make the decisions necessary to improve their lots in life and to feed their own families.  In other words, he believed people were smart, and that the government could not solve problems better than the individual; that to improve society you must first improve the individual.
These have since become known as Jeffersonian Principles. During his first term he would live up to his own Jeffersonian Principles, as he would.
  1. Champion Congress to repeal all the Alien and Sedition Acts, or allow them to expire
  2. Pardoned those who had been imprisoned under the Sedition Acts
  3. He cut federal policies set by Federalists, included some heavy taxes.
  4. He cut federal actions to allow the states to govern without federal intrusion
  5. He reduced federal expenditures and personnel
  6. He reduced the national debt, and doubled the size of the Federal Treasury
  7. He rejected the federalist idea of selling federal land at high prices to pay for government projects that would have improved infrastructure.  
  8. Instead, by cutting the size of government, and cutting taxes, he doubled the size of the treasury, and doles out this money equally among the states for local improvement projects (see below)
  9. He also sold land to ordinary Americans at modest prices, believing this would empower individual farmers in the west to prosper.
  10. He empowered Americans to build up from below, rather than having the federal elites build up from above.  
He was also a good foreign policy president.  When the pasha of Tripoli began firing on U.S. merchant ships and demanded large sums of money.  When they refused to pay, the pasha declared war on the U.S. Jefferson responded by sending the USS Constitution and other warships to open fire on Tripoli.  

Several weeks later the fighting was over and the city surrendered.  A treaty was then signed that provided some protection for U.S. merchant ships in the Mediterranean. The battles "on the shores of Tripoli" are remembered in the current U.S. Marines' Anthem. 

Spain owned New Orleans, and allowed American trappers to transport their goods to the rest of the world through their ports.  When Spain ceded the city to the French, Jefferson became concerned for the trappers. He believed the French might cut off the ports to the Americans as he built a French colony in the huge Louisiana Territory.  After all, French Emperor Bonaparte Napoleon was an empire builder.

So, in the spring of 1803, Jefferson sent James Monroe to France to offer to purchase the ports of New Orleans.  Monroe was surprised to learn that the French would not only sell New Orleans to the Americans, but the entire Louisiana Territory.  The reason was probably because French needed money to pay for their costly wars in Europe.  

Monroe and Robert R. Livingston (the U.S. minister to France) agreed on April 30 to accept the offer. In this way, the Jefferson administration succeeded in doubling the size of the young nation for only 15 million dollars, or three cents an acre. 

Jefferson, as well as other Americans, had already been curious what this vast land contained, and so he met with his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to discuss this topic.  After the purchase, Jefferson was given the funds he needed for an expedition.  Lewis, along with Captain William Clark, were sent to search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean and to record anything about the land, and the people they found, along their journey.  

Jefferson wanted badly to retire after only one term.  However, he knew the Federalists wanted to regain power badly, and they wanted to reverse many of the things Jefferson had accomplished.  So he was convinced to run for a second term.

The first order of business was to choose a new vice president.  He did not much like Aaron Burr, so he did not include him in much decision making.  In fact, Burr turned out to be a horrible vice president.  In 1804 he ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York and was so heavily criticized by Federalist Alexander Hamilton, that Burr Challenged Alexander to a duel to defend his honor.  Hamilton shot and missed, but Burr's bullet killed Alexander, who died days later of his wounds.  Hamilton's death meant the Federalist party lost it's leader, and so this pretty much sealed the fate of the Federalist party.

George Clinton
So Jefferson chose George Clinton from New York to be his vice president.

During his first term he succeeded in expanding the U.S. Treasury, so during his second term he decided to divide this money equally among the states (which was what the constitution allowed) so the states could decide how the money was spent.  However, Jefferson wanted the money to be spent on projects that would improve rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufacturers, education, and other great projects that would improve the nation.

The military also swallowed up large portions of the excess.  The most famous war at this time was the war between Britain and France.  Napoleon threatened to invade Britain, and so blockades were set up, and so French and British warships were also stopping American merchant ships, thus preventing them from delivering American goods to Europe.

Jefferson knew the American economy depended on trade with both Britain and France.  While Jefferson tended to side with the French, he also knew it was important to keep the peace with the British.  While others wanted America to side with France, others wanted it to side with the British.  Jefferson, on the other hand, believed war might weaken, or even destroy the young nation, so he did everything in his power to keep the peace with both nations.

While Jefferson worked to avoid war overseas, Aaron Burr was stirring up trouble at home.  Perhaps bitter from his fall from grace, he surreptitiously planned to raise an army of westerners who were unhappy with the new government.  He planned to drive out the Spanish from the Louisiana Territory and then move into the Spanish colony of Mexico.  He would then conquer some western states.  He would then, perhaps, name himself as leader of the new Empire.

Of course Burr's secret was revealed to Jefferson, and Burr was considered as a traitor and tried for treason.  However, even though most people considered Burr guilty, not enough evidence to convict him was available.  So he was acquitted by Chief Justice Marshall.

So the British and French had set up blockades to stop merchandise from getting to the other nation. However, the British had lost many sailors to war, so when they stopped American merchant ships, they forced American sailors to work for the British.  This greatly diminished American morale, especially considering the blockades were severely impacting the American economy.

In June of 1807, the American warship was stopped by the British warship Leopard off the coast of Virginia. The British insisted upon boarding the American ship, claiming the Americans were harboring a British deserter.  When the Americans refused, the British fired upon the American ship.  The British then boarded the American ship, and took two American sailors.

When news of this arrived in America, calls were rampant for war against Britain.  Jefferson still aimed to avoid war, and so he tried to broker a settlement, but it failed.  He then did something that was ahead of his time, and he prepared for war.  He had American businesses construct submarines with torpedoes to destroy British ships.  This was another of Jefferson's brilliant ideas, although it was not taken seriously at this time.

In December 1807 he attempted another strategy: he proposed an Embargo Act, and Congress passed it. This essentially created a ban on all trade with France or Britain.  His belief was that this would force these nations to deal more fairly with American merchant ships.

But the embargo also failed.  The only thing it succeeded at was causing thousands of American merchants and sailors to lose their jobs.  Farm prices dropped, and many farmers went bankrupt because they could not sell their crops at a profit.  In fact, the embargo hurt the U.S. more than either Britain or France.

In March 1809 he repealed the Embargo Act.

At the age of 66, Jefferson was tired.  He decided to follow in the footsteps of George Washington and retire from office after serving two terms.  His longtime friend, James Madison, would succeed him in office.

In the end, Jefferson believed in the power of the people.  He believed people were smart, and left to their own devices would solve problems better than government.  It was this approach which allowed any individual with a dream to prosper.  His system of limited government and strict constitutionalism would be used by most presidents who followed him, and with great success.

He made great strides to prevent war, even at the cost of his own legacy. He Jeffersonian Principles would create the cornerstone for a majority of presidents who succeeded him to the office.  He therefore should go down as one of the greatest presidents ever.

His party would dominate politics for the next 24 years. But eventually it would split into two factions that would become the Jacksonian Democratic Party and the Henry Clay Whig Party.