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[Detail] Thomas Jefferson

The Jefferson Presidency

After four years as vice president, Jefferson ran against the incumbent for the presidency in 1800. Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received the same number of electoral votes, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. The House took repeated votes over a period of six days, finally electing Jefferson on the 36th ballot, just two weeks before inauguration.

The collection includes some of Jefferson’s correspondence regarding the election. In a letter to Madison on December 26, 1800, Jefferson wrote that the Federalists “appear determined to prevent an election, & to pass a bill giving the government to Mr. Jay, appointed Chief Justice, or to Marshall as Secy of state.” Read the December 26 letter, as well as a letter to Madison written December 19, 1800, and one to Caesar Rodney written December 21, 1800, for two additional accounts of the disputed election from Jefferson’s perspective.

  • When it appeared the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, what did Jefferson predict would happen? How accurate were his predictions?
  • What concerns about the government did Jefferson express in these letters? Conduct research to find out how Jefferson dealt with those issues in his administration.

In the last hours of the Adams administration, the president appointed 16 federal judges and selected John Marshall, an avowed Federalist, as Chief Justice. Jefferson and the Republicans were infuriated by the appointment of these “midnight judges.” In an 1804 letter to Abigail Adams, Jefferson referred to the judicial appointments.

. . . I did consider his last appointments to office as personally unkind. They were from among my most ardent political enemies, from whom no faithful co-operation could ever be expected; and laid me under the embarrassment of acting thro' men whose views were to defeat mine, or to encounter the odium of putting others in their places. It seemed but common justice to leave a successor free to act by instruments of his own choice. If my respect for him did not permit me to ascribe the whole blame to the influence of others, it left something for friendship to forgive, and after brooding over it for some little time, and not always resisting the expression of it, I forgave it cordially, and returned to the same state of esteem & respect for him which had so long subsisted.

From “Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Smith Adams, June 13, 1804”

A festering problem with pirates in the Mediterranean was one of the first foreign policy problems to confront the new administration. Jefferson had written about this problem as early as 1786, saying in a letter to John Adams “I acknowledge I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war” and listing reasons why a war with the Barbary Pirates would be the only feasible solution to the harassment of shipping in the Mediterranean. Jefferson wrote an account of events leading to the Barbary War in an 1801 letter to Wilson Cary Nicholas. A brief essay on the Barbary Pirates accompanies the collection.

The purchase of Louisiana was one of the hallmarks of the Jefferson administration. There was, however, opposition to the annexation of western territory, especially among the Federalists. Jefferson himself questioned his authority to purchase Louisiana. See “Queries on Louisiana” and Jefferson’s proposal for a constitutional amendment for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory. In a letter to John C. Breckinridge, Jefferson mentioned objections to the purchase and talk of exchanging Louisiana, or part of the Louisiana territory, for Florida, noting, “But, as I have said, we shall get the Floridas without, and I would not give one inch of the waters of the Mississippi to any nation.”

  • Why was Jefferson fearful of French control of Louisiana? Why was it important to have the “right of deposit” in New Orleans?
  • Why would Jefferson feel it necessary to amend the Constitution before he could legitimately purchase Louisiana from France?
  • How did Federalists and Republicans react to the acquisition of Louisiana?
  • Why was Jefferson unwilling to have any nation control the Mississippi River?

On June 20, 1803, Jefferson wrote instructions to Meriwether Lewis regarding the mission he and George Rogers Clark were to undertake. Search the collection using Lewis and Clark as a search term to locate additional correspondence to and from Jefferson regarding the scientific mission of discovery. You may also want to search the American Memory Map Collections for a map drawn during the expedition with annotations by Meriwether Lewis.

  • What importance did Jefferson place on the Lewis and Clark expedition?
  • What were his instructions to Meriwether Lewis?
  • What benefits did the nation reap from the expedition?

Jefferson’s second term was troubled by war in Europe and the threat of U.S. involvement. France, to cripple English trade and commerce, passed a series of decrees establishing a blockade, and England responded with the “Orders in Council,” which effectively kept ships from neutral countries from reaching France. Both nations threatened American shipping. Jefferson, to avoid war, initiated a series of trade restrictions that angered Federalist New England. Jefferson was assailed by the press and received letters in opposition to his policies, which took an economic toll on merchant seamen, dockworkers, and farmers who had made up much of the Republican constituency.