Although Thomas Jefferson was in France serving as United States minister when the Federal Constitution was written in 1787, he was able to influence the development of the federal government through his correspondence. Later his actions as the first secretary of state, vice president, leader of the first political opposition party, and third president of the United States were crucial in shaping the look of the nation's capital and defining the powers of the Constitution and the nature of the emerging republic.
Jefferson played a major role in the planning, design, and construction of a national capitol and the federal district. In the various public offices he held, Jefferson sought to establish a federal government of limited powers. In the 1800 presidential election, Jefferson and Aaron Burr deadlocked, creating a constitutional crisis. However, once Jefferson received sufficient votes in the electoral college, he and the defeated incumbent, John Adams, established the principle that power would be passed peacefully from losers to victors in presidential elections. Jefferson called his election triumph “the second American Revolution.”
While president, Jefferson's principles were tested in many ways. For example, in order to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France he was willing to expand his narrow interpretation of the Constitution. But Jefferson stood firm in ending the importation of slaves and maintaining his view of the separation of church and state. In the end, Jefferson completed two full and eventful terms as president. He also paved the way for James Madison and James Monroe, his political protégés, to succeed him in the presidency.
Toward a Federal Constitution
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants”
Writing to William Smith (1755–1816), John Adams' secretary and future son-in-law, Thomas Jefferson seemed to welcome Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts: “god forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion . . . the tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. it is it's natural manure.” Jefferson was confident that rather than repression, the “remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them.”
Thomas Jefferson to William Smith, November 13, 1787. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (105)
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“Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press”
Eighteenth-century political philosophers concerned themselves with the balance between the restrictions needed to make a government function and the individual liberties guaranteed by that government. Jefferson's efforts to protect individual rights including freedom of the press were persistent, pivotal, and not always successful. Jefferson was a staunch advocate of freedom of the press, asserting in a January 28, 1786, letter to James Currie (1745–1807), a Virginia physician and frequent correspondent during Jefferson's residence in France: “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Thomas Jefferson to James Currie, January 28, 1786. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (115)
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Jefferson objects to absence of Bill of Rights
Thomas Jefferson's December 20, 1787, letter to James Madison contains objections to key parts of the new Federal Constitution. Primarily, Jefferson noted the absence of a bill of rights and the failure to provide for rotation in office or term limits, particularly for the chief executive. During the writing and ratification of the constitution, in an effort to influence the formation of the new governmental structure, Jefferson wrote many similar letters to friends and political acquaintances in America.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 20, 1787. Manuscript letter. Page 2. Manuscript Division (106)
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Thomas Jefferson's annotated copy of the Federalist Papers
Thomas Jefferson called the collected essays written by Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), James Madison, and John Jay (1745–1829), the “best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Jefferson, like many other contemporary Americans, tried to determine which essays had been written by each of the three authors. On this inside cover sheet Jefferson credited Madison with authorship of more than a dozen essays. The question of who wrote each of the essays has never been definitively answered.
The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution. Vol. 1. New York: J. and A. McLean, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (127)
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“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”
On July 4, 1776, in addition to approving the Declaration of Independence, Congress chose Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to design a great seal for the new country. Franklin proposed the phrase “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God,” a sentiment Jefferson heartily embraced and included in the design for the Virginia seal and sometimes stamped it on the wax seals of his own letters. Although Congress rejected the elaborate seal, it retained the words “E Pluribus Unum,” which became the country's motto.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Plan for Great Seal, 1776. Copyprint of design. Prints and Photographs Division (100)
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Erecting a Federal Edifice
Federal Hall, home of the First Federal Congress
Federal Hall in New York was the site of the meeting of the First Federal Congress in 1789. As secretary of state, Jefferson dealt with Congress here for less than one year before the Federal Government relocated to Philadelphia in 1790, as part of the agreement to create a permanent federal capital district. Jefferson was instrumental in building the national capital district both in his role as secretary of state, and, later, as president.
After an engraving by Cornelius Tiebout. Federal Hall. Copyprint of lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division (130)
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Jefferson's plan of the Federal District, 1791
In his 1791 plan for the Federal District, Jefferson envisioned a compact, simple republican design. During his service as secretary of state, Jefferson was responsible for the early planning and surveying of the nation's capital district.
Thomas Jefferson. Plan of the Federal District, 1791. Manuscript map. Manuscript Division (102)
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Jefferson seeks plans for Capitol building, 1792
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson drafted this advertisement for a national competition offering a $500 prize for a capitol building design. The results were disappointing. An amateur architect, Jefferson prepared his own sketch for a circular Capitol, which was submitted anonymously and rejected by President Washington and the commissioners. In 1793 the commission selected an exterior design by another amateur architect William Thornton (1759–1828) and an interior design by Stephen Hallet (1755–1825), the only professional architect to enter the competition.
Thomas Jefferson. Advertisement for a Capitol, c. March 6, 1792. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (103a)
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Jefferson advocates limited power of constitution
Thomas Jefferson's February 15, 1791, opinion on the constitutionality of a national bank is considered one of the stellar statements on the limited powers and strict construction of the Federal Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, a proponent of the broadest interpretation of the constitution based on the implied powers of the Federal Constitution, was the leading advocate for the national bank. Jefferson and Hamilton quickly became outspoken leaders of two opposing interpretations of national government.
Thomas Jefferson. Opinion on a National Bank 1791. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (129)
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Jefferson's parliamentary practice manual
This manual was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and is based on the Parliamentary Pocket-Book or commonplace book and his experience during his tenure as vice-president and presiding officer of the United States Senate, 1797–1801. The Manual was first printed by Jefferson's friend and political ally, Samuel Harrison Smith (1772–1845), in 1801 and still serves as a basis for parliamentary practices in the Senate.
Thomas Jefferson. Draft of Manual of Parliamentary Practice, c. 1799–1801. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (134)
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Charles Willson Peale's vibrant life portrait shows Jefferson as he looked when serving as secretary of state in President Washington's cabinet. The portrait of Jefferson at aged forty-eight hung in Peale's famous museum of science, art, and curiosities in Philadelphia until the collection was dispersed in 1854. The portrait was then purchased for and installed at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in the very room where the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress in 1776.
Charles Willson Peale. Thomas Jefferson. Philadelphia, 1791. Copyprint of oil on canvas. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia (128)
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President George Washington was near the end of his second presidential term in 1796 when he sat for this portrait by Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828). Washington's portrait by Stuart became the favorite of nineteenth-century lithographers, who made and sold thousands of copies.
Gilbert Stuart. George Washington, 1796. Copyprint of oil on canvas in the collection of the United States Architect of the Capitol. Prints and Photographs Division (132B)
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National Partisan Politics
Jeffersonians claim extreme rights for states
The Kentucky Resolutions were drafted in secret by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the fall of 1798 to counter the perceived threat to constitutional liberties from the Alien and Sedition Acts. These federal laws limited naturalization rights and free speech by declaring public criticism of government officials to be seditious libel, punishable by imprisonment and fines. Jefferson's draft resolutions claimed states had the right to nullify federal laws and acts that violated the Constitution. The Kentucky Resolutions were passed, and the role Jefferson and Madison played in drafting them was kept secret throughout their years of public service.
Thomas Jefferson. Draft of the Kentucky Resolutions, November 16, 1798. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (135)
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The Jeffersonian Republicans' first newspaper
Partisan politics spurred newspaper growth in the United States from 92 in 1790 to 329 at the end of Thomas Jefferson's presidency. All but 56 were identified with a political party. Philip Freneau'sNational Gazette was the first official Republican newspaper. Jefferson and James Madison provided encouragement, money and a position in Jefferson's Department of State to Freneau to establish a Republican newspaper. The National Gazette was the leading critic of Federalist political programs durings its two year existence.
Philip Freneau. National Gazette. Philadelphia: November 14, 1791. Serial and Government Publications Division (118)
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Jeffersonians expose Hamilton's sexual liaison
James Callender's (1758–1803) History of the United States for 1796 was the original public venue for reports of financial dealings by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton as well as his 1792 adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds (b. 1768), the wife of James Reynolds, a United States Treasury employee. Jefferson's political lieutenant, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, and later first Librarian of Congress John James Beckley was the immediate source of the confidential documents used by Callender to discredit Hamilton. Callender was one of the political pamphleteers supported by Jeffersonians to attack their Federalist opponents.
James T. Callender. History of the United States for 1796. Philadelphia, 1797. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (119)
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Jefferson experiences the political limits of freedom of the press
President Jefferson's support for freedom of the press was sorely tested in 1802 when James Callender publicly charged that Jefferson “keeps and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is Sally.” The Richmond Recorder, first printed Callender's account of Jefferson's intimate relationship with his wife's half sister, Sally Hemings, but controversy has surrounded the accusation and the relationship to the present day. Callender, whose vitriolic attacks on Federalist opponents of Jefferson in the 1790s had been secretly funded by Jefferson and Republican allies, turned against Jefferson when the president failed to give him a patronage position.
The Richmond Recorder, September 1, 1802. Courtesy of the Virginia State Library, Richmond (117a)
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Jefferson urges supporters to write newspaper attacks
Thomas Jefferson seldom wrote articles or essays for the press, but he did urge his supporters such as James Madison, James Monroe (1758–1831), John Beckley (1757–1807), and David Rittenhouse (1732–1796) to publicly counter the Federalists. In this July 7, 1793, letter, Jefferson urges Madison to attack the ideas of Alexander Hamilton: “for god's sake, my dear Sir, take up your pen, select the most striking heresies, and cut him to peices [sic] in the face of the public.” Both Republicans and Federalists engaged in critical attacks on their opponents.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison July 7, 1793. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (116)
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“The Providential Detection” depicts Jefferson attempting to destroy the Constitution
In this cartoon, Thomas Jefferson kneels before the altar of Gallic despotism as God and an American eagle attempt to prevent him from destroying the United States Constitution. He is depicted as about to fling a document labeled “Constitution & Independence U.S.A.” into the fire fed by the flames of radical writings. Jefferson's alleged attack on George Washington and John Adams in the form of a letter to Philip Mazzei falls from Jefferson's pocket. Jefferson is supported by Satan, the writings of Thomas Paine, and the French philosophers.
Artist unknown. The Providential Detection, 1797–1800. Copyprint of lithograph. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (136)
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The Second American Revolution
“The true principles of the revolution of 1800”
Jefferson viewed the presidential election of 1800, which won him the presidency, as a second American Revolution. Jefferson believed in “the true principles of the revolution of 1800. for that was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76. was in it's form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people. The nation declared it's will by dismissing functionaries of one principle, and electing those of another in the two branches, executive and legislative, submitted to their election.”
Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane September 6, 1819. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (137)
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“We are all republicans: we are all federalists”
Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, after being elected by the House of Representatives on February 17, 1801, on the thirty-sixth ballot in one of the nation's closest and most divisive presidential contests. In this first inaugural address President Jefferson reached out to heal the political wounds by appealing to non-partisan political unification. This draft shows the careful preparation, including the insertion of a paragraph, with key phrases, such as “we are all republicans: we are all federalists,” that are still used in political arenas.
Thomas Jefferson. First Inaugural Address March 4, 1801. Manuscript. Page 2. Manuscript Division (138)
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Federal prohibition of foreign importation of slaves
In his “Sixth Annual Message to Congress” on December 2, 1806, President Jefferson, at the earliest moment allowed by the Constitution, called on Congress to abolish the importation of slaves from outside the United States. The United States Constitution had forbidden Congress to abolish “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” prior to 1808. Congress readily complied with the president's request and the importation of slaves was prohibited as of January 1, 1808.
Thomas Jefferson. “Sixth Annual Message to Congress,” December 2, 1806. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (112)
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Separation of church and state
Thomas Jefferson believed strongly in religious freedom and the separation of church and state. While President, Jefferson was accused of being a non-believer and an atheist. Jefferson attended church services in the Capitol and on several occasions expressed his beliefs including this letter explaining his constitutional view. “I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the constitution from intermedling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. this results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the US.”
Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Samuel Miller January 23, 1808. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division (113)
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Presidents house in 1807
Charles Jansen sketched the President's House in 1807 during the second term of Jefferson's presidency. The president's house was not called the White House until it was painted white after the British burned it during the War of 1812.
Charles Jansen. Stranger in America, 1807. Copyprint of frontispiece. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (146)
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Political attack ads in the era of the founding fathers
In this critical cartoon, Thomas Jefferson as the cock or rooster, courts a hen, portrayed as Sally Hemings. Contemporary political opponents of Jefferson sought to destroy his presidency and his new political party with charges of Jefferson's promiscuous behavior and his ownership of slaves. The cock was also a symbol of revolutionary France, which Jefferson was known to admire and which, his critics believed, Jefferson unduly favored.
James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140)
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Jefferson's plans to improve the Urban Environment
Nicholas King's (1771–1812)sketch of Thomas Jefferson’s plans for Lombardy poplars to line Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the President's House in Washington, D.C., was sent in 1803 to Jefferson by Thomas Munrow (1771–1852), superintendent of the city of Washington. Jefferson's landscaping ideas were influenced by the elegant avenues and gardens in Paris and contemporary concepts that trees and plants would purify the air in cities.
Nicholas King. [Thomas Jefferson's plans for Pennsylvania Avenue] March 12, 1803. Manuscript sketch. Manuscript Division (141)
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“Infant Liberty Nursed by Mother Mob”
The conservative Federalist Party still had hopes of regaining the presidency when this anti-Jefferson political cartoon appeared in The Echo, a book critical of Jefferson, published by New Englanders. The creators of the cartoon attempted to link fears of excesses of “republican” mobs, Irishmen, blacks, and Democratic Clubs, such as Tammany Hall. Their effort failed. James Madison, Jefferson's closest political protege was elected the fourth president of the United States.
William Leney after a drawing by Elkanah Tisdale in [Richard Alsop and Theodore Dwight] The Echo, with Other Poems. New York: Porcupine Press by Pasquin Petronius, 1807. Copyprint of engraving. Rare Book and Special Collections Division (142)
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Washington in 1801
The north wing of the Capitol housed the Congress, the Supreme Court, and Library of Congress when the federal government moved to Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1800. At that time, the north wing, designed to house the United States Senate, was the only finished part of the Capitol. Beyond the Capitol is a view westward towards the President's House and Georgetown.
William Birch. Washington in 1801. Copyprint of watercolor. Prints and Photographs Division (145)
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