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Thomas Jefferson

Mather Brown, London 1786

oil painting of a 19th-century gentleman wearing a powedered wig

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

During a brief stint in the Confederation Congress (1783-1784),1 Jefferson immersed himself in committee work, producing among other reports, a plan for the western territories which ultimately became the famed Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This latter document prohibited slavery in the territories of the Old Northwest, and repudiated colonialism by planning for eventual statehood. Thirty-five of the fifty United States have successfully negotiated the Jeffersonian process from acquisition to full membership in the American union.

The Congress then sent Jefferson to France, where he soon replaced Benjamin Franklin as American Minister (1784-1789). Jefferson loved the French—their wine, women, and culture—yet professed that Europe strengthened his Americanness. Somewhat to the right of French revolutionary thinkers, he came to appreciate the strength of conservative institutions like monarchy and hereditary aristocracy, and he understood, even if he did not encourage, the violence necessary to overthrow them. Despite the excesses of the French Revolution, Jefferson knew that the counter-revolution was worse. He always hated kingship, nobilities, artificial privileges, and ecclesiastical hierarchies.

The Virginian returned to America in late 1789 and soon accepted appointment as the first Secretary of State under the Constitution. His tenure (1790-1793) was marked by deteriorating relations with Great Britain and with Britain's chief American supporter, Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson entered the lists against Hamilton with an argument against the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States. He lost, but his forebodings of a "boundless field of power" proved accurate. He came to believe that Hamilton and his fellow Federalists were closet monarchists, and he led the agrarian opposition to Hamilton's market republicanism. The two men and their philosophies have ever since represented opposite polarities on the American political spectrum.

After three years of pleasant but debt-burdened retirement at Monticello, Jefferson became Vice President of the United States (1797-1801) under his old friend and revolutionary compatriot, John Adams. The electoral system designed by the Framers had yielded a Federalist in the first office and a Democratic-Republican in the second. Jefferson watched helplessly as the Adams administration whipped up a war crisis with France, but it was Federalist domestic policy that gave Jefferson an opening. In response to the Alien and Sedition laws2 he wrote the Kentucky Resolution (1798),3 which, by advancing the compact theory of the Constitution and the doctrine of nullification seriously undermined the long-term strength of the Union.

Jefferson's authorship, (and Madison's, of the Virginia Resolution) were top secret until revealed in 1824. When Adams proved unable to negotiate peace with France in time to influence the election of 1800, he lost the presidency to Jefferson.

The electoral college now produced a tie vote for the highest office. Both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were chosen President in 1801. (Before the 12th amendment, added in 1804, each elector cast two votes for president. The tie reflected the discipline and cohesion of Jefferson's Republican party.) Because Burr would not forthrightly refuse the office of vice president, and because the Federalists thought they might have a chance to deny Jefferson, the House of Representatives cast thirty-six ballots before selecting the Republican. Jefferson never forgave Burr.


1. The United States governed itself under the Second Continental Congress (1775-1781), the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789), and, since 1789, the Constitution. National government in the 1780s under the Articles consisted of a single house legislature—no president, no judiciary. In the confederation Congress each state had one vote.

2. Four measures passed by the Federalist Congress in 1798 to curb domestic opposition: 1) the Alien Enemies Act empowered the President to detain citizens of a nation at war with the U.S. It is still on the books. 2) The Alien Friends Act allowed the president to deport undesirable foreigners. 3) A Naturalization Act extended the probation period for citizenship for immigrants from five to fourteen years. 4) The Sedition Act made it a crime to advocate civil disobedience or criticize the government. The Jefferson administration did not renew the last three.

3. By way of opposition to the Alien and Sedition laws, Republican legislatures in Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions arguing that these measures were unconstitutional, since they gave the national government powers unmentioned in the Constitution and reserved by the Tenth Amendment to the states. Jefferson argued for state, not popular sovereignty, and suggested state nullification of federal laws as a remedy. Madison's solution leaned toward judicial review.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities