Thomas Jefferson imbibed a political philosophy derived from 18th-century England. Known variously as Oppositionist, Real Whig, or Commonwealth thought, the precepts arose from the "country" opposition to Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole's "court" administration. Country thinkers considered themselves independent, virtuous, landed members of the gentry, immune to bribery, influence, and other forms of ministerial corruption. In reality they were nostalgic, out-of-touch opponents of the realities of war, debt, capitalism, and governmental growth in England's Augustan Age.
Country principles made sense in Virginia and the tobacco South. Landed gentlemen made a virtue of resistance to high finance, debt and its attendant obligations, the active exercise of governmental power, taxes, standing armies,1 banks, and luxuries. These principles fit nicely into the attack against Parliament in the 1760s, and against Hamiltonian Federalism in the 1790s. They are the bases of plain republicanism, of Jeffersonian democracy, of much of American political ideology even today. Thomas Jefferson survives.
View of West Point, ca. 1830
Attributed to Thomas Chambers (1808-c. 1866)
Oil on canvas, 22-1/4 in. x 30-1/8 in.
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Gift of Elsie McMath Cole
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the oldest continuously occupied military post in the United States, was founded on March 16, 1802. In 1807 a member of the Academy's faculty, the Swiss mathematician Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, was asked to complete the calculations necessary to establish latitudes and longitudes of certain "remarkeable points" from the celestial observations Lewis and Clark had made. For various reasons that task was never completed.2
Jefferson the militarist
Jefferson's reputation as an ideological pacifist is also unwarranted. True, the English oppositionist writers he admired abhorred standing armies as detrimental to liberty and unduly expensive. He viscerally opposed the military establishment created by John Adams in 1798 because he thought, like Alexander Hamilton, that it might be employed against not France but Virginia. A citizen army, the militia, was his first line of defense. As president he severely underfunded both the army and navy, relying on economic extortion, or commercial coercion, to put pressure on England and France.
But Jefferson was no conscientious objector. He realized that war, not merely his Declaration, had achieved American independence. In his first inaugural address he praised "a well-disciplined militia–our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war-till regulars may relieve them [italics added]." He established the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He sent the U.S. Marines into Tripoli to chastise the Barbary pirates. When war with England came in 1812 he supported it–and the armies and taxes necessary to sustain it.
The Expedition Jefferson sent west under Meriwether lewis was necessarily military in nature. A captain, a lieutenant, three sergeants and twenty-three privates made the point. The United States was entering dangerous international waters: French troops might occupy Louisiana, the British might mobilize, the Spanish might interfere (four Spanish armies set out from Santa Fe to intercept Lewis and Clark). Indians might be hostile. And army personnel came cheap–they were readily available at forts and posts in the west, and could be disciplined if necessary. Thomas Jefferson was their Commander in Chief.
1. A "standing army" is a permanent tax-supported military establishment.
2. Gary E. Moulton, ed., Journals, 2:533–34.
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.