Tags Biographies Taxes and Spending U. History Political Theory. Was Thomas Jefferson a great president?
One's answer to that question depends on how one defines "greatness. On the other hand, if we define greatness as how well a president defended the true and original principles of the federal Constitution and the economic and civil liberties for which Americans had fought the Revolution, then Jefferson deserves to be ranked among the better presidents. Yet he also deserves to be ranked as one of the most disappointing, since there was so much that he could have done, was expected to do, but did not do.
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As we survey his presidency, it will be useful to keep in mind three questions. First, did Jefferson's election to the presidency and the Republican capture of Congress in constitute "a revolution in the principles of our government as that of ," as Jefferson himself contended ten years after he had retired to Monticello? And third, does his presidency constitute a model for future leaders of a classical liberal and constitutional-federalist persuasion to follow? The short answers to these questions are that Jefferson failed to carry through a revolution which he himself had helped to originate, that he was consistent in many ways but inconsistent in others, and that his presidency constitutes a useful model but also a warning.
Although the Federalists had controlled Congress and the presidency for 12 successive years, their policies had not been popular. If the Judiciary Act of , the funding of the national debt, the assumption of the states' debts, the national bank, the system of internal taxation, Jay's Treaty with Great Britain , and the creation of a professional standing army and navy had been submitted to a popular referendum, probably none of them would have been approved, nor would the federal Constitution have been ratified in the first place.
Early Federalist political success in passing their program and holding on to power can be attributed to three factors: the lack of an organized political opposition until the late s, the success of the new political system in thwarting the popular will, and General Washington's tremendous popularity and prestige. If the president had been elected directly by the people, Jefferson would have given his first inaugural address in instead of in However, the popular memory is short, and the Republicans could not hope to ride to power simply on the basis of the unpopularity of Federalist measures in the early s.
They finally triumphed in because the internal tax system provided a regular reminder that the Federalists believed in an intrusive and energetic government, and the quasi-war with France in demonstrated beyond any doubt that the Federalists were inveterate Anglophiles — Jefferson called them "Anglomen" — who wanted to build an expensive professional war machine to go to war against Spain and France in alliance with England.
The Republicans were right to believe that the Federalists wanted to turn the American confederation of states into an empire mightier than the British empire and one with a perpetual public debt, high domestic taxes, a large standing army, a navy with ships-of-the-line, large manufacturing establishments subsidized by government, a permanent civil bureaucracy, a strong executive, an irresponsible political judiciary, the consolidation of political power in the federal government, and financial corruption of the federal legislature.
Jefferson could speak of his election as a "revolution," because he believed that the people of the states had rejected the Federalist theory and program of government, which were British, neomercantilist, centralizing, and statist, in favor of the agrarian, decentralist, libertarian, and republican principles which had been dominant during the Revolution and were once again ascendant.
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As president, Jefferson set out to reverse the Federalist program, to restore the federal government to its constitutional role that is, protecting the confederacy and its trade from foreign enemies and managing relations between the states , and to ensure that the people of the states were left alone to regulate their own private pursuits in a state of freedom. He hoped to gradually break the alliance between the government and the moneyed elite which had already been forged by the Federalists. According to Albert Jay Nock, Jefferson "was for control of government by the producing class; that is to say, by the immense majority which in every society actually applies labor and capital to natural resources for the production of wealth," and that he opposed Federalist efforts to forge a neomercantilistic alliance between the general government and "the exploiting classes," that is, bankers, bondholders, and officeholders.
In a letter to a Massachusetts Republican, Jefferson summarized what would be the fiscal policies of his administration, if he were elected:. I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt; and not for a multiplication of officers and salaries merely to make partisans, and for increasing, by every device, the public debt, on the principle of its being a public blessing.
In his first inaugural address Jefferson explained that for him, "the sum of good government" was a "wise and frugal" one "which shall restrain men from injuring one another, [but] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. Jefferson opposed all but the most minimal taxes because he believed that taxes diminished public happiness by depriving individuals of a portion of their hard-earned money and hence of the means of supporting their families and improving their estates.
He warned that ''the general tendency" of the government party was "to increase expense[s] to the ultimate term of burden which the citizen can bear" and leave "to labor the smallest portion of its earnings on which it can subsist," so that "government shall itself consume the residue of what it was instituted to guard. Jefferson also was determined to pay off the national debt.
He opposed public borrowing on a number of grounds. First of all, by enabling the government to increase its expenditures without calling on the people for increased taxes, it minimized public opposition to increased spending.
Second, public borrowing shifted the burden of payment to posterity. Jefferson believed that imposing financial burden on future generations in order to pay for the profligacy of the present generation was a profoundly unrepublican and immoral act. Third, public borrowing created a class of bondholders who had a vested interest in funding and increasing the debt and opposing its discharge. Last, a public debt created a justification for keeping up taxes to pay the interest.
Thus Jefferson and his Swiss-born secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, set out to reduce federal expenditures and federal taxes and pay off a considerable portion of the federal debt. Although the second goal appears to be in conflict with the third, Jefferson and Gallatin hoped that reductions in spending would compensate for the reduction in federal tax revenue. In the State Department, Jefferson reduced the number of foreign missions to three — London, Paris, and Spain — one for each of the three great world powers. In the Treasury Department, he dismissed all of the collectors and inspectors of the internal revenue.
This change alone reduced the number of federal employees by more than one-third. By early , Jefferson had reduced the size of the regular army by almost half, from 6, men when he took office to 3, He accomplished this by laying up seven of the 13 frigates built by the Federalists.
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However, increased military expenditures after significantly raised overall spending during his second term. The federal government had three sources of revenue in public land sales, customs duties, and internal taxes. Tariffs averaged only 13 percent ad valorem, although specific duties on sugar, tea, coffee, and salt ranged from 50 percent to percent. The Federalists had imposed internal taxes on whiskey stills, domestic liquor sales, auction sales, carriages, and legal documents.
When Jefferson recommended repealing these taxes, the Federalists replied that import duties on such "necessities" as coffee, tea, and sugar should be reduced instead. They argued that reducing the duties on tropical commodities would be of more benefit to the people than reducing the whiskey excise. The Federalists knew what they were about. They wanted to retain the internal revenue system with its host of revenue officers, collectors, and inspectors. They understood that a reduction in import duties could always be reversed by a future congress, but that it would be much more difficult to reimpose internal taxes and recreate a machinery of domestic tax collection after both had been repealed and abolished.
They remembered well that the first attempt in to impose an excise on whiskey produced a tax revolt in the American backcountry. For the same reasons, Jefferson and his Republican allies were determined to repeal altogether, not just reduce, the internal taxes and to abolish the inspectors and collectors of the revenue. They were successful. Jefferson signed the reform bill into law in March Jefferson began to push for its repeal in His party abolished the salt duty early the next year.
If federal expenditures on the whole were not reduced under President Jefferson and if taxes were twice reduced, then why did the Treasury Department run a surplus each year from to ? There are two reasons. First, Jefferson raised taxes. In early , Gallatin and Jefferson proposed increasing the tariff duties by 2.
The change would have increased the average tariff rate to 16 percent ad valorem. Because its ostensible purpose was to finance the unexpected expenses arising from the Tripolitan War, it became known as the "Mediterranean Fund.
Both Gallatin and the Republican congressional leaders promised that the increased tariff would be only a temporary measure. Their bill required that the tariff be brought back to its previous level three months after the close of hostilities with the Barbary powers. However, the Republicans renewed the tax in despite the cessation of hostilities the previous year. The renewal was due also to the increase in the customs revenue during the s. The increase was created by growing imports, the profitable carrying trade, and the acquisition of the port of New Orleans under the Louisiana treaty.
Under the carrying trade, American vessels brought Spanish and French colonial goods to an American port, paid a duty, and then re-exported them to Europe. The volume of this trade was enormous in and — To the dismay of more radical Republicans, Jefferson balked at purging all Federalists from federal office, for he cultivated a public image of moderation meant to lure soft Federalists into his growing majority.
Always uneasy with a professional military as a threat to popular government, Jefferson especially sought reassurance after the close brush with civil war in early He replaced many Federalist officers or wooed moderates to embrace his new order in politics. Although Jefferson got rid of public officials that Adams appointed right before he left office, he could not replace life-time appointments such as the new chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall. Jefferson shrewdly deployed political symbols and public performance to woo popularity.
Thomas Jefferson: Life in Brief | Miller Center
To show dependence on common voters, he eliminated the quasi-regal panoply of power favored by the Federalists. Jefferson sold the presidential coaches with their silver harnesses and he refused to wear a sword on ceremonial occasions, breaking with Federalist precedents. Rather than exchange formal bows, as Federalist presidents did, Jefferson offered the familiarity of shaking hands to almost everyone he met.
For exercise, he daily walked or rode through the muddy streets of Washington, D. Shabby gentility became his fashion statement. More pessimistic about human nature and popular support, Federalists had sought a style meant to impress the common people with the majesty of their leaders. The more optimistic Jefferson cleverly understood that true power derived from popularity that came from performing his subservience to the electorate.
While he sought to weaken the federal government relative to the states, he meant to strengthen the executive within that federal government, for he understood his position as a tribune for the common people. While he reserved domestic issues to the states, he jealously guarded federal supremacy, and particularly executive power, in foreign policy. By consulting them early and often, Jefferson cultivated collegiality and taught the department heads to adhere to the consensus that he elicited from their meetings.
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Jefferson also vetted all substantive communications from the department heads in order to master the information and intervene as needed. In managing his cabinet, Jefferson benefitted from his close friendship with James Madison, who occupied the key position as secretary of state. Their close and harmonious relationship set a tone best emulated by the other department heads. Popularity gave Jefferson leverage with congressmen to push his agenda behind the scenes.
Unlike the stiff and aloof Washington and Adams, Jefferson carefully cultivated congressional leaders through a stage-managed cycle of dinner parties at the White House. He had mastered a genial but polite affability that evaded contention while drawing upon his immense intellectual versatility for clever conversation. He usually entertained Republicans and Federalists separately to avoid disagreement. Plus, he served excellent food and wine. Jefferson also benefitted from being the biggest fish in the small pond of Washington, D. Although Jefferson could charm congressmen, he could not command them.
If too hard pushed, they balk, and the machine retrogrades. To get things done, Jefferson shrewdly gave credit to Congress for the success of his policies. President Jefferson tried to pay down the national debt that former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had designed for perpetuity.
While cultivating an aura of moderation, Jefferson pursued policies meant to bolster popular sovereignty by dismantling the elitism of his Federalist predecessors. Jefferson argued that federal officials should heed public opinion and tolerate public criticism.