The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute is excited to be launching a symposium on Thomas Jefferson this month. We have invited many different brilliant historians and scholars to participate by contributing an original brief essay on founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Please enjoy the essays as they are published and continue the civic conversation about the principles and documents of the American founding, in this case, related to Thomas Jefferson, by sharing and discussing with your friends. The following inaugural essay of the series, "The Hamiltonian Presidency of Thomas Jefferson," was written by Stephen F. Knott.
Thomas Jefferson characterized his election to the presidency as the “revolution of 1800,” an event that was “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76.” Twelve years of Federalist (or in the case of John Adams, neo-Federalist) government had betrayed the American Revolution with policies designed to favor British interests abroad and apply British governing principles at home. Jefferson promised to restore the spirit of 1776, prompting fears among the Federalists that Jefferson would destroy the fragile national institutions created since the adoption of the Constitution.
One prominent Federalist leader dissented from this view and predicted that Jefferson’s administration would be characterized by moderation and restraint. “If there be a man in the world I ought to hate it is Jefferson,” Alexander Hamilton noted, but he went on to urge Federalist members of Congress to support Jefferson’s selection over Aaron Burr in the disputed election of 1800. Jefferson, Hamilton believed, was far more principled than Burr, and would not dismantle the institutions built by the Federalists. According to Hamilton, Jefferson would act in a restrained manner as chief executive. This restraint was rooted in a calculation – a cold, political calculation – that caution, not zealotry, would be the key to maintaining his popularity. In Hamilton’s view, Jefferson was not “zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity or his interest. He is as likely as any man I know to temporize, to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it.”
Hamilton’s assessment of Jefferson turned out to be accurate, for Jefferson left Hamilton’s financial system in place, including the hated national bank of the United States. Much to the distress of the Old Republicans including die-hards such as John Randolph of Roanoke, Jefferson did not attempt to overturn the Judiciary Act of 1789, nor did he disband the navy, a move supported by the Old Republicans since navies were seen as tools of imperialism. Jefferson appointed relatively moderate jurists to the Supreme Court and did not push for constitutional amendments limiting the power of judicial review or restricting the ability of the federal government to invoke “implied” constitutional powers to expand their authority.
In one important sense, however, Hamilton underestimated Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson’s rhetoric suggested that he would defer to the people and to their elected representatives in Congress, President Jefferson was very much an “energetic executive” of the type Hamilton celebrated in The Federalist Papers. This was particularly true in the arena of foreign and defense policy. The newly elected president went out of his way to appear to be acceding to the demands of Congress, all the while manipulating the legislature through his “hidden hand presidency.” One can see this at work in his celebrated Louisiana Purchase, and in his war with the Barbary Pirates, where the Sage of Monticello aggressively pursued these “nests of banditti” in the Mediterranean, providing great leeway to his naval commanders to take the offensive while assuring Congress that the navy was operating in a restrained, defensive manner. Jefferson even authorized the first covert operation designed to overthrow a foreign head of state (the Pasha of Tripoli) again with limited and at times disingenuous information provided to Congress. Jefferson spent unappropriated funds during the war scare with Great Britain in 1807 after the confrontation between the HMS Leopard and the USS Chesapeake, and he responded to the foremost national security crisis of his second term, the embargo of 1807-1809, in a “more draconian [manner] than anything attempted by British authorities throughout the years leading up to the American Revolution.” Jefferson wanted to “crush” those American citizens who dared violate his embargo by running contraband across the border with Canada.
Jefferson’s presidency, ironically, presents a classic example of an energetic executive who formulated and implemented American foreign policy with little congressional input and no judicial involvement. Jefferson even went so far as to endorse the controversial notion of executive prerogative power in a manner that would have made Alexander Hamilton blush. Jefferson argued that in times of emergency the president could act where the law was silent, or in extreme cases, act against the law in the name of necessity. Jefferson noted in 1807, “on great occasions every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of the law,” and he added that there were “extreme cases where the laws become inadequate to their own preservation, and where the universal recourse is a dictator, or martial law.” For Jefferson, “a strict observance” of the rule of law was “one of the high duties of a good citizen” but it was not the highest duty. “The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of a higher obligation.” And, he added, in a lesson lost in our increasing legalistic, process obsessed nation, “to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.”
Thomas Jefferson was an assertive president; the very type prescribed by Hamilton in The Federalist Papers. Granted, this fact is concealed beneath layers of Jeffersonian rhetoric, and obscured by the mythological accounts of Jefferson’s presidency promoted by historians with an agenda. The fact remains that despite their deep disagreement on many issues of their day, Jefferson and Hamilton shared a firm belief in the importance of an energetic executive.
Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (2002).