US History/Jeffersonian Democracy

1805 painting of President Thomas Jefferson

The Election of 1800

1800 Election electoral college results.

John Adams' Presidency was not popular. Adams and Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted the free speech of the opposing Democratic-Republicans. Anti-Federalists in Virginia and Kentucky responded by passing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, written by Jefferson and Madison, which tried to invalidate the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams even angered his own party by disregarding his cabinet's advice. By 1800, Adams was clearly vulnerable.

The Constitution originally called for the individual with the most votes in an election to become President, and for the runner-up to become Vice President. George Washington, who had approved of this system, had justified it by the belief that it worked against factionalism in political parties. However, it had already resulted in the alienation of Vice President Thomas Jefferson under the Adams administration.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran against Adams and his running mate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. The two Anti-Federalist candidates would have preferred for Jefferson to become President and Burr to become Vice President. But the Electoral College vote was tied between the two of them. The Federalist-controlled House of Representatives was called upon to chose between them. It had to vote thirty-six times before Jefferson was chosen to be President, and then only with the reluctant agreement of Alexander Hamilton. Congress later approved a Constitutional amendment allowing for separate balloting for President and Vice President in the Electoral College. (Vice President Aaron Burr bore a grudge against Hamilton for this. In 1804, when the two ran for Governor of New York, they dueled, and Burr killed Hamilton.)

Jeffersonian Democracy


Jefferson's first term was called the Revolution of 1800, because of the many changes to America resulting from the first transition of power from one party to another.[1] The peaceful transition of power effectively capped the demise of the Federalists, but not before the Federalists had established a strong, working central government structured and principled as described in the Constitution, instituted a sound financial system, and began diversifying the economy. An indirect legacy of the Federalists, via the Judiciary Act of 1801 and the ensuing Marbury v. Madison, was the doctrine of judicial review, or the power of the federal judiciary to invalidate federal laws on constitutional grounds.

Jefferson differed from the Federalists in that he saw government as a threat to individual freedom; the only protection against that threat was democracy and strong protections of personal liberties. He did not, however, reject wholesale the accomplishments of the Federalist administrations that preceded him, and his combination of them with his own beliefs came to be known as Jeffersonian democracy.

Important Supreme Court cases


In 1803, the U.S. Supreme Court established some principles that would have a profound effect in the life of America. The first was the issue of judicial review and the second was the controversial trial of Aaron Burr. The first trial Marbury v. Madison dealt with the court packing policies of the previous president John Adams. This trial introduced the concept of judicial review to the political scene.

Louisiana Purchase

The Purchase was one of several territorial additions to the U.S.

The French province of Louisiana included present-day North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri as well as most of Kansas, the western part of Minnesota, the eastern parts of Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, and, of course, Louisiana. This big territory, lightly developed by the French, was recognized as a raw asset, and was the object of speculation by many nations.

After the French and Indian War, France ceded all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi to Britain, keeping back only the city of New Orleans. France gave New Orleans and the western part of Louisiana to Spain. It was a Spanish colony after 1762. The Treaty of Paris gave the British part of Louisiana to the United States. Napoleon Bonaparte obtained the return of Louisiana from Spain in 1800, under the Treaty of San Ildefonso. The treaty was kept secret, and Louisiana remained under Spanish control for an interval. The transfer of power finally took place on November 30, 1803, just three weeks before the colony was due to be ceded to the United States.

The port of New Orleans was crucial to trade on the Mississippi. President Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris in 1802, seeking to negotiate a treaty with France that would allow the United States to benefit from New Orleans. Jefferson put forth four options: the purchase of only New Orleans, the purchase of New Orleans and Florida, the purchase of some Louisianan land allowing the US to build a port there, or the purchase of navigation rights on the Mississippi. But the French rejected all four options. It was all of Louisiana or nothing. Napoleon was preparing to invade Great Britain. The French faction who wanted funds for war had overruled those like de Talleyrand, who had hoped for French empire in North America. (It is also possible that the French knew that Jefferson was prepared to go to war rather than tolerate a strong French presence in America. Napoleon did not want to fight on two fronts at once.) The U.S. agreed to purchase Louisiana for $15 million. The Senate ratified the treaty in 1803, thus dramatically increasing the size of the United States.

Although Jefferson did make the Louisiana Purchase, he had to stretch the Democratic-Republican view of literal constitutionality.[2] The Constitution did not give a president the right to buy land. Jefferson's excuse was that the land would greatly benefit Americans. The Federalists were opposed to the purchase, arguing that the interests of Louisiana territory settlers would conflict with the interests of the established States, threatening the Union.

The Lewis & Clark Expedition

A painting of The Lewis & Clark expedition on the Columbia river.

After purchasing the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to survey the new land. The two men, and forty or so others, set out from St. Louis in 1804 and traveled northwest over the next two years. They had the help of Sacajawea, a Shoshone Indian who served as their interpreter, and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, a Canadian fur trapper. Along the way they traded a few goods with the Native Americans. By December 1805, the party had reached the mouth of the Columbia River as it spilled into the Pacific Ocean. The party split into two groups in 1806 -- one led by Lewis, the other by Clark -- eventually reconvening in Fort Mandan, in present-day North Dakota.

The expedition returned to St. Louis by September 1806, Lewis and Clark with journals in hand to report their findings to Jefferson. They had set up diplomatic relations with some of the people they had traded with. In their journals they recorded their native contacts, writing and drawing the shape of the landscape and the new creatures of this Western word. William Clark had also drawn a series of detailed maps, noting and naming rivers and creeks, significant points in the landscape, the shape of river shore, and spots where the expedition had spent each night or camped or portaged for longer periods of time.

The Pike Expedition


In 1805, the soldier Zebulon Pike set out to explore the new territory. Like Lewis and Clark, Captain Pike started in St. Louis, but unlike them he traveled directly west into the Rocky Mountains. He reached Santa Fe, where he was captured briefly by Spanish soldiers. Pike returned to Washington in 1807 to report the number of Spanish forces in the region. More important, however, was his description of the sparsely-vegetated territory, which he called "The Great American Desert." This name deterred settlers from "moving west" for the next thirty to forty years.

Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts


In 1807, Britain and France, frustrated with America's refusal to help either of them in the Napoleonic Wars, were constantly seizing American merchant ships and taking their cargo and sailors.

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

A depiction of the British HMS Leopard on the right firing at the USS Chesapeake on the left.

Britain disregarded American neutrality. It seized American ships and forced their sailors to join the Royal Navy, often without regard for the sailors' nationality. This forced service was known as impressment. The British claim that these impressed sailors were "deserters" was not subject to review, and these sailors were often not really deserters from the Royal Navy. In June of 1807, the commander of the American ship Chesapeake had refused to let an encroaching British ship search it for British deserters. The British ship, Leopard, attacked in American waters. The Chesapeake lost, and four "deserters" were taken from its crew. President Jefferson demanded an apology for the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair from the British, and an end to impressment. Yet while the British government did apologize for the Affair, they did not stop searching American ships or end impressment. British impressment of American citizens, with subsequent personal loss to the families of these sailors and economic problems for their ships, was a major cause of the War of 1812.

The Embargo Act and its aftermath

A political cartoon mocking the Embargo act.

On June 22, 1807, Jefferson called an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss continuing British and French disregard for American sea neutrality. The pro-British faction of Americans urged Jefferson to go to war with France. But the Congress kept to its principles in extremis, and on December 22 it passed the Embargo Act. This law stopped American merchants from trading by sea with any other nation. The originators of the law hoped that it would protect all merchant ships, and perhaps weaken the economies of both Great Britain and France. The embargo did indeed stop nearly all trade between America and Europe. But it severely damaged the economy of the United States. Merchants, who mainly belonged to the Federalist Party, howled in complaint. Smuggling flourished. And the embargo made neither Great Britain or France respect US neutrality.

In 1808 the Democratic-Republican candidate James Madison was elected. He was also a Virginian and had been Jefferson's Secretary of State. Yet the Democrat-Republicans suffered reverses in the House of Representatives. The Embargo Act was unpopular and had damaged the party. In 1809 Congress modified it with the Non-Intercourse Act, an addendum to the embargo which let merchants trade with any nation other than Britain and France. Although trade improved, British and French ships begin seizing American ships again.

A final change to the Embargo and Non-Intercourse acts was passed in 1810 with Macon's Bill No. 2. The bill said that if either Britain or France dropped trade restrictions against the U.S. and stopped seizing American ships, the United States would trade with them and not with the other. The French Emperor Napoleon consented to the conditions of the Bill. America agreed to trade with France and its colonies, rather than Great Britain and its colonies. The end of an American impartiality maintained for years was a prelude to The War of 1812.



Another product of the Second Great Awakening in America was the appearance of Sunday Schools and adult education in New England and the Middle States. The Sunday School movement began in England, partly as a result of reaction to the Church of England's grip on the British educational system. In America it reached out to children in the cities, often too poor for private schools, and children on the frontier to whom the name of Washington was practically unknown. They taught literacy, primarily of the Bible, basic math, and some principles of cleanliness and decorum. In Northern mill towns such as Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as in the Middle States, the churches reached out to workers in the new factories, some of whom were illiterate. They began teaching adults on Sundays (their only day free), as part of denominational education, as well as in the late evenings. Workers believed that knowing how to read and write meant a chance at a better job, and a few more pennies in the weekly wage. Some factory owners began sponsoring these classes, thinking that an educated man would be a more Christian worker -- and, perhaps, a more docile worker. Yet these efforts would be overtaken by a national system of public elementary schools.

Thomas Jefferson's love of knowledge and hatred of religious denomination persisted through his life. As early as 1778 he had mooted a system of public education. On December 2nd, 1806, he pushed an amendment into congress that would legalize federal support for public education. Congress did not pass it, so Jefferson had it written into the constitution of his home state of Virginia. Jefferson made an understandable plan for education which included the elementary, high school, and college levels. Despite this, Virginia did not adopt his plan.

President Jefferson thought that elementary education was the most important form. He had six goals for education: to allow free-born men to deal with their own business, make them able to express their own opinions and ideas in writing, to better their thoughts and faculties through reading, to comprehend civic duties and the duties of their neighbors, to know their rights and how to use them, and to use what they knew in their social lives. He hoped that this would make all men “productive and informed voters.”

Questions For Review

Burning of the USS Philadelphia during the First Barbary War.

1. Define Jeffersonian democracy.

2. Why did France sell America its portion in the Louisiana Purchase?

3. Macon's Bill Number 2, The Embargo Act, and The Non-Intercourse Act. Place these laws in their correct order. What were the reasons for and the effects of each of them?


  1. "Because of Her Story". Because of Her Story. Retrieved 19 September 2020.
  2. "Our Documents - Louisiana Purchase Treaty (1803)". Retrieved 19 September 2020.

Constitution Early Years · War, Nationalism, and Division