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Jefferson in Power Previous Next
Digital History ID 2981


Thomas Jefferson's goal as president was to restore the principles of the American Revolution. Not only had the Federalists levied oppressive taxes, stretched the provisions of the Constitution, and established a bastion of wealth and special privilege in the creation of a national bank, they also had subverted civil liberties and expanded the powers of the central government at the expense of the states. A new revolution was necessary, "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." What was needed was a return to basic republican principles.

On March 4, 1801, Jefferson, clad in clothes of plain cloth, walked from a nearby boarding house to the new United States Capitol in Washington. Without ceremony, he entered the Senate chamber, and took the presidential oath of office. Then, in a weak voice, he delivered his inaugural address--a classic statement of Republican principles.

His first concern was to urge conciliation and to allay fear that he planned a Republican reign of terror. "We are all Republicans," he said, "we are all Federalists." Echoing George Washington's Farewell Address, he asked his listeners to set aside partisan and sectional differences and remember that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle." Only a proper respect for principles of majority rule and minority rights would allow the new nation to thrive. In the remainder of his address he laid out the principles that would guide his presidency:

  • a frugal, limited government;
  • reduction of the public debt;
  • respect for states' rights;
  • encouragement of agriculture; and
  • a limited role for government in peoples' lives.

    He committed his administration to repealing taxes, slashing government expenses, cutting military expenditures, and paying off the public debt. Through his personal conduct and public policies he sought to return the country to the principles of Republican simplicity. He introduced the custom of having guests shake hands instead of bowing stiffly; he also placed dinner guests at a round table, so that no individual would have to sit in a more important place than any other. Jefferson refused to ride an elegant coach or host elegant dinner parties and balls and wore clothes made of homespun cloth. To dramatize his disdain for pomp and pageantry, he received the British minister in his dressing gown and slippers.

    Jefferson believed that presidents should not try to impose their will on Congress, and consequently he refused to openly initiate legislation or to veto congressional bills on policy grounds. Convinced that Presidents Washington and Adams had acted like British monarchs by personally appearing before Congress and requesting legislation, Jefferson simply sent Congress written messages. It would not be until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson that another president would publicly address Congress and call for legislation.

    Jefferson's commitment to Republican simplicity was matched by his stress on economy in government. He slashed army and navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated taxes on whiskey, houses, and slaves, and fired all federal tax collectors. He reduced the army to 3,000 soldiers and 172 officers, the navy to 6 frigates, and foreign embassies to 3 in Britain, France, and Spain.

    Convinced that ownership of land and honest labor in the earth were the firmest bases of Republican government, Jefferson convinced Congress to cut the price of public lands and to extend credit to purchasers in order to encourage land ownership and rapid western settlement. A firm believer in the idea that America should be the "asylum" for "oppressed humanity," he persuaded Congress to reduce the residence requirement for citizenship from 14 to 5 years. To ensure that the public knew the names and number of all government officials, Jefferson ordered publication of a register of all federal employees.

    Contemporaries were astonished by the sight of a president who had renounced all the practical tools of government: an army, a navy, and taxes. Jefferson's goal was, indeed, to create a new kind of government, a Republican government wholly unlike the centralized, corrupt, patronage-ridden one against which Americans had rebelled in 1776.

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