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In today’s President-a-day installment (see yesterday’s on Washington, here), let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson, who is often ranked the 4th or 5th greatest President in American history. I have to confess to being a dissenter from the academic consensus. I think Jefferson often wins a high rank because of what he did when he wasn’t President — primarily writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and his writings and thinking on science and the humanities. As President, his singular claim to greatness was the Louisiana Purchase, and perhaps for that alone he deserves his greatness — but even there, Jefferson could only seize the opportunity by violating his own understanding of the Constitution (to see why, my short paper on Jefferson’s Presidency is here). On a number of other issues, I think Jefferson pursued policies that were terribly harmful to the United States and constitutional government: his effort to impeach federal judges, his use of political parties to meld the leadership of the executive and legislative branches, and his embargo policies.
As a special bonus, the paper linked above also contains an explanation of why James Madison, the father of the Constitution, turned out to be a terrible President because of the consequences of Jefferson’s decisions.