The Overrated Thomas Jefferson

 

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.

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More on This Topic:

YOO > Why the Housing Crisis is Jefferson’s Fault — and 8 Other Reasons to Hate TJ

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Hamilton is a visionary if one wants a large, miliatry industrial complex, a standing army and interventionists wars. While I don’t think Hamilton was the militarist many historians have claimed, he was much more militiarily minded than the rest of the founders. His vision was one of protectionism, permanent indebtness, and, quite frankly, a governing-elite class.

    Jefferson’s vision, however, demanded a virtue within the people; a weariness of power in all its forms, a government quite limited in its responsibility and scope, no national debt to act as an albatross around the neck of the people, a small military that was constabulary in purpose and no involvement in foregin affairs, beyond trade.

    Jefferson was not disloyal at all in Washington’s cabinet. That he disagreed with the course of the administration is obvious, but that doesn’t mean disloyalty. If anything, it was Hamilton who interfered with Jefferson’s actions as Sec of State during Jefferson’s negotiations with Hammond; the Jay Treaty might not have been necessary had Hamilton not fed a secondary line of information to Hammond without Jefferson’s knowledge.

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    @

    That Madison had to handle much of Jefferson’s mess – the last year of it, anyway – is true, but that does not make him a bad President. Rather, Madison was a much better President than he is given credit for. The War of 1812 did see some embarrassing moments, but Madison did want no other war-time President has ever done: he DID NOT EXPAND EXECUTIVE POWER. This quality, of a true republican executive, was noted at the time by his contemporaries, leading John Adams to note to Jefferson that Madison had acquired more glory President because of his republican administration of it than all his predecessors combined! Exaggeration, of course, but it proves the point.

    Madison also vetoed several pieces of legislation that should be celebrated. Two of his vetoes focused on Congressional attempts to support/establish Church in D.C. and the Western Territories. Madison vetoed these on 1st Amendment grounds. Madison also had to deal with an intense political strife within his own party; by 1811 the Jeffersonians were splitting into the factions that would later become the Democrats and Whigs. This made his situation even more precarious.

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    @MichaelTee

    I find it confusing that so-called conservatives find common cause with Federalists like Hamilton (who favored a strong Federal government, a central bank, a monarch in himself, and the Alien and Sedition Acts) and disregard the greatness of Jefferson (he won the First Barbary War (you’d think Mr. Yoo might draw some parallels there between that and his former boss) established West Point, authorized Lewis and Clark, and as Kenneth notes purchased the Louisiana territory, and banned the importation of slaves) simply because of the term “Democrats.” If only those people reflected on the atrocious behavior of Lincoln while in office, they might find that those appellations of “Democrat” and “Republican” have not always coincided with the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” respectively.

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    @

    To us, Jefferson’s singular great act as President was Louisiana. To his contemporaries it was much more. Professor Yoo doesn’t acknowledge that Jefferson often lived up to his political principles: He cut the military, he pardoned all those prosecuted under the Sedition Act, he made huge strides in paying off the national debt, he repealed internal taxes, he fought the Barbary Pirate (after obtaining Congressional approval – because he believed he needed it!!!!), and maneuvered to avoid war with both France and England.

    In earlier comments, Professor Yoo criticizes Jefferson for working with the Congress. This isn’t fair, the Jeffersonians (btw: the did not call themselves the Democrats; if anything, they used the name Republicans!) controlled both houses of Congress and they shared the same basic political ideology as Jefferson; so it isn’t a surprise that they corroborated.

    Jefferson’s embargo was no unprecedented – it had Revolutionary origins and the constitutionality of it was debated. Jefferson hoped – naively – that economic sanctions would work against England and France. They could only work if they were enforced. To be sure, the enforcement of these were not constitutionally sound, but it is no more than the warrantless wiretapping of today.

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  5. Profile Photo Member
    @

    We should avoid trying to label 18th C. people as “liberal” or “conservative.”

    That Jefferson waged a war against the Judiciary is true, but that needs greater context. The Federalist controlled the Judiciary, and many, including Samuel Chase, a very High Federalists, openly used the bench to make political decisions. The only way to oppose this, was to impeach. The one successful impeachment was of a man who had gone insane, and had been begged by his own family to step-down. Impeachment was necessary in that case.

    It is true that John Marshall was Jefferson’s ultimate target. Jefferson believed that Marshall’s appointment was essentially unconstitutional. He was appointed long after Jefferson’s victory in the House voting for President. As such, Jefferson believed he should have appointed the vacancy and not Adams; in many ways he never forgave Adams for this (Jefferson and Abagail stopped communicating over this issue). It was clear to him that the voice the people had spoken and elected him and like-minded people to the halls of governance and that Federalist actions regarding the courts was wrong and in violation of the Constitution. If only he had appointed Spence Roane!

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    @

    Professor Yoo wrote that, Jefferson “demanded effective government, but would take long breaks from the Presidency during times of high stress where he would essentially refuse to perform the duties of his office.”

    In the late 18th and early 19th C. all Presidents took long breaks. There wasn’t as much to do! But even this is a horrible characterization on Yoo’s part. Jefferson might have gone to Monticello, but he still received official correspondence and did his duties even while not at D.C. Washington, Adams, and Madison did, or would all do the same.

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    @

    Professor Yoo: He used said Democratic Party to allow the President and Congress to drive forward a common agenda, whereas the Framers expected that the two branches would be more antagonistic. The President was given a veto precisely to moderate and contain Congress, which they saw as the true threat to the people’s liberties because of its power to tax and spend.

    I have addressed this elsewhere, but it is important to note too that Jefferson did not need to veto tax and spend measures, but few were adopted. The tax and spend bills that were generally adopted and Jefferson signed were to cut taxes and to cut spending.

    We should marvel that Jefferson was able to cut a swath through the national debt and yet not have a single internal tax levied upon the people. This includes the purchasing of Louisiana. He even had the odious Whiskey tax repealed. All the government’s revenue came from impost duties and, eventually, land sales.

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    @WhiskeySam

    Any man who repeals the Whiskey tax is aces in my book.

    • #8
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    @BobCroft

    Jefferson began the dismanteling of the relatively humane Washington/Knox Indian policy (culminating in Jackson) to expell the Indians across the Mississippi (add to that the Jefferson/Jackson slavery attitude, and you appreciate the Jefferson/Jackson Day Dinners). Much of his Declaration rhetoric was lifted (from Mason, as I recall?). Even the Declaration was not as celebrated early on as it is now; Adams claimed to be the author of the REAL Declaration, the Continental Congress resloution, months earlier, advising the colonies to form their own governments. If you form you own government, you’re sorta declaring yourself to be independent.

    On winning the Barbary war, that was possible because Adams had built the frigates. Jefferson wanted coastal defense gunboats.

    Not only was he absent as president, but as governor during the Revolution. Didn’t want to spend anything on Virginia’s military, thought British regulars could be beaten by short term militia, was no help to Steuben in recruiting the troops Greene needed in the South.

    Even his tombstone notes on authoring the Virginia religious freedom statute, and his pride in abolishing entail and primogeniture, are overblown – they were easy sells, as society was already moving in those directions.

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  10. Profile Photo Member
    @
    his pride in abolishing entail and primogeniture, are overblown – they were easy sells, as society was already moving in those directions. · Jun 28 at 2:18pm

    That’s simply isn’t true. Throughout the 18thC, land was becoming increasingly consolidated in Virginia (and everywhere, such as New York), as the Fairfax landholding more than ably demonstrate. Entail and Primogeniture were actually flourishing more in mid 18th C. VA than ever before! There was no movement in the direction of changing it.

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    @tabularasa
    18th Century Whig:

    Jefferson was not disloyal at all in Washington’s cabinet. That he disagreed with the course of the administration is obvious, but that doesn’t mean disloyalty. If anything, it was Hamilton who interfered with Jefferson’s actions as Sec of State during Jefferson’s negotiations with Hammond; the Jay Treaty might not have been necessary had Hamilton not fed a secondary line of information to Hammond without Jefferson’s knowledge. · Jun 28 at 1:10pm

    From Joseph Ellis, His Excellency, George Washington: “What historians have dubbed ‘the great collaboration’ began in earnest during the summer of 1791, when Jefferson and Madison made a so-called botanical tour . . . to seek support in New England and New York for their agenda of opposition. Though both men were trusted members of Washington’s official family, and Jefferson a key officer of the cabinet, they launched an orchestrated attack on the administration they were officially serving. Jefferson hired Philip Freneau, a prominent poet and essayist, who wrote articles . . . castigating Washington’s policy of neutrality . . . .” (p. 217)

    I don’t know your definition of disloyalty, but that fits mine.

    After reading your seven posts, methinks thou dost protest too much.

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    @MFQuinn

    Upon reading David McCullough’s “John Adams” I became aware at how ruthless and unprincipled Jefferson could be, especially with respect to his shabby treatment of Adams. My estimation of the man fell precipitously. But then, it was unrealistically high to start with.

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  13. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Most of

    Bob Croft: Jefferson began the dismanteling of the relatively humane Washington/Knox Indian policy Much of his Declaration rhetoric was lifted (from Mason, as I recall?).

    On winning the Barbary war, that was possible because Adams had built the frigates. Jefferson wanted coastal defense gunboats.

    On the Barbrary: Most of the frigates authorized in 1798 were never built. The Washington policy, while humane was a failure. This isn’t Washington’s fault, white encroachments continued. Plus, the Battle of Fallen Timbers helped cement that peaceful policy. Jefferson hoped that removal – peacefully – would save the Indians. He was fascinated by their culture and lifestyle and did not want violence visited upon them.

    Some of the language Mason used was Jefferson’s language used in private correspondence and his “Summary View.”

    Several states acted without Congress in writing constitutions – Virginia for example. The DoI is overblown, but it was necessary and important for international purposes in 1776. It quickly took on a life of it’s own!

    If they were moving towards Religious Freedom, why did Patrick Henry and others continually sponsor bills establishing the Episcopal Church?

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    Tabula Rosa: Someone needs to put Jefferson in context and provide a counter-argument. Most of these attacks have not context behind him. There’s a lot that I don’t like about Jefferson, but the context is important and it’s not discussed here at all. I’m rather stunned at how quickly conservatives jump on the anti-Jefferson bandwagon.

    Re: Cabinet: Jefferson believed Hamilton was hopelessly misguiding Washington, and the public, on neutrality and believed that the policies were guided by pro-British, pro-monarchist sentiment. He thought that he would counter, not Washington, but Hamilton with the paper. When he realized he wouldn’t/couldn’t he resigned.

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  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @River
    Sisyphus: Washington… had a scandalous expense account record as General. …

    Not really, if you consider that Washington received no pay as General of the Continental Army. He probably knew the money would become worthless, and that if he lost the war he’d be hung; so it wouldn’t matter. He asked only that Congress pay his expenses during the war.

    Yes, he had receipts for every trivial thing and received the equivalent of millions in compensation when all was settled up. But considering how priceless his contribution was, and the personal risks he took, he was worth every penny.

    BTW, the infamous inflation that plagued the Colonies during and after the war was engineered by the British. They printed up perfect counterfeit bills and circulated them lavishly.

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    @AmishDude
    18th Century Whig: We should avoid trying to label 18th C. people as “liberal” or “conservative.”

    That Jefferson waged a war against the Judiciary is true, · Jun 28 at 1:40pm

    I don’t understand the problem.

    We could use a war against the Judiciary, frankly.

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  17. Profile Photo Member
    @
    AmishDude

    18th Century Whig: We should avoid trying to label 18th C. people as “liberal” or “conservative.”

    That Jefferson waged a war against the Judiciary is true, · Jun 28 at 1:40pm

    I don’t understand the problem.

    We could use a war against the Judiciary, frankly. · Jun 28 at 3:54pm

    All I meant is that 18th C. people didn’t think in terms of liberal or conservative in the sense we do. We should be wary of putting our labels on them and try to understand them on their own terms (which is why I’ve been harping on the context in these major posts).

    I do wish we had more than 200 words to add a comment; I wouldn’t have all these multiple post if we had a bit more words…

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    @
    Michael Tee: I find it confusing that so-called conservatives find common cause with Federalists like Hamilton… and disregard the greatness of Jefferson

    I think conservatives generally find greater common cause with Hamilton than Jefferson for two reasons.

    First, Hamilton did lay the groundwork for an industrial and commercial United States. While conservatives may not favor “strong central government” in relation to the our modernleviathan, the anti-federalist vision would have been far too weak to survive.

    Second, Jefferson’s views were more deeply seated in French Enlightenment thinking. While the end result was different at the time, many of the core tenets of this version of the Enlightenment would evolve into modern progressivism. Heck, Edmund Burke’s political philosophy was a reaction to the French Revolution which Jefferson wholly supported.

    I don’t think conservatives ought to “disregard” Jefferson. We are, after all, the vanguard of classical liberalism in the United States against modern democratic socialism. A classical liberalism in which the Founding Fathers were entirely rooted. But I think it is fair to say none of the Founding Fathers were perfect and we ought to critique them to improve our philosophical tradition.

    • #18
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    @River

    Exactly right. There’s a huge difference between the liberty-loving TJ of 1775, and the loose cannon tyrant president who bankrupted thousands of citizens and wrecked much of the economy in his second term by enforcing his Embargo Act. He forced hungry New Englanders into smuggling, and then declared martial law in the Lake Champlain area; suspending habeus corpus and smashing down doors.

    Jefferson paid $15,000,000 – equivalent to billions of modern dollars – to Napoleon at a time when the Little Emperor was poised to invade England. If Napoleon had succeeded, he almost certainly would have dominated all of Europe and much of the world, and could have squeezed the life out of the United States and taken Louisiana back to boot. Napoleon didn’t even have clear title to Louisiana, and we had to pay Spain for it in 1820.

    Jefferson hated Britain and wanted them crushed. He adored France, their bloody revolution, and said of The Terror, “My… affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs…, but… I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam & an Eve left in , it would be better than as it now is.”

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  20. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa
    18th Century Whig: Someone needs to put Jefferson in context and provide a counter-argument. Most of these attacks have not context behind him. . . .[T]he context is important and it’s not discussed here at all. . . .

    Re: Cabinet: Jefferson believed Hamilton was hopelessly misguiding Washington, and the public, on neutrality and believed that the policies were guided by pro-British, pro-monarchist sentiment. He thought that he would counter, not Washington, but Hamilton with the paper. When he realized he wouldn’t/couldn’t he resigned.

    The problem with your revisionist theory is that, while Jefferson and his minions did attack Hamilton, they directly attacked Washington (on Jefferson’s dime). How much context do you need to conclude that this is a startling act of disloyalty?

    I don’t hate Jefferson, and actually think he was an OK president. But let’s not rewrite history. Jefferson was disloyal against his boss, and I find it unforgivable. Whether Jefferson was right politically is irrelevant. He tried to harm the greatest American.

    And don’t forget how the French Revolution, which Jefferson supported whole hog, turned out: at the guillotine and then with Napoleon. Is that context enough?

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    @River
    tabula rasa

    18th Century Whig: Someone needs to put Jefferson in context and provide a counter-argument. Most of these attacks have not context behind him. . . .[T]he context is important and it’s not discussed here at all. . . .

    The problem with your revisionist theory is that, while Jefferson and his minions did attack Hamilton, they directly attacked Washington (on Jefferson’s dime). How much context do you need to conclude that this is a startling act of disloyalty?

    I don’t hate Jefferson, and actually think he was an OK president. But let’s not rewrite history. Jefferson was disloyal against his boss, and I find it unforgivable. Whether Jefferson was right politically is irrelevant. He tried to harm the greatest American.

    And don’t forget how the French Revolution, which Jefferson supported whole hog, turned out: at the guillotine and then with Napoleon. Is that context enough?

    It’s even worse than that. Washington got wind that Jefferson was circulating and subsidizing vile and cruel attacks on him and wrote him a letter saying, “Dear Sir, It has come to my attention…. is there any truth to these rumors?” Jefferson replied,”Oh no, sir!… I assure you…”

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    @ConservativeEpiscopalian

    Professor Yoo: What exactly is wrong with impeaching federal judges? Perhaps if we used that weapon more often, we might not get some of the ridiculous and overtly political decisions we have gotten lately.

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    @

    Jefferson’s continual defense of the French Revolution is shameful which is why I have not attempted to contextualize it.

    Regarding the Cabinet – he did hide his actions from Washington, which he shouldn’t have. Again, though, context is important. He believed – rightly or wrongly – that Washington was being manipulated by Hamilton and was threatening the American Revolution, the revolutionary settlement, if you will. As such, he believed he had to secure the Revolution by demonstrating to the people the viper in the den. Jefferson never disobeyed Washington. That he disagreed with him is obvious (again, rightly or wrongly) but he always followed the President’s orders as he did following through with Neutrality.

    I appreciate being called a revisionists! Amongst collegues, I am most often called a reactionary; it’s a nice change of pace for me!

    The problem with making the contextual argument is that you sometimes get mistaken for an apologist. Jefferson did – does – need some defending but, in response to Professor Yoo and other, I have been mostly attempting to place these actions in context of their times; a broader context can make greater sense of what seems an odd or damning event.

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    @SnowBird

    Sorry, post error

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    @user_59824
    tabula rasa

    Jefferson was disloyal against his boss, and I find it unforgivable. Whether Jefferson was right politically is irrelevant. He tried to harm the greatest American.

    Not to mention the disregard, in his later years, for a great personal friend and American patriot, Abigail Adams.

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    @user_59824

    Professor Yoo,

    I would be very interested to read your analysis of our second President, John Adams.

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    @Ion

    Jefferson is over-rated, John Adams under-rated. Adams continued the brilliant start of Washington, even through the stress of what was thought an impending French invasion (the context for the main black marks on his Presidency, the Alien and Sedition Acts).

    It is no small feat that Adams did so instead of attempting to upstage Washington’s example. Plus, Adams’ life story prior to the White House was epic in its devotion to the nation.

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    @CharleyDavis

    I have personal disdain for Jefferson. Upon visiting the decadent villa Monticello of his own design, that left his daughter deeply in debt, I learned that he was the originator of political hypocrisy in America. Contrasted with my uplifting visit to Washington’s Mount Vernon. Their respective tastes in Architecture tell you all you need to know about the men.

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    @tabularasa
    18th Century Whig:

    [H]e did hide his actions from Washington, which he shouldn’t have. Again, though, context is important. He believed – rightly or wrongly – that Washington was being manipulated by Hamilton and was threatening the American Revolution, the revolutionary settlement, if you will. As such, he believed he had to secure the Revolution by demonstrating to the people the viper in the den. Jefferson never disobeyed Washington. . . .

    What does your argument about “context” mean? Fact: Jefferson, while a cabinet member, paid a provocateur (Freneau) to engage in despicable attacks on GW (and his hatred of Hamilton does not justify it). Let’s not forget that while Jefferson went to parties in France, both Hamilton (the “viper in the den”) and Washington experienced the sound of British bullets whizzing past their ears.

    Jefferson has positive attributes. But his calumny to Washington is a horrible blot on his record. The fact that he didn’t disobey GW is weak: I’d rather have someone disobey me than anonymously stab me in the back.

    If he did today what he did back then he would be banned to a well-deserved political version of outer darkness.

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    @user_52278

    To a Canadian whose knowledge of early American history pales in comparison to that of the contributors here, this is a fascinating discussion. I love this website.

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