November 4, 2000
Midterm Exam: The Second American Revolution
When Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800, he referred to his victory as "the second American Revolution". This claim would have been met with applause by some, and sneers by others. In any case, his election was eventful, as it ushered in a new era of political leadership and ideology.
What had Jefferson meant, then, by describing his election as a revolution? A "revolution" by definition is a violent takeover of an established government, or a great change. The traditional usage of the word had also been "a return to first principles, of a restoration of original values and ideals that had been overturned or repudiated. There had been no violent transfer of power- in fact, it had been the first time in the country’s young history that peaceful transfer of power from one party to another had occurred. Perhaps Jefferson had anticipated great change with his upcoming presidency.
It is best to examine the context of the times—prior to the election—to determine why Jefferson described his election in this manner. He felt that the events that had transpired in 1790’s—while the country had been under the leadership of a mostly Federalist government— were a retreat from the principles that had been fought for in the American Revolution.
This retreat from republican values had come in many forms. Under the Federalists, the central government had become increasingly large and powerful—just the type of rule that the Revolutionaries had fought to destroy. In a letter to Phillip Mazzei in 1794, Jefferson expressed his aversion for the Federalist party, remarking that the "noble love of liberty and republican government" had been replaced by an "Anglican monarchical aristocratical party" that aimed to "draw over us the substance… of the British government."
One way that the Federalists had displayed these aristocratical tendencies was by instituting a national bank, much to the dissatisfaction of Jefferson. It greatly benefited the rich, aristocratical elite. Federalist claimed the essentiality of catering to the elite, in order to ensure the financial well-being of the country. This was in contrast to Jefferson’s republican view that the government should serve all men.
The Federalists also displayed their general distrust and dislike for the common masses. To pay for the national debt, the central government began increasing taxes on goods, such as whiskey. This adversely affected western and southern farmers who relied on the sale of whiskey for their income, placing on them an unequitable financial burden. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 followed as a result of tax collectors looking to cash in on these farmers. In true Federalist fashion, Washington decided that it was up to the central government to do something about this uprising, consequently leading a militia of 15,000 troops to squelch this rebellion. While there had been no bloodshed, these actions taken by Washington demonstrated the growing presence of the federal government in the everyday discourse of the people. This was a step to further central control—and would have been very alarming to a Democratic-Republican like Jefferson.
Finally, perhaps the most anti-republican offense on the part of the Federalist came during the war between France and England. President John Adams had been instrumental in an attempt to villainize the French during the XYZ Affair, hoping to turn public support away from the French. Perhaps even more instrumental in these attempts was Alexander Hamilton, who wanted war against France to pledge Federalist support to Great Britain. This in itself was an irony to the principles that had been fought for during the Revolution. Hamilton made great strides to ruin Jefferson’s hopes for the presidential election of 1800, as well as to dismantle the Democratic-Republican party itself.
Hamilton, working with Adams, put into place three laws that he hoped would be insurmountable obstacles for Jefferson in his presidential campaign. These also aimed to rid the country of as much French influence as possible—a benefit because the Democratic-Republican Jefferson had given the French his support. The Naturalization Act proposed that any new immigrant would have to wait 14 years to become a naturalized citizen—a requirement that jumped greatly from the traditional three years. The Alien and Sedition acts gave the central government powers to imprison or expel aliens, or those who spoke out the actions of government during a time of war. To Democratic-Republicans, these actions were an abuse of power by the federal government, shortcomings that Jefferson would seek to change. It was the hope of Federalists that these laws could calm the public unrest and leave Jefferson wanting for more voter support.
In spite of Hamilton’s attempts, Jefferson did gain election in 1800. Reflecting upon the events that had lead up to Jefferson’s election, it is easy to see why Jefferson had called his election a "revolution". It was a change in the overall atmosphere of the government—a shift from an aristocratical government to a more democratic one, a shift from broad interpretation of the Constitution to a strict interpretation, a shift from a large and energetic government to a "wise and frugal" one, with "equal and exact justice to all men" and "the support of states rights" held in esteem above all else.
This great change in the overall tone of the government could also be seen by examining the character of Jefferson as opposed to those of his Federalist counterparts. Jefferson tried to portray a more low key tone for the presidency, by changing the etiquette and mannerisms of White House functions, by not dressing in fancy clothes and wigs of many of his contemporaries, and by shifting the servitude of politics away from the elite to the entire body of the constituency. Gone from national policy was the elitist rhetoric that was constantly used in Federalist discourse. Even the myth of Jefferson’s rather low-key, uneventful inauguration portrayed him as more of a common man than his predecessors in the White House.
Many would have agreed with this—that Jefferson’s election caused great change, and carried with it important lasting effect on the nation’s history. Those who agreed with Jefferson’s "revolution" claim might would have likely been the majority of the Democratic-Republican party, who had modeled their political thought off of Jefferson’s. Those in disagreement would have been the Federalists, who tried until the end to scratch their way back up to the executive office that was now held by Jefferson, but to no avail. The election of Jefferson marked the end of Federalist power in the presidency. The mercantile interest of the country, which was predominately Federalist, would probably also been at odds with Jefferson, given that he stood for agrarian principles that were in direct contrast to their own.
Along with changing the political atmosphere and ideology of the times, his election also made a difference in the fundamental goals of national politics as done by Democratic-Republicans. With the initiation of his presidency in 1801, a new era of politics emerged, the Jeffersonian democracy. Jeffersonian republicans would strive for a government free of corruption, gaining land for expansion and growth, and making provisions for a policy of liberal economic trade. These principles made all the difference in the policy that would be pursued by Jefferson, and the Democratic-Republican presidents that would follow. Jefferson actively pursued the Louisiana Purchase for land to be used for growth. His foreign policy dealing with the events that lead up to the war of 1812 showed that until the very end, he wished to have a neutral economic policy that would ensure free trade with Europe. In a way, these actions—and many others during his presidency—laid the groundwork for his party, and made a difference in his time and possibly the entire course of the nation’s history since.