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Was Thomas Jefferson a Political Compromiser?

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Answered 2010-10-18 01:21:00

The Election of Thomas Jefferson Consensus historians paint Thomas Jefferson as the great father of democracy, referring to his election to the presidency as the "revolution of 1800." In actuality, Thomas Jefferson was an inconsistent man, who was philosophically against the Federalists, but who did not bring about any significant political or ideological changes during his presidency. Recently, revisionist historians have begun to question the notion of Jefferson as the "representative of the common man." Many of these historians now agree that Jefferson's life was wrought with contradictions, and that his policies, as a president, actually reflected a synthesis of the Federalist and Republican ideologies. "We are all republicans, we are all federalists," Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address. Many Americans were shocked to hear those words come out of the same mouth that had supported the bloody conflicts of the French Revolution years before. Jefferson's many political theories, and personal letters, sometimes reflected an interest in the common man and democracy, while his actual practices were drastically different. Politically, the Jeffersonian party was insecure and inconsistent. After being elected president, Jefferson did nothing to increase the level of democracy in the government. Traditionally, the Jeffersonian movement and the Republican Party have been seen as anti-capitalist, promoting the interests of the common man, and favoring a strict interpretation of the constitution. The Hamiltonian movement and the Federalist Party represented the elite capitalist class, favoring a concentration of power in the State, and a loose interpretation of the constitution. Revisionist historians have argued against this view. They argue that the Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian movements are not significantly different, but rather each represents different factions of elites. There are numerous examples that show the accuracy of this revisionist view. In the election of 1800, the federalists were forced to vote for one of the two Republicans running. Many of them favored Burr, as the less extreme of the two, until Hamilton convinced them of Jefferson's moderate intents. "He [Jefferson] is as likely as any man I know to temporize- to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of the systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it." The revisionist perspective that Thomas Jefferson did not represent the masses, but merely a different faction of elites, has much supporting evidence. Jefferson's interests in the common farmer were second to those of the Southern landowner. Jefferson deviated even from this prospective, crossing the line on many issues into what would seem Federalist actions. One historian, Peter S. Onuf, went so far as to dub it "Jeffersonian Federalism." One example of this is the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson deviated from his strict interpretation of the constitution in order to purchase Louisiana, which would benefit land speculators and Northern capitalists, telling the Senate to ratify it "with as little debate as possible, and particularly so far as respects the constitutional difficulty." Morton Borden points out in his essay, "Thomas Jefferson: political compromiser," that Jefferson took a decisively Federalist approach to the military as well, contrary to what many Federalists thought would happen. In less than three months after being elected, Jefferson attacked the Barbary pirates without asking permission from Congress. Many of Jefferson's political compromises were reflected in his economic decisions. One of the main contradictions of the Jefferson administration was its adoption of Federalist economic policies. Jefferson had no clear economic plan; he theorized about the adoption of a laissez-faire policy, and the destruction of the Hamiltonian system, but did nothing about this as president. Jefferson, by and large, maintained the Federalist system throughout his presidency. One of the first things Jefferson did was to abolish the hated excise taxes on whiskey. In order to do this, he had to find another way to acquire funds. Thus he justified increasing protective tariffs. This rendered the abolition of the whiskey tax merely cosmetic, as the direct tax was reduced, but the prices of all commodities were raised. Jefferson also had the national bank destroyed, but re-instituted it in 1816 in order to raise national funds. His party's legislature began to issue charters freely to local banks. Jefferson made no attempts to put an end to many parts of the existing federalist system, such as land speculation on public land. In addition Jefferson developed the infrastructure, spending $20 million on a network of national roads and canals. Hoffsteter states, "Since his policies did not deviate too widely from the federalists, Jefferson hoped to win over the moderates from their ranks…soon the republican machines began flirting with the financial interests they were sworn to oppose." Through examining his personal letters and private life, we find many serious inconsistencies in Jefferson's ideologies. One issue that has been scrutinized lately is Jefferson's views on slavery and women. Many consensus historians argue that Jefferson was a benevolent slave owner, and advocated for the abolition of slavery. A revisionist historian will continue to tell you that while he wanted to abolish slavery, he stated that blacks and whites could never both live freely in the same society. As Conor Cruise O'Brien pointed out in his article, "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist," "In theory Jefferson's solution to slavery consisted in "colonization": the deportation of all the freed blacks from the United States." Jefferson never considered a form of racial coexistence, and believed adamantly that blacks were inferior. "This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people," Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia. This plan for "colonization" was extremely impractical, and was never a potential option. Jefferson acknowledged this himself later in life, and altered his plan, proposing that the government buy newborn slaves, and pay for them to be raised to an appropriate age by their parents, at which point they would start working to recompense the government until they could be sent away. O'Brien also puts emphasis on the fact that Jefferson examined blacks for characteristics of inferiority. Jefferson once stated that black males preferred white women for sex, while black females preferred orangutans. Richard Hoffsteter comments on the subject, "[Jefferson] could say that a man's rights were "unalienable" at the very moment when he owned several dozen souls." A related issue is that of his sexual relationship with his mulatto slave Sally Hemings. In her book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed gives substantial evidence concerning the thirty-sever year abusive liaison between Jefferson, and his slave, Sally Hemings. She also goes on to describe his views on women in general. Jefferson did not believe that women should be educated in the same way as men. He stated that the object of their education should be to make them better company for men. In addition, many people would be surprised to learn of Jefferson's attitude towards the common people. While in some of his theories he stated that he had faith in the common farmer, he also shared the same fear of the masses as the Federalists. He did not believe that the government could rely on man's virtue. Many historians are outraged by the terms with which he referred to the masses, calling them "swinish multitudes" in one letter and "canaille" in another. Jefferson believed that the government must be able to check the people. Many Americans are shocked to learn of the complete hypocrisy of the "father of democracy's" ideologies towards slaves, women, and the masses. Thomas Jefferson is often described by revisionist historians as having "outfederalized the Federalists." This is the antithesis of the belief held by many historians that the election of Thomas Jefferson was a "revolution," In actuality there were no significant political, economic, or ideological changes made. Some of Jefferson's theories and political writings deserve merit for advocating human rights and democracy, while his actions deserve condemnation for disregarding his own philosophical beliefs in order to remain popular. Jefferson was both contradictory and inconsistent, often synthesizing Federalist and Republican policies. Word Count: 1344

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