How Great Were Our Great Presidents? (2 of 6) Thomas Jefferson

I have written several articles on our Presidents and Vice-Presidents. A list of the links have been provided at the bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional Presidents and their places in history.

Was Thomas Jefferson A great President?  Here are his major accomplishments while in office. Each of these accomplishments when taken individually were impressive. But when you add them all up, it is easy decision to classify him as a great President.

+He banned the importation of slaves, hindering the international slave trade, and giving us the first step to the eventual dissolve of slavery as a whole.

+He defeated the Barbary pirates, despite shrinking our military.

+He nearly doubled the size of the US with the Louisiana Purchase.

+Additionally, he blocked the institution of slavery from spreading into this new land.

+Got funding for the Lewis and Clarke expedition.

+He drastically reduced the national debt, cutting it in half before the Louisiana Purchase * (which even after that, it was still drastically lower than it was when he took office).

+He repealed the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, and pardoned those wrongfully jailed because of them.

+He abolished internal taxes. ( While he did discontinue internal taxes, he increased tariff duties to 16% ad valorem)

+He shrank the federal government by getting rid of “unnecessary offices” and “useless establishments”.

+Founded West Point (or, as it was called at the time, the United States Military Academy at West Point).

+He also encouraged and managed to convince most states to remove the voters restriction on owning land, allowing many more citizens to vote (though, some of these states ended up doing so after his presidency).

He accomplished all these things while staying in the strict confines of the Constitution. However, he

Probably the biggest blot on his presidency was the Embargo Act. Despite his ties with France, he refused to take sides in the war between France and England. He declared neutrality to prevent the capture of American ships, by either side. However, the northern traders ignored the Act, so neither side was harmed by it. If the Act had been strictly enforced, the war of 1812 might have been prevented.

Jefferson rejected the Federalist axiom that in order to have peace one must prepare for war — the theory being that the more powerful a country was in armaments the less likely it was to be attacked. Jefferson’s defense policy was to maintain a peacetime military establishment composed of a small standing army (about 3,000 men) to defend the frontier against hostile Indians and possible Spanish incursions from the Florida’s, and a small naval squadron to protect American commerce from the depredations of third-rate powers, such as the Barbary states of North Africa. Jefferson possessed a classical republican aversion to large military and naval establishments both for their expense and their potential threat to the liberties of the people. Far from being idealistic or Utopian, Jefferson’s vision and policies were based on a realistic understanding of America’s geopolitical situation in the Atlantic world. He believed that it would be pure folly and extravagance to build a large oceangoing fleet, composed of hundreds of frigates and ships-of-the-line. He rightly surmised that building such a fleet would alarm the British and encourage a preemptive strike by their navy in the event of hostilities. Thus, building a fleet could actually increase the possibility of war with England. Jefferson did not believe that his country could be seriously threatened by the armies of either England, France, or Spain, the three great world powers. Although both England and Spain possessed territory contiguous to the borders of the young republic, both would have to transport large forces across the Atlantic and would be forced to fight on hostile territory far from their base of supplies. On the other hand, the Americans could mobilize hundreds of thousands of able-bodied militia to fight for their homeland. Not one of the great powers had the resources to send sufficient troops to conquer the American states.

Early in his first term, Jefferson was faced with the question of whether he should use the naval force inherited from the Federalists to protect American trade in the Mediterranean. The pasha of Tripoli, the leader of one of the four Barbary powers on the northern coast of Africa (the others being Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis), demanded additional tribute from the United States as the price for allowing American shipping to trade in the Mediterranean free of piratical raids by his navy. The Barbary powers had been long extorting payments from the European states for the “privilege” of trading with them and for the freedom to navigate the sea without attack. Rather than combining to suppress these piratical powers, the Europeans decided to pay them off, either in cash or in the form of ships, arms, or military supplies. The Washington and Adams administrations had followed the established custom and made treaties with Algeria in 1795, Tripoli in 1796, and Tunis in 1797; in ten years, the Federalists had paid these powers more than $2 million in tribute. When Jefferson assumed the presidency and was faced with the demand for more money from the pasha of Tripoli, he refused. Because of his judicious use of his limited navy he was able to force the Pasha to sue for peace in June 1805 ending the undeclared naval war and abolished the annual payments to Tripoli.

Was this war for free trade and national honor consistent with Jefferson’s stated policy of strict construction, peace, and economy in the public expenditure? Two things are clear. The pasha of Tripoli was the aggressor in this conflict, and Jefferson was committing armed forces to protect American lives and property from aggression. Yet because he failed to obtain a declaration of war from Congress, Jefferson was soon waging an undeclared war in violation of the Constitution. He thus set a dangerous precedent for future, more militaristic presidents.

Arguably the greatest accomplishment of Jefferson’s presidency was the acquisition of Louisiana, bought from France for $15 million. The province was enormous at 828,000 square miles, and it contained some of the richest farmland in the world. Louisiana was comprised of New Orleans, a bustling city; St. Louis, a small city; a few isolated French settlements along the Mississippi; and some scattered Indian tribes. Other than that, it was virtually uninhabited. The Federalists opposed the purchase on two grounds. First, they warned that such a vast enlargement of territory would endanger the cohesion and the existence of the union. Jefferson responded by arguing that the confederal (sic) nature of the American republic made expansion safe. The Federalists also objected that the treaty was unconstitutional. After all, the Constitution conferred no power on the federal government to acquire foreign territory and incorporate it into the Union.* On this point, Jefferson reluctantly concurred. He believed that the Louisiana treaty required not only Senate ratification but additional constitutional authorization through an amendment. Soon after receiving news of the treaty on June 30, he drew up an amendment that stated that “the province of Louisiana is incorporated with the United States and made part thereof,” and he distributed it to his cabinet. His cabinet did not seem to think that an amendment was necessary. His attorney general Levi Lincoln was indecisive; so was Madison; and Gallatin was emphatic that it was not needed at all. Earlier in the year, the latter had written Jefferson explaining that “the United States as a nation have an inherent right to acquire territory,” and “Congress have the power either of admitting into the Union as a new State, or annexing to a State with the consent of that State.” Jefferson found himself almost alone in insisting that the Constitution did not sanction the acquisition of new territory, whether through conquest, purchase, or treaty. Not only was his cabinet not behind him, neither were his chief congressional supporters.  Jefferson conceded that he would not insist on his view but would acquiesce in the prevailing opinion of the Republican Party for he trusted “that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.”  Jefferson’s concession would prove to be a fatal one, for the evils of broad construction would begin to work their mischief under Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, and “the good sense of the country” on this question would fall silent. The Louisiana Purchase was the first example of both the will and desire to violate the Constitution. It was the first lesson that taught Americans that numerical majority was superior to the Constitution and was a safe protection against it when violated, and that when policy approved the necessity of change, it was easier to break than to legally and regularly amend the provisions of our charter. Jefferson acquiesced when he should have stood firm. While party leaders were not supportive, he still could have appealed directly to the people by penning a special message imploring them to ratify a new amendment specifying which territories could be incorporated in the Union and spelling out the exact procedure for admitting them as new states. Jefferson failed to understand that the Constitution was written to protect the people from themselves.

President Jefferson accomplished great things in his presidency, in the end he proved to be a mere human like the rest of us. He tried to follow his ideals, but found that he had to give in on matters of great import. It can be argued that by not passing an amendment addressing the purchase of new territories was wrong, its omission is only considered to be a failure only by the most ardent adherents of strict constitutionalism. It can also be challenged that Jefferson should have obtained congressional permission to use naval force against the Barbary Pirates. Again, you must look at the greater picture in this matter. He was only the second president. His views were totally different than President Washington’s Federalist views, and the Constitution and the country was still very young. With anything new, there are always growing pains.

While this discussion is mainly about his accomplishments as a President, it would be in a dereliction of duty not to at least briefly mention some of his other accomplishments. He wrote the initial draft for the Declaration of Independence, however, it’s final form is hardly recognizable. It is much less vituperative in nature. He was also instrumental in writing the Constitution of the U.S. Because of his efforts and accomplishments, he is justifiably entitled one of our founding fathers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sources:, Was Thomas Jefferson a Great President?” By H.A. Scott Trask; “Was Thomas Jefferson a good president?” one of the answers to the query was written by Logan Flowers

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