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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Discuss the significance of Jefferson's presidency and show how his policy decisions led to the War of 1812. Examine why and how the Federalist Party came to an end.  

Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 represented a victory for ordinary white Americans in their bid to assume more direct control over the government. Elites had made no secret of their hostility toward pure democracy, that is the direct control of government by the people. In both private correspondence and published works, many of the nation’s founders argued that pure democracy would lead to anarchy. Massachusetts Federalist Fisher Ames spoke for many of his colleagues when he lamented the dangers that democracy posed because it depended upon public opinion, which “shifts with every current of caprice.” Jefferson’s election, for Federalists like Ames, heralded a slide “down into the mire of a democracy.”


Indeed, many political leaders and non-elite citizens believed Jefferson embraced the politics of the masses. “[I]n a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate… to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” Jefferson wrote in 1810. Nine years later, looking back on his monumental election, Jefferson again linked his triumph to the political engagement of ordinary citizens: “The revolution of 1800…was as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76 was in it’s form,” he wrote, “not effected indeed by the sword…but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage [voting] of the people.” Jefferson desired to convince Americans—and the world—that a government that answered directly to the people would lead to lasting national union, not anarchic division, proving that free people could govern themselves democratically.


Jefferson set out to differentiate his administration from the Federalists. He defined American union by the voluntary bonds of fellow citizens toward one another and toward the government. In contrast, the Federalists supposedly imaged a union defined by expansive state power and public submission to the rule of aristocratic elites. For Jefferson, the American nation drew its “energy” and its strength from the “confidence” of a “reasonable” and “rational” people.


Republican celebrations often credited Jefferson with saving the nation’s republican principles. In a move that enraged Federalists, they used the image of George Washington, who had passed away in 1799, linking the republican virtue Washington epitomized to the democratic liberty Jefferson championed. Leaving behind the military pomp of power-obsessed Federalists, Republicans had peacefully elected the scribe of national independence, the philosopher-patriot who had battled tyranny with his pen, not with a sword or a gun.


The celebrations of Jefferson’s presidency and the defeat of the Federalists expressed many citizens’ willingness to assert greater direct control over the government as citizens. The definition of citizenship was changing. Early American national identity was coded masculine, just as it was coded white and wealthy; yet, since the Revolution, women had repeatedly called for a place in the conversation. Mercy Otis Warren was one of the most noteworthy female contributors to the public ratification debate over the Constitution of 1787 and 1788, but women all over the country were urged to participate in the discussion over the Constitution. “It is the duty of the American ladies, in a particular manner, to interest themselves in the success of the measures that are now pursuing by the Federal Convention for the happiness of America,” a Philadelphia essayist announced. “They can retain their rank as rational beings only in a free government. In a monarchy…they will be considered as valuable members of a society, only in proportion as they are capable of being mothers for soldiers, who are the pillars of crowned heads.”10 American women were more than mothers to soldiers; they were mothers to liberty.


Historians have used the term Republican Motherhood to describe the early American belief that women were essential in nurturing the principles of liberty in the citizenry. Women would pass along important values of independence and virtue to their children, ensuring that each generation cherished the same values of the American Revolution. Because of these ideas, women’s actions became politicized. Republican partisans even described women’s choice of sexual partner a crucial to the health and well-being of both the party and the nation. “The fair Daughters of America” should “never disgrace themselves by giving their hands in marriage to any but real republicans,” a group of New Jersey Republicans asserted. A Philadelphia paper toasted “The fair Daughters of Columbia. May their smiles be the reward of Republicans only.”11 Though unmistakably steeped in the gendered assumptions about female sexuality and domesticity that denied women an equal share of the political rights men enjoyed, these statements also conceded the pivotal role women played as active participants in partisan politics.


Jefferson as President


Buttressed by robust public support, Jefferson sought to implement policies that reflected this rhetoric and political activity. He worked to reduce taxes and cut the government’s budget believing that this would cause the economy to expand and prosper. His cuts included national defense and Jefferson restricted the regular army to three thousand men. England may have needed taxes and debt to support its military empire, but Jefferson was determined to live in peace—and that belief led him to successfully reduce America’s national debt while getting rid of all internal taxes during his first term. In a move that became the crowning achievement of his presidency, Jefferson authorized the acquisition of Louisiana from France in 1803 in what is considered the largest real estate deal in American history. During the massive reorganization of North American property following the Seven Years’ War, France ceded Louisiana to Spain in exchange for West Florida. Jefferson was concerned about the American use of Spanish-held New Orleans, which served as an important port for western farmers. His worries multiplied when the French secretly reacquired Louisiana in 1800. Spain remained in Louisiana for two more years while U.S. Minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, tried to strike a compromise.


Fortunately for the U.S., the pressures of war in Europe and the slave insurrection in Haiti forced Napoleon to rethink his vast North American holdings. Rebellious slaves coupled with a yellow fever outbreak in Haiti defeated French forces, stripping Napoleon of his ability to control Haiti (the home of his profitable sugar plantations). Deciding to cut his losses, Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million—roughly equivalent to $250 million today. Negotiations between Livingston and Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, succeeded more spectacularly than either Jefferson or Livingston could have imagined.


Jefferson made an inquiry to his cabinet regarding the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase, but he believed he was obliged to operate outside the strict limitations of the Constitution if the good of the nation was at stake as his ultimate responsibility was to the American people. Jefferson felt he should be able to “throw himself on the justice of his country” when he facilitated the interests of the very people he served. He believed that a strong executive was essential to a lasting republican nation.


Jefferson’s foreign policy, especially the Embargo of 1807, elicited the most outrage from his Federalist critics. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies moved across Europe, Jefferson wrote to a European friend that he was glad that God had “divided the dry lands of your hemisphere from the dry lands of ours, and said ‘here, at least, be there peace.’” Unfortunately, the Atlantic Ocean soon became the site of Jefferson’s greatest foreign policy test, as England, France, and Spain refused to respect American ships’ neutrality. The greatest offenses came from the British, who resumed the policy of impressment, seizing thousands of American sailors and forcing them to fight for the British navy.


Many Americans called for war when the British attacked the USS Chesapeake in 1807. The president, however, decided on a policy of “peaceable coercion” and Congress agreed. Under the Embargo Act of 1807, American ports were closed to all foreign trade in hopes of avoiding war. Jefferson hoped that an embargo would force European nations to respect American neutrality. Historians disagree over the wisdom of peaceable coercion. At first, withholding commerce rather than declaring war appeared to be the ultimate means of nonviolent conflict resolution. In practice, the Embargo hurt America’s economy and Jefferson’s personal finances even suffered. When Americans resorted to smuggling their goods out of the country, Jefferson expanded governmental powers to try to enforce their compliance, leading some to label him a “Tyrant.”


Criticism of Jefferson’s policies began to use the same rhetoric that his supporters trumpeted. Federalists attacked the American Philosophical Society and the study of natural history, believing both to be too saturated with Democratic Republicans. Some Federalists lamented the alleged decline of educational standards for children. Moreover, James Callender published accusations (confirmed much later by DNA evidence) that Jefferson was involved in a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Callender referred to Jefferson as “our little mulatto president,” suggesting that sex with a slave had somehow compromised Jefferson’s racial integrity. Callender’s accusation joined previous Federalist attacks on Jefferson’s racial politics, including a scathing pamphlet written by South Carolinian William Loughton Smith in 1796 that described the principles of Jeffersonian democracy as the beginning of a slippery slope to dangerous racial equality.


Arguments lamenting the democratization of America were far less effective than those that borrowed from democratic language and demonstrated how Jefferson’s actions were, in fact, undermining the sovereignty of the people. Historian David Hackett Fischer has written that the Federalists set out to “defeat Jefferson with his own weapons.” As Alexander Hamilton argued in 1802: “[W]e must consider whether it be possible for us to succeed without in some degree employing the weapons which have been employed against us.” Indeed, when Federalists attacked Jefferson, they often accused him of acting against the interests of the very public he claimed to serve. This tactic represented a pivotal development. As the Federalists scrambled to stay politically relevant, it became apparent that their ideology—rooted in eighteenth century notions of virtue, paternalistic rule by wealthy elite, and the deference of ordinary citizens to an aristocracy of merit—was no longer tenable. The Federalists’ adoption of republican political rhetoric signaled a new political landscape where both parties embraced the direct involvement of the citizenry. The Republican Party rose to power on the promise to expand voting and promote a more direct link between political leaders and the electorate. The American populace continued to demand more direct access to political power. Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe sought to expand voting through policies that made it easier for Americans to purchase land. Under their leadership, seven new states entered the Union. By 1824, only three states still had rules about how much property someone had to own before he could vote. Never again would the Federalists regain dominance over either the Congress or the presidency; the last Federalist to run for president, Rufus King, lost to Monroe in 1816.



The War of 1812


Soon after Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1808, Congress ended the Embargo, as the British relaxed their policies toward American ships. Although it was unpopular, Jefferson still believed that more time would have proven that peaceable coercion truly was an effective weapon of international diplomacy. Yet war with Britain loomed—a war that would galvanize the young American nation and convince many citizens that the many voices now inhabiting the national political arena all spoke with one voice.


The War of 1812 stemmed from the United States’ entanglement in two distinct sets of international issues. The first had to do with the nation’s desire to maintain its position as a neutral trading nation during the series of Anglo-French wars, which began in the aftermath of the French Revolution in 1793. The second had older roots in the colonial and Revolutionary era. In both cases, American interests and goals conflicted with those of the British Empire. And each time, British leaders showed little interest in accommodating the Americans.


Impressments, that is the practice of forcing American sailors to join the British Navy was among the most important sources of conflict between the two nations. Driven in part by trade with Europe, the American economy grew quickly during the first decade of the nineteenth century, creating a labor shortage in the American shipping industry. In response, pay rates for sailors increased and American captains recruited heavily from the ranks of British sailors. As a result, around 30 percent of sailors employed on American merchant ships were British. As a republic, the Americans advanced the notion that people could become citizens by renouncing their allegiance to their home nation. To the British, a person born in the British Empire was a subject of that empire for life, a status they could not change. The British Navy was embroiled in a difficult war and was unwilling to lose any of its labor force. In order to regain lost crewmen, the British often boarded American ships to reclaim their sailors. Of course, many American sailors found themselves caught up in these sweeps and “impressed” into the service of the British Navy. Between 1803 and 1812, some 6,000 Americans suffered this fate. The British would release Americans who could prove their identity but this process could take years while the sailor endured harsh conditions and the dangers of the Royal Navy.


In 1806, responding to a French declaration of a complete naval blockade of Great Britain, the British demanded that neutral ships first carried their goods to Britain to pay a transit duty before they could proceed to France. Despite loopholes in these policies between 1807 and 1812, Britain, France, and their allies seized about 900 American ships, prompting a swift and angry American response. Jefferson’s Embargo sent the nation into a deep depression and drove exports down from $108 million in 1807 to $22 million in 1808, all while having little effect on Europeans Within fifteen months Congress repealed the Embargo, replacing it with smaller restrictions on trade with Britain and France. Although, the Republican efforts to stand against Great Britain had failed, resentment of British trade policy remained widespread in American society.


Far from the Atlantic Ocean on the American frontier, Americans were also at odds with the British Empire. From their position in Canada, the British maintained relations with Native Americans in the Old Northwest, supplying them with goods and weapons in attempts to maintain ties in case of another war with the United States. The threat of a Native uprising increased after 1805 when Tenskwatawa began to preach a new religious doctrine that rejected the Europeans and their way of life. By 1809, Tecumseh, had turned the movement into a military and political alliance when he attempted to unite the tribes against the encroaching Americans. The territorial governor of Illinois, William Henry Harrison eventually convinced the Madison administration to allow for military action against the Native Americans in the Ohio Valley. The resulting Battle of Tippecanoe drove the followers of the Prophet from their gathering place, but did little to change the dynamics of the region. British efforts to arm and supply Native Americans, however, angered Americans and strengthened anti-British sentiments.


Republicans began to talk of war as a solution to these problems, arguing that it was necessary to complete the War for Independence by preventing British efforts to keep America subjugated at sea and on land. The war would also represent another battle against the Loyalists, some 38,000 of whom had populated Upper Canada after the Revolution and sought to establish a counter to the radical experiment of the United States.


In 1812, the Republicans held 75 percent of the seats in the House and 82 percent of the Senate, giving them a free hand to set national policy. Among them were the “War Hawks,” who one historian has described as “too young to remember the horrors of the American Revolution,” and thus “willing to risk another British war to vindicate the nation’s rights and independence.” This group included men who would remain influential long after the War of 1812, such as Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.


Convinced by the War Hawks in his party, Madison drafted a statement of the nation’s disputes with the British and asked Congress for a war declaration on June 1, 1812. The Republicans hoped that an invasion of Canada might remove the British from their backyard and force the Empire to change their naval policies. After much negotiation in Congress over the details of the bill, Madison signed a declaration of war on June 18, 1812. For the second time, the United States was at war with Great Britain.


While the War of 1812 contained two key players–the United States and Great Britain–it also drew in other groups, such as Tecumseh and the Indian Confederacy. The war can be organized into three stages or theaters. The first, the Atlantic Theater lasted until the spring of 1813. During this time, Great Britain was chiefly occupied in Europe against Napoleon, and the United States invaded Canada and sent their fledgling navy against British ships. During the second stage, from early 1813 to 1814, the U.S. launched their second offensive against Canada and the Great Lakes. In this period, the Americans, having gained some experience in 1812 and early 1813, won its first successes. The third stage, the Southern Theater, concluded with Andrew Jackson’s January 1815 victory at Chalmette outside of New Orleans, Louisiana.


During the war, the Americans were greatly interested in Canada and the Great Lakes borderlands. In July 1812, the U.S. launched their first offensive against Canada. By August, however, the British and their allies defeated the Americans in Canada, costing the U.S. control over Detroit and parts of the Michigan Territory. By the close of 1813, the Americans recaptured Detroit, shattered the Indian Confederacy, killed Tecumseh, and eliminated the British threat in that theater. Despite these accomplishments, the American land forces proved outmatched by their adversaries. 

After the land campaign of 1812 failed to secure America’s war aims, Americans turned to the infant navy in 1813. Privateers and the U.S. Navy rallied behind the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors Rights!” Although the British possessed the most powerful navy in the world, surprisingly the young American navy extracted early victories with larger, more heavily armed ships. By 1814, however, the major naval battles had been fought with little effect on the war’s outcome.


With Britain’s main naval fleet fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, smaller ships and armaments stationed in North America were generally no match for their American counterparts. Early on, Americans humiliated the British in single ship battles. In retaliation, Captain Phillip Broke, of theHMS Shannon attacked the USS Chesapeake captained by James Lawrence on June 1, 1813. Within six minutes, the Chesapeake was destroyed and Lawrence mortally wounded. Yet, the Americans did not give up as Lawrence commanded them “Tell the men to fire faster! Don’t give up the ship!” Lawrence died of his wounds three days later and although the Shannon defeated the Chesapeake, Lawrence’s words became a rallying cry for the Americans.


Two and a half months later the USS Constitution squared off with the HMS Guerriere. As the Guerriere tried to outmaneuver the Americans, the Constitution pulled along broadside and began hammering the British frigate. The Guerriere returned fire, but as one sailor observed the cannonballs simply bounced off the Constitution’s thick hull. “Huzza! Her sides are made of Iron!” shouted the sailor and henceforth, the Constitution became known as “Old Ironsides.” In less than thirty-five minutes, the Guerriere was so badly destroyed it was set aflame rather than taken as a prize.


In 1814, Americans gained naval victories on Lake Champlain near Plattsburgh, preventing a British land invasion of the United States and on the Chesapeake at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Fort McHenry repelled the nineteen-ship British fleet enduring twenty-seven hours of bombardment virtually unscathed. Watching from aboard a British ship, American poet Francis Scott Key penned the verses of what would become the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”


Impressive though these accomplishments were, they belied what was actually a poorly executed military campaign against the British. The U.S. Navy won their most significant victories in the Atlantic Ocean in 1813. Napoleon’s defeat in early 1814, however, allowed the British to focus on North America and their blockade of the East coast. Thanks to the blockade, the British were able to burn Washington D.C. on August 24, 1814 and open a new theater of operations in the South. The British sailed for New Orleans where they achieved a naval victory at Lake Borgne before losing the land invasion to Major General Andrew Jackson’s troops in January 1815. This American victory actually came after the United States and the United Kingdom signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, but the Battle of New Orleans proved to be a psychological victory that boosted American morale and affected how the war has been remembered.


But not all Americans supported the war. In 1814, New England Federalists met in Hartford, Connecticut, to try to end the war and curb the power of the Republican Party. They produced a document that proposed abolishing the three-fifths rule that afforded Southern slaveholders disproportionate representation in Congress, limiting the president to a single term in office, and most importantly, demanding a two-thirds congressional majority, rather than a simple majority, for legislation that declared war, admitted new states into the Union, or regulated commerce. With the two-thirds majority, New England’s Federalist politicians believed they could limit the power of their political foes.

These proposals were sent to Washington, but unfortunately for the Federalists, the victory at New Orleans buoyed popular support for the Madison administration. With little evidence, newspapers accused the Hartford Convention’s delegates of plotting secession. The episode demonstrated the waning power of Federalism, and the need for the region’s politicians to shed their aristocratic and Anglophile image. The next New England politician to assume the presidency, John Quincy Adams in 1824, would emerge not from within the Federalist fold, but after serving as Secretary of State under President James Monroe, the last leader of the Virginia Republicans.


The Treaty of Ghent essentially returned relations between the U.S. and Britain to their pre-war status. The war, however, mattered politically and strengthened American nationalism. During the war, Americans read patriotic newspaper stories, sang patriotic songs, and bought consumer goods decorated with national emblems. They also heard stories about how the British and their Native allies threatened to bring violence into American homes. For examples, rumors spread that British officers promised rewards of “beauty and booty” for their soldiers when they attacked New Orleans. In the Great Lakes borderlands, wartime propaganda fueled Americans fear of Britain’s Native American allies, who they believed would slaughter men, women, and children indiscriminately. Terror and love worked together to make American citizens feel a stronger bond with their country. Because the war mostly cut off America’s trade with Europe, it also encouraged Americans to see themselves as different and separate; it fostered a sense that the country had been reborn.


Former treasury secretary Albert Gallatin claimed that the War of 1812 revived “national feelings” that had dwindled after the Revolution. “The people,” he wrote, were now “more American; they feel and act more like a nation.” Politicians proposed measures to reinforce the fragile Union through capitalism and built on these sentiments of nationalism. The United States continued to expand into Indian territories with westward settlement in far-flung new states like Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Illinois. Between 1810 and 1830, the country added more than 6,000 new post offices.


In 1817, South Carolina congressman John C. Calhoun called for building projects to “bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals.” He joined with other politicians, such as Kentucky’s powerful Henry Clay, to promote what came to be called an “American System.” They aimed to make America economically independent and encouraged commerce between the states over trade with Europe and the West Indies. The American System would include a new Bank of the United States to provide capital; a high protective tariff, which would raise the prices of imported goods and help American-made products compete; and a network of “internal improvements,” roads and canals to let people take American goods to market.


These projects were controversial. Many people believed they were unconstitutional or that they would increase the federal government’s power at the expense of the states. Even Calhoun later changed his mind and joined the opposition. The War of 1812, however, had reinforced Americans’ sense of the nation’s importance in their political and economic life. Even when the federal government did not act, states created banks, roads, and canals of their own.


What may have been the boldest declaration of America’s postwar pride came in 1823. President James Monroe issued an ultimatum to the empires of Europe in order to support several wars of independence in Latin America. The “Monroe Doctrine” declared that the United States considered its entire hemisphere, both North and South America, off-limits to new European colonization. Although Monroe was a Jeffersonian, some of his principles echoed Federalist policies. Whereas Jefferson cut the size of the military and ended all internal taxes in his first term, Monroe advocated the need for a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy. Since Americans were spreading out over the continent, Monroe authorized the federal government to invest in canals and roads, which he said would “shorten distances and, by making each part more accessible to and dependent on the other…shall bind the Union more closely together.” As Federalists had attempted two decades earlier, Republican leaders after the War of 1812 advocated strengthening the state in order to strengthen the nation.


Monroe’s election after the conclusion of the War of 1812 signaled the death knell of the Federalists. Some predicted an “era of good feelings” and an end to party divisions. The War had cultivated a profound sense of union among a diverse and divided people. Yet that “era of good feelings” would never really come. Political division continued. Though the dying Federalists would fade from political relevance, a schism within the Republican Party would give rise to a new brand of Jacksonian Democrats. Meanwhile, despite the virtually total elimination of property requirements for voting, political limits continued along class, gender, and racial and ethnic lines. At the same time, industrialization and the development of American capitalism required new justifications of inequality as compatible with a democratic nation and nativitist reactions to changing demographics would parcel “true” Americans from dangerous or undeserving “others.” Still, a cacophony of voices clamored to be heard and struggled to realize a social order compatible with the ideals of equality and individual liberty. As always, the meaning of democracy was in flux.