Thomas Jefferson's View on Post-Jefferson America

By Sujay Kulshrestha
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/2 |

Fifty years after their daring signing of the Declaration of Independence, absolving political ties with England, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, revolutionaries, presidents, and intellectuals, lay on their respective deathbeds. Having feuded in the early 19th century, the two diplomats grew to respect and correspond with one another in the years after their respective runs in the political arena ended−the Jefferson Adams letters provided commentary on early American society through the eyes of two seasoned statesmen.

On the fiftieth anniversary of their boldest political action, July 4th 1826, both inevitably waited for what grasps all men at the end of their years. Jefferson died roughly five hours before Adams, who proclaimed, “Thomas Jefferson survives…” as he passed. What if he had survived? What if Thomas Jefferson had lived without knowledge of American society for thirty years, waking again in 1856, the thirtieth anniversary of his supposed death, to examine the fruits of his insurrection−The New Republic?

In the thirty years that passed while Jefferson lay without purpose, the United States evolved quite a bit. At Jefferson’s death, John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, held the Office of the President−in the thirty years that followed nine more men would hold the same office. These presidents shaped the country’s progress in many different ways, enacting policies that affected aspects of US society ranging from the role of the U.S. government, to expansionism, to Native American affairs, to slavery.

The thirty years following 1826 brought massive westward movement; Americans seized upon the notion of Manifest destiny and sought to realize their fate of an America that stretched from sea to sea. As part of this westward expansion, the United States went to war, to both settle boundary disputes and evict native peoples from the lands. As a result of this and other atrocities committed, the United States’ relationship with Native Americans took a negative turn, with the government forcibly relocating Native American tribes in the 19th century.

Furthermore, seven states were admitted to the union during this period: Arkansas, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and California. Each of these admissions stoked the debates on slavery in the new territories, leading to increased tensions between abolitionists and slave-owning classes. If Thomas Jefferson was able to examine the state of America in 1856, he would most likely have mixed views on the progress of American society−pleased with some aspects, frowning upon others. Jefferson’s mixed views when comparing American society as he left it in 1826 until three decades later in 1856 can best be seen by examining his potential reactions to the role of the president, Manifest Destiny, U.S.-Native American relations, and conflicts over slavery.

In the years of the Jefferson Administration, 1801-1809, the memories of tyrannical oppression were still very much alive in the minds of Jefferson as well as the American people. Only a quarter-century removed from the Declaration of Independence, the numerous cruelties exacted by King George upon the colonists remained fresh in Jefferson’s mind−as a result, he favored limited government. Jefferson believed that most of the evils in the world were the result of government and their abuses; therefore, the less centralized the government was or the more people governed themselves, the less evil would exist in society. By extension of this limited government, the executive office, the Presidency, would play a limited role in government−equal to the citizens and wielding little power.

Jefferson’s belief in instituting a limited executive position in the new American government probably best illustrates itself in the syntax he uses in the Declaration of Independence. The rough draft of the Declaration, reflecting solely Jefferson’s ideals prior to editing by the other Founding Fathers, uses the pronoun ‘he’ in reference to King George 26 times.1 The use of such syntax indicates Jefferson’s distaste for strong executives; Jefferson fingers King George as one of the sole causes of tyranny and oppression in the American colonies. His practice of the role of limited executive is apparent in the case of the Mammoth Cheese. In 1802, Jefferson refused a 1235 pound piece of cheese as a birthday gift, paying for the cheese to demonstrate his ordinary status. Not only did Jefferson insist that he, as president, was an ordinary citizen and not deserving of lavish gifts, but he also instituted the concept of an open executive branch, one that communicates with its constituents.

Examining the role of the executive in 1856, Jefferson would most likely have mixed feelings about the state of the presidency in the 1850s. Going through the history of the office, he would immediately have concerns about the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jefferson would applaud Jackson’s advocacy for the common person as it embodied Jefferson’s view of the ideal executive−one in touch with his constituents. Jackson’s use of popular opinion and his image as the man of the people during his political career give the appearance of being in touch with the citizenry. However, Jefferson would probably take issue with Jackson’s creation of the spoils system.

As Arthur Quinn states in The Rivals, Jackson’s creation of the spoils system “concentrated more power in the hands of the chief executive, himself.”2 The use of the executive office to promise future positions in exchange for political support represents a gross exploitation of the role of the president, both as the constitution sees it and as Jefferson saw it. In short, Jefferson would not be pleased with the state of the presidency as an office of power, transformed by Andrew Jackson.

While Jefferson frowned upon the consolidation of power by the executive office, he did employ his power as President to expand the country’s borders. During Jefferson’s presidency, the United States’ western border was the western edge of the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia−beyond this border was the Louisiana territory, owned by France. This French presence immediately to the West made Jefferson uneasy; however, Jefferson struggled with what he was constitutionally able to do to relieve his stress.

Motivated partially in a belief that Americans needed an adequate amount of space in order to avoid corruption and evil,3 Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory from France for 15 million dollars; in short, Jefferson believed expansion would avoid conflicts found in European cities. This purchase contradicted his morals−Jefferson considerably stepped outside what was considered to be presidential powers to make such a large purchase. In doing so, Jefferson set a glaring precedent for American territorial progress.

Jefferson would be less than pleased at the results of the expanding United States in 1856. In the thirty years that had passed since Jefferson’s death, nine states were admitted to the union, under various circumstances. The idea of Manifest Destiny, a term coined by Journalist John O’Sullivan, came to embody the American ideal of expanding from sea to sea. Jefferson would be pleased that the American people remembered his purchase as positive and used his purchase as a springboard from which to continue westward expansion. Jefferson’s approval of American society in terms of Manifest Destiny would most likely falter, however, when he examined the consequences of Manifest Destiny as well as the circumstances under which Americans expanded the U.S. Beginning with the purchase of the Louisiana territory, the southern states viewed the new territory as an area in which to expand slavery.

The expansion of slavery into the new territory created a new source of conflict for abolitionists and slave-owning classes.4 The simple admission of these states required significant concessions to the southern states and representatives, who wanted to preserve slavery in the union as best they could.5 Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, had to broker the Compromise of 1850 in order to diffuse tensions between North and South over admission of free and slave states. As such, Jefferson’s prediction that the expansion would provide enough space to avoid conflict turned out to be incorrect; he would not be pleased with the increased conflict that his own purchase created.

Although Jefferson would be displeased at the creation of conflict as a byproduct of Manifest Destiny, he might be more disappointed in the methods that the Untied States employed in order to gain territory from other lands. While Jefferson used peaceful and diplomatic tactics to gain territory from France, choosing to amicably buy the territory, subsequent U.S. tactics were not as friendly. The southern territories, from Texas west to California, were mostly obtained through war and other border disputes with Mexico. The annexation of Texas in 1845 without Mexican consent by President James K. Polk was simply the first of the diplomatic atrocities committed during this period; the Declaration of War on Mexico, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, and the forcible expulsion and resettlement of Mexican individuals all mark significant grievances committed against the Mexican people.6

Such hostile relations indubitably soured diplomatic relations with our southern neighbor. Jefferson’s appreciation for diplomacy and preference of the government solely existing to foster international relations completely contradicts the ideals that were practiced during this period, it is clear to see that he would be greatly displeased at the tactless actions of the American government in enacting Manifest Destiny.

Intertwined with Manifest Destiny was the issue of US-Native American relations. Conflict inevitably arises with the movement into new, already inhabited lands. American westward expansion was no exception. Jefferson pursued a policy of assimilation regarding the Native Americans in US lands. Paying agents and missionaries to encourage Native Americans to follow white men, Jefferson hoped to create a class of Natives who were skilled in agriculture, finance, and leadership; in effect, Jefferson sought to create an integrated class of Native American and White people. To an extent this policy seemed to be effective; in a speech from the Lewis and Clark Letters made by several Indian nations to Jefferson the Native Americans state: “...we wish to live like you & to be men like you; we hope you will protect us from the wicked…”7

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