On our third president’s gravestone, Thomas Jefferson is proclaimed as both an author of the Declaration of Independence and the father of the University of Virginia, yet there is nothing mentioned about his time as the highest political rank in American history. This is primarily due to the fact that Jefferson’s presidential run was extremely underwhelming. Jefferson, known as one of the most profound figures in American history, was marked with one of the worst eras in American history during his presidency.
By the end of his second term, Jefferson was criticized heavily about how he lead the country and the future turmoil that was caused due to his actions as president. Jefferson had various issues during his time as president, but nearly all of them can be linked to three distinct problems present throughout his time as president. Although he faced many problems during his eight years as president, Thomas Jefferson’s presidency ultimately failed because of his struggle to keep peace with foreign countries, his hindrance in the progression of the American economy, and his overly-high development of liberalism.
One of Thomas Jefferson’s most significant issues during his presidency were his issues with foreign relations. Modeling after George Washington during his farewell address, Jefferson believed in staying as neutral as possible in foreign affairs. However, this came to be more difficult than initially expected, as Britain continuously sought to impress American ships and sailors. In taking action, Jefferson believed in the Monroe-Pinkney treaty,1 in which he sent James Monroe and William Pinkney in order to resolve this issue. No treaty was signed, and the British impressment of American ships remained a prominent problem. In this matter, Jefferson’s view on foreign relations proved to be unsuccessful as the British found no need to stop impressment as there was no opposing American threat present. Thomas Jefferson was in refusal to propose any significant threat to an opposing country. As seen in the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty, this caused us to become continuously disrespected by countries- England and France especially- and no legitimate response from our government. As stated by Dumas Malone in his book Jefferson The President: Second Term, Jefferson was far too optimistic when looking for resolution with France and England and thus was unsuccessful in the majority of his attempts to maintain the peace.2 In stating this, Malone implies that Jefferson was too absorbed in the ideology that restraining from foreign affairs was ideal, and thus caused more issues than before due to the belligerence of both Britain and France. Although he tried to adapt to these issues during his presidency, Jefferson’s adaptation was poor at best.
In 1807, Jefferson passed the Embargo Act,3 which prohibited American ships from trading in all ports. This proved to be Jefferson’s biggest embarrassment and was disastrous, as it put the American colonies in a deep economic depression. Jefferson’s belief was that in cutting off trading with British and French ports, their reliance on America would be emphasized and they would resolve their issues in order to maintain the flow of traded goods. However, this plan backfired, and evidently led to Britain and France finding other trade markets and causing Americans to take the toll for the act. Jefferson’s outlook to avoid foreign affairs as much as possible eventually diminished the country and thus caused his presidency to be a significant disappointment. As mentioned by Malone, Jefferson had conducted his government from the beginning on the theory of peaceable coercion.4In saying this, Malone implies that Jefferson always had the vision of avoiding war, and thus would primarily tolerate the pesterance of foreign countries through subtle threats that would maintain a form of peace. This was Jefferson’s most ineffective approach to a problem, and caused severe damage to the progression of the country.
Malone says that During Jefferson’s presidency his attitude toward Great Britain and France varied directly with his hopes and fears, especially his fears, for the security and well-being of his own country.5Jefferson was confined to what the satisfaction of foreign countries in order to stay neutral in foreign relations and maintain the protection of his country, and therefore Although he attempted to reduce problems in foreign affairs through remaining neutral in all issues and avoiding war with foreign relations, Jefferson’s way of handling those foreign issues was evidently extremely ineffective and increased the issues with foreign countries rather than finding any type of resolution. In Jefferson’s struggle to facilitate peace with outside nations, America took a brutal toll and rather than feeling the safety which Jefferson sought, they ended up feeling both vulnerable and dependent on other nations.
Although Jefferson’s Embargo Act lead to be a profound economic problem for the country, it was his agrarian outlook on the country which caused the most significant economic problem. As stated in Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty, Jefferson believed that the plow was the most useful of the instruments known to man.6 In saying this, Jefferson stressed his sole belief that the agrarian society needed to be the principle basis of the economy. He believed in the fundamental rights of every man, and this was most widely expressed through his outlook on internal taxes. Jefferson believed in the elimination of internal taxes. However, this would just accumulate the problems prevalent in the country. As described by Joseph J Ellis in the American Sphinx, the elimination of internal taxes further reduced the public visibility of the federal government in the most sensitive area of public opinion, tax collection.10In saying this, Ellis depicts that in Jefferson’s attempt to eliminate these taxes for the common people, he was causing a distortion for the people and deliberately masked the public’s issue with the collection of taxes. Though his actions expressed support within the nation and were widely agreed upon as being beneficial to the country at the time, Jefferson’s outlook for the country’s agrarian culture would be contemporary and would limit the country’s ability to thrive.
Jefferson’s outlook on the functionality of the country’s economy was extremely over optimistic and he became ignorant over the reality of America’s progression. As it was mentioned by Richard K. Matthews in The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson, he says, Jefferson perceives direct relationships between individual freedom, economic autonomy, and democratic community.7In stating this, Matthews implies how Jefferson implemented his beliefs of equality for the common man into his belief in the American economic system. Jefferson constantly subsidized the liberties of all men, yet was too reliant on his beliefs and consequently damaged the economy of the nation. In revolving his ideology of a successful economy around the belief in valuing the rights of all men, he shortchanged the progression in industrialist societies like the North. Though both important factors to represent as the president, there is little to no correlation between liberty and economy. Although it is essential to represent both as president, Jefferson did it in an ineffective manner and hurt the economic balance within the system of the nation.
Additionally, one of Jefferson’s greatest achievement during his presidency came in 1803, when he bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon for $15 million, which is considered one of the greatest bargains in history. However, Ellis of the American Sphinx expresses that this was one of the most consequential actions in all of American history.7Although Jefferson’s purchase of the mass of land was extremely exciting for the country and its future, it couldn’t have come at a worst time. The country was already in a significant amount of debt, and Jefferson’s Embargo Act would put them in one of their greatest economic depressions. Additionally, Napoleon had no motivation to settle his empire in the New World. Therefore it was a means of desperation on Napoleon’s part to use the money paid by America to supply more troops. After buying the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson did nothing to enforce a push for westward expansion. To seize an empire, Ellis expressed, required an imperial president.8What he means by this is that with the expansion of the Louisiana Territory, it was necessary to have a president who would utilize that expansion to fulfill the economic needs of the country. However, Jefferson did a minimal amount of execution and hurt the economy through his lack of action. Jefferson had the right ideologies in his actions during his presidency, but failed to execute his actions in a profound way that Although the Louisiana Purchase seemed like a good investment, Jefferson’s utilization of the land made it a waste of money in a time where money was scarce.
The third and final issue with the Jeffersonian belief in the future of the country was the overvalued ordeal of liberty. Richard K Matthews states that his unwavering faith in democracy and the ability of humanity to govern itself places him in the radical progressive tradition.9In saying this, Matthews implies that Jefferson takes the fundamental values of the liberties of the common man and applies that to his means of governing. However, he is inefficient in doing so and becomes too reliant on the people rather than a structured system of government. This can be expressed during his Inaugural Address, in which he said the infamous saying, We are all democrats. We are all Federalists.10Jefferson optimizes his belief in that the people can be self-governed, yet it came back to haunt him. He continuously failed in multiple attempts to express democracy for all and implement a self-governed nation into what it was during that era. Though his optimism in the country’s people and their ability to govern themselves gave a greater outlook on the country and its future, it ultimately had a negative effect on the country and was proven to be ineffective in the course of his presidency.Malone expresses in Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty that Jefferson held too high a belief in liberalism which evidently caused problems, one of the primary problem being the lack of security on the western border.11There were continuous complaints about Indian attacks and the lack of security for the people, but due to Jefferson’s belief in a weak federal system, there was no availability to protect these people being attacked.12Although Jefferson was portrayed as representing the common man, his belief in distribution throughout the states proved to contradict himself as he was not able to provide basic needs through limited federal power. Additionally, his liberalist views are most significantly expressed through Jefferson’s most famous document, the Declaration of Independence.
Though not during his presidency, the Declaration of Independence modeled the same views and ideas expressed throughout Thomas Jefferson’s presidency in order to sustain representation for all during his presidency. Though they are the founding documents of the country and were essential to the growth of the country, the potential of something occurring from the time the document was signed to the time of Jefferson’s presidency could change significantly, and it is up to Thomas Jefferson and all other high officials to represent the law relative to the present time. However, Jefferson’s modeling of liberty through the Declaration of Independence was an antecedent towards the development of the country.
Lastly, Matthews says that Jefferson rejects the design of allowing a social structure and limiting human nature to provide stability .13In saying this, Matthews expresses how Jefferson constrained the rights of men in order to stabilize the country as a whole. This is another faulty belief of Jefferson as it expresses how his values of equity to all men are both hypocritical and unjust. Jefferson rejects the ideology of stabilization as he believes there is too much loss in that form of governing. However, people will not be able to exercise their rights and privileges without the stability and development of the nation as a whole. Therefore it is a negligent outlook to believe in something greater than the stability of the country. Jefferson’s outlook and reliance on the belief of liberty proves to be problematic and overly weighted on the ideology of the rights for others.
In summary, Jefferson’s failure during his presidency election was primarily dependent on these three virtues. In no means are Jefferson’s political viewpoints wrong, as both the Federalists and Democrats had an argumentative platform which many thought were accurate. However, the means in which Jefferson handled his presidency was the primary cause of issues during his eight years.