Jefferson Democracy

Jeffersonian democracy, named after its advocate Thomas Jefferson, was one of two dominant political outlooks and movements in the United States from the 1790s to the 1820s. The term was commonly used to refer to the Democratic-Republican Party which Jefferson founded in opposition to the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. The Jeffersonians believed in a republic, as form of government, and equality of political opportunity, with a priority for the "yeoman farmer", "planters" and the "plain folk". They were antagonistic to the aristocratic elitism of merchants and manufacturers, distrusted factory workers, and were on the watch for supporters of the dreaded British system of government. Above all, the Jeffersonians were devoted to the principles of Republicanism, especially civic duty and opposition to privilege, aristocracy and corruption.


Jefferson has been called "the most democratic of the [Founding] fathers."[1] The Jeffersonians advocated a narrow interpretation of the Constitution's Article I provisions granting powers to the federal government. They strenuously opposed the Federalist Party, led by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. President George Washington generally supported Hamilton's program for a financially strong national government. The election of Jefferson in 1800, named by him as 'The revolution of 1800,' brought in the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson and the permanent eclipse of the Federalists, apart from the Supreme Court.[2]


The spirit of Jeffersonian democracy dominated American politics from 1800 to 1824, the First Party System, under Jefferson and succeeding presidents James Madison and James Monroe. Prominent spokesmen for Jeffersonian principles included Madison, Albert Gallatin, John Randolph of Roanoke,[3] Nathaniel Macon, John Taylor of Caroline,[4] James Monroe, John C. Calhoun,[5] John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay (with the last three taking new paths after 1828). After 1830 the principles were still talked about but did not form the basis of a political party. Thus editor Horace Greeley in 1838 started a magazine, The Jeffersonian, that he said "would exhibit a practical regard for that cardinal principle of Jeffersonian Democracy, and the People are the sole and safe depository of all power, principles and opinions which are to direct the Government."[6]

Core ideals

Jeffersonian democracy is characterized by the following core ideals, which Jefferson and his followers expressed in their writings, speeches and legislation. "Jeffersonian democracy" is an umbrella term, and some factions favored some positions more than others. In terms of actual policy-making, sometimes different principles conflicted. Furthermore the Jeffersonians changed over time as new issues emerged, such as how to fight a major War of 1812 with a weak central government and militia that refused to leave their state:

  • The core political value of America is republicanism; citizens have a civic duty to aid the state and resist corruption, especially monarchism and aristocracy.[7]
  • Jeffersonian values are best expressed through an organized political party. The Jeffersonian party was officially the "Republican Party" (although historians later called it the Democratic-Republican Party.[8]
  • It was the duty of citizens to vote, and the Jeffersonians invented many modern campaign techniques designed to get out the vote. Turnout indeed soared across the country.[9] The work of John J. Beckley, Jefferson's agent in Pennsylvania, set new standards in the 1790s. In the 1796 presidential election he blanketed the state with agents who passed out 30,000 hand-written tickets, naming all 15 electors (printed tickets were not allowed). Historians consider Beckley to be one of the first American professional campaign managers, and his techniques were quickly adopted in other states.[10]
  • The Federalist Party, especially its leader Alexander Hamilton, was the arch-foe, because of its acceptance of aristocracy and British methods
  • The yeoman farmer best exemplifies civic virtue and independence from corrupting city influences; government policy should be for his benefit. Financiers, bankers and industrialists make cities the 'cesspools of corruption', and should be avoided.[11]
  • The national government is a dangerous necessity to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; it should be watched closely and circumscribed in its powers. Most Anti-Federalists from 1787–88 joined the Jeffersonians.[12]
  • Separation of church and state is the best method to keep government free of religious disputes, and religion free from corruption by government.[13]
  • The federal government must not violate the rights of individuals. The Bill of Rights is a central theme.[14]
  • The federal government must not violate the rights of the states. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 (written secretly by Jefferson and James Madison) proclaim these principles.[15]
  • Freedom of speech and the press are the best methods to prevent tyranny over the people by their own government. The Federalists' violation of this freedom through the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 became a major issue.[16]
  • The United States Constitution was written in order to ensure the freedom of the people. However, "no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation."[17]
  • All men had the right to be informed, and thus, to have a say in the government. The protection and expansion of human liberty was one of the chief goals of the Jeffersonians. They also reformed their respective state systems of education. They believed that their citizens had a right to an education no matter their circumstance or status in life.[18]
  • The judiciary should be subservient to the elected branches and the Supreme Court should not have the power to strike down laws passed by Congress. The Jeffersonians lost this battle to Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist, who dominated the Court from 1801 to his death in 1835.[19]
  • The Jeffersonians also had a distinct foreign policy:[20]
    • Americans had a duty to spread what Jefferson called the "Empire of Liberty" to the world, but should avoid "entangling alliances."[21]
    • Britain was the greatest threat, especially its monarchy, aristocracy, corruption, and business methods; the Jay Treaty of 1794 was much too favorable to Britain and thus threatened American values.[22]
    • France, at least in the early stages of the French Revolution, was the ideal European nation. According to Michael Hardt, ""Jefferson's support of the French Revolution often serves in his mind as a defense of republicanism against the monarchism of the Anglophiles."[23] Napoleon, on the other hand, was the antithesis of republicanism and could not be supported.[24]
    • Louisiana and the Mississippi River were critical to American national interests. Control by Spain was tolerable; control by France was unacceptable. See Louisiana Purchase
    • A standing army and navy are dangerous to liberty and should be avoided; much better was to use economic coercion such as the embargo.[25] See Embargo Act of 1807
    • The militia was adequate to defend the nation. But it proved inadequate in a major War of 1812 when militia units refused to leave their state to attack the British.


The Jeffersonians occasionally split into factions. John Randolph, after leading the party in Congress, formed the "Old Republicans" or Tertium Quids or "Quid" faction, saying Jefferson had strayed too far from the core values of republicanism.[26] Jefferson never trusted Aaron Burr, who became his vice president. They split and Jefferson put Burr on trial for treason (he was acquitted and left the country). After the Madison administration experienced serious trouble financing the War of 1812, and discovered the Army and militia were unable to make war effectively, a new generation of Republican nationalists emerged. They were supported by President James Monroe, an original Jeffersonian, and included John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Adams defeated Andrew Jackson, who had support from the Quids, in 1824 and in a few years two successor parties had emerged, the Democratic Party, which formulated Jacksonian democracy and which still exists; and Henry Clay's Whig Party. Their competition marked the Second Party System.[27]

Westward expansion

Territorial expansion of the United States was a major goal of the Jeffersonians because it would produce new farm lands for yeomen farmers. The Jeffersonians wanted to integrate the Indians into American society, or remove further west those tribes that refused to integrate. However Sheehan (1974) argues that the Jeffersonians, with the best of goodwill toward the Indians, destroyed their distinctive cultures with its misguided benevolence.[28]

The Jeffersonians took enormous pride in the bargain they reached with France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.[29] It opened up vast new fertile farmlands from Louisiana to Montana. Jefferson saw the west as an economic safety valve which would (at least in the forseeable future) allow those on the Atlantic coastal states living in poverty to move to what seemed like infinite available land place where they could subsist.[30] However, established New England political interests and many in the Federalist Party opposed the purchase. Jeffersonians, however, thought the new territory would help maintain their vision of the ideal republican society, based on agricultural commerce, governed lightly and promoting self-reliance and virtue. [31]

Jefferson was forced to go against his strict construction ideals in order to make the Louisiana Purchase, because nowhere in the Constitution does it state that you are able to obtain land by purchasing it from another country.


Jeffersonian agrarians held that the economy of the United States should rely more on agriculture for strategic commodities than on industry. Jefferson specifically believed, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breast He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."[32] However, Jeffersonian ideals are not opposed to all manufacturing; rather, he believed that all people have the right to work to provide for their own subsistence and that an economic system which undermines that right is unacceptable.[33]

Jefferson's belief was that unlimited expansion of commerce and industry would lead to the growth of a class of wage laborers who relied on others for income and sustenance. The workers would no longer be independent voters. Such a situation, Jefferson feared, would leave the American people vulnerable to political subjugation and economic manipulation. The solution Jefferson came up with was, as scholar Clay Jenkinson noted, "a graduated income tax that would serve as a disincentive to vast accumulations of wealth and would make funds available for some sort of benign redistribution downward."[34][35]

Limited government

While the Federalists advocated for a strong central government, Jeffersonians argued for strong state and local governments and a weak federal government.[36] Self-sufficiency, self-government, and individual responsibility, were, in the Jeffersonian worldview, among the most important ideals that formed the basis of the American Revolution. In Jefferson's opinion, nothing that could feasibly be accomplished by individuals at the local level ought to be accomplished by the federal government. The federal government would concentrate its efforts solely on national and international projects.[37] Jefferson's advocacy of limited government led to sharp disagreements with Federalist figures such as Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson felt that Hamilton favored plutocracy and the creation of a powerful aristocracy in the United States which would accumulate increasingly greater power until the political and social order of the United States became indistinguishable from those of the Old World.[36]

After initial skepticism, Jefferson supported the ratification of the United States Constitution and especially supported its stress on checks and balances. The ratification of the United States Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, gave Jefferson even greater confidence in the document.[36] Jeffersonians favored a strict construction interpretation of federal government powers described in Article I of the Constitution. For example, Jefferson once wrote a letter to Charles Willson Peale explaining that, although a Smithsonian-style national museum would be a wonderful resource, he could not support the use of federal funds to construct and maintain such a project.[37] The 'strict constructionism' of today is a remote descendant of Jefferson's views.

Jefferson and Jeffersonian principles

Jeffersonian democracy was not a one-man operation. It was a large political party with many local and state leaders, and various factions, and they did not always agree with Jefferson or with each other.[38]

Jefferson was accused of inconsistencies by his opponents.[39] The "Old Republicans" said that he abandoned the Principles of 1798. He believed the national security concerns were so urgent that it was necessary to purchase Louisiana without waiting for a Constitutional amendment. He enlarged federal power through the intrusively-enforced Embargo Act of 1807. He idealized the "yeoman farmer" despite being himself a gentleman plantation owner. The disparities between Jefferson's philosophy and practice have been noted by numerous historians: Staaloff proposed that it was due to his being a proto-Romantic;[40] John Quincy Adams claimed that it was a manifestation of pure hypocrisy, or 'pliability of principle;'[41] and Bailyn asserts it simply represented a contradiction with Jefferson, that he was “simultaneously a radical utopian idealist and a hardheaded, adroit, at times cunning politician.”[42] However, Jenkinson argued that Jefferson's personal failings ought not to influence present day thinkers to disregard Jeffersonian ideals.[43]

Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a European nobleman who opposed democracy, argues that "Jeffersonian democracy" is a misnomer, because Jefferson was not a democrat but in fact believed in rule by an elite: "Jefferson actually was an Agrarian Romantic who dreamt of a republic governed by an elite of character and intellect."[44]

Historian Sean Wilentz (2006) argues that as a practical politician elected to serve the people Jefferson had to negotiate solutions, not insist on his own version of abstract positions. The result, Wilentz argues, was "flexible responses to unforeseen pursuit of ideals ranging from the enlargement of opportunities for the mass of ordinary, industrious Americans to the principled avoidance of war."[45]

Historians have long portrayed the contest between Jefferson and Hamilton as iconic for the politics, political philosophy, economic policies and future direction of the United States. Wilentz in 2010 identified a scholarly trend in Hamilton's favor:

"In recent years, Hamilton and his reputation have decidedly gained the initiative among scholars who portray him as the visionary architect of the modern liberal capitalist economy and of a dynamic federal government headed by an energetic executive. Jefferson and his allies, by contrast, have come across as naïve, dreamy idealists. At best according to many historians, the Jeffersonians were reactionary utopians who resisted the onrush of capitalist modernity in hopes of turning America into a yeoman farmers' arcadia. At worst, they were proslavery racists who wish to rid the West of Indians, expand the empire of slavery, and keep political power in local hands -- all the better to expand the institution of slavery and protect slaveholders' rights to own human property."[46]

See also



  • Banning, Lance. The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology(1978)
  • Brown; Stuart Gerry. The First Republicans: Political Philosophy and Public Policy in the Party of Jefferson and Madison (1954) online
  • Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric L. McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (1995), the standard political history of the 1790s
  • Hendrickson, David C. and Robert W. Tucker. Empire of Liberty: the statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (1990)
  • "The Jeffersonian cyclopedia: a ...". topical compendium of Jefferson's statements and quotes
  • Ketcham, Ralph. "Jefferson, Thomas." The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1967.
  • Onuf, Peter S., ed. Jeffersonian Legacies. (1993).
  • (1927) v 2 online
  • Peterson, Merrill D. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960)
  • Robinson, William A. Jeffersonian democracy in New England (Yale U.P. 1916) online
  • Taylor, Jeff. Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy (2006)
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005)
  • Wiltse, Charles Maurice. The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy (1935)
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