Jeffersonian democracy

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800

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 Jeffersonians were deeply committed to American republicanism, which meant opposition to what they considered to be artificial aristocracy, opposition to corruption, and insistence on virtue, with a priority for the "yeoman farmer", "planters", and the "plain folk".[1] They were antagonistic to the aristocratic elitism of merchants, bankers, and manufacturers, distrusted factory workers, and were on the watch for supporters of the dreaded British system of government.

The term was commonly used to refer to the Democratic-Republican Party (formally named the "Republican Party"), which Jefferson founded in opposition to the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. At the beginning of the Jeffersonian era, only two states (Vermont and Kentucky) had established universal white male suffrage by abolishing property requirements. By the end of the period, more than half of the states had followed suit, including virtually all of the states in the Old Northwest. States then also moved on to allowing popular votes for presidential elections, canvassing voters in a more modern style. Jefferson's party, known today as the Democratic-Republican Party, was then in full control of the apparatus of governmentfrom the state legislature and city hall to the White House.

Jeffersonian democracy persisted as an element of the Democratic Party into the early 20th century, as exemplified by the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the three presidential candidacies of William Jennings Bryan. Its themes continue to echo in the 21st century, now also among the Libertarian and Republican parties.[2][3]


Jefferson has been called "the most democratic of the Founding fathers".[4] 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, which he called "the revolution of 1800", brought in the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson and the permanent eclipse of the Federalists, apart from the Supreme Court.[5]

"Jeffersonian democracy" is an umbrella term and some factions favored some positions more than others. While principled, with vehemently held core beliefs, the Jeffersonians had factions that disputed the true meaning of their creed. For example, during the War of 1812 it became apparent that independent state militia units were inadequate for conducting a serious war against a major country. The new Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, a Jeffersonian, proposed to build up the Army. With the support of most Republicans in Congress, he got his way.[6] However, the "Old Republican" faction, claiming to be true to the Jeffersonian Principles of '98, fought him and reduced the size of the Army after Spain sold Florida to the U.S.[7]

Historians characterize Jeffersonian democracy as including the following core ideals:

  • The core political value of America is republicanismcitizens have a civic duty to aid the state and resist corruption, especially monarchism and aristocracy.[8]
  • Jeffersonian values are best expressed through an organized political party. The Jeffersonian party was officially the "Republican Party" (political scientists later called it the Democratic-Republican Party to differentiate it from the later Republican Party of Lincoln).[9]
  • 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.[10] 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.[11]
  • The Federalist Party, especially its leader Alexander Hamilton, was the arch-foe because of its acceptance of aristocracy and British methods.
  • The national government is a dangerous necessity to be instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or communityit should be watched closely and circumscribed in its powers. Most anti-Federalists from 1787–1788 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 yeoman farmer best exemplifies civic virtue and independence from corrupting city influencesgovernment policy should be for his benefit. Financiers, bankers and industrialists make cities the "cesspools of corruption" and should be avoided.[17]
"We the People" in an original edition of the U.S. Constitution
  • The United States Constitution was written in order to ensure the freedom of the people. However, as Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789, "no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation".[18]
  • All men have 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.[19]
  • 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.[20]

Foreign policy

The Jeffersonians also had a distinct foreign policy:[21][22]

  • Americans had a duty to spread what Jefferson called the "Empire of Liberty" to the world, but should avoid "entangling alliances".[23]
  • Britain was the greatest threat, especially its monarchy, aristocracy, corruption and business methodsthe Jay Treaty of 1794 was much too favorable to Britain and thus threatened American values.[24]
  • Regarding the French Revolution, its devotion to principles of Republicanism, liberty, equality, and fraternity made France 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".[25] On the other hand, Napoleon was the antithesis of republicanism and could not be supported.[26][27]
  • Navigation rights on the Mississippi River were critical to American national interests. Control by Spain was tolerablecontrol by France was unacceptable. The Louisiana Purchase was an unexpected opportunity to guarantee those rights which the Jeffersonians immediately seized upon.
  • A standing army is dangerous to liberty and should be avoidedmuch better was to use economic coercion such as the embargo.[28] See Embargo Act of 1807.
  • Most Jeffersonians argued an expensive high seas Navy was unnecessary, since cheap locally-based gunboats, floating batteries, mobile shore batteries, and coastal fortifications could defend the ports without the temptation to engage in distant wars. Jefferson himself, however, wanted a few frigates to protect American shipping against Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean.[29][30]
  • The locally controlled non-professional militia was adequate to defend the nation from invasion. After the militia proved inadequate in the War of 1812 President Madison expanded the national Army for the duration.[31]

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.[32]

The original treaty of the Louisiana Purchase

The Jeffersonians took enormous pride in the bargain they reached with France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It opened up vast new fertile farmlands from Louisiana to Montana. Jefferson saw the West as an economic safety valve which would allow people in the crowded East to own farms.[33] However, established New England political interests feared the growth of the West and a majority in the Federalist Party opposed the purchase.[34] Jeffersonians 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.[35]

The Jeffersonians' dream did not come to pass as the Louisiana Purchase was a turning point in the history of American imperialism. The farmers with whom Jefferson identified conquered the West, often through violence against Native Americans. Jefferson himself sympathized with Native Americans, but that did not stop him from enacting policies that would continue the trend towards the dispossession of their lands.[36]


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".[37] 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.[38]

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" as well as tariffs on imported articles, which were mainly purchased by the wealthy.[39] In 1811, Jefferson wrote a friend:

These revenues will be levied entirely on the rich . ... The Rich alone use imported article, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied. The poor man ... pays not a farthing of tax to the General Government, but on his salt.[40]

Similarly, Jefferson had protectionist views on international trade. He believed that not only would economic dependence on Europe diminish the virtue of the republic, but that the United States had an abundance of natural resources that Americans should be able to cultivate and use to tend to their own needs. Furthermore, exporting goods by merchant ships created risks of capture by foreign pirates and armies, which would require an expensive navy for protection.[41] Lastly, he and other Jeffersonians believed in the power of embargoes as a means to inflict punishment on hostile foreign nations. Jefferson preferred these methods of coercion to war.[42]

Limited government

Jefferson's thoughts on limited government were influenced by the 17th century English political philosopher John Locke (pictured).

While the Federalists advocated for a strong central government, Jeffersonians argued for strong state and local governments and a weak federal government.[43] 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.[44] 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.[43]

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.[43] 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.[44] The "strict constructionism" of today is a remote descendant of Jefferson's views.