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Jefferson’s Dynasty of Principle
The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe
By Kevin R. C. Gutzman
(St. Martin’s Press, 2022)
The Louisiana Purchase. The War of 1812. Marbury v. Madison. Something about good feelings. The existence of these things may be about the extent of the average American’s—even an educated American’s—knowledge of the Jeffersonian era. Narratives of the American Founding may occasionally extend into the party conflicts of the 1790s, where the pressing unanswered questions of the Constitution were vigorously debated. But 1800 is often the end of the story.
Almost twenty years later, however, Jefferson would look back at the election of 1800 as a turning point in America. It was, he wrote to Spencer Roane, “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 76. was in it’s [sic] form; not effected indeed by the sword, as that, but by the rational and peaceable instrument of reform, the suffrage of the people.”
In The Jeffersonians, Kevin R. C. Gutzman offers a sweeping view of the aftermath of that “revolution,” when Democratic-Republicans dominated politics for twenty-four years. Gutzman’s history is an emphatically political history. It is not about daily life or underrepresented classes; it is about the men who made the most important decisions of the age, and about the principles and necessities that informed their choices. Gutzman seeks to present those decisions and principles as they were understood by the men themselves: much of the narrative is structured around inaugural addresses, annual addresses to Congress, presidential correspondence, and newspaper coverage of notable presidential tours.
The account opens with Jefferson’s masterly first inaugural, a speech that expressed the hopes many held for a new era of republican government. The speech is perhaps most famous for its appeal to calm the partisanship that had defined the 1790s. But this was not simply a matter of calling a truce. Jefferson believed that elite partisanship and persecution—the concentration of power in the hands of a few, and the use of government power to target political opposition—had been an integral part of the Federalist Party’s governing approach. His appeal to nonpartisanship, then, was an appeal to “a state in which Jefferson’s principles were recognized as Americans’ principles.”
Those principles included frugality in public finance; equal justice for all regardless of religious or partisan attachment; “peace, commerce, and friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”; a strict adherence to the constitutional limits of the federal government; openness in political dealings; respect for the freedom of the press; and the impartial rule of law. “These would be the principles not only of Jefferson’s administration,” Gutzman observes, “but of James Madison’s and James Monroe’s administrations as well.”
How well did they live up to these principles? Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party had its origin in opposition and drew much of its ideological inspiration from English and American opposition thought. A common belief today is that the party failed to live up to idealistic aspirations for limited government and strict adherence to the Constitution once it came into power and faced the realities of governance. And there was a not insignificant group of “Old Republican” purists who agreed at the time. Set off by the corruption of the Yazoo land scandal, and suspicious that some party leaders (especially James Madison) were insufficiently committed to the cause, notables including John Randolph of Roanoke, Littleton Tazewell, and John Taylor of Caroline believed that the Republicans (as they were then called) were gradually giving themselves over to the centralization, corruption, and loose constitutionalism that had marked the Federalists.
By Gutzman’s account, however, the Jeffersonians did a good job, on the whole, of sticking to their principles. There were difficult constitutional questions, such as the Louisiana Purchase (difficult, at least, for Jefferson); some constitutional concessions, including the rechartering of the national bank under Madison; and significant energy expended on making peace with former Federalists. But by the end of the Jeffersonian generation, one still finds fiscal responsibility, genuine concern for constitutional limits even on questions as benign as internal improvements, and remarkable concord given the potentially destructive sectional conflicts that had begun to crop up as a result of war, tax policy, and westward expansion.
Indeed, the most spectacular failure of the dynasty—the War of 1812—can be linked directly to a dogged insistence on standing by republican ideology. The Jeffersonians knew well that war eroded the institutions and virtues of yeoman republican government. Accordingly, they were skeptical even of defensive militarism, rejecting Washington’s dictum that “to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
Instead, Jefferson and Madison conducted an “experiment in foreign relations based not on nations’ military capacity, but on liberal economics.” Avoiding alliances, standing armies, and even a meager blue-water navy, they believed America’s geographic position and trade leverage could keep it safe from European powers.
They stuck by this approach even as British depredations against American sailors made conflict seem more and more likely. Jefferson resorted to the disastrous Embargo Act of 1807, which failed in its objectives, tanked the American economy, and left the country without European clout. President Madison also exhibited remarkable credulity in his diplomatic negotiations, taking every possible breakthrough as a reason to ramp down what few military preparations had been made.
All this meant that America was woefully unprepared for war when it came in 1812. The lack of any military establishment made competent military leadership hard to find. The result was disaster and embarrassment, with America managing to come out even at the end only because of events in Europe entirely out of its control.
The Jeffersonians were faithful to their ideals, even when those ideals failed. Gutzman’s story ends with Jefferson’s fiery reaction to reading John Quincy Adams’s inaugural address, with its soaring national aspirations and loose constitutional construction. If Jefferson’s party had not given up its principles, neither had it succeeded in entrenching them as the American doctrine.
While the Jeffersonians dominated those areas of government answerable to the people, a very different set of men controlled that “least dangerous branch,” which had neither force nor will but merely the ability to define the entire constitutional structure—at least according to Chief Justice John Marshall, that is. Americans may have repudiated Federalism in 1800, but Marshall, Joseph Story, and a set of rather pliant associate justices on the Supreme Court steadily advanced the Federalist understanding of the Constitution from the bench. This entailed matters of congressional authority (Gibbons v. Ogden and McCulloch v. Maryland) and federal judicial power to overrule state courts (Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee and Cohens v. Virginia).
The latter cases are perhaps less well understood by the average reader, and they are today less controversial since our legal system has so wholly accepted their logic. But they cut to the core of the Jeffersonian constitutional vision perhaps even more than McCulloch and Gibbons. The Jeffersonian “compact” theory of the Constitution held that the state governments and the federal government were of equal status, both having powers delegated to them by the people of the states for distinct purposes. But in each of these decisions, the Marshall Court (Story writing the opinion in Martin and Marshall in Cohens) elevated the federal judiciary to the status of final appellate court for any matter touching on federal law, even in cases arising in state courts and concerning the enforcement of state criminal laws.
That view of federal judicial power is second nature today, but it was hardly assumed at the time. Indeed, in Cohens, the counsel for Virginia was even instructed to argue only the matter of jurisdiction, and not to argue the merits of the case, so sure was the state that the federal courts had no business hearing them. Marshall and Story framed their arguments around an assumption of “uniformity”: surely the Constitution would never set up a system that did not place final, unanswerable power to interpret law somewhere: that could lead to inconstancy and inefficiency.
The Jeffersonian view, articulated most methodically by Virginia Judge Spencer Roane, looked instead to the authority behind the Constitution: “To Roane, as to Jeffersonians generally, the meaning of the Constitution depended on the explanation Federalists had provided to the ratification conventions—that is, on the Ratifiers’ understanding of the document when they ratified it,” Gutzman writes. Whatever one believed about the need for “uniformity,” no ratifier believed he was putting his own state’s judicial affairs in the hands of the federal government where matters internal to the state were concerned.
Similarly, when it comes to the constitutional powers of Congress, Marshall repudiated one of the most common reassurances offered by Federalists to those reluctant to ratify the Constitution—that those powers not granted by the Constitution were retained by the states. In Gibbons and McCulloch, the court again stressed that the need for uniform law, and the “nature” (today, we might say “spirit”) of the Constitution pointed in the direction of legal hierarchy, whatever claims to sovereignty states may make.
Importantly, Gutzman points out, most of the resisters to the McCulloch decision were opposed not to its outcome but to the reasoning behind it. Many had made their peace with the national bank, following Madison’s lead, by seeing the issue as having been resolved by practice. What was shocking about McCulloch was its sweeping argument that went far beyond the legal question at hand to offer an interpretation of the Constitution as the creation of “the American people” as a consolidated whole, rather than as a product of the states acting in their “corporate” capacity according to Article VII.
While Marshall’s empowerment of the federal government did not then find its complete fulfillment, the conceptual seed had been planted for a leviathan state to bloom in its time.
Learned refutations of Marshall’s vision proliferated from the pens of Roane, John Taylor, and Jefferson himself, but concerted political pushback against the courts was snuffed out before the most controversial decisions were ever handed down. Early in Jefferson’s presidency, there were high hopes that the judiciary would be transformed like the other branches using the only tool the Constitution offers—impeachment for “bad behavior.” In Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, Republicans found plenty of bad behavior. In several cases related to the highly politicized enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Chase had delivered “splenetically partisan” instructions to grand juries, had used greatly questionable legal reasoning to exclude witnesses, and in at least one case seems to have stacked a jury with Federalists. Gutzman argues forthrightly that Chase “deserved to be removed from office.”
But that was not to be. Impeached by the House on March 12, 1804, Chase was acquitted by the Senate thanks in part to mismanagement by trial manager John Randolph (who was a “superb orator and a formidable party chieftain, but . . . was no attorney”). Following Henry Adams, Gutzman calls the Chase impeachment “the high-water mark of the Jefferson presidency.” The attempt to storm the last bastion of Federalism came up short and would not be attempted again, ever. One can only speculate about the impact a successful impeachment may have had on the future of the court. Gutzman observes that many Federalists had presented impeachment as the intended remedy for judicial misconduct: “The Chase acquittal forever wrote that option out of American politics.”
In addition to the presidencies profiled, Gutzman’s account prominently features a number of secondary, often underappreciated figures. One of these is Jefferson’s indispensable Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, whose early involvement with what would become the Whiskey Rebellion had made him a longtime target of Federalist ire, despite his insistence on peace and order. “The one Republican who could match Alexander Hamilton’s financial acumen,” Gallatin was the man who made Jeffersonian fiscal policy possible. There is also Randolph, the irascible ideologue, House leader, and senator who never let partisan loyalties intrude on principle. And John Quincy Adams, whose Republican bona fides were suspect, but whose impressive capabilities made him stand out in a sea of mostly mediocre cabinet officers.
The Jeffersonians is rich in enlightening detail. Gutzman recounts how the three presidents (and their wives) sent subtle and not-so-subtle signals by their dress, the way they hosted White House dinners, their manner of communication with congressional allies, and the national tours they undertook. At his inauguration, Jefferson announced the shift to a new Republican era as much by his eschewal of military pomp as by his rhetoric. Dolley Madison’s conspicuous placement of servants at state dinners reflected an ease with slavery that had not been shared by the Madisons’ predecessor. The “Era of Good Feelings” was first heralded by the dinner invitations and symbolic reception of Monroe in the former Federalist stronghold of New England.
Other details can be humorous. Gutzman recalls one witness to the reading of Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons, which determined that “interstate commerce” was not merely commercial exchange but all manner of “intercourse.” The man remarked: “I shall soon expect to learn that our fornication laws are unconstitutional.” He would have had to wait about 150 years for that joke to start to become reality.
From such details to the grand scope of history, Gutzman’s narrative serves as an engaging account of the Jeffersonians in their own time and on their own terms, and it offers a picture of the American political system that many Founders, revolutionaries, and constitutional ratifiers had been aiming for.
John G. Grove is managing editor of Law & Liberty and is the author of John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism.
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