Jefferson's First Term

The inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as the nation's third president marked a turning point in American politics. For the next two dozen years, Republican leadership guided the nation through peace and war. While the Federalists faded as a political force, their ideology continued to influence the country for decades in the decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. Indeed, the judiciary finally attained coequal status as one of the branches of government after 1800.

The period of Republican ascendancy witnessed the doubling of the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the addition of eight states (1803–21). The admission of Maine and Missouri raised the expansion of slavery into a national issue and set the stage for the sectional debates that raged in the decades before the Civil War.

Jefferson's first term. Jefferson had been alarmed by the growth of the national debt under Federalist rule. Albert Gallatin, his secretary of the treasury, agreed that the debt created high taxes that creditors manipulated to their own advantage. Gallatin promised to eliminate the national debt in sixteen years by reducing both military expenditures and the size of government. The Republicans also repealed internal taxes, including the hated excise on whiskey. These policies bore fruit; early in the administration, both military and other governmental spending dropped, and debt declined modestly.

Despite his strict constructionist views, Jefferson did not dismantle important elements of the Federalist program. He saw no need, for example, to abolish the Bank of the United States; it was working well. Nor did Jefferson systematically replace Federalist officeholders with Republicans; rather, he filled vacancies with his supporters as Federalists resigned or died. A number of Federalists even served in his cabinet. In making judicial appointments, however, Jefferson took the upper hand.

Marbury v. Madison and judicial review. In an effort to maintain influence at the national level, the Federalist‐controlled Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 at the end of February, just before Jefferson took office. The legislation reduced the number of justices on the Supreme Court from six to five, and also created sixteen federal judgeships, which President Adams quickly filled with Federalists. No Republicans were on the federal bench at the time, and Jefferson would have virtually no opportunity to appoint any during his term in office. The appointing of “midnight judges” on Adams's last day in office prompted Jefferson to challenge the Judiciary Act.

Secretary of State James Madison refused to issue William Marbury his commission to serve as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia. Marbury then petitioned the Supreme Court to get his judgeship. Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist who had recently been appointed to the Supreme Court, rejected Marbury's plea on the grounds that the Judiciary Act of 1789 had incorrectly given the Supreme Court the power to take such action. Meanwhile, Congress repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801.

At first impression, it might seem that by rejecting Marbury's claim, Marshall was not acting in the interest of a fellow Federalist. Marshall, however, had a greater goal in mind. By overturning part of a congressional law, he established the Supreme Court's power of judicial review—the power to declare federal laws invalid if they violated the Constitution. Until Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court had not been considered an especially important branch of the federal government. In fact, Marshall was the fourth chief justice to serve in a dozen years. The decision established the Court as a major force in American politics.

The Barbary pirates. American merchant ships entering the Mediterranean Sea were subject to seizure by pirates operating out of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. The United States had paid tribute to the rulers of the North African states since the 1790s. Although maintaining peace was a cornerstone of Republican foreign policy, Jefferson took action when the pasha of Tripoli made extraordinary demands for payment and declared war on the United States (1801). The conflict, which led to an American naval blockade and bombardment of Tripoli as well as a land assault by marines, ended in 1805 when a new treaty was signed and the United States agreed to pay a ransom for its captured soldiers and sailors. During the same time, a threat much closer to home was also resolved by paying cash.

The Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon Bonaparte, who came to power in France in 1799, dreamed of reestablishing the French empire in North America. In the following year, he negotiated a secret treaty, the Treaty of San Ildefonso, with Spanish King Charles IV, which returned the Louisiana Territory, lost at the end of the Seven Years' War, to France. But the agreement did not remain secret for long.

This turn of events just a few years after the successful Pinckney Treaty had opened the Mississippi River and port of New Orleans to American traffic justifiably alarmed Jefferson. His concern was reinforced when a Spanish official in New Orleans forbade the deposit of American produce there for transshipment to other countries, an action many Americans incorrectly believed was ordered by Napoleon. Jefferson feared that France might leave the Mediterranean to British influence in return for a new opportunity on the North American continent. U.S. expansion might be blocked by France to the west and by British Canada to the north.

In 1803, Jefferson sent James Monroe to join Robert Livingston, the American minister in Paris, to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and West Florida. By this time, Napoleon had given up his plans for a colonial empire. His trying to restore French rule after a slave revolt in Saint Domingue (Haiti) cost him a great deal in both money and men, his troops having been decimated by tropical diseases. The two American representatives were therefore surprised to find the French government willing to sell all of Louisiana—280,000 square miles between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains—for a paltry $15 million. Jefferson was unsure whether the United States could legally buy the Louisiana territory because the Constitution said nothing about purchasing land. He considered proposing a constitutional amendment but dropped the idea because it might take too much time, and the opportunity could vanish. The bargain was too good to pass up. Jefferson approved the purchase, the Senate ratified it, and the United States abruptly doubled in size.

The Lewis and Clark expedition. The Louisiana Purchase was then unknown; neither France nor Spain had mapped its rivers, mountains, or plains, and the important sources of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries were still a mystery. Jefferson quickly made plans for its exploration, appointing his secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to head the expedition. Lewis asked his friend Lieutenant William Clark to serve as coleader. In the spring of 1804, the fifty‐man Corps of Discovery left St. Louis, heading up the Missouri River. Although military men, Lewis and Clark had received crash courses in botany, zoology, and astronomy, enabling them to carefully collect plant and animal specimens and map the rivers. In addition, every literate man on the expedition was ordered to keep a diary. The expedition spent the first winter among the hospitable Mandan on the Upper Missouri River and then headed west for the Pacific coast in the spring of 1805. Accompanying them were a French fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, as guide and interpreter; his wife, a Shoshone Indian named Sacajawea; and their infant son. The presence of the baby and a fortuitous meeting with Shoshone tribesmen reinforced Lewis and Clark's claim that they came in peace. They distributed medallions to the tribal chiefs along with other gifts and pledged their friendship.

On reaching the Pacific in November 1805, the expedition returned eastward. The journals kept by Lewis and Clark and other members of the expedition provided a wealth of information about the geography, the plant and animal life, and the customs of native tribes in the trans‐Mississippi west. In addition to stimulating later settlement and trade in the region, the expedition reinforced the American claim to the Oregon Country that was first made by Lieutenant Robert Gray, who came upon the Columbia River in 1792.

Jefferson authorized other expeditions as well. He sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike to map the source of the Mississippi River. Pike's map was later proved incorrect, however, due mainly to the complexity of the rivers and lakes at the headwaters. Pike also headed west to explore the area between the Arkansas and Red rivers, but he became lost and was taken into custody by Spanish soldiers on the Rio Grande. Although his maps and papers were confiscated, Pike remembered enough to reconstruct a good deal of his records after he was released.