Jefferson's democratic ideas

In home affairs, Adams was not popular with the American people, and the year 1800 found the country ripe for a change. Under Washington and Adams, the Federalists had capably established the government and made it strong. But failing to recognize that the American government must be responsive to the will of the people, they had followed policies which did much to alienate large masses of the people. Jefferson, a born popular leader, had steadily gathered behind him a great mass of small farmers, shopkeepers, and other workers, and they asserted themselves with tremendous power in the election of 1800. "The tough sides of our Argosie have been thoroughly tried," wrote Jefferson to a friend. "We shall put her on her republican tack, and she will now show by the beauty of her motion the skill of her builders."

Indeed Jefferson enjoyed extraordinary ascendency because of his appeal to America's idealism, simplicity, youth, and hopeful outlook. And the manner in which he assumed the presidency in 1801 emphasized the fact that democracy had come into power. Jefferson, carelessly garbed as usual, walked from his simple boarding-house up the hill to the Capitol together with a few friends. Entering the Senate chamber, he shook hands with Vice-President Burr, his rival in the recent election, and took the oath of office administered by John Marshall, recently appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His inaugural address promised "a wise and frugal government" which should preserve order among the inhabitants but "shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement."

Jefferson's mere presence in the White House encouraged democratic procedures. To him the plainest citizen was as worthy of respect as the highest officer. He taught his subordinates to regard themselves merely as trustees for the people. He encouraged agriculture and westward expansion. He encouraged a liberal naturalization law, believing in America as, a haven for the oppressed. By the end of 1809, his far-sighted Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, had reduced the national debt to less than sixty millions. As a wave of Jeffersonian feeling swept the nation, state after state abolished property qualifications for the ballot and passed more humane laws for debtors and criminals.

One of Jefferson's steps doubled the area of the nation. Spain had long held the country west of the Mississippi, with the port of New Orleans near its mouth. But soon after Jefferson came into office, Napoleon forced a weak Spanish government to cede the great tract called Louisiana back to France. The moment he did so Americans trembled with apprehension and indignation, for New Orleans was a port indispensable for the shipment of American products grown in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Napoleon's plans for a huge colonial empire just west of the United States menaced the trading rights and the safety of all the interior settlements.

Jefferson asserted that if France took possession of Louisiana, "from that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation" and that the first cannon shot fired in a European war would be the signal for the march of an Anglo-American army against New Orleans. Napoleon was impressed by the certainty that the United States and England would strike. He knew that another war with Great Britain was impending after the brief Peace of Amiens and that, when it began, he would surely lose Louisiana. He therefore resolved to fill his treasury, to put Louisiana beyond the reach of the British, and to bid for American friendship by selling the region to the United States. For $15,000,000 this vast area passed into the possession of the republic. Jefferson "stretched the Constitution till it cracked" in buying it, for no clause authorized the purchase of foreign territory, and he acted without Congressional consent. As a result, the United States, in 1803, obtained more than a million square miles and with it the port of New Orleans, a picturesque city built on a crescent of the Mississippi, with a dark cypress forest as background. The country had gained a sweep of rich plains that within eighty years was to become one of the world's greatest granaries. It also had control of the whole central river system of the continent. Puffing vessels within a few years filled all the western streams, taking emigrants to settle on the land and bringing furs, grain, cured meats, and a hundred other products back to market.