Jefferson's Democratic Ideas

By 1800 the American people, dissatisfied with Adams' domestic policies, were ready for a change. Under Washington and Adams, the Federalists had established a strong government, but, sometimes failing to honor the principle that the American government must be responsive to the will of the people, they had followed policies that did much to alienate large groups.

Jefferson, a born popular leader, had steadily gathered behind him a great mass of small farmers, shopkeepers, and other workers, and in the election of 1800 they asserted themselves with tremendous power. "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."

Jefferson enjoyed extraordinary favor because of his appeal to American idealism. In his inaugural address, he promised "a wise and frugal government" which should preserve order among the inhabitants but would "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 of the people. He encouraged agriculture and westward expansion. Believing in America as a haven for the oppressed, he urged a liberal naturalization law. By the end of 1809, his far-sighted Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, had reduced the national debt to less than $60 million. As a wave of Jeffersonian fervor 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 acts doubled the area of the nation. Spain had long held the country west of the Mississippi River, with the port of New Orleans near its mouth - a port indispensable for the shipment of American products grown in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Shortly after Jefferson came into office, Napoleon forced a weak Spanish government to cede the great tract called Louisiana back to France. The move filled Americans with apprehension and indignation. 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, knowing that another war with Great Britain was impending after the brief Peace of Amiens and realizing that when it began he would lose Louisiana, resolved to fill his treasury and put Louisiana beyond the reach of the British by selling it to the United States.

For $15 million, the United States in 1803 obtained more than 2,600,000 square kilometers and with it the port of New Orleans. The nation had gained a sweep of rich plains that within 80 years would become one of the world's great granaries. It also had control of the whole central river system of the continent.