Thomas Jefferson

Classical-Liberal Statesman of the Old Republic

H. Arthur Scott Trask

This essay may be cited as H. Arthur Scott Trask, “Thomas Jefferson: Classical-Liberal Statesman of the Old Republic,” chapter three in Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, ed. John V. Denson (Auburn, A. L.: The Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2001), pp. 45–103.

This essay has subsequently been released by the Ludwig von Mises Instutute as three separate articles.  Some paragraphs have been divided up, and some punctuation has been altered; but the content has, it appears, been left as it was in the original.

Was Thomas Jefferson a Great President?, pp. 45–63

This contains the following subsections:

The Election of 1800

Federal Spending under Jefferson

Federal Taxation under Jefferson

Federal Debt Reduction under Jefferson

Foreign Policy and Military Spending: The First Term

The Louisiana Purchase

Jefferson as President: His Judicial Blunders, pp. 63–80

This appears in the book as the subsection titled:

Constitutional Philosophy, Judicial Reform, and the Supreme Court

Internal Improvements and a Military Academy

During Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address, he suggested for the first time that federal funds be applied in the future “to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each state.”68  On the basis of this passage, many historians have rushed to the conclusion that Jefferson in his second term became an advocate of public works programs, government spending as an engine of prosperity, and expansive federal powers.  They are wrong, for Jefferson was merely suggesting one way in which surplus federal funds could be spent after the federal debt had been fully retired.  He also made it clear that an amendment to the Constitution would have to be obtained in order to authorize such spending.

He brought up the subject again in his Sixth Annual Message.  He explained to his countrymen that federal revenues were increasing at such a rate that there would be very soon a surplus beyond what was required to pay the interest and the sinking fund on the federal debt.  He pointed out that there were two things that could be done.  Congress could reduce the impost, or it could apply the funds to “public education, roads, rivers, canals, and other such objects of public improvement as it may be thought proper to add to the constitutional enumeration of federal powers.”69  Once again, he stressed the need for an amendment to the Constitution, for “the objects now recommended are not among those enumerated in the constitution, and to which it permits the public moneys to be applied.”70 As the impost was low, and as it was applied mainly to “foreign luxuries,” he recommended spending the surplus on objects of public improvement.  Jefferson was not suggesting that an empowered federal government take up the responsibility of funding and supervising educational institutions all over the country; rather, he was suggesting merely that Congress should consider founding a “national establishment for education,” or a national university:

Education is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal; but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country

That he had thought through this subject is evident from the fact that earlier in the year he had discussed the issue with his friend Joel Barlow and had sent him a draft of a “bill for the establishment of a National Academy & University at the city of Washington.”72  However, Jefferson refused to propose such a bill to Congress until the latter had obtained constitutional authorization by passing an amendment.  Jefferson again brought the subject up in his last annual message to Congress.  He asked:

Shall [the surplus] lie unproductive in the public vaults?  Shall the revenue be reduced?  Or shall it rather be appropriated to the improvement of roads, canals, rivers, education, and other great foundations of prosperity and union, under the powers which Congress may already possess, or such amendment of the constitution as may be approved by the States?73

Here Jefferson for the first time equivocated on this issue.  Just four months before he would be stepping down as president, he suggested that maybe Congress already had the power to fund internal improvements:  “While uncertain of the course of things, the time may be advantageously employed in obtaining the powers necessary for a system of improvement, should that be thought best.”74  Jefferson had run into the same problem he had encountered with the Louisiana treaty.  He was finding himself alone in defending strict construction.

Jefferson himself was fairly consistent in not undertaking unconstitutional improvement projects.  In March 1802, he signed a bill which authorized him to establish a military academy at West Point, New York.  The law limited the academy to twenty officers and men.  Establishing an institution for the training of military officers, particularly engineers, certainly fell within Congress’s powers to “provide for the common Defense” and “raise and support Armies.”75  Jefferson’s one slight inconsistency in this area was his approval of the Cumberland Road bill in March 1806.  Under its terms, Congress appropriated $30,000 and authorized the president to appoint three commissioners and surveyors to survey and lay out a national road connecting Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River with Wheeling, Virginia, on the Ohio River.  The president was also required to get the approval of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, states through which the road would pass.  Jefferson fulfilled the terms of the law.  However, construction did not begin nor were any funds appropriated for that purpose under Jefferson’s presidency.76  President James Madison began construction of the road in 1811; Monroe completed it in 1818.

Jefferson’s Disastrous Embargo, pp. 82–92

This appears in the book as the subsection titled:

Foreign Policy and the Embargo: The Second Term

Military Policy: the Second Term

This subsection is available in the .pdf version of the book.


When assessing Jefferson’s presidency, it is worthwhile to reconsider what his old rival, Alexander Hamilton, said of him seven weeks before he took office:

Nor is it true that Jefferson is zealot enough to do anything in pursuance of his principles which will contravene his popularity or his interest.  He is as likely as any man I know to temporize, to calculate what will be likely to promote his own reputation and advantage; and the probable result of such a temper is the preservation of systems, though originally opposed, which, being once established, could not be overturned without danger to the person who did it.  To my mind, a true estimate of a temporizing rather than a violent system.98

While slightly overdrawn, Hamilton’s prophecy is a fairly accurate prediction of the course of Jefferson’s presidency, and it offers a plausible explanation of why Jefferson would shrink from truly revolutionary measures.  It certainly helps to explain why Jefferson never tried to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1789, repeal the charter of the national bank, or abolish the navy.  The Old Republicans were certainly disappointed that Jefferson did not go further in reversing Federalist innovations and creating safeguards against future encroachments by a government controlled by consolidationists and neomercantilists.  John Taylor of Virginia summed up Jefferson’s presidency in 1810:

There were a number of people who soon thought and said to one another that Mr. Jefferson did many good things, but neglected some better things; and who now view his policy as very like compromise with Mr. Hamilton’s. . . .  Federalism, indeed, having been defeated, has gained a new footing by being taken into partnership with republicanism.  It was this project which divided the Republican party by changing its principles from real to nominal.99

That was harsh, but it was also true.  The “good things” to which Taylor was referring were undoubtedly the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, the abolishment of the internal taxes, the reduction in the number of federal officials, the reduction of the regular army, the shrinking of the navy, the paying down of the national debt, and the addition of New Orleans and Louisiana to the Union.  These were real and solid accomplishments.  However, as Taylor pointed out, Jefferson “neglected some better things.”  He did not try to repeal the Judiciary Act of 1789 or revoke the charter of the national bank.  He left most of the ocean-going navy in service.  He did not appoint a Spencer Roane or a St. George Tucker, both intellectually powerful and consistent states’-rights’ Republicans, to the Supreme Court.  And worst of all, he did not push for constitutional reform in the form of amendments that would have checked the power of the federal judiciary by negating the power of judicial review and making federal judges removable by Congress and by inhibiting the ability of the federal government to make use of general phrases in the Constitution to expand its powers at the expense of the states.

Jefferson’s compromises with Federalism were as follows: the retention of the navy and the national bank; the appointment of quasi-Federalists to the Supreme Court; his administration’s broad reading of the treaty-making power; and perhaps worst of all, his choice of the neo-Federalist James Madison to be his successor.  Another Old Republican from Virginia, John Randolph, was equally harsh in his assessment of Jefferson’s presidency:

It had my hearty approbation for one-half of its career.  As to my opinion of the remainder of it, it has been no secret.  The lean kine of Pharaoh devoured the fat kine.  The last four years, with the embargo in their train, ate up the rich harvest of the first four, and, if we had not some Joseph to step in, and change the state of things, what would have been now the condition of the country?  I repeat it; never has there been any administration which went out of office and left the country in a state so deplorable and calamitous as the last.100

While most of Jefferson’s sins were those of omission, the embargo was his one great sin of commission.  It led to other sins: the tripling of the standing army in 1808, the precedent of turning the regular army and navy against American citizens to enforce an unpopular law of dubious constitutionality, and the violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments under the enforcement acts—not a record of which any president claiming to be a Republican can be proud.  In fact, as Taylor pointed out, Jefferson’s adoption of increasingly harsh measures to enforce his embargo policy recalled the Federalist excesses of the 1790s: Washington’s calling out of the militia in 1794 to crush the “whiskey insurrection” the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and Adams’s calling out militia and regulars to suppress “Fries rebellion” in 1799.

Ultimately Jefferson’s failure to institutionalize his “revolution” was due to his misplaced faith in the good sense of the people.  He simply could not believe that they would ever discard the federal Constitution and its restraints on power for the allure of an energetic state that could accomplish “great” things.  He was wrong.  Jefferson’s faith in self-government turned out to be stronger than his faith in constitutionalism or liberty to the long-term detriment of all three.

After two hundred years, what can we conclude about Jefferson’s presidency?  He advanced the cause of liberty in many concrete ways, and his state papers include some of the most eloquent defenses of federalism, constitutionalism, and liberty in our political literature.

However, he did little for the cause of constitutionalism, and he may even have harmed it.  He had an opportunity to perfect America’s federal constitutional order, but through a misplaced faith in the wisdom and watchfulness of the people, he let it pass by.  The lesson by now should be clear to all:  In the long run, democracy cannot be relied upon to protect liberty and the rule of law.