The Revolution of 1800

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The Revolution of 1800

Following Thomas Jefferson‘s presidential election in 1800, Jefferson and the Republicans proved that a real revolution had taken place, like in 1776.

The election of 1800 was one of the first popular election in modern history that resulted in the peaceful transfer from one political party to another. Jefferson said in his inaugural address that “We are all republicans – we are all federalists,” that the division the Federalists had created between the federal government and the people had ended. The Republicans believed that they were “the people”.

A Transition of Power and Ideas

Jefferson said that America was the world’s best hope and the strongest government on earth. He believed the spirit of 1776 had finally been fulfilled and that the U.S. could at last become a beacon of liberty for the world. Jefferson set forth a standard of American ideas and ideals that Gordon Wood says in his 2009 book Empire of Liberty, says that have “persisted to this day.”

Jefferson and the Republicans intentionally tried to do just what they really thought was the original aim of the Revolution of ’76: to reduce the overreaching and potentially tyrannical power of government, that they felt the government under Federalists were coming close to doing. Jefferson and his party wanted a republic based on an ideology that resembled the 18th century Whig Party in Britain; a party that was aimed at the rural population as opposed to the Tories which supported the wealthy, nobility and merchants. The Whigs, like the Republicans supported small government, unlike the Tories and Federalists. Jefferson, a supporter of the Articles of Confederation of the 1780’s, had not agreed with the Constitution of the 1890’s, all that well. He felt that the presidency had too much power. In 1801, he and his party tried to speak of the United States as a union of separate sovereign states, trying to make the central government to resemble the one under the Articles of Confederation with the states holding the most power over the federal government.

A Transition of Symbolism

From the beginning of his presidency, Jefferson undid the formality of the office, setting a new tone of simplicity that would characterize a true republic, unlike the Federalists presidencies. He did not want a highly decorated stage coach drawn by four or more horses for his inauguration. Instead he walked from his boardinghouse in Washington D.C. to the Capitol Building without any fanfare. He sold the horses and coaches. Washington and Adams had delivered their presidential addresses to Congress in person at the podium in the House of Representatives chamber, or what Jefferson called “the throne.” Jefferson instead, delivered his addresses in writing in which he didn’t expect any formal answer from Congress. This set a precedent that lasted until the Woodrow Wilson presidency. Unlike his predecessors, Jefferson made himself easily available to visitors, both distinguished and common. He dressed informally, sometimes wearing carpet slippers, and hair messy. He even replaced the usual greeting for a president (bowing) with handshakes. At diplomatic dinners, Jefferson even had a round table so each guest, regardless of societal standing could face each other equally, unlike his predecessors, which had a long table where each seat had a certain designation based on social standing.

The “Republican” Revolution brought newly appointed men to the government and newly elected men to Congress who were so common-minded that they did not have what Gordon S. Wood describes in Empire of Liberty, as the gentleman’s manners of a polite society that Jefferson had.

The New Economy

The banking industry was very complicated for many Americans back in 18th and 19 centuries. Many Southern planters and Northern laborers didn’t really understand banking . The only real money was gold or silver. But there wasn’t enough of it and it was hard to carry daily. Nevertheless, banks issued pieces of paper for loaning, using their names, promising to pay gold and silver to the bearer on demand. But most people trusted banks would redeem their notes at any time. The only problem was that the bearers sometimes didn’t redeem them for some reason and instead just passed notes between each other in commercial exchanges. The banks soon realized that they could lend out up to five times in paper notes, the amount of gold and silver they had in their vaults to cover those notes. Since the banks made money from these loans, they committed to issuing as many notes as possible.

Jefferson didn’t understand banks either and hated them. He thought that the Federal government, under the Federalists, having charted national banks “was an act of treason” against the states. He didn’t support the production of paper money, calling it worthless to the real value of gold and silver. The state banks were against the national banks as well. They felt the national banks had a monopoly on the government. But unfortunately for the Republicans, paper currency started flourished in America.

More important to Jefferson was shrinking the national debt . It was one of the most important economic Republican ideals. The Federalists used the debt to fund the national government. For this reason, Jefferson decided to pay it off immediately. Besides, the Republicans thought that governments needed to borrow money to fund the military in time of war, and they wished to avoid that policy. Jefferson had wanted to amending the Constitution by taking away the federal government from borrowing money.

Conclusion

Jefferson transformed the traditional meaning of government as president. The Revolution of 1800 proved to be a new way of government. Governments of the early 19th century were not expected to cut taxes, cut government, pay off their debts, reduce their military and decrease their power. Governments have always held society together. But Jefferson and the Republicans challenged that idea with the notion that people could and would, by example, sacrifice their needs and wants for the sake of the nation. They wished for governments like this to flourish around the world.

References:

  1. Field Enterprises. World Book Encyclopedia. 1985. [Jefferson, Thomas]. Pages 64-65.
  2. Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty, A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. 2009. Pages 276, 285-289, 291-292, 294-295, 297-301