One of the most influential members of the early United States was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s beliefs are commonly referred to as “Jeffersonian democracy,” which became the dominant political view during the early 19th century.
Two political parties emerged in the United States despite George Washington’s warnings in his Farewell Address: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republicans.
Jeffersonian beliefs merged into the Democratic-Republican party whereby the ideals of a limited central government, agrarian-style economy, emphasis on states’ rights, and individual liberties reigned supreme.
Jeffersonian democracy also deeply opposed the burgeoning American aristocracy on the basis of corruption and fear of consolidated power. The republic was best served when it worked in the interests of the farmers and common folk.
Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the election of 1800 was seen as a revolution in the United States. Not only was it a peaceful transfer of power from Federalists to Democratic-Republicans, but Jeffersonian beliefs could now dominate the political landscape.
While Jeffersonians subscribed to lofty ideals, it was much more difficult to implement those in practice. Jefferson’s presidency sparked the beginning of the Jeffersonian Era, a timeline of which shows just how important it was in the trajectory of the early United States.
Jeffersonian Beliefs and Ideals
The primary Jeffersonian beliefs of the Democratic Republicans included a limited federal government with more emphasis placed on state and local governments, an agrarian economy, and a belief in the common laborer over the aristocracy.
Above all, Jeffersonians idealized personal freedoms and liberty; they strongly feared a powerful aristocracy where corruption reigned and power was consolidated at the expense of the poorest among society.
At times Jeffersonian beliefs contradicted themselves.
Jeffersonians distrusted manufacturing for the ills it brought on society. But at the same time they recognized the importance of the manufacturing sector so as not to become completely reliant on foreign trade.
In addition Jeffersonians generally favored free education for all at the public’s expense. However, this would entail additional government bureaucracy and levying of additional taxes which would inherently impinge on personal freedoms.
Regardless of the contradictions, Jeffersonian beliefs and ideals played a major role in the early 19th century United States.
Limited Federal Government
A primary belief of Jeffersonians was to have a limited federal government. This was in strict opposition to the Alexander Hamilton-led Federalist view of a strong central government.
The Jeffersonians had their roots in the direct aftermath of the ratification of the Constitution. Hamilton’s financial plan to create a national bank as well as assume state debts was fiercely opposed by Thomas Jefferson and his supporters.1
Jefferson interpreted a strict view of Article I of the Constitution which granted powers to the federal government. Under his interpretation, Hamilton’s financial plan was unconstitutional as it represented federal overreach and would set a dangerous precedent.
Former anti-Federalists, or those who opposed ratification of the Constitution, flocked to Jeffersonianism as it most closely represented their views of more powerful state governments instead of the federal government.
Jefferson truly believed that a strong federal government would prioritize national and international interests at the expense of local developments. These national projects would enrich the wealthy and burgeoning American aristocracy while ignoring and impoverishing the common laborer and farmer.1
A more limited federal government would simply better serve the interests of the average man.
Henry David Thoreau perhaps summed up Jeffersonianism best when he wrote, “that government is best which governs least.”2
Jefferson’s views on state versus federal power was appropriately outlined with James Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
These resolutions argued for a strict constructionism interpretation of the Constitution, whereby the law should be interpreted by exact wording rather than implied powers (as decided in the important McCulloch v. Maryland case).
Should federal power not be limited and controlled, states’ rights and personal freedoms would forever be in jeopardy.
Jeffersonian economic principles firmly favored small “yeoman” farmers over any other types of laborers.
Jefferson’s dream was that of an agriculturally-dominated republic in which every man had access to own and subsist upon their own land. The individual farmer was a noble profession and the cornerstone of the republic.
The closer an individual was to the land, the more grounded and virtuous they would become. In many ways the small yeoman farmer was the most precious part of the republic.3
Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian economy and his limited federal government philosophy were closely connected. He believed that power followed property, and he thus encouraged the widest possible distribution of property among the people.
In this way, property and power would be prevented from collecting in the government and/or the aristocracy’s hands.2
Jeffersonians deeply distrusted the implications and secondary effects on society that a manufacturing-dominated society would bring. Individuals that relied on others for wages or subsistence could be easily swayed in their political views and would no longer be considered independent voters.
Jeffersonians reluctantly accepted that manufacturing was necessary in some capacity following the War of 1812. No domestic manufacturing could leave the US with few options should foreign trade halt for finished goods as it did during the War of 1812.
Belief in Common Laborer
Jeffersonians displayed a profound belief in the common laborer, particularly farmers, whose freedoms needed to be protected at all costs.
The nation entrusted each citizen with a civic duty to work to improve their personal lives, which in turn would aid the overall nation. It was also their duty to vote, and the Jeffersonian Era saw a large reduction in property requirements to vote; this notion is typically associated with the Jacksonian Era.
Citizens were obligated to stay informed on issues of the day, laws that were passed, and the problems facing their representatives so as to best serve the nation.
If they did not, Jefferson would have likely agreed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote “as soon as any man says of the affairs of the state what does it matter to me?, the state may be given up for lost.”3
In order to stay properly informed, all citizens should have equal access to educational opportunities at the public’s expense. Without education, it would be difficult for laborers to get information to make informed decisions.2
While Jefferson wrote the infamous line that “all men are created equal,” Jeffersonians did not inherently believe this. Non-white men like Native Americans and enslaved Africans were considered racially inferior and thus could not become citizens.
Jeffersonians also believed that there was a natural aristocracy of ability. Even among yeoman farmers, not all men were equal, and those with the most natural ability would inevitably rise above those with less ability.2
It was these men with the best ability that Jefferson saw as most fit to lead the nation. Men like this could be trusted to put the interests of the common laborer above all else, whereas the wealthy elite would only vote in their own interests.
Timeline of Jeffersonian Era
A timeline of the Jeffersonian Era generally begins with Thomas Jefferson’s election in 1800 and ends at the beginning of the timeline of the Era of Good Feelings in 1815/1816. This period captures the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
The Jeffersonian Era sometimes is combined with the Era of Good Feelings and extends out until the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828.
1800-1808 – Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency
1800: Thomas Jefferson is elected president in the important election of 1800 in what some consider a “revolution” within the United States.
1801: First Barbary War begins with Tripoli. Jefferson is forced to reexamine his views on a Navy to protect American shipping.
1803: Chief Justice John Marshall gives decision in Marbury v. Madison case which establishes the precedent of judicial review.
1803: Jefferson authorizes the purchase of the Louisiana territory from France, more than doubling the size of the United States. The Lewis and Clark expedition is authorized to explore and map the new territory.
1804: Vice President Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Burr’s political ambitions were ruined and the Federalist party suffered from Hamilton’s death.
1804: The Twelfth Amendment is ratified requiring electors to vote separately for President and Vice President. This process prevented the runner-up in the presidential election from becoming Vice President.
1804: Jefferson wins reelection in a landslide over Federalist Rufus King. George Clinton succeeds Burr as Vice President.
1806: Jefferson advocates for the 1806 Non-Importation Act to forbid the import of certain British goods. The effort was an attempt to economically coerce Britain to cease the practice of impressment of US sailors.
1807: In the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, a British frigate fired upon and boarded a US vessel, taking four American sailors accused of desertion. The event outraged Americans.
1807: Jefferson enacts the 1807 Embargo Act as a response to the Chesapeake-Leopard affair which restricted all trade with all foreign nations.
1808: A law from 1807 formally banning the importation of slaves in the United States goes into effect.
1809-1816 – James Madison’s Presidency
1809: James Madison is elected as the fourth President in the election of 1808.
1810: Congress passes the significant Macon’s Bill No. 2 which is the final attempt in a series of economic sanctions to coerce the British and French to respect American neutrality and sovereignty.
1810: Chief Justice John Marshall rules a state law unconstitutional for the first time in the monumental Fletcher v. Peck case.
1811: In a prelude to the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison attacks Tecumseh’s Confederacy at the important 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe.
1812: On June 1st President Madison asks Congress for a declaration of war against Great Britain. Madison issues a declaration of war on June 18, 1812 beginning the War of 1812.
1813: Native American leader Tecumseh is killed at the Battle of the Thames; Oliver Perry scores a crucial naval victory on the Great Lakes.
1814: Battle of Horseshoe Bend ends the Creek War; the British burn Washington in August. Victories at Baltimore and Plattsburgh push the British for more amiable peace terms.
1814: At the Hartford Convention of 1814 New England states debate secession from the Union. The important Treaty of Ghent finally ends the War of 1812.
1815: Andrew Jackson scores a decisive victory at the important Battle of New Orleans. The battle took place after the peace treaty had been signed due to the time it took to cross the ocean.
1816: Due to economic difficulties in the War of 1812, Congress charters the Second National Bank and passes the first protectionist Tariff of 1816.
1816: James Monroe is elected president in the election of 1816.
Why Was the Jeffersonian Era Important?
Jeffersonian beliefs and principles throughout the Jeffersonian Era were incredibly important in the development of the early United States.
Its significance lies in that Jeffersonian beliefs triumphed over Federalist principles that seemingly favored the wealthiest and business interests over the common laborer.4
Jefferson’s victory in the 1800 election was widely supported and the Federalist party slowly declined in the aftermath. Their influence in politics would remain only at the local and state level, primarily in the New England states.
The Jeffersonian brand of democracy would eventually transition into Andrew Jackson’s party which was the primary significance in the election of 1828.
There are several key differences between Jeffersonian democracy versus Jackson democracy, though elements of Jefferson’s ideals remained relevant in US politics until the 20th century.
It is important to note that many Jeffersonian beliefs and ideals turned out to be more idealistic than realistic. Jefferson himself abandoned many of his own principles while president, as did his Jeffersonian-minded friend James Madison.4
Jefferson notably temporarily abandoned his strict constructionist view of the Constitution when supporting the purchase of the Louisiana territory. He also expanded federal power with the 1807 Embargo Act in direct opposition to his view of limited government.
Madison was similar, abandoning Jeffersonian principles in backing the charter of the Second National Bank of the United States and protective tariffs to promote American manufacturing.
Despite their practical shortcomings, Jeffersonian beliefs were very important in helping to mold an identity for the United States following its tumultuous first several years.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Beard, Charles A. “Some Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy.” The American Historical Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1914, pp. 282–98. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1862288.
2) Hoover, Glenn E. “Jeffersonian Democracy: Its Significance for Our Time.” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 10, no. 2, 1951, pp. 145–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3483834.
3) Wiltse, Charles M. “Jeffersonian Democracy: A Dual Tradition.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 28, no. 5, 1934, pp. 838–51. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1947407.
4) Risjord, Norman K. “A New Meaning for Jefferson’s Democracy.” Reviews in American History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1973, pp. 88–95. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2701690.