[Abridged] Presidential Histories

03.) Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809

May 01, 2020 Kenny Ryan Episode 3
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
03.) Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
03.) Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
May 01, 2020 Episode 3
Kenny Ryan

Thomas Jefferson was once regarded as the greatest of Founding Fathers, and It's easy to see why. He wrote the Declaration of Independents, founded the nation's first political party, and acquired the Louisiana Purchase.

But in recent years, his standing has taken a hit. There's his embrace of partisan politics, his embargo policy that caused the nation's first economic depression, and his long-running affair with Sally Hemings, his dead wife's half-sister who was 30 years younger than him and, oh yeah, also happened to be his slave.

A mixed legacy, to say the least.

From the Continental Congress to revolutionary France and the Louisiana Purchase, we'll follow Thomas Jefferson as he outmaneuvers his political rivals in pursuit of power to mold the nation's destiny, and does just about whatever else he pleases along the way.

1. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
2. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
3. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
4. John Adams - David McCullough
5. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
6. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
7. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
8. The Life of Andrew Jackson - Robert V. Remin
9. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

Thomas Jefferson was once regarded as the greatest of Founding Fathers, and It's easy to see why. He wrote the Declaration of Independents, founded the nation's first political party, and acquired the Louisiana Purchase.

But in recent years, his standing has taken a hit. There's his embrace of partisan politics, his embargo policy that caused the nation's first economic depression, and his long-running affair with Sally Hemings, his dead wife's half-sister who was 30 years younger than him and, oh yeah, also happened to be his slave.

A mixed legacy, to say the least.

From the Continental Congress to revolutionary France and the Louisiana Purchase, we'll follow Thomas Jefferson as he outmaneuvers his political rivals in pursuit of power to mold the nation's destiny, and does just about whatever else he pleases along the way.

1. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
2. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
3. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
4. John Adams - David McCullough
5. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
6. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
7. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
8. The Life of Andrew Jackson - Robert V. Remin
9. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

This is the abridged presidential histories with Kenny Ryan

Thomas Jefferson was once considered the greatest of America’s founding fathers. 

And when you glance at Jefferson’s accomplishments, it’s easy to see why. He wrote the declaration of independence, he doubled the nation’s size with the Louisiana Purchase, and he founded the nation’s first political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, who dominated the presidency for 28 unbroken years.

As recently as 1962, President John F Kennedy told a Nobel prize dinner that, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

For nearly 200 years, Jefferson was the ideal of American leadership.

But in more recent years, Jefferson’s legacy has taken a hit. When you look closer, you see a foreign policy that caused the United States’ first economic depression, a hypocrisy of only preaching the constitution when it suited him and discarding it when it didn’t, and then there’s the matter of Sally Hemings, the teenage slave girl younger than Jefferson’s own daughter who he repeated impregnated. Oh, and did I mention Hemings was his dead wife’s half-sister?

Yeah. It’s more than a bit messed up, and we’re going to talk about it.

In some ways, Jefferson is the opposite of America’s second president, John Adams. While Adams was a morally upright loner who struggled to accomplish much as president, Jefferson was a morally questionable friend collector. He was America’s first master politician, and possibly its greatest. Jefferson didn’t win every political battle, but he won the wars, and the stamp he left on America would last for generations.


Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in the British colony of Virginia. And, a real quick and quirky aside. If you google the birth dates of America’s earliest presidents, you might find two different dates listed. The reason is that in 1752, the British changed what calendar they used and everything shifted by 11 days. They literally removed 11 days from September. One day it was September 2, and the next day it was September 14. If knowing that ever wins you a game of trivia, please let me know.

Back to Jefferson. There’s a few things to know about Thomas Jefferson right off the bat:

First: He was born wealthy. Stupidly wealthy. His parents were leading members of Virginia’s plantation class and he inherited much of that wealth when his father died while Jefferson was still a teen – and let me be clear, when I say Jefferson inherited wealth, I mean he inherited a lot of land, and a lot of slaves. Over the course of his life, Jefferson would own more than 600 human beings, which I believe is significantly more than any other president. Between the slaves and the land, Jefferson inherited enough wealth to be set for life.

Second: Jefferson may have inherited a lot of money, but he soon developed spending habits that even his wealth couldn’t keep up with. Jefferson loved his French powdered wigs and horse-drawn carriages and he was constantly renovating his prized estate at Monticello. This habit of accumulating debt was fairly common among the Virginia plantation class – Washington and Monroe would similarly struggle with debt – but Jefferson took it to an entirely different level.

Third: Yes, Jefferson was born stupidly wealthy, and yes, he lived beyond his means, but politically, he still managed to portray himself as an every-man who was in touch with the people. Maybe you’ve heard the story of a British ambassador visiting him when he’s president and he answered the door in slippers and a robe – he worked hard to nurture this image of casual approachability. It’s deeply ironic that later in life he would successfully paint his political foe John Adams, who always lived within his means and owned only a simple family farm, as an out-of-touch elite, while Jefferson portrayed himself, a wealthy planter who never had to work a day in his life, as someone the average American could relate to.

Being a man who never had to worry about working for an income, Jefferson was free to focus on school and really whatever caught his fancy. He was constantly tinkering and inventing things, such as a the first swivel chair and a cipher for coding his communications. He graduated from the college of William & Mary, where everybody who was anybody from Virginia went to school, became a lawyer, and entered politics. He married his third cousin, Martha, and started a family.

As then, he was enjoying the start of married life, hundreds of miles to the north, a mob of Boston merchants dressed as Native Americans started throwing British tea into the harbor.

You know what that means. The Revolutionary War is about to begin. And, similar to John Adams, Jefferson’s life will roughly follow three phases – a revolutionary phase, an international diplomacy phase, and a national politician phase.

Let’s get revolutionary!

What had started as a spat between Boston lawyers, printers, merchants and the English Parliament became a pan-colonial affair when Britain responded to the Boston tea party with a series of acts called “the intolerable acts” that punished all 13 colonies for Boston’s crimes. This United the south and the north in a way they hadn’t been unified before. 

Jefferson, who will never sniff a revolution he doesn’t like, got behind the American cause early on by writing “A summary of the rights of British America,” a paper that argued the colonists owed their loyalty only to the English king, and not the English parliament. Now, that may seem a bit ironic, that a revolutionary would say he’s loyal to the absolute monarch and not parliament, but the colonial sentiment at the time was that the English king was a good monarch getting terrible advice from a bad parliament. It was an opinion that would change quickly.

A continental Congress was called in 1774 to demand Britain respect colonial rights and it was attended by such men as, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington, but not yet Thomas Jefferson. Then came the shot heard around the world at Lexington and Concord – blood was being spilled, shots were fired, and as the second continental congress met 1775, it had to decide what to do.

This time, Thomas Jefferson would be there.

The second continental Congress is the one where all the big stuff happens. This is where John Adams nominates George Washington to lead the revolutionary Army. This is the Congress that will lead the war effort and oversee international diplomacy. And, most important for Jefferson, this is the Congress that will declare the colonies’ independence.

But nobody knows that last bit is coming when they first met up in Philadelphia.

Yes, even though there is fighting and dying up around Boston, the Congress was still divided on whether to declare independence, with John Adams leading the call for separation. While the debate was still going on, Adams convinced Congress that it should establish a committee to draft a declaration of independence – you know, just in case we decide we want one – and Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and two other guys who won’t be on the exam were appointed to draw one up. 

As the committee organized and got to work, Jefferson reportedly suggested Adams write the first draft, only for Adams to defer the honor back to Jefferson. According to David McCullough’s biography on John Adams, Adams gave Jefferson three reasons why Jefferson should write the first draft instead of him.

Quote, “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”

Adams was gambling that the more he could engage prominent Virginians to lead Congress and the war effort, the more likely the rest of Virginia would follow, and the more likely the rest of the colonies would follow Virginia.

And he was right.

Jefferson spent the next 17 days writing the declaration of independence and when he was done, he thought it was perfect.

And then Adams and Franklin and his other committee members asked to take a peek and they started editing it.

And then all of Congress asked to have a peek and they edited it to.

And Jefferson was mortified. 

I don’t know if he’d never worked with an editor before or if he just wasn’t the sort to take criticism well, but he thought Congress had ruined what had been his masterpiece. But the truth is, they’d made it better. For example, the famous phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” was originally, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” which is good, just, not as good. In time, the Declaration of Independence would, more than anything else, make Jefferson a legend.

But, you may have noticed I said ‘in time.’ That’s because, initially, it was viewed as a collaborative document. It didn’t become widely known that Jefferson had even written the first draft until the 1790’s when he was pursuing the presidency and word somehow got out. Funny how that happened.

Anyway, the final wording of the declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776. Two days after Congress had actually voted for independence. That’s right, when we celebrate July 4 as independence day, we’re kind of celebrating two days off.

His work complete, Jefferson then had to find other things to do.

The rest of Jefferson’s revolutionary career was quite busy. He was elected governor of Virginia, only to be chased out of the state’s capital by British Dragoons. And then, elected back to the Continental congress, he developed the process by which all future states would be created from federal territories. It’s exciting stuff, but not what I want to focus on. Instead, I’m going to talk about the Jefferson proviso, and the death of his wife Martha.

First, the Jefferson Proviso. The Jefferson Proviso was a proposal Jefferson put forward while serving in Congress at the end of the war. Put simply, it would have outlawed slavery in all federal territories. Had it passed, slavery might never have expanded to the lands that became Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and beyond, but it failed by a single vote. This is one of the few anti-slavery positions Jefferson ever took in life, and one of the great what-if’s of early American history, because if slavery had never expanded beyond the eastern seaboard, it might have been dismantled peacefully instead of requiring a civil war. Without the Proviso, the slave states and the free states would always be close enough in number and manpower to make war a feasibility. But, at least one jerk too many didn’t like the Proviso, and so it didn’t come to be.

Now for that second item – the death of Martha.

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha died. 

By all accounts, this was a world-shattering event for Jefferson. He loved Martha dearly and they had a young family together. As Martha lay dying, she made him swear a promise to her. The promise was to never marry again. Martha had grown up with an abusive step-mother and didn’t want the same fate to befall her daughters. So, standing at her side as she passed away, Jefferson promised to never remarry.

It’s all very moving, but, well. I don’t think Martha would be too happy with how Jefferson interpreted the fine print on this vow. True, he never married again, but, well, it’s not like he promised to never sleep with another man’s wife and he certainly never promised not to have sex with his underage slave. And he’s totally going to, very soon, in France.

So that’s a wrap on Jefferson’s revolutionary career. He was on the forefront of calling for revolution, he wrote the declaration of independence, and he swore to never again marry when his wife Martha tragically died.

So, who’s ready to go to France?!

In 1784, Jefferson was chosen by the Continental Congress to serve as a diplomat in France, where he’d join Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, who had just negotiated an end to the revolutionary war. Franklin, who was the senior diplomat in France, soon died and Adams was stationed in England, so Jefferson became the senior American ambassador in France. While serving in this role, Jefferson developed a strong personal relationship with John Adams that, if you’ve listened to the Adams episode, well, you know it’s not going to last.

Now, as minister to France, Jefferson … didn’t really accomplish much. And there are a couple good reasons beyond his control – the United States was heavily in debt from the revolutionary war, so nobody wanted to do business with its representatives, and the articles of confederation formed such a weak national government that foreign powers were making deals with the individual states instead. This is actually part of why those articles eventually failed. Instead of the States working together as, you know, the United States, they were competing with one another in a race to the bottom as the, we’re talking, but it’s not super serious states.

And so Jefferson didn’t have much to do. Which meant he had plenty of time to kill watching the start of the French revolution, which was just breaking out.

A bit about the French revolution. Some historians break the French revolution into two phases. The initial Good revolution, when everyone is fighting for reform and nobody’s committing mass murder, and the later bad revolution, when everyone is fighting for reform but now using bayonets and guillotines. 

Jefferson was in France for the good revolution. He was sitting in the people’s assembly watching France’s greatest orators debate political reform. He became best friends with the Marquis de Lafayette, who was fresh off helping Washington win the revolutionary war, and Jefferson even helped Lafayette by ghost-writing France’s declaration of the rights of man, which was kind of their version of the declaration of independence – a statement of why the revolution was happening and what the French hoped to get from it. 

Jefferson would never quite wrap his head around it in later years when all those great orators were murdered and Lafayette was thrown in a dungeon. It’s safe to say Jefferson didn’t have a big impact as an ambassador to France, but France had a big impact on him. He’d be an avid supporter of France and enemy of Britain the rest of his life.

Then Jefferson’s youngest daughter Patsy arrived – fantastic! - accompanied by his 16-year old slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson promptly put his daughter in a convent, which, you know, father of the year award, but he kept Sally Hemings around. So let’s talk about Sally Hemings. 

Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s dead wife Martha. As in, Martha’s father had had an affair with a slave who gave birth to Sally, and then Martha’s father had kept this daughter in slavery. Sally later became the property of her half-sister Martha and then of Jefferson when Martha died. And then in France, Jefferson, who owned Sally and was 30 years older than her, began an affair with her and soon got her pregnant. This baby wouldn’t reach term, but it also wouldn’t be the last pregnancy. Over the course of their lives, Jefferson and Sally Hemings probably had five children together. I suspect they had five children because of the 600 slaves Jefferson owned in his life, he’d only ever free 5, and all five were children of Sally Hemings. 

Here’s the brunt of it, a relationship between a 46 year old man and a 16-year old slave who the man owns and has total control over cannot be consensual. It’s appalling now, and, while fairly common in the south, public acknowledgement of it would have been appalling then. But it was also a secret - for now.

And that’s pretty much the story of Jefferson in France. He fell in love with the French revolution, and started an affair that, I don’t know if it was rape, but he was certainly taking advantage of his dead wife’s half-sister, who was also his slave.

Then, 1789, Jefferson sailed back to America for what was supposed to be a brief vacation from France. But when he arrived home, he was surprised to find an unexpected offer waiting for him. A new constitution had been written. George Washington had been elected the first president of the United States, and Washington wanted Jefferson to join his Cabinet as the country’s first secretary of state.

It was time for Jefferson to stop serving his country and start shaping it.

In the national politician phase of Jefferson’s career, he would get his start as secretary of state before becoming disillusioned with Washington and creating his own party. He’d then use that party to launch himself to the white house and secure it for his political heirs for the following 20+ years.

But none of that success appeared certain when he was a lonely voice of opposition in Washington’s cabinet, frequently in conflict with, and out-argued by, Washington’s treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton.

The conflict between Hamilton and Jefferson was spectacular. It would inspire the entire second act of the fantastic hip hop opera titled Hamilton, which you should check out if you get the chance. And it would nearly tear the country apart.

If you’ve listened to the Washington and Adams episodes, this will sound familiar. 

Hamilton wanted a national Bank. Jefferson opposed him. Hamilton won.

Hamilton wanted to stay neutral in the wars of the French revolution. Jefferson opposed him. Hamilton won.

Hamilton wanted the federal government to assume the states’ war debts and pay them off by issuing bonds. Jefferson opposed him. Hamilton won.

The only major fight Jefferson did win was the future location of the nation’s capital, which Hamilton allowed to be moved to a literal swamp on the border of Virginia in exchange for Jefferson allowing the federal government to assume state’s debts. But even this win Jefferson would later regret, calling it the greatest political mistake of his career, because Hamilton’s plan proved far more impactful and valuable than the location of the nation’s capital.

It’s probably because of these smarting losses that Jefferson began organizing a political party of his own – the Jeffersonian Republican party – to oppose the so-called Federalist party organizing around Hamilton. 

And this is where Jefferson’s political genius started to shine through.

Jefferson began by building strong relationships with other anti-federalists like Virginia Congressman James Madison and Virginia Senator James Monroe, two very capable men who would follow Jefferson to the presidency. If politics is a chessboard, Jefferson is the king and he had a pair of Queens in Madison and Monroe. He also built a web of loyal print publications and leaked unflattering information, rumors, or lies to attack Hamilton and the Federalist party – you could think of those as all his bishops and rooks. And some of his methods in setting partisan presses up were really over the top. Like, at one point he hired a man to the state department just so that man would have an income to use to launch an anti-federalist publication. So here you have someone being paid by the Washington administration to publicly oppose its policies. I think we’d all agree that’s not a great use of tax payer dollars.

Building a partisan press wasn’t unique to Jefferson. Hamilton was doing it on the Federalist side, too. But Jefferson’s efforts were far more expansive and, remember that chess board analogy? You get the impression that Jefferson was playing with a full board while Hamilton was just working with a board of pawns. Hamilton’s habit of doing everything himself meant he failed to build a strong party apparatus. Hamilton might have been able to argue circles around Jefferson in a cabinet meeting, but cabinet meetings didn’t elect congressmen or presidents. And Hamilton would soon be outflanked by Jefferson’s national political machine. 

In 1792, Jefferson retired from the State Department after losing one-too-many cabinet battles and dedicated himself full time to building his national party. And then, in 1796, Washington announced his retirement.

The path to the presidency was open, but it was open for John Adams, too. And, in this first bout, Jefferson’s machine wasn’t yet strong enough to deliver the white house. After a hard-fought election, Adams won the presidency with 71 electoral college votes, and because back then the system gave the vice presidency to whoever earned the second-most votes in the electoral college and nobody actively ran for vice president, Jefferson won the vice presidency with 68 electoral votes.

Jefferson’s vice presidency would basically be four years of silent opposition. A game of shadows where he rarely showed his hand, but little happened without his knowledge. The best example of this would be his response to Adams’ Alien and Sedition acts. 

The alien and sedition acts were a blatantly unconstitutional overreach by Adams and the Federalists in Congress that gave Adams the power to jail or deport journalists who published “false, scandalous, or malicious” articles against the government or its officials.

Jefferson’s counterargument wouldn’t prove any more constitutional. Basically, Jefferson and Madison partnered to ghost write the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, a pair of state resolutions that argued the federal government had no powers other than those expressly granted by the states.

Jefferson’s resolution went so far as to say a state could nullify federal laws it disliked and forbid their implementation within its borders.

Nothing much would come of these resolutions now, but decades later, after it had become public that Jefferson and Madison had written them, a politician with far more sinister motives named John C. Calhoun would use them to try to force a civil war decades before anyone had heard of the failed general store owner named Abraham Lincoln. Stick around for a few episodes and you’ll hear a LOT more about John C. Calhoun.

Anyway, Jefferson spent his vice presidency ghost-writing resolutions and preparing for the presidential election of 1800, when he once again ran for president against John Adams. This election was even nastier than the one before. I’ve seen some historians argue the election of 1800 was the most contentious in American history. Federalists said Jefferson was an anarchist and traitor and that his party was no different from the bloody revolutionaries in France. Jeffersonian Republicans said the federalists were closet monarchists beholden to an aristocracy of wealthy bankers and who were trying to turn the president into a king. They were helped in this by comments from John Adams that “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” But, Jefferson had his own unfortunate quotes, such as, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots. It is it’s natural manure.”

Which, let’s be honest, neither of those make great bumper stickers.

When the votes were tallied, Jefferson beat Adams, but he didn’t win outright. Remember how electoral college grants each elector two votes and the candidate who gets the most votes become president and the candidate who gets the second-most votes becomes vice president? Well, in 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, another Jeffersonian Republican who the party seemed to hope would just naturally finish behind Jefferson in the balloting and become vice president, both got 73 electoral votes – a tie. By law, the election went to the federalist-controlled house of representatives, where each state’s representatives would collectively cast one vote to break the tie.

At this point, nobody knew what would happen. Federalists HATED Jefferson, who had led the crusade to force their party out of power. But they also didn’t like Aaron Burr, who had led the Republican effort in New York and was also a bit of a snake-oil salesman who would tell every audience what he thought it wanted to hear. Should the federalists spite Jefferson by making Burr president instead?

The house ended up having to vote 36 times before the tie was broken and Jefferson was named president. It was a fight that irreversibly damaged the relationship between Jefferson and Burr, who Jefferson rightly suspected had been campaigning for the house to elect him president instead. Jefferson may have been helped to eventual victory by one of his oldest foes - Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to federalists congressmen urging them to elect Jefferson over Burr, for Jefferson had values he stood for, while Burr had none. 

And so, on March 4, 1801, a 57 year-old Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration of independence and founder of the Jeffersonian-Republican party, was sworn in as the third president of the  United State’s of America. And he reported to the nation’s capital in Washington D.C. – finally! Washington D.C. – to assume the presidency.

So what did the United States, and the world, look like when Jefferson became president? Let’s take a look.

On the domestic front, the country’s borders were little-changed from the nation’s founding. There were a few new states, but still plenty of unorganized territory in the Midwest. The population was booming and migrants were streaming west. There was British Canada to the north, Spanish florida to the south, and Spanish everything west of the Mississippi river. Most importantly, Spain controlled the city of New Orleans, which controlled access from the Mississippi river to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a major national security concern that, in an era when just about everyone west of the Appalachian depended on the Mississippi river for trade with the rest of the world, a foreign nation could shut down that trade any time it liked – which happened in 1802 at a cost of $2 million to American interests.

So that’s what’s going on in North America. Beyond the continent, France had been at war with the rest of Europe for nearly a decade now – a conflict that had frustrated Washington and Adams’ best efforts at neutrality. In 1800, Napoleon had just overthrown the French government known as the directory the year before and would soon crown himself emperor. The Napoleonic wars – another decade of conflict that would briefly see most of Europe fall under France’s sway – were about to begin.

Those wars would create opportunity, and peril, for the united states.

Jefferson’s presidency is going to be defined by two major issues – the Louisiana purchase of 1803, and the Embargo act of 1807.

But first, I want to take a salacious detour to the perils of partnering with uncouth men.

Remember how Jefferson had nurtured a volatile partisan press that helped him defeat John Adams? Well, when you want to establish a press that delights in scandal, innuendo and doesn’t give a whit about honor or integrity, you need amoral men to run it. And when you win, those amoral men are going to expect favors. And when you don’t deliver, those men are going to make you pay for it.

One of Jefferson’s partisan editors was a man named James Callender, a Scottish immigrant who had helped Jefferson humiliate Hamilton by publishing an expose on Hamilton’s affair with another man’s wife – likely at Jefferson’s direction. When Jefferson became president, Callender expected to be rewarded with a lucrative position in the administration. But, knowing what a snake Callender was, Jefferson refused. So Callender grabbed his pen and published an expose on the Sally Hemings affair. He publicly accused Jefferson of fathering children with a slave he owned, which, while not uncommon back then, was still incredibly taboo.

The nation was shocked. Absolutely shocked that Callender would make something like that up. Nobody believed it! 

And then, 10 months later, Callender was found dead, drowned in three feet of water. It was reported that Callender had gotten drunk and drowned – and Callender was a well-known alcoholic – but … it’s not a good look. With Callender dead and his pen silent, the Hemings expose was dismissed and the secret made safe again. The truth about Jefferson and Sally Hemings would remain nothing more than a salacious rumor for nearly 200 years until DNA tests of Jefferson and Hemings’ descendants confirmed the truth in 1998. If I were telling you the story of Jefferson 30 years ago, Hemings probably wouldn’t be mentioned.

So, that’s the Callender scandal. Let’s talk about something more positive – the Louisiana Purchase.

Talking about the Louisiana purchase, means talking a bit more about Napoleon. In 1800, Napoleon signed a secret treaty with Spain where Spain got some territory in Italy and France got the vast Louisiana territory, which was basically everything between the Mississippi river, Texas, the rocky mountains, and Canada. This has originally been French territory decades earlier, but Spain had acquired it as a result of the 7-year’s war back in the 1750s and 60s. As part of this secret treaty, Spain would continue to administer Louisiana and Napoleon wasn’t allowed to sell or trade it to any foreign power. But let’s be real, if Napoleon changed his mind, nobody was going to stop him.

That said, Napoleon had no intent to sell Louisiana. On the contrary, he had every intent to rebuild France’s global empire. And the fertile American plains that were part of the Louisiana territory were going to serve as its bread basket. Napoleon’s plan was to send an army to Louisiana to build roads and infrastructure that subsequent waves of French immigrants would use to rapidly develop the country. But two unpredictable events got in Napoleon’s way. First, a series of winter storms delayed the army’s departure, and then when it could to depart, a slave revolt in the insanely profitable sugar plantation colony of Haiti forced the army to head there instead. Disease and guerrilla warfare decimated the army, and suddenly colonies looked like far more trouble than they were worth. By 1803, Napoleon needed money to fund his wars against the rest of Europe far more than he needed remote Louisiana, so he instructed his ambassador to pitch the idea of selling it to the American representative in Paris.

The Americans were caught off guard by the unexpected offer. Of course they wanted Louisiana. Not only was it a lot of land, but it also included that important city of New Orleans.

In addition to being strategically important, the dollar amount the French were asking for was an insanely good deal. The French wanted $15 million for the 500 million-acre territory. This comes out to three cents an acre. The American government, at the time, was selling land in the Midwest for $2 dollars an acre. A quick bit of math. When you can buy 500 million acres of land for three cents an acre and sell it for $2 an acre, you stand to make $1 billion in profit.

Of course you take that deal!

But was such a purchase constitutional? Jefferson had long argued that the president only had powers that were explicitly laid out in the constitution, and the constitution said nothing about the president being able to buy territory. So, by Jefferson’s own logic, such a purchase was illegal. But Secretary of State James Madison urged Jefferson to forget past politics and make the purchase – this deal was simply too good to pass up! Still, Jefferson considered asking for an amendment to make it constitutional, but then reports came in from France that Napoleon was having second thoughts and might withdraw the offer. Jefferson decided to listen to his advisors and forget the constitution for a minute. He sent James Monroe to France and within a year the deal was finalized.

On December 20, 1803, the Louisiana territory officially became part of the United states of America. The country’s western border leapt from the Mississippi river toward the Rocky Mountains. Never mind that nobody really knew the exact borders of some of this territory – like how much of Texas was included, and the Americans were disappointed to learn that the sale hadn’t include Florida, which was still held by Spain. But still, the United States doubled in size with the stroke of a pen, the greatest peaceful acquisition of territory in world history.

To help figure out what all he’d just bought, Jefferson dispatched military officers Lewis and Clark on an expedition to find the source of the mighty Mississippi river. The two ended up going a good deal further than that, crossed the Rockies, and found the Columbia river, which led them to the pacific ocean near modern-day Portland. I don’t know if there are hard and fast rules to colonialism, but reaching the Pacific inspired the United States to lay a claim to the Oregon territory, which had not been part of the Louisiana purchase and which was also claimed by Spain and Britain. Give it a few decades and, thanks to this claim, we’re basically going to get that land for free.

Jefferson rode the popularity of the Louisiana purchase to an easy reelection in 1804, winning the electoral college 162-14. He was helped by the disarray in the Federalist party, whose leader Alexander Hamilton, had been shot and killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president, earlier that year.

Burr would, uh, not be sticking around for Jefferson’s second term. He’d run off and try to commit treason instead, which we’ll cover when we get to the episode on Andrew Jackson, so be looking forward to that.

Jefferson’s second term wouldn’t go nearly so well as his first.

As the Napoleonic wars raged on, the two primary maritime combatants, France and Great Britain, decided in 1806 that they didn’t like the Americans trading with their adversaries and both start capturing any American vessels heading for their rivals’ harbors. If this sounds familiar, it’s very similar to what John Adams dealt with before the Quasi war with France a decade earlier. But this time, the British were adding to the grievances by not just seizing vessels but also kidnapping sailors and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. 

The royal navy was the largest navy in the world and had tremendous manpower needs. The trouble for the royal navy was their sailors were always deserting due to poor treatment and low pay. And, well, if you’re a well-trained, English-speaking sailor looking for work, the United States merchant fleet was a good place to get it. 

This meant United states merchant ships had more than a few British deserters among their crews. The British navy wanted those deserters back. So whenever a British ship captured an American ship, it would search the crew for deserters who could be forced back into service for the royal navy. The thing is, when you start kidnapping any English-speaking sailor you suspect of being a deserter, you’re going to kidnap a lot of innocent Americans. I mean, it’s not like we’d had 200 years to develop different accents yet. As many as 10,000 men were kidnapped this way.

The challenge for the Americans was how to respond. Sure, the united states had developed a navy under John Adams, but remember what I said about the British royal navy being the largest navy in the world? Yeah, the Americans weren’t anywhere close to being ready to go toe-to-toe and win a war. So what could they do?

That’s about when Secretary of state James Madison pitched Jefferson on a little plan he liked to call embargo.

It went like this, if the United States banned all international trade, the impact on the French and British economies would be so tremendous that the rival powers would be forced to beg for the embargo to be lifted in exchange for an end to all attacks on American merchant ships. Jefferson agreed to the plan – figuring it was a good deal safer than war, and more assertive than doing nothing – and the embargo act passed in 1807.

The problem is, it didn’t work. Not at all. The impact of the embargo on Britain and France’s economies was barely a blip. The American economy, on the other hand, tanked HARD. Without international trade, southern farmers had nowhere to sell their crops and northern merchants had nowhere to sail their ships. Smuggling to Canada turned into a boom business. The area around one of the great lakes was declared to be in a state of insurrection. The last act of Jefferson’s presidency would be to repeal the failed policy and replace it with one that only forbid trade with England and France, as opposed to the whole world, but this would work out no better for his successor Madison than the embargo had worked for Jefferson.  

Sensing he was wearing out his welcome as the nation’s president, Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1809. He left behind a nation he’d doubled in size, but destroyed economically through the act of embargo.

A mixed legacy to say the least.

So how else had America changed on Jefferson’s watch? Territory wise, there’s obviously the Louisiana purchase, but also a new state was added when Ohio, the buckeye state, was carved from the Northwest territory. A couple notable inventions were introduced – the world’s first steamboat sailed the Hudson in 1807, ushering in a revolution in travel, but you might best appreciate the invention of the coffee percolator, which Massachusetts-born Benjamin Thompson got patented in Paris in 1806. Jefferson’s presidency also saw the country fight a little war against pirates in North Africa. If you’ve ever heard the old marine hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” the shores of Tripoli part refers to this war with the pirates.

Internationally, Napoleon was near the height of his power in 1809. Over the past 8 years, his victorious armies had created in a string of client states that stretched from Spain to Eastern Europe. His only remaining enemy appeared to be Britain, which Napoleon couldn’t invade due to the strength of the Royal Navy. So Napoleon was engaging in an embargo of his own called the “continental system” which forbid all of Europe from trading with England. At first, it seemed to be working ok, but by 1809, Napoleon’s Russian allies were getting pretty tired of being told what to do. Surely Napoleon wouldn’t have to invade them in a few years to force compliance, right?

Jefferson went on to live another 18 years after the end of his presidency. He largely stayed away from active politics during this time, but kept in touch with his friends Madison and Monroe, who presided over the next 16 years. Without politics to keep him busy, Jefferson stayed active by founding the university of Virginia and rekindling his friendship with one-time friend, one-time political rival John Adams. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the same day, same year, as Adams. Jefferson was 83 years old.

So what is the legacy of Thomas Jefferson? What can we learn from him? 

Well, when it comes to likability, he doesn’t fare well by modern sensibilities. His ownership of slaves, his probably-not-consensual affair with Sally Hemings, his duplicitous political scheming and manipulations – it’s all kind of terrible. 

But when it came to delivering results, Jefferson was solid. By collecting powerful and talented friends and nurturing relationships, he was able to build a political legacy that dwarfed those of Adams and Washington. Jefferson was a man who knew when to break the rules for the greater good – like the probably-unconstitutional purchase of Louisiana. Let’s be honest, he didn’t have the authority to do that, but it was in America’s best interest that he did, and he’s justly celebrated for doing it. And I think that might be one of the most interesting lessons from Jefferson. There are rules, and they exist for a reason, but it’s important to realize when a rule doesn’t fit the reality of the time or moment and must be ignored for the benefit of the people. This is a slippery slope for sure – it also gave us the embargo act that tanked the economy – but in the case of Louisiana, it was a boon for America. And it established a trend of being your own judge of what the constitution allows that future presidents would pursue for their own glory, and at their own peril.

Thank you for joining today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham.

In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of James Madison – the father of the constitution who helped write the constitution, the bill of rights, and the Federalist papers. But also a man who picked the absolute wrong time to declare war on the British Empire.

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.