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Early United States: 1791–1815

Presidency of Thomas Jefferson

Election of 1800

In 1800 Thomas Jefferson became president of the United States. His election effectively shifted control from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1800 President John Adams, a Federalist, ran for reelection against his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican. By this time the differences between the two parties had become clear-cut. The Federalists favored a strong central government and a commerce-based economy. The Democratic-Republicans believed in states' rights and a land-based, or agrarian, economy. As a result the Federalists got most of their support from the states in the North, and the Democratic-Republicans were supported by the Southern states.

The reputation of the Federalists had been badly hurt by the Alien and Sedition Acts and the imposition of new taxes to pay for war preparations. Despite having brokered peace with France, John Adams's reelection was not assured. For the first time in American history, the presidential candidates chose members of their own party as running mates. Prior to this, the candidate with the greatest number of votes became president, and the candidate with the second greatest number of votes became vice president, regardless of party affiliation. During the 1796 election Jefferson became Adams's vice president even though they were political opponents. In the 1800 election Adams selected Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Jefferson selected Aaron Burr.

The Electoral College—not the popular vote—determined who would become president. Each state appointed electors to vote on behalf of its citizens. When they voted, electors did not distinguish between presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Not surprisingly, Southern state electors mostly voted for the Democratic-Republicans, and the Northern states voted for the Federalists. The result was a tie between the two Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson and Burr.

By law, tied elections were decided by the House of Representatives, which had a majority of Federalists. Each state got one vote. Many of the Federalists voted for Burr, a candidate from the Northern state of New York. However, Burr was the personal and political enemy of the Federalist Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton urged his supporters to vote for Jefferson instead. The first ballot resulted in another tie between Jefferson and Burr, as did the next 34. Finally, on February 17, 1800, on the 36th ballot, Thomas Jefferson was elected by a slight majority. Aaron Burr was now his vice president.

The election of Jefferson and Burr indicated a decisive shift away from the tenets of the Federalist party, which would be extinct within 20 years. To make future elections less complicated, Congress added the 12th Amendment to the Constitution in 1804. It would allow electors to vote separately for president and vice president.

Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans

Federalists Democratic-Republicans
Rule by intellectual elite Rule by the common people (white, landowning males)
Strong central government States' rights
Loose interpreters of the Constitution Strict interpreters of the Constitution
Pro-British Pro-French
Economy based on commerce and banking Economy based on land ownership and farming
Supported mostly by commercial northern states Supported mostly by rural southern states

Marbury v. Madison

Secretary of State James Madison's refusal to deliver documents to a judge appointed by John Adams led to the establishment of the principle of judicial review.

The Federalists had been voted out of office in the election of 1800. In the weeks between the election and the seating of the new government, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. This law created 16 midnight judges, or newly appointed judgeships President Adams planned to fill with Federalists. The midnight judges got their name from reports of Adams staying up late on his last night in office to sign their commissions, or formal orders. Because of the hasty preparation of the commissions, one midnight judge named William Marbury did not receive his paperwork before Thomas Jefferson was sworn into office.

President Jefferson objected to Adams's last-minute attempt to "pack" the courts with Federalists. He ordered Secretary of State James Madison to withhold Marbury's commission. Without the actual papers in hand, Marbury could not take office. Marbury sued the federal government, taking his case to the Supreme Court. In his lawsuit, Marbury asked the Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus, or formal order, to legally compel Madison to release his commission. According to the Judiciary Act of 1789, the court had the power to do so.

In 1803 the Supreme Court agreed to rule on Marbury v. Madison, William Marbury's lawsuit against Secretary of State James Madison for the right to his commission. At the time, John Marshall was the chief justice of the Supreme Court. He, too, was a last-minute appointment. After years of declining top positions in Washington's and Adams's cabinets, Marshall was sworn in as the fourth chief justice of the United States on February 4, 1801, and would serve until 1835. It was Marshall who wrote the court's decision on Marbury v. Madison. In it he agreed Marbury's commission was valid because Adams had signed it and forwarded it to Madison as the law required. Marshall criticized Jefferson and Madison for withholding Marbury's commission on political grounds. However, he explained, the Supreme Court could not provide the writ to remedy Marbury's situation. Article 3, Section 2, of the Constitution stipulates that the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction only in "cases affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, and those in which a state shall be party." Marbury was not an ambassador, public minister, or consul. Therefore, the court struck down Congress's attempt to have the court force these particular commissions on the grounds that doing so would have exceeded the jurisdictional limit on the court under Article 3, Section 2. By striking down a statute and thus declining to exercise authority, the court established its coequal power with the executive and legislative branches under the doctrine judicial review—the notion that the Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of the president's executive actions as well as of local, state, and federal laws.

Louisiana Purchase

Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but he also raised a question as to whether the Constitution permitted the use of a treaty to acquire territory.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was expanding as settlers headed westward. Western expansion, however, was limited by the Mississippi River. On the other side was Louisiana, a vast territory that had been passed back and forth between Spain and France for centuries. Spain controlled the territory at the end of the 18th century. Since 1795, Americans had paid a duty to Spain for the right to transport their goods along the Mississippi River and store them in warehouses in the port of New Orleans until ships could take them abroad. In 1800 Napoleon Buonaparte, the French general and emperor, reclaimed Louisiana from Spain. Having only recently avoided war with France over the XYZ Affair, Americans felt anxious about having an enemy in control of the Mississippi River and New Orleans.

In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson sent James Monroe and Robert Livingston as envoys to France. Their instructions were to offer to buy New Orleans and any other available territory for a sum of $10 million. If the French did not agree, the United States would have no choice but to form an alliance with Britain, France's greatest enemy, to force France out of North America. To the Americans' great surprise, however, Napoleon was eager to sell all of Louisiana. After putting down rebellions in the sugar fields of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, the French wanted to relinquish all claims to the Western Hemisphere. In May 1803 the United States agreed to pay France $15 million plus interest (for an ultimate total of $27 million) for the Louisiana Purchase, an area of 828,000 square miles stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canada-U.S. border and west to the edge of New Spain.

With the signing of a treaty, the United States would double in size, gain access to the Mississippi River and New Orleans, and avoid both a war with France and an unwanted alliance with Britain. Yet Jefferson had a problem with the deal. Because the Constitution did not explicitly permit the use of a treaty to acquire territory for the United States, the purchase of Louisiana was technically unconstitutional. Jefferson, a strict constitutionalist, wanted Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to make the action legal, but others feared a delay would cause Napoleon to change his mind. In the end, neither Congress nor the American people, who were eager to expand the nation, shared Jefferson's concerns. Congress quickly approved the treaty.

Louisiana Purchase, 1803

The United States paid roughly three cents per acre to acquire nearly one million square miles of land included in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Corps of Discovery

In 1804 President Jefferson sent the Corps of Discovery, a company led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the Louisiana Territory.

The Corps of Discovery was an expedition company commissioned by President Jefferson in 1804 to explore the northern half of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the leaders of the expedition. Captain Lewis was Jefferson's personal secretary, and Clark was an army lieutenant. Over two and a half years, the 48 members of the Corps of Discovery traveled nearly 8,000 miles, mostly along rivers from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Northwest and back.

The expedition had several goals, the first of which was scientific. Lewis and Clark filled their notebooks with descriptions of the plants, animals, soil, and landforms in the territory. On their trek, they identified hundreds of new species of animals and plants, including ponderosa pines and grizzly bears. They also drew maps of unexplored territory. Lewis and Clark collected their notes, drawings, and maps in their Journals of Exploration.

The expedition's second goal was diplomatic. With the acquisition of new lands came the indigenous people who inhabited them. Lewis and Clark were charged with learning more about the Native Americans in the West and establishing relations with them. With the help of Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman who joined the expedition in 1805 as an interpreter, Lewis and Clark made contact with several tribes, such as the Nez Percé, the Mandans, and the Teton Sioux. They distributed tributes to the Native Americans they met as a gesture of goodwill that was mostly reciprocated.

The third goal of the expedition was commercial. The expedition had hoped to discover the Northwest Passage, a purported water route across the North American continent that would make trade between Europe and Asia faster and easier. For centuries, European explorers had searched in vain for the Northwest Passage because it did not exist. Lewis and Clark's expedition confirmed this. What they did create, however, was the first overland route connecting the settled eastern United States to the frontier and beyond to the Pacific Ocean.

Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-06

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's expedition provided the first detailed scientific and geographic information about what are now the American Plains and the Pacific Northwest.