The Jefferson Administration

The Jefferson Presidency

Jefferson's presidency focused on undoing Federalist policies at home and maintaining American neutrality abroad.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the main developments in domestic and foreign policy during Thomas Jefferson's two terms as president

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Jefferson's presidency was marked by foreign and domestic successes. Domestically, he implemented limitations of government, supported yeoman farmers and the growth of agriculture, and reduced military expenditures.
  • His greatest foreign policy success was the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803.
  • After his successful reelection in 1804, Jefferson's term became increasingly preoccupied with questions of foreign policy arising from the global war between Great Britain and Napoleonic France.
  • Jefferson was preoccupied with maintaining American neutrality amidst the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. The administration's overriding goal was the promotion of political and social democracy in a largely agrarian United States.

Key Terms

  • yeoman: A non-slaveholding, family farmer who owned a small amount of land in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jefferson's Domestic Policies


Thomas Jefferson was a Democratic- Republican, and his election in 1800 marked a shift in power from the previous Federalist administrations. His overriding goal as president was the promotion of political democracy and the physical expansion of the country to provide land for a nation of citizen -farmers. His ideal citizen was a yeoman, or a farmer who owned and lived off his own land, rather than one who relied on wages from an employer. (Jefferson also admired skilled artisans and tradesmen, placing them in a similar category as the yeomen.) For Jefferson, political democracy only could flow from an economically independent citizenry. In pursuit of these goals, he sought to pare down the executive branch—not because of an aversion to government per se, but rather because of his fear that, as had happened in the United Kingdom, a powerful central government would only help those who were already wealthy and powerful.

Over the course of his two terms as president—he was reelected in 1804—Jefferson reversed the policies of the Federalist party by turning away from urban commercial development. Instead, he promoted agriculture through the sale of western public lands in small and affordable lots. Perhaps Jefferson’s most lasting legacy is his vision of an “empire of liberty.” He distrusted cities and instead envisioned a rural republic of land-owning white men, or Republican yeomen. He wanted the United States to be the breadbasket of the world, exporting its agricultural commodities without suffering the ills of urbanization and industrialization. Because American yeomen would own their own land, they could stand up against those who might try to buy their votes with promises of property.

Limited Government

Jefferson championed the rights of states and insisted on limited federal government as well as limited taxes. This stood in stark contrast to the Federalists’ insistence on a strong, active federal government. Jefferson also believed in fiscal austerity. He pushed for—and Congress approved—the end of all internal taxes, such as those on whiskey and rum. The most significant trimming of the federal budget came at the expense of the military; Jefferson did not believe in maintaining a costly military, and he slashed the size of the navy Adams had worked to build up. Nonetheless, Jefferson responded to the capture of American ships and sailors by pirates off the coast of North Africa by leading the United States into war against the Muslim Barbary States in 1801, the first conflict fought by Americans overseas.


Jefferson was very passionate about education, and in 1806 he pushed an amendment into congress that would legalize federal support for public education. Congress did not pass it, so Jefferson gave it to his home state of Virginia so it could be used in their constitution. Jefferson made an understandable plan for education that included elementary, high school, and college levels. He had six goals for education that he hoped would make all people "productive and informed voters" by accomplishing the following:

  • Allowing people to deal with their own business,
  • Giving a people the ability to express their own opinions and ideas in writing,
  • Bettering their thoughts and faculties through reading,
  • Allowing people to comprehend their duties and the duties of their neighbors,
  • Making people aware of their rights and how to use them, and
  • Helping people use what they know in their social lives.

Foreign Policy

In his foreign policy, Jefferson was torn between his impulse toward expansion and the need to avoid war with France, Britain, and Spain. His administration's diplomatic and geopolitical position was complicated by the successful slave revolution in Haiti and Napoleon's attempt to reconquer the island. This led to his government's purchase of the Louisiana Territory (which included all of the land drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries up to the crest of the Rocky Mountains) from France in 1803. In addition, Jefferson sought unsuccessfully to incorporate Spanish Florida (including the Gulf Coast west to Louisiana) into the Union and engaged in a punitive war with the Barbary States of North Africa.

By his second term, Jefferson's attention drifted mostly to problems overseas. The global war between Great Britain and Napoleon's France was hurting American commerce. Jefferson responded with the Embargo Act—a total prohibition on foreign trade imposed in 1807. Despite the unpopularity this caused in maritime communities, especially in New England, Jefferson left office widely regarded as a successful President.


Thomas Jefferson: Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, was the third president of the United States.

Judicial Review and Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a landmark case that laid the foundation for the exercise of judicial review in the United States.

Learning Objectives

Describe the facts of Marbury v. Madison and the ensuing principle of judicial review

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Marbury v. Madison (1803) was a landmark case in U.S. law that helped to define the boundary between the American government's constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches.
  • The case resulted from a petition to the Supreme Court by William Marbury, who President John Adams had appointed as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia during his final days of office in an effort to weaken the incoming Democratic-Republican Congress.
  • The Democratic-Republican administration under Jefferson had no desire to seat John Adams' Federalist " midnight judges," and it refused to deliver the remaining commissions to these judges.
  • Marbury sued the Jefferson administration, and the case eventually landed before the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall, himself a Federalist, ruled against the government in the case of Marbury v. Madison.
  • The case established the precedent of judicial review, which is the power of the judicial branch to prohibit actions of the other two branches when they contradict the Constitution.

Key Terms

  • John Marshall: The chief justice of the United States (1801–1835) whose court opinions helped lay the basis for American constitutional law and made the Supreme Court a branch of government equal with the legislative and executive branches.
  • Marbury v. Madison: A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court established the exercise of judicial review under Article III of the Constitution.
  • Judicial Review: The doctrine under which legislative and executive actions are subject to assessment (and possible invalidation) by the judiciary.

The Case of Marbury v. Madison

Marbury v. Madison (1803) is a landmark case in U.S. law that laid the foundation for the exercise of judicial review under Article III of the Constitution. Its outcome helped define the boundary between the American government's constitutionally separate executive and judicial branches.

The case resulted from a petition to the Supreme Court by William Marbury, who President John Adams had appointed as justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, but whose commission was not subsequently delivered. Marbury implored the Supreme Court to force Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the documents. The Court acknowledged that Madison's refusal to send forth the commission was both illegal and remediable. However, it deemed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which enabled Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court, to be unconstitutional. The petition was therefore denied.


The Judiciary Act of 1801

In the presidential election of 1800, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent Federalist John Adams and became the third president of the United States. Although the election was decided on February 17, 1801, Jefferson did not take office until March 4, 1801, leaving outgoing president Adams and the predominantly Federalist sixth Congress in power for nearly a month. During this month, Adams and the Federalist Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801. This Act modified the Judiciary Act of 1789 by establishing ten new district courts, expanding the number of circuit courts from three to six, and adding additional judges to each circuit (giving the president the authority to appoint federal judges and justices of the peace). The act also reduced the number of Supreme Court justices from six to five, effective upon the next vacancy in the Court.

The "Midnight Judges"

On March 3, just before the end of his term, Adams took advantage of the newly modified Judiciary Act by appointing 16 Federalist circuit judges and 42 Federalist justices. This was a clear attempt on Adams' part to stymie Jefferson and the incoming Democratic-Republican Congress. The appointees, infamously known as the "Midnight Judges," included William Marbury. An ardent Federalist and vigorous supporter of the Adams presidency, Marbury was appointed justice of the peace in the District of Columbia.

On the following day, the Senate approved the appointments en masse. In order for the appointments to go into effect, however, the commissions had to be delivered to those appointed. This task fell to John Marshall, who, despite being appointed chief justice of the United States, continued serving as the acting secretary of state at President Adams' personal request.

While a majority of the commissions were delivered, it proved impossible to deliver all of them before Adams' term expired. According to Marshall, the appointments, "... had been properly submitted and approved, and were therefore legally valid documents." Because the appointments were routine in nature, Marshall assumed that new Secretary of State James Madison would ensure their delivery. When Jefferson was sworn in as president on March 4, however, he ordered Levi Lincoln, the new administration's attorney general and acting secretary of state until Madison's arrival, to withhold the remaining appointments. Without the commissions, the appointees were unable to assume their appointed offices. In Jefferson's opinion, any commissions that were not delivered were void.

The Judiciary Act of 1802

The newly sworn-in Democratic-Republican seventh Congress immediately nullified the Judiciary Act of 1801 with their own Judiciary Act of 1802. This new act reestablished that the judicial branch would once again operate under the dictates of the original Judiciary Act of 1789. Additionally, it replaced the Supreme Court's two annual sessions with one session to begin on the first Monday in February and canceled the Court term scheduled for June of that year, with the hope of delaying a ruling on the constitutionality of the repeal act until months after the new judicial system was in place.

Court Ruling and Judicial Review

In deciding the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall agreed that Marbury had the right to a legal remedy, establishing that individuals had rights even the president of the United States could not abridge. However, Marshall also found that Congress’s Judicial Act of 1789, which would have given the Supreme Court the power to grant Marbury remedy, was unconstitutional because the Constitution did not allow for cases such as Marbury’s to come directly before the Supreme Court. Thus, Marshall established the principle of judicial review, which strengthened the court by asserting its power to assess (and possibly nullify) the actions of Congress and the president. Jefferson was not pleased, but regardless, Marbury did not get his commission.

Many legal scholars argue that the power of judicial review in the United States predated Marbury v. Madison and that this case was merely the first Supreme Court case to exercise an already existing power. Nothing in the text of the Constitution, however, had explicitly authorized the power of judicial review prior to this monumental case. As such, the case set an important precedent for the future of the U.S. government and further established the system of checks and balances between the branches of government.

The Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States overnight and marked a major invasion into American Indian territory.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the general role that New Orleans and Louisiana played in the diplomatic maneuvers of France, Spain, and the fledgling United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Louisiana Purchase, often considered Thomas Jefferson 's greatest achievement as president, involved the purchase of the entire Mississippi basin from Napoleonic France in 1803.
  • Because of his vision of an agrarian nation, President Jefferson welcomed opportunities for the territorial expansion of the United States, believing it would produce new farm lands for yeomen.
  • A growing French presence in New Orleans and Louisiana led to mounting fears in the United States. Federalists urged Jefferson to take action, so he sent delegates to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans from France.
  • After its failed reconquest of Haiti, France lost interest in a New World empire and sold the entire Louisiana territory to the United States for $15 million. The United States doubled in size overnight, assuring its future as a dominant world force.
  • Although the Louisiana Purchase brought new opportunities for U.S. expansion, it marked a major invasion into American Indian lands in the western part of the continent.

Key Terms

  • Louisiana Territory: An organized incorporated area of the United States that existed from July 4, 1805, until June 4, 1812.
  • Jeffersonians: Nineteenth-century politicians who supported Thomas Jefferson for president and had a narrow interpretation of the Constitution's Article I provisions granting powers to the federal government.
  • Daniel Boone: An American explorer and frontiersman who was instrumental in the development of the Wilderness Road.

The Louisiana Purchase, often considered Jefferson's greatest achievement as president, involved the purchase of the entire Mississippi basin from Napoleonic France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States overnight, provided an outlet to the sea for the products of the western states, and ensured a place for the United States among the world's largest powers.

The Louisiana Purchase covered modern-day Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, as well as portions of modern-day Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Alberta (Canada), and Saskatchewan (Canada).

The Louisiana Purchase: The modern United States, with Louisiana Purchase overlay

Connection to the West

New western states of America were only loosely tied to the centers of national power in the East. The Appalachian Mountains separated the Atlantic seaboard from the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes, so in order to bring crops to market, western farmers and traders—the "men of the western waters," as they were called—rafted down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their tributaries to sell their goods in New Orleans, which is near the mouth of the Mississippi.

The Wilderness Road

For more than fifty years, European-American settlers used the Wilderness Road as the primary route to reach Kentucky from the eastern seaboard. Because the Appalachian Mountains formed a natural barrier and made passage to the West nearly impossible, Daniel Boone established the Wilderness Road in 1775, when he created a trail for the Transylvania Company from Virginia through central Kentucky. The Wilderness Road was steep and rough, and it only could be traversed on foot or horseback, making passage difficult.

Despite these dangerous and adverse conditions for westward travel, the high number of immigrants from Europe (particularly the Scots-Irish from Ulster) were motivated to move west in search of land to settle. In the span of a few decades, more than 200,000 settlers and invaders traveled via the Wilderness Road. The Road also served as the primary means of commercial transport for the early settlers in Kentucky: Horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs found a waiting market in the Carolinas, Maryland, and Virginia. By 1840, the Wilderness Road was largely abandoned, although modern highways still follow much of its original route.

Jefferson's Agrarian Vision

The Jeffersonians believed in democracy and equality of political opportunity (for white male citizens), and prioritized the yeoman way of life. Yeoman agriculture, as depicted by the Democratic- Republicans, was a system of farming in which an independent (white male) farmer owned his own land and the fruits of his labor (and therefore, could impartially participate in the political process). Democratic-Republicans considered the yeoman to be the backbone of American society because he emulated the values of independent farming, land ownership, and control of one's labor. The frugality, austerity, and self-reliance of the yeoman were virtues they believed should be emulated by the federal government. Jeffersonians hoped to embody a decentralized system of limited government and maximum individual liberty in order to circumscribe tyrannical powers.

Because of these values, Jeffersonians welcomed opportunities for the territorial expansion of the United States, believing it would produce new farm lands for yeomen. They also considered expansion an effective way of forcing western American Indian tribes to integrate into American society.

French Influence in the Americas

The city of New Orleans, originally French, had been governed by Spain since the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), when France ceded Louisiana to Spain. At the turn of the century, the war between France and Britain raged on. The revolutionary shockwaves that echoed from America to France also resounded in Saint-Domingue (near present-day Haiti), France's largest and wealthiest Caribbean colony, where a successful slave revolt had allowed those rebelling to take control of the island. Napoleon, temporarily at peace with Britain, decided to reconquer the island and, hoping to restore France's empire in the New World, convinced Spain to cede Louisiana back to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800.

While Spain's sale of the territory back to France in 1800 went largely unnoticed, fear of an eventual French invasion spread throughout the United States when, in 1801, Napoleon sent a military force to secure New Orleans. In January 1802, France also sent General LeClerc to Saint-Domingue to reestablish slavery, reduce the rights of free people of color, and take back control of the island from slave rebels. This colony had been France's wealthiest in the Caribbean, and Napoleon wanted its productivity restored.

Alarmed by the French actions and its intention to reestablish an empire in North America, Jefferson declared neutrality in relation to the Caribbean, refusing credit and other assistance to the French but allowing war contraband to get through to the rebels to prevent France from getting a foothold again. Southerners also feared Napoleon would free all of the slaves in Louisiana, which could prompt slave uprisings elsewhere. Though Jefferson urged moderation, Federalists sought to use this against Jefferson and called for hostilities against France.

Negotiating the Louisiana Purchase

Jefferson disliked the idea of purchasing Louisiana from France: He believed that a U.S. president did not have the authority to make such a deal, as it was not specified in the Constitution. He also thought that to do so would erode states' rights by increasing federal executive power. On the other hand, he was aware of the potential threat that France could pose in that region and was prepared to go to war to prevent a strong French presence there.

Jefferson empowered his diplomats to approach the French with an offer to buy New Orleans for $10 million. The French armies were quickly wilting from tropical fevers and had been unable to defeat the skillful Haitian revolutionaries. Napoleon, hoping to cut his losses, decided to abandon the New World entirely and concentrate his attentions on a planned invasion of England. Desperate for revenue, he countered Jefferson's offer with an offer of $15 million for all of Louisiana, rather than just New Orleans. The Louisiana Territory was vast, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to Rupert's Land in the north, and from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west.

Acquiring the territory would double the size of the United States at a sum of less than 3 cents per acre. The American delegates, dumbfounded by the offer, thought Napoleon might change his mind, and so they quickly agreed and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on April 30, 1803. Jefferson, too, set aside his strict constructionist principles and worked to get Republicans in Congress to approve the deal. The U.S. border moved a thousand miles to the west, and the United States took possession of the old French-speaking towns of St. Louis and New Orleans. All of these transactions were completed with little regard or respect for the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the lands for centuries.

Incorporating Louisiana

Louisiana was incorporated into the Union in a fashion similar to that of the Old Southwest (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama) and, to a lesser extent, to that of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota). Territorial governments were established in which a governor was appointed in Washington and presided over a legislature elected by settlers. A territory could be proclaimed when its population reached 5,000 settlers.

Unlike the Old Northwest, where the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery, Louisiana already boasted an active plantation regime in its southern tier. All slave societies enacted codes to regulate the behavior of enslaved peoples, and with the transfer of power from the French to the Americans, the old French Code Noir, or Black Law, was replaced by the more restrictive Slave Laws of the Deep South. Louisiana would soon become home to some of the wealthiest and most exploitative plantation regimes. The question of slavery in the Louisiana Territory was left ambiguous in the North, and in later decades, this ambiguity would dominate American life.

Effects of the Purchase

Despite Jefferson's adherence to the ideal of a limited central government (which would not be empowered to negotiate such an expansive land deal) and his own commitment to policies for federal debt reduction (the United States paid France $15 million for the territory), the Louisiana Purchase symbolized the success of Jeffersonian democracy in several ways. Jefferson's vision of a decentralized agricultural society, in which yeomen acquired land across vast amounts of territory, seemed a possibility in 1803 with such a large amount of land being opened for settlement. With the Louisiana Purchase, new resources, trading routes, and extensive contact with other territories and provinces allowed for unprecedented opportunities for American farmers to cement their "independence" by populating western regions, regardless of the peoples who inhabited them.

Although the Louisiana Purchase brought new opportunities for U.S. expansion, it marked a major invasion into American Indian lands in the western part of the continent. With the Louisiana Purchase, American Indian tribes were forcibly removed to westernmost areas—facilitating the massive and coercive redistribution of American Indian land over the course of the nineteenth century. The purchase also had several long-term detrimental effects on the United States. State-formation out of the Louisiana territory would become a major issue for the federal government toward the mid-nineteenth century, as debates over the establishment of free versus slave states initiated a sectarian divide in Congress that eventually led to the Civil War.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to lead an expedition called the "Corps of Discovery."

Learning Objectives

Discuss the significance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Under the direction of President Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery to explore the western lands and find a passage to the Pacific Ocean.
  • The corps left St. Louis in 1804, reached what is present-day Oregon and the Pacific Ocean in 1805, and returned in 1806. Their journey was made possible through the aid and guidance of Sacagawea, a 17-year-old Shoshone woman, and her French husband, Toussaint Charbonneau.
  • In addition to scientifically describing the land, waters, flora, and fauna of the western territories, the corps was tasked with asserting power over the land.
  • The information the expedition brought back proved invaluable for purposes of colonization. With the territory now more accurately mapped, the United States felt more internal justification for its illegal claim over the western lands of the American Indians.

Key Terms

  • William Clark: An American explorer, soldier, and territorial governor, best known for his role as a leader of the Corps of Discovery.
  • Meriwether Lewis: An American explorer, soldier, and public administrator, and Jefferson's personal secretary, best known for his role as a leader of the Corps of Discovery.
  • Sacajawea: A Lemhi Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Expedition, acting as an interpreter and a guide in their exploration of the western United States.


President Jefferson had long been interested in the trans-Mississippi West. Despite three centuries of European emigration, North America beyond the Mississippi River had remained largely untouched. Only a few French-Canadian trappers had ventured that far west. Jefferson was highly interested in surveying the flora, fauna, geology, and ethnography of the vast territory west of the Mississippi River. Thus, in 1804, he commissioned his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to join frontiersman and soldier Captain William Clark in recruiting a "Corps of Discovery." Their mission, in addition to surveying and recording the geography and observing the native peoples of the region, was to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean in order to facilitate trade with Asia.

Jefferson wanted to improve the ability of American merchants to access the ports of China. Establishing a river route from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean was crucial to capturing a portion of the fur trade that had proven so profitable to Great Britain. He also wanted to legitimize American land claims to rivals such as Great Britain and Spain. Establishing an overland route to the Pacific also would bolster U.S. claims to the Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark were thus instructed to map the territory through which they would pass and to explore all tributaries of the Missouri River.

The Expedition

Having gathered woodsmen from across the country for the expedition, Lewis and Clark set out from St. Louis in the summer of 1804, rowing and sailing in long-boats up the Missouri River. Here, the easterners, accustomed to a forested landscape, were amazed to discover the vastness of the great prairies and plains of central North America.

The corps wintered among the Mandan Indians at the falls of the Missouri, in what is today North Dakota, where they met a French fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. When the corps left in the spring of 1805, Charbonneau accompanied them as a guide and interpreter, bringing along his teenage Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, and their newborn son. Charbonneau knew the land better than the Americans, and Sacagawea proved invaluable as an interpreter and a guide; in addition, the presence of a young woman and her infant convinced many groups that the men were not a war party and meant no harm.

Relations with American Indians

The corps set about making friends with American Indian tribes while simultaneously attempting to assert American power over the territory. In an effort to assert control, Lewis would let out a blast of his air rifle, a relatively new piece of technology the American Indians had never seen. The corps followed native custom by distributing gifts—including shirts, ribbons, and kettles—as a sign of goodwill. The explorers presented American Indian leaders with medallions, many of which bore Jefferson’s image, and invited them to visit their new “ruler” in the East. These medallions, or peace medals, were meant to allow future explorers to identify friendly American Indian tribes.

Not all efforts to assert U.S. dominance were peaceful, however, and several American Indian tribes rejected the expedition's intrusion onto their land. An encounter with the Blackfoot turned hostile, for example, and members of the corps killed two Blackfoot men.

Reaching the Pacific

After spending eighteen long months on the trail and nearly starving to death in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, the Corps of Discovery finally reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and spent the winter of 1805–1806 in Oregon. They returned to St. Louis later in 1806 having lost only one man, who had died of appendicitis. Upon their return, Meriwether Lewis was named governor of the Louisiana Territory. He died only three years later under circumstances that are still disputed, before he could write a complete account of what the expedition had discovered.


Lewis and Clark Expedition: This map illustrates the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, through the Louisiana Territory and across the present-day Pacific Northwest to the Pacific Ocean.

Effects of the Expedition

The Corps of Discovery accomplished many of the goals Jefferson had set. The men traveled across the North American continent and established relationships with many American Indian tribes, paving the way for fur traders and the establishment of trading posts, which later solidified U.S. claims to Oregon. Delegates of several American Indian tribes went to Washington to meet the president. The expedition collected hundreds of plant and animal specimens, several of which were named for Lewis and Clark in recognition of their efforts.

The information the expedition brought back proved invaluable, not only from a scientific standpoint, but also for purposes of colonization. With the territory now more accurately mapped, the United States felt more internal justification for its illegal claim over the western lands of the American Indians.

The Barbary Wars

The Barbary Wars were two wars fought between the United States and the Northwest African Barbary States in the early nineteenth century.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the events that led to the Barbary Wars

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Berber Muslim states of northwest Africa—Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco, collectively known as the Barbary States—regularly attacked ships in the Mediterranean, demanding tribute from various countries.
  • President Jefferson's administration refused to give the tribute and went to war in the Mediterranean in 1800, ending in an American victory and a treaty of peace in 1805.
  • After the First Barbary War, the United States found its attention diverted to its deteriorating relationship with Great Britain, and the Barbary States took this opportunity to resume attacking American and European merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • The Second Barbary War occurred in 1815 under President Madison's administration again as a result of piracy in the Mediterranean. Like the first war, the second war ended in victory for the United States and granted it full shipping rights in the Mediterranean Sea.

Key Terms

  • Barbary Pirates: Privateers who operated from North Africa, based primarily in the ports of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers; sometimes referred to as the "Ottoman corsairs."

The Barbary Wars were two wars fought at different times between the United States and the Barbary States of North Africa in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At issue was the Barbary pirates ' demand for tribute from American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. If ships of a given country failed to pay, pirates would attack the vessels and take their goods, often enslaving crew members or holding them for ransom. The administrations of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison undertook actions against the Barbary States at different times. Jefferson led the first campaign, from 1801 to 1805, against pirates' cities in what are today Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Madison directed forces for the second war in 1815.

The First Barbary War

The First Barbary War (1801–1805), also known as the Tripolitan War or the Barbary Coast War, was the first of the two wars fought between the United States and the Northwest African Berber Muslim states, known collectively as the Barbary States. These included Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, which were quasi-independent entities nominally belonging to the Ottoman Empire, along with (briefly) the independent Sultanate of Morocco. Pirate ships and crews from the Barbary States regularly attacked and captured ships in the Mediterranean, extorting ransom for the lives of captured sailors and demanding tribute from various countries to avoid further attacks.

The war began when Thomas Jefferson became president of the United States in 1800 and refused to pay the Barbary States a tribute, the amount of which was greatly increased upon his election. Upon Jefferson's refusal, Yusuf Karamanli, the Pasha (or Bashaw) of Tripoli, declared war on the United States; however, Algiers and Tunis did not follow their ally in Tripoli. In response, Jefferson sent a U.S. naval fleet to the Mediterranean on May 13, 1801, under the command of Commodore Richard Dale. Throughout the war, the U.S. navy bombarded the various fortified cities along the coast and maintained a blockade in Tripoli's harbor. After a stunning defeat at Tripoli and wearied from the blockade and raids, Yussif Karamanli signed a treaty ending hostilities on June 10, 1805, and the United States was given fair passage through the Mediterranean.

The Second Barbary War

After the First Barbary War, the United States found its attention diverted to its deteriorating relationship with Great Britain over trade with France, which culminated in the War of 1812. The Barbary pirate states took this opportunity to resume their practice of attacking American and European merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea and holding their crews and officers for ransom.

The Second Barbary War, also known as the Algerine or Algerian War, occurred in 1815 under President Madison's administration. At the conclusion of the War of 1812, the United States returned to the problem of Barbary piracy, and on March 3, 1815, Congress authorized deployment of naval power against Algiers. By the final week of June, the U.S. navy had won several battles at sea and reached the coast of Algiers. The United States initiated negotiations and made demands for compensation, and the Algerians signed a treaty under which they agreed to return all American captives and pay $10,000 for seized shipping. The treaty guaranteed no further tributes by the United States and granted the United States full shipping rights in the Mediterranean Sea.


Burning of the USS Philadelphia: This painting depicts the USS Philadelphia, previously captured by the Tripolitans, ablaze after she was boarded by Stephen Decatur and 60 men and set afire, making their escape in the ketch Intrepid, depicted in the foreground.

Slavery and Politics

Although Jeffersonians extolled the virtues of the independent yeoman, they also were strongly in favor of slavery.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the coherence and contradictions of Jefferson's positions on slavery and equality

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Jeffersonians argued that slavery was compatible with republicanism because the yeoman, with his cultivated virtues and principles, must protect slaves from independence and indolence.
  • Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson perceived slavery in the United States as similar to that in democratic Greece; he saw it as central to the "Southern way of life" and believed that it served to protect black people.
  • Jeffersonians resisted antislavery and abolition vigorously, pointing to the violence of the revolution in Haiti as justification for keeping Africans enslaved in the United States.
  • In response to the Haitian Revolution, Virginia drafted a harsher emancipation law in 1806 that was designed to minimize the number of freed slaves in the state.
  • In 1808, Jefferson signed a law banning the importation of African slaves in the international slave trade, in part to quell resistance of current slaves in the United States.

Key Terms

  • Haitian Revolution: A slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which culminated in the elimination of slavery there and the founding of a new republic.
  • yeoman: A non-slaveholding, family farmer who owned a small amount of land in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; a commoner of good standing.
  • Virginia Emancipation Law: An act signed in 1806 that permitted the re-enslavement of freedmen who remained in the state for more than 12 months.
  • manumission: The act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves.

Jeffersonian Democracy and Slavery

Unlike the majority of the northeastern Federalists, many Democratic- Republicans holding federal office during President Jefferson's era were plantation slaveowners. In the minds of Jeffersonians, yeomen only could be white (and male). It was thought that because these white men had been born and raised in a system of freedom and republicanism, they had cultivated the virtues necessary to manage their own liberties. Slaves, on the other hand, were considered uneducated, unenlightened, and simple people who could not be expected to understand the virtues of self-reliance or political freedom; they instead needed the guidance of the white farmer to manage their lives and affairs. In the minds of the Democratic-Republicans, this paradoxical cycle of master-slave relations was in no way antithetical to republican principles and individual freedom.

Jefferson considered slavery culturally important—as it was in democratic Greece and other societies of antiquity—and viewed it as central to the "Southern way of life." In agreement with many of his contemporaries, Jefferson believed slavery served to protect black people, whom he viewed as inferior or incapable of taking care of themselves. His republican worldview stressed the austerity, self-reliance, and independence engendered by small-scale agricultural farming but neglected to highlight and justify the brutal and coercive system of chattel slavery that formed the basis for large-scale plantation production. His worldview was further complicated by his personal intimate relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his household slaves.

The Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) began as a slave insurrection in the French colony of Saint-Domingue and culminated in the abolition of slavery in the French Antilles and the founding of the Haitian republic. It is generally considered the most successful slave rebellion to have occurred in the Americas and was a defining moment in the history of Africans in the "New World."


Portrait of General Toussaint Louverture: General Toussaint Louverture is the most widely known leader of the Haitian Revolution.

Jeffersonians resisted antislavery and abolition vigorously, pointing to the violence of the revolution in Haiti as justification for keeping Africans enslaved in the United States. In fact, after a slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1801, Jefferson supported French plans to retake the island and loaned France $300,000 "for relief of whites on the island." By offering aid to France, Jefferson demonstrated his firm support of the institution, proved the government's willingness to protect slaveowners' human property, and helped alleviate the worry of Southern slave owners in the United States who feared a rebellion similar to the one in Haiti.

After Haiti achieved independence in 1804, Jefferson grappled with Southern and congressional hostility toward the new black republic under the leadership of Haitian revolutionary, Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Jefferson shared planters ' fears that the success of the rebellion in Haiti would encourage similar slave rebellions and widespread violence in the South. The United States officially joined with other European nations in a policy of nonrecognition of Haiti and a boycott on Haitian trade after Dessalines declared himself emperor 1804. Jefferson also discouraged the emigration of free blacks in America to Haiti.

Modification of the Virginia Emancipation Law

In 1806, with concern developing over the rise in the number of free black people in the United States and the success of the Haitian Revolution, the Virginia General Assembly modified the 1782 slave law to permit the re-enslavement of freedmen who remained in the state for more than twelve months after manumission. This discouraged free blacks from living in the state, thereby forcing them to leave enslaved kin behind. To gain permission for manumitted freedmen to stay in the state, slaveholders were required to petition the legislature directly. This new law led to an overall decline in manumissions in the state.

End of the U.S. Slave Trade

In March of 1807, Jefferson signed a bill ending the importation of slaves into the United States. By 1808, every state but South Carolina had followed Virginia's lead in banning the importation of slaves. With the growth of the domestic slave population contributing to the development of a large internal slave trade, slaveholders did not mount much resistance to the new law. Most slave owners also believed that a domestic slave population was less dangerous than an imported one; captured Africans appeared more openly rebellious than African Americans who were born in American bondage and molded from birth in the Southern plantation slave system.

During the next few decades, as vast new lands in the Southwest were developed for the farming of short-staple cotton (a commodity made viable by the invention of the cotton gin), the demand for—and value of—domestic slaves in the United States increased. More than one million African-American slaves would be sold and transported from the Upper South and coastal areas to the Deep South, and such forced migrations frequently broke enslaved families apart.

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