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Thomas Jefferson's Playing Politics

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Thomas Jefferson has long been casted in a positive light as one of the nation’s most accomplished and esteemed founding fathers, yet not all of Jefferson’s actions are worthy of warranting such praise. There were often times when Jefferson appeared to renege on his preached virtues, which may cause some to characterize as hypocritical, but Jefferson never strayed too far from what he stood for. Jefferson was simply playing politics and leveraging the public opinion because he wanted to advance his moral and political principles. His ardent passion for this political philosophy highlighted the conflicting natures of liberty and unity and would be seen as an ongoing struggle during the early 19th century and throughout modern history.

At the dawn of the eighteenth century, American society had just seen its independence from England. Without the crown of England acting as the uniting form of government, the young republic was positioned to create their own government and the principles that would guide the institution. Inevitably, disagreements were made regarding these principles and rules, leading to the rise of political parties. After Washington’s presidency, two parties had formed, the Federalists, led by John Adams, and the Republicans, led by Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson’s Republican ideology, embodied by this political platform, would be what Jefferson would use to reconcile his decisions and actions, including dismantlement of Federalist actions, the Louisiana Purchase, and silence on the institution of slavery.

As the writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was able to flesh out his thoughts and ideas on how a republic should be governed and what powers were granted to the government. He drew upon the works of many philosophers, including Montesquieu, Locke, and Sidney. One idea he particularly resonated with and endorsed as one of “the best” was Sidney’s idea that “a fit leader does not hold office for his own pleasure, glory or profit, but for the good of those that are under him.” This sentiment gives insight and background behind Jefferson’s Republican platform viewpoints.

Even though he was from the planter class, Jefferson’s Republican platform espoused the “common man” and protecting his rights. This was due to his strong belief of serving for the sake of the American people who did not have an abundance of wealth or a high status, like those of his opposing party, the Federalists. Moreover, the Republican Party supported states rights because of the fear of centralized federal power, which by nature takes power away from people as groups with their own individual interests. These differences between the political parties show where Jefferson’s values lie and how firmly he believed in this form of savior complex for the American people dubbed as the “common man” at the time.

Jefferson’s value in the principle was more visibly expressed once he got elected into office after making efforts to undo nearly everything the Federalists enacted, particularly the Sedition Act by allowing it to expire and pardoning those imprisoned by it. Because the Sedition Act of 1798 was highly scrutinized due to the fact that it impeded the ability for Republicans and other naysayers to criticize the Federalist government, Jefferson’s idle renewal of the act could be interpreted as a political power play to boost and retain his support and ultimately gain the likes of the public. Expressing his resentment was essentially a public manifestation that would help secure his foothold in office because it declared Jefferson’s opposition to the Federalist measure. More so than that, Jefferson strongly felt that the act, and the Federalists themselves, threatened the livelihood of the republic. As written in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, he argued that it threatened civil liberties, a principle that could be traced to Jefferson’s own mission to protect “those that are under him”. Jefferson was a zealous believer in liberty and the rights of man. It was his passion for these principles that acted as the principal motivating factor behind playing politics, which for him, was a means to an end that sometimes coincided with his political and moral basis.

The power play to achieve this means to an end is also seen in 1803 when Jefferson makes a deal known as the Louisiana Purchase. As a Republican, Thomas Jefferson was a strict interpreter of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, he adhered strongly to the written word of the Constitution and believed that if a deed in question was not explicitly written out, then it could not be authorized. Though the executive power to purchase land from a foreign power was never stated anywhere in the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson nevertheless purchased the massive parcel of land west of the Mississippi River from the French, a deal referred to as the Louisiana Purchase. While it may appear that he abandoned his political principles by exercising a federal power not explicitly stated as an enumerated power, Jefferson never entirely did as he sought them as the end goal.

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At the time of the acquisition, the patch of land west of the Mississippi River was essentially undeveloped. Because this barren land equated to more opportunities of property ownership and independence, it is arguable that Jefferson transgressed his powers in order to shore up support for reelection and strengthen his political base. The prospects of owning their own land and claiming their own independence was appealing to many of the common people, so it was not surprising that many were “overjoyed with the treaty, hailing it as the greatest American achievement since the Declaration of Independence”. However, Jefferson’s vision behind the deal may have surpassed that.

Considering the vast amount of land the Louisiana Purchase had to offer, Jefferson could have perceived the ramifications to be so auspicious that it became worth it to temporarily vacate party grounds. Because the idea of republicanism “intensely concerned the broader social and moral condition of the country”, it was never so much the states rights or strict constructionist characteristics of republicanism that have always appealed so fervently to Jefferson but rather the moral values tied to the ideology. Buying this land was a means to ensure that individualism and the moral aspects of republicanism would continue to survive through the “virtuous landowners” and their “posterity” who would inhabit the land and secure “the blessings of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'. Jefferson believed his moral principles were to be spread and eternalized within generations of families and towns that would eventually develop, which is a vision so in line with the cause that it explains why he sidestepped his strict interpretation approach in order to carry out a deal he believed to be so integral to the survival of republicanism and preservation of the rights of the common man.

Therefore, Jefferson played politics by being contingent on the public support he would garner not just as a means to help his reelection but also to defend the Louisiana Purchase by his Federalist critics. Even after recognizing “the possibility of losing power to the Federalists” as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson “proceeded with the treaty”. Politics was played in a different sense, yet it still was a mechanism that would allow Jefferson to push his principles and ensure republicanism would endure.

Jefferson’s political ideology also influenced his actions related to the institution of slavery. During this time, fear of the African American population was deeply woven into American society, particularly in the South. With the Haitian Revolution sparking fears of slave uprisings and the ever-increasing dependency on slaves to produce crops on plantations, it became evident that slavery and the subjugation of black men and women were not going anywhere anytime soon. Jefferson privately voiced his feelings against the institution “because he feared that the terms in which he spoke of slavery and the constitution of Virginia might produce and irritation which will revolt the minds of our countrymen against reformation” and “do more harm than good”. Slavery was such a highly contentious issue that it had an immense power to quickly foment animosity should anyone dare to vilify it. This explains why “the dominant theme of Jefferson’s administration on the subject of slavery was discreet silence”.

Jefferson’s contradicting internal belief and public sentiment on slavery again portray him as a hypocritical man in his values, but the one value he vehemently cherished and embraced above all else remained constant. The only effective place for Jefferson to practice and impose his morally-driven political principles of republicanism and public virtue and would be in the seat of executive power, so it was crucial for him to rally society in his favor. Because slavery was an institution that the South so heavily relied on, his chances at office would have immediately been killed had he publicly voiced opposition against it. Thus, it was essential for him to adopt a publicly neutral standpoint on slavery in order to maintain his power. It was his decision to assume this silent stance on slavery that Jefferson was able to avoid compromising his political chances by making sure he was not alienating any group that stood on either side of the issue. While this was Jefferson playing politics to ensure his presidency, it was also Jefferson securing the opportunity once again to carry out his principles and political values as an impassioned believer in serving the common people. Unlike the President’s more palpable alignment on matters such as the Sedition Act and the Louisiana Purchase, reticence was key to upholding political unity and securing office in what was already a divided republic.

Throughout his career up until and during his two terms as president, Jefferson often appeared to contradict his values in his actions that could be viewed as hypocritical, but it was these self-contradictions that were just a political means to an end during which Jefferson stayed true all along. He was just a fervent believer in republicanism, doing whatever he can to keep it alive even if the method of doing so was conflicting. The Republican was so imbued with the principles embodied by a political ideology that he was willing to go to great lengths to sustain them. Principle was intertwined with politics for Jefferson, making the option of sacrificing a means to achieving an end a lot more appealing and logical.

During Jefferson’s attempts to keep the republic together, it became apparent that more unity as a whole came at the expense of less liberty for some. Consolidating his political base during Sedition Act meant relinquishing the liberty of government to restrict speech when it was taken as a measure of safety. Uniting the Republicans by overlooking slavery abdicated the freedom of slaves as well as his own manifestation of sentiment towards the institution. Assuming federal power of buying land to push for embracement of Republican principles suggested a reduction of power and liberty for states and their rights. This shifting balance between unity and liberty would not only take place during Jefferson’s advancement of republicanism and its concomitant principles throughout his presidency but relentlessly even after President Jefferson is everything but a president.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Playing Politics. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/thomas-jeffersons-playing-politics/
“Thomas Jefferson’s Playing Politics.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/thomas-jeffersons-playing-politics/
Thomas Jefferson’s Playing Politics. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/thomas-jeffersons-playing-politics/> [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
Thomas Jefferson’s Playing Politics [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Mar 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/thomas-jeffersons-playing-politics/
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