Republicanism: Jefferson and Madison
Document Overview

Americans inaugurated a new president and a new century in 1801. Revolutionary as it was for a nation's people to transfer power peacefully from a current head of state to a new one, and in the process from one interest group or political party to another, this was not another revolutionary era. While some citizens celebrated by talking of radical change or engaging in millenialist rhetoric, most sought assurance that the establishment created in the old century would continue in the new. As most of the nation's leaders had earned their original laurels in the Revolution, Americans could be assured that its principles and institutions would continue to be the foundation of government. But in moving into the future with a new president—one they had elected because he espoused a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a limited federal government—American citizens did indicate a desire for some course corrections on the nation's journey to security and prosperity.

The new chief executive of the nation, Thomas Jefferson, and the new chief justice, John Marshall, jousted again and again over what should be the proper interpretation and implementation of the Constitution. The Federalists, voted out of the executive branch and relegated to minority status in the legislative, made the judiciary their bulwark. As the champions for each side battled in Congress, courts, and finally in the Supreme Court itself, Marshall, Jefferson, and James Madison (first as Jefferson's secretary of state and then as president), further defined the powers of their own respective branches as well as the limits of the others. In the course of their political and legal contests, these leaders, like Washington and Hamilton before them, set precedents upon which later officials would base their decisions and actions.

Jefferson presided over a growing nation—both in population and territory—which presented particular challenges to its government. Upon taking office, Jefferson faced a major foreign threat to the nation's interests and security: Napoleon Bonaparte. In November 1799 General Bonaparte made himself first consul of France (he would declare himself emperor in 1804). Napoleon wanted not only to extend France's domain in Europe but to reestablish its empire in North America. Jefferson learned of his plans and immediately took steps to counter them, engaging both explorers and diplomats to secure his country's claims. Due to that American initiative and persistence, and because of various problems both in Europe and in the Caribbean, Napoleon sold the vast territory west of the Mississippi River to the United States in 1803.

While the United States thus resolved one impediment to its national interests, it was left with what many citizens deemed an even greater one: Native American resistance. Jefferson was willing to protect Indian interests on what lands the tribes still held, but he was primarily interested in supporting white settlement of the West. Jefferson and his successors not only bought Indian lands via treaties, they promoted land exchanges in which Native Americans traded their lands east of the Mississippi for lands to the west of it. As most Indians were not willing to do this, successive presidential administrations grappled again and again with the problem of how to foster peaceful coexistance with and assimilation of Native Americans. When economic and cultural coercion did not work, they adopted policies of force.

As the nation struggled with this western challenge, it also tried to counter trans-Atlantic threats to its interests. Problems had arisen due to European conflicts, primarily British-French warfare, and the continuing growth and strength of the British empire. British dominance on the high seas led to disagreements over maritime rights. Americans, insecure because of the British presence in Canada, also accused the British of inciting Indians against them. As such American weaknesses were revealed, militants in both parties, but especially Republicans, called for a war to defend the nation's honor, rights, and institutions. The result was the "second war of American independence," as some citizens called it. The title was perhaps apt, for whereas the first had been a war for independence, this was a war coming out of American insistence that its independence and autonomy be not only acknowledged but respected. Yet, even given such a noble-sounding aim, the War of 1812 was not a popular one, nor one well waged: it was a war that both united and divided Americans.


Print This Page      Close This Page