UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Revolution of 1800
*Pierre L’Enfant, a French architect and engineer hired and later
fired by George Washington, had designed Washington, D.C. to be a
glorious, neo-classical city. By the time of Jefferson’s
inauguration, however, it was still a swampy, muddy backwater in
which foreign diplomats sometimes got hardship pay for serving.
*On 4 March, 1801, Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as
president. In his inaugural address, Jefferson attempted to
bring an end to the political fighting that had characterised the
election of 1800, saying ‘We are all Republicans, we are all
Federalists,’ and promising to protect the rights of the political
*Despite his spirit of conciliation, however, Jefferson later
called his own election in 1800 a revolution.
*In terms of massive political upheaval it was not a
revolution—the election was actually very close. Jefferson
only won the election in the House of Representatives when
Hamilton influenced certain Federalist representatives to choose
Jefferson over Burr, as Hamilton believed that, for all his
faults, Jefferson was more honest and sane than Burr (who had long
been Hamilton’s political rival).
*In terms of major changes in the ranks of government officials,
it was not a revolution—although Jefferson had campaigned against
Federalist corruption, he did not, in fact, remove many
Federalists from office. Many of his own party felt
betrayed—speaking of old Federalist appointees, at least one
Jeffersonian complained that ‘few die, none resign.’
*Of course, Jefferson did appoint loyal Jeffersonian Republicans
to his cabinet. His Secretary of State was his old friend,
James Madison, and his Secretary of Treasury was Swiss immigrant
Albert Gallatin, who had served in the US Senate (before being
removed for not having lived in the US for 9 years) and in the
House of Representatives.
*However, even they were not necessarily that revolutionary:
under the responsible Gallatin, Jefferson’s administration
continued many of Hamilton’s old fiscal policies, continued to pay
off the debt, let the import tariffs stand despite their
unpopularity in the South, and despite some early debates about
it, ultimately left the Bank of the United States intact.
*The fact that few Federalists died and none resigned was
especially meaningful in the judiciary, where the Federalist
Congress had created sixteen new positions through the Judiciary
Act of 1801, to which Adams had appointed many judges at the last
minute, earning them the name ‘midnight judges.’ Chief among
these was the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John
Marshall, a Revolutionary veteran, Valley Forge survivor, and High
Federalist who would remain in office until 1835.
*The Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 (thus
eliminating the new positions held by several midnight judges) and
tried to block the others from taking office.
*One of these midnight judges was William Marbury, justice of the
peace for DC. Madison, Secretary of State, tried to keep him
from taking office by refusing (under Jefferson’s orders) to give
him the commission that would let him take office. Marbury
sued Madison in the Supreme Court, asking the Supreme Court to
order Madison to let him take office.
*In 1803 in Marbury v Madison, John Marshall, Chief
Justice of the Supreme Court and another midnight judge, ruled
against Marbury, saying that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of
1789 upon which Marbury based his case was unconstitutional
because it attempted to give the Supreme Court powers the
Constitution had not intended, thus possibly violating the concept
of separation of powers. Not only was this true, but
furthermore, Marshall was reluctant to provoke Jefferson too
*Marbury was not an important man, but his case is, because
Marbury v Madison established the precedent of judicial
review. This is the idea that the courts, especially the
Supreme Court, have the power to rule whether or not laws
(federal, state, or local) are actually constitutional. This
made the Supreme Court much more powerful that the Constitution
explicitly states that it is. This was partly because John
Marshall, who was a Federalist, wanted to make the national
government, including the judiciary, more powerful.
*In revenge, some Jeffersonians attempted to impeach another
Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Chase on the grounds that some of
his decisions in court had been politically biased. He was
extremely unpopular—Republicans even named dogs after him.
The House voted to impeach him in 1804, but the Senate concluded
that his possible biases were not sufficient to constitute a high
crime nor a misdemeanour as the Constitution required for
impeachment. This helped establish the independence and
power of the Judiciary.
*However, in some ways Jefferson did have a Revolution. In
terms of customs, his was a different presidency than that of his
predecessors. He paid little attention to etiquette.
At official dinners, Jefferson, although he entertained like an
aristocrat (spending over $10,000 on wine during his presidency),
seated people democratically, which offended many ambassadors and
other officials who were used to being seated according to rank,
not according to who could get to his seat first.
*Jefferson, who was a shy public speaker, did not address Congress
as the Federalists had, but sent an annual message, a tradition
that would not change for over a century.
*Jefferson allowed three of the four Alien and Sedition Acts to
expire (retaining the Alien Enemies Act), thus returning the time
required for naturalization of immigrants to five years, repealed
the excise tax, lowered the deficit and balanced the budget.
He also shrank the army to 2,500 men and reversed the Federalist'
policy of building a strong navy, eventually preferring a fleet of
small gunboats for coastal defence nicknamed 'Jeffs' or the
'mosquito fleet,' which proved an embarrassment, particularly when
a hurricane deposited one eight miles inland in Georgia.
*In many ways, the greatest revolution of all was the fact that
this was a bloodless transfer of power from one faction to its
opponents. When compared to other revolutions at that time
and since, this demonstrated the stability and functionality of
the Constitution and the American government.
*Thomas Jefferson's victory in the Revolution of 1800 indirectly
led to America's first foreign crisis. When Thomas Jefferson
was inaugurated in March, 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli requested a
gift of $225,000 (plus a yearly tribute of $25,000) at a time when
the entire US budget was $10 million per annum. Thomas
Jefferson refused, and the Pasha had his men cut down the flag
pole in front of the American consulate. America regarded
this as a declaration of war. Soon the Dey of Algiers and
the Bey of Tunis declared war on America as well, beginning the
First Barbary War or the Tripolitan War.
*Since independence, one of the greatest threats to the American
merchant marine had come from the coast of North Africa, an area
known as the Barbary Coast ruled by city-states called the Barbary
States. Most of the Barbary States were nominally part of
the Ottoman Empire, but in practise did as they pleased most of
the time, and they set themselves up as pirate kingdoms. The
principal Barbary States were Morocco (the only one not part of
the Ottoman Empire), Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.
*The Barbary Pirates had preyed on Mediterranean trade (and even
eastern Atlantic shipping and towns as far away as Iceland) since
the 1500s. They seized ships, goods, and treasure to pay
their annual tribute to the Sultan in Constantinople, but the most
prized loot of all was slaves—it has been estimated that up to
three million Europeans (and Americans) were made slaves in North
Africa from the 1500s through the early 1800s.
*Various European nations alternately attacked the Barbary Pirates
or bribed them to secure safety for their sailors.
Individuals, charities, and governments paid ransoms for captives
held in slavery.
*While America was allied with France during and immediately after
the Revolution, the treaty of alliance specifically gave American
sailors the protection of the French against the Barbary
Pirates. However, when the French Revolution began the old
alliance ended and America was on her own. Under George
Washington and John Adams, the United States budget included
tribute to the Barbary States. By 1800, 20% of the American
budget went to pay off the Barbary Pirates.
*America sent four warships to the Mediterranean to deal with the
threat. Twelve more frigates and several smaller ships were
sent over the next two years (which required the United States to
build more warships, despite Jefferson's wish to cut military
spending--which he did do once the war was over). Among the
naval heroes of the war were William Bainbridge and Stephen
Decatur, although the naval campaign was in fact mostly a draw,
but one that kept the Pasha's fleet trapped in Tripoli harbour,
cutting into the piracy that was his main source of income.
*The Marines were also sent to fight on the Shores of Tripoli,
which is still remembered in the Marine Corps Hymn, and the
Marines still base their dress sword on one given to a marine
officer by an Egyptian mercenary.
*Discouraged by this and worn out by the blockade, the Pasha of
Tripoli signed a peace treaty on 10 June, 1805. Jefferson
agreed to pay a ransom of $60,000 for prisoners captured during
the war. At this point, Jefferson began to shrink the Navy
to his mosquito fleet of gunboats.
*Some officers felt paying ransom and leaving the Pasha in place
was dishonourable after the Marines' victory, but most Americans
were happy the war was over and most of the world viewed it as an
American victory. However, within two years, the Dey of
Algiers was attacking American ships again.
*Barbary harassment of American ships continued until 1815, when
the United States (along with Britain and the Netherlands) went to
war with the Dey of Algiers (and his allies the Pasha of Tripoli
and the Bey of Tunis) in the Second Barbary War, which was an
American victory, and in the years to come, Britain and France
would end the Barbary threat for good.
*Jefferson also faced a foreign threat to domestic security, and
one that threatened the Western farmers who were among his
supporters. In preparation for a secret agreement to return
Louisiana to France, Spain refused to allow Americans to store
goods in New Orleans to await shipment overseas. Westerners
were furious, and Jefferson was worried, because Spain had posed
no threat (Jefferson assumed that eventually America would grow
populous enough to just overrun Spanish territory in North
America) but France under Napoleon was another matter.
*In 1803, Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris to meet up with the
current American ambassador there, Robert Livingston, with the
authority to offer up to ten million dollars for New
Orleans. If that did not work, he was to try to form an
alliance with Britain against France, because as much as he hated
Britain, he needed New Orleans more.
*Fortunately, Napoleon was changing his mind about creating an
empire in the Americas. A slave revolt in Haiti, led by
François Toussaint-L’Ouverture, had led to the death of tens of
thousands of French soldiers who were defeated by desperate slaves
and by mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever. Although
Toussaint-L’Ouverture himself was captured (and died in a French
prison), Napoleon gave up on re-taking Haiti and thus no longer
needed Louisiana to feed the sugar plantations on that
island. He also planned to resume war with Britain, and did
not want to have to defend far-flung colonies. Instead, he
*As Livingston waited for Monroe and attempted to negotiate
trading privileges in New Orleans, Napoleon offered him all of
Louisiana, and Livingston agreed to purchase it for fifteen
*Jefferson was both thrilled and horrified. He had not
expected to get so much so quickly, and was not sure that the
executive's diplomatic power extended to making such a treaty,
which was a real philosophical problem for a strict
constructionist such as himself. On the other hand,
Louisiana was too valuable to let go, and Jefferson worried that
if he did not act quickly, Napoleon might change his mind.
Therefore, even though he thought the purchase of Louisiana in
this way was unconstitutional, he submitted the treaties to the
Senate for approval, where they found it necessary and proper to
agree, stretching the elastic clause wide enough to fit Louisiana
through, and buying 828,000 square miles for a price of about 3¢
*Despite his injured scruples, Jefferson was enthusiastic about
creating an 'empire of liberty' to stretch across North America,
and even before beginning negotiations with France, he had already
planned an expedition into the interior of North America, in hopes
of preparing for the future expansion of American yeomen farmers
into the area. Jefferson also hoped that the Missouri River
might link up somewhere in the interior of the continent with the
Columbia River, thus allowing direct water-borne trade between the
Atlantic Coast and the Pacific.
*The Corps of Discovery set off from St Louis under the leadership
of Jefferson's secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and army officer
William Clark, in 1804, and returned in 1806. Along the way,
they were aided by an Indian woman named Sacajawea who was married
to a French fur trader and by other Indians (although they fought
with some, too, and avoided a fight with yet others only because
they turned out to be led by Sacajawea's long-lost brother).
They not only crossed most of Louisiana, but made it to the
Pacific Coast, laying claim to land in Oregon also claimed by
Spain, Britain, and Russia. They described much of the
native people, landscape, and wildlife of the area.
Unfortunately, they also discovered not a Northwest Passage
between the Missouri and Columbia rivers, but a great
disappointment: the Rocky Mountains.
*In 1805-1806, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike led an expedition across
the Great Plains and eventually into Colorado and New Mexico where
he was eventually captured by the Spanish and returned to
America. Along the way he sighted (but did not visit) the
mountain named Pike's Peak in his honour and scouted out a large
portion of the Southwest--his capture by Spain may not even have
been an accident, as it allowed him to see even more Spanish
territory while he was escorted through Mexico as a prisoner.
*Having vast, barely-settled western lands was not an unmitigated
blessing. The fears of the Framers of the Constitution that
America might split into regional confederacies or rival countries
turned out not to be completely unrealistic, as there were several
conspiracies to do just that.
*In the 1780s, Revolutionary War veteran James Wilkinson had
accepted cash payments from the Spanish government to encourage
Kentucky and other westerners to declare independence from the
United States and join the Spanish empire. Although this was
unsuccessful, Wilkinson remained in the pay of the Spanish crown
for years, even once he became Commanding General of the United
*In what is now East Tennessee, Spain sent money to the State of
Franklin in hopes of pulling it into the Spanish Empire, and the
influence of Spain was so great that what is now Middle Tennessee
was for several years known as the Mero District, after Esteban
Rodríguez Miró, the Spanish governor of Louisiana.
*In 1797, William Blount, one of Tennessee's first two US Senators
and former territorial governor, conspired with the British to
seize West Florida from Spain in exchange for his own land claims
there being recognised and Britain opening the Mississippi to
American trade. When this was discovered, the Senate
expelled Blount and began impeachment hearings against him.
During the hearings, a brawl broke out between Matthew Lyon (R-VT)
and Roger Griswold (F-CT), during which Lyon spit in the face of
Griswold (and the two became the first senators to be investigated
for violating the rules of the Senate). This makes Blount
the first senator to be impeached, although Blount himself fled to
his home in Knoxville and refused to attend the hearings, even
when the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate went to Knoxville to try
to compel him to attend. In the end, the Senate decided that
Senators could not be impeached, and the hearings ended without
Blount being convicted or exonerated. This set the precedent
that Representatives and Senators cannot be impeached, although
they can simply be expelled by their peers through a two-thirds
vote, and Blount was expelled from the U.S. Senate, although he
was soon elected to the Tennessee State Senate, where he served
until his death in 1800.
*Far from the frontier, Vice-President Aaron Burr became involved
in a plot by some New England and New York Federalists to break
away from the Union in response to Jefferson's purchase of
Louisiana (which would further diminish the influence of their
increasingly regional party). Part of this plot involved
using Federalist influence to get Burr elected governor of New
York in 1804, in which role he would lead that state out of the
Union along with the New England states. When Burr was not
elected, in large part due to the influence of Alexander Hamilton,
the plot collapsed. However, events did not work out well
for Hamilton, either.
*Hamilton had opposed Burr's candidacy due to long-standing
political, business, and personal rivalries, and may have promoted
the spreading of nasty rumours about Burr, for which he refused to
apologise (because he claimed not to have taken part in certain
specific acts of slander). Burr responded by challenging
Hamilton to a duel, which took place across the Hudson River in
New Jersey. There remains some debate as to what happened,
as everyone but the principals in the duel had their backs turned
so they could claim they had not seen anything. Hamilton
apparently threw away his shot into the air, as he had said before
the duel that he planned to (thus showing his courage but not
actually resulting in murder, although it was officially against
the Code Duello to do so), and Burr shot Hamilton in the
hip, from which point the ball bounced around inside Hamilton's
lower abdomen, a wound from which he died the next day, 12 July,
1804. Burr was charged with murder, but it never went to
trial, and he returned the Washington, D.C. to serve out the rest
of his one term as Vice-President.
*In 1805, Burr made plans to move to Mexico, where the Spanish
government had granted him some land. He also made plans
with General James Wilkinson (Governor of the Louisiana Territory
at that time) and others to raise an army and conquer Mexico, or
at least parts of it, such as Texas, along with New Orleans and
some or all of the rest of Louisiana.
*Eventually Jefferson found out about this conspiracy, and
Wilkinson turned on Burr, managing to largely escape blame
himself, while Burr was put on trial for treason. Although
many westerners spoke out both for and against Burr, the
Constitution requires two witnesses to a specifically treasonable
act, and they could not be found, so Chief Justice John Marshall
was forced to acquit him, despite great pressure from Jefferson to
find him guilty. Burr fled to Europe and even tried to
convince Napoleon to invade America and conquer Florida.
*Besides piracy and conspiracy, Jefferson faced threats from
Europe as the wars between France and Britain again drew America
into conflict with them. In 1807 Britain passed the Orders
in Council, requiring all neutral ships to dock in Britain before
proceeding on to trade in Europe. Napoleon in turn ordered
the seizure of all ships that entered British ports. Trade
with either thus endangered American lives and shipping,
interfering with a neutral power's Freedom of the Seas.
*Worse was the British practise of impressment, the kidnapping of
sailors to serve on British warships. This was common in
Britain (and other countries did it to their own subjects, too),
and the British considered anyone born a British subject to be
eligible for impressment, even British subjects who had later
become American citizens. British warships began stopping
American merchant ships on the high seas and impressing
British-born sailors, as well as many native-born Americans who
could not prove their place of birth. In is estimated that
at least 10,000 U.S. citizens were impressed at some point by the
*In 1807, HMS Leopard stopped an American warship, USS Chesapeake,
off the coast of Virginia and demanded the captain turn over four
sailors who were British-born deserters from the Royal Navy (one
of whom liked to brag about his desertion), three of whom had
since become American citizens. The American captain
refused, but was rapidly defeated with the loss of 3 men killed,
18 wounded (including the captain), and, after his surrender, the
seizure of the four deserters (the three who had become American
citizens were lashed 500 times each and then returned, the other
*Britain admitted that their captain had gone too far, and America
was furious, but Jefferson refused to go to war, both out of
principle (a republic should not get involved in wars overseas)
and out of recognition that his navy was far too weak to fight the
British or the French. Still, the Chesapeake Affair
led some Republicans to feel that America did need to build a
stronger navy and to think about a war with Britain as inevitable
(and to see the Federalists who soon seemed to forget about this
insult as treacherous).
*Jefferson, though, proposed cutting off all trade with both
Britain and France, and Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807
(and further acts to enforce it later that year and in
1808). Jefferson assumed that American trade was so
important to both Britain and France that the loss of it would
rapidly force them to accede to his demands that American ships be
able to trade freely with both and travel safely upon the high
*Although American trade was of some importance to Britain and of
a little (but less) to France, American trade with Britain
accounted for the vast majority of American foreign trade, and the
Embargo hurt American trade far more than it affected Britain or
France. American trade declined by 75-80%. It badly hurt
Federalists in New England, and the resentment it created in New
England would become a threat to national security itself as some
New Englanders talked of leaving the Union, and there was a huge
increase in smuggling across the Canadian border. It also
hurt Southerners who depended on exports of staple crops to
support their plantations. The embargo was so unpopular
across the country that it even turned some Jeffersonian
Republicans back into Federalists, and made many people curse
Jefferson's 'O Grab Me.'
*One unintended benefit of the embargo was that it obliged
Americans to develop more manufacturing (almost entirely in New
England) to compensate for the lack of manufactured goods from
Britain. The agrarian Jefferson had inadvertently done as
much or more to promote America's infant industries as the High
*As the economy declined and New England talked of secession,
Jefferson admitted that he felt the foundations of government
tremble under his feet and Congress repealed the Embargo Act on 1
March, 1809. However, it was replaced by the Non-Intercourse
Act, which still forbade trade with Britain and France (although
it allowed trade with any other country, merely excluding the two
most important), both of which still harassed American shipping.
*Like Washington before him, and in keeping with the tradition he
set, Thomas Jefferson retired after two terms as president and
retired to Monticello, after supporting the nomination of his
Secretary of State, James Madison, to succeed him.
This page last updated 19 August, 2021.