The Jefferson Administration

*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 was 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 three frigates (USS President, Essex, and Philadelphia) and a schooner (USS Enterprise) 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. Decatur quickly captured two Algerian ships in June 1815.  Decatur gave those two ships back in exchange for a release of prisoners, a payment of $10,000, and a promise to leave American shipping alone and demand no more tribute.  He then went on to make similar demands of the Bey of Tunis and to remind the Pasha of Tripoli of his old agreements, and in the years to come, Britain and France would end the Barbary threat for good. 


*Jefferson also faced a foreign threat to domestic, 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 want to have to defend far-flung colonies.  Instead, he wanted money.


*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 million dollars. 


*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¢ an acre.


*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 States Army.


*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, making him perhaps the first senator to be impeached, although the hearings were never concluded.


*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.  Pike's expedition may have even been undertaken partly as a scouting mission for the conspirators, as Pike was dispatched by Wilkinson.


*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 Royal Navy. 


*In 1807, HMS Leopard stopped an American warship, USS Chesapeake, off the coast of Virginia and demanded the captain turn over four sailors whom the British claimed were deserters.  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 alleged deserters (one of whom was hanged and the rest later returned to America).


*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.


*Instead, he 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 seas.


*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 Democratic-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 Federalist Hamilton.


*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 14 Augsut, 2018.
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