The Inauguration of Thomas Jefferson

Transcript of a lecture by Professor Allen C. Guelzo of Gettysburg College

There was no question in Thomas Jefferson’s mind but that his inauguration as the third President of the United States meant a completely new start for the practice of American republicanism.

Through the 1790s, Jefferson had gradually convinced himself that Hamilton and Adams had betrayed the original spirit of republicanism, even to the point of selling the American republic back into the hands of the British and the British aristocracy. Jefferson promised that his new presidency would prove to be as real a revolution in the principles of our government as the one in 1776.

A Humble Walk to the Capitol on Inauguration Day

map of the city of Washington D.C. as it would have appeared during Jefferson's inauguration
Jefferson’s Inauguration was the first to take place in the new capital city of Washington.

Certainly, everything about his inauguration on March 4, 1801, seemed to point to a dramatic new departure in American republicanism. For one thing, it was the first inauguration to take place in the new federal city of Washington and, as if to underscore the new beginning that his inauguration would bring, Jefferson deliberately laid aside the formal flourishes: the silver-buckle shoes, the knee britches and wigs, the swords—which all been the staple of Federalist public dress—and instead, he walked to the Capitol, accompanied by only a few friends and officials and a company of Maryland militia.

His inaugural address laid out the course he intended to take with unmistakable clarity. First of all, he would dismantle the structure of federal government built up by Hamilton, and pay off the national indebtedness that had made taxation and the Bank of the United States necessary. The second thing he would do would be to contain the size of the military, because permanent military forces were always a threat to the independence of a republic and, of course, military forces had been identified with Washington and with Hamilton.

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson’s policies as President were radically different from his predecessors Washington and Adams.

Thirdly, Jefferson laid out, there would be no favoritism shown in foreign policy. What that meant, translated, was that there would be no concessions to the British, who were still at war with the French. Linked to that, Jefferson announced that he would support free trade and free commerce, which meant that there would be an end to the Hamiltonian tariffs that kept foreign manufactured goods at artificially high prices for farmers in order to benefit American manufacturers.

A Watershed Moment in the History of Politics

One other thing: Jefferson promised that he would deal gently with his Federalist opponents. This was, in fact, a great moment in the history of political systems, because it is one of those rare moments when a party, or an individual, possessing power, speaking for the majority, agrees that that power will not be used by the majority to take revenge on the minority, and the minority agrees in effect to be a minority, to recognize that it has lost, but not on that basis to attempt to disrupt or overturn the system.

The smooth transition of power between these two very dissimilar leaders, Adams and Jefferson, was a real watershed. It showed that a republican experiment in popular government, even when opinion in that government was divided, could in fact take place, and that republics could survive. But, as much as he would deal gently with the Federalists, he also made it clear that he would deal firmly with them.

The unhappy John Adams stayed up nights in the week before Jefferson’s inauguration, busily signing commissions for Federalist judges…

In his inaugural address, Jefferson extended what sounded very much like an olive branch. “We have called by different names, brethren of the same principles. We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” On the one hand, Jefferson was reaching out a hand of cooperation to the Federalists and saying, “No matter what our divisions, we really are all on the same team.” However, what he meant by that was that everyone should join his team and abandon the rival team. What he meant was the elimination of the Federalists, and indeed the elimination of all party spirit, that bane of republican virtue. The unhappy John Adams stayed up nights in the week before Jefferson’s inauguration, busily signing commissions for Federalist judges, so that at least the courts could be kept out of Jefferson’s claws, and he left Washington early on the morning of Inauguration Day, as much because he could not stand the thought of personally handing the government over to Jefferson as because no one among the victorious Republicans had thought to send him an invitation.

Yet, despite Jefferson’s confident predictions about what he was going to do, and Adams’s fears about what he was going to do, Jefferson turned out to be a far cry from some kind of American Robespierre. Jefferson was not nearly the radical that his enemies painted him to be.

From the lecture series The History of the United States
Taught by Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg College