When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he represented the Democratic-Republican Party, which had nominated him in an effort to reduce the political power of the Federalist Party. As a gentleman landowner, founding father and foreign diplomat, Jefferson's political views underwent changes over the years, largely in reaction to the current events of his times.
Before the Revolution
Events leading up to the Revolutionary War challenged the political beliefs of all the American colonists but especially those in government. In his first political role in Virginia's House of Burgesses, Thomas Jefferson met with calls for relief from British taxation.
With a classical education as a young boy and later at the College of William & Mary, Jefferson was not by nature a political agitator but rather a scholar and lawyer pledged to uphold the law. However, he had natural curiosity about the world around him, and when he joined the House of Burgesses in 1768, this curiosity led him to find out why others in the House, such as Thomas Henry, were up in arms.
Jefferson ended up joining the radicals in the House who rebelled against British oppression. In 1774, he wrote "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" to present to the First Continental Congress. In it, he listed the grievances that the colonies had against the King, including taxation without representation in Parliament. Jefferson also asserted that colonists owned and developed their land independently rather than as British subjects, and therefore did not owe property taxes to the King.
The treatise sparked lively debate among Congress members and helped establish Jefferson as a writer and patriot. However, it did not completely convince the assembly that it was time to make a clean break from British rule.
With "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," Jefferson declared a significant change in his political beliefs. Whereas before he entered politics, he was a law-abiding citizen, he now was outspoken in his opposition to British law and domination.
During the Revolutionary War
With his written and verbal support of colonial independence, his status as a wealthy landowner and his political background, Jefferson had become part of the inner circle that would one day be known as the founding fathers. He sealed his instrumental role in the American Revolution by composing the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents in American history. Jefferson was chosen as one of five committee members tasked with creating the document, and the others, even well-respected writer Benjamin Franklin, deferred to the younger man's skill and motivation.
In 1777, the Jefferson wrote the "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," in which he stated the liberal view that people had the right to worship as they chose. The statute became law the following year in Jefferson's home state. The law foreshadowed the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which Jefferson supported but would not see in his lifetime. It also implied Jefferson's belief in the separation of church and state, which was fundamental to his political ethics.
Jefferson's Republican Party
George Washington appointed both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to his presidential cabinet. The two appointees had little in common. Jefferson was twelve years Hamilton's senior. Hamilton was gregarious while Jefferson was reserved. Hamilton was a city dweller, but Jefferson's heart was in the farm lands. The significant differences in their political views, however, were the sparks that fed the fire of their conflict.
Jefferson firmly believed that people should control their own destinies with little governmental interference. Hamilton, in contrast, believed in strong governmental controls. When Hamilton began pushing for a stronger government and increased presidential powers, Jefferson recoiled, believing such increased power would restrict agriculture and impoverish the people.
To prevent Hamilton's plans from moving forward, Jefferson formed a new political party, which he called the Republicans. Hamilton, in return, organized his own party, the Federalists.
Jefferson's Republican Presidency
The Federalists plagued Jefferson's first run for president in 1796 with accusations of hypocrisy and elitism, influencing voters to the point that they elected John Adams, a Federalist, instead. Jefferson ran again in 1800, and Hamilton by this time had backed off. When the vote ended in a tie with candidate Aaron Burr, Hamilton went so far as to support Jefferson for president, calling him wise albeit touched with fanaticism.
Jeffersonian Republicans revered equality and virtue and eschewed class distinctions. They took a relatively narrow view of the rights conferred to government by the Constitution. When President Jefferson approved the Louisiana Purchase, he was greatly concerned that to do so was overstepping his Constitutional powers.
During his two terms as president, Jefferson molded the fledgling Republic into a model democracy that was ostensibly devoid of class distinctions. The United States became a country where thriving agriculture and growing cities had equally important economic roles.
Political Life After the Presidency
Jefferson's major project after he returned to Virginia was founding a university. He not only drew up plans for the physical campus of the University of Virginia, but he also designed the institution as a public entity where students of diverse backgrounds could coexist and learn with faculty. Jefferson envisioned a place where the focus was on discovery and a "republican" curriculum.