U.S. President Thomas Jefferson Pros and Cons of Presidency
About the U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, a list of pros and cons in the history of his presidency.
FULL PORTRAITS OF SELECTED PRESIDENTS
His 8 Years as President:
Jefferson was one of the most brilliant men ever to serve as president. His interest in geography and natural science helped him to understand the true significance of the Louisiana Territory, and when Napoleon made his fateful offer, Jefferson acted swiftly and decisively to accept it, thereby doubling the land area of the U.S. He then dispatched his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark, on a scientific expedition to explore the new territory. (See: "In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark," Chap. 13.)
While undoubtedly a great mind, and perhaps a great man, Jefferson was certainly not a great--or even a particularly effective--president. In purchasing Louisiana from France, he did no more than any other reasonable man might have done in the same situation. Historians have praised him for showing flexibility in his principles of strict constitutional construction and limited presidential authority. What his actions on Louisiana really demonstrate is that these often-enunciated principles were only matters of convenience with Jefferson, used to justify certain ends but then abandoned when they stood in his way. The pronouncements of Jefferson, like those of any other politician, must be taken with a grain of salt.
Jefferson corrected many of the authoritarian excesses of the Adams administration-ending the celebrated "reign of terror" and returning to the people their rights of free speech and free press.
Here is another prime example of Jeffersonian hypocrisy. The President took a civil libertarian position only when it was convenient for him to do so. His interference in the Aaron Burr treason trial makes even Richard Nixon's much-publicized meddling in the Ellsberg case seem like child's play by comparison. Jefferson was determined to see his former rival hanged as a traitor, and he was ready to abandon all constitutional restraints in the process. He not only announced his opinion that Burr was guilty before the jury could consider the case, but he attempted to bribe witnesses with promises of presidential pardons if only they would testify against Burr. Concerning this case, Jefferson was the author of this incredible statement: "There are extreme cases when the laws become inadequate even to their own preservation, and where the universal resource is a dictator, or martial law."
Jefferson's cool leadership helped avoid American involvement in the Napoleonic wars that were raging in Europe. At his insistence, an embargo was placed on all American foreign trade, in hopes of forcing the European powers into respecting American maritime rights. Though this policy created considerable economic hardship, it was certainly preferable to a war for which America was woefully unprepared.
Jefferson himself must take responsibility for the difficult position in which he found himself as president. He had cut back the army and navy to such a pitiful level that the European powers could afford to ignore all American threats and requests. Even given this unnecessary situation, the embargo was a hopelessly misguided idea. It forced no concessions from the European powers, while creating widespread unemployment and considerable economic hardship for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Moreover, Jefferson's wholesale arrest of individuals and seizure of cargoes on the merest suspicion of intent to export, once more demonstrates his total disregard for civil liberties. According to Leonard Levy, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning expert on the Constitution: "To this day, the Embargo Act remains the most repressive and unconstitutional legislation ever enacted by Congress in time of peace."
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