Thomas Jefferson Becomes President

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, became President in 1800, although the election was by no means a sure thing. President John F. Kennedy once hosted a dinner party at the White House and invited a guest list so impressive that he joked it was the finest group of genius and talent to sit at the table “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Kennedy’s quip held as much truth as humor. A tall, loose-limbed man who was said to amble more than walk and was thus nicknamed Long Tom, Jefferson was a statesman, a writer, an inventor, a farmer, an architect, a musician, a scientist, and a philosopher.

Thus, it may not be surprising that he was also a bundle of contradictions. Jefferson was

  • An idealist who could bend the rules when he needed to accomplish something

  • A slave owner who hated slavery

  • A man who believed Africans were naturally inferior, yet for years had one of his slaves as his mistress

  • A believer in sticking to the letter of the Constitution who ignored it on at least one major issue during his presidency

  • A guy who preached frugality for the country, yet died $100,000 in debt

But Jefferson’s contradictory nature made him flexible, and flexibility in a president can be a very valuable asset. In addition, Jefferson was a true man of the people, much more so than his predecessors George Washington and John Adams.

He did away with the imperial trappings that had built up around the office, sometimes greeting visitors to the White House in his robe and slippers. That kind of informality added to the popularity he already enjoyed as author of the Declaration of Independence.

But public popularity meant pretty much diddly-squat in the election of 1800 because of the screwy way the Constitution’s drafters had set up the presidential election process. Republican Jefferson received the votes of 73 members of the Electoral College, while Federalist incumbent John Adams snagged 65. But the electors were required by the Constitution to list two names (with the second-highest vote-getter becoming vice president).

And as it happened, the 73 electors who voted for Jefferson also listed a New York politician named Aaron Burr, who had helped deliver New York to the Republican side. That meant a tie between Jefferson and Burr, and the winner had to be decided by the House of Representatives, which was still controlled by the Federalists.

The goofy system was done away with by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which was added before the next presidential election in 1804.

The Federalists took their cues mainly from Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton disliked Jefferson, but he detested Burr, with good reason. To call Burr a reptile is a slur to cold-blooded creatures everywhere. Born to a wealthy New Jersey family and well-educated, Burr established the first true political machine in the United States. He was a power-hungry schemer and a dangerous opportunist.

But even with Hamilton’s grudging support, it took 35 ballots before the House gave the presidency to Jefferson, with Burr becoming vice president. In return, Jefferson privately promised not to oust all the Federalist officeholders in the government — a promise he mostly kept.

As president, Jefferson played to his supporters, who were mainly in the South and West. He pushed bills through Congress that changed the time required to become a citizen from 14 to 5 years and repealed the tax on whiskey.

Because he wasn’t very good at finances, he left the government’s financial fortunes in the hands of his Swiss-born secretary of the treasury, Albert Gallatin, and Gallatin managed to cut the national debt almost in half.

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