Jeffersonian Republicans
Historical leadersThomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
Founded1790s; 233 years ago (1790s)
Dissolved1820s (1820s)
Merged intoDemocratic-Republican Party
Succeeded byJacksonian Democrats
American nationalism
Political positionLeft-wing[6][7]
National affiliationAnti-Federalists (before 1789)
Anti-Administration party (1789–1792)
Democratic-Republican Party (after 1792)
Jeffersonian Era
Jefferson Medallion Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1805
The 1805 Jefferson medallion portrait by Gilbert Stuart
LocationUnited States
President(s)Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
Key eventsLouisiana Purchase
Lewis and Clark Expedition
Marbury v. Madison
War of 1812
Federalist Era Era of Good Feelings

Jeffersonian democracy, named after its advocate Thomas Jefferson, was one of two dominant political outlooks and movements in the United States from the 1790s to the 1820s. The Jeffersonians were deeply committed to American republicanism, which meant opposition to what they considered to be artificial aristocracy, opposition to corruption, and insistence on virtue, with a priority for the "yeoman farmer", "planters", and the "plain folk".[4] They were antagonistic to the aristocratic elitism of merchants, bankers, and manufacturers, distrusted factory workers, and strongly opposed and were on the watch for supporters of the Westminster system.

The term was commonly used to refer to the Democratic-Republican Party, formally named the "Republican Party", which Jefferson founded in opposition to the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton. At the beginning of the Jeffersonian era, only two states, Vermont and Kentucky, established universal white male suffrage by abolishing property requirements. But by the end of the Jeffersonian period, more than half of the states had followed suit, including virtually all of the states in the Old Northwest. States then also moved on to allowing white male popular votes for presidential elections, canvassing voters in a more modern style. Jefferson's party was then in full control of the apparatus of government – from the state legislature and city hall to the White House.

Jeffersonian democracy persisted as an element of the Democratic Party until the early 20th century, exemplified in the rise of Jacksonian democracy and the three presidential candidacies of William Jennings Bryan.


"We the People" in an original edition of the U.S. Constitution

Thomas Jefferson has been called "the most democratic of the founders".[8] The Jeffersonians advocated a narrow interpretation of the Constitution's Article I provisions granting powers to the federal government. They strenuously opposed the Federalist Party, led by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. President George Washington generally supported Hamilton's program for a financially strong national government. The election of Jefferson in 1800, which Jefferson labeled "the revolution of 1800", brought in the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson and the permanent eclipse of the Federalists, apart from the Supreme Court.[9]

Jeffersonian democracy is an umbrella term and some factions favored some positions more than others. While principled, with vehemently held core beliefs, the Jeffersonians had factions that disputed the true meaning of their creed. For example, during the Anglo-American War of 1812 it became apparent that independent state militia units were inadequate for conducting a serious war against a major country. The new Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, a Jeffersonian, proposed to build up the Army. With the support of most Republicans in Congress, Calhoun got his way.[10] However, the "Old Republican" faction, claiming to be true to the Jeffersonian Principles of '98, fought him and reduced the size of the Army after Spain sold Florida to the U.S.[11]

Historians characterize Jeffersonian democracy as including the following core ideals:

Foreign policy

The Jeffersonians also had a distinct foreign policy:[25][26]

Westward expansion

The original treaty of the Louisiana Purchase

Territorial expansion of the United States was a major goal of the Jeffersonians because it would produce new farm lands for yeomen farmers. The Jeffersonians wanted to integrate the Indians into American society or remove further west those tribes that refused to integrate. However, Sheehan (1974) argues that the Jeffersonians, with the best of goodwill toward the Indians, destroyed their distinctive cultures with their misguided benevolence.[36]

The Jeffersonians took enormous pride in the bargain they reached with France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It opened up vast new fertile farmlands from Louisiana to Montana. Jefferson saw the West as an economic safety valve that would allow people in the crowded East to own farms.[37] However, established New England political interests feared the growth of the West and a majority in the Federalist Party opposed the purchase.[38] Jeffersonians thought the new territory would help maintain their vision of the ideal republican society, based on agricultural commerce, governed lightly and promoting self-reliance and virtue.[39]

Jeffersonians' dream did not come to pass as the Louisiana Purchase was a turning point in the history of American imperialism. The farmers that Jefferson identified with conquered the West, often through violence against Native Americans. Jefferson himself sympathized with Native Americans, but that did not stop him from enacting policies that would continue the trend towards the dispossession of their lands.[40]


Jeffersonian agrarians held that the economy of the United States should rely more on agriculture for strategic commodities than on industry. Jefferson specifically believed: "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if He ever had a chosen people, whose breast He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue".[41] However, Jeffersonian ideals are not opposed to all manufacturing, rather he believed that all people have the right to work to provide for their own subsistence and that an economic system which undermines that right is unacceptable.[42]

Jefferson believed the expansion of industry and trade could lead to the development of a class of wage laborers reliant on others for income and sustenance. It would result in workers who were dependent voters. This made Jefferson apprehensive that Americans were at risk of economic exploitation and political coercion. Jefferson’s solution was, as scholar Clay Jenkinson noted, "a graduated income tax that would serve as a disincentive to vast accumulations of wealth and would make funds available for some sort of benign redistribution downward" as well as tariffs on imported articles, which were mainly purchased by the wealthy.[43] In 1811, Jefferson wrote a friend:

These revenues will be levied entirely on the rich . ... The Rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone, the whole taxes of the General Government are levied. The poor man ... pays not a farthing of tax to the General Government, but on his salt.[44]

However, Jefferson was of the belief that a tax on income, as well as consumption, would constitute excessive taxation, writing in an 1816 letter:

... if the system be established on the basis of Income, and his just proportion on that scale has been already drawn from everyone, to step into the field of Consumption and tax special articles ... is doubly taxing the same article. For that portion of Income with which these articles are purchased, having already paid its tax as Income, to pay another tax on the thing it purchased, is paying twice for the same thing; it is an aggrievance on the citizens who use these articles in the exoneration of those who do not, contrary to the most sacred of the duties of a government, to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.[45]

Similarly, Jefferson had protectionist views on international trade. He believed that not only would economic dependence on Europe diminish the virtue of the republic, but that the United States had an abundance of natural resources that Americans should be able to cultivate and use to tend to their own needs. Furthermore, exporting goods by merchant ships created risks of capture by foreign pirates and armies, which would require an expensive navy for protection.[46] Lastly, he and other Jeffersonians believed in the power of embargoes as a means to inflict punishment on hostile foreign nations. Jefferson preferred these methods of coercion to war.[47]

Limited government

Jefferson's thoughts on limited government were influenced by the 17th century English political philosopher John Locke

While the Federalists advocated for a strong central government, Jeffersonians argued for strong state and local governments and a weak federal government.[48] Self-sufficiency, self-government, and individual responsibility were in the Jeffersonian worldview among the most important ideals that formed the basis of the American Revolution. In Jefferson's opinion, nothing that could feasibly be accomplished by individuals at the local level ought to be accomplished by the federal government. The federal government would concentrate its efforts solely on national and international projects.[49] Jefferson's advocacy of limited government led to sharp disagreements with Federalist figures such as Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson felt that Hamilton favored plutocracy and the creation of a powerful aristocracy in the United States which would accumulate increasingly greater power until the political and social order of the United States became indistinguishable from those of the Old World.[48]

After initial skepticism, Jefferson supported the ratification of the United States Constitution and especially supported its stress on checks and balances. The ratification of the United States Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, gave Jefferson even greater confidence in the document.[48] Jeffersonians favored a strict construction interpretation of federal government powers described in Article I of the Constitution. For example, Jefferson once wrote a letter to Charles Willson Peale explaining that although a Smithsonian-style national museum would be a fantastic resource, he could not support the use of federal funds to construct and maintain such a project.[49] The "strict constructionism" of today is a remote descendant of Jefferson's views.

Politics and factions

James Madison
James Monroe

The spirit of Jeffersonian democracy dominated American politics from 1800 to 1824, the First Party System, under Jefferson and succeeding presidents James Madison and James Monroe. The Jeffersonians proved much more successful than the Federalists in building state and local party organizations that united various factions.[50] Voters in every state formed blocs loyal to the Jeffersonian coalition.[51]

Prominent spokesmen for Jeffersonian principles included Madison, Albert Gallatin, John Randolph of Roanoke, Nathaniel Macon, John Taylor of Caroline,[52] and James Monroe, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, and Henry Clay; however, Calhoun, Adams, and Clay pursued new paths after 1828.

Randolph was the Jeffersonian leader in Congress from 1801 to 1815, but he later broke with Jefferson and formed his own "Tertium Quids" faction because he thought the president no longer adhered to the true Jeffersonian principles of 1798.[53] The Quids wanted to actively punish and discharge Federalists in the government and in the courts. Jefferson himself sided with the moderate faction exemplified by figures such as Madison, who were much more conciliatory towards Federalism.[46]

After the Madison administration experienced serious trouble financing the War of 1812 and discovered the Army and militia were unable to make war effectively, a new generation of Republican nationalists emerged. They were supported by President James Monroe, an original Jeffersonian; and included John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. In 1824, Adams defeated Andrew Jackson, who had support from the Quids; and in a few years two successor parties had emerged, the Democratic Party, which formulated Jacksonian democracy and which still exists; and Henry Clay's Whig Party. Their competition marked the Second Party System.[54]

After 1830, the principles were still talked about but did not form the basis of a political party, thus editor Horace Greeley in 1838 started a magazine, The Jeffersonian, that he said "would exhibit a practical regard for that cardinal principle of Jeffersonian Democracy, and the People are the sole and safe depository of all power, principles and opinions which are to direct the Government".[55]

Jefferson and Jeffersonian principles

Jeffersonian democracy was not a one-man operation. It was a significant political party with many local and state leaders and various factions, and they did not always agree with Jefferson or with each other.[56]

Jefferson was accused of inconsistencies by his opponents.[57] The "Old Republicans" said that he abandoned the Principles of 1798. He believed the national security concerns were so urgent that it was necessary to purchase Louisiana without waiting for a Constitutional amendment. He enlarged federal power through the intrusively enforced Embargo Act of 1807. He idealized the "yeoman farmer" despite being a gentleman plantation owner. The disparities between Jefferson's philosophy and practice have been noted by numerous historians. Staaloff proposed that it was due to his being a proto-Romantic;[58] John Quincy Adams claimed that it was a manifestation of pure hypocrisy, or "pliability of principle";[59] and Bailyn asserts it simply represented a contradiction with Jefferson, that he was "simultaneously a radical utopian idealist and a hardheaded, adroit, at times cunning politician".[60] However, Jenkinson argued that Jefferson's personal failings ought not to influence present-day thinkers to disregard Jeffersonian ideals.[61]

Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a European nobleman who opposed democracy, argues that "Jeffersonian democracy" is a misnomer because Jefferson was not a democrat, but in fact, believed in rule by an elite: "Jefferson actually was an Agrarian Romantic who dreamt of a republic governed by an elite of character and intellect".[62]

Historian Sean Wilentz argues that as a practical politician elected to serve the people Jefferson had to negotiate solutions, not insist on his own version of abstract positions. The result, Wilentz argues, was "flexible responses to unforeseen events ... in pursuit of ideals ranging from the enlargement of opportunities for the mass of ordinary, industrious Americans to the principled avoidance of war".[63]

Historians have long portrayed the contest between Jefferson and Hamilton as iconic for the politics, political philosophy, economic policies and future direction of the United States. In 2010, Wilentz identified a scholarly trend in Hamilton's favor:

In recent years, Hamilton and his reputation have decidedly gained the initiative among scholars who portray him as the visionary architect of the modern liberal capitalist economy and of a dynamic federal government headed by an energetic executive. Jefferson and his allies, by contrast, have come across as naïve, dreamy idealists. At best according to many historians, the Jeffersonians were reactionary utopians who resisted the onrush of capitalist modernity in hopes of turning America into a yeoman farmers' arcadia. At worst, they were proslavery racists who wish to rid the West of Indians, expand the empire of slavery, and keep political power in local hands – all the better to expand the institution of slavery and protect slaveholders' rights to own human property.[64]

Joseph Ellis wrote that developments in urbanization and industrialization that occurred during the turn of the 20th century has largely rendered Jefferson's agrarian dream irrelevant.[65]

Jefferson summarized his essential principles of government in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1801, when he expounded on "the essential principles of our Government, and consequently, those which ought to shape its Administration", stating:

Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people...; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority...a well-disciplined militia, our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.[66]

See also



  1. ^ Ohio History Connection. "Democratic-Republican Party". Ohio History Central. Archived from the original on December 29, 2021. Retrieved August 30, 2017. Democratic-Republicans favored keeping the U.S. economy based on agriculture and said that the U.S. should serve as the agricultural provider for the rest of the world ... . Economically, the Democratic-Republicans wanted to remain a predominantly agricultural nation, ... .
  2. ^ Beasley, James R. (1972). "Emerging Republicanism and the Standing Order: The Appropriation Act Controversy in Connecticut, 1793 to 1795". The William and Mary Quarterly. 29 (4): 604. doi:10.2307/1917394. JSTOR 1917394.
  3. ^ Adams, Ian (2001). Political Ideology Today (reprinted, revised ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0719060205. Archived from the original on 2023-01-20. Retrieved 2021-12-01. Ideologically, all US parties are liberal and always have been. Essentially they espouse classical liberalism, that is a form of democratized Whig constitutionalism plus the free market. The point of difference comes with the influence of social liberalism.
  4. ^ a b Wood, The American Revolution, p. 100
  5. ^ "Democratic-Republican Party". Encyclopædia Britannica. July 20, 1998. Archived from the original on June 15, 2018. Retrieved August 30, 2017. The Republicans contended that the Federalists harboured aristocratic attitudes and that their policies placed too much power in the central government and tended to benefit the affluent at the expense of the common man.
  6. ^ Ornstein, Allan (2007). Class Counts: Education, Inequality, and the Shrinking Middle Class. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 56–58. ISBN 978-0742573727. Archived from the original on 2023-01-20. Retrieved 2021-12-01.
  7. ^ Larson, Edward J. (2007). A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign. Simon and Schuster. p. 21. ISBN 978-0743293174. Archived from the original on 2023-01-20. Retrieved 2021-12-01. The divisions between Adams and Jefferson were exasperated by the more extreme views expressed by some of their partisans, particularly the High Federalists led by Hamilton on what was becoming known as the political right, and the democratic wing of the Republican Party on the left, associated with New York Governor George Clinton and Pennsylvania legislator Albert Gallatin, among others.
  8. ^ Michael Kazin, et al. eds. The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History (2011) p. 149
  9. ^ James J. Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf, eds. The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic (2002)
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Further reading