Jeffersonian Democracy


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 term was commonly used to refer to the Republican Party which Jefferson founded in opposition to the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton.

The Jeffersonians believed in a republic, as form of government, and equality of political opportunity, with a priority for the “yeoman farmer”, “planters” and the “plain folk”.

At the beginning of the Jeffersonian era, only 2 states, Vermont and Kentucky, had established universal white male suffrage by abolishing property requirements.

By the end of the period, more than half of the states had followed suit, including virtually all of the states in the Northwest Territory region.

Also, states now moved on to allowing popular votes for Presidential elections, canvassing voters in a more modern style.

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 Jeffersonians occasionally split into factions.

John Randolph, after leading the party in Congress, formed the “Old Republicans” or Tertium Quids or “Quid” faction, saying Jefferson had strayed too far from the core values of republicanism.

Jefferson never trusted Aaron Burr, who became his vice president.

They split and Jefferson put Burr on trial for treason (he was acquitted and left the country).

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.

The rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton led to the formation of two political parties in the 1790s.

Jefferson’s Republican Party often referred to as the Democrat-Republican Party to distinguish it from the modern Republican Party founded in the 1850s favored his ideals of limited government, economic freedom and agrarian democracy.

A faction of this party formed into the Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson in the late 1820s. Hamilton’s Federalist Party favored a mercantilist economy and greater federal control.

Although both parties advocated federalism, the Federalists favored a strong centralized government at the expense of the states.

Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, wanted governmental power to lie at the state level.

However, Jefferson’s battles with the Supreme Court for executive control, his military spending during the Barbary War and the Louisiana Purchase often put him more in line with the federalist camp.

Jefferson felt that urbanization, industrial factories and financial speculation would serve to rob the common man of his independence and economic freedom.

To Jefferson, expansion of the United States into the American west would provide the space and land needed to support an agrarian democracy.

Jefferson exerted strong executive influence to oversee the Louisiana Purchase for such a purpose.