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Thomas Jefferson is often noted as one of the best presidents in history. In our lesson, learn about some of President Jefferson's many famous domestic accomplishments and the controversy surrounding most of them.
Jefferson was the first president to be inaugurated in the new permanent capital, Washington, D.C., and live in the completed White House - though you may not recognize either building today. When he moved into the president's country mansion, he complained that it was 'big enough for two emperors, one pope and the Grand Lama in the bargain.' Jefferson claimed that he opposed grandeur and elitism, yet he immediately began designing additions to the White House (including the photogenic West Wing colonnade).
When Jefferson took office, only the north wing of the Capitol building was ready for occupation, and it was shared by Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the courts of the District of Columbia. In 1803, Jefferson approved funding to continue with construction. Though by the time the south wing was ready for use, the north section was in need of repair. Completing the Capitol might seem like an easy decision for us today, but Jefferson had promised that his administration would be frugal. However, this project wasn't nearly as controversial as his next big expenditure.
Around the time of Jefferson's election, Napoleon Bonaparte was in secret negotiations with Spain to reclaim North American territory that France had lost after the French and Indian War. They reached an agreement, but soon after, events unfolded which left France nearly bankrupt in the middle of another war. Napoleon realized that he couldn't afford to defend the Louisiana Territory. So, when the United States approached him about buying New Orleans in order to control access to the Mississippi River, Napoleon offered to sell them all of his land on the continent for $15 million. While that may seem cheap (it works out to about $.04 an acre), and the land proved to be very valuable to America, the Constitution didn't give Jefferson power to make such a purchase. What's worse, he didn't consult with Congress over the deal, exactly the kind of expansion of presidential power that Jefferson said he opposed.
Think about how a modern president's opponents react when he oversteps his bounds. Now imagine if both his rivals and his friends were angry. Outrage over the Louisiana Purchase nearly split the country apart. Of course, some people approved, especially many Southerners. It doubled the size of the U.S. overnight, opening up huge amounts of inexpensive farmland. It guaranteed access to the Mississippi River. But many others vigorously opposed the purchase. Federalists thought it would lead to war with Spain. Congress, with its Democratic-Republican majority, opposed expanding the national debt, rather than eliminating it as Jefferson had promised. Members of both parties believed the purchase was unconstitutional. Some Northerners foresaw this as an expansion of slavery. Jefferson's opponents in the Northeast recognized that this would further reduce their political clout. Nonetheless, in 1803, the purchase was made and plans to explore it commenced.
No political controversy today compares to the division in the country in 1803. The president's political enemies were ready to take action. The Essex Junto was a group of wealthy, powerful Federalists up in New England who thought Jefferson had overreached the power of the presidency with the Louisiana Purchase. They hatched a plot to secede from the United States. The key to their success would depend on getting New York to agree.
Thankfully, one of President Jefferson's staunchest political opponents - Alexander Hamilton - foiled the plot. The conspiracy had approached Vice President Aaron Burr and promised to help him win the governorship of New York if he'd make sure the state immediately seceded from the Union. Burr actually agreed, but his old nemesis, Hamilton, worked to secure his loss in that gubernatorial election. Without Burr and New York, the secession movement died. Burr was so angry he challenged Hamilton to a duel and killed him. Though murder charges against him were actually dropped, Burr's political career in the U.S. was, of course, over.
Upon leaving office, he went west and began planning what's known as the Burr Conspiracy. At that time, a lot of Americans thought that war with Spain was inevitable. Burr developed a plot to seize Spanish land in present-day Texas during the conflict and then create his own kingdom. Some evidence suggested that Burr was plotting to seize all of the Louisiana Territory, and Jefferson had him arrested for treason. Despite heavy pressure from Jefferson, the Supreme Court acquitted Burr on a couple of technicalities and a lack of hard evidence. The trial was a political and personal embarrassment for President Jefferson.
In the same year that Burr was arrested (1806), Thomas Jefferson accomplished what may be his most enduring legacy as president: the successful completion of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Even before the purchase was made, Jefferson had created the Corps of Discovery to send explorers through the new land (and beyond) to the Pacific Ocean. The president hired his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis' friend, William Clark, to lead the expedition.
The 33 members of the so-called 'permanent party' departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804. Along the way, they were joined by various people, including a French trapper and his Shoshone wife, Sacajawea, who served as cooks, translators and diplomats. Their infant son, nicknamed Pomp, helped indicate the Corps' peaceful intentions to the people they encountered.
If you think about how long it would take today to travel more than 2,100 miles from St. Louis to the Oregon coast on the interstate, it seems pretty amazing that they traveled all the way through present-day Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon - and back - in just 28 months! They had no cars, no trains, no roads. They didn't even have trails through a lot of the land. They encountered dozens of Indian nations, not all of whom were receptive to outsiders in their territory.
The Lewis and Clark expedition drew amazingly accurate maps and pictures of the land, animals, people and plants of the American West. Their extensive notes shattered erroneous assumptions about the land. For example, they dispelled, once and for all, the belief that there was a Northwest Passage through the American continent. When Lewis and Clark arrived back in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, an excited nation now had a map and reliable information to guide their own westward migration. It was then, as it is now, a great achievement for President Jefferson.
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Shortly before Lewis and Clark's return, Jefferson retroactively approved a second expedition (led by Captain Zebulon Pike), which had been commissioned by the governor of Louisiana - who happened to be one of Burr's conspirators. Pike was assigned a few insignificant tasks, but many historians now believe Pike was, in fact, sent on a military reconnaissance mission. His team traveled the southwestern edge of the Louisiana Territory, identified Pike's Peak and built a fort at what they claimed to believe was the headwaters of the Red River. But it was, in fact, the Rio Grande. Pike's Expedition was in Spanish territory. They were arrested, charged as spies and marched to Chihuahua.
Along the way, they passed through Santa Fe, Albuquerque and El Paso where Pike observed the size and locations of Spanish military installations. They learned that the people were agitating against Spanish rule. In prison, Pike convinced his translator to show him Spanish maps of the land. Then after his release, Pike's valuable military intelligence proved just how little of a threat Spain posed. Exactly who wanted what information isn't entirely clear. It's possible that Burr may have wanted the recon for himself, and that Jefferson finally got the better of him, after all.
One of President Jefferson's last great acts was signing a bill that outlawed the Atlantic slave trade, effective January 1, 1808. The Constitution itself had set that as the earliest date allowed for such a law, not wanting the issue of slavery to interfere with the development of the young nation. Although slavery itself was still legal - and growing - the act prohibiting importation of slaves made it a crime to bring new slaves into America from overseas. There was smuggling of course, but the law was enforced, having the effect of raising prices for slaves, and encouraging the practice of selling slave children for profit.
After taking office in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson promised to shrink the government, including executive powers. But many of his achievements at home garnered criticism for doing just the opposite. He resumed the capitol building project and designed additions to the White House. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase angered people both inside and out of his own political party. Many believed the president didn't have the constitutional authority to make such a decision on his own.
His political opponents in the Essex Junto conspired with Vice President Aaron Burr in a plot for New England to secede from the Union. Burr fled to the West, where he hatched the Burr Conspiracy to take land from Spain. Jefferson tried to have Burr convicted for treason, but couldn't prove the charges. The same year, the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned from exploring the new Louisiana Territory and helped spur westward migration. Shortly before their return, the Pike Expedition was dispatched to explore the southern border of the territory, and after being arrested, gathered valuable military intelligence about the state of the Spanish empire in North America. President Jefferson signed into law a bill that banned the importation of slaves into the U.S. beginning in 1808.
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