Jefferson’s First Inaugural

First Inaugural Address

Jefferson’s election of 1800, sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800, marked a dramatic shift in the exercise of executive power as well as a shift in Jefferson’s political thought. Prior to his role as president, Jefferson focused on states rights, the virtues of an agrarian economy, the centrality of the legislative body and the importance of maintaining a weak executive. During the campaign, Adams and Jefferson’s campaigns engaged in vicious attacks against their opponent, initiating the creation of sharp party lines. In his speech he presents a need to overcome these ideological divisions, unite as one nation proclaiming that “having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.” In this document he states very clearly his perception of the American Government:

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. 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 antirepublican 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 — a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; 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. These principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

After his inauguaration, however, he used his power as the executive to dramatically extend American territory through the Louisiana Purchase, fight American enemies, claiming that any attack on Americans person or property abroad represented an ‘immediate threat’ that he had to address, and initiating all of these changes without prior authorization from Congress. These actions can be seen in one of two lights. Either Jefferson did not understand the realities of office until he arrived there, and based on those realities rose to the occasion or Jefferson abandoned his principles in favor of exercising more power in order to create an “empire of liberty.”