[amazon_enhanced asin=”1400067669″ container=”” container_class=”” price=”All” background_color=”FFFFFF” link_color=”000000″ text_color=”0000FF” /] I just finished reading “Thomas Jefferson, the Art of Power” by Jon Meacham. This is an interesting book in that it asserts the theory that Jefferson was a Republican. In fact, the party he belonged to as we were taught in High School and college was the “Democratic Republicans.” Up until reading this book, I had always been taught and led to believe that Lincoln was the first Republican president and that the Republican Party had grown out of the Whigs which had grown out of the Federalists. Maybe what we were taught is wrong and Meacham is right. Although, since there were really no political parties at the time Thomas Jefferson was in power, the assertion in the book is misleading.
Maybe Meacham is right in that Jeffersonian politics tend to follow what the modern Republican party entails. After all, he had incredible fear of a strong president and the creation of a monarchy. He was a firm believer in states’ rights and felt that the Tenth Amendment was absolutely necessary to protect the states. At one point, Jefferson wrote statutes that created what is now called Nullification – the power of a state to nullify a federal law if the state believes the law to be unconstitutional – which stems from the Tenth Amendment. At the time, these statues were just as controversial as they are now in that they strongly limit the power of the central government.
So, maybe Jefferson, was indeed the First Republican President and Lincoln was only the first President from the formal Republican Party.
The book chronicles the life of Jefferson with a special emphasis on the Revolution and then the struggle between the Federalists and the “Republicans.” As we all know from our history books, the Federalists were controlled by their leader, Alexander Hamilton even though he never became President. Jefferson was the leader of the Republicans. According to Meacham, the Federalists wanted the President to be all powerful and basically wanted to turn the United States into a monarchy. Jefferson’s fear was that the Federalists would gain power and that they monarchy would be realized. In fact, what led him to seek the Presidency was the passage by the Federalist Congress of the “Alien and Sedition” laws which were basically an attack on Free Speech as anyone that criticized the government could be and was imprisoned.
Jefferson believed these laws were wrong and that John Adams was wrong for allowing them to become law. Meacham makes the case that this was what drove Jefferson to oppose Adams for the Presidency even though he was Adams’ Vice President. He wanted the power of the Presidency limited and he felt that more Federalist power would create the feared monarchy that he had done so much to stop in the revolutionary era.
Then, once Jefferson becomes President, Meacham makes the point that Jefferson exercised his powers in a way that would have caused him to object had Adams done the same thing. Jefferson wielded the power he had very strongly, but also knew how to sell his decisions so that they didn’t look like they were coming from him whenever they tended to be controversial or against his philosophy. He managed to shield the office from the hard decisions while he continually got what he wanted. This is why Meacham subtitles his book, “The Art of Power.” Jefferson knew what he had to do and he managed to get it done.
After serving two terms as President, Thomas Jefferson effectively retired to Monticello and lived the remainder of his days completely out of the public eye. However, his eight years in the White House led to the end of the Federalist Party and the fear of monarchy. In fact, his Democratic-Republican party had control of the government until the first Whig President sixteen years later.
So, was Jefferson a Republican? That is a question you can only answer after reading the book and analyzing the facts. However, based upon my reading of the book and my understanding of what the Republican Party is now, I would answer yes.
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