Thomas Jefferson: Voice of Independence
Part 3: Presidency and Legacy
He immediately set about reducing the role of the federal government in people's lives.Thus it might have seemed strange when he acted without Congressional approval to buy the whole of the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson had argued vigorously that the federal government did not have such powers when Alexander Hamilton (as President George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury) had wanted to open the Bank of the United States. Yet, Jefferson, in his own words, "stretched the Constitution till it cracked." The Louisiana Purchase was a boon for the nation and a success story for Lewis & Clark, who explored most of it on their voyage to the Pacific.
Another significant accomplishment of Jefferson's first term was the victory over the Barbary pirates, who had been menacing American shipping in the Mediterranean Sea for a number of years but were forced to surrender to the tiny yet valiant American navy and Marines.
With a great popularity, Jefferson was re-elected in 1804. He hoped for a quiet second term. He didn't get his wish. The Aaron Burr affair blew up in Jefferson's face. Burr tried to get himself elected governor of New York so he and other New England Federalists could take their states out of the Union. Why? They feared that a Democratic-Republican majority would take away the rights of the northeastern establishment. Hamilton again opposed Burr, this time exposing the treasonous plot. The result was the famous duel, in which Burr killed Hamilton. Burr was finally caught, arrested, and tried for treason. A sympathetic judge and jury acquitted him.
Jefferson, meanwhile, had more important things to deal with: war between Great Britain and France. Like his two predecessors, Jefferson was determined to keep the United States out of war. He even convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Act, which in 1807 began prohibiting the export of goods from an American port or the sailing of American ships to foreign ports. The result was an increase in smuggling and in unemployment. Two years later, Congress repealed the act.
The Napoleonic Wars raged on, but the Jeffersonian presidency ended in 1809. Thomas Jefferson retired from public life for good--or so he thought. His successors, James Madison and James Monroe, continued to consult him for advice.
Jefferson was a great inventor. He received numerous patents. Many of them are on display at his home, Monticello, which he also designed.
In 1815, he sold his entire libary--more than 6,400 books--to Congress to replace the books the British had destroyed when they burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.
Jefferson's final lasting achievement was the creation of the University of Virginia, which opened in 1825. Jefferson oversaw the creation of the buildings and the curriculum and supervised the hiring of faculty and selection of library books.
A short year later, he died.
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