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Summary of the Jeffersonian Era: Elements and Ideas

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Jeffersonian democracy which was named after  Thomas Jefferson, its advocate, was a dominant political outlook and movement in the United States from the 1790s to the 1820s.

By 1800, Americans were ready for a change under Washington and Adams; the Federalists had established a strong government but sometimes failed to honour the principle that the American government must be responsive to the will of the people.

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They had followed policies that alienated large groups of Americans. For example, in 1798, to pay for the national debt and army and navy, Adams and the federalists had enacted a tax on houses, lands, and also slaves, affecting every property owner in the country.

Democratic Republicans

Worse still, after a single instance of tax revolt namely a mob having freed two tax invaders from prison, Adams ordered the United States army into action to collect the taxes. While the army could find no one to fight, Democratic  Republicans ceased on these actions as another example of federalist tyranny.

Jeffersonian Democracy

Jefferson had gathered behind the greatness of small farmers, shop keepers and other workers and they asserted themselves as Democratic Republicans in the election of 1800.

With George Washington dead and John Adams returning to Britain after his defeat, Jefferson was free to try to implement his republican vision for the republic in what historians later called Jeffersonian Democracy.

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Jeffersonian Democracy’s advocate.
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Agrarianism and Limited Governement

The new president set out an agenda that was marked by his belief in “agrarianism and limited government.” In order to carry out his agenda, Jefferson turned to his royal supporters James Madison who became the Secretary of State and Swiss-born Albert Gallatin who became Secretary of the Treasury-Minister of Finance.

Jefferson enjoyed extraordinary favour because of his appeal to American idealism. In his inaugural address, the 1st such speech in the new capital of Washington DC, he promised a wise and frugal government to preserve order among the inhabitants but would lead them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement.

Jefferson encouraged agriculture and westward expansion, most notably by the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent Louis and Clark expenditure.

An Eased Nationalisation

Believing America to be a haven for the oppressed, he reduced the residence requirement for nationalization, back to five years again. By the end of his second term, Jefferson and the Secretary of Treasury had reduced the national debt to less than 560 million dollars.

This was accomplished by reducing the number of executive department employees and army and navy officers and enlisted men and by otherwise containing government and military spending.

Jeffersonian democracy is the state of political goals that were named after Thomas Jefferson. It dominated American politics in the years 1800-the 1820s. It is contrasting with the Jacksonian democracy which dominated the next political era.

The most prominent spokesmen included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Albert Gallatin, John Randolph of Roanoke and Nathaniel Maoon. In its core ideas, the Jeffersonian era is characterised by the following elements which the Jeffersonians expressed in their speeches and legislation:

Speeches and Legislation

Representative Democracy

First, the core political value of America is “representative democracy.” Citizens have a duty to aid the state and resist corruption, especially monarchism and aristocracy.

The Yeoman farmers best-exemplified virtue and independence from corruption in the city, influenced government policy and this should be for the benefit of the farmers.


Financials, bankers and industrialists made cities the cesspools of corruption and should be avoided. Americans have a duty to spread what Jefferson called “The Empire of Liberty” to the world but should avoid entangling alliances.

Limited Government

The National government is a dangerous necessity to be instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community. It should be watched closely and circumscribed in its powers. Most anti-federalists from 1787-1788 joined the Jeffersonians.

Republicanism is the best form of government and representative democracy is needed to prevent tyranny by the majority as Madison explained. “Jefferson maintained that democracy is nothing more than…….where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.”

The Church and the State

The wall of separation between church and state is the best method to keep religion free from intervention and the federal government free of religious disputes and religious freedom corruption by the government.

The Federal government must not violate the rights of the state. The Kentucky and Virginia resolution of 1798 written secretly secretary by Jefferson and Madison proclaimed these principles.

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech and the press is the best method to prevent the tyranny of the people by their own government. The federalist violation of this idea through the alien and sedition Acts of 1798 became a major issue.

Abolition of a Standing Force

A standing army and navy are dangerous to liberty and should be divided. Much better was to use economic cohesion such as the embargo.

United States Constitution was written in order to ensure the freedom of the people, a strict view of how the constitution was written is kept.


As a political philosopher, Jefferson was a man of enlightenment and knew many intellectual leaders in Britain and France. He idealized the independent Yeoman farmers as an example of the Republican version, distrusted cities and financiers, favoured states rights and a strictly limited federal government.

Jefferson supported the separation of church and state and was the author of the Virginia statute for religious freedom.

External Links

  • Summary of the Ideas and Values of Jeffersonian Democracy – Theclassroom
  • Jefferson and Democracy – jstor