The Jefferson Years and Mr. Madison’s War, with Kevin Gutzman

The War Years cast a long, dark, dangerous shadow over the still-young Republic. The world was changing quickly, and everyone took note.

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Kevin Gutzman is a New York Times best-selling author and professor of history at Western Connecticut State University. He has a PhD from the University of Virginia and much of his research has focused on precisely that state. Three of his books—Virginia’s American Revolution, James Madison and the Making of America, and Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary—flesh out what Gutzman takes to be a radical, revolutionary time and place in American history. We would be remiss if we did not try to understand the world from above just as we try to understand it from below.

 

Further Readings/References:

Kevin Gutzman’s personal website

His Amazon author’s page

Carroll, Francis. A Good and Wise Measure: The Search for the Canadian-American Boundary, 1783-1842. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2001.

Errington, Jane. The Lion, the Eagle, and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology. Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1987.

Risjord, Norman. The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson. New York: Columbia University Press. 1965.

 

 

Anthony Comegna: Kevin Gutzman is a New York Times best-selling author and professor of history at Western Connecticut State University. Three of his books, Virginia’s American Revolution, James Madison and the Making of America, and Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary flesh out what Gutzman takes to be a radical, revolutionary time and place in American history. Many might join with mainstream academia in noting this generation and this place’s shortcomings, but we would be remiss [00:00:30] if we did not try to understand the world from above, just as we try to understand it from below.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. We often hear, or at least, sometimes now we hear, that there was a Revolution of 1800, that it was an important year, because here we have the peaceful transfer of power from one party [00:01:00] to another, and Jefferson was a significant enough break from the old federal tradition that it qualifies as a Revolution of 1800. Let me put it to you, was there a Revolution of 1800?

Kevin Gutzman: Oh, yes. I certainly think there was.

Anthony Comegna: In what way? What was really radical or important about that year or that event?

Kevin Gutzman: Well, not Washington himself, but people around [00:01:30] him, other people high among the Federalists, were essentially monarchists. That is, both Alexander Hamilton, the Treasury Secretary in Washington’s early years as president, and John Adams, made clear that they thought eventually the United States would have a monarchy. Hamilton had explained on June 18th, 1787, in a day-long speech in the Philadelphia Convention, as the Constitution [00:02:00] was being written, what kind of monarchy he would like the United States to have.
At the conclusion of his description of this hypothetical government, he said, “Well, of course, the American people aren’t ready for this now, but they are more congenial to it than they have been before, and I see that they’re becoming … They’re coming closer to my position all the time.” I think Hamilton’s program [00:02:30] is rightly understood then as having been intended to assimilate American government finance to the British model, and in doing so, also to assimilate the American social structure and the government itself to the British model.
Adams told Jefferson at a dinner attended at Jefferson’s house by Adams and Hamilton that … Well, he responded to Hamilton’s claim [00:03:00] that … I’m sorry, Adams’ claim that, if the British Constitution could be purged of its corruption, it would be the best in the world, to which Hamilton responded, “Well, without its corruption, it wouldn’t work. It’s already the best in the world.” Jefferson, hearing the Prime Minister, essentially Hamilton, and the Vice President Adams say this thought, “Well, we have a general problem, that there are a lot [00:03:30] of prominent American politicians who think that a Republican experiment is a forlorn hope, and we shouldn’t have it.”
On the other hand, by the time the end of the 1790s came, and the Federalists had launched their effort to make outspoken opposition to the administration illegal through the Sedition Act, a lot of peoples’ minds had been changed, and so when, in 1800, [00:04:00] the Republicans won the elections, it seemed to Jefferson and to others that there had been a change, not only in parties, but in the actual principles that were going to underlie the administration from that point on. I tend to agree with that. Not only were the political predilections of the leaders of the two parties substantially different, but their programs were notably different.
Jefferson came into office, and within a few months, his allies in the Congress, [00:04:30] now in control of Congress for the first time, had eliminated all the internal taxes, substantially reduced the size of the Navy, substantially reduced the size of the Army, actually by 95%. They reduced the number of men present was statutorily entitled to recruit into the Army. Jefferson himself pardoned everybody who’d been convicted under the Sedition Act, of whom there were 12 people. It seems to me [00:05:00] that this meant there had been a real change in the government. Jefferson said that it was as real a revolution in the principles of government as that of ‘76 was in its form. I think that’s true, essentially.
I do believe that there was real difference between the Federalists and the Republicans, and that the right side won in the end, and that immediately on taking office began making substantial changes.

Anthony Comegna: Was this [00:05:30] only a revolution really for those in power, those with political influence? I mean, this is an extremely tiny number of people actually voting for Jefferson or anybody else in that era. It’s a very tiny number of essentially privileged white males with property electing other white males with property. The vast majority of the population has little-to-no official say in the matter. Is it purely a policy [00:06:00] change, or a change in the mind of those who govern, or was there a palpable sense among the population that the country was changing in dramatic ways?

Kevin Gutzman: There was a substantial difference between the Federalists and the Republicans, considering … Concerning the extent to which or the degree to which common people ought to be involved in the political life of the country. In the 1790s, spontaneously, in communities across the country, there [00:06:30] grew up what were called Democratic Republican societies, which were common people generally who turned out to celebrate, say, to commemorate particular events in the history of the French Revolution, or to celebrate the 4th of July, which was a partisan, Jeffersonian holiday in those days, or otherwise to demonstrate that they were active members of the polity.
On the other hand, Federalists strongly disapproved of this. [00:07:00] Classically, in his farewell address, Washington said that the role of the average person in the political system was to vote every two years, and that was it. It was supposed to be for policy makers to make the decisions, to conduct the discussions, to be involved in the actual political life of the country. The Jeffersonian Republicans actually were more democratically oriented than the Federalists by far, [00:07:30] and people knew that. That was one ground on which they tended to associate with one or the other party. Over time, the Federalists actually became more aristocratic.
As to this question about the suffrage, there is some exaggeration in the common understanding of the extent to which suffrage was restricted to property-owning males. Actually, by the end of the Jefferson [00:08:00] administration, as I recall, there were only two states, New York and Virginia, in which there is still any property qualifications for voting at all. In general, people could vote. Even considering the property qualification, in Virginia, we think about half of adult white men of sound mind were eligible to vote, which made Virginia more democratic than any country in Europe, except for some cantons in Switzerland.
That, in our own [00:08:30] context, that’s not very democratic, but in the context in which it lay, which was the early 19th century, Jefferson’s Virginia was very democratic. Of course, the direction of reform was in favor or in the direction of more democracy, whatever one thinks of that. I think this criticism, on one hand, is generally uninformed, or intentionally distorted, [00:09:00] but of course, there’s also some disagreement among libertarians about the question how Republican our society ought to be. A lot of libertarian constitutional legal thinkers really don’t mind the idea of an extensive policy-making role for federal judges, as long as they have a feeling that they’ll get policy outcomes from those judges that they prefer. I could name names, but I’m sure you know whom I mean.
This is one way in which I find myself sometimes at variance with the mainline of libertarian [00:09:30] thinkers these days. I consider myself a Jeffersonian. I’m a libertarian personally, but I think the Constitution ought to have a fixed meaning, not whatever the judges can be persuaded to say it means. That’s of course a Jeffersonian position. Anyway, I think it’s kind of calumny to assert that these polities, these states, weren’t very democratic. Compared to today, when the Constitution declares that blacks, and women, [00:10:00] and basically any man can vote, it wasn’t democratic, but for the 18th century, it was crazy democratic. There was no place like it.
Of course, I said that in Virginia, they had a more widely distributed suffrage than essentially any place in Europe except for some Swiss cantons, and New England was even more democratic than that. Virtually every male could vote in New England.

Anthony Comegna: Yeah. Rhode Island restricted the suffrage to property holders until 1842.

Kevin Gutzman: Is [00:10:30] that right?

Anthony Comegna: But it caused significant constitutional crises in the [crosstalk 00:10:34].

Kevin Gutzman: Oh, and you ended up with a rebellion over the Constitution, right?

Anthony Comegna: Right. Yeah. The Dorr War, which we will get to on the podcast in all good time. Now, let’s dig into that Jeffersonianism that you said most libertarians share something with. I think that’s certainly true. It’s hard to deny that, at the very least, our intellectual history leads back pretty strongly to the Jeffersonians. [00:11:00] I want to sort of dig into that, and maybe, if we could, get a bit of a scorecard for the Jefferson administration, especially considering that, just a few years after he leaves office, the conflict started during his term have brewed into a war between two of the premiere powers in the Atlantic. Let’s talk about what were some of the successes for what we might call a libertarian radicalism under Jefferson, and what were some of the most serious problematic or [00:11:30] anti-libertarian policies that he advanced?

Kevin Gutzman: Jefferson’s platform included a serious retrenchment of federal spending and taxing. As I said before, within a few months of his becoming president, the Congress had repealed essentially all the federal taxes except for the tariff, so there no longer was going to be a carriage tax, or a whisky tax, or any internal tax at all. In fact, if you encountered the federal government in the early part of the 19th century, [00:12:00] likely you had met somebody who was associated with the local postmaster. If you weren’t dealing with him, and most people wouldn’t have been, then you were unlikely to encounter federal officials at all. This was Jefferson’s and his party’s doing, and that was essentially his platform. He laid out this program in his first inaugural address.
Another way that they were successful is that they decided to retrench the military. In the quasi-war years [00:12:30] of the Adams administration, Congress had authorized the president to recruit as many as 50,000 soldiers into the Army, which would be about twice as many as Washington ever had during the Revolution. They substantially increased taxes to pay for purchasing numerous warships, not the top-of-the-line types that England had, that Britain had 400 of, but the next class down. When Jefferson came into office, they essentially put [00:13:00] those in dry dock and decided to do without them.
The difference between the Adams administration and Jefferson administration in this regard was essentially, “We’re not going to have a big military, and we’re not going to need the taxes to pay for it.” Jefferson also immediately pardoned everybody who had been convicted under the Sedition Act, which were all 12 people who had been tried under the Sedition Act. That included a congressman from Vermont, the publisher of the chief Republican [00:13:30] paper in the country, the Philadelphia Aurora, and other prominent Republicans. This was obviously substantial change.
The Jeffersons’ foreign and domestic policies were notably different from those of his opponents. He said in his inaugural address that there might have been the question whether there’d be reprisals against the Federalists once the Republicans took office, as of course there had been numerous instances of party change followed by mass murder in France. [00:14:00] Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, essentially, that there would be no such thing. In fact, that those people who had been wrong in the past could be left as monuments to the safety with which error could be tolerated where reason was left free to combat it. In other words, if you saw Al Hamilton walking down the street, just point at him and laugh. We didn’t need a guillotine. We just had voted him out, and that was the end of it.
Jefferson thought actually that, since Americans had come to their senses, [00:14:30] there wouldn’t be any more party disputation. People don’t realize that the Republican dynasty that is three, two-term Virginia Republican presidents at the beginning of the 19th century, they actually tried to implement this program. So by the time James Monroe, who was formerly Jefferson’s law student, and was a kind of political lieutenant of Jefferson’s, by the time he left office, the Federalist party had ceased to exist. He actually, Monroe, was reelected with all but one vote in the electoral [00:15:00] college.
Part of the reason the Federalist party had ceased to exist was that Monroe made no attempt to keep the Republican party alive. He thought it didn’t make sense to be appointing people to postmasters, or court marshals, or to other federal offices on the basis of service to the Republican party, and he did not pursue that course. This was, again, part of the Jefferson program. He thought, Jefferson thought, there was a kind of natural consensus [00:15:30] among Americans that had only been disrupted by the malign influences he saw of Hamilton, the unwitting support of Hamilton’s malignity by the uniquely popular Washington.

Anthony Comegna: Do you think that’s to some degree the result of people’s proclivity to make a cartoon out of their enemies? Jefferson did plenty while he was in office to gain himself detractors, [00:16:00] and to upset whatever consensus there might have been. It’s not as though partisan feelings are always malicious, right? Sometimes the person in power is genuinely misbehaving.
I wanted to ask you especially about the Louisiana Purchase, because Jefferson himself seems to have thought, “Well, maybe this is unconstitutional for me to do, but it’s too good a deal to pass up, so I’ll go ahead with it, and send it to Congress to authorize later. If people think I’ve [00:16:30] acted unconstitutionally, then so be it, but I’m not going to let Louisiana just go, and maybe Spain come in and take it, or who knows what? England invade, or whatever.” What did Jefferson do while he was in office to gain enemies?

Kevin Gutzman: It’s not that he thought perhaps the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. He was certain that it was unconstitutional. His initial response to news of the treaty was that, “Well, we could [00:17:00] buy this territory, but we could not make into states.” Then his next … His first reconsideration was to the effect that, “Well, actually, we couldn’t do that either. We’re going to need an amendment before we can take any further steps.” He asked Madison to draft him an amendment, and Madison did so.
Along with that, Madison conveyed to him his opinion that, “Well, of course, you can’t try to amend the Constitution to empower the federal government [00:17:30] to do this, because for all we know, the next ship from France is going to contain word that Napoleon has changed his mind, so we need to hurry and strike in this regard.” Madison actually believed that it was obviously constitutional, that when the Constitution said in Article 2 that the president could enter into treaties with the advice and consent of the Senate, since the Constitution did not say what kind of treaties the president could enter into with the advice and consent of the Senate, the only reasonable [00:18:00] reading was “any common kind of treaty.”
Although today they are not common, in those days, treaties of peace, treaties of alliance, trade treaties, and treaties for purchase and sale of land were all common, so Madison said, “Clearly, this is covered by the general power to make a treaty.” However, Jefferson seems to have been the only significant Republican who did not buy this argument, including even John [00:18:30] Randolph Roanoke. Ultimately, Jefferson’s conclusion was that it was unconstitutional, but it was absolutely essential, and so he hoped the people would forgive him.

Anthony Comegna: A very rare sentiment, isn’t it? That itself is enough to give Jefferson some redemption in my mind, whatever you think the problems with him might be, just that he would recognize that, “You know, this thing I’m doing right now, that I’m still going to do, it might be illegal, and you can [00:19:00] hold me responsible for that.” Boy, that’s a rare thing.

Kevin Gutzman: Yes, essentially unheard of. Now, whatever they want to do is permissible. But they were in kind of a box. Jefferson actually had written before this all happened that, as he put it, “There’s only one spot on the map the possessor of which must be an enemy of the United States, and that is New Orleans.” That’s why he had sent Monroe, James Monroe, to France to join [00:19:30] Robert Livingston in negotiating the purchase of New Orleans and the area right around New Orleans. Of course, the response they got from Talleyrand was, “Well, how about if I sell you all of Louisiana?”
As far as Jefferson was concerned, obtaining New Orleans was essential. It was just … It was the one real geostrategic imperative that the country faced. He did think it was unconstitutional. He never changed his mind about that. People commonly say, “Well, you know, he changed his mind when he got into office. He bought Louisiana.” [00:20:00] Actually, no, he didn’t change his mind. He just decided that he had to do it anyway, and he said, “I hope the people will forgive me,” which, apparently they did.

Anthony Comegna: Lots of people never forgave him for the Embargo Act. Plenty of people threatened his life over it. Can you tell us why Jefferson, who should have, I think at least, should have known better economics than to support something like an embargo, why did he support this thing? Did he really want war with Great Britain during the Napoleonic period? [00:20:30] Is there any teeth to the Federalist claim that the Republicans were all crypto-Jacobins who wanted to make war on all the monarchies of the world? Was there any truth to that whatsoever, that Jefferson was seeking out a war with Britain?

Kevin Gutzman: I don’t read it that way. I think that, as early as the early 1780s, James Madison had had the idea that the United States could coerce European powers with its economic might. At one [00:21:00] point, he said that European countries would be dependent on American foodstuffs as long as Europeans were in the custom of eating. Madison thought that economic embargo could be a substitute for military strength. Jefferson, as was his greatest weakness, was persuaded by Madison. There are other instances where the same thing happened.
[00:21:30] In 1807, in response to war fever up and down the East coast, over what is called the Chesapeake Leopard Incident, where a British warship attacked an American military vessel at Hampton Roads, just coming out of Chesapeake Bay, within sight of numerous civilians watching this from on shore. Jefferson heard from people from Georgia to New Hampshire saying, “It’s time to declare war on the British,” and [00:22:00] he thought the embargo was an alternative.
On one hand, this was a way to avoid war, avoid admitting the Federalists had been right, avoid raising taxes and building up the military, maybe even adopting a Sedition Act. On the other hand, it was a kind of Enlightenment attempt to create a new world in which you wouldn’t have military powers contending with each other [00:22:30] violently, but instead, people would trade, and if they ceased trading, maybe they’d have to negotiate their disagreements.
I think it’s … Obviously, the idea that this could be successful in the context of a world war between France and Britain, in which one or the other of them was supposed to buckle in response to being deprived of Georgian rice, or Virginia tobacco, or Massachusetts fish, the idea that this was going to be successful seems just ridiculous, but [00:23:00] Jefferson thought that the Enlightenment had disclosed various truths that people hadn’t apprehended before, and one was that economics could be used in place of warcraft. If one criticizes him for having this Pollyanna idea, what about his various other Pollyanna ideas that we still appreciate? I think this is just the typical [00:23:30] Jeffersonian behavior. It strikes me as fanciful to the point of foolishness, but consistent with a lot of his other initiatives that we find more appealing.

Anthony Comegna: Now, the war that followed the embargo is called Mr. Madison’s War, at least by its opponents, which were sizeable in number. This is one of the least popular wars in American history. Probably not a coincidence that people were talking about a draft that was [00:24:00] terribly disruptive to trade. Why exactly did the War of 1812 start, and was it really about principle, Britain seizing American ships and interfering with our sovereignty, or was it about conquest and trying to scoop up those Canadian colonies into the American Republic and blacken Britain’s eye?

Kevin Gutzman: Well, that depends whether you ask an American or a Canadian. In general, there is a consensus [00:24:30] among American historians that what Madison wanted to do was to grab Canada and then use it as a bargaining chip, in order to wring from the British and into impressments and free access for American ships to both Britain and British colonial ports in the Caribbean. On the other hand, Canadians think that America wanted to conquer Canada. They commonly depict the War of 1812 as this great Canadian victory, [00:25:00] even though Canada didn’t exist yet as a separate country. This British, the victory of the United States, is a great Canadian identity point for Canadians.
My own feeling is that Madison did want it as a negotiating chip. I don’t think people generally thought of Canada as being that valuable a possession. Remember, in 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War, Britain had [00:25:30] taken from France India, Martinique, Guadalupe and Canada. Then at the end of the war, they told the French, “Well, if you want, you can have two of these possessions back.” France said, “Okay, we’ll take Guadalupe and Martinique.” We’re prone today to think of a map with enormous Canada on it and think, “Well, that must have been very attractive,” but people didn’t really think of it as being that [00:26:00] wonderful a possession.
On the hand, free trade, that was the reigning shibboleth for Madison. He thought that was the [inaudible 00:26:11] ultra. You’d take that if you could get it. Really, what it spurred, the embargo, as I said before, was the policy of impressment. The Chesapeake Leopard Incident was about impressment, and [00:26:30] if only the Republicans could find some way to make the British stop impressing American sailors, then independence would be vindicated.
We, of course, we saw a treaty that ended the Revolution in 1783, with King George III’s recognition of all the states. He listed them from north to south, but really, the British hadn’t quite accepted the idea that America was an independent country. For example, [00:27:00] if you were a British sailor, and you immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen, the British did not recognize that. They didn’t recognize that you could be a former Britain, and now and American, and so the nub of the War of 1812 was Americans wanted access to British ports, they wanted British respect, they wanted an end of impressment. These three things were all tightly linked.

Anthony Comegna: For a lot of people, the war took on [00:27:30] almost apocalyptic tones. Here were this ragtag new country fighting the world’s premiere power who wants to re-enslave us, put us back into the empire. They’re stirring up Native American tribes on the frontier, making the frontier a place of violence again. Fusion between British and American Indian interests that terrified American frontiersmen shaped the mindset and the way of life out [00:28:00] there for decades to come.
This used to be a major point of periodization for historians. The War of 1812 separates the early republic from the Jacksonian era, and they’re very different. There’s the world before the war, of local and regional markets, and then there’s the world after the war, where like you said, this greater free trade zone has now been fought for and established, especially after Napoleon’s gone. Now we have swifter globalization. We have market revolutions [00:28:30] and things like that. What’s more, we have a growing sense of nationalism, and a whole cast of characters who comes to dominate politics for the next generation or two. Can you say a bit about how the war wrapped up, and what its long-term effects were on what was the early republic?

Kevin Gutzman: Well, you began by saying this used to be a point of periodization. Actually, it still is. My current project is [00:29:00] a history of the Virginia dynasty, 1801 to ‘25, and I’m cutting against the grain of saying that the War of 1812 marked a point of departure. My contention is that the Monroe administration was a kind of culmination of the Jeffersonian program or Jeffersonian, really, continuous administration from 1801. But it’s true that Americans saw [00:29:30] the War of 1812 as making a substantial difference.
You can say though that same thing would have happened even if there hadn’t been a War of 1812. People of course didn’t know at the time that Napoleon was going to abdicate in 1814 then be defeated at Waterloo in 1815, but what that meant was that impressment was going to end regardless of the War of 1812. In fact, it did end regardless of the War of 1812. The British never conceded that they didn’t have a right to impress sailors from [00:30:00] American ships. They just stopped doing it because the Napoleonic Wars came to an end.
Another significant result of the War of 1812 was, as you mentioned, that the Indians, who had tended to align themselves first with the French before the Seven Years War, and then with the British in the War of 1812, now, they found themselves essentially stranded in North America at the tender mercies of [00:30:30] the United States, which were, despite the sentimentality of people like Jefferson concerning the Indians, which were not going to be very tender.
I think the idea of a market revolution is emblematic of the general ignorance of economics among historians of the early republic, and the idea that people didn’t act in markets before the War of 1812 is just somewhat ridiculous [00:31:00] to me. But it is true, and actually, it also … The idea that there’s going to be the market revolution starting after the War of 1812 assumes that it takes the government building roads and bridges to make a market. You didn’t really have a market until you had government expenditure on canals, most of which, virtually all of which, in virtually all the states that tried canal building, were not self-sustaining.
In fact, virtually [00:31:30] every state found that its canals didn’t pay for themselves. A lot of states ended up really stuck with substantial debt because of this binge of canal-building. I think then that, again, that this idea of a market revolution starting after the War of 1812 is just thoroughly wrongheaded.

Anthony Comegna: That is exactly what the Nationalists like Calhoun, Clay, Danial Webster, other people in the period who dominate politics leading up to Jackson, [00:32:00] that is exactly what they argue though, right? That the government does have to step in and create this bold new world, conquering space and extending the market all over for the benefit of the people. Surely the war did impress itself upon the minds of the leadership at least in a way that’s pretty significant.

Kevin Gutzman: I see Henry Clay as a kind of case study in public choice theory. You’re bound to have somebody [00:32:30] who says, “Well, if I’m the guy who could be associated with building roads in the western part of the country where there aren’t any at all, then I’ll make myself popular in every congressional district, and I can be elected president.” To borrow a phrase, if there hadn’t been Henry Clay, we would have had to invent him. He seems just somebody who was bound to exist, but the fact of Henry Clay’s steering the government toward protective tariffs and [00:33:00] log rolling doesn’t mean that that’s why we have a market economy.

Anthony Comegna: The warriors cast a long, dark, dangerous shadow over the still-young republic, the shadow of expansionary nationalism, a permanently militarized frontier, and an ever-present, ever-threatening juggernaut on the northern border. People felt a palpable mix of hope and fear for the future. [00:33:30] The world was changing quickly, and everyone took note.
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