AP U.S. History Notes

Flip-Flopper Thomas Jefferson: From State’s Rights to Federalism

Throughout his early political career, Thomas Jefferson had always been a strong supporter of states’ rights and a major critic of Federalist policies. However, after being elected as President in 1801, Jefferson radically altered his earlier philosophy of government. Documents A and B show Jefferson’s strong opposition to federal power and his firm belief in a “strict construction” of the U.S. Constitution. However, Document C shows his abuse of federal authority by exercising power not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution.

Before Jefferson entered office, he was a states’ right activist and a Democratic-Republican. He believed that the federal government should be given as little power as possible; in his opinion the federal government was very prone to becoming tyrannical. He feared that, after a hard fought war of independence against Britain, Americans’ might once again be governed by a tyrannical authority. His worst fears came true when, in 1794, Congress passed the excise law (Doc. A). Jefferson voiced his disgust in a letter to James Madison; he believed the law to be “an infernal one” and a possible “instrument of dismembering the Union”. According to him, the law was unconstitutional; he believed that the federal government was abusing their authority by exercising powers that were not specifically granted to them in the Constitution. This is called “loose construction”.  This illustrates his strong beliefs in limiting federal power and interpreting the extent of federal power through a strict construction of the Constitution.  He furthered this same point when he wrote the Kentucky Resolutions in 1798 (Doc. B). In this piece of legislation, Jefferson openly opposes the Alien and Sedition Acts. This demonstrates his opposition of federal government controls on free speech and immigration—and federal government controls in general. Jefferson believed that the federal government was granted “certain definite powers” and that the states were reserved “the residuary mass of right to their own self-government”. In other words, he believed in strict constructionism: that the federal government’s powers should be expressly limited, and that the states should receive all the remaining powers. It is clear that before Jefferson was elected to office in 1801 he was a major advocate of states’ rights and critic of federalist policies.

After Jefferson was elected to office, he significantly altered his philosophies about government. As president, Jefferson acted outside his legitimate authority on numerous occasions. One such occasion was when Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase (Doc. C). In this situation, Jefferson clearly demonstrated a disregard for the limit of his powers. Jefferson knew that he did not have the authority to engage in such a deal with France, because it was not a power specifically granted to him in the Constitution. However, he completed the Louisiana Purchase anyway because he “thought it his duty” to risk himself for the good of the United States. In other words, he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he felt justified in knowing that it was for the good of the country. Although Jefferson had good intentions, he clearly violated the Constitution by abusing his position as executive of the U.S. In another situation, Jefferson pushed the limits of presidential power by passing the Embargo Act of 1807. This act restricted trade with France and Britain because they did not respect the U.S. neutrality during the Napoleonic War. Although, his intentions were again good in this situation, he pushed the limits of what a president could constitutionally do while in office. Clearly, Jefferson exercised massive federal power to achieve his political goals.

It is obvious that after being elected as President, Jefferson radically altered his earlier philosophy of government. Before, he had strongly opposed federal power and fought for a strict constructionist view of the U.S. Constitution. However, once in office, he clearly abused his presidential authority by exercising power not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution. Despite his anti-Federalist upbringing, Thomas Jefferson turned out to be more a Federalist than Washington or Adams ever was.

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How to cite this note (MLA)

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Flip-Flopper Thomas Jefferson: From State’s Rights to Federalism" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/flip-flopper-thomas-jefferson-from/>.