Is Thomas Jefferson to Blame for Today's Partisan Politics?

A new biography of the third president paints him as a model for our times. In fact, his rigid ideology prevented him from solving some of the nation's most serious problems. 


This 1903 engraving shows Thomas Jefferson and a commissioner preparing to accept the Louisiana transfer as Indians benevolently look on. (Library of Congress)

Every few years a biographer seems to think there's something extremely timely a founding father can teach us. For our current age of partisan gridlock, Jon Meacham thinks Thomas Jefferson has crucial lessons to impart. In his new book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Meacham tells us that Jefferson wasn't only a brilliant politician, but a founding father who would have been horrified at today's ideological rigidity.

"Jefferson's political leadership is instructive," Meacham writes, "in part because he found the means to endure and, in many cases, to prevail in the face of extreme partisanship." In Meacham's telling, Jefferson is less the contradictory figure he's usually made out to be than a tough-minded "pragmatist" (a word we see over and over) who jettisoned his ideals for the sake of political expediency.

The book is timed for its release right after the election. And while the focus on Jefferson's strengthening of the federal government makes it seem like a policy brief for Obama, there's enough in it for Romney to like. Meacham tells us that Jefferson always valued conservative creeds like "American liberty and American strength," and in his eight years as president he even cut the national debt. In the epilogue, Meacham quotes Reagan ("himself a visionary with a pragmatic streak") who praised Jefferson for recognizing that "man had received from God a precious gift of enlightenment, ...a gift that could extract from the chaos of life meaning, truth, order."

But a more honest look at Jefferson's political career reveals a very different picture. Far from being a model of how to prevail in divisive times, Jefferson was the father of today's partisanship. You do not need to look hard for examples. From Jefferson's first days in the federal government as Washington's secretary of state in 1789, he began plotting against those who opposed him. At the time, his chief rival was Alexander Hamilton, Washington's treasurer, who began wooing the president with his arch-nationalist agenda. Quietly, Jefferson founded an anti-Hamiltonian newspaper, the National Gazette, with the sole aim of attacking Hamilton and his allies, the Federalists.

To be fair, Federalists had already created their own papers. (The idea of an independent press didn't exist then.) But it was less a party paper than an affirmation of the Constitution and the federal government. To launch the National Gazette, Jefferson secretly used funds from his government post. The paper itself provided a national forum for anti-Federalist views, leading directly to the creation of the Democratic-Republican Party. Meacham brushes aside Jefferson's secrecy and divisiveness, choosing instead to glamorize his moves as an artful illustration of power. Yet it's hard to get around the fact that Jefferson was instrumental in creating party politics. Moreover, he would use those same partisan tactics to leave a legacy of states' rights doctrine that would far outlast his lifetime.

Jefferson was never against a federal government, as Meacham rightly points out. But up until his presidency, he believed that the states should be the ultimate guarantors of personal freedoms. When John Adams, the second president, signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Jefferson feared the government was suppressing individual liberties. His solution was to go behind Adams's back and secretly draft the ur-text of states rights doctrine, the Kentucky Resolutions. It was a thoroughly partisan move, especially considering that Jefferson was, at the time, serving as Adams's vice president--a position then reserved for the second-place finisher. The Resolutions first drafted by Jefferson passed the Kentucky legislature in November 1798 and debilitated Johns Adams and the Federalist Party, which had largely supported the Alien and Sedition Act.

Jefferson's draft of the bill gave Kentucky the right to nullify federal laws the state didn't agree with. It was mostly a symbolic act, but the resolutions would come back to haunt the country. A couple of decades later, Southern Democrats from the extreme wing of Jefferson's party repeatedly invoked them to ignore federal law, and ultimately secede from the union. But you don't need to look beyond Jefferson's lifetime to see how deeply he embedded partisanship into politics.

Jefferson's 1801 election to the presidency gave rise to what historians call the First Party System. A tie between Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr, whom both assumed would be vice president, was thrown into the House of Representatives for a final vote. In a highly partisan fight, Jefferson manipulated the Federalists, who largely supported Burr, making them believe that he'd keep their party officials in their already-appointed positions if they voted him into power. After he won, Jefferson did the exact opposite, purging Federalists from the national government.

The most significant example came in 1802. Early in Jefferson's first term, he tried to expel Adams's Federalist appointees from the national courts and tip the balance favor in the Democratic-Republicans. But rather than portray these maneuvers as partisan, Meacham praises them as "a monument to Jefferson's power." He barely gives any attention at all to the repercussions of Jefferson's audacious act. The Supreme Court rejected his attempt in the 1803 landmark case Marbury v. Madison, and its ruling established judicial review--empowering the judiciary to serve as a check on presidential power, not become a pawn of it.

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Eric Herschthal has written for The Daily Beast, The New Republic, The New York Observer, and other publications.

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