The Failures Of The Presidency Of Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson is generally regarded as one of the most popular and successful of the United States Presidents. In reviewing his Presidency, it is found that Jefferson had one of the toughest times as the nation’s leader. Jefferson made many mistakes during his two terms in office, some of which adversely affected the entire population of the United States. With an embargo that destroyed the homeland economy, and hypocritical negotiations with the terroristic Barbary pirates, Jefferson’s few mistakes were some of the most detrimental and failed plots in the country’s history. These events and the specific actions taken by Jefferson while in office adversely affected the social and economical steadiness of the nation, creating a political imbalance that—by the end of Jefferson’s second term—led to the War of 1812.
The year was 1807, and the British and French had been at war with each other for around fifteen years. Jefferson was in his sixth year as President. Although the United States remained relatively uninvolved in the Napoleonic Wars up until this point, Britain announced that their naval fleet would be more aggressive in their policy of reclaiming deserted British soldiers who were now working on American ships. Around this same time, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French leader, proclaimed that because their country was at war with the British, their fleet would attack any ship carrying goods to or from Britain. These two threats required a response from Jefferson; shipping to and from Britain would have to cease because the French would attack American vessels, and ships could no longer travel around Europe because the British would reclaim their subjects. It was clear that the British did not want American trade to support the French, and the French did not want trade going to the British. This dilemma was considered an extreme priority; economy, foreign relations, and American lives were all at stake. Jefferson was convinced that he should act immediately. Jefferson consulted his cabinet and close officers and decided to ask Congress to pass an embargo. This embargo would not only bar all American ships from trading with Britain and France, it stopped trade overseas completely. Jefferson believed that while keeping Americans safe, he was also punishing Britain and France for their threats against America. Jefferson also believed that because the embargo blocked all trade completely, and because the United States was a part of the European economy, Britain and France would suffer from not having goods from America. (Encyclopædia Britannica)
Jefferson was clearly wrong. The great nations of Britain and France did not need American trade after all, as they could import from anywhere else. One of the only things that both countries learned from the lesson was that neither of them required trade from the United States to succeed. The second that the embargo took place, over 30,000 jobs were lost. Not only were jobs lost, but people who still had jobs suffered even more than those that didn’t. Farmers, who were used to shipping materials overseas, could not sell surplus amounts of what they produced. Port and dock workers had no cargo to unload or ships to manage, and ship owners had boats that sat—empty. This was the same for every major port city. Hoping that the embargo would be repealed, producers piled American-made merchandise by the docks. All of these items ready for the European economy, with no way to get there—legally. Smuggling became an industry under the embargo, with people so desperate to make money in this minor depression of trade and economy. Smuggling went from ships sailing across the Great Lakes into Canada to merchants and traders breaking the embargo altogether. With the market in clear struggle, trade being the forerunner in the American economy, Jefferson did nothing about a possible repudiation of the embargo. Jefferson even stated that it was “necessary to maintain the laws of embargo.” (Jefferson) Smugglers who were caught were not convicted of their crimes, as even grand juries disagreed with the ridiculous act. Smugglers became heroes to the American people, and Jefferson became a persecutor. The Embargo Act was the complete antithesis of the idea of “promoting the general welfare;” rather, the restriction denied welfare, oppressing many groups of workers and people. (Malone)
A constant embargo with duration of fifteen months proved that Jefferson’s actions had failed. Britain and France experienced no trouble or effect of the embargo. The Embargo Act smothered American economy, fortunes, and businesses. It created a new industry for criminal behavior, and ruined Jefferson’s image as a hero. In a letter that Jefferson wrote while preparing to leave the White House, he stated, “Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.” After leaving office, Congress replaced the embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act, reinstating trade with every nation save Britain and France. Although Congress eventually repealed the Embargo Act, it was too late for Jefferson himself to reverse the action that he took based on his originally good intentions. (WhiteHouse.gov)
Moving backward into the first term of Jefferson’s presidency, another major error is found. In 1801, the first year of Jefferson’s first term, the First Barbary War broke out. This small war was fought between the United States and the Barbary States, a group of independent nations in North Africa. In the first few weeks of Jefferson’s term, Yusuf Karamanli, a high-ranking official of the Barbary States, demanded $225,000 from Jefferson’s new administration. Jefferson immediately refused the demand, and Karamanli declared war on the United States. Two other nations followed their Tripolitan allies and declared war as well. Jefferson responded to this declaration of war by sending a group of frigates to defend other American trade ships and people in the Mediterranean Sea. Congress never voted on the declaration of war, but they did approve Jefferson’s request of sending the frigates. While the American navy was relatively strong, tensions increased and battles broke out. The fleet of Tripoli captured the USS Philadelphia. All of the crew, including the captain, was taken as hostages and the ship was turned against other American ships. (Toll)
Almost nine months after the Philadelphia was captured, Stephen Decatur led the very first Marines to Tripoli and onto the Philadelphia. The men overpowered the Tripolitan crew and set fire to the ship, in order to ensure that the Philadelphia would not be used against American forces anymore. Jefferson’s mistake of denying the ransom of around a quarter of a million dollars led to many deaths and unnecessary battles over a period of four years—but this was not the worst part of his decision. While Jefferson’s position on paying ransom in 1801 was firm, he asked Congress to pay a ransom in 1805, thus ending the war. This hypocritical stance was not a fair way to end the war, as they had already been fighting for four years. Many of the members of the State Department believed that the honor of the United States was lost when it abandoned the crew of the Philadelphia in 1803, but paid a ransom for their release in 1805. The worst part of this decision was the fact that the sixty-thousand dollar ransom that was paid in 1805 only released the sailors, but did not create a peace agreement with the Barbary States. This mistake led to various fleets from the Barbary States seizing American ships and crewmen, starting back up a mere two years after the ransom had been paid. Clearly, the paying of the ransom did nothing but support the terroristic ways of the Barbary States. The way that the United States agreed to negotiate with the radical regime did not “secure the blessings of liberty,” but it led the leaders of the Barbary States to believe that the United States would pay ransom for hostages, which led to the Second Barbary War. All of the money, life, resource, and honor that were lost in both the paying of the ransom and the Second Barbary War would have been saved if the war would have been finished in 1805 and a treaty agreement signed, rather than Jefferson’s agreeing to support the severely corrupt Ottoman Empire. (Gawalt)
It is clear that in reguard to honor and heroism, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most popular and well-respected of the Founding Fathers, as well as the United States Presidents. Although Jefferson was a successful leader in American History, his presidency led to a decline in respect for him politically. The two fatal failures of the presidency of Thomas Jefferson are the relations with the Barbary Pirates and the Embargo Act, both directly stimulating American involvement with the war of 1812, thus ruining American neutrality. Jefferson did not have a failed presidency, but a flawed one. Jefferson made mistakes just like any other man, but his actions led to a decline in the economy, the loss of life, the inbalance of the infrastructure of the United States, and even another war with the tyrants of the Barbary States.
“Action will delineate and define you.” – Thomas Jefferson
Encyclopædia Britannica. “Embargo Act.” 2009. Embargo Act (United States ). 2 October 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/185515/Embargo-Act>.
Gawalt, Gerard W. “The Thomas Jefferson Papers.” January 2009. America and the Barbary Pirates: An International Battle Against an Unconventional Foe. 1 October 2009 <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjprece.html>.
Jefferson, Thomas. Eighth State of the Union Address. Speech. Washington, D.C., 1808.
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson the President: Second Term 1805 – 1809 – Volume V (Jefferson and His Time, Vol 5). Chicago: Back Bay Books, 1975.
Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
WhiteHouse.gov. Biography of Thomas Jefferson. 2009. 3 October 2009 <http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/thomasjefferson/>.