Many presidents are easy to assess. I believe that John Tyler was excellent, while John Adams, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson were disasters. I could add others to the top tier with Tyler (like Washington and Harding), and to the gutter (like James Buchanan and George W. Bush) with just as much ease. Other chief executives were very good, pretty good, or just okay, or awful… but there are a handful that I have hard time getting closure on. These are the presidents who were both great and terrible at once. The quintessential example is Thomas Jefferson.
Bear in mind that in what follows, I assess Jefferson as I do any other president, on the basis of what he did as president, not before or after. The Declaration of Independence was one of Jefferson’s greatest achievements, but he penned that document outside his presidency, and so it doesn’t count in what follows. Also, I assess presidents for their actual policies, not for the number of women they slept with, or how adulterous, scandalous, or odious those liaisons were. It’s become vogue to rip Jefferson’s face over Sally Hemings, but that’s another discussion. A presidential ranking should be based not on the executive’s moral character (except insofar as how it might bear directly on his policies), or his charisma, or his management style. I base my rankings on what a president did for the causes of (1) peace, (2) prosperity, and (3) liberty, all of which are, at least nominally, the conditions under which most Americans want to live.
First term: The Good One (1801-1805)
If Jefferson had been a one-term president, he would have gone down as one of the unambiguous greats — one of the top four presidents of all time who truly deserves his place on Mount Rushmore. His first term was a glowing model of executive restraint. He turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech. His policies were signaled by executive humility right out of the gate. He refused the formal coach ride to his inaugural address and chose his feet, believing that walking placed him among the people where he belonged. During his administration he trimmed a lot of office trappings (like extravagant state dinners), and opened the front door himself to visitors when he could. Like Washington (though even more so), he went out of his way to make clear the presidency was not a kingship and the White House not a palace; it was the people’s home as much as his own.
In particular, he emphasized in his inaugural that the legislature was to be the most powerful branch of government. His job as the chief executive was to make recommendations, execute the laws of Congress, and no more than that. Now, all that rhetoric is fine and well, but did Jefferson’s actual policies align with what he made a big show of standing for? During his first term they did.
The First Barbary War
One of his first actions was going to war with the Barbary pirates, who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam. This was the right move, since it was a defensive war — and not only that, a defensive war against an act of religious terror.
Some historians claim the Barbary War was fought primarily for trade, but that’s a feeble manhandling of the truth. The origin of the Barbary War came sixteen years prior (in 1785), at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean no longer had the protection of the British navy and were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms.
At that time Jefferson had been a delegate to Europe (along with John Adams), and he was flabbergasted at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that
“They were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise.”
If all of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, there’s a good reason for that; it’s what Islam has been about since its inception in the seventh century, in all its mainstream forms. It’s a myth that jihadism was born of bad U.S. foreign policy. The Barbary Wars were over two centuries ago. At the time of President Jefferson, “U.S. foreign policy” didn’t even exist to speak of.
The reason for the unprovoked attacks was simple: Christian sailors were fair game, because they weren’t Muslims. The nature of Islam was beginning to dawn on Jefferson. He was certainly no anti-Muslim bigot. He supported the rights of Muslims as people, and he went out of his way to define Muslims as future American citizens. But neither was he a naive romantic. Unlike today’s regressive leftists, he came to see that the religion of Islam was oppressive and at odds with free inquiry.
As Jefferson’s co-delegate in the meeting of 1786 (not even Washington was president yet), Adams advised that America should pay tribute to the Barbary States. Jefferson, no war-monger by any means, disagreed, realizing that war was the only way to deal with a terrorist situation. Later, with the increased reports from the dungeons of Algiers and Tripoli — horrible mistreatments of captured men and women — Jefferson’s position gained momentum. By the time he was president, public opinion hardened in favor of war, and it was obviously the right decision.
The war went on for four years until the payoff on June 1805. Jefferson (unlike Adams) is to be commended for America’s first defeat of jihad terror. Though wars should be avoided whenever possible, it was clearly necessary in this case. The First Barbary War taught a more general lesson as well: that America was bound up with global affairs and could not afford to play the strict isolationist.
The Louisiana Purchase
Jefferson elsewhere avoided war, especially with Spain, and he expanded American land by buying the Louisiana territory from France. Some historians have called the Louisiana Purchase unconstitutional, but this judgment seems churlish. Jefferson did everything with congressional approval. He didn’t make the treaty by decree. It wasn’t an executive agreement with France (which would have indeed been tyrannical). He submitted a negotiated treaty to Congress for “advice and consent”. The Senate could have rejected the treaty, and the House could have refused to fund the purchase. Both approved the recommendation.
It’s true that the Constitution is silent on the matter of admitting foreign states, but in the Constitution the states had delegated foreign diplomacy to the government, and treaties had always been ratified without direct input from the people. Jefferson’s cabinet agreed in any case that a constitutional amendment wasn’t needed to add land to the country. By adding this land the U.S. doubled its land size. In my opinion the Louisiana Purchase is to Jefferson’s credit, not his detraction.
Jefferson put in a plan to reduce the federal debt, and with great success: it would drop from 80 million to 57 million by the time he left office. And he commissioned the Lewis & Clark expedition, without which the U.S. would have never gotten the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. On whole, he favored executive prudence and restraint, unlike the Federalists and later Whigs.
The single stain on Jefferson’s first term was his plan to impeach “unfit” judges. First he went after John Pickering on the Federal District Court, getting him charged with “mental instability” and intoxication on the bench. Pickering was impeached by the House in 1803 and removed by the Senate in 1804. Now, Pickering may well have been “unfit” to be a federal judge, but according to the Constitution, only “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” warrant impeachment. Pickering’s offenses weren’t impeachable ones, and if he could be removed for a reason like this, then any judge was fair game for capricious removal — even for rank political purposes. Which of course is exactly what happened next. Jefferson went after a Supreme Court judge, Justice Samuel Chase, who was impeached in 1804 simply for being obnoxious and a partisan Federalist. Thankfully the Senate acquitted him in 1805, setting a precedent that helped ensure the independence of the judiciary. Some of the senators declined to convict Chase despite their animosity towards him, because unlike Jefferson, they knew that was no reason to remove a judge.
Second Term: The Bad One (1805-1809)
The Embargo Act of 1807 turned Jefferson’s image upside down. His embargo was an act of commercial warfare, intended to punish Britain and France (fighting each other in the Napoleonic Wars), and force them to stop molesting American ships and respect U.S. neutrality. The logic (get this) was that by withholding American raw materials, Britain and France would be forced to trade on American terms, and stop harassing U.S. ships and sailors. One can only marvel at the depths of stupidity required for such “logic”. America obviously needed international trade as much as Britain and France did, and in any case, the British and French saw the world entirely in terms of the epic war they were fighting. They both cared more about winning their war than about maximizing any short term GDP. That ruinous war was “punishing” them enough as it was, and they had no intention of stopping.
The only people punished by the embargo were American citizens. They starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops. Urban industrial workers, sailors and artisans lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved due to governmental incompetence. The Embargo Act alone could qualify Jefferson as one of the worst presidents of all time.
To add insult to injury, Jefferson violated civil liberties by his oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Furthermore, it’s ironic that citizens were prosecuted for sedition under Jefferson, just as they were under Adams. Jefferson was the hero who had ended the Alien and Sedition Acts and the persecution of free speech — freeing those who had been imprisoned in the Adams era for speaking their minds. Jefferson was almost as bad in trampling on civil liberties, especially with the Fourth Amendment; but sometimes also even with the First, when he encouraged the prosecution of Federalist journalists who bad-mouthed him.
Conclusion: Rating Thomas Jefferson
I’m a bit stumped on how to rank a president with Jefferson’s duality. Part of me says he deserves a high ranking for all the good he did and great examples he set; the other part says a low ranking for becoming the kind of demon he had always crusaded against. In the end, technically, he washes out as average:
For peace I give him a perfect rating of 20. He avoided unnecessary wars and prosecuted a necessary defensive war against the Barbary States.
For prosperity I split him right down the middle. He deserves a 20 for his first term, and an absolute zero for his second (for the Embargo Act), for an overall rating of 10.
For liberty I likewise split him down the middle. He cleaned up the free-speech oppression under John Adams, but then had many people (who were starving) searched and arrested without warrants, in addition to encouraging that Federalist journalists be brought up on sedition/libel charges.
Peace — 20/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 10/20
Overall score — 40/60 = Average
Mind you, I’m not entirely happy with a ranking of “average” for Jefferson. “Average” seems to neutralize a leader’s excellent accomplishments and abysmal failures. But there you have it.