The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe
By Kevin R. C. Gutzman.
St. Martin’s Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 608 pages, $37.
Reviewed by Adam L. Tate.
It seems that in every age, the politically frustrated harken back to better days. For the exasperated, the golden past offers examples of the triumph of virtue. Perhaps our political golden age was when the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the so-called Father of the Constitution, and a patriotic war veteran of the American Revolution were successively in charge of the American ship of state. Kevin Gutzman’s impressive and insightful book, The Jeffersonians, puts to rest such political nostalgia. In his sweeping narrative of the Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe administrations, Gutzman details the constant play between ideological fervor and the realities of power, a dynamic that swept the Jeffersonian promise of 1800 into the broken American political culture of partisanship and cultural antagonism that we know so well today.
Gutzman’s overarching point is that the period from 1801-1825 was “an integral whole.” Most scholars have divided this period at the end of the War of 1812, making scholarship on the era unnecessarily disjointed. To counter this, Gutzman writes The Jeffersonians as an old-styled narrative history instead of the typical academic monograph. By presenting the three administrations as part of one whole, Gutzman sees common themes that run through the three presidencies despite the subtle differences among the three men. In particular, he uses presidential speeches to explore these continuities. Gutzman also relies heavily on personal letters and diaries to explicate the ideas and actions of the three presidents. Of course, he is well versed in the secondary literature and uses the scholarship effectively without bogging the reader down in the endless historiographical debates over the period. Gutzman’s other methodological choice is to focus on the personalities as well as their ideas. To that end, he tells the story through both significant and minor characters of the time: John Randolph of Roanoke, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Albert Gallatin, William Branch Giles, John Marshall, Spencer Roane, and others. His methodology and writing style keep the story moving and the reader engaged. As a result, Gutzman’s narrative is quite compelling.
As his main theme, Gutzman identifies party interests and political patronage as continual difficulties for the Jeffersonian administrations. Essentially, the problems concerned a dilemma: should the Jeffersonians, who came to power with a message of decentralization and constitutional, limited government demand ideological purity in tackling the country’s problems; or, should they consolidate their power by building a party coalition which would inevitably dilute their principles but ensure their longevity in office? For the most part, Gutzman notes, they chose party over purity, producing one political headache after another. For example, Jefferson wanted a middle ground on patronage, removing only a few sitting Federalists in order to preserve political peace. But Republicans throughout the nation pressed the President to appoint Republican loyalists to office and remove Federalists. Gutzman highlights the dangers of the new system through the example of James Callender. When Jefferson did not produce a political appointment for Callender, the journalist released the Sally Hemings story, severely damaging the President’s reputation. Madison too struggled with appointments. He wanted the able Albert Gallatin as his secretary of state but instead settled on Robert Smith of Pennsylvania due to party considerations. Gutzman comments that the decision “doomed the president to having an incompetent as his chief subordinate for years and helped set a pattern of lackluster-at-best Cabinet appointments that marred virtually the entire Madison presidency.” On the other hand, Gutzman believes that Monroe’s administration functioned better with Calhoun as secretary of war and John Quincy Adams as secretary of state. But Monroe’s decision to retain William Crawford was a disaster, as Crawford undermined Monroe’s policies to serve his own presidential ambitions. Monroe, unlike Jefferson and Madison, was uncomfortable with parties and hoped to see them end. Ironically, Gutzman points out, Republicans in Boston complained loudly as Monroe toured the state that the president did not seek to reward party loyalists. Gutzman uses these and many other examples to show that the Jeffersonians consistently chose party over principle.
Like previous critics of the Jeffersonians Henry Adams and Forrest McDonald, who both make numerous appearances in the notes, Gutzman highlights the perils of the ideological political style. Rule number one seemed to be: never admit you were wrong. For Jefferson, his difficulties concerned foreign affairs during his second term in office. Once the British and the French, locked in mortal combat in Europe, began seizing American merchant vessels, Jefferson, Gutzman maintains, hoped that Napoleon would “make Britain in time more accommodating.” Thus, Jefferson rejected the pragmatic Monroe-Pinkney Treaty and demanded that the British renounce impressment. Federalists and Old Republicans, led by Jefferson’s fierce cousin John Randolph, believed such a stance was unrealistic. But the intransigent Jefferson and Madison narrowed their policy options, trying first the disastrous Embargo Act that harmed their own largely agricultural political base. Even after the embargo failed, Madison refused to budge or admit defeat. The declaration of war against Britain followed in 1812. Despite a disastrous foreign policy that found an unprepared United States on the eve of war with one of the world’s superpowers, Madison won re-election. Fulfilling all the predictions of his political opponents, Gutzman insists, Madison performed miserably as commander-in-chief. Gutzman argues that he was unable to communicate strategy to his generals, and his dithering allowed the British to burn the capital in 1814. In the end, Madison did not press the British to renounce impressment—the issue on which neither he nor Jefferson would compromise before 1812—and accepted the Treaty of Ghent with its return to the status quo antebellum. Madison, Gutzman chides, then “shamelessly” declared victory.
The ideological inconsistency of the Jeffersonian administrations further bothers Gutzman. One example will suffice. He provides an intriguing account of the controversy over the Louisiana Purchase, certainly Jefferson’s greatest presidential achievement. The issue, as the familiar story goes, was the constitutionality of the Purchase. Many Jeffersonians, such as Gallatin, gave sincere arguments that the purchase, if made through the treaty power, was constitutional. Certainly, the country could gain and secure territory through treaties. But New Englanders were hostile to acquiring Louisiana for several reasons, one of which was that it would irrevocably change the Union that everyone had agreed upon during the 1780s. Gutzman seems to believe that the Purchase was constitutional, but Jefferson was uncertain, writing several people about the need to amend the Constitution to acquire Louisiana. Specifically, Jefferson feared to increase government power through constitutional “construction,” that is, interpretation. But the exigencies of the moment demanded quick action, and Jefferson’s constitutional scruples fell silent. The earnest young John Quincy Adams, recently launched into his long political career, asked Secretary of State Madison if Jefferson intended to bring forth an amendment on Louisiana but was ignored. Adams concluded, Gutzman tells us, that “Jefferson and Madison,” as evidenced by their behavior in 1803, must have been “motivated purely by politics in the 1790s.” If even Jefferson and Madison did not take their constitutionalism seriously, why should anyone else?
Indeed, for Gutzman the most important theme was the fate of Jeffersonian constitutionalism during the administrations of the Virginia Dynasty. During the 1790s Jefferson, Madison, and their allies had created a compelling constitutionalism that focused upon the issue of consent, supposedly a sacred American political principle. They argued that the Constitution had to be interpreted in light of the consent given in the ratification conventions. The Federalists there – and Madison had been one – had promised that the Constitution was a strictly limited document that would be interpreted closely, and Madison and Jefferson like many of their fellow countrymen believed that those promises stood. But soon after ratification the President, Congress, and federal courts often construed the Constitution broadly, in contradiction to promises made during the ratification battles. Even more galling was the fact that many of those who had made those promises were the people lately promoting and enforcing a different understanding of the Constitution. The sense of betrayal made the politics of the age personal and extremely toxic. Ironically, Jeffersonian constitutionalism was continuously thwarted during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Jefferson blamed the courts, particularly the rulings of fellow Virginian John Marshall. Gutzman laments the inexplicable appointment by Madison of Joseph Story to the Supreme Court. An inveterate nationalist—Jefferson called him a “tory”—Story joined Marshall in enshrining the Hamiltonian nationalist vision into ruling precedents. Virginia jurists Spencer Roane and John Taylor of Caroline howled in protest but to little avail. Gutzman concludes, “In one sense, while the Jeffersonians were winning all of the electoral battles, John Marshall, Joseph Story, and their colleagues were winning the jurisprudential, meaning eventually the constitutional, and ultimately the political war.”
There is so much more in this rich volume, but what does this leave as the Jeffersonians’ legacy? Gutzman gives little room for positive judgments. A tortured record regarding slavery, an inability to solve justly the Indian question, extreme sectional and political polarization, a constitutional vision neglected due to hypocrisy and power-seeking—all of these things were legacies that would later haunt the country. Gutzman’s book, then, might best be read as a tragedy. It seems that Americans are exempt neither from history nor human nature but instead participate in the long chain of human folly that comprises the pages of history. So much for nostalgia.
Adam L. Tate is Professor of History at Clayton State University.
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