Thomas Jefferson: steering a middle course

DURING this week in 1801 Thomas Jefferson became the first President to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. Jefferson emerged the victor in the presidential election only after the matter went to the House of Representatives. The electoral vote had resulted in a tie with Aaron Burr, with incumbent President John Adams only eight votes behind. So miffed was Adams that he left the capital city without attending Jefferson's inauguration. The campaign had been particularly bitter. Yet what is remarkable is that the electoral results were accepted peacefully, even though it was the first time that the federal government under the Constitution changed hands -- from the Federalist Party of Washington and Adams to the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson.

Jefferson did much to contribute to the soothing of partisan feelings. In his Inaugural Address, he pointed out that ``every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.'' Although Jefferson as President would honor many of his party's commitments -- abolishing internal taxes, cutting the size of the Army and Navy, and repealing controversial judiciary and naturalization acts -- he did not make war on Federalist institutions that were practical, such as the Bank of the United States.

And, with the Louisiana Purchase, he nearly doubled the size of the United States.

Jefferson, in sum, did what modern presidents do -- namely, steer a course between two extremes. For that reason, Jefferson's writings and actions are frequently at odds, a condition that stirs historians of every generation to try their hand in getting to the ``real'' Jefferson. And for that reason, too, Jefferson would not become the spokesman or hero of the states'-rights faction of his own party.

Perhaps the most pragmatic President of this century, Franklin D. Roosevelt, drew much inspiration from Jefferson. FDR's last address, in 1945, which was not given because he died the day before it was to be delivered, used the anniversary of Jefferson's birth (April 13) as the basis for a brief but stirring speech about civilization's survival.

FDR's words still carry meaning:

``Thomas Jefferson, himself a distinguished scientist, once spoke of the `brotherly spirit of science, which unites into one family all its votaries of whatever grade, and however widely dispersed throughout the different quarters of the globe. . . .'

``Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships -- the ability of all peoples of all kinds to live together and work together in the same world at peace.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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