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Jefferson's presidency and the turn of the nineteenth century

Read about Thomas Jefferson and his most influential action as president, the Louisiana Purchase. 


  • Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States. He served two terms in office, from 1801 to 1809.
  • Jefferson dealt with two major challenges to US authority: piracy along the Barbary Coast of North Africa, and British impressment, which resulted in Jefferson instating a mass embargo of European goods, the Embargo Act of 1807.
  • Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the territory of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, born in Virginia of English ancestry, was one of America’s founders and the main author of the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that the American colonies were forming their own nation—the United States of America—and were no longer subject to British rule. He represented Virginia in the Second Continental Congress, which adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. From 1790 to 1793, he served as the first US Secretary of State under President George Washington, and from 1797 to 1801 was Vice President under John Adams. He ran against Adams in the presidential election of 1800 and won.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Adams and Jefferson represented two different visions of what the United States of America should look like. Whereas Adams and his fellow Federalists, including George Washington, envisioned a strong central government and a thriving manufacturing sector centered in the cities, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans espoused an agrarian ideal, rooted in the republican virtues of the independent small farmer. The election of 1800 was fiercely contested and facilitated the rise of the two-party system and bitter partisanship.
Upon entering office, Jefferson focused on reducing the national debt he had inherited from his predecessors. His administration lowered excise taxes while slashing government spending. Additionally, the Jefferson administration reduced the size of the Navy, ultimately bringing the national debt down from $83 to $57 million. Foreign developments, however, including the intensification of piracy along the Barbary Coast, would necessitate the rebuilding of the Navy and its establishment as a permanent part of the US government.

The First Barbary War

While America had been a colonial territory of Great Britain, the British navy had protected American merchant ships from pirates. Now that the United States was an independent country, however, it had to provide its own protection. Pirates off the Barbary Coast frequently raided US merchant ships, looting goods and sometimes even kidnapping crew members and enslaving them or demanding a ransom for their return. This resulted in the First Barbary War, which took place from 1801 to 1805 off the coast of North Africa and was followed by a Second Barbary War in 1815.
barbary coast map
A map of the northern coast of Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Barbary Coast. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1801, shortly after Jefferson’s inauguration, the Pasha, or ruler, of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, demanded a tribute payment of $225,000 and then declared war on the United States when the Jefferson administration refused to pay. Jefferson authorized a series of naval bombardments on Tripoli, ultimately forcing the Pasha to surrender and sign a peace treaty. Though peace in the Mediterranean was only temporary, Jefferson demonstrated that the United States could wage a war far off its shores, bolstering the fledgling nation’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with.
Painting depicting a ship raid near Tripoli.
Painting depicting a ship raid near Tripoli. Painted by Dennis Malone Carter, early 19th c. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Embargo Act of 1807

The Barbary Pirates weren’t the only source of trouble on the high seas for US ships during Jefferson’s presidency. France and England were engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, which raged between 1803 and 1815. As a result, both countries began to seize American ships. The British Royal Navy impressed American sailors, kidnapping them from US ships and forcing them to serve in the British navy. The issue came to a head in 1807 when the HMS Leopard, a British warship, fired on a US ship, the Chesapeake, off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. The British then boarded the ship and took four sailors.
Jefferson responded to this episode by signing the Embargo Act of 1807. This law prohibited American ships from leaving their ports until Britain and France stopped seizing them. The logic behind the embargo was that cutting off all trade would so severely hurt the economies of Britain and France that the seizures at sea would end.
Unfortunately, Jefferson miscalculated--the embargo harmed the American economy far more than the economies of Britain or France. The embargo hurt American farmers, who could no longer sell their goods overseas, and seaport cities experienced a huge increase in unemployment and an uptick in bankruptcies. All told, American business activity declined by a shocking 75% in only one year following the Embargo Act.
A political cartoon published in response to the Embargo Act of 1807, featuring a smuggler crying “Oh, this cursed Ograbme!” (“Ograbme” is “embargo” spelled backwards.) Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
But the embargo proved very difficult to enforce, as many people smuggled goods between the United States and British Canada. At the very end of his presidency, Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act of 1808, lifting the unpopular embargoes on trade with all countries except Britain and France. Yet this failed to undo the dramatic economic decline or ease political tensions with Europe.

Jefferson’s legacy

Finally, one of the most notable events of Jefferson’s presidency the Louisiana Purchase, when the US government purchased over 800,000 square miles of territory in North America from France. Read more about the Louisiana Purchase and its exploration here.

What do you think?

What were the similarities and differences between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans?
Why was the Embargo Act of 1807 unpopular with many Americans?
Why do you think Thomas Jefferson responded to British impressment of US sailors with an embargo, or economic warfare, as opposed to another method?

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