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In the early days of the United States of America, as the nation was growing under the newly ratified Constitution, two prominent political parties emerged – the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans.
From 1801 to 1817, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both Jeffersonian Republicans and strict constructionists before assuming the presidency, held the highest office. However, their presidencies revealed surprising contradictions, where their actions diverged from their initial strict-constructionist beliefs.
The political landscape of early America saw the rise of two main parties, the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both Jeffersonian Republicans and strict constructionists, assumed the presidency during the period of 1801-1817. While their pre-presidential beliefs aligned with strict constructionism, their actions in office presented a departure from these principles.
Before his presidency, Thomas Jefferson was a vocal anti-Federalist, advocating for strict construction of the Constitution. He opposed the Constitution during the constitutional convention and argued for a Bill of Rights, emphasizing freedom of religion and protection against standing armies.
Jefferson's strict-constructionist stance was evident in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which aimed to counteract the Federalist theory of implied powers.
In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson called for a Bill of Rights because it provided "freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, ... and trials by jury in all matters triable by the law." In August of 1800, Jefferson expressed his previous beliefs of strict construction in a letter to Gideon Granger, stating that America could never be in a state of harmony if citizens "support principles which go directly to a change of the federal Constitution.
Jefferson also believed in the separation of church and state. In a letter to Samuel Miller in 1808, he asserted that the "government of the United States [is] interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines, or exercises." Although this expression took place in the last year of his presidency, Jefferson was reverting back to his old beliefs in strict construction when he spoke for the feature of separation of church and state.
Despite initial adherence to strict construction by reducing the army and challenging the Supreme Court's power, Jefferson surprised the public by maintaining Alexander Hamilton's economic policies, including the National Bank. Jefferson had argued against these policies only a few years before. Although the Constitution never said the government could have a national bank, Jefferson still kept it in place, marking a shift from strict to loose construction.
Jefferson's next move towards loose construction was the Louisiana Purchase. Nowhere in the Constitution did it say that the government could buy land from another government, but Jefferson, feeling the pressures of his office, went against his old morals and bought Louisiana from France. Jefferson realized that it is nearly impossible to be a successful president and still keep all of his old beliefs intact.
In a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1816, a few years before his death, Jefferson recognized that a shift in beliefs was necessary at times because although he was "certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions... laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." Jefferson found out that when he became president his actions and beliefs must keep up with the changing of the times. When Jefferson became President, he ruled in the way a traditional loose-constructionist would have done.
James Madison, often hailed as the "Father of the Constitution," was a strict constructionist before assuming the presidency. His contributions to the Constitution and the addition of the Bill of Rights showcased his commitment to limiting government power. Madison actively participated in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions, emphasizing the danger of oppression when real power lies within the government.
James Madison was elected in 1808, and took office in 1809. Madison found out also that previous beliefs are hard to keep when one is President of the U.S. Madison's administration had enacted a draft to rebuild the army that Jefferson had gotten rid of, but many were opposed to this such as Daniel Webster, who said that if the government had the right to draft men "into the regular army... he will at any time be able to prove...that Congress has power to create a dictator." Madison had originally feared a government with too much power, but he gave the government a power that, in the eyes of the people, was too close to that of a dictator.
When the government proposed the Tariff of 1816, John Randolph, a Democratic Republican congressman from Virginia, said in a speech to the House of Representatives that Madison's "principle now is old Federalism, vamped up into something bearing the superficial appearance of republicanism." Randolph was saying that although Madison claimed to be a Jeffersonian Republican, he was running the country like the old Federalist Party. After this pressure was building up and Madison was being called a Federalist, he responded by vetoing the Bonus Bill, which called for internal improvements in America, proposed by John Calhoun because he said "such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution." Madison had followed strict-construction in the decision to veto the Bonus Bill, but it resulted in a loss for the country. Madison also found out, like Jefferson, that the office of the presidency shapes the man.
Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison realized that the presidency presented challenges to maintaining strict constructionist principles. The office influenced their actions, compelling them to deviate from their original beliefs. In a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1816, Jefferson acknowledged the necessity of adapting laws and institutions to the progress of the human mind.
In conclusion, the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison revealed contradictions in their strict-constructionist characterizations. The challenges posed by the presidency prompted them to deviate from their initial beliefs, demonstrating the complex interplay between governance and personal principles. The shifts in their actions underscored the pragmatic approach required for effective leadership, even if it meant straying from strict constructionist ideals.
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