The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson
The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson
The perception that Federalists were loose constructionists and that Jeffersonian Republicans were very strict constructionists was very well founded, but not accurate 100% of the time. The presidency of Thomas Jefferson mainly supported the theory that the Jeffersonian Republicans were strict constructionists. James Madison’s presidency supported that theory as well. Both presidents, however, made exceptions to their general policies when an issue was just too big to fit inside the tiny box of their shared school of thought.
Jefferson proved himself a constructionist most of the time he was in office. In August of 1800, Jefferson’s first year in office, he sent a letter to Gideon Granger (document A) stating his support for the constitution and its basic principles, and also stating that Federalists opposed those principles by their loose interpretation of the document. He implies that loose interpretation leads to change, and in this case, that will create a strong national government that resembles a monarchy and doesn’t adhere to the rights of states as guaranteed by the Constitution.
In another letter, this time to Samuel Miller (document B) during his last year holding office, Jefferson reinforces the image of strict constructionism by stating that he intends to break the precedent established by his predecessors to better adhere to the Constitution’s policy on separation of church and state. Jefferson’s widely known philosophy that the National Bank should not be established because the Constitution didn’t say that it could was another example of his strict constructionism (Blum). Blum also mentions that even in his first speech to Congress, Jefferson put the constraint on the ideas he presented them with that everything had to be done “within the limits of their Constitutional powers”.
Madison, also being a Democratic-Republican, supported the same principles as Jefferson. Speaking for President Madison, Daniel Webster (document D) questioned Congress’ right to a military draft on the sole argument that the power is not written in the Constitution, and stated that if Congress to did things that the Constitution did not explicitly give them the right to do, they would be creating a dictator. In his own address to Congress (document H), Madison says that funds cannot be set apart for the development of transportation because “such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution”. Both of these documents show his very strict constructionist side, and support that common characterization of the Republicans. Blum informs us that Madison even went so far at the end of his presidency as to veto the Bonus Bill because it seemed to give the national government power that the Constitution had not granted.
Both presidents supported the characterization of the Republicans as strict constructionists, but in the interest of political popularity, they were forced to compromise that ideal many times. Jefferson, for example, could not immediately abolish Adams’ national bank because it would be too drastic a move for someone with his popularity, despite the fact that it was established without the Constitution granting that power to the federal government (Blum). Jefferson’s most grand defiance of his strict interpretation of the Constitution was his purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Even though he was not given the power to purchase land in the Constitution, Jefferson couldn’t pass up the opportunity to double the nation’s size at a time of such large-scale westward movement.
After his presidency (1816), Jefferson wrote a letter to Samuel Kercheval (document G) that gave his support for change to the Constitution with change to the times, which is a very far leap from claiming that nothing could be done in the national government without the Constitution granting them the power to do it. Madison is guilty of the same deviations from typical Republican strict constructionist policy. He was attacked by John Randolph (document F) for being too much like a Federalist, particularly when using the national government’s power to set tariffs like the one proposed in 1816. This was not the first time Madison was attacked for his pseudo-Federalist policies. He received abundant criticisms for his establishment of the “American System”. That system was based on powers not granted by the Constitution like the establishment of a second Bank of the United States and the building of the National Road (Blum).
When judged by the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison, it would appear that the idea that Jeffersonian Republicans were strict constructionists. It would also appear that they chose certain times to be extreme hypocrits; Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and Madison’s re-establishment of a national bank are just two of those instances. In general, they established a precedent that presidents could challenge the philosophies that they were elected for if it was in the nation’s best interest, or in their own. This precedent is still being followed today, and though it may very well be hypocritical and/or self-serving, it has occasionally been very beneficial for the American people when individual reasoning reigns over party philosophy.