The Big Question: partisan, ruthless, passionate—Jefferson, argues David Rennie, was an indispensable president...
The spring of 1804 marked the peak of Thomas Jefferson's long career. Nearing the mid-point of his time as president (3rd president, 1801-09), he had just snapped up a vast tract of land from a cash-strapped Napoleon, doubling America's size at a cost of some three cents an acre. A punitive campaign against the Barbary powers was proving wildly popular, as the fledgling American navy inflicted shock and awe on foes in north Africa.
Then came a series of letters from Abigail Adams, wife of the man Jefferson had unseated from the presidency—letters that might have unmanned a less confident figure. Abigail accused Jefferson, who had served as vice-president to her husband, of betraying the fraternal principles of the American revolution. Not only had Jefferson sponsored muck-raking journalists to spread "foulest falsehoods" against her husband during the election of 1800; she also accused him of ditching the detachment proper to a national leader and of being a "party man", actually campaigning for his own victory.
Jefferson denied it all, but the charges were true. His predecessors Washington and Adams aspired to be virtuous magistrates, wielding power in the public interest. Jefferson was America's first politician-president: partisan, ruthless, passionate, and capable of outrageous hypocrisies. He served not some abstract republic but the people, in all their raucous, distrustful, disputatious individuality. While safely ensconced in Paris as his country's envoy, he had cheered a bloody anti-tax revolt at home, observing: "I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere."
His suspicion of centralised power had consequences for ill as well as good. His creed of "states' rights", advanced as an argument against censorship and repression, would later become the bedrock of the Southern case for preserving slavery. His own ambivalence towards slavery—arguing for abolition in principle while ducking concrete chances to restrict its practice, including on his own estates—has toppled him from modern rankings of the greatest presidents. The best that can be said of his contortions is that they were born of wide-eyed terror and a guilty conscience, rather than the self-serving delusions of divinely ordered superiority that comforted most slave-owners. He trembled for his country when he contemplated slavery's injustice. Yet he could see no peaceful end to the practice, imagining freed slaves wreaking bloody revenge unless exiled far away.
He thought big and was lucky: two very American virtues. His time in office anchored in place the form of argumentative, popular democracy that bears his name, and thus modern American politics itself—the worst and best sort there is. Jefferson was not the greatest man ever to serve as president. But his was an indispensable presidency.
Who do you think was the best president? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Emily Bobrow on George Washington, David Thomson on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jesse Norman on Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Lockwood on Theodore Roosevelt and Anne McElvoy on Bill Clinton
David Rennie is the Lexington columnist for The Economist