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Jefferson's presidency and the turn of the nineteenth century

KC‑4.1.I.A (KC)
PCE (Theme)
Unit 4: Learning Objective B
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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • hopper happy style avatar for user sparplane
    On the Louisiana Purchase, how much would 15,000,000 be in today's standards?
    (14 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Ben McCuskey
      According to "officialdata.org", $15,000,000 in 1803 would be worth $340,339,380 in 2020.

      According to "davemanuel.com", $15,000,000 in 1803 would be worth $333,333,333 in 2019.

      It obviously depends on the method by which you calculate US inflation over the very long period between 1803 and today (2020 as I'm writing this) but it would appear that the price would be approx $333-$340 million dollars in 2020 dollars.

      My research shows that the Lousiana Purchase was approximately 530,000,000 acres. $340,000,000 / 530,000,000 acres = $0.64/acre! If those estimates regarding price and size are at all accurate then the US got an extremely good deal!!
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user iprema07
    "Napoleon became bogged down in war in Europe..." What does bogged down mean? Also, was Napoleon kind to the Native Americans? Plus, what war was going on during this time period?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user ORfrigatebird
      To be "bogged down" in something is to become so deeply involved in it that it is very difficult to concentrate on anything else. Napoleon only ruled over Louisiana as First Consul for about 8 months, which isn't enough time to show whether or not he would have been kind or unkind towards Native Americans. However, the French in the Louisiana Territory had a reputation for being particularly kind towards Native Americans in general (at least in comparison to the Spanish and British). Of course, there were exceptions, such as the Mohawk Tribe, which they strongly hated. The War of the Second Coalition had only ended the year before the Louisiana Purchase, and Britain would go to war with France just one month after the Purchase.
      (23 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user estherkang
    Jefferson was the president who purchased the Louisiana purchase, right? Then how much was it..?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user klaygo
    Was the Louisiana Purchase before or after the Embargo Act?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user 88030234
    If Jefferson was so pro-small government then why did he authorize the federal government to buy so much land in the Louisiana Territory?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Joshua  Tamayo
    Were England and France the main trading partners with America, which is why when the Embargo Act was placed, it proved detrimental to the U.S. economy?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ᵽython
    "Jefferson adhered to a strict interpretation of the Constitution and was concerned about the constitutionality of the purchase." What does "constitutionality" mean?
    (1 vote)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user dyiljo03
    What happened in the Second Barbary War?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Brianna Johnson
      The Second Barbary War (1815), was the second of two wars fought between the United States and the North African Barbary states of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algeria. The war between the Barbary states and the U.S. ended when "the U.S. Senate ratified Decatur's Algerian treaty on December 5, 1815".
      (2 votes)
  • female robot grace style avatar for user karla.jaureguisandoval
    Can someone breakdown more the similarities and differences between the federalists and democratic republicans?
    (2 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Asenath Weaver
      Yes I can. Hope this helps!
      The Federalists vision for America was based on commerce, while the Democratic-republicans was based on agriculture. The Federalists were mostly wealthy and Northeast, while the Democratic-Republicans were small farmers and Southerners. On the issue of the National bank, Federalists believed it was necessary while the Democratic-republicans believed it was simply desirable. In Foreign affairs, Federalists favored the English and Democratic Republicans favored the French.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user paseiler03
    In the prelude to the first Barbary War, American merchants ships were in the Mediterranean Sea. Who were they trading with and what goods were they trading? How large with the US merchant fleet at that time? Where were the ships' home base(s)? Who owned the ships? I am thinking the answers to these questions could help explain the response of US citizens to the Barbary War. Thanks for any help clarifying.
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      American flagged vessels in the Mediterranean at that time were likely engaged in "tramp trading". They may have left their home ports loaded with cargo, but engaged in buying selling and trading from port to port, taking on more cargo and dropping off what was sold. The ship and cargo may have been totally owned by the captain, or by a syndicate of investors. They were in the area not to carry things so much as to do business and, eventually, when loaded with enough merchandise from the area (and enough cash from the business they had conducted), to return home. When the Barbary pirates seized a ship, the crews were sold into slavery. Please forgive me for referring to Wikipedia on this, but it was an interesting article with plenty of footnotes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_Wars
      (2 votes)