The Most Consequential Elections in History: Thomas Jefferson and the Election of 1800

Jefferson's election confirmed the emergence of a two-party system in American politics.

President Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826)

President Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826)

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But Jefferson turned out to be more of a conciliator than his critics expected. In his inaugural address, the tall, eloquent Virginian said, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." He quickly decided to adopt some Federalist policies and some Republican ideas. "In general, he maintained a middle course between the ideas of both parties," says historian and journalist Stefan Lorant. "He was pragmatic, abandoning theories when they were in the way."

The Alien and Sedition Acts were not renewed, and unpopular taxes were repealed, rolling back major Federalist initiatives that had embittered much of the country. Jefferson also calmed war zealots who wanted to confront France, and this enabled him to limit expenditures for the military. In 1802, he acquired the vast territory of Louisiana from France, 828,000 square miles that more than doubled the land area of the United States. He also ordered the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the American West, which opened trade routes, made contact with native populations, provided extensive information about the region, and encouraged more public interest in settling the area.

In the process, Jefferson abandoned his commitment to a strict construction of the Constitution and moved toward a stronger central government. Jefferson had said he favored limiting the executive branch only to the powers specified in the Constitution. But that document was silent on acquiring more territory through purchase. Jefferson went ahead anyway, fearing that the opportunity to buy the vast Louisiana tract from Napoleon would be lost if he waited for Congress and the states to pass a constitutional amendment specifically authorizing it. Jefferson argued that, "to lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written laws, would be to lose the law itself."

With the country peaceful and prosperous, he was re-elected easily in 1804.

More from our Most Consequential Elections series:
George Washington and the Election of 1788
Andrew Jackson and the Election of 1828
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Theodore Roosevelt and the Election of 1904
Woodrow Wilson and the Election of 1912
Franklin Roosevelt and the Election of 1932
Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964
Ronald Reagan and the Election of 1980