Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Summary Overview

As Thomas Jefferson assumed office as the nation’s third president, his first task was to seek reconciliation between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, the latter of which Jefferson was a founding member. After a contentious and controversial election, Jefferson’s inaugural address struck a conciliatory tone. He called upon both major parties to put aside partisan differences for the good of the nation. In the new United States Capitol in the capital District of Columbia, he encouraged Americans to take advantage of the peace and stability the country was experiencing to continue building and strengthening the young republic.

Defining Moment

At the end of the eighteenth century, the United States closed the book on nearly half a century of tumult and dramatic change, marked by the increased oppression from Great Britain, the Revolutionary War, and the adoption of the United States Constitution. As figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson (all of whom were once dubbed radicals and revolutionaries) evolved into the country’s political leaders, they were charged with continuing the construction of the new nation’s government. While many of these Founding Fathers stood side by side during the Revolution, their ideas about shaping the new government eventually pulled them in different directions, forming distinct and disparate political parties.

On one side of the American political landscape were John Adams, the country’s second president, and his Federalist Party. The Federalists had long seen the need for a strong central government to oversee matters of national interest, including foreign policy, and to maintain cohesion among the states. On the other side were Anti-Federalists, like Thomas Jefferson, who believed the country should defer greater power to the individual states and stress the basic rights of the people. In 1792, Jefferson transformed this group into a political party known as the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1798, President Adams signed into law a series of measures collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were introduced as the country stood on the brink of war with France. The acts made it more difficult for foreigners to become American citizens and made it possible for the president to imprison or deport aliens who were perceived dangerous. The acts also included provisions that significantly restricted any speech that was critical of the government. This latter set of provisions sparked a major backlash—particularly in political circles, where it was seen less as a security measure and more as an attempt to hamper the Democratic-Republicans. Consequently, Adams’s reelection chances in 1800 were low. Jefferson, the most prominent of the Democratic-Republicans and an outspoken critic of the Federalists, became the most viable challenger.

During the election, the candidates were Jefferson and Aaron Burr on the Democratic-Republican ticket and Adams and Charles Pinckney on the Federalist ticket. Jefferson and Burr tied with seventy-three electoral votes, while Adams received sixty-five and Pinckney received sixty-four. With Adams and the Federalists defeated, the House of Representatives took up the task of selecting one of the two Democratic-Republicans.

The House then faced a period of lobbying and campaigning. Alexander Hamilton pushed hard for the representatives, including the Federalists, to vote for Jefferson, owing to his dislike of Burr. Meanwhile, the Federalist Party threw its support behind Burr in an attempt to defeat their biggest critic in Jefferson. In the end, Jefferson won largely thanks to Hamilton’s efforts. Nevertheless, great animosity remained between the two parties, tearing at the fabric of the government of which Jefferson was now the leader.

Author Biography

Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, on April 13, 1743. His mother came from a prominent Virginia family and his father was a successful planter and surveyor. Jefferson was educated at a prestigious private school near Shadwell before he enrolled at the College of William and Mary in 1760 and went on to study law under the mentorship of an established attorney, George Wythe. Jefferson worked as a successful attorney from 1764 to 1774. During this period, he met his wife, Martha Skelton, with whom he had six children.

In addition to his tenures as a magistrate and county lieutenant, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. There, he connected with a group of radicals, including Patrick Henry and George Washington. In 1774, he wrote his first major political document, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which cemented his reputation as an individual who could eloquently present colonial issues.

In 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which appointed Jefferson’s colleague, Washington, as commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. A year later, in light of the reception of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson was asked by the Continental Congress to work with John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston to draft the Declaration of Independence, although most of that document would be credited to Jefferson alone.

Jefferson returned to Virginia as a member of its House of Delegates from 1776 until1779 and then served as Virginia’s governor from 1779 until 1781. Although he desired to return to his Monticello home after leaving office, his wife’s death drew Jefferson back into public service in 1782. He returned to Congress in 1783 and was named the American minister to France in 1785. Upon returning to America in 1789, he was appointed as President Washington’s secretary of state, a post he held until 1794.

In the 1796 presidential election, Jefferson ran against Federalist John Adams as the candidate to succeed President George Washington. He narrowly lost the election to Adams, but according to the rules of the time, had enough votes to become vice president—an office he held from 1797 until 1801. Jefferson defeated the incumbent Adams in 1800 and became the third American president. In 1809, Jefferson returned to Monticello and founded the University of Virginia. He died in 1826.

Document Analysis

Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address was, in style and substance, designed to give Jefferson a sense of connection with all Americans. The Capitol Building and White House were not yet completed, but Jefferson still chose to give his address in a simple setting without ornate trappings. His language would be equally humble, as his task was to reach out to the deep political divisions that had formed during the election. The speech was to serve as an olive branch to these opposing factions and as a call for all Americans to join together to set the republic on a forward path.

Jefferson begins his speech by showing his appreciation to the people who had called upon him to take the office of president. He acknowledges that the tasks he has been given are daunting, particularly given that he entered office with under a cloud of doubt, as citizens had “awful presentiments” about his effectiveness as president. Although humble about his position, he expresses his awe and feelings of inspiration with regard to the country’s direction. The nation, he says, is growing across wide expanses, and its commercial interests are expanding along with it.

Although America’s economic and political influence was expanding beyond its borders, the young nation’s growing cosmopolitanism also presented risk. Indeed, Jefferson contends that many of the other nations with which the United States would have contact were hungry for power and consequently willing to disregard that which is right. Nevertheless, he adds, when he compares the ideals of those nations with those of the newly formed United States, he appreciates the hope, honor, and “happiness” the latter nation demonstrated even in pursuit of the same interests as the former. These “transcendent objects” elate Jefferson, who says he is further humbled by such outstanding characteristics.

However challenging he sees his new position to be, however, Jefferson is buoyed by the presence of so many wise, zealous, and virtuous people holding constitutional offices. He addresses them during his presentation, saying that, when the enormous challenges of the presidency come to bear, he can call upon these constitutional officers to assist him. He also addresses the members of the legislature, stating that they too have an important role to play in steering the new nation through the difficult issues it would face in the “troubled world.” In this regard, he is stating a desire to work in partnership, rather than in competition, with members of the judiciary, legislative, and executive branches.

Jefferson next moves into a reflection on the events of the 1800 election. According to Jefferson, the campaign was supposed to be a “contest of opinion.” However, it ultimately became rife with animated and charged debates that, Jefferson says, might have seemed alien to people unfamiliar with the extents to which the notion of free speech could be carried. He notes that, with the end of the election, the voice of the nation had spoken. Under the rules of the Constitution, he affirms, the question of who would lead the nation had been answered and it was time for the United States to move forward.

Although Jefferson expects that some division will remain, he maintains that these groups could unite “in common efforts for the common good.” Still, he acknowledges that in all cases, the will of the majority (which his party, the Democratic-Republicans, held) will prevail. Jefferson also states that the majority has a responsibility to ensure that the minority’s voice in government would be heard and given consideration. Furthermore, the minority party was to have equal rights under the government, and the law would protect those rights in the same manner that it would protect the majority. Jefferson asserts that violating those rights would amount to oppression.

Jefferson then states it is time to “unite with one heart and one mind” to restore America’s harmony and social order. Without such harmony, even the liberty that was at the core of the nation’s heritage would be of little value. Jefferson also maintains the need for tolerance in the new government. After all, he argues, Americans had long before banished from their shores the notion of religious intolerance, which had caused so much hardship throughout history. If a similar form of intolerance—political intolerance—is allowed to fester in the country, Jefferson warns, the nation will become as despotic and persecutory as the nations that advocated religious intolerance.

Jefferson notes that throughout history, humanity had fought with great zeal and bloodshed for freedom and that such violence continued to rage around the world even at the time of his speech. This violence approached America, threatening to affect and to divide Americans. Jefferson argues that the differences such conflicts generate are mere differences in opinion, not differences in principle.

Despite the gulfs between Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, and other political parties, Jefferson claims that the groups share the same principles even if they differed in opinion. Despite ideological disparities, he declares, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” If any individuals looked to dissolve or dramatically change the republic, they should be allowed to speak as a testament to the tolerance on which the country was based.

Jefferson next turns his attention to those who doubt the viability of the republic and the government that was formed to oversee it. He challenges the “honest patriot” to allow what he describes as the “successful experiment” to follow its course. After all, he says, this new government keeps Americans free and without the fear of a political system that will seek more energy from the people than it should. This government, he asserts, is the world’s best hope, with a system of law that is responsive to each person. Furthermore, the American government makes the security of the nation’s borders a matter of interest for every citizen, ensuring that the people, regardless of their locations, are safe from foreign invasion.

Jefferson emphasizes that the republican form of government framed by the Founding Fathers is the optimal system. He reminds his listeners that there are those who believe that individuals cannot be trusted with their own governance. Then again, could they be trusted with a government managed by those whom they did not elect? In other words, Jefferson is asking if monarchies and other such authoritarian governments are more beneficial to the people than democracies. History, he says, provides a clear answer to this question. The American people were stymied by an oppressive monarchy before they opted for dramatic change. Similar events had occurred throughout Europe as well.

In light of this fact, Jefferson encourages all Americans to continue to support the federalist and republican principles that permeate the representative government. This support was critical, especially since nearly one-quarter of the world beyond the United States was in a state of war and political turmoil. He adds that Americans are indeed fortunate to live in such a nation, geographically separated from this turmoil, with “high-minded” leaders who can withstand the degrading rhetoric of those who would undo the nation’s government. Furthermore, Jefferson adds, the country has such a wealth of resources and geography that it is able to support not just the present population, but its descendants as well, spanning the “thousandth generation.” The people themselves, he says, are able to understand and use the rights and abilities given to them under the government for the purposes of building the society and honoring and serving one another.

Even the many religions that developed in America had, despite their different traditions, many concurrent themes that Jefferson cites as “benign”: honesty, truth, temperance, and love for others. He adds that each of these religious faiths worship a god who approves of their happiness and peaceful ways (as opposed to injuring or oppressing others), which further fosters goodwill within the society.

Furthermore, Jefferson cites the “wise and frugal” government as one of the many blessings given to the United States. The government would enact laws that protect the people from the attacks of others but would not otherwise interfere in the citizens’ affairs. The people were free to pursue their own interests and goals, with minimal taxation and regulation on their entrepreneurship. These qualities comprised what Jefferson called “the sum of good government.”

Good government, diverse religious faiths, the people’s intellectualism and respect for one another, and relative safety from the tumult in which European and other nations were mired were among the most significant of the “felicities” that were evident in the United States. Americans should, Jefferson says, be appreciative of these blessings and stand united against any force that would undo this positive way of life.

Jefferson next moves into a summary presentation of his vision of the principles of the government and his plans for administering those principles. The first of these principles is the equal and exact application of America’s laws. Regardless of geographic location, religion, or political ideology, justice must be applied equally to all citizens who commit acts against their fellow Americans, Jefferson asserts.

The second principle Jefferson outlines is that the United States should seek honest and peaceful commercial and political relationships with other countries, eschewing what he calls “entangling alliances” with only a few nations. Adopting such an ideal would afford America many trade options and help the country avoid being drawn into conflicts between competing groups of nations. The Adams administration had shown favor toward Britain, both politically and commercially, and the Federalists had opposed the French Revolution; the Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson’s own party, favored the rival French, in part due to France’s support during the American Revolution. Jefferson’s foreign policy recommendation here seeks to bridge this division between the parties.

The third principle Jefferson identifies is support for state governments. The states, in the views of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, were critical institutions within the republic, representing the “surest bulwarks” against those who would tear down the country’s government. The nation’s entire system of government itself was the fourth principle—the framework established in the Constitution was, as Jefferson suggests, the anchor for the nation’s domestic peace and safety from foreign attacks.

The fifth principle Jefferson discusses is the nation’s electoral system. He believes that the nation should be zealous in its protection of the people’s rights to elect their leaders. After all, elections represented what he calls a “mild and safe corrective” for people to use when their leaders abuse their power, affirming that it is only possible to engage in revolutionary activities when an election or other similar peaceable events cannot remove an oppressive leader.

Sixth, Jefferson identifies the need for the people to fall behind the political majority as it maintains leadership. Although he calls for a majority to make an effort to receive input from the minority parties (as failure to do so stood dangerously close to an act of despotism), he makes this statement to remind the defeated Federalists that the election had determined the country’s leadership for Jefferson’s term as president.

Next, Jefferson describes the need for the nation to have a strong network of militias. Militias—forces of civilians organized to supplement a nation’s regular army—played an essential role in protecting the nation during peacetime and the earliest stages of war until the regular army could replace them in combat. Jefferson also expresses his preference that civilian leadership maintain management of the military at all times.

Turning his attention to the nation’s economy and the government’s role therein, Jefferson argues that the nation’s businesses and labor should be “lightly burthened.” This principle meant that government should be careful to maintain the public faith by demonstrating sound fiscal policies and paying the nation’s debts in open, honest fashion. In keeping with Democratic-Republican values, he adds that the government should support the country’s most prominent business sector—agriculture—with commerce serving as that industry’s “handmaid.”

Another principle of high priority to Jefferson was the education of the people; he believed that an enlightened citizenry was paramount to the success of self-government. He therefore used this speech to advocate strongly for the dissemination of information to the people so that they could be educated on issues of importance to them and their country as a whole.

Jefferson further cites several concepts introduced in the Bill of Rights—the freedoms of religion and the press, as well as the right to due process of the law and the right to a trial by an impartial jury of peers. Jefferson states that, under these principles and the many others cited above, American society is guided, like ships following the stars, out of the conflict of revolution and reformation, and into an era of enlightenment and wisdom.

Jefferson says that those who fought and died in the Revolutionary War did so to protect these principles. To honor them, Jefferson insists, these principles should be part of the American political system as well as the civic education offered to all Americans. In the event that the United States ever drifts away from these ideals (which Jefferson warns could happen in times of crisis), the people should retrace America’s steps and recapture these principles in order to return to liberty, peace, and safety.

Jefferson concludes his address by reiterating his experience, from the days of the Revolution through his political rise, describing the path that led him to the presidency. He acknowledges that, although he enters office with strong public backing and appreciation for his experience and knowledge, it is likely that he will leave office (as had so many leaders before him) with that reputation in such high standing. Therefore, he asserts that he will not act with pretentiousness with regard to his position but rather with gratitude to and respect for the position and the people it serves. Thereafter, history would judge his accomplishments, and he expresses the hope that it would be fair.

He next looks to both peers and rivals together, admitting that it is likely that he will make mistakes, although those errors will not be intentional. He asks for the people’s support when he errs and when his detractors seek to undermine him. Jefferson further states that he takes solace from his voters’ past confidence, adding that he will continue to take comfort in their support of his presidency.

Jefferson ends his first inaugural speech by saying that he will carry with him the support of the people as he takes office. He adds that when the people decide that he is no longer the best man for the position, he will retire out of respect for their will. He concludes with an appeal for divine guidance, asking the “Infinite Power” that rules over destiny look with favor upon his government, providing its officials with the wisdom to make the right choices and to do what was best for the United States.

Essential Themes

Thomas Jefferson took the office of president after an election filled with controversy and divisiveness. To be sure, the gulf between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had been growing for years—a fact underscored by the former’s efforts to stymie the latter’s criticisms via the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, during the 1800 election, the two disparate parties injected a number of personal attacks into their competitive pursuit of the majority, particularly when the House of Representatives was tasked with reconciling the tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Although the United States had reached a state of relative stability after the Revolutionary War, considerable disharmony remained over how the relatively new nation would move forward in the nineteenth century.

Jefferson understood that if his presidency were to prove successful, he would need to strike a conciliatory tone with the Federalists. His speech was therefore marked by numerous calls for political unity and mutual respect between parties, especially in light of the continued development of American government and ongoing conflicts overseas. Jefferson also used the speech to call for political tolerance akin to the religious tolerance on which America was founded. Although he admitted there would be unfounded criticisms from those whose goals only involved undoing Jefferson’s administration, he called upon Americans to allow constructive input and commentary from the minority Federalists.

Jefferson’s speech also outlined the principles of American government and society that he held dear. These ideals included many of the points outlined in the Bill of Rights, such as the freedom of the press and the rights of accused criminals to a fair legal process and trial. Some of the principles he described focused on the positive qualities of Americans themselves, including their honesty and intellectualism. Jefferson also outlined many of what he deemed the attributes of a strong government, including the nation’s electoral system and the development of strong defense infrastructures and diplomatic institutions. Finally, he emphasized the need for government to be minimally invasive with regard to commerce and individual citizens and maintain sound fiscal policy.

Jefferson expressed both confidence and humility in his presidency, acknowledging that his term would likely be filled with great challenges. Some of these challenges would be natural for any president—ensuring the safety, security, and prosperity of the nation and its citizens. He also understood that some rivals would seek to tear down both president and republic through harsh rhetoric and unfounded accusations. Jefferson said that although he knew such challenges would test his leadership, the vote of confidence he received from the electorate would bolster and carry him through his term.

Bibliography
  • “Alien and Sedition Acts.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, 2010. Web. 6 June 2012.
  • “Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson”. The Jefferson Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2012. Web. 1 June 2012.
  • “Thomas Jefferson Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
  • “Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution of 1800” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 2012. Web. 10 June 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
  • Ferling, John. Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Larson, Edward J. A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign. New York: Simon, 2007. Print.
  • Sharp, James Robert. The Deadlocked Election of 1800: Jefferson, Burr, and the Union in the Balance. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2010. Print.

Categories: History Content