President Biden gave his State of the Union address last week and, as usual, it was a spectacle full of pomp and circumstance. The president promenaded through the halls of Congress before ascending to the lectern and proceeding to act like a domineering monarch by laying out a laundry list of items he wants Congress to work on.
For modern presidents, this is all par for the course. But for three of Biden’s most illustrious predecessors — Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — obsequious deference to the chief executive was positively un-American. To make one man the center of the nation’s political life was antithetical to the Constitution and republicanism in the eyes of the three Jeffersonians.
In his newest book, “The Jeffersonians: The Visionary Presidencies of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe,” historian Kevin R.C. Gutzman gives us an expansive yet highly detailed account of exactly how this trio of Virginians governed the nation and the legacy of republicanism they left behind. We might better understand how to tackle our own political ills by examining the example they set.
Gutzman’s story begins with the titular Jefferson. Taking office in 1801, Jefferson and his supporters saw his election as nothing less than a revolution. As Gutzman writes, “Part of that Revolution was a sharp shift in manners.” Consciously setting himself apart from his predecessors, Jefferson wanted to be seen as a true man of the people. He chose to walk to the Capitol in plain clothes for his inauguration, eschewing President Adams’ fancy carriage and ceremonial sword.
Jefferson also decided to scrap his predecessors’ tradition of delivering the State of the Union address orally. Never comfortable with giving speeches anyway, Jefferson chose to submit his report in writing because he thought the annual address seemed like a “speech from the throne.” In his unpretentious style, Jefferson informed the people’s representatives that out of “principal regard to … the economy of their time,” he would not ask them to gather to listen to him.
Madison and Monroe followed suit, as did every president until Woodrow Wilson. For the Jeffersonians, the president’s job was to efficiently administer the government, not waste time with pompous speeches. One can only imagine what they would think of modern State of the Union addresses.
But the Jeffersonians weren’t only concerned with outward appearances. They also believed government policies needed to closely adhere to the country’s founding principles. Protecting freedom of speech, reducing the size of the military, and slashing federal spending were all on the Jeffersonians’ agenda.
Just days after his inauguration, Jefferson began pardoning those who had been convicted under the Sedition Act of 1798. This flagrantly unconstitutional law made it illegal to criticize members of the federal government (except, conveniently, the vice president, the position Jefferson held at the time of the law’s enactment). Considering the law null and void, the president refused to allow anyone else to be prosecuted under it.
The Jeffersonians’ next priority was to shrink the military. Suspicious of standing armies as threats to the people’s “freedom and subversive of their quiet,” Jefferson and Madison worked to reduce both the number of military personnel and overall military expenditures.
But as Gutzman makes clear, the military spending cuts had disastrous results. America was totally unprepared when war came with Great Britain in 1812, and the newborn country suffered greatly. It was only by several strokes of luck and good timing that America made it through the war intact and secured a respectable peace.
Still, the Jeffersonians’ opposition to military spending bore good fruit. First and foremost, it meant that the armed forces would never become too powerful, ensuring that the nation would be governed only by its civil authorities, rather than fall prey to a military dictatorship (not an idle risk in the early 19th century).
It also meant that America would not use military power to influence events in foreign countries. Spain’s colonies in the Americas began to declare their independence during the Madison and Monroe administrations. Though both presidents recognized that international peace and stability were in America’s interest, it wasn’t clear how the nation should respond. Though they sympathized with the Latin American revolutionaries, Madison and Monroe agreed that it was neither practical nor advisable to directly offer aid to the fledgling new republics.
America maintained a policy of strict non-interference in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars despite the turmoil in Europe. As Monroe firmly declared in his famous 1823 State of the Union letter, it would be America’s policy “not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its [Europe’s] powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us … [and] to cultivate friendly relations with it.”
Contrast Monroe’s attitude to modern presidents who have never met a foreign crisis that couldn’t be solved by military intervention, or at least by the threat of it.
Needless to say, the political philosophy of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe was wildly different from that of today’s Republicans and Democrats. As the Jeffersonian dynasty came to an end in 1825, America was at peace, the federal government was small and its power modest, and the national debt was quickly being extinguished (it would be completely paid off in 1835, right on Monroe’s schedule).
America’s leaders have pushed the country further into dangerous confrontations with foreign powers, racked up trillions in debt, and ignored the constitutional limits on their own authority. We desperately need to learn from the Jeffersonians — both from their triumphs and their failures.
One of the great virtues of Gutzman’s “The Jeffersonians” is that he generously quotes his subjects, allowing them to speak for themselves. We would do well to listen to them.