With respect to the federal Constitution, the Jeffersonian Republicans are usually characterized as strict followers of the Constitution and opposed the broad constructionist of Federalist presidents such as George Washington and John Adams. In the time frame of 1801-1817, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Republican presidents of the time demonstrated the differences of the Republican Party in several aspects involving the interpretation of the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson and his Republican followers envisioned a society in vivid contrast to that of the Federalists. They dreamed of a nation of independent farmers living under a central government that exercised a minimum of control over their lives and served merely to protect the individual liberties granted by the Constitution. Jefferson, in his dialog with Presbyterian minister Samuel Miller, demonstrated that the government will only be ruled by the Constitution, and not even God would have a say. (Document B) That vision proved to be a mirage, and Jefferson was to preside over a nation that was growing more industrial and urban, which seemed to need an ever-stronger hand at the presidential “tiller.”
Jefferson, like Washington, was no “War Hawk.” In order to prevent the cry for war, he established the Embargo Act, which forbade ships from leaving the port for any foreign destination, thus avoiding confrontations with hostile vessels. The result was economic depression, particularly in the Northeast, as depicted in Alexander Anderson’s political cartoon of “OGRABME, or The American Snapping-turtle.” (Document C) This proved to be his most unpopular policy during both terms in office, which resulted in the third proposed amendment of the Hartford Convention, January 4th 1805: “Congress may not establish an embargo for longer then sixty days.” (Document E)
As Washington continued to move closer to Federalist Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton's vision of a strong central government that promoteing commercial and financial interests over states interests, Madison broke from Washington. As a result, he joined Jefferson to form the opposing party of Democratic-Republicans. During John Adams's presidency, Madison led the Republican fight against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which attempted to quell Republican opposition to Federalist foreign policy toward France. Madison authored the Virginia Resolutions, which declared the laws unconstitutional. Under Thomas Jefferson, Madison served as secretary of state, supporting the Louisiana Purchase and the embargo against Britain and France. Madison believed “that prominent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the general and the state governments.” (Document H) Indeed, Madison dominated foreign policy during Jefferson's administration, emerging from behind the scenes in 1808 to succeed him as the fourth president of the United States.
John Adams administration differed in the interpretation of the Constitution in his Alien and Sedation Acts. Republican leaders were convinced that these acts were unconstitutional, but the process of deciding on the constitutionality of federal laws was not yet established. Jefferson and Madison decided that the state legislature should have the power, and they drew up a series of resolutions, which was introduced to Kentucky and Virginia. They proposed the “compact theory” of John Lock be applied, which would allow the states to “nullify.”
Throughout the “Jeffersonian Era” conflict with the Federalist and Republicans can be seen in several scenarios; most vivid is the court case Marbury vs. Madison. William Marbury, one of Adams’ “midnight appointments,” sued Secretary of State Madison to force delivery of his commission as a justice of the peace in the federal district. John Marshall as Supreme Court justice, refused to rule on the request, claming that the law that gave the Supreme Court jurisdiction over such matters had exceeded the Constitutional grant of powers and thus was unconstitutional. Marshall then established judicial review over federal legislation, a power that in turn has become the foundation of the Supreme Court’s check on the other two branches of government. Conflict with
The people and the Republicans can be seen. With the Constitution to back Madison’s conscription bill of 1814, the people were outraged that the country could “take their ‘children,’ and compel them to fight the battles of any war.” (Document D).
Although the two parties differed in many aspects of their political handling, they fought for a “common good”- the future of America. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Republican presidents of the time, demonstrated the differences in the two “parties” in several aspects involving the interpretation of the Constitution. Whether it be “strict” or “loose” interpretation of the Constitution, the best interest of the American citizen was at hand.