You probably have a friend or two who is fanatical about their politics. Someone who never stops waxing/ranting about the virtues/evils of Obama/Palin. (Yeah, it’s just as annoying in any permutation.) Someone who works politics into every conversation. Someone who can’t really be friends with someone of the opposite political persuasion; someone who will back you right into a corner in a political argument; maybe even someone who gets in trouble at work because they can’t keep their opinions to themselves.
Such a person was Meriwether Lewis. As a young man and junior officer, Lewis was known as an outspoken, combative Jeffersonian Republican, not above exchanging “hot words” with fellow officers on the matter of politics. The 1790s were one of the most bitterly partisan eras in American history. Jeffersonians warned urgently of the “Federalist terror” to come, while Federalists worried that Republicans would bring about the rule of “the worthless, the dishonest, the rapacious, the vile, the merciless, and the ungodly.”
In other words, politics as usual to the practiced and world-weary eye of a 21st-century American. But it didn’t seem so in the atmosphere of the fragile young republic whose very survival was still in doubt. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he selected Captain Lewis, then 26 years old, to detach from Army service and become his private secretary in the White House. Jefferson had a very special job in mind for Lewis, and no, it wasn’t leading an expedition into the unknown West. It was leading a purge of Federalist officers from the Army.
Lewis had been an army paymaster for several years, a job which required him to travel throughout the back country to remote forts, becoming intimately acquainted with most of the country’s officer corps. Now Jefferson asked Lewis to put that knowledge to good use. As his first project as Jefferson’s closest aide, Lewis produced a roster listing all commissioned officers. Next to each name he wrote a simple symbol, which categorized the officer according to their competence and politics. If lucky, an officer might be an “officer of the 1st class, so esteemed from a superiority of genius and military proficiency” or “a professional soldier without a political creed” or best of all, “Republican.”
Others weren’t so lucky, though as it turned out, there were all kinds of ways to be a Federalist, and some were worse than others. Lewis carefully differentiated between those “opposed to the administration, otherwise respectable,” those “most violently opposed to the administration and still active in its vilification,” and worst of all, those “unworthy of the commissions they bear.” Jefferson used the list judiciously, retaining the Federalist officers whom Lewis deemed competent while axing those “violently” opposed. It was a piece of extraordinary influence for such a young officer.
It is interesting from this distance to take a look at what Jefferson, and presumably Lewis, actually believed and advocated. As Jefferson wrote in his First Inaugural Address, Americans deserved:
a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them free to regulate their pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.
In practice, this meant that Jefferson favored a minimalist government to a degree that might surprise even the most ardent Libertarian today. Jefferson believed that government was inherently corrupt, that any interference with the activity of the private individual was inherently invasive, and that Americans could stay united just fine without the government’s foot on their necks. This was in direct opposition to the Federalists, who were convinced that the young republic would collapse without strong central authority to lead the way.
A bedrock principle of Jefferson’s was that a government was only legitimate if its power sprang organically from the people. To Jefferson, the best government was local, in the town or ward where the citizen lived. State legislatures and the House of Representatives were all right; he had no use for either the Senate or the judiciary. As for the presidency, he thought so little of it that when he wrote his own list of achievements for his tombstone, he did not even list “President of the United States” among them.
Even for his day, Jefferson was quite a radical thinker, and the nation owes a debt of gratitude to James Madison for helping the Sage of Monticello come down from some notions that probably would have wrecked the country (such as the idea that all laws should expire every few years). It is one of history’s great ironies that this most libertarian of presidents undertook the most sweeping executive decision of all time. When Thomas Jefferson laid out $15 million for the Louisiana Purchase, he doubled the country’s size and assumed autocratic rule over an additional 530 million acres of territory — all without a word of consultation from Congress.
As Joseph Ellis writes, “When history presented him with an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to eliminate forever the presence on America’s western border of any major European power… it triggered his most visionary energies, which then overrode his traditional Republican injunctions.” Jefferson himself didn’t waste a moment worrying about whether buying the West was the right thing to do. Using the kind of rhetoric guaranteed to have Federalists all over the country clutching their pearls and spitting out their morning coffee, he wrote:
Whether we remain in one confederacy, or form into Atlantic or Mississippi confederacies, I believe not very important to the happiness of either part. Those of the western confederacy will be as much our children and descendants as those of the eastern, and I feel myself as much identified with that country, in future time, as with this.
In other words, the West was the future, even if it broke up the country. Jefferson was soon to send his young enthusiast Meriwether Lewis off to explore its wonders (along with another good plain Republican, William Clark). As it turned out, the Louisiana Purchase was one of the greatest achievements by any American president, cementing Jefferson’s place in history. A little inconsistency was a small price to pay.
And as for politics? As the Army purge suggests, Jefferson could be as hard-boiled as they come. Coincidentally or not, the vast majority of Westerners proved to be freewheeling Republicans, setting the stage for decades of dominance by Jefferson’s political party.
Lewis’s List of Army Officers (from the Library of Congress)