Jefferson Assures America’s Independence

April 4, 2013

Jefferson’s Bold Action Assures American Independence

Thomas Jefferson portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

The Purchase of Louisiana established American independence in practice, as the Declaration of Independence had established it in principle. Although the treaty was signed on April 30, 1803, the news only reached Washington on July 3. Fittingly, President Thomas Jefferson had it announced publicly on July 4, 1803. The Purchase pushed the French from North America, brought Spanish claims there to the brink of extinction, and denied the British control or even influence in the Mississippi River valley. It added an immense domain of fertile land to the republic, created America’s western destiny (Meriwether Lewis headed west from Washington the day the treaty was announced), and put America on the course of national greatness.

It was also, according to Jefferson an exercise of power not expressly granted by the Constitution of the United States. Nowhere among the Constitution’s enumerated powers could Jefferson find one allowing the federal government to acquire territory. These documents tell the story of the purchase and provide Jefferson’s commentary on why he—now famous as a strict constructionist—acted beyond the Constitution’s powers to bring about the purchase.

The letter to Livingston lays out the necessity for the United States getting control of the Louisiana Territory from the French. The letter to Nicholas, written a few months after the Purchase was announced, shows Jefferson rejecting a way to gloss over the unconstitutionality of the Purchase. Jefferson did not want to create a precedent for finding implied powers in the Constitution. He argued instead for a constitutional amendment to give the government the power he had assumed in authorizing the purchase. The letter to Colvin, written in Jefferson’s retirement, offers Jefferson’s justification for assuming that power. He argues that “circumstances… sometimes occur, which make it a duty in officers of high trust, to assume authorities beyond the law.” Recognizing the danger in such a principle, Jefferson concludes the letter by explaining that it may be rightly applied only in a few special circumstances.

David Tucker, Associate Professor of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School

Read the documents:

Letter to Robert R. Livingston, US Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, April 18, 1802

Letter to Wilson Cary Nicolas, Thomas Jefferson, September 7, 1803

Letter to John Colvin, Thomas Jefferson, September 20, 1810


All the King’s Men: American Democracy Faces the Threat of Tyranny

A new elective course, Democracy and Tyranny, will debut this summer as part of the Master of Arts in American History and Government.

“Since the ancient Greek city states, democracy has been recognized as a form of government that could easily devolve into tyranny,” says David Tucker, who with Christopher Flannery will offer a new topics course in the Master of Arts in American History and Government program: “Democracy and Tyranny.” To examine this hazard, the course will consider Robert Penn Warren’s great American political novel, All the King’s Men, bringing to bear on it the political thought of classical authors and American statesmen. The course is offered in the first on-campus summer session.

Warren’s novel is often summarized as a fictional account of the career of Huey Long. This Depression-era Governor of Louisiana used a charismatic leadership style and populist polices not only to dominate his own state but also to contest for a national role. However, serious readers of the novel find its portrait of Willie Stark more complex and compelling than the historical figure on whom he is loosely based, and they recognize in Warren’s novel a penetrating analysis of American mass politics.

We talked with Professors Flannery and Tucker about the themes of the novel and the questions their upcoming course will consider.

What circumstances or realities make democracy vulnerable to sliding into tyranny?

Professor Christopher Flannery

Professor Christopher Flannery

Flannery:Democracy is always as vulnerable to tyranny as human beings are. American democracy began with the wonderful and ambitious determination to base our politics on the consent of the governed. If the governed become strongly inclined to consent to or demand tyranny of some form, that’s what we’ll get. So, whether our democracy becomes a tyranny or not depends ultimately on whether the people become tyrannical. The most important reality that makes democracy vulnerable to tyranny, James Madison thought, was the fact that men are not angels. Human beings are fallible and culpable. We tend to want to do things we shouldn’t do, and our reason tends to get carried away by our passions.

Has the descent to tyranny always been a significant hazard for American democracy, or has this danger increased as we move further from the Founding?

Flannery: It always has been. Madison was concerned with the local tyrannies developing in the independent American states after the Revolution. That was one big motive for seeking a stronger national constitution. The Antifederalists, on the other hand, became concerned that Madison’s Constitution would create a consolidated government that would become a tyranny. Lincoln, however, when he was still an obscure young man in the 1830s, argued in his Lyceum Address that America was becoming more vulnerable to mob rule and to tyranny as it moved away from the Founding.

Tucker: Slavery, of course, was present in American life from the beginning, and it injected a tyrannical tendency. Jefferson in Notes on Virginia says that when the children of a slave owner watch the way their father treats his slaves, they are being taught to be tyrants. Jefferson thought the institution of slavery clearly incompatible with a republican form of government, where we rule and are ruled in turn. In fact, in the antebellum period, there was a criticism of southern slaveholders’ behavior in Congress: that they could not tolerate being overruled by others in the course of democratic deliberations. In the middle of Warren’s novel, set in the 1920s and 1930s, there is what appears to be a digression where Warren tells a story about the antebellum and Civil War South. Why does he do this? I think Warren wants us to see a connection between the character of Willie Stark and what happened during that time.

Does tyranny sometimes wear a democratic face?

Flannery: Oh, yes. Democratic tyranny, or majority tyranny, was what Madison (again!) thought was the greatest threat to a republic based on majority rule. Madison’s most well-known contributions to political theory are his efforts to figure out how to protect against this ever-present danger. Where a monarch is the sovereign, you have to bend your efforts toward protecting your liberty from him; when the people are sovereign, you have to bend your efforts toward protecting your liberty from them.

You don’t include in your course pack any material on Huey Long. Do you think the story of Huey Long is relevant to the concerns of the novel?

Professor David Tucker

Professor David Tucker

Tucker: There are clearly parallels between Long’s biography and the fictional life of Willie Stark but I don’t think the particular biographical details are that important. It is relevant in this sense: People tend to think a tyranny could never happen in the US. But Long subverted democratic government in Louisiana and was gaining support nationally. After being governor, he was a U.S. Senator and was planning on running for President. FDR is reputed to have called Huey Long one of the two most dangerous men in America. He was a very popular politician who was building a national reputation. This was the 1930s; there were lots of populist, fascist movements arising in Europe. There was an argument that democratic institutions could not survive in modern industrial states with mass populations; and then there was the economic depression and the fear that capitalism was collapsing. It’s hard for us to imagine now how volatile the situation was in the thirties.

But Warren’s portrait of Willie Stark is much more interesting than what I know of the historical Huey Long. Warren saw through Long and the political danger he posed to the abiding political and moral problems we face. In doing that he made Stark more interesting than Long. But Warren also makes Stark seem a recognizable American political type.

In what ways?

Tucker: There are ways in which Warren portrays Stark that recall much of what we know about Lincoln. He grows up poor, is very smart, is self-taught, becomes a lawyer. He is extraordinarily ambitious. He has a great natural touch with people, a sense of humor and a knowledge of what makes people tick. Some historians hostile to Lincoln have argued that he was a tyrant. Well, Lincoln himself talked in the Lyceum speech about the danger of a tyrant arising among the American people, and one can see in this Lincoln pondering his own potential. I think among other things Warren wants us to think about the same question: Why does one extraordinary leader become the savior of the republic, while another sets out to destroy it?

Do you have any advice for students as they tackle the reading?—that is, would you suggest they read the novel first, or read the selections from political philosophy and American statesmen first?

Flannery: Definitely read the novel first; and again. The other readings are meant to help us become better readers of Warren’s book. Tyranny is a prominent theme in the great writings of political philosophy from the beginning. And it is typically related to democracy. The tyrannical soul does whatever it wants and has power to do, regardless of others. And democracy (literally “people power”) is traditionally described as a form of government in which the people do whatever they want. Robert Penn Warren wrote within and added to this tradition.

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