Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power

Jeremy Bailey, University of Houston
March 1, 2008

Defenders of executive power often point to the Louisiana Purchase as evidence that constitutional scruples must sometimes give way to necessity. The lesson of this parable is that even Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend to an energetic executive, went beyond the Constitution to secure a bargain that doubled the size of the United States.

The problem with this story is that it rests on two errors. First, it assumes that Jefferson embraced executive power only after he became president. As a result, and second, it does not consider how the Louisiana Purchase might fit within, and illustrate, Jefferson’s larger constitutionalism. In this seminar, we will attempt to lay out Jefferson’s understanding of executive power, trace its consequences for American political development, and discern its contribution to republican theory.

Jeremy Bailey received his B.A. from Rhodes College and his Ph.D. from Boston College, where his dissertation was the 2004 co-winner of the American Political Science Association’ s E. E. Schattschneider Prize for best dissertation in American politics. He joined the University of Houston in 2007, and holds a dual appointment in the department of political science and in the Honors College. He teaches in the Masters of American History Program at Ashland, and before joining the faculty at Houston, taught at Washington and Lee University, Eastern Washington University, and Duquesne University.

Bailey’s research examines how the tension between constitutionalism and political change transforms, and is in turn altered by, political theorists who are also political actors. He is the author of Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power (Cambridge University Press, 2007), and his research has also appeared in Presidential Studies Quarterly and Publius: The Journal of Federalism. Bailey is now working on democratic theories of executive power, as well as a project on James Madison and the problem of public opinion.

Session One:

Topic: “The Law”

Focus: Even if everyone agreed that the executive should have the power to meet emergencies, including the power to act in the silence of the law (and perhaps even against it), there would remain a question about whether a constitution should explicitly grant such a power. In what ways do Hamilton and Lincoln seem to agree in answering this question? Do Jefferson’s letters below, especially the one to Colvin, show that Jefferson offers an alternative to Hamilton and Lincoln? More broadly, how might this question illuminate Jefferson’s earlier attempts to revise the Virginia Constitution? The Louisiana Purchase?


Session Two:

Topic: “Opinion”

Focus: In Federalist No. 49, James Madison takes Jefferson’s 1783 proposal to send constitutional disputes to the people. The following documents suggest in different ways that Jefferson continued the project Madison so forcefully dismissed.

Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address is more well-known than his Second. What are the differences between the two addresses? How might Jefferson’s attack on Native American religious leaders fit the larger objective of the Second Inaugural? How might the Second Inaugural bring into focus the fifth and sixth paragraphs in the First? Read through the two inaugural addresses, how might the letters below suggest a connection between Jefferson’s understanding of public opinion and the questions explored in Session One?


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