The first president to begin his term in Washington, D.C., Jefferson assumed office on March 4,1801. The city, with its unpaved streets, impoverished residents, and unfinished public buildings, scarcely resembled L’Enfant’s grand plan. At one point, part of the roof of the Capitol collapsed, narrowly missing the vice president. The capital’s condition seemed to symbolize Jefferson’s intention to reduce the importance of the national government in American life.
Jefferson’s inaugural address was conciliatory toward his opponents. “Every difference of opinion,” he declared, “is not a difference of principle We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” He went on to expound the policies his administration would follow—economy in government, unrestricted trade, freedom of religion and the press, friendship to all nations but “entangling alliances” with none. America, “the world’s best hope,” would flourish if a limited government allowed its citizens to be “free to regulate their own pursuits.”
Jefferson hoped to dismantle as much of the Federalist system as possible. Among his first acts as president was to pardon all those imprisoned under the Sedition Act. During his eight years as president, he reduced the number of government employees and slashed the army and navy. He abolished all taxes except the tariff, including the hated tax on whiskey, and paid off part of the national debt. He aimed to minimize federal power and eliminate government oversight of the economy. His policies ensured that the United States would not become a centralized state on a European model, as Hamilton had envisioned.
A watercolor by the artist William Russell Birch depicts the Capitol in 1800, the year Congress first occupied the building. Washington, D.C., was clearly a small community at the time.
Nonetheless, as Hamilton predicted, it proved impossible to uproot national authority entirely. Jefferson distrusted the unelected judiciary and always believed in the primacy of local self-government. But during his presidency, and for many years thereafter, Federalist John Marshall headed the Supreme Court. Marshall had served John Adams as secretary of state and was appointed by the president to the Court shortly before Jefferson took office. A strong believer in national supremacy, Marshall established the Court’s power to review laws of Congress and the states.
The first landmark decision of the Marshall Court came in 1803, in the case of Marbury v. Madison. On the eve of leaving office, Adams had appointed a number of justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. Madison, Jefferson’s secretary of state, refused to issue commissions (the official documents entitling them to assume their posts) to these “midnight judges.” Four, including William Marbury, sued for then offices. Marshall’s decision declared unconstitutional the section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that allowed the courts to order executive officials to deliver judges’ commissions. It exceeded the power of Congress as outlined in the Constitution and was therefore void. Marbury, in other words, may have been entitled to his commission, but the Court had no power under the Constitution to order Madison to deliver it. On the immediate issue, therefore, the administration got its way. But the cost, as Jefferson saw it, was high. The Supreme Court had assumed the right to determine whether an act of Congress violates the Constitution—a power known as “judicial review.”
Seven years later, in Fletcher v. Peck, the Court extended judicial review to state laws. In 1794, four land companies had paid nearly every member of the state legislature, Georgia’s two U.S. senators, and a number of federal judges, to secure their right to purchase land in present-day Alabama and Mississippi claimed by Georgia. They then sold the land to individual buyers at a large profit. Two years later, many of the corrupt lawmakers were defeated for reelection and the new legislature rescinded the land grant and subsequent sales. Whatever the circumstances of the legislature’s initial action, Marshall declared, the Constitution forbade Georgia from taking any action that impaired a contract. Therefore, the individual purchasers could keep their land and the legislature could not repeal the original grant.