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Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution of 1800

Topic
Instructional Objectives
Background Information
Activities
Evaluation
Extension Ideas

Topic

Students examine how Jefferson's inauguration in 1800 embodies American beliefs about democratic leadership and the peaceful transfer of power.

Instructional Objectives

By using the activities of this lesson, the students will:

  1. describe the peaceful transition of power from the Federalist to the Democratic-Republican administration that resulted from the election of 1800;
  2. identify some of the defining characteristics of Thomas Jefferson's administration as seen through the inauguration;
  3. identify key points of Jefferson's first inaugural address.

Background Information

Thomas Jefferson defeated the incumbent, Federalist John Adams, and his Republican rival, Aaron Burr, by a vote in the House of Representatives. The power of the House of Representatives to break a tie in the electoral college is listed in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.

Jefferson wanted an inauguration with few trappings of the past Federalist administrations. He wanted to put forth the appearance that he was one of the people and had their interests at heart when making policy. He was careful to create such an appearance during his inauguration in the new capital of the country, Washington, D.C. (The capital of the nation had moved from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia in November 1800. The Capitol and White House were still under construction.)

Before the ceremony, he walked from his boardinghouse along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where he would be the first president to take the oath of office there. He dressed in the casual clothes of an average citizen, as one account puts it, "without any distinctive badge of office" (Nash, pg. 267). Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall administered the oath of office, and a corps of local militiamen gave the new president a 16-gun salute.

The inauguration was highly symbolic for the new nation. It was the first transition of control of the executive branch by one party to another, and the transfer of power was accomplished without discord or bloodshed. Jefferson's contemporaries had many reasons to worry about a less than peaceful transition since regimes in Europe had come and gone, often with the execution of the monarch or class warfare in the streets of a capital city.

Activities

  1. Ask students to brainstorm ways that elections in 1800 would have been different than elections today. Make a list on the blackboard or on an overhead projector.

  2. What rules does the Constitution set forth regarding presidential elections? Read the Constitution, paying particular attention to Article II and Amendment XII. Now, challenge students to research the election of 1800. Were their perceptions of elections in 1800 correct? How did the presidential election of 1800 test the rules established in the Constitution? How did the election of 1800 lead to the creation of the 12th Amendment?

    Some good places to begin research include:

  3. After reviewing the events related to the election of 1800, have students respond to the following discussion questions in either oral or written form:
    • How did the election of 1800 reflect the weaknesses of the Electoral College as established in the Constitution?

    • What did the congress and the states do to correct the problem of how the president and vice-president would be elected?

    • Was it appropriate for John Adams to leave Washington without attending the inauguration of Jefferson? What might have happened had he decided to attend?

    • What aspects of our modern democratic system are symbolized in the events of 1800 with the ascension of Jefferson to the presidency?

  4. Many historians call the election of 1800 the "Revolution" of 1800. Define the term revolution and apply the definition to Jefferson's acquisition of power. How did his rise to the presidency differ from other revolutions of his day? (The American Revolution, the French Revolution, and England's "Glorious" Revolution of 1688 may be good examples to bring into the discussion.) How was this revolution similar?

  5. Have students read and analyze Jefferson's first inaugural address.

    Students will want to locate the following phrases and ideas and read them in context in the body of the speech. Have students determine the context of each phrase or idea in the speech and identify how the basic principles of American democracy embodied:

    • "equal and exact justice for all"
    • "the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies"
    • "absolute acquiescence" in the decisions of the majority
    • supremacy of civil over military authority
    • reduction of government spending
    • "honest payment" of the public debt
    • freedom of the press
    • "freedom of the person under habeas corpus"

  6. In his first inaugural address, Jefferson said, "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principles. We are all republicans - we are all federalists."

    Ask students what similarities exist between the election of 1800 and the election that took place 200 years later in 2000. (For good, student-oriented election information, visit the PBS Online NewsHour at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/election.html.)

    Students might draw parallels between the closeness of the two races; deep divides between political parties as the election results were decided; the role of other branches of government in deciding the election results; and criticism of the electoral college system. Students should also note that although many people criticized the election results, in both cases, the inaugurations proceeded and there was a peaceful transfer of power between political parties.

    After discussing these ideas, have students review the inaugural address of George W. Bush.

    • Are there words and phrases that echo the same concepts found in Jefferson's inaugural address of 1800?
    • What issues did George W. Bush discuss in his speech that were present in Jefferson's day?

Evaluation

The lesson may be evaluated through the following methods:

  1. the student's contributions to class discussion;
  2. the student's ability to gather facts through online research and synthesize these facts into meaningful summaries and analysis;
  3. the student's reading comprehension of online articles and texts of inaugural speeches.

Extension Ideas

  1. How is the transfer of power similar or different in other countries? Research recent changes of leadership in Mexico, Haiti, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, and other nations.

  2. Research the important accomplishments of Jefferson's administration. What were the "top five" legacies left to the American public? Create a visual display.

Image Copyright 1997 The Smithsonian Institution