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Revolution of 1800

Some observers have regarded Jefferson's election in 1800 as revolutionary. This may be true in a restrained sense of the word, since the change from Federalist leadership to Republican was entirely legal and bloodless. Nevertheless, the changes were profound. The Federalists lost control of both the presidency and the Congress.

By 1800, the American people were ready for a change. Under Washington and Adams, the Federalists had established a strong government. They sometimes failed, however, to honor the principle that the American government must be responsive to the will of the people. They had followed policies that alienated large groups. For example, in 1798 they enacted a tax on houses, land and slaves, affecting every property owner in the country.

Jefferson had steadily gathered behind him a great mass of small farmers, shopkeepers and other workers; they asserted themselves in the election of 1800. Jefferson enjoyed extraordinary favor because of his appeal to American idealism. In his inaugural address, the first such speech in the new capital of Washington, D.C., he promised "a wise and frugal government" to preserve order among the inhabitants, but would "leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry, and improvement."

Jefferson's mere presence in The White House encouraged democratic behavior. White House guests were encouraged to shake hands with the president, rather than bowing as had been the Federalist practice. Guests at state dinners were seated at round tables, which emphasized a sense of equality. He taught his subordinates to regard themselves merely as trustees of the people. He encouraged agriculture and westward expansion. Believing America to be a haven for the oppressed, he urged a liberal naturalization law.

Federalists feared the worst. Some worried that Jefferson, the great admirer of the French, would set up a guillotine on Capitol Hill.