Jeffersonian Republicanism: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 0:19 Historical Background
  • 1:10 Republican Simplicity
  • 3:50 Successes and Challenges
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

In this lesson, you'll define Jeffersonian Republicanism, learn about it historical origins, understand Jefferson's governmental philosophy of 'Republican Simplicity,' and know the successes and challenges this philosophy brought to the nation.


Jeffersonian Republicanism was the political philosophy adopted by the Republican Party during the early 1800s that called for a limited national government and reduced federal spending. This policy was initially put into practice by President Thomas Jefferson when he assumed office in 1801.

Historical Background

Thomas Jefferson won the election of 1800 and later referred to that victory as the Revolution of 1800. During that election, Jefferson, a Republican, defeated John Adams, A Federalist and the second president of the United States. This significant election was the first time in the nation's history that one party, the Federalists, was removed from power and another party, the Republicans, took their place.

Jefferson hoped that his election would reverse the policies of the Federalists which included an expanded federal government, a weakening of state governmental power, a national bank, an expanded army and navy, and a foreign policy that had brought the national closer economically to England. Jefferson believed that these Federalist policies had corrupted the true meaning of the American Revolution and the liberties it had promised.

Republican Simplicity

Jefferson was a true advocate of personal liberty and liberty from government oppression and monarchy. In contrast to John Adams, Jefferson relished the French Revolution's destruction of the monarchy and believed that the French Revolution was a natural extension of the American Revolution. In response to critics who abhorred the violence associated with the French Revolution, Jefferson stated that, 'The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants'. However, Jefferson feared that over time liberty might fade at the hands of an oppressive government. 'The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,' he said.

Jefferson was not an anarchist who wanted to see all government abolished. However, he felt that the Federalist policies of the 1790s had lessened personal freedoms, expanded government unnecessarily, and put the country in the hands of merchants and businessmen. To correct these wrongs, Jefferson hoped that his election would restore the true meanings of the revolution to the country. Jefferson advocated what he called Republican simplicity as the proper remedy to the Federalist policies of the past.

Fearing the tyranny associated with a standing military, he reduced the size of the army to 3,000 soldiers and left only 6 ships in the navy. Jefferson also abolished all internal taxes including Alexander Hamilton's whiskey tax that had caused so much controversy among western farmers. Jefferson felt that taxes should be kept to a minimum and that government revenue from import taxes (a small tariff) and the sale of western lands were sufficient for a limited national government. For this to be successful, Jefferson reduced the federal government's responsibility to maintaining a postal system, federal courts, and light houses. In addition, the government collected tariffs and conducted a census every ten years as stipulated in the Constitution.

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