Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States

Thomas Jefferson, 1801 – 1809

VP: Aaron Burr, George Clinton, First Lady: N/A

If George Washington’s presidency seemed like a minor part of his life, then Thomas Jefferson’s was certainly insignificant in comparison to the rest of his. He neither expected nor wanted people to remember him for his time in the White House, but rather for other talents, such as his work in law, legislation, architecture, philosophy, and diplomacy, but predominantly, his writing. Although Jefferson was more a ‘man of the people’ than his two predecessors, he always hoped historians would recognise and emphasise his political poetry.

Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia in 1743 and as the oldest male in his family, inherited lots of land and at least twenty slaves when his father died. From a young age, Jefferson was blessed with inspiration and leadership skills matched by no other. He first exemplified one of his many talents when he designed and constructed the Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia residence, which is now a National Historic Landmark and an architectural masterpiece. However, this talent was superseded when in 1776, Jefferson wrote possibly the most eloquent and profound political statement ever written; the Declaration of Independence.

Soon after, Jefferson resigned from the Continental Congress to run for Virginia State Governor, which he won and held from 1779 – 1781. Despite lots of success as Governor of Virginia, in 1784, Jefferson was offered the chance to flex his diplomatic muscles as Chief-diplomat to France, where he witnessed the start of the French Revolution. Jefferson was America’s greatest asset in France at the time, displaying a diplomatic mastery that matched the recently deceased Benjamin Franklin, which is why Washington didn’t hesitate before selecting him as his Minister for Foreign Affairs. However, Jefferson’s office was parallel to his political archenemy, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a stubborn federalist, while Jefferson was quite the opposite. Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican and advocated anti-federalism, free speech and a strict interpretation of the constitution. Their constant bickering and fighting caused Jefferson to resign from the post in 1794 (although the prospect of standing in the 1796 presidential election would have been a factor too).

Although Jefferson lost the 1796 election to another of his political enemies, John Adams, he proved a very popular vice president; in fact, so popular, he was able to beat Adams only four years later in 1800 presidential election. However, the 1800 election actually became an electoral fight between Jefferson and his future vice president, Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s political potency became apparent in this election, as he put his support behind Jefferson, thus helping him win, because although he hated Jefferson, he loathed Burr. However, Hamilton lived to regret his decision because in 1804, Burr challenged him to a duel, which Hamilton, who despised the notion of duelling, inevitably lost, dying some time the day after.

Jefferson had reached the White House, but he had reached it alone. His wife, Martha Jefferson, had died giving birth to their sixth child in 1782, and a devastated Jefferson never remarried. Despite his personal grievances, Jefferson was having an impressive first term. He stopped ransom payments to Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean and waged a short and successful naval war against them. He was the major player behind the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which cost the US 3 cents-an-acre and doubled the size of the country. He then built on the success of the Louisiana Purchase when he sent Lewis and Clark on their surprisingly inexpensive journey to explore this new land, which concluded with vast information about the new land and also legendary tales from their trip, including the help they received from Sacajawea. Overall, Jefferson had probably had the most successful term in office out of the first three presidents.

However, Jefferson’s luck changed during his second term. The prospect of war with Great Britain and France, combined with likely acts of treason by his former-vice president, Aaron Burr, made this his final term, and one he certainly wasn’t proud of. After suspicion surrounding his vice president surfaced, Jefferson replaced Burr with George Clinton and tried his hardest to ensure Burr’s punishment. Burr was suspected of attempting to seize Spanish land to the South-West of the US for his own personal rule and although he was never charged, he probably did commit this act of treason. The US also got caught up in the war between Great Britain and France, which Jefferson desperately didn’t want to get dragged into. In order to avoid conflict with either nation, Jefferson introduced the Embargo Act, which basically prohibited any US ships from travelling to foreign ports. Although this successfully averted the US’s involvement in the war, it is estimated that 4,000 US sailors lost their jobs and the shipping industry, which was particularly important in New England, cleverly named the legislation the ‘Dambargo Act’.

Even if Jefferson wanted to seek a third term, his population had suffered to the extent he might have lost. However, Jefferson was tired of the White House and retired to his Monticello residence, where he aided the establishment of the University of Virginia and continued an active life in writing, philosophy and music. Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of his nation and also on the same day as his political nemesis, John Adams. Jefferson was truly one of the most gifted and talented individuals to ever sit in the Oval Office. He was one of the greatest presidents, which was highlighted in 1962, when JFK hosted a dinner party at the White House and invited a guest list so impressive he joked it was the finest group of genius and talent to sit at the table ‘since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.’

James Madison, fourth president of the United States

James Madison, 1809 – 1817 

VP: George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, First Lady: Dorothea ‘Dolly’ Payne Todd

James Madison had a bigger act to follow than John Adams. Although Madison could match, if not trump, Jefferson’s political philosophy and legislation, Jefferson superseded his successor in almost every other way. Madison was another born into the ‘Virginia Dynasty’, which included Washington, Jefferson and Monroe, and although he spent most of his presidency holding the union together with his bare hands, he nevertheless met the criteria to be grouped with such statesmen. He was often shy, but could be very stubborn in the face of confrontation, and his physical appearance earned him the endearing nickname, ‘Little Jemmy’.

Born in 1751 and then educated at Princeton, if he were alive today Madison would probably be a complete geek. He worked very hard at school and boasted all the necessities of a great scholar. His political career started in 1776 as a delegate from the Virginia Legislature along with his old friend, Thomas Jefferson. Then in 1783, Madison, in ultra-geek mode, initiated the creation of the Library of Congress, which is now the biggest library in the world, today stocking over 30 million books. After this project, Madison returned to politics in 1787 to write the Bill of Rights. Debates over the US Constitution were sour until the Connecticut Compromise was proposed and Madison constructed the first 10 amendments. Although this convention included an array of political talent, it was Madison, and arguably Hamilton too, who stole the show.

When his personal friend and political ally, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1801, Madison was immediately employed as Secretary of State and a special envoy to France, two roles he excelled at until it was his turn for a shot at the presidency. Jefferson had spent a year making Madison appear like his natural successor, which despite Jefferson’s sinking popularity, seemed to make Madison’s election almost a foregone conclusion. The White House certainly became a different place as Jefferson moved out and Madison moved in. Jefferson rarely held any parties or events at the White House, and when he did, he usually left one of his daughters to host. However, when Madison showed up, his animated and fruitful First Lady, Dorothea ‘Dolly’ Payne Todd, who was renowned for her party-animal spirit, hosted event after event; probably much to the distaste of shy and reserved ‘Little Jemmy’.

As soon as Madison entered office, he was already in trouble with the British, which after a few years of negotiations he felt could only be settled through conflict. Madison asked the permission of Congress and the war of 1812 began. This war was a see-saw of military incompetence, which simply antagonised New England, due to the loss of trade, and stretched the union until it almost split. In 1814, the British then burned down the White House and Madison, now genuinely fearing for the future of the union, decided to enter negotiations with the British at the urging of Alexander I of Russia. Representatives from both nations, including son of former-president John Adams and future-president himself, John Quincy Adams, convened in Belgium and agreed on a settlement, which simply ended the war.

Madison also faced problems with Native American tribes dotted all over the US’s new territory in the West. He was forced into a situation where he either gave away the land or fought these tribes for it. Typical of a proud American, he chose the latter and appointed the future-president William Henry Harrison to lead this conflict in what is now known as Tecumseh’s war.

Like his two Virginian predecessors, Madison settled for just the two terms in office, and in 1817, retired to Virginia, where he presided over the University of Virginia after Jefferson had passed away. For a man with little experience of war, Madison was forced to run a country that was infested with battle and conflict. He also shared the hopes of all his predecessors, that he would be remembered and judged for his work before entering the White House, and for the genius behind the US Constitution.