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Jefferson, Thomas

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Significance: Jefferson rejected the idea that the Supreme Court should have exclusive authority to decide questions of constitutionality. As a Democratic-Republican president, he attempted to counter the nationalist tendencies of the Court under Federalist chief justice John Marshall.


Jefferson was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1765. Three years later he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1776 Jefferson, a delegate to the Continental Congress, drafted the Declaration of Independence. Upon his return to Virginia, Jefferson was twice elected governor. He served as secretary of state under President George Washington from 1789 to 1794 and was elected vice president in 1796. In 1798 in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson secretly drafted the Kentucky Resolves, which asserted that each state had an equal right to judge for itself the constitutionality of federal laws and to nullify those laws deemed unconstitutional. This notion that the Supreme Court was not the sole interpreter of the constitutionality of federal laws resurfaced throughout Jefferson's career. During his two terms as president, Jefferson appointed three associate justices to the Court: William Johnson, Brockholst Livingston, and Thomas Todd. All were Democratic-Republicans. His appointees, however, did little to stem the tide of the Court's nationalist tendencies under Federalist chief justice John Marshall. Jefferson's most direct disagreement with the Court occurred over the power of judicial review the notion that the Court possessed the power to declare unconstitutional the acts of other branches and levels of government. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), Marshall provided the classic justification for such power. Jefferson rejected judicial review, arguing that to give the judiciary the right to decide what laws are constitutional, not only for themselves but for the other branches as well, “would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.” Jefferson's construction of the Constitution held that each branch had an equal right to decide for itself the meaning of the Constitution in the cases submitted to its action. Although Jefferson found Marshall's opinion objectionable, no controversy ensued because the Court did not command Jefferson to deliver Marbury's commission; and though Marshall claimed for the Court the power to interpret the Constitution, Marshall did not assert that the Court's power was exclusive of other branches or final. Jefferson's objections to the Marshall Court grew more vocal following his retirement from public office. He continued to oppose those decisions Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816), McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), and Cohens v. Virginia (1821), for example that enhanced the powers of the national government at the expense of the states.



Further Reading

  • Ellis, Richard E. The Jefferson Crisis: Courts and Politics in the Young Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1976.
  • Malone, Dumas. Thomas Jefferson and His Times. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948-1981.