During the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the characterization of Jeffersonian Republicans as strict constructionists and Federalists as loose constructionists was generally true for the most part. While both Presidents were Democratic-Republicans and often adopted a strict constructionist view, there were several exceptions in which they or other Republicans adopted a loose constructionist view. The same goes for the Federalists, who had several examples of them adopting a strict constructionist view.
During the time of the Jefferson and Madison presidencies, the Democratic-Republicans were often considered to be strict constructionists. This is seen in multiple occasions in which the Presidents (both of which were Republicans) or other members of the party took actions from a strict constructionist stand-point. While in office, Jefferson reduced the size of the Navy and put limitations on the military, which was a strict constructionist view at the time. The Constitution only gave the Federal government the power to maintain a military, and Jefferson felt that the country could be maintained with a smaller force, thus why he limited it.
Jefferson also did not run for a third term, following the two-term limit policy that Washington had ‘created. ’ By respecting this element of the “un-written” Constitution, Jefferson was following a strict constructionist viewpoint. Also, Jefferson expressed a strict constructionist view in several personal letters. In one to Gideon Granger in 1800, he stated his own and the party’s intentions to get “a majority in the legislature of the United States, attached to the preservation of the federal Constitution,” and even stated in the letter that the Federalists loose constructionist views would be detrimental to the country (Document A).
In another letter to Samuel Miller, a Presbyterian minister, in early 1808, he also clearly showed his strict constructionist views by stating that “certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general [federal] government” (Document B). This entire statement shows Jefferson’s strict following of the Constitution and that he will not allow the Federal government to deal in religious matters because it doesn’t say the government can in the Constitution, thus exhibiting those strict constructionist views.
Notably, he vetoed the passing of the Internal Improvements Bill in 1817, saying that “such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution,” which also shows his strict constructionist views (Document H). While many of the Republicans during the Jefferson and Madison years held strict constructionist views, there were times where the Presidents took actions that could be considered loose constructionist. One example of this was Jefferson’s passing of the Embargo Act of 1807 (Document C).
This action was considered a loose constructionist action because the Constitution stated that the government had the right to regulate commerce and trade, with some people arguing that that did not mean they had the authority to completely cut off trade. Another example of Thomas Jefferson practicing loose constructionist views was when he bought the Louisiana territory from the French in 1804 without the Senate’s approval. This was a loose constructionist action because no where in the Constitution it says the executive branch has the authority to make such a purchase without the Senate approving the purchase.
Jefferson justified the purchase with the Elastic Clause, a clause commonly used by loose constructionists to justify some of their actions not expressed in the Constitution. Besides these actions, Thomas Jefferson showed his shift to loose constructionist thinking in a letter in 1816 to Samuel Kercheval, in which he expressed that governments needed to know how to change with the times rather than staying exactly the same in its ways of thinking (Document G).
While the Republicans generally held a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, Federalists tended to have a loose constructionist view of the Constitution during the presidencies of Jefferson and Madison. An example of this would be when various Federalists assembled in the Hartford Convention from 1812 to 1815 to discuss making amendments to the Constitution to help the northeastern states, though the talks would eventually turn to talks of secession (Document E).
This shows how the Federalists held a loose constructionist view of the Constitution and were willing to make alterations to the document. Another example of Federalists holding loose constructionist views during this time is seen in John Marshall, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during Jefferson and Madison’s terms. A notable Federalist, John Marshall was a strong advocate of the Elastic Clause. He also created the concept of Judicial Review in the famous case of “Marbury v. Madison,” which has since become a power of the Supreme Court, even though it isn’t listed in the Constitution.
By Marshall exercising a power not directly listed in the Constitution, it shows his loose constructionist views. Despite the tendencies of the Federalist Party members to have loose constructionist views, there were several exceptions to this during the time of the Jefferson and Madison presidencies. An example of one of these exceptions was when Daniel Webster, a Federalist from New Hampshire, and other Federalists opposed the conscription bill the Madison administration attempted to get passed (Document D).
Their argument was that no where in the Constitution does it say that the government can force people to serve in the military. This shows a moment where certain members followed strict constructionist view, but conversely also shows a moment where Democratic-Republicans (the Madison administration) acted under loose constructionist views. Another example of the Federalists holding strict constructionist views is when they pushed heavily for Congress to require a two-thirds majority to pass things like admitting states to the union or declaring war.
During the time of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Democratic-Republicans were generally seen as strict constructionists while Federalists were generally seen as loose constructionists. As seen earlier, Jefferson, Madison, and other Republicans did express strict constructionist beliefs during their terms, and conversely the Federalists, such as John Marshall, often expressed their loose constructionist beliefs during those times. However, both parties did not always adhere to these beliefs, each having their own unique exceptions depending on the situation