Politics, Elections, & the Presidency: a Video Conversation with Thomas Jefferson

The last presidential election in your lifetime was in 1824, when you said you were “a mere looker-on” in the contest, and would not permit yourself to express an opinion on a candidate. You expressed hopes that the winner of the election would be a “friend of peace, of economy, of the republican principles of our Constitution and of the salutary distribution of powers made by that between the general and local governments.” How could voters apply those tests in a practical way to voting for presidential candidates?
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Can you envision a time when a woman might hold the office of president of the United States? Or an African, an Indian, or someone of Spanish descent?
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Each time you were an election candidate, you declined to campaign for office, and said you would prefer to remain a private citizen. In 1796, for example, you said you had “no passion which would lead me to ride the storm.” How would you react to a system in which dozens of men began to swarm across the country two years in advance of an election, spending millions of dollars each month of other people’s money, to secure the presidency?
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You once said “The lamentable resource of war is not authorized for evils of imagination, but for those actual injuries only, which would be more destructive of our wellness than war itself.” That was in 1801. A few years before, in 1794, you said “War is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer.” Is there an argument that you could endorse for launching a war to pre-empt “actual injuries?” To your mind, how certain of “actual injuries” in advance would the nation have to be to justify accepting the punishment of armed conflict?
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You told your friend James Monroe in 1808 that you “knew too well from experience the progress of political controversy….” Party spirit ran high in your day. At what point, if any, does the enthusiasm for partisan politics cross the line of healthy public debate and lose sight of important issues?
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In 1816, writing about the Electoral College, you mentioned “The president is chosen by ourselves, directly in practice, for we vote for A as elector only on the condition he will vote for B.” Can you foresee a time when a candidate might be awarded a majority of Electoral College votes, and therefore the presidency, while losing the popular vote nationally? Would that trouble you?
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In 1816, you wrote to John Taylor, Republican U.S. Senator from South Carolina, “Election is a fundamental member in the structure of government.” Some modern countries require voters to go to the polls. What would you think of a law in the United States that made voting mandatory?
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In the 2000 presidential election, 51.3 percent of the voting-age population of the United States registered and cast ballots. In the off-year congressional elections of 1998, about 36.4 percent of the voting-age population registered and exercised its franchise. Should we be concerned when roughly half the electorate or less votes?
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Voters look to presidents to balance the federal budget. In 1820, you suggested that frequent elections would help keep federal expenditures in line with federal income. The national debt today runs 11,738 times as large as the one you confronted in 1801. Do frequent elections really work, and are there solutions you would offer to a growing national debt?
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Mr. Jefferson, Do you feel your reputation was damaged by serving as president of the United States?
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As we review history, we find many presidents leaving office with a lower public approval rating than when they took office. You made reference to this in 1796 when you and John Adams were rivals for the presidency. Is there something about the nation’s highest office that lowers our esteem for the people who occupy it?
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In 1797, when you served as vice president, you used such words about that office as “honorable and easy,” yet you wrote that the presidency was a “splendid misery.” Why did you think the presidency was, shall we say, such a glorious affliction?
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