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Did Jefferson Blunder?

Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson

by Robert W. Tucker, by David C. Hendrickson
Oxford University Press, 360 pp., $24.95

What remains of the once formidable Jefferson industry1 may be sore pressed to weather Empire of Liberty, which is a little like a leveraged takeover by less-than-friendly outsiders. But the raiders, Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, political scientists rather than historians, have finally made a place for what should have been all along the settled historical understanding of Jeffersonian statecraft. The version of international dealing that was promoted by Thomas Jefferson, as first secretary of state and later as third president, set a tone and pattern for America’s handling of its foreign affairs that has remained strikingly persistent, and was specially attractive from the outset to the citizenry of the first popularly based republic of modern times. You get what you want without paying for it, or wave away calculations of what the eventual price might be, because your requirements need make no real provision for “payment” at all. They are self-evident, engraved in principles of right, justice, and liberty, and thus by and large non-negotiable. The vocabulary was, and has remained until perhaps very recently, that of solemn high-mindedness.

Historians are understandably inclined to be suspicious of political scientists taking up large historical questions, not only because, in their urge for models based on inclusive generalizations, they tend to flatten chronology, but also because of a certain casualness toward the very specificity on which historical discourse depends. Tucker and Hendrickson were themselves caught out on just such grounds a few years ago when they presented the first volume of their projected reconstruction of the historical setting for America’s rise to world power, of which this new book is a continuation. The model they set up for the American Revolution, that of the colonies as a challenging new power in international politics rather than as a provincial population of aggrieved Englishmen (and well before they would become a power of any kind), didn’t quite work when it came to accounting for the inhibitions which kept the home authorities from doing what they “logically” ought to have done about putting the colonials smartly in their place before it was too late.2

Empire of Liberty, however, gets into no such tangles. Working now in the realm of foreign relations between sovereign states, which lends itself to fairly straightforward generalizations (bound though they may be in a web of historical circumstance now two centuries out of reach), these political scientists are in a position to do historians a real service, especially those concerned with the doings of Thomas Jefferson. Historians benumbed by the Jefferson mystique have found it all too easy to digest Jefferson’s lapses, caprices, and miscalculations, foreign and domestic, under a benign rubric of “pragmatism,” a notion at which Jefferson himself would have been the first to be mystified. This book at least takes the man on his own terms, those of high principle. It is a clear-headed and amply informed scrutiny of how Thomas Jefferson pictured America’s place in a largely unenlightened world, and of how, in Jefferson’s spacious mind, what ought to have been the nation’s interests came to be overlaid by what he conceived as the nation’s rights, calling for a novel form of statecraft for achieving them.

Reason of state” was the old way, but that was the way of kings and autocrats, who might move armies about at pleasure, define the state’s interest in any way that suited their ambition, place the state’s power—and the foreign policies appropriate to maintaining it—on a plane higher than the happiness and prosperity of their own subjects, and resort in extremity to measures outside the bounds of ordinary law and morality as means justified by necessary ends. But not for a republic, whose true strength should rest not in armies, avaricious rulers, or sinuous diplomacy but in the essential virtue of its people. Foreign policy, the kind whose primary index was balance of power, must be distinctly subordinate to the domestic well-being, and transactions of any kind with foreign governments should be subject to the same morality as that which governs people’s dealings with one another. A republic need not have recourse to wars if its ends are just. Instruments can be found for accomplishing them—such as the disposition of its commerce—that are both peaceable and coercive.

Yet Tucker and Hendrickson doubt whether Jefferson’s system was any less pernicious in its overall implications and consequences than the one he supposed himself to be renouncing. His aim was to “conquer without war,” and his expectations were breathtaking. They embraced two broad objects. One was the thousands of square miles of foreign territory that lay to the west, to be acquired in time by playing off the powers of Europe against each other and profiting from their quarrels. The other was an end to Great Britain’s domination of the patterns of international trade, and the acceptance by the British of an American version of neutral rights in wartime. This would be effected through “peaceable coercion”: America, both as a source of food and raw materials and as a major market for British manufactures, had the power to withhold a commerce without which Britain must surely perish.

What solemnized Jefferson’s conception of foreign relations, in his country’s eyes and his own, was the facility with which he could impart to virtually every issue an elevated moral significance. He thus “invested American pretensions with a kind of sacred character,” which made compromise both awkward and difficult, especially regarding the British, who as it happened had moral imperatives of their own, face to face as they were with the scourge of Napoleon Bonaparte while being asked to limit their war-making capacities to suit higher claims of international justice.

The story of Jefferson’s territorial aspirations and their outcome contains many a striking feature, though astute diplomacy does not seem to be one of them. As secretary of state, Jefferson vainly tried to badger Spain into opening the Mississippi with threats he had no thought of carrying out, and by telling the Spanish government that since oceans were open to all, the rivers flowing into them must be similarly free, all of which was “written in the heart of man.” And rather than probing for a bargain, he tried to hector the young British minister George Hammond into acknowledging the turpitude of his country’s contravention of the 1783 peace treaty in continuing to occupy military posts in the Old Northwest, but would entertain no suggestion that the United States, in taking no action on the prewar debts owed by Americans (mostly Virginians) to British creditors, was not performing its part of the treaty either.

The whole problem of the interior, as it stood in the mid-1790s, could have been unlocked with a single key, an accommodation with Great Britain; and in fact Federalist statecraft, after Jefferson retired from office in 1793, did exactly that. Within a year the United States made good its title to the eastern Mississippi Valley, first with the Jay-Grenville Treaty of 1794 (the northwest posts being evacuated in exchange for a mixed commission to settle the debts), and then with the Pinckney Treaty of 1795, by which Spain opened the Mississippi to American navigation and conceded the right of deposit at New Orleans. The one had led directly to the other, Spain being at last stirred by the thought of what an Anglo-American understanding might bode for the safety of Spain’s already shaky empire in North America.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 may easily be seen as the greatest triumph of Jefferson’s public life. But Louisiana was sheer windfall, owing nothing to Jeffersonian statecraft, and it taught him all the wrong lessons. It was of course the disastrous failure of General Charles Leclerc’s army to subjugate the blacks of Santo Domingo, rather than any of Jefferson’s insinuations about “marrying ourselves to the British fleet and nation” (a thought which for him was rather akin to a pact with the Devil) if the French should persist in hanging on to New Orleans, that inspired Napoleon to offer the Americans the whole province and get on with things in Europe. This free gift increased Jefferson’s appetite for more while evidently justifying his faith that the easy way is the only way, and if the object be sufficiently exalted—an “Empire of Liberty” in this case—something written in the heart of man will guide you to it at minimum risk. It nourished the preposterous illusion that the key to further acquisitions of Spanish territory, specifically Florida, lay in the friendly offices of France. He tried first to get the French to throw in West Florida as part of the purchase, despite both Spain’s and France’s denial that this possession had ever been included in the treaty whereby Spain had turned Louisiana back to its original colonizer.3 Even so, he continued to imagine that Napoleon, “eager to make a good bargain with the United States, more solicitous of American than of Spanish friendship, and fearful of an American entente with Great Britain, would bring the Floridas into his grasp.” Though Napoleon allowed Jefferson to indulge such fancies for a season, it was no part of either his interest or his intention to gratify them.

The other object of Jefferson’s statecraft, free trade for American commodities and especially neutral rights as an aloof nonbelligerent might desire them, would have to be achieved, if achieved at all, at the expense of Great Britain. Its eventual result, the crowning calamity of Jefferson’s second administration, was the ill-fated Embargo of 1807–1809. It is here that the disjunction between America’s political and material interests and what Jefferson conceived as his country’s entitlement by the law of nature is seen at its most attenuated. The governing delusion here was that the British needed our trade more than we needed theirs, and could be brought to heel by the threat of its trade being snatched away. The war of blockade and counterblockade embodied in Napoleon’s Continental System and the British Orders in Council meant among other things, in view of Britain’s mastery of the ocean, that neutral cargoes headed for Europe would have to touch first at a British port and pay duties or be subject to confiscation. Hence America’s noble experiment in national self-denial, the embargo, enacted at Jefferson’s bidding by a Republican Congress in the closing days of December 1807, prohibited all exports by sea to any foreign country, and by later amendment all trade by land as well. Its economic impact on the belligerents was minimal, and diplomatically it gained the United States little but contempt. Its effect on America’s own economic life, as well as on its government revenues and public morals, was ruinous.

Tucker and Hendrickson maintain very plausibly that a better way of serving both self-respect and self-interest, indeed the only rational way, would have been to reach a forthright accommodation with England, the issues dividing the two countries—commercial policy and impressment of Americans into the British Navy—being eminently compromisable.4 And in fact the abortive treaty that the American envoys, James Monroe and William Pinkney, by dint of ignoring their instructions, managed to hammer out with the Charles James Fox ministry in 1806 had given a clear glimpse of this, providing as it did for a more liberal reading of British maritime regulations and accompanied as it was by an informal memorandum promising greater care on impressment. But when Jefferson saw that his sine qua nons—which would have amounted to full British capitulation with nothing given in return—were unmet, he rejected the treaty out of hand and refused even to let the Senate consider it.

A genuine settlement would have taken for granted two gross forms of interest to which Jefferson was virtually blind. One was Great Britain’s engagement with a force—Napoleonic France and its cowed satellites—that was defying the peace, order, and safety of half the world. The other was the very interest Jefferson was professedly sheltering, the mercantile community engaged in overseas commerce at a time of giddy prosperity, British restrictions or not, and whose spokesmen would have settled for any arrangement other than the one Jefferson was marking out for them. Indeed, if the embargo had actually succeeded in its purpose, the consequences could have been worse than were those of its failure. There was little it could do to injure France, as Napoleon himself perceived, its obvious intention being to strike at England. And then?

Had [Napoleon] once succeeded in wresting from England the command of the seas, there is no telling where his ambition would have taken him…the world would have danced in his head, and the world would have been open to him.

The authors’ survey of Jeffersonian statecraft ranges widely and variously; the parts connect with greater precision than in any comparable one yet done; and their case is strongly persuasive. They are not historians, as I remarked above, and the case might not have been made as well if they had been. Yet I can think of a dimension or two of historical particularity that might have made it even better, if somewhat more complex.

One of these dimensions might be uncovered by bringing to bear, for the case at hand, what we know of the man himself, of the passions that prompted the workings of a resourceful mind and imposed for him a kind of unity on all his public and private experience. Tucker and Hendrickson rightly insist that a calculating cynicism was no part of Jefferson’s mentality. But what did pervade that mentality, gave punctuation to all his writings and sayings, and reached out everywhere, was an anglophobia so visceral as to warp all reason, even reason of state. True, any Virginia squire in those days could feel a strong touch of this—any, that is, whose very style of life had long since entangled him in debt to British tobacco traders,5 or who had looked in helpless rage upon the mischief done by British troops in Virginia as they liberated provisions, animals, and slaves in the closing stage of the war. But what Jefferson did with his anglophobia was prodigious. He fashioned it into a world view of darkness and light, the former embracing every kind of corruption he could think of: commerce, war, great cities, manufacturing, public finance, banks, funded debts, and, crowning them all, hereditary monarchy.

The counterforce for salvation would be the sister republic that had emerged from the French Revolution. Yet mortifying as it was when the vision of universal republican liberty came to be darkened under the shadow of Napoleon, he remained transfixed. “But…I say ‘down with England,’ and as for what Buonaparte is then to do with us, let us trust to the chapter of accidents.” As one of France’s ministers to the United States had sourly observed ten years earlier, “Mr. Jefferson loves us because he detests England.” Under an ideological fixation fully analogous in its comprehensiveness to the one that enclosed our own generation, Jefferson waged a cold war against England—and against city of London merchants, speculators, and all other closet “monarchists” at home—from the beginning of his secretaryship of state to the day he left the presidency twenty years later.

But the other dimension is one that should underlie any perception of American statecraft in relation to the two foremost powers of the Old World, Jefferson’s or anyone else’s, during the first quarter century of the republic’s existence. The formal conditions of diplomacy are such as to imply between the parties to any transaction a certain parity, if not of power at least of simple attention. Yet what never quite penetrated Americans of the time—indeed for a long time afterward—was the all-but-bottomless inconsequentiality of the United States for any aspect of French or even British policy, the preoccupations of each being altogether elsewhere. We go on writing about our earliest dealings with both these powers. But we seldom turn the glass around for reflections other than our own. What would we see if we did? Endless complaints, for example, by French functionaries in America that their dispatches to Paris were seldom even read, much less answered. Or look through French or British newspapers, search the minutes of the Committee of Public Safety, the Directory, or the Privy Council, the proceedings of Parliament or the Council of Five Hundred—or better, simply read works of French and British history, starting with the index—and see how many times the United States is so much as mentioned.6 This would bring an additional logic to all those dealings that is seldom accorded them, even in a book as good as this one.

There certainly ought to be room in a study of this kind—and in many another kind as well—for counterfactual projections of best and worst cases, even given the intractability of past history. These authors have made several, and they are both provocative and enlightening. But that may itself call for a final question. The hand of judgment now rests heavily on Thomas Jefferson; high time, no doubt, that it should. Nevertheless: where, if anywhere, were the resources of statecraft in the America of Jefferson’s day that might have—or could have—dealt with the English in a way substantially different from Jefferson’s, however the nation’s true “interest” might be construed? One has one’s suspicions, and they are based on the kind of society any such diplomacy would be speaking for.

The authors cite with approval Alexander Hamilton’s insistence that republics were no different from any other kind of state when it came to getting into armed quarrels, which was obviously true so far as it went. But something can also be said for Thomas Paine’s assertion that republics were different, “because the nature of their government does not admit of an interest distinct from that of the nation.” This need not apply to their genius for staying out of wars, as Paine meant it, but it certainly did apply, in the case of this infant republic, to the style of its diplomacy. Here was a new state with a very large electorate, whose political life and civic passions were bound up to an inordinate degree with its foreign relations. Nor were its agents free to move about at will on the diplomatic chessboard, like Italian princes, with no more than a casual concern for public opinion. That public, impatient of intricacy and finesse, could be heavily coercive, demanding ringing solutions for everything, and was seldom satisfied with those it got. Its highest “interests” in this realm, moreover, were not those of security, or even material prosperity, but something more urgent still—self-esteem and the face Americans should present to the rest of the world. And least tolerable to Americans high and low was the brooding thought that the former mother country, in all its pride, power, and arrogance, might still be giving them the law in anything. A Jeffersonian public, Jefferson or no Jefferson was there from the beginning, and reason of state was simply a meaningless idea, no matter who said so, or how.

The case of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, which resolved a variety of disputed questions between the US and Great Britain, is exemplary. Judged by reason of state, this was as beneficial a settlement as could have been expected or hoped for, and so it proved to be for the ten years it was in force, Yet no comparable transaction in American history has ever encountered such a public uproar as did this one, not for the advantages it brought to us, but for any concessions it made, or seemed to be making, to them. On the Fourth of July, 1795, toasts of damnation were drunk to John Jay in every village across the land; only the weight of Washington’s prestige and the example of his support of the treaty could induce a sobering down. Even so, one fewer vote in the Senate would have killed it; one fewer in the House would have blocked the funds for putting it into effect. Jefferson, Madison, and Albert Gallatin, the triumvirate destined to head the government five years hence, had been in bitter opposition throughout.7

It is against such a background that the likelihood of a stable and satisfactory understanding with Great Britain—after the people in 1800 should speak decisively for Jefferson and all he represented—has to be measured, and it will take more than a best-case projection to imagine its happening. Thomas Jefferson may be held to account for a great deal else, but he knew what he was doing when he refused to send the Monroe-Pinkney-effort (even less appetizing to the United States than Jay’s had been) to the Senate in 1806. The most foreseeable outcome of doing otherwise was to be burned in effigy, as Jay had been. The collision course with England was directed not by Jefferson alone but in a sense by an entire society, the focal point of which for the time being was the state of Virginia. True, the lofty phrases were Jefferson’s, which was logical enough; with them he was undoubtedly ministering to his people’s “real” interests, which for this purpose were more symbolic and abstract than material and concrete. And those, alas, were the very interests—since war, in the end, came to be the only way of wiping off the humiliations of peaceable coercion’s failure—that he served most poorly.

  1. 1

    A Jeffersonian reading of the American can past which has had extensive consequences, by no means all salutary, dominated historical scholarship throughout a large part of the present century. But the leading guardians of this once all-but-sacred flame—Vernon L. Parrington, Gilbert Chinard, Dumas Malone, Irving Brant, Douglass Adair, Adrienne Koch, and Julian Boyd—have been dead for some time, and few remain to tend it now. Two of the most prominent survivors, Noble Cunningham and Merrill Peterson, both now nearing retirement, have done work (Cunningham on the rise and ascendancy of the Jeffersonian Republican party and Peterson on the ups and downs of Jefferson’s historical reputation) whose usefulness does not require that the user be steeped in the Jeffersonian pieties. Meanwhile, skeptics had begun taking shots as early as the 1960s. Leonard Levy’s sardonic Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (Harvard University Press, 1963) produced both anguished protests and covert elation, and may have done something to inspire such subsequent works as Bernard Sheehan’s Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian (University of North Carolina Press, 1973) and especially John C. Miller’s The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (Free Press, 1977). Jeffersonian diplomacy, moreover, looked a good deal less astute after the completion of Bradford Perkins’s impressive trilogy, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795–1805 (University of California Press, 1955), Prologue to War, 1805–1812 (1961), and Castlereagh and Adams (1964), and Charles R. Ritcheson’s Aftermath of Revolution: British Policy Toward the United States, 1783–1795 (Southern Methodist University Press, 1969). Thus the book here being reviewed will not, for all its originality, fall on wholly unprepared ground.

  2. 2

    See, e.g., Gordon S. Wood’s review of Tucker and Hendrickson’s The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), The New York Review, February 3, 1983.

  3. 3

    As Henry Adams put it, Jefferson “was forced at last to maintain that Spain had retroceded West Florida to France without knowing it, that France had sold it to the United States without suspecting it, that the United States had bought it without paying for it, and that neither France nor Spain, although the original contracting parties, were competent to decide the meaning of their own contract.”

  4. 4

    Assuming that impressment, in some form, of men supposed to be British subjects was essential to keeping the Royal Navy up to strength in wartime (which was undoubtedly true), and assuming that the topmost consideration for American policy was (or should have been) the safety of American seamen, a satisfactory compromise on that issue was not only fully possible but might have acted as a solvent on the other issues as well. The trouble was that the American merchant marine was itself being kept at strength by a very substantial proportion of those same British subjects: some 9,000 (under the American definition of citizenship: the British definition brought it to more than twice that many) in an estimated total of 42,000 men of all nationalities in American crews. Between 3,800 and 6,200 Americans, depending on whose figures one accepts, were impressed into the British Navy between 1803 and 1812. Nevertheless a system of administrative procedures for keeping undoubted British subjects off those ships would have altered the entire shape of the problem, and afforded tangible protection against the threat of impressment for the American seamen that remained. Jefferson, however, continued to believe his ends might be attained without either the self-denial or the inconvenience such a system might entail. A good discussion of the figures and their interpretation is in Perkins, Prologue to War, pp. 84–95.

  5. 5

    The ramifications of the debt theme alone for Jefferson’s psychology are striking. For more on this, watch for Herbert E. Sloan’s forthcoming Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (Oxford University Press, 1992).

  6. 6

    This would have broken the heart of, say, James Monroe, whose ambassadorial mission to Paris in 1794, just as the Terror was ending, was the most intense experience of his life. His modern biographer, Harry Ammon, ruefully observes: “Histories of France during this period do not contain any references to the United States or to Monroe. Of all the diplomatic problems facing France, that presented by the United States was one of the least significant.” James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 601 n.

  7. 7

    The core of the Jay-Grenville settlement was Britain’s surrender of the Northwest posts and a provision for mixed commissions of arbitration which would, on the one hand, determine the extent of compensation to which American shippers might be entitled as a result of British maritime seizures, and on the other, calculate the sums due British creditors from debts contracted by Americans prior to the peace treaty of 1783. Other provisions included favorable arrangements for Americans in the East India trade, access to the British West Indies for American ships of limited tonnage, and expanded privileges for both parties in the northern fur trade.

    Jay could not, however, persuade the British to alter their settled rules on the status of enemy goods found on board neutral vessels; he also agreed that the United States would not resort to such forms of reprisal as sequestration of debts for actions deemed injurious to American commerce.

    Perhaps the greatest benefits for America lay quite outside the written terms of the treaty itself: the avoidance of war with the world’s greatest maritime power, the stabilization of America’s ocean trade for more than a decade during the first great boom cycle in the nation’s history, and Spain’s decision to open the Mississippi to American navigation.

    Yet any accommodation with England was bound to encounter ferocious resistance in America, as was evident even before the terms of it became known. James Monroe actually blurted out in a private letter that a total capitulation by the British, even with the cession of Canada thrown in, would create the most awkward embarrassment for the Republican opposition.

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