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 industry 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.

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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.