Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson, by Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, New York: Oxford University Press, 360 pages, $24.95
"What will the Americans do?" That question has plagued the world not just since the United States became a superpower, but indeed since the earliest days of the republic. On the one hand, geography and native disdain for the corruption of Old World politics incline America toward isolation. On the other hand, America's "traditional sense of universal moral mission," in Henry Kissinger's words, leads the United States to intervene around the world for the loftiest of reasons, "to make the world safe for democracy." What other country issues such sweeping proclamations as the Truman Doctrine, or, lately, the Reagan Doctrine? America was the first and remains the only country to assert an indissoluble connection between the prospects for freedom at home and the prospects for freedom abroad. So the problem for foreign leaders is which America will it be this week: the cautious isolationist or the idealistic, crusading, and often reckless interventionist? The wrong answer can carry ruinous consequences. Just ask the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956, or Saddam Hussein in 1990.
This fundamental problem became a world crisis with the advent of Pax Americana (or "The American Century," if you like), starting with Woodrow Wilson and culminating with America's supplanting of the British Empire after World War II. Now, with the Cold War—nay, even history itself—ending, the question of America's bearings in the world needs to be rethought. America's idealistic, crusading posture is fairly easy to carry off against ideological totalitarians. You couldn't ask central casting for villains purer than Nazis or Communists. It becomes a much more difficult and subtle matter to conduct relations with a Soviet Union that is, like Britain in 1800, merely pursuing national or imperial, rather than ideological, interests in the world.
Already the conservative camp is splitting apart, with Pat Buchanan sounding rather like the George McGovern of 1972 ("Come home, America"), while the "neoconservatives," most of them anyway, favor a globalist policy. Libertarians have remained largely aloof from the entire debate over the years, preferring the counsel of John Quincy Adams that although America is a friend to liberty everywhere, she is the defender only of her own. The question then becomes: Where does the frontier of American liberty begin? Reasonable people can disagree about the answer, but it can form the basis of an isolationism more thoughtful than many in the past and present.
Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson is one of those opportune books that sheds light on a vital present controversy by careful examination of historical antecedents. The book is essential reading for any would-be custodians of America's long-term foreign outlook. Empire of Liberty explores the issue by scrutinizing the origins of the dual nature of American foreign policy in the statecraft of the early republic, and especially in the thought and record of the man who, more than any other, is responsible for imbuing American political thought with its extraordinary idealistic strain. Empire of Liberty makes clear to libertarians and idealistic crusaders alike the limitations of their positions. It is well to remember Lincoln, for instance, who accorded "all honor to Jefferson" because his Declaration of Independence gave liberty "not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men." This is why American foreign policy has always sought to claim reasons different from and above the traditional "reasons of state" of ordinary European diplomacy. It means that domestic political principles take precedence in foreign policy deliberations. This view gets us into a lot of trouble, especially when conceived with the simple-minded zeal of a Woodrow Wilson or a Jimmy Carter. But it is also essential to America. Empire of Liberty shows how and why this view unfolded early in the republic, and the book also amply demonstrates its inherent limitations.
Empire of Liberty is a boldly revisionist book, taking sharp issue with most modern Jefferson biographers—especially Dumas Malone and Merrill Peterson—and reviving the historical judgments of Henry Adams. We should expect a divergent view from these authors. Tucker, professor of American diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University, is co-editor of the foreign affairs quarterly The National Interest, while Hendrickson, associate professor of political science at Colorado College, has written widely on strategy and foreign affairs. The authors' basic theme is that Jefferson's diplomacy, both as secretary of state under George Washington and especially as president from 1801 to 1809, was contradictory and ruinous, and that Jefferson's legacy has been the unresolvable tension between idealism and realism at the heart of American foreign policy ever since.
The early part of the book explores the emergence of Republican diplomacy during the administrations of Washington and John Adams, and the unfolding of the tensions between the United States and France and England. Hamilton and the Federalists favored better relations with England and stronger defense preparations, while Jefferson and the Republicans inclined toward France, favoring only a modest coastal navy and no army. The 1790s ended with America having very nearly gone to war with both France and England. Thus Jefferson inherited in 1801 a diplomatic position partly of his own making.
Two episodes dominate the foreign record of the Jefferson administration: the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the successive trade embargoes of 1805 to 1809, which were directed against English impressment of sailors on American merchant ships and in support of the trading rights of neutral nations. The Louisiana Purchase has always been viewed as a great triumph for Jefferson and the nation, but Tucker and Hendrickson throw a lot of cold water on Jefferson's handling of this episode. In the briefest terms, Jefferson was lucky. His chief strategy was to delay and dither, all the while making incredible and unserious threats to form an alliance with either France or England against the other. In the end, it was Napoleon's miscarried Santo Domingo campaign, and the mounting prospect of war with England, that led France to abandon all ambitions for Louisiana and offer its sale to America.
The happy outcome, Tucker and Hendrickson argue, has obscured the risks of Jefferson's Louisiana diplomacy. In gambling with the sentiments of western states and territories, Jefferson risked disunion. Tucker and Hendrickson argue that Hamilton's strategy—to risk war with France over New Orleans—was a better and more prudent one and that Jefferson's success ultimately depended on England, with whom he was unwilling seriously to consider alliance. "Ironically, by comparison," the authors write, "it is Hamilton who appears as the truer representative of a policy of independence than does Jefferson."
The indictment of Jefferson's management of Louisiana does not end with diplomacy. The authors also sharply criticize Jefferson's putting aside his constitutional scruples about territorial acquisition by executive treaty. Agreeing with Henry Adams that Jefferson's position dealt "a fatal blow to 'strict construction,'" Tucker and Hendrickson argue that the episode was "a great turning point, which, once passed, resulted in changing the nature of the Union." Pro-Jefferson historians have justified this tergiversation by siding with Jefferson's fears that calling for a constitutional amendment might have risked the treaty, but Tucker and Hendrickson think a speedy amendment could easily have been obtained. Hence the authors ask rhetorically: "What does it say about Jefferson's devotion to constitutional principle when it appeared to pose even a modest risk to the imperious demands of reason of state?"
Jefferson comes off even worse in the authors' evaluation of his prosecution of the maritime crisis of 1805–1809. About this episode Tucker and Hendrickson are unyielding: "The defectiveness of Jefferson's foreign policy cannot be ascribed merely to exiguous circumstances. His political vision was central to his failure." The inherent problem of Jefferson was his tendency to convert every foreign policy question into a moral question to be answered by refracting it through the fundamental principles of the American regime. Jefferson's moralism, the authors conclude, "not only constituted the central aspect of his diplomatic outlook but is also identifiable as the primary corrupting factor within it."
Tucker and Hendrickson make a strong case about Jefferson's misjudgments of the circumstances as well. American moral and legal claims with regard to maritime rights were far from self-evident. Even Albert Gallatin estimated that half or more of all sailors on American merchant ships were English citizens; the English had a legitimate basis for their impressment practices. Jefferson's lack of realpolitik blinded him to legitimate English interests as a belligerent against France, and to the potential threat to America that France might have posed had it defeated England. Jefferson's uncompromising moral position prevented any chance of a realistic accommodation with England. Successively stringent embargo acts were both repressive and unconstitutional—a judgment Tucker and Hendrickson share with many other historians. Once again the authors take up Hamilton's banner, arguing that he was a better isolationist than Jefferson, on account of his earlier advocacy of domestic manufactures as an alternative to depending on European trade. In the end even Jefferson had to acknowledge the failure of the embargo policy. Intended to avoid humiliation and war, the embargo led eventually to both.
Tucker and Hendrickson do not break off their case with this mere revision. To make sure readers understand there is a contemporary lesson, the final section of the book examines the meaning of the Jeffersonian legacy in American statecraft. Jefferson's refusal to concede necessity, his belief that principle and interest can always be reconciled, has proved irresistibly attractive to American leaders ever since. The more spectacular the pronouncements, the more glaring the failure. Tucker has written elsewhere ("Reflections on America's Role," The National Interest, Fall 1986) that Woodrow Wilson failed for exactly the reasons described in Empire of Liberty. (One is tempted to add Jimmy Carter to such a list.) But Tucker, at least, does not demur on the crusading role of America. He approves of the Reagan Doctrine, for instance, which holds that we will aid prodemocratic insurgencies around the world. He just wishes our leaders were more prudent, more willing to use indirection and other subtle arts, in their prosecution of the great crusade. But subtlety and indirection are exactly the talents American statecraft has usually lacked, as was perhaps best captured by D.H. Lawrence's remark that the two great American talents are saving the world and fixing the plumbing.
Churchill wrote that "the distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one." Even as they show the ill consequences of excessive moralism in foreign policy, Tucker and Hendrickson understand that a nation dedicated to "a proposition" (Lincoln's words) about the "self-evident truths" of the natural rights of free men cannot escape a moral dilemma in the making of its foreign policy, and that a nation so dedicated must occasionally expend its blood and its treasure to remain faithful to its ideals. Tucker and Hendrickson do not, as they might, engage in any second-guessing about the idealism of the American Founding being incorporated into foreign policy. That would require another volume, and it would not be a history. Instead, mindful that "true politics and strategy are one," and seeing that a high idealism is central to our politics, Tucker and Hendrickson's final judgment is more charitable: "On the issue of the nation's proper role in the world, Jefferson's legacy remains ultimately ambiguous." Leaders who digest this lesson, however, will be more likely to conduct foreign policy with some prudence and finesse.
Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is director of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Project.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The First Innocent Abroad".