EMPEROR OF LIBERTY: THOMAS JEFFERSON’S FOREIGN POLICY by Francis D. Cogliano

As a retired educator I enjoyed having students debate whether Thomas Jefferson was a realist or an idealist when discussing his foreign policy.  Many believed he was an ideologue who rarely strayed from his principles that usually pitted him against Alexander Hamilton.  In EMPEROR OF LIBERTY, Francis D. Cogliano revisits this debate and concludes that Jefferson consistently implemented a pragmatic approach to foreign affairs no matter the situation.  The book is a concise recapitulation of Jefferson’s diplomatic decision making tracing his raison d’être from his service as Governor of Virginia during the American Revolution, American Minister to France following the revolution, Secretary of State during George Washington’s first administration, and as President of the United States.  The issues he faced included a number of bouts with the Barbary pirates, Algiers, Tripoli, and Morocco; a series of issues with the British, including impressment and commercial interests among many; policy toward the French Revolution; the purchase of Louisiana; and finally his effort to remain neutral during the Napoleonic War.  In all cases Cogliano employs precise language and command of the relevant secondary and primary source material.  But as a historian I must ask, is there anything that has not been written before?

In each instance Cogliano presents the views of those historians who argue that Jefferson’s actions must be explained from the ideological perspective.  For the author Jefferson’s motivations are clear from the time he was Governor of Virginia that his vision for the United States was an empire of liberty that would be brought about primarily through peaceful expansion.  Jefferson favored an agrarian republic that rested on the ability of Americans to trade freely in the world.  For Jefferson, a threat to commerce was a threat to the republic.  He was not totally against the use of force as many maintain.  Once he perceived that American commercial interests were threatened he would employ the navy as he did against the Barbary pirates to achieve his goals.  He could also use the “veiled fist” as he did with Spain before the United States acquired the Louisiana territory.  That acquisition which married commerce to an avenue to the Atlantic Ocean was Jefferson’s greatest triumph.  Jefferson had always favored westward expansion as a vehicle of spreading republican principles going back to when he was Governor of Virginia when he dispatched George Rogers Clark to explore the territory.  Jefferson’s vision for the American empire was quite simple.  If the republic was to succeed it would have to expand to absorb its growing population.  For liberty to survive the republic would need to be a nation of small farmers.  In order for the United States to flourish they would have to export their produce requiring unfettered access to international markets.  “The United States would be an empire of liberty because liberty could not thrive without expansion.  If liberty were extinguished in the United States, the republican experiment would fail.  In Jefferson’s mind the growth of the ‘empire of liberty’ and the success of the American republic were one and the same thing.  As president, Jefferson sought to realize this vision of an expansionist American republic.” (5)

(map circa 1800, Barbary States)

Throughout his diplomatic career Jefferson made careful note of strategies that were effective and mirrored his beliefs.  As governor of Virginia he felt that the state’s decentralized constitutional arrangement hampered his ability to deal with the constant threat of British encroachment.  From this experience he realized a strong executive was needed to conduct an effective foreign policy even if it meant exceeding constitutional limits as long as he received legislative approval after the policy was implemented.  Employing the case study approach Cogliano does not present a comprehensive study of Jeffersonian foreign policy, but he chooses the most salient examples.  Jefferson had to deal with the issue of the seizure of American ships and imprisoning American sailors on a number of occasions during his career.  Whether it was as Secretary of State or President, Jefferson believed that the Barbary corsairs threatened American trade, therefore liberty.  Jefferson was fully aware that the United States projected weakness to foreign powers, which is why the Barbary States targeted American shipping.  Until a navy could be developed Jefferson employed diplomatic threats, support for overthrown leaders, and the creation of alliances to achieve his goals.  In 1791 the US would wind up paying tribute, but by 1802, the American navy taught Tripoli a lesson.  For Jefferson, diplomacy was the first resort, but force at times was proven necessary.  Jefferson’s greatest diplomatic accomplishment was the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon.  Some argue this came about due to the defeat of the French in Saint Domingue and her inability to protect Louisiana as the Peace of Amiens in Europe broke down.  Whatever the case the purchase was made by exceeding his constitutional powers and Jefferson obtained the western territory, control of the Mississippi, and New Orleans at the same time.  Following precedent, Jefferson obtained Congressional approval after the fact.  I agree with Cogliano’s premise that Jefferson was a pragmatist when it came to foreign relations as all his examples seem to reflect.

In dealing with England Jefferson was at a disadvantage since commercial interests were his prime concern and his position was weak. Cogliano lays out the different scenarios that Jefferson could employ; war, embargo, or be patient and hope things would calm down.  A great deal of attention is focused on the issue of impressment and British Orders in Council that hindered American commercial interests.  After the Chesapeake-Leopard affair it appeared that the United States would declare war against England, but fearing the repercussions of war Jefferson chose an embargo. In Jefferson’s eyes the embargo was the best option that he had.   According to Cogliano the policy was not defective; it was its implementation as Jefferson did not rally the American people to support the embargo, resulting in smuggling and other strategies to undermine its effectiveness.  The policy was an economic disaster for the US and was the greatest failure of Jefferson’s presidency.

Overall, the book has a great deal of interesting sidelights, i.e., the fact that the British were so desperate in its war against Napoleonic France it bombed Copenhagen when the Danes refused to turn over its navy to them. Also, Cogliano begins the book with a discussion of autocracy and Jefferson’s positive views of the new Russian Tsar, Alexander, a discussion I found interesting and somewhat surprising.  If you are looking for a readable study of Jeffersonian foreign policy then Cogliano’s work fits the bill, however, if you are well versed in the subject the narrative will qualify as an excellent review of information and events.

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