Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Chapter 6: Thomas Jefferson and the Utopian Temptation

Chapter 6: Thomas Jefferson and the Utopian Temptation

The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy:

How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest


McDougall Book Jacket

The original draft of this book contained 172 pages of endnotes, which had to be shed in the name of economy. Thanks to the Internet, readers can access them here. Unfortunately, of course, the author had to substitute page and paragraph numbers for the original superscripts in the text, but in most cases it should be clear which sentences in a given paragraph match up with which sources.

Paragraphs appearing in their entirety on a single page are identified by the page number (e.g., p. 122). Paragraphs divided between two pages are identified by those pages (e.g., pp. 92-93). Paragraphs that share a page with another complete paragraph are identified by the page number and paragraph number (e.g., p. 103, ¶ 1).





Previous: Chapter 5   Next: Chapter 7


Chapter 6: Thomas Jefferson and the Utopian Temptation:

53-54: The dean of scholars in this field is Eliga H. Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2012). See also Gould and Peter S. Onuf, eds., Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2005), in which the essay by Don Higginbotham, “War and State Formation in Revolutionary America,” describes how much the federal government’s institution-building paralleled European powers. Adams Inaugural Address (March 4, 1797):  Robert W. Smith, Keeping the Republic: Ideology and Early American Diplomacy (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University, 2004), p. 91.  For a concise yet comprehensive interpretation of John Adams’ presidency see Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History 1585-1828 (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 361-70.

54: Jefferson Inaugural Address (March 4, 1801):

54-55: Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Oxford University, 1990), especially pp. 221-56; quotes pp. 18, 256. On the disconnect between Jefferson’s rhetoric and actual statecraft, see James F. Sofka, “The Jeffersonian Idea of National Security: Commerce, the Atlantic Balance of Power, and the Barbary War, 1786-1805,” Diplomatic History 21, no. 4 (Fall 1997): 519-44.

p.55: Quotes from Andrew A. Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 20 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903-04), including Letter to Edward Carrington (1787), 6: 396; Letter to C.W.F. Dumas (1793), 9: 56; Letter to Elbridge Gerry (1797), 9: 384; Letter to Thomas Lomax (1799), 10: 124; Letter to William Short (1801), 10: 285; Letter to Philip Mazzei (1804), 11: 38; Letter to John Crawford (1812), 13: 119; Letter to James Monroe (1823), 15: 436.

55-56: David C. Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2003); quotes pp. 169, 174. Political scientists have long debated the relevance of “democratic peace theory as a basis for the U.S. Constitution and foreign policy. Thus, the seminal article by Michael W. Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” American Political Science Review 80, no. 4 (Dec. 1986): 1151-69, contrasted Joseph Schumpeter’s hypothesis that liberal states tend toward pacifism because war is simply bad for business, with Machiavelli’s argument that republics tend toward imperialism out of ideology and ambition, and Immanuel Kant’s hypothesis that republics tend toward peace with each other but antagonism toward authoritarian regimes.  There is no shortage of evidence for all three theories in American history.  But the rich theoretical discourse among political scientists can leave the false impression that the American Founders were directly influenced by Kant’s 1795 essay Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf (On Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch).  First, Kant imagined a whole system of republics, hence was not relevant to the American case of “Republicanism in One Country.”  Second, Hamilton argued at length in The Federalist that republics are just as prone to make war as monarchies.  Third, the “richness and density of the founders’ consideration of these problems form a striking contrast with Kant’s total neglect of them, and one suspects that Perpetual Peace would have fallen coldly from the founders’ hands had they read it. (There is no evidence any of them did)”: Hendickson, Peace Pact, p. 270.

56: Lawrence A. Peskin, “The Lessons of Independence: How the Algerian Crisis Shaped Early American Identity,” Diplomatic History 28, no. 3 (June 2004): 297-319; Joseph Wheelan, Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805 (Carroll & Graf, 2003), quote, p 1 . American historians rarely appreciate the complexity of the Mediterranean international relations, preferring to style the Barbary Wars as a heroic fight for pride and principle or, as is often the case today, the first U.S. war against terrorism in the Muslim world. The reality was that Britain and France, especially after the outbreak of war in 1792, competed intensely for the favor of the various deys and beys from Algiers to Egypt, and their titular suzerain the Ottoman Sultan.

56-57: Letter to Jean Nicolas Demeunier (June 26, 1786): Thomas Jefferson, Public and Private Papers (New York: Vintage/The Library of America , 1990), pp. 265-66. Demeunier had asked why Virginia’s slave code contained no provision for emancipation. Jefferson’s split-minded reply drowns hypocrisy in verbiage.  “Of the two commissioners who had concerted the amendatory clause for the gradual emancipation of slaves Mr. Wythe could not be present as being a member of the judiciary department, and Mr. Jefferson was absent on the legation to France. But there wanted not in that assembly men of virtue enough to propose, & talents to vindicate this clause. But they saw that the moment of doing it with success was not yet arrived, and that an unsuccessful effort, as too often happens, would only rivet still closer the chains of bondage, and retard the moment of delivery to this oppressed description of men. What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, & death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him thro’ his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose. But we must await with patience the workings of an overruling providence, & hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these, our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light & liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not left to the guidance of a blind fatality.”

56-57 cont.: Jefferson imposed a boycott on trade with Haiti in 1806 and not until 1862 did the United States recognize the black republic. See Michael Zuckerman, “The Power of Blackness: Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution in Saint-Domingue,” in Almost Chosen People: Oblique Biographies in the American Grain (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), and the recent studies by Gordon S. Brown, Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005); Arthur Scherr, Thomas Jefferson’s Haitian Policy: Myths and Realities (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011); and Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint L”Ouverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” William & Mary Quarterly LXVI, no. 1 (Jan. 2009): 87-124.

57: Letter to Robert Livingston (Apr. 18, 1802) in Robert Leicester Ford, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99), 9: 363-68. Peter J. Kaiser, The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University, 2004) argues that the events from 1803 through Louisiana statehood in 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 formed the crucible in which the character of the antebellum republic was forged.

57-58: For a concise yet comprehensive interpretation of Jefferson’s presidency see McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, pp. 386-402.

58: J. C. A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1983).; Kenneth Shorey and Russell Kirk, eds., The Collected Letters of John Randolph of Roanoke, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1988), pp. xvi-xvii; David Mayers, Dissenting Voices in America’s Rise to Power (Cambridge, 2007), pp 31-55 (quote, p. 47). For an important political science analysis of decision-making in the era of the federal republic see Scott A. Silverstone, Divided Union: The Politics of War in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, 2004).

58-59: Letter to William Duane (Aug. 4, 1812), in J. Jefferson Looney, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, 8 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University, 2008), 5: 293-4.


Previous: Chapter 5   Next: Chapter 7