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An American Philosopher in the World of Nations

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

It was the ironic destiny of the man who repeatedly proclaimed, “peace is my passion,” to live through the most troublous period in American history, and twice to see his native State invaded, occupied, and raided by the enemy. From 1774 to the day of his death, there was hardly any time when, under his vine and his fig tree, he could enjoy that feeling of security so dear to the philosopher and when his country could give herself entirely to peaceful pursuits and feel free from the haunting fear of being drawn into “the whirlpool” of European wars. Never before, perhaps, had the friends of peace been more numerous at home and abroad, and never were their expectations and hopes more cruelly frustrated. As a philosopher, a friend of mankind, and a “citizen of the world,” to use the title of Senator Elbert D. Thomas’ recent book, Mr. Jefferson ever looked forward to a time when peace would reign among the torn and bleeding nations of Europe. As a citizen of a country whose future was still precarious, he advocated the only measures which seemed to him susceptible of assuring a modicum of security indispensable for the organization and stabilization of “self-government.” As an executive, a senior statesman, and a sort of national counsellor, he favored and developed armaments and, war once declared, had only one thought, to strike the enemy so hard and hurt them so painfully as to make them understand that war does not pay and is at best a terribly costly business.

Thus he stands as the exponent of the complex and apparently contradictory motives which, on the whole, have directed the policy of the United States in their dealings with foreign nations for a century and a half. In his theories and his conduct can be distinguished a combination of international idealism, world-wide economic aspirations, and intense isolationism which cannot be reduced to a single formula. We can at least attempt to disentangle some of the mixed considerations and conflicting motives which he strove to reconcile in order to steer the course of the ship, “with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern,” as he wrote to John Adams, never entirely free from fear and never completely giving up hope.


His isolationism, which cannot be denied, is easily explained by the historical precedents and the contemporary circumstances which confronted him. As a colonist and a student of the past, he could not forget that, previous to the Revolution, for almost a century and a half, the American colonies had been a pawn on the chessboard of European politics. The border warfare carried out between the French and the British on the American continent and even the larger struggles were only incidents in a game which was played between the courts of Europe. It was keenly felt and deeply resented that however tenacious and heroic might be the resistance to the “turbulent Gallicks” in the wilderness, the fate of the colonies would be decided without their being even consulted. The feeling grew with the development of American consciousness and by the time of the Revolution found its final and emphatic expression in the magic word “Independence.”

To a large extent, Independence meant not simply liberation from the British yoke, but also a release from the constant threat of entanglement in European politics. America could no longer be used as a “football,” said John Adams, and this feeling was fully shared by the committees of Congress as appeared in the plan of a treaty of alliance with France as well as in the final treaty.

These early manifestations of isolationism corresponded to a geographical and physical condition as well as to aspirations and fears more or less explicitly expressed. It did not take long for Congress and the American plenipotentiaries whose duty it was to negotiate with European powers to realize the anomalous position in which the United States was situated. One or two examples may suffice to illustrate the point. In July, 1778, Benjamin Franklin, then in Paris, complained bitterly that for nearly a year Congress had not acknowledged any of his communications, that he had received no instructions on the interpretation of two important articles in the treaty of alliance with France, and that he did not know what answer to give Vergennes. These difficulties increased to a tragic extent during the negotiations between the American and the British plenipotentiaries in Paris. While Vergennes could consult at will with the King’s council, while the British could go or send to London and clarify points at issue in a few days, the American ministers, cut off from their country by the double obstacle of time and space, could not but feel actually “isolated,” while yet entrusted with an almost unbearable and inescapable responsibility.

During Mr. Jefferson’s stay in Paris communications had not improved. Month after month, questions came up which he could not answer without consulting with his government when consultation was unavailable and impossible. How could America become an integral and working part of the complicated mechanism of international life when her foreign representatives moved in a sort of vacuum, were kept practically incommunicado, and were exceedingly doubtful about the final and decisive support they might eventually receive from Congress.

Despite all these difficulties, the United States had made an effort to organize a limited participation in international affairs. As early as 1776, Congress had thought of the future of commercial relations with Europe; later a plan had been drawn up with Jefferson participating in the redaction of the project; finally he had been appointed “one of the commissioners to prepare treaties of commerce to the principal nations of Europe.” The experience had been most disappointing and almost humiliating. Forty years later, in a letter written to John Quincy Adams, on March 30, 1826, Jefferson recalled the almost complete failure of the plan.

“We accordingly proposed our treaties containing these stipulations (privateering, blockades, freedom of the fisheries) to the principal governments of Europe. But we were just emerged from a subordinate condition; the nations had as yet known nothing of us, and had not yet reflected on the relations which it might be their interest to establish with us. Most of them, therefore, listened to our propositions with coyness and reserve; old Frederic alone closing with us without hesitation. . . . Had these governments been apprised of the station we should so soon occupy among nations, all, I believe, would have met us promptly and with frankness. These principles would then have been established with all, and from being the conventional law with us alone, would have slid into their engagements with one another, and become general. These are the facts within my recollection.”

No less futile had been Jefferson’s and Adams’ attempts to convince the European nations and particularly France to protect American commerce in the Mediterranean or to proceed in joint police operation against the Barbary pirates. Thus, while associating with a group of philosophers dreaming of universal peace and of a world republic, like abb Morellet, Condorcet, and Volney, Jefferson had been made aware of the strange situation of the new nation and had been brutally jerked back to the morasses of practical politics and selfish national policies. Geographically isolated, and in that sense unable to be accepted as a full partner by the powers of the Old World, America remained involved in world affairs. She still had a dangerous neighbor on the North; on the West and the South, as the result of impending European conflicts, the Spanish possessions might fall at any time into the hands of a powerful and unscrupulous nation. Unable yet to live upon her own and undeveloped resources, America could dispense with foreign importations, but if war broke out, no safety could be expected for her ships on the high seas, no trade could even be carried out with friendly nations, since the belligerents had consistently refused to recognize the rights of neutrals.

It is now too great an effort for our imagination to think of the United States of that time as a thinly populated, weak, and poor nation, with few raw materials, relying on imports for most of her manufactured goods, and even for ammunition, powder, printing type, and church bells. Without an adequate navy to protect commerce on the ocean, unable and unwilling to maintain a standing army or a regularly trained militia, the country could only hope that no direct foreign aggression would disrupt domestic life. In the meantime, any steps which would insure or preserve a modicum of peace had to be taken or accepted.

Thus the policy of non-entanglement, in which George Washington and Thomas Jefferson concurred, was developed as a direct result of conditions over which the United States had no control. It was in fact a policy of disentangle-ment, to be pursued with the utmost prudence, for if it was difficult and costly to keep out of Europe, it did not prove feasible to keep Europe entirely out of America. Right at home, Anglophiles and Gallophiles, Anglomaniacs and Gallomaniacs, deists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, and Pres-1 byterians, Federalists and Republicans, aided and abetted by foreign intriguers, fought at home the wars of Europe and made them domestic issues.

If the danger could not entirely be eliminated, perhaps it could gradually be lessened, and every possible occasion had to be seized to expel from the Western hemisphere countries still retaining their old colonies. In this respect, the Louisiana purchase was more advantageous as an insurance that no powerful European nation would ever appropriate it from Spain than as the acquisition of an enormous territory, Spain herself constituted no immediate threat, but the possession of the Floridas, and if possible of Cuba, was extremely desirable for the security of the United States. In the meantime, patience and forbearance had to be exercised, the duty of the executive being to preserve a judicial attitude and to prevent passionate outbursts of popular anger; but none who has read the private correspondence of Mr. Jefferson can accuse him of not having deeply resented the “kicks and cuffs” inflicted upon the nation by foreign powers. Among many expressions of his deep feelings and of his indignation as a man of peace to see all his efforts misinterpreted or scornfully ignored I shall only mention his letter written to Judge Cooper, on February 18,1806:

“The constitution permitting its citizens to follow agriculture, commerce, navigation, & every other lawful pursuit, all these rights are equally under the protection of the nation, whenever & wheresoever violated. The love of peace which we sincerely feel and profess, has begun to produce an opinion in Europe that our government is entirely in Quaker principles and will turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. This opinion must be corrected when just occasion arises, or we shall become the plunder of all nations. The moral duties make no part of the political system of those governments of Europe which are habitually belligerent.”

The unsatisfactory results of the embargo, the war of 1812 followed by an inconclusive peace, could only strengthen him in his conviction. They had abundantly proved that, for the time being, America was unable to cope with an invader and to protect her territory against destructive raids. Great Britain was as powerful and dangerous as ever, the volcanic state of Europe was, in Jefferson’s opinion, the only reassuring factor in the situation, and his only hope was that “we shall be permitted to proceed peaceably making children, and maturing and moulding our strength and resources.” But he would have been untrue to one of his dearest and most consistently held principles if he had estimated that these considerations should govern for much longer than a generation the course of America’s foreign policy. “For twenty years to come,” he wrote to his old friend Du Pont de Nemours, at the end of 1815, “we should consider peace as the summun bonum of our country. At the end of that period we shall be twenty millions in number, and forty in energy, when encountering the starved and rickety paupers and dwarfs of English workshops.” By that time, America would be in a position to make her voice heard and to give up that “patience and forbearance” which perforce she had to exercise; she would be ready to assume “that ascendency which nature destines for us by immutable laws.”

Isolation consequently could only be considered as a very ineffectual expedient and Jefferson himself was willing to confess the failure of the policy he had advocated for lack of a better one. His frank and complete admission of defeat will be found in a very long and curious letter written in 1815 to the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say. I say curious, because it was sent in answer to a question which Say had asked more than ten years before, in 1804:

“I had then persuaded myself that a nation, distant as we are from the contentions of Europe, avoiding all offences to their powers, and not over-hasty in resenting offence from them, doing justice to all, faithfully fulfilling the duties of neutrality, performing all offices of amity, and administering to their interests by the benefits of our commerce, that such a nation, I say, might expect to live in peace, and consider itself merely as a member of the great family of mankind; that in such case, it might devote itself to whatever it could best produce, secure of a peaceable exchange of surplus for what could be more advantageously furnished by others, as takes place between one county and another of Prance. But experience has shown that continued peace depends not merely on our own justice and prudence, but on that of others also; that when forced into war, the interception of exchanges which must be made across a wide ocean, becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of an enemy domineering over that element, and to the other distresses of the war adds the want of all those necessaries for which we have permitted ourselves to be dependent on others, even arms and clothing. . . .”

Even more passionately than at the time of the embargo, he yearned for an isolation which he knew to be impossible, for a Chinese wall of fire which would separate the old from the new world. Against the enemies of peace, he felt and expressed the wrath of the patriarch, powerless to defend his family, of the builder whose efforts are destroyed by bandits and “Bedlamites,” of the farmer whose crops are burnt and fields are laid bare, of the philosopher, who once had believed that men could be made to listen to the voice of reason and suddenly discovers that most of them are only blind and ferocious animals. On June 1, 1822, once again, Jefferson took in his confidence his “ancient friend,” his old fellow worker who, without ever sharing his early enthusiasm, was now sharing his disappointment, and he wrote to John Adams: “The cannibals of Europe are going to eating one another again. The pugnacious humour of mankind seems to be the law of nature, one of the great obstacles to too great multiplication provided in the mechanics of the universe. The cocks in the henyard kill one another up. Bears, bulls, rams, do the same. And the horse, in his wild state, kills all the young males, until worn down with age and war, some vigorous youth kills him, and takes to himself his harem of females.” But, even then, when he had almost completely lost his faith in mankind, he did not give up his American creed, and his conclusion, harsh as it is, still reflects his undying faith: “I hope we shall prove, how much happier for man the Quaker policy is, and that the life of the feeder is better than that of the fighter; and that it is some consolation that the desolation by these maniacs of one part of the earth is the means of improving it in other parts. Let the latter be our office, and let us milk the cow, while the Russians hold her by the horns and the Turks by the tail.”

If we stopped here in this analysis of Mr. Jefferson’s philosophy of international relations, we would do him gross injustice. Neither isolation nor war has any moral foundation except the law of self-preservation. They are desperate expedients, the first to be used as a preventive, as in an epidemic, the second as one of these heroic remedies which kill as often as they cure. But neither war nor isolation corresponds in any measure to normal conditions. They are obviously destructive or at best negative expressions of a policy designed to face a definite and anomalous emergency. Even in his most vehement and indignant outbursts, Mr. Jefferson felt and expressed the regret that circumstances forced upon him and his country policies diametrically opposed to the most cherished principles and ideals of his political philosophy. In fact, seldom if ever did he stand as the exponent of an absolute and permanent policy of isolation and at no time did he propose that America should cease to be part of “the great family of mankind.” On the other hand, his fundamental idealism or humanism was at all times tempered with a keen perception of the realities, which distinguished him from “the closet philosophers” and the advocates of the highly generous and completely impractical peace projects which he was asked to endorse.


“The great family of mankind,” this formula of Mr. Jefferson which we have already quoted, probably was but a reminiscence of Volney’s eloquent exhortation at the end of “The Ruins, or the Revolutions of Empires,” published in 1791, and at once translated into English: “Oh nations 1 Let us banish tyranny and discord; let us form one single society, one great family; and since mankind everywhere has the same physical constitution, let it come that they will recognize only one law, the law of nature; one code, the code of reason; one throne, the throne of justice; one altar, the altar of union.” Whether or not Jefferson believed in the early coming of the kingdom of justice and the brotherhood of man, there is little doubt that, at that date, he shared, at least in part, the philosophical enthusiasm of his French friends. He also certainly remembered that, when Volney drew his dramatic picture of L’Assembee des peuples, the French writer had taken some of his material from a “View of a general council of all nations assembled to establish the political harmony of mankind,” which serves as a conclusion to Book IX of Joel Barlow’s “Vision of Columbus,” first printed in 1787, and reprinted in Paris in 1793. All through his correspondence are seen many clear reflections of this early picture of a republic of mankind.

In common with Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and many of his contemporaries he held the simple and firm belief, strongly reiterated a century later by Woodrow Wilson, that the code of morality which regulates or ought to regulate the lives of individuals in any society, should also serve as the foundation for the code of international morality, or, in the language of the time, that the law of nations is the law of nature. He may have remembered that Montesquieu, after many other writers, had formulated this creed in a passage of the “Lettres Persanes” often quoted in America as well as in France: “As the. law of Nature and Nations is commonly doctored, one would imagine there were two sorts of justice; one to regulate the affairs of private persons; the other, to compose the differences that arise between people and people; as if the Law of Nations were not itself a civil law, not indeed of a particular country, but of the world. The magistrate ought to do justice between citizen and citizen; every nation ought to do the same between themselves and another nation. This second distribution of justice requires no maxims but what are used in the first.” However fascinating these philosophical and moral speculations were to Mr. Jefferson, he could not forget that, as a practical statesman, and as an official entrusted with heavy responsibilities, he had to live in a very different world, and that, in practice, there was an abyss between the two codes. This appears in a striking manner in a letter which he wrote at the end of 1801 to a Pennsylvania lawyer and a fellow member of the American Philosophical Society, by the name of William Barton. He willingly gave Barton permission to place under his sponsorship his “Dissertation on the Freedom of Navigation and Commerce, and such Rights of States, relative thereto, as are founded On The Law Of Nations: adapted more particularly to the United States; and interspersed with Moral and Political Reflections and historical facts.” He politely agreed that it was a most praiseworthy undertaking; but in one short sentence he pointed out the capital deficiency of the project: while it was very desirable to clarify and codify international law, one should remember that society had the power to enforce the decision of the judge, and no such power existed among the nations of the world: “The want of a physical test whereby to try principles and the passions and interests and power of the nations who are called to their bar, render that rectification very difficult.” The book from which the above title is copied bears an inscription which few of us can read today without a feeling of melancholy somewhat akin to what Mr. Jefferson himself must have felt at the time: “This book has been loaned to the Government of the United States for use at the Peace Conference, Paris-Versailles, 1918-1919.” We may well regret that Mr. Jefferson’s letter was not attached to that particular copy, for the use of President Wilson and his advisers. Jefferson knew only too well and often repeated that if a code of international morality had ever existed in Europe it had been completely disregarded after the Treaty of Pillnitz and the partition of Poland, which he considered as the original sin, and that for the lack of a proper “physical test,” international law had become an empty word as well for Great Britain as for Napoleon.

No less keen and realistic were his criticisms of the projects of Federation that came to his knowledge. The most complete as well as the most constructive of these discussions was written almost at the end of his life, in answer to an inquiry from his friend, A. Coray, who was contemplating a plan of federation for the Greek people. After agreeing with Coray that the States of the American Union had adopted different constitutions and administered them independently, Mr. Jefferson remarked that the Union had been established and could survive only because “there are certain principles in which all agree, and which all cherish as vitally essential to the protection of the life, liberty, property, and safety of the citizen.” The list established in 1823 by Mr. Jefferson warrants careful consideration particularly at the present time and might well be borne in mind when plans are made for a reorganization of Europe after the present war. In the letter five principles or “freedoms,” already discussed in the inaugural address of 1801, were reasserted and redefined. They were:

“1. Freedom of religion, restricted only from acts of trespass on that of others.

2.  Freedom of person, securing every one from imprisonment, or other bodily restraint, but by the laws of the land. This is effected by the well-known law of habeas corpus.

3.  Trial by jury, the best of all safeguards for the person, the property, and the fame of every individual.

4.  The exclusive right of legislation and taxation in the representatives of the people.

5.  Freedom of the press, subject only to liability for personal injuries. This formidable censor of the public functionaries, by arraigning them at the tribunal of public opinion, produces reform peaceably, which must otherwise be done by revolution. It is also the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral, and social being.”

In other words, in the eyes of Jefferson, the problem was not so much “to make the world safe for democracy” as to install and establish democracy, or rather self-government upon foundations so strong that the world would be safe both for the citizens and the nations.

On this point again he did agree with the remarks of Montesquieu which he had copied in full in his “Commonplace Book.” For it was Montesquieu who, in praising the federative system had declared: “This form of government is a convention, by which several small states agree to become members of a large one which they intend to form. It is a kind of assemblage of societies, that constitute a new one, capable of increasing by means of new associations, till they arrive to such a degree of power, as to be able to provide for the security of the united body.” But Montesquieu had also warned his readers that: “The spirit of monarchy is war and enlargement of dominion; peace and moderation is the spirit of a republic. These two kinds of government cannot subsist in a confederate republic.”

There, lies the fundamental reason for the opposition of Mr. Jefferson to foreign entanglements. No real co-operation, and certainly no alliance, could be thought of with nations whose form of government radically differed from the basic principles upon which rested the Federal and State Constitutions. In the words inscribed by Vattel at the beginning of a treatise which Mr. Jefferson knew so well and quoted so often, A pud liber os tutior, international law and international morality can prevail only between free nations. This was the main reason constantly advanced by Mr. Jefferson, in his official utterances as well as in his private correspondence, for the refusal of the United States to enter into any permanent combination with any European power. Among many other declarations, we may cite here his short and emphatic answer written to Madame de Stael, in 1816: “Distance, and difference of pursuits, of interests, of connections and other circumstances prescribe to us a different system, having no object in common with Europe, but a peaceful interchange of mutual comforts for mutual wants.” On this point he had never varied, and those were the very words he had used in his inaugural address.


Because of his presence in Europe at the beginning of the French Revolution and because of the correspondence he regularly kept up with many foreign friends, Jefferson was perhaps more fully aware than any of his contemporaries of the tremendous impact of his country upon the march of the world, and of the duties to the world resulting from that privileged situation. Writing to Richard Rush, in October, 1820, he summed up his experience and his conclusions, without boasting and without false humility, in a few lines which ought to be inscribed in the memory of every American and used as “the text of public instruction.” “We exist, are quoted, as standing proofs that a government, so modelled as to rest continually on the will of the whole society, is a practicable government. Were we to break to pieces, it would dampen the hopes and the efforts of the good, and give triumph to those of the bad through the whole enslaved world. As members, therefore, of the universal society of mankind, and standing in high and responsible relation with them, it is our sacred duty to suppress passion among ourselves, and not to blast the confidence we have inspired of proof that a government of reason is better than a government of force.”

Mr. Jefferson was a prophet and a forerunner of the League of Nations. Many of his prophecies have come true; we may confidently trust that the one to be mentioned here, in the way of a conclusion, will also be fulfilled.

The new invasion of barbarians which he dreaded for the civilized countries of Europe came later than he predicted, in his answer to John Adams’s query: “Watchman, what of the night?” But he knew in his heart that should it come, America could not stand aloof and indifferent. Were he still living and among us, the Sage of Monticello could address to all those now fighting for the cause of freedom, the message of hope, faith, and courage, written for his old friend a hundred and twenty-two years ago.

“Yet, I will not believe our labours are lost. I shall not die without a hope that light and liberty are on a steady advance. We have seen, indeed, once within the records of history, a complete eclipse of the human mind continuing for centuries. And, this, too, by swarms of the same northern barbarians conquering and taking possession of the countries and governments of the civilized world. Should this again be attempted, should the same northern hordes, allured again by the corn, wine and oil of the south, be able again to settle their swarms in the countries of their growth, the art of printing alone, and the vast dissemination of books, will maintain the mind where it is, and raise the conquering ruffians to the level of the conquered, instead of degrading these to that of their conquerors. And even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them. In short, the flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them.”


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