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Architect of the All-American System

ISSUE:  Spring 1943

While every American rejoices over the solidarity of the Republics of North, South, and Central America in the face of the common

enemy of mankind, few realize that this is a consummation that fits in with Thomas Jefferson’s concept of the “American System.” Everyone knows that he was the brilliant penman of the American Revolution; that in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence he laid the cornerstone of American Democracy; that during the first twelve years under the Constitution he led and won the fight that definitely determined that ours should be a democratic Republic. But few know that in his “Summary View,” in many respects more important than the Declaration, he set forth the justification for the revolutionary movement for independence that swept over the continent to the South and broke the connection with the Spanish Empire.

When we were fighting, first, the verbal, and then the military battle for our own rights and independence, little if any thought was given by the average American of the time to the continent to the South. It seemed hopelessly remote. There was scarcely any exchange of visits. The difficulties of travel were infinitely greater than to Europe. The nature of the population was little understood. The Spanish colonies entered scarcely at all into the correspondence of our revolutionary leaders. News from South America was seldom seen in the North American newspapers of the time. During the eighteenth century the Boston News Letter, an important paper of the period, boasted that a little while before news from outside the British Empire had been printed thirteen months after the event, but that such was the paper’s enterprise that it was then only nine months late. Political connections with the Southern Continent we did not have at all. All the colonies, but one, were under Spanish domination; one was under Portuguese rule. And we were dealing or trying to deal commercially with both Spain and Portugal. No one thought at the time Jefferson and his associates were striving for independence from Britain that there was the slightest thought in South America of breaking away from Spain. But we shall find that, even then, Jefferson, with that breadth and penetration of vision that made him the greatest American statesman of his time, was giving thought to South America and its future relations with the United States.

In his “Summary View,” which was so iconoclastic that his colleagues in the Virginia legislature were afraid to use it as instructions to the Old Dominion’s representatives in the Continental Congress, he had laid down a general principle of justification to any colony that might see fit to assert its right to self rule and self-determination. Harking back to the Saxon settlement of England, when the settlers divorced themselves from the past and from the region of their origin to set up an entirely new system, he laid it down that colonies had a natural right to create their own system of organized society and to direct their own destiny. He declared that there was “no foundation in compact, in any acknowledged principle of colonization, nor in reason” for the assumption that a colony should remain indefinitely under the autocratic domination of the mother country, since “expatriation is a natural right, and acted upon by all nations.” He insisted that colonists “possessed the right which nature had given to all men of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, had placed them, and of going in quest of new habitations, and of establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.”

True, Jefferson was thinking primarily, at the time, of North America but the principle was applicable to colonies in South America as well. Here he justified any movement for independence that might be launched in South America without having it in mind at all.

It is universally conceded that the American Revolution, of which Jefferson more than any other man was the philosopher and penman, made a profound impression on the Spanish colonists and aroused in them the aspiration for independence. The seed was to require a little time to grow a harvest.

The earliest direct contact of Jefferson with the revolutionary movement in South America came during the period when he was Minister in Paris. He was approached by a Brazilian and a Mexican with the announcement of a determination in those countries to break their connection with the mother realms. One day a Mexican, not unknown to him by reputation, appeared in his study in his mansion in Paris to announce that the Mexicans were weary of Spanish domination and planned to strike a blow for independence. Jefferson knew that his visitor had rather intimate personal relations with the Spanish Ambassador to France, and had actually been employed by Spain in the negotiations of the settlement of a boundary dispute between Spain and France. He was too interested to show it. Rather he simulated indifference. He knew little of the capacity of the Mexicans for self-government, and that was something he would want to look into. But he had a suspicion that he was being pumped at the instigation of the Spanish Ambassador. He wrote at once, however, to John Jay, then Secretary of State under the Confederation, for this was before the adoption of the Constitution. “He had very much the air of candor,” he wrote of his visitor, “but that can be borrowed; so I was not able to decide about him in my own mind.” He went no further than to admit that he had sympathy with any people yearning for self-government and the right to determine their own destiny.

About the same time he received a mysterious letter from an utter stranger soliciting an interview on a matter of prime importance to the United States. There was nothing to indicate the nature of the conversation to be expected. Since the writer was in the interior of France, and not in Paris, Jefferson proposed to meet him at Nimes on the journey he was about to take into southern France. He met the stranger in a tavern in the old French city. The visitor introduced himself as of Portuguese birth, but living in Rio de Janeiro, then a city of no more than thirty thousand people. He told the American Minister that the people of Brazil were discontented under Portuguese rule and were preparing to strike a blow for freedom. They wished a connection with the United States and its assistance. His request was by no means modest. All he thought required was “cannon, ammunition, ships, sailors, soldiers, and officers from the United States.” In return for this, an independent Brazil would discontinue buying certain products from Portugal or using Portuguese ships for its foreign trade, and buy from the United States instead and use American shipping facilities.

Now Jefferson was strongly of the opinion that people wishing their independence should depend largely on themselves ; and that for the United States to send an army would have been tantamount to a declaration of war against Portugal, and might awaken in the North Americans a taste for conquest which he abhorred. And then he knew nothing of his visitor’s antecedents or connections. He therefore made it crystal clear that he had no instructions or authority to discuss such matters, and, least of all, to express any opinion in behalf of his Government. He could do no more than give his visitor the individual opinion of a single person, and that was that the infant nation was in no position to engage in a foreign or any war, and that it enjoyed an advantageous trade with Portugal. However, he added, coyly, he had to admit that “a successful revolution in Brazil would not be uninteresting to us.” So he reported to Jay. In fact Jefferson had just concluded the negotiation of a commercial treaty with Portugal.

Some years were to intervene before South American affairs again were called to his attention. He was then engaged in leading the Homeric battle in the United States that was definitively to determine that the young Republic should be dedicated to democracy. The Federalists and the Jeffersonians did not see alike on the war between France and England. The Federalists were pro-English, and would have aligned the young Republic with the recent enemy and against the recent ally; the Jeffersonians were opposed to ratting on their friends. And, besides, they were in sympathy with the principles of the French Revolution.

It was at this time that Francisco Miranda, the Venezuelan, then in London, was working along with Rufus King, acting for Alexander Hamilton, in an effort to create an army of the English and North Americans for a war in South America. Miranda was thinking of using this army in a war for South American independence. The American Federalists saw in the plan the consummation of their own devout wish to align the United States in open war against France and with England. The scheme was simple enough. We were having a quarrel with Spain; and Spain was thought to be about to join the French against England; and thus under the pretext of fighting Spain we would be fighting France and her revolutionary ideals, and for our recent enemy.

Jefferson opposed this plan, partly because of the real motivation of the Federalists, and partly because he saw in it the genesis of an imperialistic passion for conquest; for he did not believe that with the triumph of our arms we would be content with the independence of the Spanish colonies, but would want a slice of territory for ourselves. The plan failed.

But Miranda, like a jack in the box, was always bobbing up at intervals, and Jefferson had more contacts with this South American soldier of fortune. He was President when the picturesque and persistent adventurer arrived in Washington and began picking his way around the mud puddles for cosy conferences with public men. He was still bent on a war of independence backed by North American money and munitions. Because he was an interesting foreigner of some notoriety, Jefferson invited him to dinner, and Madison, the Secretary of State, had him for lunch. It was the custom to give social notice to the infrequent foreigners who braved the malaria of the Washington swamps. And Jefferson was eager to learn if possible the attitude of England. No encouragement was given Miranda, but, on the contrary, Madison made it plain that the United States would engage in no foreign war under any pretext, and that the law prohibited the enlistment of American soldiers or the sale of American guns and ammunition for foreign adventures. Miranda smiled, and understood.

But Miranda’s smile had not worn off when he reached New York, and when those who knew he had seen Jefferson asked if encouragement had been given, Miranda just smiled. It was as good as an affirmative answer. And so it came to pass that an American boat was found, American guns were bought, American soldiers were recruited, and American officials connived in the sailing of the ship. When notice reached the White House, Jefferson ordered the arrest of the recreant officials, and in the tempest in a teapot resulting he was accused of making victims of the subordinates to save his own face. Of course it was a lie.

Now Jefferson naturally sympathized with the South American aspiration for independence. But he felt that independence could not be long maintained unless the Spanish colonies themselves were strong enough to win it. He wanted no North American army lording it over a region he hoped in time to be composed of independent nations, united with his own in the creating of an American system. This was to be the antithesis of the European system. Here was the New World, in the early process of development, uncompromised by ancient prejudices or interests, indifferent to precedent, and with old loyalties renounced; here, in this virgin hemisphere, an opportunity to write a new chapter in the history of the onward march of the race. And he was opposed to compromising that opportunity by meddling with arms in the affairs of South America.

But, unlike most of the Americans of his time, he was not oblivious to it. As early as 1787 he was interesting himself in the possibilities of a Panama Canal that would form a closer link between his country and the colonies of South America bordering on the Pacific. He had heard that at one time Spain had toyed with the idea of cutting through the Isthmus, and that plans had been drawn. Writing from Paris to Carmichael, the American representative in Madrid, he said that he had heard that Spain had “once proceeded so far as to have a survey and examination made of the ground.” He had heard that the result was either “impracticability or too great difficulty.” But Jefferson was not so sure. Would Carmichael see Count de Campomanes for information on this head? Jefferson would like as “minute details as possible,” and if the actual survey reports could be had “at a very moderate expense,” he would like to have them.

Some months later, he had heard some more, and again he sat at his desk writing eagerly to Carmichael. “With respect to the Isthmus of Panama,” he wrote, “I am assured by Burgoyne . . . that a survey was made, that a canal appeared very practical, and the idea was suppressed for political reasons altogether.” It seemed that Burgoyne had seen and minutely examined the report.

Thus Jefferson was thinking of America as a hemisphere and not just one continent, two years before the inauguration of Washington; thinking of it as a laboratory for the testing of new ideas in the creation of a new society dedicated to liberty, personal and intellectual, to the assertion of human rights, and the extension of broader opportunities for the human race. He was thinking not merely of an American system, but of an Ail-American system.


The news that South America was in revolt reached him in the second year of his retirement from the Presidency at Monticello, and it affected him as a bugle call affects an old war horse. His dream of a New World dedicated to liberty and the rights of men he knew to be beyond hope of realization so long as an entire continent was under the domination of a nation that could not divorce itself from the sixteenth century. But he cherished the hope, born of his understanding of the spirit of the men who had conquered the primeval wilderness, that the colonists of Spain would some day assert their independence. And now the hour had struck! He bubbled with the enthusiasm of his youth. “The Spanish-American countries are beginning to be interesting to the whole world,” he wrote his friend Baron Humboldt. “They are becoming the scenes of political revolution to take their stations as integral members of the great family of nations.” To Kosciuszko, whose sword had been drawn in our own war of independence, he wrote that “South America is all in revolt; the insurgents are triumphant in many of the states and will be so in all.” And to Monroe, who shared his innermost thoughts, he wrote: “Behold another example of man rising in his might and bursting the chains of his oppressor, and in the same hemisphere.” In the words “in the same hemisphere” he exposed the secret of his delight, since this opened the way to the realization of his dream of a New World dedicated to new ideals.

As the colonial armies of the southern continent faced and fought the armies of Spain, he followed the swaying fortunes of the fight with undiminishing delight. Five years later he wrote Monroe that “every kindness which can be shown the South Americans within the limits of the law of nations, I would extend to them without fear of Spain or her Swiss auxiliaries,’ because their revolution “is an assertion of our own independence.”

There can be no question that in his mind was the thought that ultimately, because of proximity and common ideals of freedom, the American nations would realize his dream of hemispheric solidarity and defense that has now come. He was interested in their fight for freedom and independence, but that was not all. He wanted the new Republics to grow in strength and prestige and he envisaged them as powerful allies of the United States in the defense of the new experiment in government and in society. “It is not for the interest of South America that our Republic should be blotted from the map,” he wrote Monroe in 1824.

Thus through the struggle on the southern continent, Jefferson followed the triumphs of the South Americans with sympathy and enthusiasm.


The last and in some respects the most important phase of our relations with South America did not appear until Jefferson was in his eightieth year, old and tottering with infirmity, and tortured with debt. Reactionary diplomacy was in possession of the chanceries of Europe. Imperialistic ambitions never had been more open and brazen. Powerful nations were casting covetous eyes upon the riches of South America. And the Republics there, still in their infancy, were not equipped to repel possible wars of conquest. Jefferson had discussed this situation often with Monroe on the lawn and in the study at Monticello. And one day Jefferson received from his favorite disciple a plan of prevention which was to be written into history as the Monroe Doctrine. His criticism and advice were solicited. And the old man, trembling with age, sat down to the writing of one of the most historic letters he ever penned.

“America, North and South, has a set of interests separate and distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own,” he wrote. “She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicile of despotism, our endeavors should surely be to make our hemisphere that of freedom.”

If this were a challenge to the Old World, Jefferson could find but one Power that might well be feared, and that was England. But Monroe had informed him of the attitude of Canning, and Jefferson wrote, England “now offers to lead, aid, and accompany us” in the enterprise. If in the past Jefferson had crossed swords with Britain, he was not bound by past prejudices and enmities. And so he advised Monroe: “By acceding to her proposition, we detach her from the bands, bring her mighty weight into the scale of free government, and emancipate a continent at one stroke which might otherwise linger long in doubt and difficulty. Great Britain is the nation which can do us the most harm of any one, or all on earth; and with her on our side we need not fear the whole world.” Therefore, he urged Monroe to “sedulously cherish a cordial friendship” since “nothing would tend more to knot our affections than to be fighting once more, side by side in the same cause.” And would it mean war? The object of such a war would be “to introduce and establish the American system of keeping out of our land all foreign Powers, of never permitting those of Europe to intermeddle with the affairs of our nations. It is to maintain our own principle, not to depart from it.”

Hating wars of conquest, coveting nothing of the territory of South America, Jefferson made it plain that he had no ulterior motives detrimental to the interests of the sister American Republics. “I could therefore honestly join in the declaration proposed,” he wrote, “that we aim not at the acquisition of any of those possessions, but that we oppose with all our means the forcible interposition of any other Power, or under any form or pretext, and most especially their transfer to any Power by conquest or acquisition in any way.” Such was Jefferson’s interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine to Monroe. In later days, sophists and twisters of the truth were at times to interpret it as a club designed for the domination of South American Republics by the United States, in the role of a bully, and much damage was to be done; but such a thought would have horrified the great leader of Democracy and his discipie whose name the doctrine bears. Happily, that is now thoroughly understood. And it is equally understood that during the early days of the American Republics, when they were passing through the confused period of transition from the colonial status to independence, they were given the security they required by the declaration of the United States that should any of the Powers attempt to take advantage of their weakness, the North American Republic would meet the threat with its armed forces.

All the American Republics thus maintained their independence and the power to determine their own destiny; and thus Jefferson’s dream of an American System dedicated to the realization of a dream of a new society of free men, was made possible; and thus in these days when barbarous forces have fared forth to reduce the greater part of the world to slavery, more than twenty American Republics, pledged to hemispheric solidarity and defense, have made common cause, and the “American System” that Jefferson envisioned a century and more ago appears as one of the strongest bulwarks against Old World tyranny.


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