The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Foreign Relations & Jeffersonian Principles

Thomas Jefferson's ideas of foreign policy have been called isolationist. A more accurate description might be "a policy of non-involvement." True isolationism includes a withdrawal from economic relations with other nations, and Jefferson definitely did not propose that.

At the formation of the United States, this country was unique among nations of the world. This was an experiment in self-government, and everything about this new nation was unlike what had gone before. Jefferson above all recognized that we had little in common with other nations whose principles were opposed to those of a free state.

The people of a free nation cherish peace and peaceful pursuits and ordinarily have no designs on other nations. They do not wish to acquire the lands of other peoples or impose their rule on them. Least of all do they want to pursue costly adventures in foreign lands that will load themselves up with debt and taxes. Peaceful pursuits lead to happiness and prosperity, whereas wars and conquests only burden the people with misery.

Ordinary people want the liberty to live their lives in the pursuit of their private interests. Non-involvement, then, would serve American interests in a world of nations engaged in interminable wars.

Jefferson's approach to relations with other nations, besides avoiding involvement in their "broils" and a strict prohibition against their interference in affairs on this side of the Atlantic, also included non-interference in the internal affairs of others, including those hostile to us.

It might seem strange that Jefferson, the great champion of the rights of man, would not suggest that the United States use its power to bring about democratic government in other nations. But meddling in the affairs of others he considered morally wrong.

Apparently, respect for the equal rights of persons had its counterpart in a respect for the equal rights of nations, regardless of what form of government they chose to conduct their business.

In no way, then, does a free state think of itself as having a commission to convert other nations to a state of freedom. Such a policy would itself be a contradiction to a belief in liberty.

This, then was the nature of a free state's relationships with other nations. America had a responsibility to develop its own free institutions without involving itself with others who did not follow similar principles.

    "Nothing is so important as that America shall separate herself from the systems of Europe, and establish one of her own. Our circumstances, our pursuits, our interests, are distinct. The principles of our policy should be so also. All entanglements with that quarter of the globe should be avoided if we mean that peace and justice shall be the polar stars of the American societies." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Correa de Serra, 1820.

A nation governed by its own people has the least possible interest in war and conquest. Any concern a free people might have regarding the situation of other lands and peoples is that those other people will be able to enjoy the same degree of liberty that they themselves enjoy.

    "That we should wish to see the people of other countries free is as natural and at least as justifiable as that one King should wish to see the Kings of other countries maintained in their despotism." --Thomas Jefferson to A. Gallatin, 1817.

Nevertheless, Jefferson recognized that our example and influence would stir peoples around the globe to seek their own freedom.

    "The preservation of the holy fire [of liberty] is confided to us by the world, and the sparks which will emanate from it will ever serve to rekindle it in other quarters of the globe." --Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Knox, 1810.

And if a people should endeavor to be free, we have a right to aid them should some other external power try to prevent them.

    "Countries... have a right to be free, and we a right to aid them, as a strong man has a right to assist a weak one assailed by a robber or murderer." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1816.

Moreover, this protection could be extended to our wish to see our neighbors in this hemisphere not have despotic rule imposed upon them.

    "Although we have no right to intermeddle with the form of government of other nations, yet it is lawful to wish to see no emperors nor kings in our hemisphere." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1823.

This interest is not one of domination, but of neighborhood, together with a wish to keep the European despotic regimes confined to Europe.

    "America, North and South, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe and peculiarly her own. 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 endeavor should surely be to make our hemisphere that of freedom." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Monroe, 1823.

But in fact, no people should have a government forced on them from outside, though if one nation were to impose its rule on another, there would be some forgiveness if it were a freer one.

    "I do not indeed wish to see any nation have a form of government forced on them; but if it is to be done, I should rejoice at its being a freer one." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Correa, 1815.

Off hand, that statement might appear as a pleasant platitude from a recognized champion of democracy. But one should consider the vast implications: if another nation is to have a form of government forced on them, it should be a freer one. The history of the World up through the Second World War was one wherein the developed powers took possession of undeveloped parts of the world and imposed colonial rule on a foreign people. This included especially England and France, but also Holland, Germany, Spain, Portugal and even the United States to some extent (when it took over some of the colonies of Spain). Did they do this in order to force a form of government on these people that would be "a freer one"? Hardly. Rule by the chief of these colonial powers, Great Britain, was often an evil domination and economic exploitation of a backward people, as in India. Was there any effort to educate and train these people in the processes of self-government? Hardly any at all. People were kept under subjection throughout Asia and Africa, with little or no opportunity to acquire the education and develop the level of participation needed for the support of democratic institutions. And today we see the results of this lack of training, especially in places like Africa, where freedom from colonial rule meant a dissolution into chaos, tribal warfare, and corruption. As Jefferson warned:

    "Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes with an unprepared people a tyranny still of the many, the few, or the one." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1815.

The suggestion that these people were better off under colonial rule and that they were inherently incapable of living under democratic institutions, is the rationalization of a colonial power, based on racial and ethnic prejudice and assumptions of the inferiority of subject people. It is also the belief of those who are not at heart republicans, who think that only through domination, not by consent, can a people be ruled. Not so with Jefferson. He believed that the people were the means whereby good government was assured, though they needed to be educated for that task.

    "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." --Thomas Jefferson to W. Jarvis, 1820.

Relations between one nation and another, however, more often reflect a jockeying for power between heads of state, not the interests of the people who compose those states. Undoubtedly, if national leadership reflected more profoundly the interests and sentiments of their people, the people's interest in peaceful pursuits would be more evident in the relationship between nations.

    "I conscientiously believe that governments founded in republican principles are more friendly to the happiness of the people at large, and especially of a people so capable of self-government as ours." --Thomas Jefferson to D. Howell, 1810.

A free state, then, takes no part in the balance of power between warring nations. Being subject to the will of its people, such a state has no designs on other nations and does not interfere in their affairs. The conclusion for the world is inescapable: if all nations were under the democratic control of their own people, the world would be an infinitely more peaceful and more prosperous place.

    Changing Circumstances and Steady Principles

The world has changed since Thomas Jefferson's time, but does that mean that what he had to say about international affairs has no relevance to us today? Of course not! Nations and their political structures change, but the rights of man and his need for freedom remain eternally the same. It has long been recognized that Jefferson's views in many, if not most, areas changed over the course of his lifetime, and this is offered by some as a disparagement. But change is the nature of the world we live in, and Jefferson would have been amiss were his views to remain unadapted to a changing world. As he himself wrote:

    "Time and advancing science will ripen us all in its course and reconcile all to wholesome and necessary changes." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1824.

Nevertheless, certain principles do not change; man's inherent and inalienable rights do not change. This is the idea Jefferson expressed in that quote which is the main theme of these essays:

    "Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Cartwright, 1824.

Our problem today in formulating a "Jeffersonian Perspective" in Foreign Relations is to identify true principles, to recognize how circumstances in the world have changed relative to those principles, and to project how those principles should be applied in the world of today. Unfortunately, change frequently results in an abandonment of principle.

    "Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Roane, 1821.

Change indeed occurs in all nations, but entrenched powers resist change and seek to retain whatever vestiges of the old forms that they can.

    "Even in Europe a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of Man. Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example had kindled feelings of right in the people. An insurrection has consequently begun of science, talents and courage against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt... Science is progressive, and talents and enterprise on the alert. Resort may be had to the people of the country, a more governable power from their principles and subordination; and rank and birth and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into insignificance even there." --Thomas Jefferson to J. Adams, 1813.

Rank and birth have indeed shrunk into insignificance. But this has not been accompanied by a wholesale conversion to republican sentiments, certainly not in line with Jeffersonian thought. The remnants of old world diplomacy have altered only slightly, and national animosities in Europe are only now beginning to lessen. As they fade, however, other parts of the world rise to significance with their anti-republican views and their threats to their neighbors and world peace. Still, the proper role of the United States in the face of these changes can only be determined by adherence to republican principles.

    "The organization of [government] may be thought [to entail great difficulties]. But follow principle, and the knot unties itself." --Thomas Jefferson to S. Kercheval, 1816.

(Future essays will address the abandonment of the policy of non-involvement in the 20th century, and the possibility of a return to Jeffersonian principles in the era of a "New World Order.")

Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

The Jeffersonian Perspective: Top of This Page | Table of Contents | Front Page
Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Table of Contents

1996 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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