Thomas Jefferson first used the term “empire of liberty” in a letter to George Rogers Clark dated Christmas Day, 1779. It was a phrase he would use many times in the years that followed when referring to the vast expanse of western lands adjacent to the original thirteen colonies. This continent was to be peacefully occupied by an agrarian people speaking the same language, sharing similar customs and manners, and believing in the same form of government—one that would not interfere with their individual pursuit of happiness. In this territory, Old World forms of tyranny justified by reason of state would be abolished in the name of New World civil rights. This apparently simple idea, a concept that pervaded his thoughts and actions, became a central theme to which Jefferson devoted his life.
In an influential 1948 essay, “Thomas Jefferson’s ’Empire of Liberty’” (The Virginia Quarterly Review), the historian Julian P. Boyd traced the development of this expansionist vision in Jeffersonian thought; other historians including Dumas Malone, the author of the magisterial six-volume Jefferson biography, likewise saw in this theme an important component of his practical idealism. As these scholars delved into Jefferson’s mind and action, they seemingly lacked any sense of irony: They failed to appreciate the fact that Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty was built on lands taken by trickery and genocidal force from the indigenous Native American population. It would also provide additional land for the expansion of African-American slavery. Jefferson, try as he might, was never able to resolve the conflict in his own mind between his belief in liberty and his racism that allowed slavery to coexist with free labor. His moral vision of a nation of free farmers was more than offset by this “darker side” of Jeffersonianism.
In Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson, the authors Robert W. Tucker, a professor of American diplomacy at The Johns Hopkins University, and David C. Hendrickson, an associate professor of political science at Colorado College, have written an important book on the foreign policy of Thomas Jefferson. Yet they too fail to recognize sufficiently the hypocrisy that underlies the book’s title, reserving their discussion of Jefferson’s attitudes toward Native Americans and African Americans to a long endnote. That Jefferson’s ideas on foreign policy continue to echo throughout American history is central to their thesis; that these ideas, with their racist content, are still used by American leaders to justify aggressive actions in South America, Asia, and the Middle East, is unfortunately missing from their analysis. With that caveat, Tucker and Hendrickson’s short volume gives the reader an excellent account of America’s response to European hegemony in the Age of Jefferson.
To Jefferson, the United States was a land where it “is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind This sense of moral certitude, a belief in Manifest Destiny, dates back to the seventeenth century and is part of the historical baggage that still influences American policies. Puritan settlers believed they were on an errand into the wilderness carrying forward God’s work; their mission was to create a city upon a hill that would serve as a beacon so that others could follow. Jefferson argued against Old World beliefs that gave precedence to the interests of the state over the interests of civil society. In its place, Jefferson would establish “a new diplomacy, based on the confidence of a free and virtuous people, that would secure ends founded on the natural and universal rights of man, by means that escaped war and its corruptions.”
To this end, Jefferson believed in “conquering without war” the great landmass that lay beyond the Mississippi River. Here, countless generations of God’s chosen people, the virtuous agrarian masses, could dwell in peace supported by the growth of commerce “fattening on the follies of a Europe at war.” His belief in republican principles, which were based on natural law that guaranteed the rights of neutral countries to trade in time of war, was a corollary to these tenets. This brief also helps to explain his staunch...
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