Steele on Cogliano, 'Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy'

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Francis D. Cogliano. Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 320 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-17993-4.

Reviewed by Brian Steele (University of Alabama at Birmingham)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

In his earlier book, Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (2006), Francis D. Cogliano provided a masterful assessment of the recent historiography and grappled with the tensions between a life and its legacy. Cogliano ultimately privileged what he labels a “contextualist” approach to Jefferson studies, which have long been so invested in the partisan controversies that animated Jefferson’s career that they either descend into anachronistic celebration and defense or into anachronistic condescension and prosecution. Both because Jefferson has long represented a particular side or approach in our partisan politics and because he has for so long been seen, rightly or wrongly, as the nation’s synecdoche, it has been difficult for even professional historians to step outside of that mode. For his part, Cogliano values a more recent shift in the historiography toward an approach that is more invested in “explanation” than in judgment.[1] The goal is toward understanding with sensitivity to context—beginning with the assumption that Jefferson’s questions may not be our own—not for purposes of excusing or condemning or certainly for refighting the old battles, but for comprehending, for finding a way to understand Jefferson in terms he himself would understand. 

I mention this here because I think it is crucially important to keep in mind as we read Cogliano’s latest book, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy, which focuses on Jefferson’s foreign policy, a subject area invested in no little controversy, with scholars typically characterizing Jefferson in the terms familiar to the traditional historiography of American diplomacy: realist or idealist, and, depending on the scholar, foolish or prudent. Cogliano knows the historiography well (see the extensive discussion in chapter 8 of the earlier work) and his book does take a particular position in the long-standing debates over Jefferson’s conduct of foreign affairs. But this book wears its argument lightly, opting out of the juxtaposition imposed by the literature and presenting, instead, a chronological narrative of several propitious moments in Jefferson’s career in foreign affairs.

This, of course, is itself a historiographical statement: an assertion that we can comprehend Jefferson’s foreign policy best not by looking back from what the United States has become, but by taking a fuller and longer-range account of the context in which his particular worldview developed and within which his approach toward foreign affairs emerged. This is an approach befitting a historian rather than a partisan or a theorist, and Cogliano’s engagement with significant questions raised by partisans and theorists both are largely embedded in and emerge from the narrative itself. 

Cogliano argues that Jefferson had a coherent long-term vision of the American future that involved expansion across space because of the need for land to perpetuate the agrarian future upon which the republic’s longevity depended, and a commitment to overseas trade or access to commercial markets for the goods produced largely by American farmers. Others have noted this, most notably Drew McCoy in his work The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America (1980), but other scholars have seen irony in the way that these commitments would eventually involve the United States in the messy details of European balance-of-power diplomacy and war, with their attendant domestic consequences: centralization, manufacturing, amassing of power in the executive office—all things Jefferson is supposed to have feared or even loathed.

Cogliano, on the other hand, downplays the irony and more or less argues, with earlier scholars like Walter LaFeber and Lawrence Kaplan, that Jefferson was quite open to the changes that were entailed by his larger vision.[2] Cogliano argues that the realist/idealist dichotomy is itself inadequate for understanding Jefferson, who was “an idealist when writing about the future but a realist when considering the world around him” (p. 9). Jefferson hoped and even had faith that a world of republics was on the horizon even as he understood that the world as it was currently constituted was not one that would bow to ideals but would have to be wrestled with and even fought for. Before republicanism could win the day, Jefferson once wrote, the world would be deluged in blood. This is not the line of a dreamy visionary naïve about politics. 

When Cogliano says that his central argument is that Jefferson had a “clear ideological vision for the American republic,” but was “pragmatic about the means he employed to protect the republic and advance its strategic interests” (p. 10), he is countering the characterization of Jefferson as a dreamy, impractical idealist carried on by Henry Adams, Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, and Bradford Perkins, but actually begun by Jefferson’s contemporary political opponents, the Federalists.[3] Unlike the image presented with various shades of acrimony or bemusement (in Adams’s case) by all of these writers, Cogliano points out that Jefferson’s vast experience as a political leader and statesman gave him an “understanding of international power relations,” which means that he understood “the relative weakness of the nation in the international realm” and made decisions within the limitations imposed both by that situation and by the imperatives of his vision of American nationhood (p. 10).     

Cogliano’s narrative offers a good bit of support for these contentions. The book spends time watching Jefferson as governor of Virginia because this experience, Cogliano says, taught him both the fragility of republics and the need for strength and flexibility in the executive.  Jefferson’s experience as a diplomat in France taught him “to appreciate the relative weakness of the United States in global terms” (p. 79). Cogliano’s extensive discussion of Jefferson’s approach to the Nookta Sound controversy is justified by what it tells us in microcosm about the general way Jefferson would approach foreign policy in the future. The controversy not only helped solidify his sense that access to the Mississippi was crucial to the security of the United States. It also tells us a lot about Jefferson’s open-eyed flexibility regarding the various means he employed to achieve his particular ends. Since he understood the United States to be in a relatively strong position vis-à-vis Spain, he tried to “take advantage of Spanish vulnerability.” He certainly looked at war as a possible instrument of foreign policy but began with diplomacy as a way of buying time with Britain, against which U.S. options were more limited. Cogliano admits that Jefferson was “wildly optimistic and overconfident about Spain’s readiness to accede to American pressure,” and notes that his maneuvering apparently played no role in the Spanish decision to eventually negotiate with Britain (pp. 92-93). This raises interesting questions about Jefferson’s comprehension of the situation and potentially returns us to the original critique of Adams, Tucker and Hendrickson, and Perkins, among others. But the explicit lesson Cogliano draws is not that Jefferson was foolish, but that he saw “opportunity in … crisis,” a lesson also reiterated in Cogliano’s extensive discussion of Jefferson’s long-standing quarrel with various Barbary powers (p. 93). From very early in his career, then, Jefferson understood, says Cogliano, that protecting American trade would lead to conflict and he “embraced the opportunity to wage war in defense of international justice and American honor” against relatively weak opponents (p. 69). 

Cogliano is right to focus on this long background to what any conversation about Jefferson’s foreign policy ultimately comes to: the presidency, which saw both the greatest triumphs and the difficulties that, for many, render him a disaster in the annals of American diplomacy. From Adams to Tucker and Hendrickson, there is a tradition in foreign policy history that describes President Jefferson’s successes (Louisiana) as fortuitous and his failures as, well, utter. For these writers, Jefferson was largely bewildered in his relations with other powers, reacting, usually in wildly misplaced ways, to European prevenience. For Cogliano, this is an unwarranted critique and makes little sense against the backstory he has offered his readers. For Cogliano, what prevented Jefferson from certain successes (and here we largely mean the embargo, widely considered his signal failure as a political leader) was not the silliness of his vision or the incompatibility of his ends and the means he was willing to employ to achieve them, but something else: the weakness of the United States and the limitations and constraints placed on American scope of action during the Napoleonic Wars when neither France nor Britain was willing to acknowledge U.S. claims about free trade and impressment. 

Cogliano thinks Jefferson’s effort to avoid war was wise and realistic, given the circumstances. In fact, Jefferson’s decision to ratchet down the escalation toward war during the Chesapeake/Leopard crisis—so often disparaged by scholars who think this was the moment to strike—turns in Cogliano’s hands into a moment of prudence akin to President John Kennedy’s staring down the joint chiefs during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, though critics then and now note that war is sometimes the only option consistent with what James Madison called at the time “the honor and the essential interests of the nation,” the embargo itself, Cogliano notes, turned out to be the only realistic alternative for one inclined, like Jefferson, to avoid either war or capitulation (p. 208). 

If Jefferson’s decision to turn to economic coercion represented his only real option, it also, for that very reason, Cogliano says, could not have ended in anything but failure. The failure of the embargo, in other words, tells us less about Jefferson than it does about the weak position of the United States during the Napoleonic Wars, when it quite simply did not have the military capacity to back up its sanctions.  Cogliano notes that Jefferson and Madison and the Republicans generally assumed “that the British and French depended on the American carrying trade to such a degree that even a brief disruption of commerce would bring the Europeans to their senses—and the negotiating table” (p. 219). This would seem a kind of concession to Tucker and Hendrickson, a wondering whether Jefferson ought to have assumed less and prepared better for other eventualities. But Cogliano insists that Jefferson’s was not a “misplaced faith in the potency of economic suasion” alone (p. 215). Much of Jefferson’s maneuvering, he believes, was an effort to “temporize” and buy time (p. 241). For Cogliano, the traditional interpretation itself assumes too much: “that Jefferson had a range of options available to him but was blinded by his idealism or moralism. On the contrary, Jefferson had relatively few options available to him. He chose economic coercion, preparatory to war, as, he believed, the least bad of these” (p. 240).

An appreciation of the relative weakness of the United States would seem to necessitate accommodation with Britain even if such meant that the U.S. would capitulate on the impressment question. But, as Cogliano points out, Jefferson was neither a realist nor an idealist. He was a nationalist, which means that he was hemmed in not only by British and French power but also by the will of the American public, which had no intention of submitting to either.

Without nationhood—which assumes an incredibly tight relationship between domestic and foreign policy—you can be a practitioner of realpolitik. But to be a realist in a republic means that you must take account of public opinion. This narrows the scope of action and limits options nearly as much as the behavior of opposing powers. What Jefferson always had to pay attention to, precisely because he was president of a republican nation, was the court in which he would be judged: public opinion.

In his dispute with Alexander Hamilton over American neutrality in the 1790s, Jefferson insisted that treaties are made between nations, not governments. Since governments are established by nations, a change of government is to be understood as an expression of national sovereignty. This, Jefferson insisted, was the “Catholic principle of republicanism”: that “every people may establish what form of government they please and change it as they please. The will of the nation is the only thing essential.”[4] States should not, in other words, be identified with their rulers but with the nation itself. This principle shaped Jefferson’s foreign policy in profound ways, particularly after 1800 when, in Jefferson’s view, the people had reanimated the state with the republican principle. Though quite often misunderstood in relation to Jefferson, such a principle, as Peter Onuf and Jeremy Bailey have so effectively demonstrated, legitimizes and marshals extraordinary power in a republic.[5] Jefferson’s hostility to “reason of state,” so emphasized by Tucker and Hendrickson, was to a principle whereby the state operated according to its own rationale. After 1800, however, Jefferson was freed—again, in his view—to practice reason of state since reason of state in a republic amounted to prosecuting the will of the nation. Jefferson asserted that “governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of the people, and execute it.”[6] It was not an option for republics to evade either the embodiment or the effort to execute the people’s will.

This is why critics of Jefferson’s policy, who assume he should have made an accommodation with Britain (in the infamous Monroe-Pinckney proposal), misunderstand the point of Jefferson’s pocketing of the treaty. As Alan Taylor has noted perceptively, every single act of impressment reenacted the American Revolution: the right of a sovereign state to define citizenship.[7] When Jefferson told Madison that the “sine qua non” he had made over impressment was the desire “of the nation, and that they would rather go on without a treaty than one which does not settle this article,” he was articulating the only rationale a republican statesman could offer for turning down what might seem, from the perspective of “realism” the best option (p. 225).

Perhaps all this is simply a way of reaffirming what Garry Wills says in his bookHenry Adams and the Making of America: “Jefferson’s large vision could not be contained in the little boxes of his first commitment. The finally liberating thing about Jefferson is that he was not a Jeffersonian in that initial … sense. Like most great figures, he was larger than his devotees [and here we might add his detractors] would like.”[8] His vision, in other words, as Cogliano demonstrates, entailed action not initially imagined but that became necessary to its achievement: centralization, war, executive power of immense scope. This may be ironic, but it is not silly. And it may not even be ironic. Jefferson, in Cogliano’s scheme, was fairly open-eyed about his decisions. He eventually came to consider manufacturing, war, and the attendant centralization to be worth the risk of pursuing vital interests. And these commitments eventually made the United States strong enough to navigate through the treacherous waters of European diplomacy. As a stage along this road, Jefferson’s presidency was more essential than we have realized. And Cogliano’s book helps us remember that. 


[1]. Cogliano, Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 223.

[2]. Walter LaFeber, “Jefferson and an American Foreign Policy,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 370-391; Lawrence Kaplan, Jefferson and France (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), and Kaplan, Entangling Alliances with None: American Foreign Policy in the Age of Jefferson (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1987).

[3]. Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Earl N. Harbert (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1986); Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson,Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Bradford Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[4]. “Notes on the Legitimacy of Government,” December 30, 1792, in Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950-), vol. 24: 802.

[5]. Jeremy Bailey, Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Peter S. Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), esp. 83-136.

[6]. Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York Library of America, 1984), 1396.

[7]. Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies (New York: Vintage, 2011), 102, 122.

[8]. Garry Wills, Henry Adams and the Making of America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005)392-393.

Printable Version:

Citation: Brian Steele. Review of Cogliano, Francis D., Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. November, 2014.

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