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Thomas Jefferson and American Foreign Policy
Robert W. Tucker is Professor of American Diplomacy at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University. David C. Hendrickson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado College. They are the co-authors of The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence. Their book, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson, from which this essay is drawn, will be published by Oxford University Press in May.See more by Robert W. TuckerSee more by David C. Hendrickson
Two hundred years ago, on March 21, 1790, Thomas Jefferson arrived in New York City to assume his duties as secretary of state, the first under the new national government. No man had a greater impact on the day-to-day conduct of American foreign policy than Jefferson during his long life of public service. And throughout the course of American history few can rival Jefferson as a living symbol of the nation's purpose. That his writings might be invoked on every side of a given controversy has always added to the uses of the Jeffersonian past; all the great conflicts of the nineteenth century-over slavery, union and democracy-found partisans on either side appealing to the "sagacious aphorisms and oracular sayings" of the great Virginian. The same has been true in foreign policy, where Jefferson's name has been invoked on all sides of the ever-recurring debates on the nation's diplomatic stance.
It is in Jefferson's sense of values that the deepest association exists between his own outlook and the American mind. The institutions that characterize American public life today-the standing military establishments, the ballooning debt and high taxes, the whole complex of banks, corporations and financial markets, the subordinate position of state governments in relation to national power, the exalted status of federal judicature-all this he would have beheld with a kind of sacred horror, as constituting the victory of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist vision of American life. Uncannily, however, the ideals of American life remain Jeffersonian, even in the midst of all these powerful and corrupting institutions; we cannot help but turn to Jefferson, even with the knowledge that the values he championed can often be made a subject of reproach against him.