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Category Archives: Foreign Policy

We do not want those immigrants, but we cannot refuse them!

I lament the misfortunes of the persons who have been driven from Cuba to seek Asylum with you. this it is impossible to refuse them, or to withold any relief they can need. we should be monsters to shut the door against such sufferers. true, it is not a population we can desire, at that place, because it retards the desired epoch of it’s becoming entirely American in spirit. no people on earth retain their national adherence longer or more warmly than the French. but such considerations are not to prevent us from taking up human beings from a wreck at sea. gratitude will doubtless secure their fidelity to the country which has recieved them into it’s bosom.
To William C.C. Claiborne, September 10, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Humane leaders recognize the need to help the helpless.
Claiborne, territorial governor of New Orleans, reported the arrival of about 1,000 poverty-stricken French immigrants, whom Spain had banished from their homes in Cuba.

Jefferson didn’t regard the French as desirable subjects, because they above all other immigrants clung to their native culture. It would take them much longer to assimilate and become “entirely American in spirit.” Regardless, they could not be allowed to perish on the open sea. Only “monsters” would refuse them refuge and relief.

He hoped they would be grateful for the kindness shown and become loyal to their new land.

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I love science, home and FREEDOM!

you have wisely located yourself in the focus of the science of Europe. I am held by the cords of love to my family & country, or I should certainly join you. within a few days I shall now bury myself in the groves of Monticello, & become a mere spectator of the passing events. on politics I will say nothing, because I would not implicate you by addressing to you the republican ideas of America, deemed horrible heresies by the royalism of Europe.
To Alexander von Humboldt, March 6, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Retired leaders needn’t lose their zeal!
German-born Humboldt (1769-1859) shared Jefferson’s passion for exploration and scientific analysis, wrote volumes on a wide variety of subjects, and sent some of them to the President, who proffered his thanks.

If Jefferson were not so loyal to his country and family, he might have joined this eminent scientist in Europe. Instead, he looked forward to immersing himself in all-things- Monticello and becoming an observer of politics rather than a participant. Retirement didn’t lessen his passion for freedom, but he spared Humboldt any “republican ideas of America,” which the non-republican governments of Europe considered “horrible heresies.”

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The peaceful bear must attack once in awhile!

The love of peace which we sincerely feel & profess has begun to produce an opinion in Europe that our government is entirely in Quaker [non-aggressive, non-violent] principles, & will turn the left cheek when the right has been smitten. this opinion must be corrected when just occasion arises, or we shall become the plunder of all nations.
To Thomas Cooper, February 18, 1806

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders know when to do the unexpected.
Thomas Jefferson appreciated America’s geography, separated by an ocean from its often-warring European neighbors. Far more often than not, it allowed his country to stay out of their conflicts. He also realized that non-intervention was creating the opinion abroad that America would not get involved, regardless, even if provoked. If that were true, America would become the victim of all nations.

The President wanted the opportune time, a “just occasion,” for the peaceful American bear to take a judicious swat at its neighbors, to show them how wrong they were.

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Minor issues can showcase major principles.

Th: Jefferson presents his compliments to mr Smith, has recieved his letter of the 3d. inst. and regrets that he could not have the pleasure of seeing him on his passage through the neighborhood … he congratulates mr Smith on the happy termination of our Tripoline war. tho a small war in fact, it is big in principle. it has shewn that when necessary we can be respectable at sea, & has taught to Europe a lesson of honor & of justice to the Barbarians …
To Larkin Smith, September 7, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Perceptive leaders know big results can flow from small actions.
An illness had prevented Smith from visiting Monticello when he was nearby. He wrote to express his regrets. Jefferson answered Smith’s letter, invited him to come another time, and congratulated him on America’s naval success against the Barbary pirates of North Africa.

It was “a small war,” Jefferson acknowledged, but “big in principle.”
1. It proved America could fight and win at sea.
2. The nations of Europe had paid tribute to the pirates for decades. America’s refusal to do so had taught them “a lesson of honor.”
3. The pirates (he called them “Barbarians”) had received a lesson about justice.

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I can neither reject nor accept the gift. Part 2.

Another case has occurred of greater difficulty. mr Harris, our Consul at Petersburg has sent me as a present, a small marble bust of the emperor Alexander. I had concluded to reject it; but mr Madison advises it’s being recieved for the President’s house, as destined for the office & not the officer; and this because of the relation between the thing & the person of the emperor, whose unequivocal … friendship to our country should privilege him against any thing which might seem to be a slight. his bust is in the warehouse of Smith & Buchanan, and has been since sometime last year. will you be so good as to direct it to be forwarded here
To Robert Smith, May 31, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders need subordinates who will disagree with them.
Taken from the same letter as the previous post about the difficulty of receiving a gift of wine, Jefferson had another gift dilemma. A government employee serving as consul in St. Petersburg, Russia, sent his boss a marble bust of Russia’s Emperor Alexander. Jefferson wanted to return it but knew the diplomatic difficulty that could cause.

His Secretary of State came to his rescue with an alternative view. The bust could not be separated from the leader it represented, a man who had been a steadfast friend of the United States. The Emperor must not be offended. James Madison counseled his boss to receive the gift, not as given to him personally (like the wine) but as a gift to the nation, to become part of the President’s House, the name of the White House prior to 1815.

With this Gordian knot untied, Jefferson requested the bust be retrieved from storage and forwarded to him for display in the nation’s capital.

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How do we regard other nations?

In the transaction of your foreign affairs, we have endeavored to cultivate the friendship of all nations … we have done them justice on all occasions … cherished mutual interests & intercourse on fair & equal terms. we are firmly convinced and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests, soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties. and history bears witness to the fact, that a just nation is trusted on it’s word …
Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Just leaders value honest relationships with other leaders.
Jefferson’s first inaugural address was forward-looking, the aspirations that would guide his administration. This report, four years later, would be an assessment of their progress toward those goals.

He began with foreign affairs, affirming the nation’s commitment to friendship with all and fairness in its dealings. He said there could be no difference between moral duties and actual performance. That rule applied both to individuals and nations. A nation which was just, like an individual who was just, could be counted on to do what they said they would do.

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I really do want to know what you think!

Early in the last month I received the ratification, by the first Consul of France[Napoleon], of the Convention between the US. and that nation. his ratification not being pure and simple, in the ordinary form, I have thought it my duty, in order to avoid all misconception, to ask a second advice and consent of the Senate, before I give it the last sanction by proclaiming it to be a law of the land.

Source: To the Gentlemen of the [U.S.] Senate, December 11, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders respect other leaders’ turf.
The Convention [treaty] of 1800 settled shipping disputes with France which began years earlier. It was negotiated by President Adam’s administration and ratified by a Federalist Senate. Now, a version slightly revised by France was in the hands of a new President and a Republican Senate.

Jefferson could have accepted the treaty as revised and chose not to. He respected the Senate’s right and responsibility to review and approve (or reject) agreements with foreign countries. To make sure the government was of one mind in this important matter, he wanted the Senate to review the amended document. Only with their approval would he regard the treaty as binding.

The Senate did approve the treaty on December 19. The President announced it to the people two days later. Approval appears to have been a formality, but Jefferson would not presume upon his partners in the Senate.

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Is it worth going to war over?

Although I consider the observance of these principles as of great importance to the interests of peaceable nations, among whom I hope the US. will ever place themselves, yet, in the present state of things, they are not worth a war. nor do I believe war the most certain means of enforcing them. those peaceable coercions, which are in the power of every nation, if undertaken in concert, & in time of peace, are more likely to produce the desired effect.
To Robert R. Livingston, September 9, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders avoid violence at (almost) all costs.
This short paragraph is in the middle of a very long letter to America’s new minister to France. The focus of that letter was the protection of shipping by neutral nations during war time. There was no question about Jefferson’s position. He repeated it a dozen times or more in this letter alone.

Even if that position was rejected, he didn’t think it was worth a war, or that war could defend them. Diplomacy, pursued by nations banding together during peacetime, had a better chance of success than a nation reacting solo to a crisis or perceived offense.

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Louisiana, here we come. Do-da. Do-da.

With respect to Spain our dispositions are sincerely amicable & even affectionate. we consider her possession of the adjacent country [Louisiana, the land west of the Mississippi River] as most favorable to our interests, & should see, with extreme pain any other nation substituted for them: in all communications therefore with their officers, conciliation and mutual accomodation are to be duly attended to, every thing irritating to be avoided, every thing friendly to be done for them … temper & justice will be the best guides through those intricacies. Should France get possession of that country it will be more to be lamented than remedied by us, and will furnish ground for profound consideration on our part how best to conduct ourselves in that case …
To William C. C. Claiborne, July 13, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Far-sighted leaders begin signaling their intentions well in advance.
Claiborne was to be appointed governor of the Mississippi Territory, bordering Spanish-held Louisiana just across the river. Jefferson was insistent on maintaining the best possible terms with Spain, who was not a threat to American interests. France was a threat, and her possession of Louisiana would provoke a profoundly different response.

Jefferson knew of rumors that Spain had already ceded Louisiana to France. That was not common knowledge at this point. Chances are Claiborne didn’t know that, either. So, Jefferson, who was shrewd in his diplomacy, was starting to build his case for not wanting France as our next door neighbor, able to control traffic on the Mississippi River.

Jefferson’s guidelines for getting along with the Spanish could be his guidelines for getting along with anyone:
1. Be conciliatory
2. Look for areas of agreement
3. Avoid irritation
4. Be as friendly as possible
5. Hold your temper
6. Be just

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What justifies going to war?

From the humane & magnanimous policy, which Your conduct & character through life authorize us to beleive you will pursue, we have no apprehension of war from narrow or party policy; but delight in looking forward to the cultivation of universal peace—& liberal intercourse with all the nations of the world—
From Providence (RI) Citizens to Thomas Jefferson, March 5, 1801

The energies of the nation so far as depends on me, shall be reserved for improvement of the condition of man, not wasted in his destruction. the lamentable resource of war is not authorised for evils of imagination, but for those actual injuries only … peace, justice, & liberal intercourse with all the nations of the world, will, I hope, with all nations, characterize this commonwealth.
To Providence Citizens, March 27, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders pick their battles for specific and necessary reasons.
The citizens of Providence, like many others, wrote a congratulatory letter to the new President. Writers tended to be of the republican (small r) vein, wearied of years of non-republican (again, small r) actions. One of the Providence hopes was for less American involvement in international conflict.

Jefferson concurred and promised to use America’s “energies” for the good of mankind, rather than its destruction. If war came, it should be for “actual injuries only,” not the evils of imagination. (What does that bring to your mind?) He hoped open, honest and just relations with all nations would characterize the United States.

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