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Review by John M. Belohlavek

Thomas Jefferson: Westward the Course of Empire
By Lawrence S. Kaplan
(Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1999.
Pp. xvii, 198 . $50 cloth; $17.95 paper.)


When Scholarly Resources sought to identify an author to write the difficult volume on Thomas Jefferson for its “Biographies in American Foreign Policies Series,” the editors turned to veteran Lawrence Kaplan. They chose wisely. Professor Kaplan, a widely published diplomatic historian academically rooted in the early republic, has the breadth to incorporate both traditional and more recent scholarship in this synthetic study of Mr. Jefferson. The series—intended for students and a general readership—aims not at full biography but focuses instead on the involvement of a particular individual in foreign affairs. The enigmatic and complex Jefferson poses a unique challenge.

Professor Kaplan grounds us in the early influences on Jefferson—reason and the Enlightenment, natural law, and natural rights. He sees the Virginian’s evolution from revolutionary pamphleteer and legislative protester to advocate for independence as logical given the perceived British abuses of American rights. With independence also came an expanded world view, as Jefferson gravitated to a simultaneously bitter perception of Great Britain and affection for France. Kaplan emphasizes, however, that Jefferson’s longtime Francophilia was motivated more by his desire to free the United States from the economic clutches of George III than a love for Louis XVI or Napoleon. American interests would be fostered by a positive relationship with Versailles as a substitute and buffer from Britain and by western continental expansion—Kaplan notes Jefferson’s early support of George Rogers Clark as an example.

By the 1780s, after rebuffing Congress’s invitation to join the diplomatic team in Paris on several occasions because of his wife’s health, Jefferson accepted the offer to join John Adams at court. Adams, of course, was soon transferred to London. The weak Articles of Confederation invited foreign contempt and caused frequent frustration for both men. Adams and Jefferson discovered that even “friendly” states such as France and the Netherlands were reluctant to abandon their mercantilist policies and engage in truly free trade with the United States—commerce that would have liberated America from the tyranny of British trade policy. Kaplan argues, however, that Jefferson had “as much success as any diplomatist could have hoped for in the dying days of the ancien régime.” Nonetheless, Britain remained recalcitrant in negotiating a new treaty and the Barbary states quickly posed an aggressive threat to Yankee shipping in the Mediterranean. Jefferson, interestingly, hoped to meet that threat with a calculated, low-cost military response—war against a weaker power would send a worldwide message. Instead, the issue dragged on into Jefferson’s presidency when he possessed the power to deal with the pirates in a forceful manner. Both Adams and Jefferson realized, however, the linkage between a strong central government and a successful foreign policy.

Kaplan sees Jefferson as a pioneer in the new diplomacy that substituted statecraft for warfare. Even in the 1780s he opposed entangling alliances, recognized the need to utilize France to break the economic stranglehold of Britain, and understood the need for western expansion to promote prosperity. Kaplan argues that when Jefferson commenced his service as Secretary of State in 1789—and for some time thereafter—a general consensus existed on a number of fronts within the administration—including foreign affairs. That consensus collapsed by 1793 because of “European events more than incompatible philosophies” between Jefferson and his nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. Kaplan concedes that Jefferson made progress, but attained few complete triumphs during his tenure in the State Department. Neither ideologue nor extremist, he sought to create a nation independent of European control, without involving the country in war. He was frustrated at every turn, however, by the power of Great Britain and the influence of Hamilton. Concurrently, while he succeeded in garnering George Washington’s recognition of the new revolutionary French Republic, Jefferson could not resolve the dilemma of maintaining neutrality and the Franco-American alliance simultaneously. Kaplan contends that an over-eager Jefferson likely bears some of the blame for the disastrous Edmund Genet mission. Genet’s blunders and the subsequent collapse of relations with France plummeted Jefferson into despair and resignation from office by December 1793.

The Jay Treaty of 1794 confirmed Jefferson’s worst fears about the Federalists’ betrayal to English interests, but, as Kaplan notes, the pact rendered many positive results. Throughout his vice presidency (1797-1801), Jefferson continued to perceive monarchical Britain as the greatest threat to American freedom. Nevertheless, he also recognized the ambitions of Napoleonic France and lamented the collapse of revolutionary idealism. Thus, Jefferson hesitated to protest the end of the Franco-American alliance provided in the Treaty of Mortfontaine.

Kaplan takes us down a familiar road with Jefferson as president. He focuses upon the successes of the first administration—the reprise of his earlier militant position against the Barbary pirates, the efforts to counterbalance France and Britain to purchase Louisiana, the ambivalent policy regarding the Haitian Revolution, and the bold effort to obtain the Floridas. The author maintains that the Virginian was both skillful and fortunate in his efforts. He counted on the ability to play a game of international balance of powers (“America’s success from Europe’s distress”) in his second administration as well. Military victory and maritime restrictions on the Continent, however, prohibited further successes. Economic warfare, heralded by the Embargo, failed to convince either major power to yield . Jefferson tended to overlook French aggression as manifested by Napoleon’s Continental System, because he still believed that Britain constituted the major threat to the nation. When Jefferson departed the White House in March 1809, he had overreached himself in terms of his foreign policy strategy and created domestically an America that he had in many ways opposed.

In retirement Jefferson remained sympathetic towards France through the War of 1812, although Kaplan argues his view of the belligerents was “incoherent.” After the peace at Ghent, the Sage of Monticello became more critical of a Bourbon-dominated France and warmed to more positive relations with England—highlighted by his pro-alliance position on the Monroe Doctrine.

Scholars will applaud this even-handed study of Mr. Jefferson. While Kaplan generally tends to see the glass half-full in evaluating Jefferson’s policies, he notes that the Sage could be petty and parochial. Some academics may take exception to Kaplan’s insistence on Jeffersonian consistency of policy or the proximity of Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian political objectives. Others will be a bit disappointed in the rather brief coverage Kaplan gives to the issue of Indians and westward expansion. Nonetheless, this volume, well written and well grounded in the most recent secondary accounts, should be well received by its intended audience.


John M. Belohlavek teaches American history at the University of South Florida.

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