Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 31 Secretary of State

TO Jefferson the chief importance of his department, nay, even the chief importance of the United States, lay in the field of foreign relations. Had there been no other nations in the world, had there been no compulsion to present a solid front before them so as to win respect and freedom from aggression, Jefferson would have been well content, practically as welt as philosophically, for the liberated Colonies to have continued as independent, self-contained sovereignties.

But the world in which he lived was an aggressor world, in which naked power was the touchstone of morality and big fishes tended to swallow little ones. The Colonies had won their liberty only because they had been united--loose as that unity may have been; and they could obtain their just demands now only by the irresistible power that came from union. He had been long enough in Europe to understand the failure of reason and logic to gain concessions from the nations of the earth unless backed by such power. That was why Jefferson had insisted on his seeming paradox-- autonomy and separatism at home, and subordination to a federal unity in all dealings abroad.

Of the problems that confronted the new government in its foreign relations, he had long been aware. Five years in the courts of Europe had given him an unrivaled perspective. Europe was a vast cockpit of rival and suspicious powers, each seeking aggrandizement at the expense of the others. Jefferson would have wanted nothing better than to have sealed off the United States from involvement in Old World affairs, and to erect a Chinese wall behind which the New World could continue under the happiest of auspices to work out its own salvation. But that, he found reluctantly, could not be. The ocean, instead of the vast barrier and Chinese wall he had contemplated, was rather, a broad highway on which the two worlds met and clashed.

A stringent tobacco monopoly in France might mean disaster to Virginia; mercantilist restrictions on fish, whale oil and salt meats brought storms of protest from a suffering New England; closure of the Mississippi to the free shipment of Western produce might mean the eventual separation of the West from the East. Nor was the Old World as far away as at first blush it seemed. Through Canada, Louisiana, the Floridas, Mexico and the West Indies, the nations of Europe parked on our very doorsteps, and constituted an ever-present threat to national independence and expansion.

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