Book Reviews -- the Origins of Jeffersonian Commercial Policy and Diplomacy (Studies in Modern History) by Doron S. Ben-Atar

By Onuf, Peter S. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- the Origins of Jeffersonian Commercial Policy and Diplomacy (Studies in Modern History) by Doron S. Ben-Atar


Onuf, Peter S., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Origins of Jeffersonian Commercial Policy and Diplomacy. By DORON S. BEN-ATAR. Studies in Modern History. J. C. D. CLARK, General Editor. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993. ix, 261 pp. $65.00.

DORON S. BEN-ATAR'S new book is a valuable addition to the burgeoning critical literature on Jeffersonian diplomacy. It also betrays a measure of schizophrenia. In his role as a historian of political thought, Ben-Atar offers a balanced portrait of Thomas Jefferson' s mind that sustains a critical balance between opposing schools of classical republicanism and Joyce Applebyan liberalism. Ben-Atar's balancing act reflects and illuminates the efforts of "Jefferson and his peers . . . to free the spirit of enterprise and simultaneously keep it caged" (p. 29). But this satisfyingly complicated version of Jefferson is itself in tension with a more reductive portrait of an Anglophobic Jefferson, committed to commercial coercion as the fundamental instrument of republican diplomacy and incapable of responding effectively to the changing international situation. In this latter mode, as diplomatic historian, Ben-Atar echoes the tone and themes of contemporary neo-Federalist scholarship, most fully developed in Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson's Empire of Liberty (1990). Happily, the neo-Federalist caricature remains offstage until the concluding chapter. Most of the book is instead focused on Jefferson's frustrating career as a would-be foreign policy maker in the years before he rose to power. Ben-Atar convincingly argues that Jefferson, despite his ambivalence about the role of commerce in a virtuous republican society, embraced commercial diplomacy as the means to secure "national power and national honor" (p. 103).

Ben-Atar's interest in tracing the development of Jefferson's thought about commerce may explain why he devotes so much attention to periods when Jefferson actually had little influence on foreign policy making. A consequence of this focus is that the diplomatic historian's penchant for assaulting his subject's misguided approach is held in check by his recognition that Jefferson was usually only spinning his wheels, reacting--sometimes extravagantly--to the initiatives of others. Jefferson can hardly be faulted for achieving little during his years in Paris when the Confederation Congress's well-known imbecility subverted diplomatic initiatives. When the new federal government was formed, Alexander Hamilton may have had, as Ben-Atar suggests, the more far-sighted "vision" of America's role in the great power conflict precipitated by the French Revolution.

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