The Age of Federalism

By Stanley Elkins; Eric McKitrick | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
Jefferson as Secretary
of State

An event of great significance in defining the foreign policy which Thomas Jefferson was to follow as Secretary of State had occurred at the very moment of his first entry into public life, over twenty years prior to his joining Washington's cabinet. This was the Association of 1769, the non-importation agreement entered into by members of the Virginia Burgesses as a protest and counter-measure against the Townshend Acts. Similar agreements had been concluded by groups of leading men in all the northern colonies. Inasmuch as all the Townshend duties were subsequently repealed except for the tax on tea, the Association had accomplished substantially what it set out to do. On Jefferson, the impression of this experience of successful commercial pressure would be lifelong. 1

It was understandable that he should have found this form of coercion so attractive. It was a mode of action that did not require bloodshed. Moreover, viewed from the perspective of Virginia the experience seemed to show that the sacrifices could be borne, despite the inconveniences, without permanent damage. Virginia's rural life was so organized that the impact of a trade stoppage could be absorbed and diffused; consumption of luxuries and manufactured goods could be postponed, with no need in the meantime of anyone's starving. As a matter of record, Virginia's compliance with the Association was not as thorough as that of northern merchant groups, though the absence of a central port and the consequent temptations to smuggle undoubtedly had something to do with this. But perhaps the only real difficulty anywhere was that of voluntary compliance. This would be largely overcome if non-importation or some other form of commercial coercion were to become the law of the land.

All of this may well have strengthened Jefferson's convictions as to the relatively circumscribed function of commerce, and further limited his sensitivity to the impact such a policy might have on a community largely dependent on commercial pursuits. The above influences, together with the deep anglophobia which peace did little to abate, had provided Jefferson his ideal formula for addressing

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