Channelling George Washington: Foreign Policy ala Thomas Jefferson

Historians/History




Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the ninth in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it.

“President Washington?  You don’t sound at all cheerful.”

“How can I be?  Watching President Obama in action on the foreign policy front has given me acute mental indigestion.”

“How does that work?”

“Alarming similarities keep colliding in my head. The game he’s playing has too many resemblances to foreign policy ala Thomas Jefferson.  Wish fulfillment divorced from reality.”

“Most people don’t think of President Jefferson’s foreign policy that way.”

“The Democrats have done a wonderful job of selling Tom as a whiz at everything.  He did a good job on the Declaration of Independence. Then he started taking literally what was intended as a manifesto to inspire our Revolution, not a guide to how to relate to other nations in a dangerous world.  He convinced a lot of people to do the same thing in his own time – and later.”

“Can you give me some examples?”

“Let’s start with one of Tom’s first moves as president.  He told the French charge d’affaires to Washington that if France wanted to get rid of President Toussaint L’Ouverture, the man who had made Haiti a semi-independent country with our help, it was perfectly all right with him.  He even approved of their plan to re-impose slavery.”

“What was he thinking when he said that?”

“He was settling political scores with the Federalist Party, the forerunner of today’s Republicans.  They had backed the Haitian revolutionaries, as part of our ongoing disagreements with Revolutionary France, which went back to my announcement that we were going to stay neutral in the war they started fighting a war with England in 1793.  As I noted in one of our previous discussions, Tom thought that was the most awful mistake I made as president.”

“Most people praise your decision, nowadays.”

“It was the cornerstone of my presidency.  If we had gone into that war, we would have ended up as bankrupt as we were in 1783, at the end of the Revolution.”

“Had things changed in France since 1793?”

“Not for the better.  By 1801, when President Tom made nice with that charge, the French Revolution had morphed into a ruthless military dictatorship, led by an amoral genius named Napoleon Bonaparte.”

“How did Napoleon react to President Jefferson’s offer?”

“He could hardly believe it at first.  He was sure his lucky star was shining on him.  He wasn’t just planning to restore French control of Haiti -- including slavery.  He thought that would only take about six weeks. Then he was going to ship half the army to New Orleans, which theoretically belonged to Spain, but was still ninety-five percent French.  Boney was planning to browbeat the Spanish into returning the city and the entire Louisiana Territory -- about a third of the American continent -- to France.  The French had given it to Spain in compensation for the beating the Spanish had taken in the Seven Years War.”

“You mean we were going to wake up one morning and find a French army all along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Canada?”

“That’s what Boney was planning.  The army was going to be followed by a stream of immigrants, aimed at turning the entire Louisiana Territory into an overseas France.  Meanwhile, he was going to go to work on the so called United States.  He figured he could dismember the country state by state, starting with Tennessee and Kentucky, where French and Spanish gold was already talking in secret.”

“How did we dodge this bullet?”

“The explanation depends on what you believe.  I call it Divine Providence, which has protected the Unites States again and again.  A lot of other people call it luck.  Take your pick.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“Providence -- or luck -- took the shape of a tiny female mosquito named aedes aegypti that carries the yellow fever virus.  These buzzing creatures literally stung to death the French army that Napoleon sent to Haiti.  In the savage no-quarter war the French fought before they collapsed, they captured Toussaint and shipped him to France, where he died in a French prison.  Haiti changed from a promising multi-racial society where whites, blacks and mulattoes were living in peace to a wrecked ruined paranoid country which ended the war by killing every white man, woman, and child left on the island.”

“That was the end of Napoleon’s dream of a new French empire in the New World?”

“Boney and his kleptomaniacal family decided they could do better looting Europe and sold the Louisiana Territory to an astonished President Jefferson for $15 million dollars.  Tom’s amazement did not prevent him from taking credit for this political miracle, which won him a landslide victory for his second term.  It also reignited his hubris which led to a foreign policy debacle that not even Divine Providence could retrieve.”

“What was that?”

“Both the French and the British specialized in abusing our neutral rights by seizing our ships at sea.  President Tom had reduced our navy (and our army) to the vanishing point to cut taxes, so there was little that we could do about it by meeting force with force the way we would today.  Tom’s solution was his worst foreign policy idea yet:  the embargo.”

“Who did we embargo?”

“Everybody.  He decreed that the United States would not trade with France or England or anyone else until they bowed down and agreed to be nicer to us.  Instead the two superpowers proceeded to find elsewhere the grain and other products we were selling them.”

“Didn’t that have a big impact on our economy?”

“President Tom seemed oblivious to the fact that America had become an international commercial powerhouse.  Between 1793 and 1801 -- you might call that my presidential era, with an assist from John Adams -- our exports had quintupled to $70 million a year.  Tom’s embargo brought this prosperity to a dead -- and I do mean dead -- stop.”

“Did people protest?”

“The four New England states let out a collective howl that should have deafened Washington D.C.  Some forty thousand sailors began milling around our ports with nothing to do.  Merchants went bankrupt by the dozen.  One critic called the embargo cutting a man’s throat to cure a nosebleed.  Smuggling was soon a way of life for anyone with access to a ship and enough water to float it up a creek or unguarded river.”

“What did President Jefferson do?”

“Tom sulked.  He threatened to use what was left of the U.S. Navy to capture the smugglers.  No one paid any attention to him.  In his last year in office, he more or less quit.  He shipped his White House furniture back to Monticello and let Secretary of State James Madison run the country.  On the last day of Tom’s term, Congress abandoned the embargo.”

“Are there other presidents who have succumbed to this Jeffersonian wishful thinking?”

“My favorite is Woodrow Wilson.  I like Woody for a lot of things he did, above all writing that great book Congressional Government, which revealed the disasters that occur when Congress rather than the president runs the country.  But in foreign policy, he was another Jeffersonian dreamer,”

“Could you give me an example?”

“In 1917 Woody declared war on Germany, launching us into the middle of World War I, with the belief that we wouldn’t have to send a single American soldier to France.  He swallowed whole the British-French propaganda line that they were winning the war.  In fact, they were on the brink of defeat.  A month after we dove in, the French and the British sent delegations to Washington screaming:  “WE WANT MEN! MEN! MEN!”  The war ended with two million American soldiers in France.”

“Where do you find Jeffersonian similarities in President Obama’s foreign policy?”

“The best -- or worst -- of many instances is this treaty he just signed with Russia to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.  The ceremony was accompanied by a statement that Mr. Obama’s goal was a nuclear-weapons-free world.  I was flabbergasted.  The day we destroy all our nuclear weapons on the supposed guarantee that nations like Russia and China will do likewise will go down in history as the ruin of the United States of America.  If ever I’ve seen a Jeffersonian fantasy, it’s that idea.”

“Let’s hope Divine Providence is still on the job.”

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T WF - 4/26/2010

Of historical interest -- You can see a clip of Toussaint's last moments in prison from the award-winning new short film "The Last Days of Toussaint L'Ouverture" at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2468184/


Jonathan Dresner - 4/26/2010

Your obliteration of Pres. Washington's reputation for clear thinking and wisdom proceeds apace! Now you've made it clear that he didn't understand economics -- as though there was nothing but good Presidential leadership behind the boom in US exports while France was in the throes of the Revolution -- has no sense of dignity in speech (I'm pretty sure he wrote about that, though, so either he's a hypocrite or something else is going on), and no sense of proportion (Napoleon's plans v. his reasonable reach, and the unlikely idea that the French hadn't encountered malaria in their first century as Haitian overlords).

I'm not sure what's left, really.