Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Prosperity through Diplomacy

As a young nation, the United States found itself in a conundrum. The desire to avoid the entanglements of European politics clashed with the desire for economic prosperity. Some early leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that the plentiful natural resources of the Americas would remain in high demand by Europeans and would ensure that a predominately agrarian society would continue to prosper for decades, even centuries to come. Others were more doubtful and recognized that trade would mandate political interaction. While idealists would cleave to the notion that the demand for U.S. raw materials would force the nations of Europe to treat the new nation with respect and dignity, others rightfully worried that it would take strength to bring about international respect.

The United States would spend much of its first one hundred and fifty years debating how to be taken seriously as a world power while at the same time remaining distant from the conflicts of Europe. However, isolation was never the viable option that many envisioned it to be. By the end of the Second World War, the United States fully understood that international respect came both from military strength and from economic influence. Political finesse was also vital for peaceful coexistence, but it was too often overlooked or dismissed in the eyes of the general public. Even though the United States had produced a few outstanding diplomats during its youth and adolescence, too often the role of diplomacy was overshadowed by the feeling that military and economic strength could get the job done without diplomatic pageantry. Like a few of the early founding fathers, many in the twentieth century believed that the peoples of the world would wish to purchase U.S. products and thereby highly value peaceful relations with the United States. On the other hand, there were many who derived lessons from the decades when a strong navy equaled security at home, and encouraged prosperity through protected shipping routes and foreign markets. In the years following the end of the Second World War, U.S. economic and military might certainly seemed to be the key to prosperity, and not just to the prosperity of the United States, but prosperity for Europe as well. Unfortunately, what many failed to foresee was a day in which the rebuilding of Europe would be completed. Furthermore, many failed to anticipate a day when Europe might wish to free itself from the protection and economic influence of the United States.

Prosperous international relations, whether they are economic, military, or political, are dependent on diplomacy. At different times, the idea of isolation has appealed to policy makers and the public alike. At other times, policy makers and the public support aggressive relations and even war with the other nations of the world. In either case, diplomacy is underrated by those who hold to the notion that prosperity is something that can be controlled by one nation at the expense of others. History shows that such beliefs are founded on a limited understanding of the vital role of diplomacy during periods of strife and in times of prosperity.


Further Reading:

Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lind, Michael. The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Liberty: A Cost of War

During war, even a war fought in far flung lands, the civilian public is not guaranteed the comforts of peacetime. Rationing of food and clothing can be expected as a nation directs its energy and material goods toward the war effort. Additionally, one can expect taxation to increase as the nation’s war debt mounts. However, when one’s liberty becomes a cost of war, the nation faces a crisis that is much more difficult to overcome with patriotic slogans. Fear, spread through propaganda campaigns and doom-inspiring rhetoric, becomes the tool that convinces a nation that the loss of constitutionally protected liberty is price worth paying for the ultimate goal of winning the war.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, the cost of war was hugely felt in the form of taxation. Colonial Americans were opposed to the new taxes despite the fact that they helped pay for the military support the colonists benefited from each time a frontier war erupted. Their argument, in simple terms, was that if they were to be taxed like regular English subjects, then they should have all the rights and privileges afforded to regular English subjects. Particularly, they should have the right to political representation. When their demands for equality were not heeded, the colonists decided that rebellion was the solution. War weariness and the costs of war played a large role in the final outcome. Endless war was not a good national policy, and even the powerful British Empire had a difficult time arguing against that truth.

During the American Revolution, the colonists who supported rebellion and sought independence were willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their cause, but that dedication was challenged when the new nation found itself sacrificing economic prosperity due to the Embargo Act of 1807. In an ill-conceived attempt to force France and Great Britain into dealing with the United States with greater respect, President Thomas Jefferson and Congress passed an embargo that resulted in great hardship for the New England merchants. Fortunately, the War of 1812 concluded just as the anger in New England was reaching a boiling point, and President James Madison was not faced with the daunting task of suppressing a homeland rebellion.

When homeland rebellion did finally erupt years later as the national argument concerning the issue of slavery boiled over, President Abraham Lincoln did not hesitate suspending certain constitutionally guaranteed rights in an effort to settle the conflict more quickly. His justification was that those who were trying to separate from the union and those who were a direct threat to the union were not necessarily protected by the constitution. He was not alone in his evaluation that during war certain liberties might need to be curtailed. The remnants of Congress agreed, and passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863.

Economic hardship and the forfeiture of liberty seemed justifiable when the nation was at war; especially if the forfeiture of liberty was directed at those who seemed set on disrupting the nation’s ability to fight the war. It should not come to a surprise that when the nation went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, those who seemed too closely tied to the enemy would find themselves stripped of their constitutionally protected liberty. It mattered little that their ties were familial in nature as opposed to political. The nation had to be protected in order for the United States to prevail. In the end, the war only last a few short years. The rights and liberty of the interned were restored, everyone went on their merry way, and the nation flourished as it helped rebuild the free world. Or so the propagandists proclaimed.

Yet another enemy lurked and another war loomed. Constitutionally protected rights were no longer sacred in the face of an enemy. A nation at war, even a cold one, had to protect itself from enemy sympathizers and subversives. If this meant spying on its own citizens, then that is what the nation would do. When the truth of this violation became publicly known after the burglary at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, Congress acted to halt such a travesty, but it was questionable even at the time whether the actions of Congress would hold up during the ongoing Cold War.

War, it seemed, would always be a justification for a temporary loss of freedom and liberty, but as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, war shifted away from the traditional conflicts that often erupted between two political enemies. Instead, war became a conflict with phantoms and ideologies. First there was the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror, both eradicating the protections guaranteed in the constitution, and both without any end in sight. The cost of these wars continues to be great and it seems that rather than causing economic hardship and the sacrifice of personal comfort, these wars demand a greater price – liberty.

Unexpected Consequensces: Embargoes in the Early 1800s

Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 did not work out the way he had planned. The restricted flow of British goods entering the United States spurred the development of U.S. manufacturing and changed society. Even the Embargo Act’s replacement the Nonintercourse Act, which allowed for trade with nations other than Great Britain or France, did not halt the changes occurring within the United States. Interestingly, two changes in domestic life resulted because of the embargo and war. These changes were the increased investment into cotton textile manufacturing, and the development of iron, particularly the production of cast iron. Eventually these developments in U.S. manufacturing would provide cheaper textiles for the home, and promote changes in the production of food due to the proliferation of the cooking stove.

In the early 1790s Samuel Slater helped develop the first modern cotton mill in the United States, but it would be two decades later, during the time of embargoes and war, that Francis Cabot Lowell’s textile mill system, which incorporated into one location the production of cotton thread and the finished woven cotton fabric, was built. These changes reduced the cost of production and increased productivity thereby making cotton fabric more available to the average household. Prior to these changes in cotton textile manufacturing, cotton was considered a luxury fabric. Whereas flax could be grown easily and turned into linen by the skilled spinners and weavers in the United States, cotton fabric was typically imported prior to the development U.S. manufacturing in the early 1800s.

In addition to the availability of less expensive textiles, changes in cooking methods were occurring due to the new technology of the cooking stove. While the first modern cooking stoves began appearing in the mid-1700s, it wasn’t until the end of the century that the major flaws had been worked out. Yet the cooking stove remained outside the reach of the average home due to the high cost of cast iron in the United States. The embargoes and the War of 1812 highlighted the need for increased domestic production of iron, and by the 1820s iron production had spread through Pennsylvania with Pittsburg becoming known as the “smoky city.”[1]The greater availability and affordability of cast iron stoves changed the way food was prepared. Not only were the stoves safer than open fires, they allowed the cook a greater range in what they prepared. No longer limited to a stewpot or spit, a woman could prepare a larger variety of food for her family without the need of additional labor in the home.

Thomas Jefferson had opposed men like Alexander Hamilton who had promoted the development of U.S. manufacturing. The ills of industrialization were not unknown to both Jefferson and Hamilton, but while Jefferson preferred to believe that the agrarian lifestyle was superior to manufacturing and would better promote liberty, men like Hamilton understood that economic power would be required to protect that very same liberty. The production of raw materials alone would not be enough to propel the United States to greatness. Without economic greatness, liberty would always be threatened by the dangers of imperialism and war. So while Jefferson’s embargo was meant to pressure the European nations into respecting U.S. sovereignty, it acted as an affirmation that U.S. manufacturing was vital to U.S. survival. The embargoes also helped change domestic life in the United States. Textiles for bedding and clothing became more available and less expensive, and the entire method of cooking was transformed. The U.S. response to international conflict in the early 1800s resulted in the unexpected consequence of increased investment in manufacturing which in turn changed society by transforming life in the home.

[1] Anne Madarasz, “Tracing the Smoky City,” Western Pennsylvania History, 2002, (accessed October 18, 2014),  https://journals.psu.edu/wph/article/viewFile/5111/4894.

Intertwined: Codependency and War

During President Thomas Jefferson’s second term in office, the sovereignty of the United States was challenged by both Great Britain and France. Europe was at war and Napoleon was determined to maintain control over European ports and trade. In a move intended to inflict economic injury on Great Britain, Napoleon established the Continental System, a policy that allowed France to confiscate all British goods entering Europe. As a consequence, trade goods which had made port in British harbors were also considered contraband regardless of their origins or the flag under which they flew. In retaliation, Great Britain, with its much larger navy, ratcheted up its control of the seas and began confiscating trade goods, ships, and sailors on both the oceans and just off the coastal waters of the United States. In June 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake in U.S. coastal waters. Thomas Jefferson was faced with a clear act of war, and an attack on the very sovereignty the United States had fought so hard to establish three decades earlier. Unfortunately, he led a nation as unprepared for war as it was dependent on trade with Europe.

When the modern citizen thinks of war preparation, thoughts usually turn to war machines and armed forces. By the twentieth century, the industrial might of the United States made it easy for the U.S. citizen to forget the difficulties that preparing for war entailed in the early industrial days when Thomas Jefferson was president. There was not simply the need to build up the navy and the army, but also the difficulty of supplying all the materials a navy and an army would require. Many in the United States believed that Europe, especially industrial Great Britain, relied so heavily on U.S. raw materials that they would suffer if those raw materials were denied them. Jefferson was certain that by withholding U.S. raw materials and agricultural products from Great Britain and France that the warring nations would relent and allow the U.S. to remain outside Europe’s conflict. In December, he convinced Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807 which, in short, grounded the U.S. merchant fleet.

Jefferson’s hope that the embargo would force the British and French to respect U.S. sovereignty did not work as he had hoped. Rather it increased smuggling, created discord at home, compounded the economic hardships already faced in much of the United States due to a recession, and spurred the growth of U.S. industrialization and manufacturing. Jefferson was not a proponent of urban manufacturing and industrialization but a believer in the virtue of an agrarian lifestyle. He believed that the United States would become an “empire of liberty” if focus was placed on an agrarian lifestyle and the ills of industrialization were avoided.

Without the ability to export raw materials, U.S. entrepreneurs looked for ways to use them at home. A direct increase in U.S. manufacturing can be traced to this period of time. Of great importance was the development of U.S. textile manufacturing which was still in its early stages when Jefferson set out to embargo British and French trade goods. As strange as it might seem, the notion of supplying standardized and functional uniforms for the armed forces was still rather new. In 1732 Maurice de Saxe wrote of the importance of providing uniforms for the army in addition to food, shelter, and weaponry. While Jefferson believed Europe was dependent on U.S. raw materials, in reality the U.S. was more heavily dependent on Europe for manufactured goods. In order to become a great power like the powers of Europe and defend its sovereignty, the United States would need to industrialize. It would need to produce at home the materials essential for war which included the clothing worn by its armed forces.

Jefferson had hoped that the embargo would not only provide time for the young nation to bolster home defenses and prepare for war, but that it would prevent war altogether by forcing Europe to recognize its dependency on U.S. raw materials. However, the embargo demonstrated two invaluable lessons. First, economic strength was as vital as military might. An empire, even one of liberty, required the economic strength and diversity to withstand the challenges of war, even a war it wanted to avoid. Second, no nation was truly isolated enough to survive on its own. Isolation was a mythical ideal that economic codependency and the nature of war made unrealistic. The fates of the nations of the world were already irrevocably intertwined.