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Diplomacy in The Jefferson Presidency

Louisiana Redux?

In Thomas Jefferson's second term as president, he set his sights on the acquisition of Florida. Still in the possession of Spain, its acquisition would unfetter American expansion to the south and remove another foreign presence from the continent. In other words, its acquisition would complete the process begun by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase.

In Jefferson's mind, the two projects—Louisiana and Florida—were united. In fact, it seems likely that Jefferson approached this second-term foreign policy challenge hoping and expecting to repeat the success of his recent Louisiana transaction. Everything just seemed to fall into place in that deal. The gods—or rather, as Jefferson might have put it, the progressive and rational course of history—seemed to be on his side. The acquisition of Florida represented a slightly different challenge, but why should he not succeed here, as well? Unfortunately for Jefferson, Spain proved less compliant than France. Florida was not particularly valuable to Spain in and of itself. But Spain feared surrendering the peninsula to the United States, placing the expansionist Americans that much closer to much more valuable Spanish holdings in the Caribbean—most importantly, Cuba. Spain thus refused to deal when Jefferson sent James Monroe to attempt to purchase the territory in 1804.

Fight or Deal?

In the wake of Spain's refusal to deal, Jefferson mulled his options. Military conquest would be relatively easy. Spain could not possibly resist an American invasion of Florida; she was, by the turn of the nineteenth century, a tired old empire and one governed from more than 3,000 miles away. But Napoleon's France, a much more formidable power, was a Spanish ally, and Jefferson worried about how Napoleon might respond to American aggression in Florida. Therefore, Jefferson also explored a second option. The United States could cozy up to France and try to cut a deal. France was anxious to secure American support in its war with Britain. If the United States pledged its support, perhaps France could convince Spain to sell Florida.It was a tough call, dependent largely on an even tougher reading of European affairs—or more precisely, a reading of the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain. Who was winning? Which side did we most need to fear? Which side did we most need to court? And since we were trading with both, how might each choice affect American commerce? Jefferson pondered these questions through the first half of 1805—and then opted for the military invasion. France would be angry (to say nothing of Spain) but Jefferson believed France needed American ships more than Britain did, and could not afford to react too harshly.

Jefferson's reasoning made some sense. But unfortunately for Jefferson, just as he readied for the invasion, beginning to mobilize the army and preparing the public for war by publishing anti-Spanish articles in the Republican papers, Britain announced a dramatic change in its maritime policy. Britain's recognition of American neutral shipping rights would terminate as of July 1805. From that point forward, American ships transporting the goods of Britain's enemies should expect to be intercepted by the Royal Navy and their cargoes seized.

This left Jefferson in a quandary. Here he was about to launch an attack against France just as England signaled a more hostile maritime policy. If not careful, the United States could find itself diplomatically isolated, considered an enemy of both France and Britain. So Jefferson changed his mind and his policy. In the fall of 1805, he decided to go with the second option—rather than attacking Florida, he would cozy up to the French, offering them assistance in their war with Britain in return for France's pledge to bring Spain to the table. (In the end, it would take until 1819 for Florida to officially become American territory.) In the shorter term, of course, Jefferson's decision was sure to anger the British—but Anglo-American hostilities seemed to be increasing, anyway. And while the French navy was not as strong as that of the British, it could offer the United States some protection on the seas.

Terrible Timing

Again, Jefferson's reasoning made some sense. But what Jefferson did not see coming was the Battle of Trafalgar. On 21 October 1805, British warships engaged the French and Spanish fleets in one of the largest and most consequential naval battles in history. Roughly 70 ships and 4,000 men clashed off the coast of Spain, and the day ended with the British crushing their enemies. The Spanish armada would never recover, and in the wake of Trafalgar, the French would largely abandon the sea to concentrate on the development of their continental army. As a result, Britain would "rule the waves" for the next century. It was the worst possible moment for Thomas Jefferson to have just announced a hostile hard-line policy against British maritime harassment.

It is hard to fault Jefferson entirely for his misstep; could he possibly have seen Trafalgar coming? In fact, in the aftermath of the battle, he rushed off a team of high-level diplomats—James Monroe and William Pinkney—to try to patch things up with the British. Fortunately, the British seemed somewhat conciliatory. They were willing to revise once again their policies on neutral shipping in return for a pledge from the United States that it would not cooperate with French attempts to shut all British goods out of the European continent. Monroe and Pinkney were pleased with this part of the negotiations. Therefore, they sent the treaty off to Jefferson, even though they were disappointed that Britain refused to budge on its policies regarding impressment.

The British had, for decades, claimed the right to intercept foreign vessels on the high seas, search their crews, and seize British subjects who they judged had deserted from the navy or taken flight in order to evade naval service. This policy of impressment of supposedly fugitive sailors was necessary, the British argued, in order to maintain the strength of their navy—and their navy was Britain's strength. Perhaps so. But the practice had infuriated Americans for years. It wasn't easy to tell the difference between an English-speaking American and an Englishman in those days, and occasionally innocent Americans were caught up in these raids and pressed into service in His Majesty's Royal Navy. Nor did naturalization—becoming an American citizen—protect a British sailor from being forced into service. The British argued that if you were born British, you died British. But perhaps most offensive to Americans was the disrespect for American sovereignty implicit in the act of boarding American ships by force at sea. After all, wasn't an American ship an extension of the nation, a floating piece of America? How could Britain reasonably claim that it possessed a right of search and seizure at sea that it could not possibly claim on American soil?

The Price of Principles

When the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty reached Jefferson's desk, he rejected it outright. Britain's dogged insistence on a right to intercept American ships and impress sailors was too great a violation of his understanding of American autonomy, too flagrant a violation of the independence-minded Spirit of '76. To submit would be to accept American subordination to Britain, a modified form of the colonial subservience that Americans had thrown off 30 years before.

Philosophically speaking, Jefferson was likely correct. But his decision to reject the treaty carried huge economic and practical costs. Trade with Britain represented more than two-thirds of all American commerce. Furthermore, the relatively small additional trade directed toward the European continent was all but controlled by Britain's navy. This meant that virtually all of America's overseas commerce was jeopardized by the rejection of the treaty negotiated by Monroe and Pinkney. Jefferson understood this, but he was willing to risk commercial wellbeing as the price of defending a principle. In the final analysis, he was willing to accept no trade over trade that degraded the United States; he was willing to risk commercial collapse rather than submit to a commercial agreement that would have compromised what he perceived to be a fundamental American principle.

The Embargo of 1807

Therefore with Britain now even more hostile than before, and with French markets largely shut off by the British navy, Jefferson played his last remaining card: an embargo. By taking American ships completely off the sea, they would not be placed at risk of capture—and America would not be forced into war by some avoidable naval confrontation. In addition, he believed that the total suspension of American commerce would force both Britain and France to adopt more rational maritime policies. In December 1807, Congress therefore passed, at Jefferson's urging, an embargo on all foreign commerce. American ships would henceforth be allowed only to engage in the coastal trade; they were barred from sailing for foreign ports.

As with every other foreign policy decision made during Jefferson's second term, there was a logic to this one. And consistent with his entire presidency, this logic was informed by Jefferson's ideals. As a Republican, he preferred economic pressure to costly wars and the formation of expensive, dangerous armies. As a patriot, he cringed at the idea of submitting to Britain's heavy-handed naval arrogance. As a natural rights philosopher, he believed that nations, like individuals, possessed rights and that all nations deserved to be treated as equals. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, he had pledged his opposition to "the injuries and usurpations" of the British king. In fact, in Jefferson's rhetoric of 1807, we can hear the old Jefferson, the Jefferson of 1776, resuming his campaign against America's old oppressor.

The Failed Embargo of 1807

But this new battle would not be nearly as successful as the first. The British economy proved far too resilient to be pressured by Jefferson's embargo. British warehouses were already full of the cotton and wheat they most needed from America, allowing Britain to survive the blockage of American trade, at least for the short term. And just about the time these reserves began to run out, cracks in Napoleon's continental blockade opened up new markets for Britain in Spain.

To make matters worse, while the British economy proved almost invulnerable to embargo, the American economy was not. New England, a region heavily dependent on foreign shipping, was hit particularly hard. In Boston, ships sat idle in the harbor while unemployed sailors roamed the streets. Merchants, bankers, and dockworkers all felt the pinch. The fact that New England had been the stronghold of the Federalist Party—and had always opposed Jefferson—did not make any of this go down more easily. In fact, as the embargo-induced recession grew worse, New Englanders resorted to outright evasion and resistance. A steady stream of goods started to flow up the Hudson River into Canada for export from ports beyond the control of American customs officials. Ships sailing from Boston to Charleston, engaged in the legal coastal trade, managed to "blow off course" with amazing regularity, allowing them to trade illegally in West Indies. On the floor of the Massachusetts state legislature, there was talk of nullification—the highly contested claim that a state had a right to cancel or ignore a federal law. In the streets of New England towns, people even talked of seceding from the union.

As this evasion and resistance grew stronger, Jefferson's patience waned. And so, in 1808, the man who had once said a "little rebellion now and then" was a good thing declared the Hudson River region to be in a state of insurrection and sent in the military to curb the illegal trade. The philosopher who had once warned against the slippery slope of governmental power urged Congress to pass an enforcement act to increase the authority of customs officials to seize "suspicious" cargoes without warrants. The republican ideologue who once had proclaimed confidence in the people to regulate their own behavior and argued that national emergencies should be met by a citizen army rising to defend its shared interest, now requested from Congress an army of 30,000 men to aid in the suppression of the insurrection that he believed threatened the national interest.

The Madison Regency

In December 1808, James Madison was elected president. But to a large extent, he had already assumed direction of Jefferson's administration. As Jefferson's embargo failed to secure any British concessions, as New England's resistance grew more concerted and flagrant, and as Jefferson's response to this revolt grew more strident, the president also grew more removed. He had always suffered from severe migraines; in the last year of his presidency, these conspired with the pressures of his failed policy to force Jefferson largely into the background. By the time Madison was inaugurated in March 1809, Jefferson was no longer the central figure in his own administration, much less the city of Washington. Congress made the point when it voted to repeal his embargo in the waning days of his presidency—and set the date for its expiration to coincide with his departure from office.

On 4 March 1809, James Madison was inaugurated president. The confrontation with Britain over its maritime policies would continue for several years, culminating in the War of 1812. But Jefferson would watch all of this from the distance of his Virginia estate. He beat a hasty retreat back to Monticello as soon as the burdens of office were removed from his shoulders, never again returning to Washington. Instead he spent the rest of life tending his gardens, collecting books, and planning the University of Virginia—the project most dear to the philosopher's heart and perhaps better suited to his temperament.

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