Erik leads off this week’s discussion of From Colony to Superpower. Chapter 3 deals with the period between 1801 and 1815. This period saw the dominance of the Republicans, and of the Virginia planter class. George Herring is considerably less sympathetic to the Republicans than to the Federalists, at least in terms of foreign policy. Both Jefferson and Madison receive criticism, on points both practical and ideological.
On a couple of points, Herring get hilariously cruel. Noting Jefferson’s preference for the language of “natural right” in the Declaration of Independence, Herring points out other instances in which Jefferson understand American interest in terms of natural rights, such as the natural right of American commercial access to the Mississippi (in spite of the French and Spanish property right to same), and the natural right of the United States to have a border along the Gulf of Mexico. Jefferson also made a conscious distinction between the kind of natural rights possessed by native Americans and African slaves, with the former achieving the status of “noble savage” which meant a chance for assimilation and eventual inclusion within the United States. Didn’t really work out that way, but nevertheless…
It’s dangerous to attempt to derive modern parallels for the events of the early nineteenth century. On the one hand, the author most certainly wants to make the history seem relevant. On the other, there is an obvious risk to understanding the past in the context of the present, rather than on its own terms. Herring discusses two incident in particular that reminded of modern foreign policy questions. The first involved continuing violence on the frontier. Herring discusses how the Americans appeared genuinely incapable of believing that Indian violence and attacks stemmed from the behavior of settlers and the US government. Rather, British influence was blamed, virtually without evidence.
Similarly, the US treatment of Haiti seems to lay out a template for 20th century Cuba policy. Adams moderated Haiti policy substantially (partially in response to tensions with France), but Jefferson pursued a very hard initial line. He shifted somewhat when anti-French sentiment rose just prior to the Louisiana Purchase, then returned to the hard line after the completion of his transaction with Napoleon. Because of the influence of Southern slaveholders, the US would not recognize Haiti until the Lincoln administration.
Herring is extremely critical of Madison’s handling of the War of 1812, both in terms of its initiation and its execution. While recognizing that genuine policy conflicts existed between Great Britain and the United States, Herring faults Madison (and Jefferson) for inept diplomacy backed by no military force. Republican nervousness about standing military forces limited US capability, and by necessity produced an unfortunate confidence in the capacity of militia and irregular troops. Naval victories in the Great Lakes, combined with instability in Europe, managed to save the US from a more serious disaster.
Jefferson’s Embargo against France and Britain was one of the most ill-conceived projects in the history of American foreign policy. Jefferson barely bothered to explain the policy to the American people, or to build domestic support. Since many constituencies depended on trade with Britain, there was immediate resistance and efforts at circumvention. Moreover, the embargo had none of its intended effects; the French barely noticed, while the British were able to take advantage of emerging suppliers in Spanish America. As Erik notes, the Embargo depended on a radical over-inflation on Jefferson’s part of the importance of American trade to Europe.