Thomas Jefferson and the History of U.S. Foreign Policy

From the Lecture Series: America and the World — A Diplomatic History

By Mark Stoler, Ph.D., University of Vermont

Thomas Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 would lead to a dramatic shift in the history of U.S. foreign policy, and his ideas regarding landed expansion and its relationship to liberty would dominate domestic policy for more than a century.

Portrait of Thomas jefferson by Rembrandt Peale1800
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) was an American statesman, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He later served as the third President of the United States (Image: By Rembrandt Peale/Public domain)

Thomas Jefferson and the History of U.S. Foreign Policy

Jefferson was, first and foremost, an intense nationalist. He saw the United States as the haven of liberty worldwide. Indeed, he saw the American republican experiment as the wave of the future for the entire world, and America’s cause was thus the cause of liberty worldwide. In effect, what Jefferson was doing here was equating the national interests of the United States with the interests of human freedom and progress. He is considered by many to have been the nation’s first ideologue in this regard.

Jefferson was also a semi-pacifist; he believed that war is irrational and evil. I say “semi-pacifist,” however, because he was willing to use force under certain circumstances, even though he did consider it irrational and evil. But the epitome of the warfare state is the entire European state system, and Jefferson therefore desired isolation from the quarrels and the wars of Europe.

This is a transcript from the video series America and the World: A Diplomatic History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

“No Entangling Alliances”

In his first inaugural address in 1801, Jefferson referred to the United States as “kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one-quarter of the globe”—Europe—and its citizens as living in a “chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth generation.” It is Jefferson who used the term “no entangling alliances.”

These views were not new. In 1799, he wrote:

I am for free commerce with all nations; political connection with none; and little or no diplomatic establishment. And I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe; entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance. … The first object of my heart is my own country. … I have not one farthing of interest, nor one fibre of attachment out of it, but in proportion as they are more or less friendly to us.

There are two other facts to keep in mind: Jefferson believed that trade and economic coercion could provide rational alternatives to war for the nation. And Jefferson was a very strong proponent of landed expansion across North America. He believed that such expansion would enable the United States to remain an agrarian republic, and he kept referring to the country as an “empire of liberty”; the more it grew, the more land it had, the more yeoman farmers it had, the greater its independence from Europe.

Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s Frustration

Jefferson and Napoleon Vie for Louisiana

Portrait of of Napoleon Bonaparte by Antoine-Jean Gros  1802
First Consul Bonaparte, by Antoine-Jean Gros (Detail), c. 1802 (Image: By Antoine-Jean Gros/Public domain)

Jefferson’s great foreign policy triumph was the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the United States. American settlers had been moving into this Spanish territory in large numbers ever since Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795. By 1801, Americans in the territory outnumbered the French and the Spanish. Jefferson believed that this peaceful movement of American settlers into this territory would eventually Americanize the area and force a weak Spain to sell Louisiana to the United States.

But on October 1, 1800, Napoleon, in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso with Spain, regained Louisiana for France. This was to be part of Napoleon’s effort to reestablish a large French empire in the New World. Louisiana was not Napoleon’s focal point. Napoleon was focused on the island of Hispaniola or Santo Domingo—today, it constitutes Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

This was the rich island that was to be the key to Napoleon’s New World empire. Louisiana was to be its granary. It was to supply food to the people—the slaves and the overseers and the workers on the island who were growing sugar and coffee on large plantations. The deal with Spain was that Spain would retrocede Louisiana back to France and give Napoleon six warships. In return, Napoleon would give a kingdom in Italy to the son-in-law of the Spanish king.

Napoleon realized that this treaty could lead to trouble with the United States and that the United States or Great Britain could seize the area in any war. He thus signed the Convention of Mortefontaine with the United States one day before the Treaty of San Ildefonso. He also signed a preliminary peace with the British on the same day as San Ildefonso.

Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s Party

Tension in New Orleans

The U.S. could not allow a strong, threatening power to control New Orleans.

San Ildefonso was to be a secret treaty, but word of it leaked out. Jefferson found it extremely threatening for two reasons. First, unlike the weak Spain, the very strong France could stifle the process of Americanization in Louisiana. Furthermore, a strong France in New Orleans constituted a mortal threat, not simply to American expansion but to existing U.S. territory.

Jefferson would note that already at this time, three-eighths of all American produce went down the Mississippi River system and through the port of New Orleans. You could not allow a strong, threatening power to control New Orleans. Jefferson also feared that the next time Britain and France went to war, Britain might seize the port of New Orleans, which would be just as dangerous as having the French at the port.

To compound the threat, in October of 1802, the Spanish governor in New Orleans revoked the right of deposit preparatory to giving the territory over to France. That decision was reversed in April of 1803, but the damage had been done by that point and Jefferson had acted. Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, had first sent Robert Livingston as the new U.S. minister to Paris. Now, they sent James Monroe to join Livingston and with instructions to purchase New Orleans and/or portions of West Florida for $10 million or, at the very least, to get an expanded right of deposit at New Orleans.

Learn more: Jefferson Dispatches Lewis and Clark

The United States Makes a $15 Million Purchase

Monroe arrived in Paris on April 12, 1803, to find that Napoleon, on April 11—the day before—had offered Livingston not just New Orleans but the whole Louisiana Territory for $15 million. Why? Essentially, it was due to the frustrations and losses that Napoleon had suffered in crushing a slave insurrection on Santo Domingo under Toussaint Louverture.

He had sent more than 30,000 troops to crush this rebellion on the island. The troops had been successful, but they had suffered a very high casualty rate—above 50%—yellow fever had hit, and a new slave rebellion had broken out. Napoleon lost thousands and thousands of men, including his own brother-in-law commanding the army. Louisiana was considered worthless without Haiti, and Napoleon was done with Haiti—as he supposedly commented at the time in disgust: “Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies.”

Learn more about The Napoleonic Era, 1799–1815

There were also delays in the actual transfer of Louisiana and in getting his occupation army into New Orleans. It was frozen in European ports by an early winter and could not get out. Also, there was a looming resumption of war in Europe, and for such a war, Napoleon needed money. Furthermore, in a war, either the United States or Britain could easily take Louisiana—New Orleans in particular and, with it, the rest of Louisiana.

Selling it to the United States would keep it out of British hands and turn the United States into a friendly neutral instead of an enemy. Speed in the negotiations was necessary in order to preclude a British attack or Spanish objections. According to the Treaty of San Ildefonso, Napoleon could not sell Louisiana to a third party without informing Spain. He did not inform Spain. Indeed, he only held Louisiana for 20 days.

Common Questions About Jefferson’s Foreign Policy

Q: What exactly was Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policy?

Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policy was to trade with both France and England without getting involved in their disputes. This was illogical and problematic as both sides regarded mutual trade as an act of war.

Q: What changes did Jefferson make to U.S. policy?

Jefferson’s goal was to end the 1790s Federalist programs. Thomas Jefferson’s administration reduced national debt, government spending, and taxes.

Q: What were Jefferson’s domestic goals?

Jefferson wanted his administration to give men more freedom to pursue business and greater security so they could worry less about crime.

Q: What did Jefferson’s foreign policy result in?

Jefferson’s foreign policy of trading with both sides resulted in the opposite of what he wanted, which was fighting and destruction of property. Jefferson enacted the Embargo Act of 1807, which nearly destroyed the U.S. economy.

This article was updated on 11/23/2019

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