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Foreign Policy Under Thomas Jefferson

Good Start, Disastrous End

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Thomas Jefferson
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Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican, won the presidency from John Adams in the election of 1800. Highs and lows marked his foreign policy initiatives, which included the spectacularly successful Louisiana Purchase, and the horrid Embargo Act.

Years in Office: first term, 1801-1805; second term, 1805-1809.

Foreign Policy Ranking: first term, good; second term, disastrous

Barbary War

Jefferson was the first president to commit US forces to a foreign war. Barbary pirates, sailing from Tripoli (now the capital of Libya), and other places in North Africa, had long demanded tribute payments from American merchant ships plying the Mediterranean Sea. In 1801, however, they raised their demands, and Jefferson demanded an end to the practice of bribe payments.

Jefferson sent US Navy ships and a contingent of Marines to Tripoli, where a brief engagement with pirates marked the United States' first successful overseas venture. The conflict also helped convince Jefferson, never a supporter of large standing armies, that the United States needed a professionally trained military officer cadre. As such, he signed legislation to create the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1763, France lost the French and Indian War to Great Britain. Before the Treaty of Paris of 1763 stripped it permanently of all territory in North America, France ceded Louisiana (a roughly defined territory west of the Mississippi River and south of the 49th Parallel) to Spain for diplomatic "safe-keeping." France planned to retrieve it from Spain in the future.

The deal made Spain nervous as it feared losing the territory, first to Great Britain, then to the United States after 1783. To prevent incursions, Spain periodically shut down the Mississippi to Anglo-American trade.

President Washington, through Pinckney's Treaty in 1796, negotiated an end to Spanish interference on the river.

In 1802, Napoleon, now emperor of France, made plans to reclaim Louisiana from Spain. Jefferson recognized that French reacquisition of Louisiana would negate Pinckney's Treaty, and he sent a diplomatic delegation to Paris to renegotiate it.

In the meantime, a military corps that Napoleon had sent to reoccupy New Orleans had run afoul of disease and revolution in Haiti. It subsequently abandoned its mission, causing Napoleon to consider Louisiana too costly and cumbersome to maintain.

Upon meeting the US delegation, Napoleon's ministers offered to sell the United States all of Louisiana for $15 million. The diplomats did not have the authority to make the purchase, so they wrote to Jefferson and waited weeks for a response.

Jefferson favored strict interpretation of the Constitution; that is, he did not favor wide latitude in interpreting the document. He abruptly switched to a loose constitutional interpretation of executive authority and okayed the purchase. In doing so, he doubled the size of the United States cheaply and without warfare. The Louisiana Purchase was Jefferson's greatest diplomatic and foreign policy achievement.

Embargo Act

When fighting between France and England intensified, Jefferson tried to craft a foreign policy that allowed the United States to trade with both belligerents without taking sides in their war. That was impossible, given that both sides considered trade with the other a defacto act of war.

While both countries violated American "neutral trade rights" with a series of trade restrictions, the United States considered Great Britain to be the biggest violator because of its practice of impressment -- kidnapping US sailors from American ships to serve in the British navy. In 1806, Congress -- now controlled by Democrat-Republicans -- passed the Non-Importation Act, which prohibited the import of certain goods from the British Empire.

The act did no good, and both Great Britain and France continued to deny American neutral rights. Congress and Jefferson ultimately responded with the Embargo Act in 1807. The act, believe it or not, prohibited American trade with all nations -- period. Certainly, the act contained loopholes, and some foreign goods came in while smugglers got some American goods out. But the act stopped the bulk of American trade, hurting the nation's economy. In fact, it wrecked the economy of New England, which relied almost exclusively on trade to support its economy.

The act rested in part on Jefferson's inability to craft a creative foreign policy for the situation. It also pointed out American arrogance which believed the major European nations would cave in without American goods.

The Embargo Act failed, and Jefferson ended it just days before he left office in March 1809. It marked the lowest point of his foreign policy attempts.

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