Thomas Jefferson seen through Canadian eyes

“Economics and reason alone do not rule history.” says Reginald C Stuart in The Halfway Pacifist.

Reginald C. Stuart may present Thomas Jefferson as an idealistic dreamer who is out of touch with human nature, an “Anglophobe” and even a “fatherly” despot, but one gets the feeling that Stuart likes Jefferson despite everything.

Jefferson on the Canadian flag
Thomas Jefferson

This book, and the bias therein, reveals why the Tea Party is particularly irksome to Canadians.  America’s founding Deist belonged to a party that wanted to “attack Canada” before the country to the North existed.

That “Jefferson hated the English” has become a kind of truism in British writing.  While the rest of the world was joining with either Napoleonic France or Georgian Britain, Americans wanted to stay out of war.  It was thousands miles away, and both sides were engaged in senseless slaughter.

Stuart, recognises this, but still accused Jefferson of being anti-English.  He appears to be convinced that it was Napoleon who introduced total war to the world, and broke the conventions of limited warfare.  Stranger still, Stuart seems to blame Napoleon for somehow forcing the British to take the same position and somehow forcing Britain to attack neutrals half way across the world.

Nelson’s massacre of civilians in his bombardment of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was not caused by Napoleon.  Sure, many of those massacred had sympathized with revolutionary ideals, but their deaths were an unnecessary slaughter.

The impressment of American sailors was also unnecessary.  A modern day equivalent would be like kidnapping Filipino or Panamanian citizens off of fishing vessels and forcing them to fight in Iraq.  Britain impressment’s policy was inexcusable.

Stuart does, in his final pages, acknowledge some British high handedness in the affair.

Yet Stuart blames most of Jefferson’s legitimate anger at the British military on American Indians.  In both with the Henry Hamilton affair and with the continuation of the War of 1812 after the discontinuation of official impressment, Stuart mentions Indians and puts no blame on English combattants.

Despite its Canadian bias, the book does try to be even handed.  Almost everything that Jefferson does which doesn’t attack Canada or its interests is seen as a good thing.

Regarding a treaty that would have been beneficial to Britain, Stuart seems to think that the President does not have the authority to reject treaties.

Well, the executive makes treaties.  If the president appoints someone, that individual is part of the President’s executive branch, and indeed a representative of the President.  If what that representative does is not part of the President’s policy, it will be rejected before going to congress.  Congress has the power to ratify treaties, and thus to reject them, but the President does not have to agree to treaties that he feels are harmful.

The treaty that Jefferson rejected, of course, is one that would have been beneficial to the British empire.

One suspects that these errors are made because Stuart is looking through Canadian eyes.  The Canadian constitutional monarchy is different than America’s constitutional presidency, which Stuart no doubt realizes.  He doesn’t seem to fully appreciate though that Presidential appointees are not like cabinet members in a parliamentary system, and that the American president is not a prime minister.

Another flaw includes the 1801-1805 war of the Barbary pirates.  Although Stuart has studied Jefferson’s reasoning for the war in detail, and rightly points to Jefferson’s related policy against Algiers in the preceding decade, he doesn’t seem to understand why the war finished when and how it did.

Stuart credits the bombardment of Tripoli with the outcome of the war, but that would be incorrect.  Both Sweden and Denmark bombarded Tripoli, but both continued to pay tribute afterwards.

America’s success was largely due to Decatur’s daring destruction of the Philadelphia, and the ransom paid was largely due to an error made during the blockade that made that destruction necessary.  Another part of the success is often attributed to William Eaton’s attempted invasion with Libyan and Egyptian allies, including the “rightful pasha” of Tripoli.  Additional naval operations, also contributed.

The joint European bombardments of later years were very different affairs.

It’s possible to see, as the war in Tripoli did not concern Canada, that Stuart may not be interested in the details.  Still, one is tempted to think that examining this aspect of Jefferson’s presidency might have shed further light on Jefferson’s changing attitude to war.

Wars that were not covered here are sufficiently covered in other books.  Many other authors, however, lack Stuart’s patience.  The other books don’t actually sift through Jefferson’s writings as Stuart does; instead they rely on old party prejudice, as passed down through secondary sources.

However, Stuart is able to show Jefferson’s general policy, despite ignoring the details of the war in Tripoli (and despite neglecting the crisis in what would become Haiti.)  He quotes Jefferson extensively, and he examines Jefferson’s attitude to European wars that America did not enter, including South American independence struggles.  Jefferson’s attitude to the Monroe doctrine is briefly examined, and Jefferson’s philosophies are compared to those of his contemporaries.

Also covered is Thomas Jefferson’s alleged partisanship.  Jefferson did not like the Jay Treaty, which was put forward by Federalists. Nor did he like the Quasi War, which Adams, a Federalist, brought on.

What should be noted, however, is that both of these policies were favorable to the British empire and Canada.

By concentrating his efforts against the French enemy, President John Adams allowed Canadian trade with the US and the Indies to flourish.  Jay’s treaty recognised Canada’s claims and freed Britain to concentrate their fighting against the French.

Another policy of Jefferson’s which could be seem to be that of an “Anglophobe” was his desire to invade “Canada.”  Jefferson envisioned a day where North Americans expelled “the English” from their continent.  Stuart fails to mention that by “the English” Jefferson meant the English system of government, or in other words, Jefferson proposed to liberate Canada from a monarchical government.  Canadians, as history soon showed, didn’t want this.  In this respect, Jefferson was an interventionist.

However, as Stuart points out, Jefferson’s interventionism was limited to practical applications.  Once the threat from Britain had gone, Jefferson no longer wished to “invade” Canada.  Stuart attributes Jefferson’s apparently shifting attitudes partially to the temper created by the moods of war.  He sees Jefferson as a great thinker who gets angry when under pressure.

Stuart is right that Jefferson was human and thus had some limitations of understanding.  With hindsight, it’s hard to see why Jefferson thought that the Embargo Act experiment would work.

Was Jefferson a hopeless pacifist?  Did Jefferson over-estimate the importance of American trade with Britain? Or as Stuart suggested, did he misunderstand the whole British economic system?  Or, might have the Embargo succeeded had Madison continued with the policy in the ways that Jefferson suggested?

Whatever the case, it is easy enough to look back at the failed policy and pretend that Jefferson lacked insight into economics.

Stuart claims that “those elements [in Britain] which suffered most [from the Embargo Act] were politically impotent.”  In other words, the embargo act did affect some British subjects, but it didn’t work because those people had no power.  Stuart also supplies letters that Jefferson wrote to others about his economic ideas, and suggests that the recipients of these letters must have been shocked that the “sage” could be so ignorant when it came to money.

The fact that Jefferson himself was in debt is not neglected, nor is the fact that America suffered economically from the Embargo Act.

Stuart seems to understand Jefferson’s economic policies better than many American activists who like to quote Jefferson.  Stuart points out that Jefferson preferred spending money on the general welfare of the people (through acts such as the Louisiana purchase) than through the ravages of war.  In any case, Jefferson saw spending money as a kind of investment.  However, there are times when Jefferson may not have made the right investments, as was the case with his personal finances.

Armed with this information, Stuart makes a convincing argument that Jefferson’s economic policies were flawed.  The flaw appears to have been this: while Jefferson knew how to save money, he didn’t know how to create wealth.  (The book does not analyse the economic benefits of the Louisiana purchase.  Instead, Stuart uses Jefferson’s own words on the purchase’s value, and then supposes that it was a baseless exaggeration.)

What’s not so easy is to understand Stuart’s rationale that Jefferson is Anglophobic.  One suspects that Stuart has inherited an institutional bias from years of British and Canadian scholarship on the Napoleonic wars.

“Europe was engaged in total war where self-interest was ambition, and power, not reason, was the telling argument.” Stuart says. Thomas Jefferson, Stuart argued, was daydreaming when he thought that rational discussion would achieve anything in the age of Napoleon.

Stuart repeatedly argued that human beings are not rational, and that Jefferson was stuck in 18th century thought when he clung to outdated virtues of limited warfare.

The book is worth reading because, while flawed, it is meticulously researched and it is clearly written.  The flaws are natural, as they are based on the bias inherent in a Canadian view of history.

At just sixty five pages (before the footnotes), “The Halfway Pacifist” is a simple and brief analysis of a complex man, and it serves as a great introduction to the foreign policy of Thomas Jefferson.

cited books: The Half-way Pacifist: Thomas Jefferson’s View of War