What Was Foreign Policy Like Under Thomas Jefferson?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
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Thomas Jefferson, a Democrat-Republican, won the presidency from John Adams in the election of 1800 and served from 1801 to 1809. Highs and lows marked his foreign policy initiatives, which included the spectacularly successful Louisiana Purchase, and the disastrous Embargo Act.

Barbary War

Jefferson was the first president to commit U.S. 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 bribery payments.

Jefferson sent 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 and then to the United States after 1783. To prevent incursions, Spain periodically shut down the Mississippi to Anglo-American trade. President George 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 the 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 U.S. 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 a 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 approved 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 de facto 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 bigger violator because of its practice of impressment—kidnapping U.S. 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 prohibited American trade with all nations. 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.

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 suffer 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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Jones, Steve. "What Was Foreign Policy Like Under Thomas Jefferson?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/foreign-policy-under-thomas-jefferson-3310348. Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). What Was Foreign Policy Like Under Thomas Jefferson? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/foreign-policy-under-thomas-jefferson-3310348 Jones, Steve. "What Was Foreign Policy Like Under Thomas Jefferson?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/foreign-policy-under-thomas-jefferson-3310348 (accessed May 29, 2023).