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Top 10 Foreign Policy Presidents, Number 9: Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was America’s philosopher-president. As the main author of the Declaration of Independence and Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, many at the time saw Jefferson as both a dreamer and a radical and feared his election (which he termed the Revolution of 1800) would bring the sort of Jacobinism that he endorsed in France to America. Jefferson pivoted to the center while in the Executive Mansion and proved himself arguably the finest political operator within the young republic.

The Louisiana Purchase was his signature achievement. Napoleon put his brother in charge of Spain, which ceded the Louisiana Territory to France. Jefferson’s Francophilia showed its ceiling when he grasped the limited appeal of having modern history’s greatest conqueror placing his empire on America’s flank. Jefferson sent James Monroe to Paris to negotiate New Orleans’ sale. The Haitian Revolution removed France’s primary access point to North America and so Napoleon instructed Talleyrand, his foreign minister, to sell all of Louisiana to America for $15 million. This news arrived in Washington City on July 4, 1803. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about buying new territory but Jefferson placed his strict constitutionalism aside and pushed the deal through Congress before Napoleon could change his mind. The result doubled America’s size and was a critical step toward the country’s rise on the world stage.

Jefferson is frequently (and rightfully) called a hypocrite for owning slaves and having a non consensual affair with Sally Hemings while writing that “all men are created equal” but this should not obscure his role in undermining two slave trades. The Constitution did not allow the government to discuss withdrawing from the Atlantic Slave trade until 1808, which became Jefferson’s last year in office. He seized his chance and had Congress ban the future importation of slaves (unfortunately, this increased the value of slaves domestically, leading to increased sales and familial separations). The other trade was in North Africa. Jefferson refused to pay the Barbary Pirates’ bribe, leading to their attacks on American ships and their enslavement of our sailors. Jefferson blockaded Tripoli and attempted a coup. The American flag was raised in the Old World for the first time and the Marines gained a line in their march (“to the shores of Tripoli”).

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars dominated the foreign policies of our first four Presidents and although this conflict led to Jefferson’s greatest achievement it also led to his greatest failure. Jefferson had Congress pass the Embargo Act in December 1807, ending American trade with the world. He hoped this would gain leverage to stop British and French attacks on America’s shipping but instead it caused one of America’s early recessions and Jefferson’s presidency to end on a bad note. He left office an aged man, unable to resolve the crisis that would become the War of 1812 under James Madison.

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