Taking Exception to Exceptionalism: Geopolitics and the Founding of an American Empire
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Taking Exception to Exceptionalism:
Geopolitics and the Founding of an American Empire
Keywords

Thomas Jefferson, American empire, U.S. foreign policy, Diplomacy, Monroe Doctrine

Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy. By Francis D. Cogliano. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. 320. Cloth, $32.50.)

Long before George W. Bush peered into the soul of Vladimir Putin, Thomas Jefferson gazed with admiration on the bust of Tsar Alexander I. What could the father of American democracy have possibly seen to admire in the autocratic ruler of the Russian empire? While Jefferson firmly believed that republican forms of government were superior to monarchy, he also recognized that not all societies had evolved to the point where they could sustain republican principles. For these more primitive political societies, Jefferson saw enlightened and benign monarchs like Alexander I as the best possible rulers. Moreover, the Sage of Monticello had imaginatively transformed Alexander into the savior of Europe, smiting Napoleon with one hand, and slapping down the pugnacious British Empire with the other.

The bust of Emperor Napoleon I of France sat opposite that of Alexander I at Monticello. Where Jefferson idealized Alexander, the enlightened ruler, he despised Napoleon, the archetypal despot. But, as Francis D. Cogliano argues in the opening vignette of Emperor of Liberty, this juxtaposition of the two emperors’ likenesses does not mean they were polar opposites—rather, Alexander and Napoleon represented variations [End Page 653] of a type (4–5). To these two emperors, Cogliano adds a third: Jefferson himself. In doing so, Emperor of Liberty joins a growing wave of scholarship that places the founding of an American empire in a transnational context.1 As we have seen in the recent work of Eliga H. Gould and Jay Sexton,2 Cogliano challenges the idea that the empire of liberty was an exceptional enterprise. These three authors reveal how creole imperialism was less a radically new development that set the American Republic apart from the ancien régime than it was a New World variation on the common theme of European empire. All three downplay the importance of ideology, emphasizing instead the central role that geopolitical calculations played in the creation of an American empire.

Emperor of Liberty offers the first reassessment of Thomas Jefferson’s foreign policy in almost a quarter century since the publication of Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson’s Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson in 1990.3 Rather than focusing exclusively on Jefferson’s presidency, as did Tucker and Hendrickson, Cogliano takes a longer view of the Virginian’s executive career from his disastrous spell as wartime governor of the Commonwealth to his retirement from the presidency in 1809. Emperor of Liberty also breaks with Tucker and Hendrickson by offering a series of case studies that chart the evolution of Jefferson’s thinking on ‘‘statecraft’’—instead of pursuing a comprehensive narrative of U.S. foreign policy during his presidency. This difference is not simply a matter of style: Where Tucker and Hendrickson see Jefferson’s ideological commitment to republicanism shaping his idealist foreign policy, Cogliano argues that his statecraft was shaped by his [End Page 654] thirty-year experience in international relations as a governor, a diplomat, a secretary of state, and, finally, a two-term president.

An episodic approach to Jefferson’s career is an effective way of highlighting the key moments in the development of his executive philosophy. But Emperor of Liberty may not immediately replace Tucker and Hendrickson’s work as the reference volume of choice for early American historians looking for a quick answer to queries about Jeffersonian foreign policy. That said, Cogliano’s determination to move beyond the realist–idealist dichotomy does offer an important correction to Tucker and Hendrickson, which means that, to the great chagrin of copyeditors everywhere, Emperor of Liberty and Empire of Liberty are destined to be coupled in footnotes for the foreseeable future.

The founding of an empire of liberty lay at the heart of Jeffersonian foreign policy. In this, Cogliano recognizes the importance of Jefferson’s embrace of republicanism as the highest form of government and the critical legacy of the American...