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Thomas Jefferson: The Original Isolationist


“Isolationist”. The term is criminally overused in the American political scene, considering there are few true isolationists of any prominence in the national discourse, on the right or the left. Those that do exist are almost all outside the realm of elected office – there is little appetite for the kind of Defense Department deconstruction and market retreat isolationists favor in America. True isolationists advocate a retreat from the world stage entirely based on a naïve set of assumptions about human behavior and the threats we face as a nation (remember your Reagan: “We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent”). If there is a logical reason to support a war – if the nation is under attack – most Americans will understand the need to hoist the black flag. But Americans are not interested in sending their children overseas to die for a cause that is unclear or a reason that makes little sense to them. This isn’t isolationist – it’s simply common sense.

We’ve had this debate most recently in the context of the Syria discussion, where “isolationist” was thrown around quite a bit by irresponsible writers on the right who found others on their side insufficiently in favor of strikes. Jonah Goldberg has written about this on more than one occasion:

[I]n the context of the Syria debate, the term is particularly absurd. There are a great many hawks, interventionists, internationalists – pick a term that means something other than isolationist – who don’t want to attack Syria at all or certainly not on the terms being offered by this White House. Are, say, John Bolton, Don Rumsfeld, or Charles Krauthammer now isolationists? Marc Thiessen makes a good argument today that a feckless strike on Syria that is just serious enough not to be mocked would be a disaster. Is Thiessen an isolationist? If so, we are now in Crazy Pants Land.

Timothy Carney’s sarcastic definition comes to mind: “Isolationist: n. Someone who, on occasion, opposes bombing foreigners.” I’d phrase it slightly different. An isolationist is someone who doesn’t want to bomb foreigners when I do. That at least is the way it’s used in Washington these days by a lot of pundits, politicians and reporters in favor of striking Syria. The problem with this kind of argument is that it leaves no room for disagreement about tactics, policy, etc.  Can’t you just think it’s a bad idea without being an “isolationist”?

George Will also wrote about the context of isolationism in the 1930s in his column this weekend. We recently debated this trend on The Blaze, and I was concerned by what seems to be a lack of historical knowledge of the definitions of this term prior to the 20th century.

This approach has a long history, and when some authors refer to it as Jeffersonian, they are drawing an accurate connection to the behavior and views of our third, and most sphinx-like, president. Now, some of you may object: “What about the Barbary Pirates and the shores of Tripoli?” Yes, President Jefferson was happy to deploy America’s fledgling navy – whose creation, in classic Jeffersonian fashion, he had strenuously opposed (and proposed an unworkable alternative) when George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were advocating for it – to end the threat of this system of ransom and piracy, and he was right to do it even if he established a bad precedent by not receiving Congressional approval. But as with so many aspects of Jefferson, you can look at what he did and what he said in different contexts, and pick the one you like.

The important thing to understand is that when we talk about the Jeffersonian view of isolationism, it goes far beyond military activity and stretches into global engagement as a whole, involving individual liberty and trade. And that requires us to consider Jefferson’s embargo, the most isolationist policy step ever taken in American history – and an instructive one in showing why the isolationist viewpoint has such little backing in the modern era of the global marketplace.

Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo

In 1807, as Great Britain and France were locked in conflict, Britain had steadily increased the practice of impressment – seizing Americans they viewed as British subjects to serve on their ships. They did so under threat of force and killed a few people along the way – an incident off Norfolk, Virginia, the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, made the problem more pressing in the minds of Americans.

Initially, Jefferson tried to deal with the impressment problem through diplomacy, sending James Monroe to try to rework the Jay Treaty of 1795 (which Jefferson had also opposed) and forbid the practice. Sadly, Monroe failed. Jefferson, infuriated at an inability to push back through diplomatic means, decided on a dramatic and foolhardy maneuver: a total embargo on trade with Britain and France.

To put things in perspective: tariffs and duties on trade with these two nations at this point made up more than half of the revenues for America’s government. When Alexander Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury, he was presented with a post-war debt-to-income ratio of 46 to 1. By the time Jefferson took office, that untenable fiscal problem had been reduced to about 8 to 1, all without raising significant taxes on internal American products (whiskey was the lone exception).

Jefferson couldn’t cut off those import duties, so instead he decided to embark on the most restrictive approach to American trade in our history – he would continue to allow British ships to trade in our ports to support the import duties, but he would not allow American exporters and shippers to trade our goods with either nation.

In Thomas McCraw’s excellent book on Hamilton and Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, he relates the story of what happened next:

Gallatin opposed it more strongly than any other proposal Jefferson made during their eight years together in office. And he tried, almost desperately, to prevent it. He pointed out how much an embargo would violate Jefferson’s own principles of individual freedom: “Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves.” Nor could such an embargo possibly serve its purpose. “As to the hope that it may … induce England to treat us better, I think it entirely groundless.” Jefferson nevertheless went ahead. Congress passed the Embargo Act on December 22, 1807, six months after the Chesapeake incident. The act, startling in its reach, required that all foreign trade by American ships come to a halt. It specified that no American merchant vessel could leave an American port for a foreign destination and that no U.S. ship anywhere could carry goods to Britain, France, or their colonies. As Jefferson apparently saw it, the embargo’s purpose was to protect American ships from capture and American seamen from impressment, while buying time for the United States to prepare for war. The government’s call for the widespread activation of militiamen, meanwhile, evoked a tepid response from the states.

Contrary to almost all expectations, the embargo continued not for a few weeks but for fifteen months, until Jefferson was about to leave office. During this long period, the embargo did not even begin to accomplish its purpose. It brought untold mischief and lawbreaking, and proved to be the biggest blunder of Jefferson’s presidency… As commerce declined, smuggling by American shippers would rise. The embargo would require ever-stronger policing by the federal government, a contradiction of core Jeffersonian principles…

Under these conditions, maritime smuggling spiraled out of control. Less than three weeks after the initial embargo became law in December 1807, Congress was forced by circumstances to pass a supplementary act that covered not only ships crossing the Canadian border on lakes, but even riverboats. It also imposed extremely heavy penalties for violations: forfeiture of the ship and its cargo, or a fine double the value of both. In March 1808, still a third law prohibited the export of all goods of any kind, even overland into Canada or, in the South, into Florida, which was then in the hands of Spain. This third law was a harsh and telling extension of the original act, which, in Jefferson’s words, was supposed to keep American ships and seamen from harm’s way.

In a prelude of the cronyist spoils-system approach of governance that would later be adopted by many other presidents, the 1807 embargo act allowed for the president to personally make exceptions for individual ships – a waiver process, if you will – allowing him to pick and choose who could ignore the embargo. Gallatin was overwhelmed with applications from would-be cronies, desperate for the president to let them through. But Jefferson dawdled on answering them, and the broader force of his embargo had disastrous results, according to McCraw:

American exports declined from $108 million in 1807 to $22 million in 1808, a drop of 80 percent; imports fell by a little less but still by more than half, from $139 million to $56 million. From 1808 to 1809, federal revenues plummeted from $17 million to $7.8 million. The public’s alienation mounted not only in the New England states, where the Jeffersonians’ popularity had seldom been high, but in every port city in the nation. John Randolph of Roanoke, Jefferson’s former ally, wrote at the end of Jefferson’s second term, “Never has there been any Administration which went out of office and left the nation in a state so deplorable and calamitous.”

The obvious irony of the months from June 1807 to March 1809 was that Jefferson, the nation’s best-known apostle of liberty and minimal government, had created their precise opposite. The embargo imposed the most rigorous and prolonged economic restrictions on the liberties of white Americans up to that time, and the strongest peacetime restrictions down to the present day. Jefferson apparently expected voluntary compliance with the embargo, and it seems likely that he believed his fellow citizens to be as idealistic as he himself was. He had allowed his ideas about how Americans should behave to overwhelm the obvious fact that the embargo was a draconian and unreasonable measure, certain to fail.

The embargo was one of Jefferson’s last significant acts as president. He was uninterested in engaging in its application or dealing with the political fallout, and retreated to Monticello, handing off the duty to enforce this unworkable approach to Gallatin. When people wrote to him urging him to reconsider, he doubled down. McCraw writes:

Jefferson urged Gallatin to secure still stronger laws of enforcement. Contemporaries argued at the time about the president’s intentions, and historians have done so ever since. After all, Jefferson was a genuine American icon whose views had helped to shape the national character. But the embargo flew directly in the face of the very principles of liberty he personified.

The real shame of the Jeffersonian embargo was that it generated the most serious secession movement in the United States prior to 1860 – except the secession contemplated was of the New England states. The movement culminated in the Hartford Convention, which rejected secession for the time being. Jefferson’s personal unwillingness to tackle the problem of slavery and his championing of the most restrictionist trade policy in American history proved a prelude of the bloody conflict to come.

The Jefferson embargo was based on the autarkical and anti-globalist views Jefferson had come to hold later in life, a view which presumes the global economy ought to work the way Monticello did. Jefferson approached these issues as a wealthy gentleman farmer, with a perspective that lent itself more readily to restrictions on the free market and an isolationist view of the economy. This view is essential to true isolationism to this very day, and it is no more accurate in its assumptions about human nature or the possibility of disengagement from the global marketplace than it was in 1807. Modern liberty-minded people have much to learn from Jefferson’s writings, but in the context of today’s debates, true isolationism is almost nonexistent in political debates because it has been overtaken by reality.

It’s no accident that the non-interventionists of today include many libertarians and libertarian-minded Republicans. Their entire worldview is based on a rejection of restrictions on trade at the micro and macro level, and instead trusting people to make wise choices within the global free market leads to better outcomes for all. They understand that a marketplace which is more free and allows for more competition is definitively a better approach than restrictionist solutions. This should serve as another reminder that non-interventionism is not isolationism, nor should the two ever be confused by any responsible commentator.