Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson's Foreign Policy. By Francis D. Cogliano. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. 302 pp.
Is the president jeopardizing the United States geopolitically, or is he doing about the best he can in a very challenging foreign policy context? While this debate rages about the current chief executive, Francis D. Cogliano urges us to revisit this question in regard to Thomas Jefferson. President Jefferson envisioned and worked to make the United States a vast, continent-wide "empire of liberty." That much is clear. What seems to have been long settled--that he pursued his republican aims in an overly idealistic manner that ultimately threatened the whole project--is disputed by Cogliano. Instead Jefferson was pragmatic about the means of protecting and extending the United States. His successes and his vision should make us consider Jefferson "the father of the first American empire" (p. 6).
Emperor of Liberty consists of a set of case studies on Jefferson's foreign policy, stretching back to the time he served as Virginia's governor. The cases enable us to view Jefferson's positions across a large expanse of time and in multiple contexts. Cogliano devotes substantial attention to Jefferson's approach to the Barbary states, for instance, both before and during his presidency. He also takes pains to carefully explain the setting and major events of each case.
Serious challenges emerge to the thesis that Jefferson was a hopeless idealist. As governor, he acted defensibly and even courageously in the face of the British threat to Virginia. He would not have been trusted to be the nation's first secretary of state had the scandal about his response to British actions been credible. Jefferson was more bellicose than John Adams toward state-sponsored piracy in the Mediterranean. He favored military action against the Barbary states because he calculated that the United States would win such a conflict.
Jefferson, like Washington, knew that time was on the side of the Americans. This made him favor migration as a primary tool of American foreign policy. It would allow the United States to take Florida peacefully and, in time, probably, the Mississippi River valley, too. This more "realist" Jefferson also endorsed the unilateral embargo on American goods flowing to Britain as an expedient to buy time, rather than as the optimal choice of a peaceable republican regime. Cogliano acknowledges that the resulting...