Jeffersonian Principles

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“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

“The principles of Jefferson are the axioms of a free society.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Thomas Jefferson (1743—1826) was no ordinary Founding Father. He served as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses (1769), a delegate to the Continental Congress (1775), the governor of Virginia (1779), minister to France (1785), the first Secretary of State (1789), the vice president of the United States (1796), and finally, the president of the United States (1801). He also established the University of Virginia (1810).

Although most high school students are probably taught that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, very few are probably also taught that he wrote the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and the Kentucky Resolutions, which were written in response to the original Patriot Act — the Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson also wrote hundreds of letters on a wide variety of subjects. Because most of what he wrote has been published, Jefferson is one of the most quoted persons in history.

Perhaps the most famous quote from Jefferson is that oft-repeated one from his first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1801: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.”

This quote is part of Jefferson’s annunciation of what he deemed “the essential principles of our government.” The quote in its context reads as follows:

About to enter, fellow citizens, on the exercise of duties which comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper that you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our government, and consequently those which ought to shape its administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies; the preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people — a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the sword of the revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority — the vital principle of republics, from which there is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism; a well-disciplined militia — our best reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority; economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burdened; the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid; the diffusion of information and the arraignment of all abuses at the bar of public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus; and trail by juries impartially selected — these principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us, and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.

This often-cited statement by Jefferson (“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none”) was not just empty rhetoric like that which bellows from the lips of all modern politicians — of both parties. The principles embodied in this succinct statement can be found throughout Jefferson’s writings.

Peace

I hope France, England and Spain will all see it their interest to let us make bread for them in peace, and to give us a good price for it.

Peace is our most important interest, and a recovery from debt.

Peace with all nations, and the right which that gives us with respect to all nations, are our object.

We ask for peace and justice from all nations.

We love and we value peace; we know its blessings from experience.

The happiness of mankind is best promoted by the useful pursuits of peace.

The state of peace is that which most improves the manners and morals, the prosperity and happiness of mankind.

Our desire is to pursue ourselves the path of peace as the only one leading surely to prosperity.

Always a friend to peace, and believing it to promote eminently the happiness and prosperity of nations, I am ever unwilling that it should be disturbed, until greater and more important interests call for an appeal to force.

We are yet at peace, and shall continue so, if the injustice of the other nations will permit us. The war beyond the water is universal. We wish to keep it out of our island.

I hope that peace and amity with all nations will long be the character of our land, and that its prosperity under the Charter will react on the mind of Europe, and profit her by the example.

Peace is our passion, and the wrongs might drive us from it. We prefer trying ever other just principles, right and safety, before we would recur to war.

We have great need of peace in Europe, that foreign affairs may no longer bear so heavily on ours. We have great need for the ensuing twelve months to be left to ourselves.

I pray for peace, as best for all the world, best for us, and best for me, who have already lived to see three wars, and now pant for nothing more than to be permitted to depart in peace.

That peace, safety, and concord may be the portion of our native land, and be long enjoyed by our fellow-citizens, is the most ardent wish of my heart, and if I can be instrumental in procuring or preserving them, I shall think I have not lived in vain.

Twenty years of peace, and the prosperity so visibly flowing from it, have but strengthened our attachment to it, and the blessings it brings, and we do not despair of being always a peaceable nation.

It is impossible that any other man should wish peace as much as I do.

Commerce

Agriculture, manufactures, commerce and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.

My principle has ever been that war should not suspend either exports or imports.

Our interest [is] to throw open the doors of commerce and to knock off all its shackles, giving perfect freedom to all persons for the vent of whatever they may choose to bring into our ports, and asking the same in theirs.

Our people have a decided taste for navigation and commerce. They take this from their mother country, and their servants are in duty bound to calculate all their measures on this datum: we wish to do it by throwing open all the doors of commerce and knocking off its shackles.

The exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world [is] possessed by [a people] as of natural right, and [only through a] law of their own [can it be] taken away or abridged.

An exchange of surpluses and wants between neighbor nations is both a right and a duty under the moral law.

Nature . . . has conveniently assorted our wants and our superfluities, to each other. Each nation has exactly to spare, the articles which the other wants. . . . The governments have nothing to do, but not to hinder their merchants from making the exchange.

That the persons of our citizens shall be safe in freely traversing the ocean, that the transportation of our own produce in our own vessels to the markets of our choice and the return to us of the articles we want for our own use shall be unmolested I hold to be fundamental, and that the gauntlet must be forever hurled at him who questions it.

War is not the best engine for us to resort to, nature has given us one in our commerce, which, if properly managed, will be a better instrument for obliging the interested nations of Europe to treat us with justice.

I think all the world would gain by setting commerce at perfect liberty.

It [is] for our interest, as for that also of all the world, that every port of France, and of every other country, should be free.

Instead of embarrassing commerce under piles of regulating laws, duties and prohibitions, could it be relieved from all its shackles in all parts of the world, could every country be employed in producing that which nature has best fitted it to produce, and each be free to exchange with others mutual surpluses for mutual wants, the greatest mass possible would then be produced of those things which contribute to human life and human happiness; the numbers of mankind would be increased and their condition bettered. Would even a single nation begin with the United States this system of free commerce, it would be advisable to begin it with that nation; since it is one by one only that it can be extended to all.

Honest Friendship with All Nations

War has been avoided from a due sense of the miseries, and the demoralization it produces, and of the superior blessings of a state of peace and friendship with all mankind.

The desire to preserve our country from the calamities and ravages of war, by cultivating a disposition, and pursuing a conduct, conciliatory and friendly to all nations, has been sincerely entertained and faithfully followed. It was dictated by the principles of humanity, the precepts of the gospel, and the general wish of our country.

My hope of preserving peace for our country is not founded in the greater principles of non-resistance under every wrong, but in the belief that a just and friendly conduct on our part will produce justice and friendship from others.

To preserve and secure peace has been the constant aim of my administration.

Peace has been our principle, peace is our interest, and peace has saved to the world this only plant of free and rational government now existing in it. However, therefore, we may have been reproached for pursuing our Quaker system, time will affix the stamp of wisdom on it, and the happiness and prosperity of our citizens will attest its merit. And this, I believe, is the only legitimate object of government, and the first duty of governors, and not the slaughter of men and devastation of the countries placed under their care, in pursuit of a fantastic honor, unallied to virtue or happiness; or in gratification of the angry passions, or the pride of administrators, excited by personal incidents, in which their citizens have no concern.

We wish to cultivate peace and friendship with all nations, believing that course most conducive to the welfare of our own.

I have ever cherished the same spirit with all nations, from a consciousness that peace, prosperity, liberty and morals, have an intimate connection.

From the moment which sealed our peace and independence, our nation has wisely pursued the paths of peace and justice. During the period in which I have been charged with its concerns, no effort has been spared to exempt us from the wrongs and the rapacity of foreign nations.

Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy; and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it.

Peace with all nations, and the right which that gives us with respect to all nations, are our object.

Peace, justice, and liberal intercourse with all the nations of the world, will, I hope, characterize this commonwealth.

The interests of a nation, when well understood, will be found to coincide with their moral duties. Among these it is an important one to cultivate habits of peace and friendship with our neighbors.

During the wars which for some time have unhappily prevailed among the powers of Europe, the U.S. of America, firm in their principles of peace, have endeavored by justice, by a regular discharge of all their national and social duties, and by every friendly office their situation admitted, to maintain, with all the belligerents, their accustomed relations of friendship, hospitality and commercial intercourse. Taking no part in the questions which animated these powers against each other, nor permitting themselves to entertain a wish, but for the restoration of general peace, they have observed with good faith the neutrality they assumed, and they believe that no instance of departure form its duties can be justly imputed to them by any nation.

We have seen with sincere concern the flames of war lighted up again in Europe, and nations with which we have the most friendly and useful relations engaged in mutual destruction. While we regret the miseries in which we see others involved let us bow with gratitude to that kind Providence which, inspiring with wisdom and moderation our late legislative councils while paced under the urgency of the greatest wrongs, guarded us from hastily entering into the sanguinary contest, and left us only to look on and to pity its ravages.

It should be our endeavor to cultivate the peace and friendship of every nation, even of that which has injured us most.

Entangling Alliances with None

We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country, nor with the general affairs of Europe.

Believing that the happiness of mankind is best promoted by the useful pursuits of peace, that on these alone a stable prosperity can be founded, that the evils of war are great in their endurance, and have a long reckoning for ages to come, I have used my best endeavors to keep our country uncommitted in the troubles which afflict Europe, and which assail us on every side.

The satisfaction you express, fellow citizens, that my endeavors have been unremitting to preserve the peace and independence of our country, and that a faithful neutrality has been observed towards all the contending powers, is highly grateful to me; and there can be no doubt that in any common times they would have saved us from the present embarrassments, thrown in the way of our national prosperity by the rival powers.

Do what is right, leaving the people of Europe to act their follies and crimes among themselves, while we pursue in good faith the paths of peace and prosperity.

Since this happy separation, our nation has wisely avoided entangling itself in the system of European interests, has taken no side between its rival powers, attached itself to none of its ever-changing confederacies. Their peace is desirable; and you do me justice in saying that to preserve and secure this, has been the constant aim of my administration.

No one nation has a right to sit in judgment over another.

Nothing is so important as that America shall separate herself from the systems of Europe, and establish one of her own. Our circumstances, our pursuits, our interests, are distinct. The principles of our policy should be so also. All entanglements with that quarter of the globe should be avoided if we mean that peace and justice shall be the polar stars of the American societies.

I am decidedly of opinion we should take no part in European quarrels, but cultivate peace and commerce with all.

I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, and little or no diplomatic establishment. And I am not for linking ourselves by new treaties with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their balance, or joining in the confederacy of Kings to war against the principles of liberty.

At such a distance from Europe and with such an ocean between us, we hope to meddle little in its quarrels or combinations. Its peace and its commerce are what we shall court

Determined as we are to avoid, if possible, wasting the energies of our people in war and destruction, we shall avoid implicating ourselves with the powers of Europe, even in support of principles which we mean to pursue. They have so many other interests different from ours, that we must avoid being entangled in them.

In the course of this conflict, let it be our endeavor, as it is our interest and desire, to cultivate the friendship of the belligerent nations by every act of justice and of incessant kindness; to receive their armed vessels with hospitality from the distresses of the sea, but to administer the means of annoyance to none; to establish in our harbors such a police as may maintain law and order; to restrain our citizens from embarking individually in a war in which their country takes no part.

We ask for peace and justice from all nations; and we will remain uprightly neutral in fact.

No nation has strove more than we have done to merit the peace of all by the most rigorous impartiality to all.

We have produced proofs, from the most enlightened and approved writers on the subject, that a neutral nation must, in all things relating to the war, observe an exact impartiality towards the parties.

Peace and abstinence from European interferences are our objects, and so will continue while the present order of things in America remain uninterrupted.

I have used my best endeavors to keep our country uncommitted in the troubles which afflict Europe, and which assail us on every side.

Conclusion

Jefferson was not alone in holding these principles of peace, commerce, and friendship with other nations, while having no entangling alliances with them. Many men before and after him held the same views. Two notable examples are George Washington and Jefferson Davis.

In addition to his warning in his Farewell Address against “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington also said: “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.”

Jefferson Davis, in his Inaugural Address delivered in Montgomery, Alabama, in February of 1861, stated that he was “anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations,” and that “our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit.”

The modern Democratic and Republican parties may like to think that they are the ideological successors of the Jeffersonians who made up the old Democratic-Republican Party, but they are as far removed from the principles of Thomas Jefferson as the east is from the west. Instead of peace, they crusade for continual wars. Instead of commerce, they give us massive government intervention in the economy that stifles commerce. Instead of honest friendship with all nations, they display a belligerent attitude toward any country that refuses to recognize American hegemony. Instead of entangling alliances with no one, they promote American intervention into the affairs of almost every country on the face of the globe.

Thomas Jefferson was certainly not perfect, but a return to his principles would work wonders in government and society.

[These quotations from Jefferson have been taken from a variety of sources. Most are from the now out-of-print volume, The Complete Jefferson, edited and assembled by Saul K. Padover. However, other similar volumes of Jefferson’s writings are available, and much is now available online, such as this collection of Jefferson’s letters.]

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