Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part Two)

For a thousand years every step in the progress of England had been gained by sheer force of hand and will. In the struggle for existence the English people, favored by situation, had grown into a new human type,—which might be brutal, but was not weak; which had little regard for theory, but an immense and just respect for facts. America considered herself to be a serious fact, and expected England to take her at her own estimate of her own value; but this was more than could reasonably be asked. (978)

In volume four of Henry Adams’ history of the United States the major issue is foreign affair, and in particular, the rise and epic failure of Thomas Jefferson’s attempt at forced neutrality in the Napoleonic War, the Embargo Act. Adams believed that the failure of Jefferson’s foreign policy was America’s belief that it was more important to the world than they really were, more of an “established fact.” While, England and France were strong, established empires, the Americans were a passive force. “Jefferson and his government had shown over and over again that no provocation would make them fight; and from the moment that this attitude was understood, America became fair prey.” (978–979) Under the surface of this is the idea that Jefferson was both overstating his country’s importance (thinking that Europe could not afford to not trade with America) and underestimating its own power (by refusing to fight to defend its international position).

Adams also suggests that Jefferson misread the pulse of the American public in respect to British assaults on American sovereignty. While Jefferson invested all of his political capital on a forced peace through economic pressure, the people—much more honest about the nation’s imperial footing—was ready for war. The event that galvanized the public like never before was the attack by the British on the American ship “Chesapeake.” Only the force of his personality and his popularity seemed to hold back the tide of nationalistic exuberance among the people. The signs are there, in 1807, of a nation ready to project itself in the face of any insult, real or perceived. The embargo, may be read as yet another attempt by a closeted empire, but hiding it took every last bit of Jefferson’s ability and persuasive ability. He also had to put on a monarch’s cap, if only momentarily, to plug up the democratic energies calling for war.

Thus the embargo was imposed; and of all President Jefferson’s feats of political management, this was probably the most dexterous. On his mere recommendation, without warning, discussion, or publicity, and in silence as to his true reason and motives, he succeeded in fixing upon the country, beyond recall, the experiment of peaceable coercion. His triumph was almost a marvel; but no one could fail to see its risks. A free people required to know in advance the motives which actuated government, and the intended consequences of important laws. (1048)

Cartoon: A Smuggler During the Embargo Act 1807-1809 embargoact2

Adams sums up the costs of the embargo, of which the economic costs—not insignificant—were not the most significant. The republican experiment, Jefferson’s revolution of 1800, was “paralyzed” by the Embargo, requiring as it did Jefferson’s silencing of the people. Morally, the nation was harmed by the rise of smuggling and illicit trade. “Every citizen was tempted to evade or defy the laws.” (1118) Personally, Jefferson suffered great harm to his popularity and reputation. “America began slowly to struggle, under the consciousness of pain, toward a conviction that she must bear the common burdens of humanity, and fight with the weapons of other races in the same bloody arena; that she could not much longer delude herself with hopes of evading the laws of Nature and instinct of life; and that her new statesmanship which made peace a passion could lead to not better result than had been reached by the barbarous system which made war a duty.” (1126) I for one, do nor mourn this lost innocence. The non-imperial republic a myth form the beginning, as the Iroquois knew too well when being shuffled to reservations in upstate New York, or as the North Africans learned in the Barbary Wars. In the face of these things, Jefferson’s presumption that Americans could stand above such power politics looks more and more disgusting.

So where does Adams place the United States at in 1809, at the end of Jefferson’s first term? His last annual message to Congress in 1808 is revealing. While much of it was devoted to defending the faltering and heavily opposed embargo, Jefferson himself was capable of visions of future greatness for the nation, including a national university. As intellectual as he was, I doubt that he would have proposed such a nationalist institution in 1800. Jefferson was awash in nationalism and a population eager for greatness. Perhaps the national university was what Jefferson could offer in lieu of war. His final year in office even saw a return of the Federalists to a position of informing and contesting the president’s designs. “Not even in 1798 had factiousness been so violent as in the last month of President Jefferson’s power.” Jefferson himself was deeply hurt by his loss of popularity. Like so many sensitive introverts, Jefferson longed for “sympathy and love” of others.

Another picture of Jefferson. This one seemed more aristocratic to me.

Another picture of Jefferson. This one seemed more aristocratic to me.

More to Adams’ main point, Jefferson had left the nation very different and in complete betrayal of his revolution. “Jefferson has hoped to make his country forever pure and free; to abolish war, with its train of debt, extravagance, corruption, and tyranny; to build up a government devoted only to useful and moral objects; to bring upon earth a new era of peace and good-will among men.” (1246) His own actions and the victory of his enemies in his final months suggested the end of this dream. My feeling, if not Adams, was that this was always a myth, purely in the mind of Jefferson and his followers. One cannot hope to use the power of the state to end tyranny or promote morality or bring peace. It can only do the opposite.

The second half of Adams’ history, covering the presidency of James Madison, we suspect will only deepen the failure of the revolution of 1800, but we will see in future posts.

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