Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thomas Jefferson began presidency with admission of flaws

I just stumbled across this brilliant inaugural speech by Thomas Jefferson in 1801 as he became the third President of the United States. There are lots of fascinating points here, like his attitude towards foreign policy:
peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none;
And his appreciation of the stabilising effect of democracy, perhaps especially conscious of the violent rejection of monarchism in Frace in the 1780s-90s:
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 revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided; absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism;
He finally observes that men will rarely leave office with the reputation and regard with which they enter it, and admits:
I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts;
I liked this, quite sensible and modest. His point about an unentangled foreign policy is a repeat of something George Washington called for in his farewell address in 1796:
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world;
All very different from the highly engaged and assertive foreign policies followed by modern American governments. It interests me that the US has this heritage of non-interventionism, when its modern leaders seem divided between liberal interventionism and neo-conservatism.


  1. Love this post!! Thank you for the link and image of Jefferson. Nice to read an honest person.

    1. Thanks very much Ms Dashwood. I don't keep this blog up to date anymore but it's nice to get some comments from time to time still :)


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