ON OCCASION OF 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF INTERNATIONAL DAY OF PEACE (Université de Bourgogne, Dijon, France, on September 21, 2012)
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As I suspect many of you know, Jefferson served from 1784-1789 as America’s Minister to France—and until his death he remained a great friend and admirer of this country. Jefferson was renown for many things. He was a man of the Enlightenment: a scholar in numerous diverse fields, a farmer, scientist, inventor, political theorist, linguist, meteorologist, musician, horseman, and generally a polymath extraordinaire.

Jefferson was also a great lover of peace. Writing to William Short (the man he called his “adopted son” and his successor as U.S. Minister to France) in 1801, President Jefferson declared that “If there be one principle more deeply rooted than any other in the mind of every American, it is, that we should have nothing to do with conquest.”1 I believe that statement is as true today as it was more than two centuries ago. Two years later, he declared in another letter that “Peace is our passion . . . .”2

But Thomas Jefferson was not a “pacifist,” despite his intense hatred for war and love for peace. He reasoned that there were two requirements for America to maintain peaceful relations with the external world. Writing to John Jay (at the time Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the Second Continental Congress in New York) from his post in Paris, Jefferson explained:

Justice . . . on our part will save us from those wars which would have been produced by a contrary disposition. But how can we prevent those produced by the wrongs of other nations? By putting ourselves in a condition to punish them. Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish, often prevents them.3

He added: “I think it to our interest to punish the first insult; because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others.”4

Indeed, while serving in Paris, Jefferson learned in some detail of the predations of the Barbary Pirates and concluded that only the use of naval force could protect the United States and its seafaring citizens from this scourge. Jefferson proposed that America join forces with the powers of Europe to establish a mutual security arrangement to deal with this threat—either by taking turns patrolling the Mediterranean or each contributing ships to what in today’s parlance might be termed an international joint task force. He explained that the “object of the convention shall be to compel the piratical States to perpetual peace, without price [i.e., without paying tribute or ransom] and to guarantee that peace to each other.”5

The organization Jefferson proposed was to be based in Versailles, with decisions made by majority vote of the members. He suggested that they first direct their joint actions against Algiers, explaining: “When Algiers shall be reduced to peace, the other piratical States, if they refuse to discontinue their piracies, shall become the objects of this convention either successively or together, as shall seem best.”6 The Europeans were interested, but the American Continental Congress lacked the power to raise either money or a navy without the approval of the states, and was unwilling to bind the nation to treaty obligations it might not be able to fulfill.7

Indeed, this weakness in foreign affairs was one of the factors that led to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 that wrote the American Constitution. Alexander Hamilton observed in Federalist essay number 15:

We may indeed with propriety be said to have reached almost the last stage of national humiliation. There is scarcely any thing that can wound the pride, or degrade the character of an independent nation, which we do not experience. Are there engagements to the performance of which we are held by every tie respectable among men? These are the subjects of constant and unblushing violation. Do we owe debts to foreigners and to our own citizens contracted in a time of imminent peril, for the preservation of our political existence? These remain without any proper or satisfactory provision for their discharge. . . . Is respectability in the eyes of foreign powers a safeguard against foreign encroachments? The imbecility of our government even forbids them to treat with us. Our ambassadors abroad are the mere pageants of mimic sovereignty.8

Later, when Jefferson became President in March 1801, the first decision of his first cabinet meeting was to send two-thirds of the new American Navy half-way around the known world to protect our commerce and the lives and freedom of our citizens from Barbary brutality. This decision ultimately paved the way for an end to Barbary piracy and an extended peace.
Years earlier, writing in 1793 to James Monroe (who later became America’s fifth president), Jefferson explained:

I believe that throughout all America there has been but a single sentiment on the subject of peace and war, which was in favor of the former. The Executive here has cherished it with equal and unanimous desire. We have differed, perhaps, as to the tone of conduct exactly adapted to the securing it.9

This is in my view a point of tremendous importance, as too often the public debate over use-of-force issues is viewed as a struggle between those who love peace and those who love war. I voluntarily went twice to war in Southeast Asia, and I saw evidence of its horrors as well while traveling through Europe in the decade following World War II and in Central America during the 1980s. I hate it with the passion that only those who have personally witnessed its horror can feel. And while I understand and respect the views of those who view things differently, I personally believe that Jefferson was correct in his belief that peace is best kept by behaving honorably in our relations with others, remaining strong enough so as not to be seen as easy prey by those contemplating aggression, and being willing to contribute to keeping the peace by defending victims of such aggression—as my father and only uncle did in France during World War II.

Jefferson’s vision that peace might be best maintained by uniting peace-loving nations was—like so much of his thinking—ahead of his time. He read French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, and English—and there is some evidence he had some knowledge of German as well—and he also had studied several Native American dialects. But he did not read Chinese, and I am unaware of any evidence that he was familiar with the writings of Sun Tzu. But surely he would have agreed with Sun Tzu’s maxim that “. . . to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”10 And that goal is well served when potential aggressors realize that the world community is prepared to act effectively in response to acts of international aggression.
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  1. Jefferson to Short, July 28, 1791, 8 WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 219 (Mem. Ed. Washington, DC , Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903). See also, Jefferson to Correa de Serra, Oct. 24, 1820, 10 WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 164 (New York & London, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Paul Ford, ed. 1899) (“. . . peace and justice shall be the polar stars of the American societies.”)
  2. Jefferson to Sinclare, June 30, 1803, 10 WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 397 (Mem. Ed. 1903).
  3. Jefferson to Jay (Private), 5 WRITINGS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 95 (Mem. Ed. 1903).
  4. Id
  5. Jefferson, Proposals for Concerted Operation among the Powers at War with the Piratical States of the Barbary, Nov. 1786, 17 id. 146-48.
  6. Id
  7. 1 id. 100-01.
  8. FEDERALIST No. 15 at 91-92 (Middletown, Conn.: Westleyan Univ. Press, Jacob E. Cooke, ed. 1961).
  9. Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, June 28, 1793, 26 PAPERS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON 392 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. John Catanzariti, ed. 1995) (emphasis added).
  10. SUN TZU, THE ART OF WAR 77 (Oxford University Press, Samuel B. Griffith, ed., 1963).