Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Jefferson were two presidents who lived in different eras. Wilson was the head of an America that was beginning to exercise its economic and military might across the world, while Jefferson was the president when the United States was in its infancy, unable to hold much influence without hurting itself in the process. Both waged foreign policies that were contrary to their own ideologies: Jefferson did not decrease the size of the military as he wanted, while Wilson intervened in countries that had democratic institutions, though he deemed them corrupt.
Wilsonianism is built on the concept of liberal internationalism. This is boiled down to the promotion of democracy in every country. Wilson – and even Jefferson to an extent – believed the world was to be ruled by a series of democratic states, a new world order where there would not be conflict between these countries. It also left the European-style balance of power, enforced by countries such as England in the past, and relied on national self-determination. However, even Wilson did not believe every country was able to determine for themselves their style of government.
Jeffersonianism built on the concept of non-involvement. According to this policy, the U.S. was not supposed to intervene in other countries or create a new world order, unlike what Wilson believed in. Countries should be free to determine their own ways of life, but unlike Wilson and his adherents, Jefferson did not believe in the rhetoric espoused by Wilson such as “preserving the world for democracy.” Instead, Jefferson believed the U.S. should be an Empire of Liberty. He wrote, “Trusted with the destinies of this solitary republic of the world, the only monument of human rights, and the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth, if other regions of the earth shall ever become susceptible of its benign influence.”
Both believed in the freedom of the oceans: Jefferson went to war with the Barbary States because of the tributes they demanded, while Wilson went to war with Germany because of their attacks against American shipping.
However, the two’s similarities stopped after it came to this issue. Jefferson was adamant that the U.S. stay out of European affairs, realizing that if the U.S. ever chose a side, they would endlessly be involved in European conflicts until the end of time. This is why he decided to place a trade embargo on England and France during the later half of his presidency. Though this devastated the American economy, it was a staple of his foreign policy to not pick sides. And while the U.S. would declare war on Great Britain in 1812, it was not because of picking a side in the European wars that had been waging for the past two decades, but because of issues with impressment of American sailors and the desire for territory in the new world, among other reasons.
Wilson, on the other hand, wanted to create a world that “was safe for democracy.” By intervening in World War I, Wilson said the allied soldiers “fought to do away with an old order and to establish a new one, and the center and characteristic of the old order was that unstable thing which we used to call the ‘balance of power,’” which the British and French would disagree with.Wilson also believed that only democratic states should be created and was hostile to any institutions that did not copy the American experiment. It was his hope that these democratic states would no longer wage war against each other, which is why he helped to establish the League of Nations.
But as history has shown us, this ideological hope did not mesh with reality. The League of Nations, much like the United Nations, was filled with totalitarian states that were not democratic at all. France and England, though democratic in their home provinces, regularly oppressed their colonies, which was the opposite of what Wilson wanted. We see this today, as countries such as Saudi Arabia sit on human right councils while violating human rights on a daily basis.
Both Jefferson and Wilson wanted democratic states to rule. But what Jefferson realized and Wilson did not is that you cannot force democracy onto countries. Jefferson wanted the U.S. to be an example, but not to intervene in the affairs of other countries. In a letter to James Madison, he wrote, “The presumption of dictating to an independent nation the form of its government is so arrogant, so atrocious, that indignation as well as moral sentiment enlists all our partialities and prayers in favor of one and our equal execrations against the other.”
Make no mistake; Jefferson was not against military affairs when it came to protecting American interests nor when it came to protecting countries from despotic rulers coming after them if they chose to create a republican system of government. It was why President Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine; to ensure that countries in the Western Hemisphere were able to pursue their own forms of governance. Unlike Wilson, who was willing to send troops to Mexico and other countries to correct what they perceived as incorrect use of democratic institutions, Jefferson and his adherents wanted the countries to experiment with their own institutions.
He wrote to Monroe, “America, North and South, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe and peculiarly her own. She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicile of despotism, our endeavor should surely be to make our hemisphere that of freedom.”
That is the primary difference between Wilsonianism, which has been the dominant foreign policy of the past century, versus Jeffersonianism. It is the issue of choice. Countries should not be forced to be democratic, but should have the ability to choose their own government. However, America can hope to see no despotic rule. Jefferson wrote, once more to Monroe, “Although we have no right to intermeddle with the form of government of other nations, yet it is lawful to wish to see no emperors nor kings in our hemisphere.”
This why I believe in the Empire of Liberty. However, the Jeffersonian idea of the Empire of Liberty has certainly been corrupted by past presidents. No president who believed in this ideal would abide by secret kill lists lists or unconstitutional wars. No president who believes in the Empire of Liberty would condone the mass surveillance of the American population and the usurpation of Fourth Amendment rights, which has come under the guise of fighting the global war on terror. Madison, who was Jefferson’s chief ally during their political careers, said that “The means of defence agst. foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home” and if they were still alive, they would do their utmost to reform surveillance, such as what is happening with Section 702 and FISA.
Maybe this is a cry for the days before we became a global power. The Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, believed in a strong U.S. that was a shining example of human rights and liberty to the rest of the world. Though we struggled and have continued to struggle, the U.S. has long been the city on the hill, her light a beacon for all who want to come.
The Jeffersonian dream of conquering the continent was realized long ago; becoming the Empire of Liberty is currently on hold. Congress, the presidency and the people of the U.S. need to reverse their current obsession with overseas intervention and look to restoring the United States as a beacon of liberty to the rest of the world.