Thomas Jefferson/Debate Guide

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Jefferson's Military Policy

Historians have debated Jefferson's military policy since the mid-nineteenth century.

Henry Adams, for instance, noted that the Jefferson's budget cuts to the Army and Navy, “excessive economy[,] seemed to relieve government of duties as well as responsibilities. Congress and the executive appeared disposed to act as a machine for recording of events, without guiding or controlling them. The Army was not large enough to hold the Indians in awe; the navy was not strong enough to watch the coasts. … The country was at the mercy of any power which might choose to rob it….”[1] Thus by the time of the Chesapeake Affair in 1807, without a powerful navy, Jefferson had little alternative but to pursue economic coercion with the Embargo of 1807.

Edward Channing, however, noted that reduction of the navy had started under the Federalist Congress of 1800, and that Jefferson was not overly beholden to this policy of naval reduction. With the war against the Barbary Pirates expanding, Channing noted that Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin "recognized, however, that the Tripolitan War would be better vigorously prosecuted or not waged at all." The administration thus authorized the construction of more frigates, that is an expansion of the navy and a reversal of the Federalist policy of naval reductions begun in 1800.[2]

By 1807, Channing noted, Jefferson's policy of economic coercion was a choice made, not from military unpreparedness, but from enlightenment principles. Jefferson proposed, wrote Channing, "to use the commerce of a country to bring prosperity or business reverses to such foreign nations as would not listen to the voice of reason." Jefferson's personal aversion to war also led him to this policy of economic coercion.[3]



  1. Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Library of America, 1986), p. 164.
  2. Edward Channing, The Jeffersonian System, 1801-1811, vol. 12 of The American Nation: A History, Series, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), 39 and 44.
  3. Edward Channing, The Jeffersonian System, 1801-1811, vol. 12 of The American Nation: A History, Series, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), 201.