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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

42. The Rights of Nations

The relationship of one nation with a foreign nation rests on natural law and moral principles as well as on recognized international law. We owe other nations a respect for their chosen form of government as we expect our own form to be respected, and we have no right to interfere in another people's choice of government or internal policy any more than they have to interfere in ours.

"We certainly cannot deny to other nations that principle whereon our government is founded, that every nation has a right to govern itself internally under what forms it pleases, and to change these forms at its own will; and externally to transact business with other nations through whatever organ it chooses, whether that be a King, Convention, Assembly, Committee, President, or whatever it be. The only thing essential is, the will of the nation." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792. ME 9:7

"I freely admit the right of a nation to change its political principles and constitution at will, and the impropriety of any but its own citizens censuring that change." --Thomas Jefferson to the Earl of Buchan, 1803. ME 10:400

"We will never be angry with others for exercising their own rights according to what they think their own interests." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Indian Nations, 1808. ME 16:429

"It accords with our principles to acknowledge any government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation substantially declared... With such a government every kind of business may be done. But there are some matters which, I conceive, might be transacted with a government de facto; such, for instance, as the reforming the unfriendly restrictions on our commerce and navigation." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1792. ME 8:437

"[Two] nations being in character and practice essentially pacific, a common interest in the rights of peaceable nations gives [them] a common cause in their maintenance." --Thomas Jefferson to Andre de Daschkoff, 1809. ME 12:303

42.1 Attributes of National Sovereignty

"It is an essential attribute of the jurisdiction of every country to preserve peace, to punish acts in breach of it, and to restore property taken by force within its limits." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1793.

"The right of self-government does not comprehend the government of others." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Residence Bill, 1790.

"No court can have jurisdiction over a sovereign nation." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1791. ME 8:221

"Every nation has of natural right, entirely and exclusively, all the jurisdiction which may be rightfully exercised in the territory it occupies. If it cedes any portion of that jurisdiction to judges appointed by another nation, the limits of their power must depend on the instrument of cession." --Thomas Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 1793. ME 9:192

42.2 Consular Relations

"In stipulating that consuls shall be permitted on both sides, [a convention] could not mean to supersede reasonable objections to particular persons, who might at the moment be obnoxious to the nation to which they were sent, or whose conduct might render them so at any time after. In fact, every foreign agent depends on the double will of the two governments, of that which sends him, and of that which is to permit the exercise of his functions within their territory; and when either of these wills is refused or withdrawn, his authority to act within that territory becomes incomplete. By what member of the government the right of giving or withdrawing permission is to be exercised here, is a question on which no foreign agent can be permitted to make himself the umpire. It is sufficient for him, under our government, that he is informed of it by the executive." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmond C. Genet, 1793. ME 9:264

"For a foreign agent, addressed to the Executive, to embody himself with the lawyers of a faction whose sole object is to embarrass and defeat all the measures of the country, and by their opinions, known to be always in opposition, to endeavor to influence our proceedings is a conduct not to be permitted." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1808. ME 12:168

"I have it in charge to observe, that [a consul's] functions as the missionary of a foreign nation here, are confined to the transactions of the affairs of [his] nation with the Executive of the United States; that the communications which are to pass between the Executive and Legislative branches cannot be a subject for [his] interference, and that the President must be left to judge for himself what matters his duty or the public good may require him to propose to the deliberations of Congress." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmond C. Genet, 1793. ME 9:278

"No government can disregard formalities more than ours. But when formalities are attacked with a view to change principles, and to introduce an entire independence of foreign agents on the nation with whom they reside, it becomes material to defend formalities. They would be no longer trifles, if they could, in defiance of the national will, continue a foreign agent among us whatever might be his course of action." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmond C. Genet, 1793. ME 9:266

42.3 Non-interference with Other Nations

"With respect to [a foreign nation's] government or policy as concerning themselves or other nations, we wish not to intermeddle in word or deed, and that it be not understood that our government permits itself to entertain either a will or opinion on the subject." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Pinckney, 1792. ME 8:369

"Unmeddling with the affairs of other nations, we presume not to prescribe or censure their course, happy could we be permitted to pursue our own in peace, and to employ all our means in improving the condition of our citizens." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Stael, 1807. ME 11:282

"The condition of different descriptions of inhabitants in any country is a matter of municipal arrangement, of which no foreign country has a right to take notice. All its inhabitants are as men to them." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:72

"The republic of the United States allied itself with France when under a despotic government." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:242

"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. I do not know, indeed, whether all nations do not owe to one another a bold and open declaration of their sympathies with the one party and their detestation of the conduct of the other. But farther than this we are not bound to go; and, indeed, for the sake of the world, we ought not to increase the jealousies or draw on ourselves the power of [a] formidable confederacy." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1823. ME 15:435

"Nor is the occasion to be slighted... of declaring our protest against the atrocious violations of the rights of nations by the interference of any one in the internal affairs of another." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1823. ME 15:478

"It is the right of every nation to prohibit acts of sovereignty from being exercised by any other within its limits, and the duty of a neutral nation to prohibit such as would injure one of the warring powers." --Thomas Jefferson to Edmond C. Genet, 1793. ME 9:110

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1823.

"Countries... have a right to be free, and we a right to aid them, as a strong man has a right to assist a weak one assailed by a robber or murderer." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1816. ME 14:432

"The right of nations to self-government being my polar star, my partialities are steered by it without asking whether it is a Bonaparte or an Alexander [Emperor of Russia] toward whom the helm is directed." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1815. ME 14:330

"[We would be] guilty of great [error] in [our] conduct toward other nations [if we endeavored] to force liberty on [our] neighbors in [our] own form." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jun 24, 1793. (*)

"How easily we prescribe for others a cure for their difficulties, while we cannot cure our own." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:310

"The people wish for peace... They feel no incumbency on them to become the reformers of the other hemisphere, and to inculcate, with fire and sword, a return to moral order." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1811. ME 13:60

"I do not indeed wish to see any nation have a form of government forced on them; but if it is to be done, I should rejoice at its being a free one." --Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Fitzhugh, 1798. ME 10:4

"Wretched, indeed, is the nation in whose affairs foreign powers are once permitted to intermeddle." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, 1787. ME 6:153

42.4 Non-Dependence on Other Nations

"No circumstances of morality, honor, interest or engagement are sufficient to authorize a secure reliance on any nation at all times and in all positions. A moment of difficulty or a moment of error may render forever useless the most friendly dispositions in the King, in the major part of his ministers and the whole of his nation." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1787. ME 6:352

"We have seldom seen neighborhood produce affection among nations. The reverse is almost the universal truth." --Thomas Jefferson to John Breckinridge, 1803. ME 10:409

"What a crowd of lessons do the present miseries of Holland teach us! Never to have an hereditary officer of any sort; never to let a citizen ally himself with kings; never to call in foreign nations to settle domestic differences; never to suppose that any nation will expose itself to war for us, etc." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1787. ME 6:322

"All a friendly power can ask from another is, to extend to her the same indulgences which she extends to other friendly powers." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 1793. ME 9:231

"We owe gratitude to France, justice to England, good will to all, and subservience to none. All this must be brought about by the people, using their elective rights with prudence and self-possession, and not suffering themselves to be duped by treacherous emissaries." --Thomas Jefferson to Arthur Campbell, 1797. ME 9:421

42.5 Ethics and Morality in Foreign Relations

"We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations as with individuals, our interests soundly calculated will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties; and history bears witness to the fact that a just nation is taken on its word when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805. ME 3:376

"Moral obligations constitute a law for nations as well as individuals." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New York Tammany Society, 1808.

"A nation like ours, recognizing no arrogance of language or conduct, can never enjoy the favor of [a Chief Magistrate whose domineering temper deafens him to the dictates of interest, of honor and of morality]." --Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1811. ME 13:65

"My answer to [an individual's offer to divulge secret communications between a consulate and its home government] was that the Government would never be concerned in any transactions of that character; that moral duties were as obligatory on nations as on individuals, that even in point of interest a character of good faith was of as much value to a nation as an individual, and was that by which it would gain most in the long run." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1808. ME 1:480

"Let us hope that our new government will take... occasions to show, that they mean to proscribe no virtue from the canons of their conduct with other nations." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:450

"What might be wise and good for a nation essentially commercial and entangled in complicated intercourse with numerous and powerful neighbors, might not be so for one essentially agricultural and insulated by nature from the abusive governments of the old world." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:27

"Compacts... between nation and nation are obligatory on them by the same moral law which obliges individuals to observe their compacts. There are circumstances, however, which sometimes excuse the non-performance of contracts between man and man: so are there also between nation and nation. When performance, for instance, becomes impossible, non-performance is not immoral. So if performance becomes self-destructive to the party, the law of self-preservation overrules the laws of obligation in others. For the reality of these principles I appeal to the true fountains of evidence, the head and heart of every rational and honest man. It is there Nature has written her moral laws, and where every man may read them for himself. He will never read there the permission to annul his obligations for a time or forever whenever they become dangerous, useless, or disagreeable, certainly not when merely useless or disagreeable... And though he may, under certain degrees of danger, yet the danger must be imminent and the degree great. Of these, it is true that nations are to be judges for themselves; since no one nation has a right to sit in judgment over another, but the tribunal of our consciences remains, and that also of the opinion of the world. These will revise the sentence we pass in our own case, and as we respect these, we must see that in judging ourselves we have honestly done the part of impartial and rigorous judges." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793. ME 3:228

"It is not the possibility of danger which absolves a party from his contract, for that possibility always exists, and in every case... If possibilities would void contracts, there never could be a valid contract, for possibilities hang over everything. Obligation is not suspended till the danger is become real and the moment of it so imminent that we can no longer avoid decision without forever losing the opportunity to do it." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on French Treaties, 1793.

"The will of our citizens to countenance no injustice towards a foreign nation [fills] me with comfort as to our future course." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1818. (*)

"A character of justice... is valuable to a nation as to an individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Noah Worcester, 1816. ME 14:416

"There is a moral law which ought to govern mankind." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1810. ME 12:402

"Indeed it is high time to withdraw all respect from courts acting under the arbitrary orders of governments who avow a total disregard to those moral rules which have hitherto been acknowledged by nations, and have served to regulate and govern their intercourse." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1810. ME 12:401

"Willing ourselves to do justice to others, we ought to expect it from them." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Washington Tammany Society, 1807. ME 16:297

42.6 Dealing with Injustice

"I love [the] proposition of cutting off all communication with [a] nation which has conducted itself... atrociously. This may bring on war. If it does, we will meet it like men; but it may not bring on war, and then the experiment will have been a happy one." --Thomas Jefferson to Tench Coxe, 1794. (*)

"Nations may be brought to justice by appeals to their interests as well as by appeals to arms." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1793. ME 9:34

"We must make the interest of every nation stand surety for their justice, and their own loss to follow injury to us as effect follows its cause. As to everything except commerce, we ought to divorce ourselves from them all. But this system would require time, temper, wisdom, and occasional sacrifice of interest." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1797. ME 9:410

"There are peaceable means of repressing injustice by making it in the interest of the aggressor to do what is just and abstain from future wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Cabell, 1807. ME 11:257

"I hope... that when in a state of peace our Legislature and Executive will endeavor to provide peaceable means of obliging foreign nations to be just to us and of making their injustice recoil on themselves. The advantages of our commerce to them may be made the engine for this purpose, provided we shall be willing to submit to occasional sacrifices, which will be nothing in comparison with the calamities of war." --Thomas Jefferson to Peregrine Fitzhugh, 1798. ME 10:2

"Justice and good neighborhood would dictate that those who have no part in imposing [a] restriction on us, should not be the victims of measures adopted to defeat its effect." --Thomas Jefferson: Report on Foreign Commerce, 1793. ME 3:280

"The interests of a nation, when well understood, will be found to coincide with their moral duties. Among these it is an important one to cultivate habits of peace and friendship with our neighbors. To do this we should make provisions for rendering the justice we must sometimes require from them. I recommend, therefore, to your consideration whether the laws of the Union should not be extended to restrain our citizens from committing acts of violence within the territories of other nations, which would be punished were they committed within our own." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft, Presidential Message, 1792.

42.7 The Practice of National Morality

"A character of good faith [is] of as much value to a nation as to an individual." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1808. ME 1:480

"[It is my] belief that a just and friendly conduct on our part will procure justice and friendship from others." --Thomas Jefferson to Earl of Buchan, 1803.

"We believe that the just standing of all nations is the health and security of all." --Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, 1812. ME 13:146

"Not in [my] day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all which may make the stoutest of them tremble. But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Leiper, 1815. ME 14:308

"I think with others that nations are to be governed according to their own interest, but I am convinced that it is their interest in the long run to be grateful, faithful to their engagements, even in the worst of circumstances, and honorable and generous always." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1790. ME 8:12

"I have but one system of ethics for men and for nations. To be grateful, to be faithful to all engagements and under all circumstances, to be open and generous, promoting in the long run even the interest of both; and I am sure it promotes their happiness." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme d'Auville, 1790. ME 8:17

"To say... that gratitude is never to enter into the motives of national conduct is to revive a principle which has been buried for centuries with its kindred principles of the lawfulness of assassination, poison, perjury, etc. All of these were legitimate principles in the dark ages which intervened between ancient and modern civilization, but exploded and held in just horror in the eighteenth century." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:449

"Let us hope that our government will take [occasion] to show that they mean to proscribe no virtue from the canons of their conduct with other nations." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

"A nation, by establishing a character of liberality and magnanimity, gains in the friendship and respect of others more than the worth of mere money." --Thomas Jefferson: Special Message, Jan. 13, 1806. ME 3:406

"I am in all cases for a liberal conduct towards other nations, believing that the practice of the same friendly feelings and generous dispositions which attach individuals in private life will attach societies on the larger scale, which are composed of individuals." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1803.

"A people... who sincerely desire the happiness and prosperity of other nations... justly calculate that their own well-being is advanced by that of the nations with which they have intercourse." --Thomas Jefferson: 4th Annual Message, 1804. ME 3:366

"I deem it the duty of every man to devote a certain portion of his income for charitable purposes, and that it is his further duty to see it so applied as to do the most good of which it is capable. This I believe to be best insured by keeping within the circle of his own inquiry and information the subjects of distress to whose relief his contributions shall be applied. If this rule be reasonable in private life, it becomes so necessary in my situation [as President] that to relinquish it would leave me without rule or compass. The applications of this kind from different parts of our own and foreign countries are far beyond any resources within my command... However disposed the mind may feel to unlimited good, our means having limits, we are necessarily circumscribed by them. They are too narrow to relieve even the distresses under my own eye, and to desert these for others which we neither see nor know is to omit doing a certain good for one which is uncertain. I know indeed there have been splendid associations for effecting benevolent purposes in remote regions of the earth. But no experience of their effect has proved that more good would not have been done by the same means employed nearer home." --Thomas Jefferson to Drs. Rogers and Slaughter, 1806. ME 11:93

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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