With two decades of perpetual war, America has drifted far from one of its founding principles – peaceful coexistence with other nations.
Thomas Jefferson summed up this foundational foreign policy in his first inaugural address, calling for a policy of “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations…entangling alliances with none.”
But this wasn’t the only time Jefferson extolled the virtues of peaceful coexistence.
In 1794, as tensions between the U.S. and France rose, Jefferson wrote a letter to Tench Coxe, lamenting, “We are alarmed here with the apprehensions of war: and sincerely anxious that it might be avoided; but not at the expence either of our faith or honor.”
At the time, many believed America’s honor “has been too much wounded not to require reparation, and to seek it even in war, if that be necessary.” But Jefferson said he preferred peace and advocated for a policy to avoid war.
“As to myself, I love peace, and I am anxious that we should give the world still another useful lesson, by shewing to them other modes of punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer.”
Instead of initiating aggression, Jefferson suggested, “cutting off all communication with the nation which has conducted itself so atrociously.”
“This you will say 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. I believe this war would be vastly more unanimously approved, than any one we ever were engaged in; because the aggressions have been so wanton and barefaced, and so unquestionably against our desire.”
In a letter to John Adams that same year, Jefferson lamented, “I confess to you I have seen enough of one war never to wish to see another.”
In 1801, Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Waring, saying the most ardent wish of his heart was “that peace, safety, and concord may be the portion of our native land.”
“And if I can be instrumental in procuring or preserving them, I shall think I have not lived in vain.”
In an 1807 letter to Thomas Ellicott, Jefferson suggested the best way to maintain peace was to cultivate a foreign policy “conciliatory and friendly to all nations.”
“The desire to preserve our country from the calamities and ravages of war, by cultivation a disposition, and pursing a conduct, conciliatory and friendly to all nations, has been sincerely entertained and faithfully followed. It was dictated by the principles of humanity, the precepts of the gospel, and the general wish of our country, and it was not to be doubted that the Society of Friends, with whom it is a religious principle, would sanction it by their support.”
In a letter to the Young Republicans of Pittsburgh dated December 2, 1808, Jefferson said “the happiness of mankind is best promoted by the useful pursuits of peace.”
“On theses alone a stable prosperity can be founded, that the evils of war are great in their endurance, and have a long reckoning for ages to come, I have used my best endeavors to keep our country uncommitted in the troubles of which afflict Europe, and which assail us on every side.”
Finally, in a November 1817 letter to Noah Worcester, Jefferson said he was “in favor of the abolition of war.”
“Of my disposition to maintain peace until its condition shall be made less tolerable than of war itself, the world has had proofs, and more, perhaps, than it has approved. I hope it is practicable, by improving the mind and morals of society, to lessen the disposition to war; but of its abolition I despair.”
It seems modern America has lost the desire to lessen the disposition to war — much less abolish it altogether. And the country has paid a steep price. By some estimates, the U.S. has spent some $21 trillion in the 2-decade “war on terror,” not to mention the incalculable loss of life and liberty.
The world would be a better place if the U.S. would rediscover its foreign policy roots of peaceful coexistence so beautifully articulated by Thomas Jefferson.
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