Though it may seem paradoxical to associate Thomas Jefferson – champion of equality and individual rights and implacable foe of the Federalists – with imperial ambitions, for Jefferson himself these notions were not only compatible, but necessary. At the time, imperialism did not have all the negative connotations it has acquired since. Rather, it must be remembered that Jefferson’s grand project was to fashion America as a credible alternative to European monarchialism and despotism. What Jefferson found despicable in Britain was not its imperialism per se, but the subjugation and exploitation of its peoples. America, then, was to be instead an “empire of liberty,”10 a rival empire based explicitly not on coercion and suppression, but on the willing “consent of the governed.”11

The argument follows logically from Jefferson’s basic principles. In order to assure the natural rights of equality, an imbalanced distribution power – i.e. centralization – must be avoided. Metropolitan conditions created an “unnatural” concentration of wealth, power, and self-serving interests. For America to effectively be the republican ideal Jefferson strived for, its power must derive from both the equality of its constituent states and their ability to act as a cohesive whole. That is, “Americans could only sustain a decentralized regime, an empire without metropolis, a consensual union of free republics, if they were a truly united people.”12 And this unity depended on its plurality: the larger the nation, the more diverse it was, the less likely it would be at the mercy of one faction. “The genius of a republican empire, its great source of power, was that the singular and the plural would thus define and support one another: securing the rights of the parts, citizens and states, was the threshold for recognizing the transcendent claims of the whole.”13

In this sense Jefferson went against the conventional wisdom of the time such as expounded by Montesquieu, who claimed that only small, close-knit republics could thrive democratically. Jefferson argued that smaller societies were more prone to violence in their partisan politics, whereas larger republics would have a moderating influence on the majority will.14 This is why the Federalists, with their obsession with control, generally opposed Jefferson’s expansionism. While strategic appropriation of territories may be desirable in order to strengthen national security, the magnitude of an acquisition such as the Louisiana purchase was way beyond the capacity of the military to manage. They understood that imperialism could potentially dilute the authority of the central government and thus presented a grave threat to the cohesiveness of the nation. “Federalists were most characteristically anti-imperial and therefore ‘modern’ on the question of size, for they were convinced that an overextended union could never achieve a sufficient degree of national integration to function effectively in a dangerous world.”15

Unable to conceptualize Jefferson’s radical dialectic between part and whole, the Federalists equated unity with control, and force as exterior to the relations its establishes rather than immanent to them (i.e. force as application instead of a generative principle). Consider the tone of the following passages. The first is by Hamilton:

“Every power vested in a Government is in its nature sovereign, and includes by force of the term, a right to employ all the means requisite, and fairly applicable to the attainment of the ends of such power; and which are not precluded by restrictions & exceptions specified in the constitution.”16

Compare with this one, by Jefferson:

“The future inhabitants of the Atlantic and Mississippi states will be our sons. We leave them in distinct but bordering establishments. We think we see their happiness in their union, and we wish it. Events may prove it otherwise; and if they see their interest in separation, why should we take side with our Atlantic rather than our Mississippi descendants? It is the elder and the younger son differing. God bless them both, and keep them in union, if it be for their good, but separate them, if it be better.”17


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