Francis Cogliano is Professor of American History at The University of Edinburgh. This interview is based on his new book, Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (Yale, April 2014)
JF: What led you to write Emperor of Liberty?
FC: My last book concerned the evolution of Thomas Jefferson’s reputation particularly in the latter part of the twentieth century. In its final chapter I considered how historians had treated Jefferson’s foreign policy. Generally, they’ve fallen into two broad camps: those who see Jefferson as an idealist; and those who see him practicing more realistic realpolitik while employing idealistic rhetoric. Essentially, he’s either a forerunner of the Wilsonian idealist school of American statecraft or of the more pragmatic approach that sees the world as it is. While I was struck by this dichotomy, which resonates with much of the historiography, I felt that it didn’t adequately explain Jefferson’s actions as president (and, before that, as governor, diplomat, secretary of state and vice president). I sought to explore the evolution of Jefferson’s thinking about American statecraft and his practice of foreign policy without reference to debates about later periods in American history. Essentially, this study grew directly from my last book.
More generally, however, I think it arose from my own career circumstances. I have spent more than two decades living and teaching about early American history outside of the United States (mostly at the University of Edinburgh, a most congenial place, indeed). As an American abroad during the Clinton years and, most especially, since 2001, I’m acutely aware of the degree to which foreign policy resonates around the world. To be sure, the first decade of the nineteenth century was a very different one from early twenty-first century. Jefferson was acutely aware of the weakness of the United States and the relative strength of his adversaries, particularly France and Britain. Nonetheless, interrogating the origins of America’s global role seemed apposite, especially as that role looks very different when viewed from outside of the United States. I don’t think I would have written the book, certainly not in its current form, if I didn’t live in Edinburgh. My treatment of the Barbary War, for example is certainly informed by the debates of the decade or so – and some of the less-than-satisfying anachronistic accounts that sought to present that conflict as the first war on terror.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Emperor of Liberty?
FC: Emperor of Liberty argues that Thomas Jefferson, while flexible about the means he deployed to achieve his foreign-policy ends, did so in the service of a consistent republican vision. He believed that the United States, as a republic, was especially vulnerable in a world of aggressive, predatory empires and safeguarding the republic was his chief responsibility as president.
JF: Why do we need to read Emperor of Liberty?
FC: It provides a survey of Jefferson’s thinking and actions regarding statecraft and foreign policy across the breadth of his lengthy public career beginning with his tenure as governor of Virginia. As such it has a unique place in the literature which usually focuses exclusively on his presidency. Its premise is that if we are to understand Jefferson’s presidency we have to consider his experiences as governor, ambassador, secretary of state, and vice president as well as president.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
FC: For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in history. I grew up in a home where history and politics were topics of daily discussion and there were books, lots of books. I’m not sure of the precise moment I decided to become an historian, but I do know the book that changed my life. That was Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain which I read for the first time when I was 8 or 9. That sparked an interest in revolutionary and early national America which continues to this day. I guess spending my formative years growing up in New England during the Bicentennial reinforced that interest. I recently gave my nephew a copy of Johnny Tremain for his birthday.
Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author’s Corner.