EMPIRE OF LIBERTY

The Statecraft of

Thomas Jefferson

By Robert W. Tucker

And David C. Hendrickson

Oxford University Press. 360 pp. $24.95

At my local public library the computer catalogue -- a tool that would have charmed Thomas Jefferson -- lists 62 books about the Virginian, and at my nearby state university the research library's computer offers 61 subject entries and 313 titles under the main biographical heading alone. While one must remain open to fresh thinking, of course, at this point the burden of proof lies heavily upon any writer venturing into this crowded territory.

The verdict on this academic analysis of Jefferson's "Statecraft" is a mixed one. The authors of "Empire of Liberty," Robert W. Tucker of Johns Hopkins University and David C. Hendrickson of Colorado College, are neither biographers nor historians, but political scientists whose specialities are international law and defense policy. They identify "the distinctiveness and originality" of Jefferson's approach as "new diplomacy" that would pursue the traditional ends of security and prestige while renouncing the traditional means of entangling alliances and wars justified by raison d'e'tat. Instead Jefferson would rely upon what he called "peaceable coercion" to be exerted partly by commercial arrangements and partly by the force of American ideals.

Stating the issue so baldly makes it easy enough for the authors to point out the ways in which Jefferson departed from the ideal: He had his own raison d'e'tat in continental expansion and allowed it to override his constitutional principles; his program of economic coercion against Britain and France failed to move those great powers yet proved badly repressive at home; and so on. These are the contradictions that Jefferson's admirers treat under the heading of "pragmatic idealism" and that his detractors jump upon as hypocrisy.

The argument is a perennial one, and "Empire of Liberty," with its stiff style and cloudy definitions, does little to ventilate or freshen it. The authors offer the familiar polarities -- isolation or intervention? exemplar or crusader? idealism or realism? -- and draw the predictable conclusions in favor of sober realism and responsible involvement.

Tucker and Hendrickson are more successful when they set the generalities aside and weigh Jefferson's approach in two specific case studies at the center of their book. One is the issue of continental expansion that culminated in the triumph of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and the other is the maritime and commercial crisis engendered by the Napoleonic War that ended, for Jefferson, in the failure of the Embargo of 1807.

While most scholars praise the sophisticated strategy and superb timing that secured the Mississippi Valley for the young nation, Tucker and Hendrickson take a more astringent view. They argue that Jefferson had no clear strategy for dealing with the opportunity posed by Spain's retrocession of Louisiana to France. The president's "timing," they insist, was really Jefferson's drifting attempt to avoid the dilemma of going to war with France over New Orleans or allying with Great Britain to take it in combination.

Napoleon's own change of direction after the French defeat in Santo Domingo broke the impasse, but the authors draw the intriguing conclusion that Jefferson's ultimate triumph "enlarged his appetite while (erroneously) confirming his own system" of peaceable coercion and watchful waiting. Thus "the diplomatic design" of the first administration, when applied to the subsequent maritime crisis over neutral commerce and the impressment of sailors, led to "the ruin of the second."

Unlike most historians, who acknowledge the disastrous failure of the economic boycott mandated by the embargo and other measures but regard Jefferson as ultimately the victim of circumstances, Tucker and Hendrickson identify Jefferson's "moralism" as the problem, for it made him too stiff-necked on the abstract issue of neutral rights and thus incapable of making an accommodation with Great Britain. He converted "questions of interest into matters of right and wrong," they emphasize, and thus "corrupted" his statecraft.

Their essay, more speculative than the Louisiana chapters, tries to demonstrate the possibilities for compromise and faults Jefferson for underestimating the French threat and exaggerating the British one. Tucker and Hendrickson, however, cannot explain why this should have occurred, because they pay insufficient attention to the republican ideology that underlay Jefferson's statecraft. Nor do they consider how profoundly the experience of the independence movement shaped Jefferson's world view.

"Empire of Liberty" makes no pretense at biography, yet it consistently personalizes the issues. The authors also treat policy questions as isolated ones, removed from the ebb and flow of concurrent episodes in the life of the administration and the man. This atomized approach biases the analysis in favor of rational calculation and makes Jefferson's idealism seem quaint and naive.

In the famous dialogue between the head and the heart that Jefferson composed in 1786 as a love letter to Maria Cosway, the wife of an English portrait painter, he put utility and practical consideration on one side and enthusiasm and vision on the other. Science belonged to the head, but morals to the heart, Jefferson declared, because "morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the incertain combinations of the head."

There is, in other words, an intuitive and emotional dimension to Jefferson's thought that underpins his commitment both to democratic politics and a "new" diplomacy.

Jefferson biographers may be divided into those, such as Julian Boyd, Merrill Peterson and Noble Cunningham, who believe that "the head" won Jefferson's imaginary dialogue and those, such as Dumas Malone and Garry Wills, who emphasize the primacy of what the 18th century called "sensibility."

A meaningful book about Jefferson's statecraft will have to address this underlying question of Jefferson's "sensibility" -- and the political economy it produced -- with more sophistication than "Empire of Liberty's" ahistorical approach, which allows the 20th-century head to admonish the 18th-century heart.

The reviewer is the author of "A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic." He is writing a biography of William Lloyd Garrison.