"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, January 13, 1806.
The high hopes so often expressed in the context of Barack Obama's recent election echo the expectations that many Americans had when Jefferson was elected President in 1801. One observer noted, no doubt with a touch of irony, that "a political millennium [...] was about to happen in the United States. The millennium was to usher in upon us as the irresistible consequence of the goodness of heart, integrity of mind, and correctness of disposition of Mr. Jefferson. All nations, even pirates and savages, were to be moved by the influence of his persuasive virtue and masterly skill in diplomacy." In Jefferson's view, the reputation of a nation, like that of an individual, depended on its honorable conduct; moral principles would govern both its domestic and its foreign politics.
By 1806, when Jefferson penned this quote, the war against Tripoli had been won -- with the help of gun-boats and the daring actions of American marines. Jefferson was not a pacifist, nor did he believe that "liberality and magnanimity" alone would get the nation anywhere. But he wanted Congress to honor the claims brought forward against the U.S. if these claims were legitimate and well-founded. The ideals he proclaimed have not lost their validity. To follow them seems particularly appropriate at a time when the "respect" the U.S. enjoys in the rest of the world appears to be lower than it has been in many years.
PETER NICOLAISEN is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Flensburg, Germany.
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