Volume XI, Number 1, Spring 2015

"The Power of Hemispheric Sympathy: Sentimental Aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s Conception of Inter-American Relations" by Zoltán Vajda

Zoltán Vajda is Associate Professor of American Studies at the Institute of English and American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Szeged, Hungary. His main areas of research and teaching are early American intellectual and cultural history, antebellum Southern history, Thomas Jefferson and his times, Cultural Studies and US popular culture. He serves on the editorial board of AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, and Aetas, a historical journal, both edited in Szeged. Email:

When in the summer of 1776 Britain’s thirteen North American colonies decided to declare their independence, they―at the same time―created a new nation that they felt ready to govern itself by principles gaining ground in the late-eighteenth-century western world. Fifty some years later, the South and Central American colonies of Spain began, one after the other, their struggle for independence, engaging in military conflicts with the mother country and one another hoping to establish independent states (Bethell 3:45-46; Bakewell 356-80; Anderle 62-65).

An active participant in the North American struggle for independence, Thomas Jefferson was convinced of the ultimate triumph of the sacrificial efforts made by the Patriots. As he would later reflect on the revolutionary events, their “enthusiasm and a few pulsasions of blood” proved decisive in overwhelming an otherwise powerful enemy (Jefferson to Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786, Peterson 1984, 875). At the same time, he felt more ambiguous about the revolutions taking place south of the border of the Union. Nonetheless, as far as relations of the United States with the newly independent countries of the South were concerned, he was positive about their friendly nature ultimately to be generated by hemispheric conditions.

In this article I will discuss Jefferson’s view of the new states of Spanish America, concentrating on the way that he envisaged their future as well as their relationship to the United States. In spite of his pessimism about their initial ability to develop self-governing republics as well as his understanding of their potential threat to the United States, his vision of the future of Spanish America, as I will argue, contained an emphatic sentimental element concerning the relationship between the United States and the former colonies of the Spanish Empire in the western hemisphere. More particularly, in Jefferson’s mind, this was a special space determined by a contemporary conception of sympathy that served as a common ground for such relations.


The sporadic scholarly treatment of Jefferson’s ideas of Spanish America remain confined to his general attitude toward the sequels without an attempt at exploring their deeper significance in relation to contemporary cultural ideals of sentimentalism (Steele 96-98, Peterson 1975, 936-37).

This is all the more striking since the understanding of Jefferson as a sentimental thinker has been established by scholarship. Now we can see, for instance, how his notions about the need for independence were embedded in the sentimental tradition, or more particularly, were derived from Scottish Enlightenment thought (Coviello 2002; Coviello 2005, 160-69; Wills, 307-19). In a similar vein, now we have a better sense of his conception of nationhood rooted in sentimental philosophy as well as his ideas on race relations being informed by contemporary beliefs in affection (Onuf 2000a, Onuf 2000b, Saillant). These influences, as will be seen below, can also be detected in his discussion of US-Spanish American relations. Before seeing that, however, it is indispensable to assess his understanding of the major characteristics of the region and its people1.

Similarly to his fellow countrymen, Jefferson only had a limited amount of information available about lands lying south of the United States. As he would admit to German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, Spanish America, just like the rest of the southern part of the western hemisphere, was inaccessible to the rest of the world (Jefferson to Humboldt, March 6, 1809, Lipscomb & Bergh, 12:263). Jefferson maintained that the physical distance that separated the United States from the South American colonies of the Spanish empire made it difficult for Americans to find information about the region (Jefferson to James Monroe, November 24, 1801, Peterson 1984, 1098).

Nonetheless, Jefferson managed to gather some intelligence about the region in three ways. In the first place, he received first-hand accounts from visitors from Spanish America before the independence movements (Jefferson to John Jay, May 4, 1787, Ford 1892-1899, 4:383-85; Jefferson to Valentine de Foronda, October 4, 1809, Ford 1892-1899, 9:260). In the second, he had access to contemporary descriptions of scholarly significance such as the ones published by Alexander von Humboldt, who had conducted extended research into the area, and even visited him in Washington (Whitaker 317, 320-21; Peterson 1970, 738; Schwartz 48-49). Finally, Jefferson also gained information about the possessions of Spain in the New World through historical works that he himself held in his library (Sowerby 4:251-93). This body of knowledge was complemented by his view of Spain, in turn informed by a system of ideas that was ultimately rooted in its treatment of the indigenous people of the American continent. According to this image that went down in history by the name “black legend” (“la leyenda negra”), the Spanish colonizers appear as merciless brutes driven by their greed for gold subjugating and abusing the native inhabitants of the land (Powell 1971; DeGuzmán 2005, 4-5).

This negative view of Spain as a colonizing power in the New World also included another element based on Jefferson’s more general notions about the retrograde system of religion and government that he associated with Spain: he was strongly opposed to Catholicism in general, with its alleged moral declension in general and the role of priesthood in generating tenets he held irrational in particular (Conkin 32, 34-35).

In addition to his views of the mother country, Jefferson’s image of Spain’s American colonies was also conditioned by his general ideas of government. In the first place, he found the “character of the people” primary in constructing any system of government. More precisely, he connected the moral and intellectual capacities of the people with self-government holding that only an enlightened citizenry was capable of governing itself freely with the utmost degree of liberty (Peterson 1975, 198, 336-37). He, for instance, was in support of the provision of the new Constitution of Spain making franchise conditional on literacy (Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 1816, Ford 1904-1905, 11:523; Jefferson to Luis de Onís, April 28, 1814, Washington 6:342). The other end of the scale would denote a people of dependence, incapable of self-government. To Jefferson this was best exemplified by the state of slavery, resulting in the lack of freedom coupled with the lack of consent and hence arbitrary wielding of power (Peterson 1975, 214).

For Jefferson, nevertheless, it was possible for a dependent people to undergo a development ultimately resulting in abandoning its colonial status ultimately acquiring the ability of self-government. In fact, this was a pattern that informed his idea of expanding the United States by admitting new states. They would originally have territorial status only before reaching the appropriate level of development in terms of population and political institutions. In this way they could become members of Jefferson’s “empire of liberty,” with equally developed states, capable of governing themselves, existing together, leaving their temporary colonial status behind (Onuf 1995, 68-70, 72; Saler 364-68; Boyd 538-54; Onuf 1983, 44-45).

It was the admission of Louisiana as a new state into the Union that, for the first time, represented to Jefferson the pattern of development for self-government and the integration of a people steeped in Spanish metropolitan rule. For him, the integration of the Spanish (and French) population of Louisiana posed a special challenge because of their long exposure to colonial rule and the lack of self-government. In this way, they proved profoundly different from the Anglo-European population of the Union and hence their existence under one government was deemed problematic. This, on the other hand, called for the lengthening of their colonial status after admission. Consequently, certain rights, for instance, were to be introduced only gradually or the governor was to be made independent from the will of the electorate (Kastor 87, 48).

All these considerations and experiences had an impact on Jefferson’s vision of the Spanish colonies in the New World striving for independence. His basic expectation was that the newly independent states would have difficulty establishing and maintaining republican governments because the colonial heritage having left an indelible imprint on the character of the peoples of the region.

He was convinced that, in the first place, the people of Spanish America, because of centuries of exposure to colonial rule, had the smallest degree of liberty and lived under the greatest amount of (despotic) power (Jefferson to John Jay, May 4, 1787, Ford 1892-1899, 4:384). Hence, in the second place, he also held that “military despotism” was the most probable form of government for the new states, because their people had got accustomed to being governed by others with the utmost political power and minimal degree of liberty, characteristic of such systems (Jefferson to Humboldt, April 14, 1811, Washington 5:580).

In addition to the effect of the form of government, however, Jefferson also identified another factor that contributed to the shaping of such peoples’ character. He understood that these people were not enlightened enough to govern themselves. Most of the population of Spanish America lacked education and, to make matters worse for him, they had been under the influence of the Catholic clergy keeping them in ignorance as well as in submission. (Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, April 15, 1815, Ford 1904-1905, 11:204; Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, April 14, 1811, Washington, 5:581). All this would result, Jefferson believed, in the freshly independent countries of Spanish America engaging in military conflicts among themselves, further promoting conditions for military governments (Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1818, Ford 1904-1905, 12:95; Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, April 24, 1816, Ford 1904-1905, 11:524).

Jefferson was so convinced that too much liberty for the peoples of Spanish America would result in political problems that he even suggested the “nominal supremacy,” the rule of the mother country be restored over them and removed only gradually. This solution, he held, would also have offered the immediate benefit of preventing military confrontation among the sequels (Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, May 14, 1817, Ford 1892-1899, 10:85).

Furthermore, considering the consequences of the political development of the sequels for their relations with the United States, Jefferson held that the “problem of neighborhood” that at the time characterized European power relations having nation states tending to start war on one another was also going to plague the new countries of the former Spanish American empire as well as their relationship with the United States (Lewis 1-9, 12-40). He believed that the sequels engaging in surreptitious military confrontations were, in fact, temporarily following the European way of placing foreign relations on the principle of the balance of powers and was only hopeful that they would not become strong enough to threaten the United States in a military sense (Vajda 285).

Finally, Jefferson understood that under similar conditions of productions, neighboring countries south of the United States, once independent, would pose a threat to its economic interests, able to find markets for their produce as rivals. He suggested to James Monroe in 1814 in connection with the economic power of Spanish American countries, writing that

[W]hen they are free, they will drive every article of our produce from every market, by underselling it, and change the condition of our existence, forcing us into other habits and pursuits, we shall, indeed, have in exchange some commerce with them, but in what I know not, for we shall have nothing to offer which they cannot raise cheaper … (Lewis 79, 218; Jefferson to Monroe, February 4, 1816, in Ford 1892-1899,10:19; see also Jefferson to Le Chevalier Onís, April 28, 1814, in Washington, 6:342-43).

For all his negative views on the peoples of Spanish America, Jefferson was ultimately hopeful of building good relations with them. In the first place, in connection with their capacity for self-government, Jefferson believed in their ability to undergo change. He was positive that a new generation of Spanish Americans would be able to improve their capacities in a way to live up to the expectations of republican self-government through education (Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, November 30, 1813, Ford 1904-1905, 11:359; Jefferson to Dupont de Nemours, April 15, 1811, Ford 1904-1905, 11:204) And in proportion to their becoming enlightened and educated, they would, on the other hand, have an increasing degree of liberty and self-government (Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1818, Ford 1904-1905, 12:96)

Moreover, for all the difficulties that Jefferson associated with the independence movements of the former American colonies of Spain, he also envisioned an alliance between them and the United States based on a sentimental conception of space, mainly in contrast to Europe. In the first place, independent of the immediate context, Jefferson would often refer to the people of South America as “brethren,” expressing the idea of commonality between them and the United States (Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, June 13, 1817, Ford 1904-1905, 12:68; Jefferson to Destutt de Tracy, December 26, 1820, Ford 1904-1905, 12:184; Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, May 14, 1817, Ford, 1892-1899, 10:84). Furthermore, he tended to formulate a positive attitude to the people of Spanish America as part of a vision related to a more global geopolitical context: Jefferson believed that refusing to support their independence equaled having Spain as a “natural enemy” of the United States with Spanish colonies ultimately joining the mother country in a possible military conflict. Hence he argued for the United States’ support for their becoming independent for national security reasons, in the hope of weakening Spain’s influences in the western hemisphere. At the same time, out of more general considerations, he also believed that “[T]hey have a right to be free, and we a right to aid them, as a strong man has a right to assist a weak one assailed by a robber or murderer” (Jefferson to James Monroe, February 4, 1816, Ford 1892-1899, 10:19). Furthermore, he also intimated to Monroe his anticipation of war with Spain, yet in such a case, he believed, the United States should opt for “joining the South Americans, and entering into treaties of alliance with them” (19), “choosing to have them with us, rather than against us” (20). Finally, in the spirit of cooperation, he would also support commercial cooperation between US economic forces and those of the sequels. In a letter to William Short, therefore, he also expressed his wish “to see the fleets of Brazil and the U.S. riding together as brethren of the same family, and pursuing the same object” (Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820, Lipscomb and Bergh, 15:263).

For Jefferson this alliance was, at the same time, ultimately made possible by the special conditions shared by the countries of the New World, distinguishing them from Europe. These conditions, in turn, expressed their power through the sentimental space of affection based on cultural-historical similarities which in the contemporary intellectual environment amounted to the recognition of a common space of affection among all nations of the continent.

Research mentioned above has shown how values and ideas of sentimentalism influenced Thomas Jefferson in his moral philosophy, political thinking as well as race relations. In connection with Spanish America, he also applied these to international relations, mainly influenced by Adam Smith’s understanding of the spatial dimension of sympathy.

As the intellectual historian Fonna Forman-Barzilai has claimed, Smith’s theory of sympathy exhibited a complex understanding of proximity governing human relations. In general, it followed the common eighteenth-century model of affection and sympathy that, rooted in ancient prefigurations, associated it with the force of gravitation, arguing that its power was disproportionate with distance. In this way, proximity would entail greater gravitational attraction and consequently, a greater degree of sympathy (Forman-Barzilai 153; also, on the gravitational model in an early US context see Saillant). With Smith, in Forman-Barzilai’s reading, sympathy can develop between human beings as a result of “physical”, “affective” or “historical-cultural” proximity, with each “dimension” playing a different degree of role to play in the generation of sympathy (141). Each of them forms a segment of a “space” where sympathy becomes the result of either the physically “proximate,” the affectionately “connected” or the culturally or historically “familiar,” respectively (141). For Smith, it is the “historical-cultural” space of sympathy, with its principle of familiarity that assumes the greatest degree of power of all (161, 164, 165).

Jefferson definitely identified a common ground for sympathetic space tied to the western hemisphere in which cooperation between the United States and the new countries of South America could take place. The affection that he perceived on that ground was to develop on the cultural-historical dimension formed by cultural identity. This cultural identity, on the other hand, was to demarcate the whole of the American continent from Europe.

Jefferson perceived a basic similarity between his own country and the sequels of Spain’s colonies in the New World. He made this clear in a remarkable letter to William Short in 1820:

The excess of population in Europe, and want of room, render war, in their [i.e. Europeans] opinion, necessary to keep down that excess of numbers. Here, room is abundant, population scanty, and peace the necessary means for producing men, to whom the redundant soil is offering the means of life and happiness. The principles of society there and here, then, are radically different, and I hope no American patriot will ever lose sight of the essential policy of interdicting in the seas and territories of both Americas, the ferocious and sanguinary contests of Europe. I wish to see this coalition begun. (Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820, Lipscomb and Bergh, 15:263; emphasis added).

In the first place, Jefferson understood the western hemisphere as one basically different from Europe in that while the latter lacked in available free land, the former would have plenty of that to offer. Whereas, in the second place, in Europe population surplus was to be tackled by means of war, the same problem could be solved peacefully in the New World because of the arable land available for newborn citizens. In this way, he thought, population control could be more peacefully realized in the New World, and “happiness” provided for the people there through agriculture as a way of subsistence. This, at the same time, would distinguish it from Europe, plagued by military conflicts ultimately generated by the desire to tackle the problems emerging from the “excess of population.” Jefferson, then, established a common ground for identity between the two Americas unrecognized by earlier scholarship (cf. Steele 96).

In this assessment of “both Americas,” then, agriculture plays a crucial role, similarly to Jefferson’s general political economy. Regarding the cultivation of land as a major and, in fact, most desirable form of economic activity, Jefferson believed that, in the first place, it was bound to produce virtuous, since independent citizens. Hence yeoman farmers would constitute the backbone of a permanent republic. Although Jefferson later modified this viewpoint, agriculture remained important for him throughout his life (Peterson 1975, 217; Yarbrough 78). In the second place, he was convinced that farming could be a key to the problem of population growth in the New World. The abundance of free arable land would provide surplus population with a secure means of subsistence. In this way, he hoped, America would be able to avoid the European paradigm of war as a means of population control and dealing with the surplus. He associated that with Thomas Malthus’s theory of population growth and limited resources on the European continent (Peterson 1975, 217; Jefferson to Jean Baptist Say, February 1, 1804, Peterson 1975, 498).

In formulating these views, Jefferson drew upon the eighteenth century stadial theory of social development which held that human societies tend to undergo a gradual development of various stages based on a particular kind of subsistence, moving from hunting-gathering, through the nomadic, pastoral stage, then the sedentary agricultural one, culminating in the commercial one as the most highly developed one (Meek 68-126; McCoy 18-19). Together with some theorists of this line, Jefferson also believed in the gradational nature of this stadial pattern of social development in tandem with the moral degradation coupled with that. Although the most developed form, the commercial stage with the growth of manufacturing and urbanization tended to produce masses in the city with no independent means of subsistence thus being prone to corruption, Jefferson argued (Peterson 1975, 217). Hence the importance of the agricultural stage for him, with its relatively high status in the pattern of development, still having safeguards against the corruption of morals.

This was the broader intellectual grounding on which the cultural historical space of affection would encompass sequels together with the United States in Jefferson’s vision. At the same time, physical proximity also featured as a factor for him, since he held that those countries closer to his own would produce a greater pace of development in approximating the political institutions and degree of freedom of the United States. Thus he calculated with Mexico to be one of the first among the new countries to establish a republic fashioned by the United States (Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813, Ford, 1904-1905, 11:351)

All this is not to belittle the more negative aspects of Jefferson’s views of the Spanish American neighbors―as shown above. Yet, Jefferson also developed a positive attitude toward the southern neighbors of the United States which was not without precedent. He, for instance, also conceived of the possibility of “good” neighborhood based on cultural homogeneity (See Jefferson to Breckinridge, August 12, 1803, Peterson 1975, 496).

Furthermore, he was more prepared to see the new states of Spanish America become republics similar to the United States in the sympathetic space provided by the special conditions of the western hemisphere than countries of “military despotism” functioning by the European model of balance of power and population control. This is why, as he connected this problem with American national security, the isolated situation of the western hemisphere would further the possibility of keeping the United States and the former Spanish American colonies out of the European world of belligerent powers. As Jefferson explained to US President James Monroe in 1823, on the eve of the Monroe-doctrine, three years before his death,

Our first and fundamental maxim should be, never to entangle ourselves in the broils of Europe. Our second, never to suffer Europe to intermeddle with cis-Atlantic affairs. America, North and South, has a set of interests distinct from those of Europe, and peculiarly her own. She should therefore have a system of her own, separate and apart from that of Europe. While the last is laboring to become the domicile of despotism, our endeavor should surely be, to make our hemisphere that of freedom (Jefferson to James Monroe, October 24, 1823, in Lipscomb and Bergh 15:477; see also Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813, in Ford 1904-1905, 11:352; Jefferson to William Charles Cole Claiborne, October 29, 1808, Ford 1904-1905, 11:55-56).

In his remarkable letter to William Short cited above, Jefferson also made clear his wish for an alliance among countries of the western hemisphere, emphasizing

… the advantages of a cordial fraternization among all the American nations, and the importance of their coalescing in an American system of policy, totally independent of and unconnected with that of Europe. The day is not distant, when we may formally require a meridian of partition through the ocean which separates the two hemispheres, on the hither side of which no European gun shall ever be heard, nor an American on the other; and when, during the rage of the eternal wars of Europe, the lion and the lamb, within our regions, shall lie down together in peace. (Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820, Lipscomb and Bergh, 15:262-63).

In conclusion, Jefferson wished to see the people of the newly independent states of the Spanish American empire develop themselves in a moral and intellectual sense so that they would be able to govern themselves as free republics. At the same time, he was also aware of the dangers of foreign nation states that moved by the principle of neighborhood and balance of power would pose a threat to one another. Still, the difference that he perceived between the Europe of hostile powers and the New World of special geographical and geopolitical conditions also made him imagine a space of sympathy providing viable ground for inter-American relations.


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1 What follows about Jefferson’s general views on the region as well as on its independence movements is largely based upon my research in this regard.