Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon thought they could bomb Vietnam into accepting democracy. George W. Bush thinks he can do it with Iraq. But the first American president to consider how best to grow democracies - Thomas Jefferson - had some very different thoughts on the issue. LBJ and Bush would have done well to listen to his thoughtful words in a letter he wrote on February 14, 1815, to his old friend in France, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Published on Wednesday, April 21, 2004 by

Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon thought they could bomb Vietnam into accepting democracy. George W. Bush thinks he can do it with Iraq.

But the first American president to consider how best to grow democracies - Thomas Jefferson - had some very different thoughts on the issue. LBJ and Bush would have done well to listen to his thoughtful words in a letter he wrote on February 14, 1815, to his old friend in France, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Discussing the French Revolution, the Terror that followed, and the reign of Napoleon, Jefferson noted that building democracy is an organic process: The democracy movement in the colonies had been fermenting for a century prior to Jefferson's birth.

"A full measure of liberty is not now perhaps to be expected by your nation," Jefferson wrote, about the democracy movement within France, "nor am I confident they are prepared to preserve it. More than a generation will be requisite, under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation."

He added that it's nearly impossible to force democracy on a people, and the consequences of trying could be disastrous. "Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident, it becomes, with an unprepared people, a tyranny still, of the many, the few, or the one."

Lafayette, at the time of the French Revolution (1789), had expressed his concerns to Jefferson that the movement for democracy wasn't sufficiently widespread among the average people in France to take hold as it had in America, and they should thus make the transition via a constitutional monarchy much like today's United Kingdom. At the time, Jefferson had disagreed with his friend, but in this 1815 letter, he noted: "And I found you were right.... Unfortunately, some of the most honest and enlightened of our patriotic friends...did not weigh the hazards of a transition from one form of government to another."

Many in the revolutionary movement of France of that era opposed Lafayette's deliberate and careful push for an organic democracy, rather than a sudden lurch. "You differed from them," Jefferson noted. "You were for stopping there, and for securing the Constitution which the National Assembly had obtained. Here, too, you were right; and from this fatal error of the republicans, from their separation from yourself and the constitutionalists, in their councils, flowed all the subsequent sufferings and crimes of the French nation."

The lack of a truly widespread, average-citizen-based movement for democracy in France, Lafayette had privately argued to Jefferson two decades earlier, could simply lead to a transition from the tyranny of the king to another, perhaps worse, form of tyranny. While Jefferson had, at first, embraced the French revolution, in his letter to Lafayette he confessed that he had now come to agree that without a broader base of support, a sudden change of government was a disaster, and the primary beneficiaries would only be war profiteers and the rich, Frenchmen who were so opposed to democracy that they could even be called foreigners.

Thus, Jefferson wrote, "The foreigner gained time to anarchize by gold the government he could not overthrow by arms, to crush in their own councils the genuine republicans... and to turn the machine of Jacobinism from the change to the destruction of order; and, in the end, the limited monarchy they had secured was exchanged for the unprincipled and bloody tyranny of Robespierre, and the equally unprincipled and maniac tyranny of Bonaparte."

Comparing France to America, Jefferson noted how - unlike France - we had overthrown an external occupier all by ourselves. For American colonists, the repression and occupation of the English in the Colonies "has helped rather than hurt us, by arousing the general indignation of our country, and by marking to the world of Europe the vandalism and brutal character of the English government. It has merely served to immortalize their infamy."

And now Arab leaders like Egypt's Mubarak say that, across the Arab world, our infamy is being immortalized by Bush's unprovoked invasion and occupation of oil-rich Iraq. America, Mubarak says, faces "a hatred never equaled" in the Middle East, even as Iraq totters on the edge of civil war.

It's as if the cycles of history are repeating themselves, and Iraq may now suffer the Terrors that racked France in the 19th Century.

When John Adams wrote to Jefferson on July 13, 1813 about a French politician, he could just as easily have been speaking of George W. Bush: "In plain truth, I was astonished at the grossness of his ignorance of government and history."

Adams added, speaking of those who think they can create empire and have a stable rule purely by military force, "Napoleon has lately invented a word which perfectly expresses my opinion, at that time and ever since. He calls the project Ideology; and... it was all madness."

But like Iraq with Saddam, Jefferson wrote that true democracy would take time in France because the overthrow of a tyrant had been done so hastily. "You are now rid of him, and I sincerely wish you may continue so. But this may depend on the wisdom and moderation of the restored dynasty. It is for them now to read a lesson in the fatal errors of the republicans; to be contented with a certain portion of power, secured by formal compact with the nation, rather than, grasping at more, hazard all upon uncertainty, and risk meeting the fate of their predecessor...."

As we "hazard all upon uncertainty" in the Middle East, Iraq is proving the prescience of our greatest presidents yet again. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said on September 22, 1936, "In the truest sense, freedom cannot be bestowed, it must be achieved."

If only George W. Bush had paid attention during his study of history at Yale...


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