Jefferson The Counterinsurgent?

Dominic Tierney, a political science professor at Swarthmore College, intervenes in the debate over U.S. nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan to suggest that those who support the greater institutionalization of counterinsurgency in the U.S. military “can take inspiration from a surprising quarter: the founders”:

From the start of the Republic, they aimed to create what the historian Michael Tate called a “multipurpose army,” designed for a wide variety of functions beyond combat. Despite the small size of the regular Army, which was capped at 6,000 men in 1821, and despite the miserly pay that led a foreign observer to wonder who would volunteer to be “shot at for one shilling a day,” the early military performed an essential role in forging the young America.

Tierney demonstrates pretty well that the US military was, from the beginning, trained in variety of nation building functions. He’s on much, much weaker ground when he claims that “troops from America’s farming heartlands who are helping Afghans build greenhouses, grow cops and better feed cattle” are “following in the footsteps of our earliest soldiers.” While West Point in the 19th century may have been “a great foundry of nation-building,” the intent was to build this nation. There’s little evidence that the founders envisioned this as a product for export, let alone that they were interested in engaging in nation-building on the other side of the world.

Tierney’s attempt to rope in Thomas Jefferson, specifically, seems especially questionable given the huge debts that the U.S. has racked up to pay for our current foreign nation-building efforts. Jefferson’s opposition to saddling one’s descendants with debt is well-known (even if he failed to meet this standard in his personal affairs). In 1816, Jefferson wrote, “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” In 1820 he added, “It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.” And on and on.

Obviously, we live in a very different era from the founders, and there’s no way to know exactly what they’d think about anything. It’s possible that some of them would be thrilled at the level of power and influence now wielded by the republic they created, and just as possible that some would be horrified at the extent of our foreign entanglements and the amounts required to finance them. In any case, it doesn’t seem very credible to imply that they would have been supporters of foreign nation-building and counterinsurgency, especially since what evidence we do have points in the other direction.