JEFFERSON, THOMAS. Autograph letter signed ("Th:Jefferson") to James Maury Esq. in London; Monticello, 25 April 1812. 4 pages, 4to (9¾ x 7½ in.), in exceptionally fine condition.
"TODAY WE ARE AT PEACE; TO-MORROW WAR...IF EVER I WAS GRATIFIED WITH THE POSSESSION OF POWER, AND OF THE CONFIDENCE OF THOSE WHO HAD ENTRUSTED ME WITH IT, IT WAS ON THAT OCCASION WHEN I WAS ENABLED TO USE BOTH FOR THE PREVENTION OF WAR"
"I HAVE WITHDRAWN MYSELF FROM ALL POLITICAL INTERMEDDLINGS, TO INDULGE THE EVENING OF MY LIFE WITH WHAT HAVE BEEN THE PASSION OF EVERY PORTION OF IT, BOOKS, SCIENCE, MY FARMS, MY FAMILY AND FRIENDS"
A famous personal letter, quoted in many biographies and frequently anthologized, in which Jefferson resignedly anticipates war with Great Britain (his friend's adopted homeland), recalls his own efforts as President to avoid war in spite of provocation, confesses that he has withdrawn from politics in retirement and wistfully evokes his youthful friendship with Maury (for more regarding their early acquaintance, see notes to another letter to Maury, lot 312): "My dear and ancient friend and classmate, Often has my heart smote me for delaying acknowledgements to you...But instead of acting on the good old maxim of not putting off to to-morrow what we can do to-day, we are too apt to reverse it, and not to do to-day what we can put off to to-morrow. But this duty can no longer be put off."
Writing two months before President Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Britain, Jefferson foresees the inevitable conflict: "To-day we are at peace; to-morrow, war. The curtain of separation is drawing between us, and probably will not be withdrawn till one, if not both of us, will be at rest with our fathers. Let me now, then, while I may, renew to you the declaration of my warm attachment, which in no period of life has ever been weakened, and seems to become stronger as the remaining objects of our youthful affections are fewer. Our two countries are to be at war, but not you and I. And why should our two countries be at war, when by peace we can be so much more useful to one another? Surely the world will acquit our government from having sought it. Never before has there been an instance of a nation's bearing so much as we have borne. Two items alone in our catalogue of wrongs will forever acquit us of being the aggressors: the impressment of our seamen, and the excluding us from the ocean. The first foundations of the social compact would be broken up, were we definitively to refuse to its members the protection of their persons and property, while in their lawful pursuits."
"I think the war will not be short, because the object of England, long obvious, is to claim the ocean as her domain...This is the sum of her orders in council...And this object must continue her in war with all the world. To this I see no termination, until her exaggerated efforts, so much beyond her natural strength and resources, shall have exhausted her to bankruptcy. The approach of this crisis is, I think, visible in the departure of her precious metals, and depreciation of her paper medium. We, who have gone though that operation, know its symptoms, its course, and consequences. In England it will be more serious than elsewhere, because half the wealth of her people is now in that medium...Such a proportion of property, imaginary and baseless as it is, cannot be reduced to vapor but with great explosion. She will rise out of its ruins, however, because her lands, her houses, her arts will remain, and the greater part of her men. And these will give her again that place among nations which is proportioned to her natural means, and which we all wish her to hold."
The United States, Jefferson points out, had long sought to maintain neutrality in the bitter Anglo-French conflicts: "We believe the just standing of all nations is the health and security of all. We consider the overwhelming power of England on the ocean, and of France on the land, as destructive of the prosperity and happiness of the world, and wish both to be reduced only to the necessity of observing moral duties. We believe no more in Bonaparte's fighting merely for the liberty of the seas, than in Great Britain's fighting for the liberties of mankind. The object of both is the same, to draw to themselves the power, the wealth and resources of other nations. We resist the enterprises of England first, because they first come vitally home to us. And our feelings repel the logic of bearing the lash of George the III, for fear of that of Bonaparte at some future day. When the wrongs of France shall reach us with equal effect, we shall resist them also. But one at a time is enough; and having offered a choice to the champions, England first takes up the gauntlet."
He vigorously denies a partiality for France, ascribed to him ever since his service as Minister to France: "The English newspapers suppose me the personal enemy of their nation. I am not so. I am an enemy to its injuries, as I am to those of France. If I could permit myself to have national partialities, and if the conduct of England would have permitted them to be directed toward her, they would have been so." He reviews the troubled relations between the two nations, recalling that "in the administration of Mr. Addington, I discovered some dispositions toward justice, and even friendship and respect for us, and began to pave the way for cherishing these dispositions, and improving them into ties of mutual good will." But these hopeful signs were vitiated by subsequent events and exacerbated by "poor Merry, the English minister here," who, he recalls, "had learned nothing of diplomacy but its suspicions, without head enough to distinguish when they were misplaced. Mr. Addington and Mr. [Charles James] Fox passed away too soon to avail the two countries of their dispositions."
In fact, Jefferson asserts, while he was President, he had deliberately chosen not to go to war with Britain, even though it would have been justified by such flagrant violations of American neutrality as the Chesapeake-Leopard affair. In June 1807 the British warship Leopard had fired on the American frigate Chesapeake, boarded her and impressed four seamen. In response many Americans called loudly for war, a pressure Jefferson resisted, with difficulty. "Had I been personally hostile to England, and biased in favor of either the character or views of her great antagonist, the affair of the Chesapeake put war into my hand. I had only to open it and let havoc loose. But if ever I was gratified with the possession of power, and of the confidence of those who had entrusted me with it, it was on that occasion when I was enabled to use both for the prevention of war, toward which the torrent of passion here was directed almost irresistibly, and when not another person, in the United States, less supported by authority and favor, could have resisted it. And now that a definitive adherence to her [Great Britain's] impressments and orders of council renders war no longer avoidable, my earnest prayer is that our government may enter into no compact of common cause with the other belligerent, but keep us free to make a separate peace, whenever England will separately give us peace and future security."
He closes with longing recollections of the friendships of his youth: "I have thus, for a moment, taken a range into the field of politics, to possess you with the view we take of things here. But in the scenes which are to ensue, I am to be but a spectator. I have withdrawn myself from all political intermeddlings, to indulge the evening of my life with what have been the passion of every portion of it, books, science, my farms, my family and friends. To these every hour of the day is now devoted. I retain a good activity of mind, not quite as much of body, but uninterrupted health. Still the hand of age is upon me. All my old friends are nearly gone. Of those in my neighborhood, Mr. Divers and Mr. Lindsay alone remain. If you could make it a partie quarree, it would be a comfort indeed. We would beguile our lingering hours with talking over our youthful exploits, our hunts on Peter's mountain, with a long train of et cetera, in addition, and feel, by recollection, a momentary flash of youth. Reviewing the course of a long and successful life, I find in no portion of it happier moments than those were." In closing, he gently chides his old friend for having taken up residence in England: "I think the old hulk in which you are, is near her wreck, and that like a prudent rat, you should escape in time. However, here, there, and everywhere, in peace or in war you will have my sincere affections and prayers for you life, health, and happiness."
The letter, published from Jefferson's retained copy, in Writings, ed. P.L. Ford, 9:348-351, and has been frequently reprinted. It is excerpted or discussed in D.A. Malone, Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello, p.89; A. Koch and W. Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, pp.567-568; see F.M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, p.421; J. Holmes, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Chronology of his Thoughts, pp.237-238 and elsewhere.