JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th: Jefferson") as President, with bold heading "To the inhabitants of the town of Sandford in legal town meeting assembled..." [Monticello], 10 September 1808. 2 pages, 4to, horizontal creases very carefully reinforced.
JEFFERSON DEFENDS THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL ACT OF HIS PRESIDENCY: THE EMBARGO: "TO HAVE SUBMITTED OUR RIGHTFUL COMMERCE TO... TRIBUTARY EXACTIONS...WOULD HAVE BEEN TO SURRENDER OUR INDEPENDENCE..."
Jefferson conceived the Embargo Act--signed into law in December 1807-- as the only viable alternative to a costly war on the high seas with European belligerents during the Napoleonic Wars. It was his intention, by denying those nations the fruits of the American trade, to compel them to respect neutral American vessels. But in the end, its impact was considerably more damaging to American merchants, seamen and all connected with the maritime trade andf, in time, reciprocally devastated many segments of the economy. The Embargo's constraints were particularly felt in New England, and from the Fall of 1808 Jefferson was the recipient of petitions and remonstrances from citizens and municipalities. Here, responding to the residents of Sanford, "in legal town meeting assembled," the President offers a carefully crafted, very detailed justification of his Embargo.
He acknowledges "the inconveniences brought on our country in general by the circumstances of the times in which we happen to live, times to which the history of nations presents no parallel," and reminds them that "For years we have been looking as spectators on our brethren of Europe, afflicted by all those ills which necessarily follow an abandonment of the moral rules which bind men and nations together. Connected with them in friendship and commerce we have happily so far kept aloof from their calamitous conflicts by a steady observance of justice towards all, by much forbearance and multiplied sacrifices."
In spite of our neutrality "the belligerent powers have beset the highway of commercial intercourse with edicts which...expose our commerce and marine, under almost every destination, a prey to their fleets and armies. Each party indeed would admit our commerce with themselves, with the view of associating us in their war against the other, but we have wished for war with neither. Under these circumstances were passed the laws of which you complain, by those delegated to exercise the powers of legislation for you [Congress]..."
In fact, "To have submitted our rightful commerce to prohibitions and tributary exactions from others would have been to surrender our independence. To resist them by arms was war..." Jefferson promises his petitioners that repeal of the Embargo will take place whenever the European wars cease, or when the belligerants alter their policies. When American commerce is deemed "sufficiently safe in the judgment of the President; he is authorized to suspend the embargo. But no peace or suspension of hostilities, no change of measures affecting neutral commerce is known to have taken place. The Orders [in Council] of England, and the Decrees of France and Spain, existing at the date of these laws, are still unrepealed, as far as we know...." He explains why a special session of Congress cannot be called to consider the Embargo's repeal, and adds that he "should with great willingness have executed the wishes of the Inhabitants of Sandford had peace or a repeal of the obnoxious edicts" taken place, "but while these edicts remain the legislature alone can proscribe the course to be pursued."
In the final months of his Presidency, Jefferson received similar petitions from town meetings in Boston, Newburyport and Providence; in the next month he received so many petitions that it became obvious that an organized campaign was underway. Jefferson was overwhelmed, and complained that these "called for more writing than he could get done at Monticello." (Compare the present with his letter to the inhabitants of North Yarmouth, 6 September 1808, sold here 15 November 2005, lot 33, $60,000). Finally, Jefferson took the drastic step of printing 150 copies of his defense. "The tide of paper rose rapidly in September, reaching its crest on October 3, when he received 50 protests and 11 counter addresses" (D. Malone, Jefferson the President: Second Term, p.609). In the final months of his presidency, Jefferson partially lifted the Embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act, only prohibiting trade with England.