Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 13: June 2010

Documents, Artefacts and Imagery

A Letter from Thomas Jefferson in the Early Weeks of the War of 1812

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – July 1826) was president of the United States from 1801 to 1809.  His presidency marked the end of the Federalist movement and the beginning of a long series of presidencies associated with the Democratic-Republican Party.

Jefferson’s election brought a shift of government policy (although he did continue with some of his predecessor’s policies), which included greater sympathy towards France and the beginnings of an economic struggle against Britain. Jefferson initiated the Restrictive System in retaliation to the British Orders-in-Council.  His Embargo Act of 1807 sought to harm British trade and proved disastrous to American interests. Despite his rhetoric towards Britain, Jefferson did little to improve the navy and army, leaving them in a weakened state by the end of his presidency. Jefferson believed the only way to solve American differences with Britain was by war.

After leaving the presidency, Jefferson remained involved in public affairs. Throughout his life, he also engaged in correspondence with a great number of people. His letters touched upon diverse topics, including law, history, science, architecture, agriculture, ciphers, literature, language, viticulture, culinary arts and military affairs.

Canadian and British historians have found great interest in an excerpt of letter Jefferson wrote to William Duane in August 1812. Jefferson begins his letter by commenting on a military manual that Duane had sent him. He then considers the probable course of the new war with Britain. Historians have often quoted one passage from this letter to highlight, from their nationalist perspective, the arrogance of American policy and the failure of American arms. However, that passage is edited and reducing to read, “The acquisition of Canada…will be a mere matter of marching.” As a result, the context of the passage is changed considerably. The pared down quote also ignores the important conclusion to this passage that highlights the ultimate American goal for “the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” This goal may not have been achieved by 1815, but one could argue it had been by 1871 or at its most extreme, 1906.[1]  

The original document is accessible through the Library of Congress and the published papers of Thomas Jefferson.[2] The text is also reproduced here.

The War of 1812 Magazine is pleased to offer the full text of this important letter to our readers.

Note: spelling and punctuation is presented as in the original.

The letter reads:

To William Duane[3]

Monticello, Aug. 4. 12

Dear Sir

Your favour of the 17th ult came duly to hand; and I have to thank you for the military Manuals you were so kind to send me, this is the sort of book most needed in our country, where even the elements of tactics are unknown. the young have never seen service; & the old are past it: and of those among them, who are not superannuated themselves, their science is become so. I see, as you do, the difficulties & defects we have to encounter in war, and should expect disasters, if we had an enemy on land capable of inflicting them. But the weakness of our enemy there will make our first errors innocent, &the seed of genius which nature sows with even had through every age & country, & which need only soil & season to germinate, will become prominent, and, seconded by the native energy of our citizens, will soon, I hope, to our force, add the benefits of skill. The acquisition of Canada, this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching; & will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, & the final expulsion of England from the American continent. Halifax once taken, every cockboat of hers must return to England for repairs. Their fleet will annihilate our public force on the water, but our privateers will eat out the vitals of their commerce. Perhaps they may burn New York or Boston. If they do, we must burn the city of London, not by expensive fleets or Congreve rockets, but by employing an hundred or two Jack the painters[4] whom nakedness famine, desperation & hardened vice will abundantly furnish from among themselves. – we have a rumour now afloat that the orders of council are repealed. The thing is impossible after Castlereagh’s late declaration in parliament, and the reconstruction of a Percival ministry. I consider this last circumstance fortunate for us. The repeal of the orders of council would only add recruits to our minority, and enable them the more to embarrass our march to thoro’ redress of our past wrongs, and permanent security for the future. This we shall attain if no internal obstacles are raised up. The exclusion of their commerce from the US and the closing of the Baltic against it which the present campaign in Europe will effect, will accomplish the catastrophe already so far advanced on them. I think your anticipations of the effects of this are entirely probable. Their arts, their science, and what they have left of virtue, will come over to us. And altho’ their vices will come also, I think will soon be diluted & evaporated in a country of plain honesty, experience will soon teach the new-comers how much more plentiful & pleasant is the subsistence gained by wholsome labour & fair dealing, than a precarious & hazardous dependence on the enterprises and vice & violence. Still I agree with you that these immigrations will give strength to English partialities, to eradicate which is one of the most consoling expectations from the war. But probably the old hive will be broken up by a revolution, and a regeneration of it’s principles render intercourse with it no longer contaminating a republic there like ours, & a reduction of their naval power within the limits of their annual faculties of paiment, might render their existence even interesting to us. It is the construction of their government, and it’s principles and means of corruption which make it’s continuance inconsistent with the safety of other nations. A change in it’s form might make it an honest one, and justify a confidence in it’s faith and friendship, that regeneration, however will take a longer time than I have to live. I shall leave it to be enjoyed among you, & make my exit with a bow to it, as the most flagitious of the governments I leave among men. I sincerely wish you may live to see the prodigy of it’s renovation, enjoying in the mean time health & prosperity.

Thos. Jefferson


[1] The 1871 Treaty of Washington, which effectively ended all outstanding disputes between Britain and America, paved the way for the removal of the British garrison from all of Canada, except for the naval stations at Halifax and Esquimalt. Those garrisons were finally withdrawn in 1906.

[2] J. Jefferson Looney, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, Volume 5. 1 May 1812 to 10 March 1813. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008, 293, 294.

[3]illiam Duane, 1760 – 1835, American journalist. Born in New York, but raised in Ireland and India, Duane briefly worked in England before returning to the United States. A printer by trade, Duane was editor of several newspapers. He worked briefly with Benjamin Franklin and was also a strong supporter of Jefferson. He also engaged in a personal feud with Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury, over printing contracts. Duane was fascinated by military affairs, but his interest went no further than being an armchair amateur and self-proclaimed expert. He produced an abridgement of the French Règlement of 1791 known as the “Handbook for Infantry,” which was adopted by the U.S. Army in February 1813. Duane’s manual instantly became unpopular with officers who considered it inadequate for use against a highly professional opponent.

[4] Jefferson’s reference to recruiting “Jack the painters,” may have recalled James Aiken, alias Jack the Painter, a Scotsman with sympathies towards the colonists. Aiken set fire to the ropehouse at the naval shipyard at Portsmouth in England in December 1776. He fled and then failed in an attempt to burn the Plymouth docks. He was arrested in 1777, tried and hanged. Aiken’s attacks are today considered to be the first acts of terrorism in Britain.



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