Research Subjects: Biographies

Thomas Jefferson on Great Britain: The War of 1812

By Tom Holmberg


England, War with

During the eight years of my administration. there was not a year that England  did not give us such cause as would have provoked a war from any European government. But I always hoped that time and friendly remonstrances would bring her to a sounder view of her own interests, and convince her that these would be promoted by a return to justice and friendship towards us.—To Dr. George Logan. vi, 215. Ford ed., ix, 421. (M., Oct. 1813.)

War of 1812, British Expectations in

Earl Bathhurst [in his speech in Parliament] shuffles together chaotic ideas merely to darken and cover the views of the ministers in protracting the war; the truth being, that they expected to give us an exemplary scourging, to separate us from the States east of the Hudson, take for their Indian allies those west of the Ohio, placing three hundred thousand American citizens under the government of the savages, and to leave the residuum a powerless enemy, if not submissive subjects. I cannot conceive what is the use of your Bedlam when such men are out of it. And yet that such were their views we have in evidence, under the hand of their Secretary of State in Henry's case, and of their Commissioners at Ghent.—To Mr. Maury. vi, 471. (M., June 1815.)

War of 1812, Causes of

It is incomprehensible to me that the Marquis of Wellesley * * * * [should] say that “the aggression which led to the war, was from the United States, not from England ”. Is there a person in the world who, knowing the circumstances, thinks this? The acts which produced the war were, 1st, the impressment of our citizens by their ships of war, and, 2d, the Orders of Council forbidding our vessels to trade with any country but England, without going to England  to obtain a special license. On the first subject the British minister declared to our Charge, Mr. Russel, that this practice of their ships of war would not be discontinued, and that no admissible arrangement could be proposed; and as to the second, the Prince Regent, by his proclamation of April 21st, 1812, declared in effect solemnly that he would not revoke the Orders of Council as to us, on the ground that Bonaparte had revoked his decrees as to us: that, on the contrary, we should continue under them until Bonaparte should revoke as to all the world. These categorical and definite answers put an end to negotiation, and were a declaration of a continuance of the war in which they had already taken from us one thousand ships and six thousand seamen. We determined then to defend ourselves, and to oppose further hostilities by war on our side also. Now, had we taken one thousand British ships and six thousand of her seamen without any declaration of war, would the Marquis of Wellesley have considered a declaration of war by Great Britain as an aggression on her part? They say we denied their maritime rights. We never denied a single one. It was their taking our citizens, native as well as naturalized, for which we went into war, and because they forbade us to trade with any nation without entering and paying duties in their ports on both the outward and inward cargo. Thus, to carry a cargo of cotton from Savannah to St. Mary's, and take returns in fruits, for example, our vessel was to go to England, enter and pay a duty on her cottons there, return to St. Mary's, then go back to England  to enter and pay a duty on her fruits, and then return to Savannah, after crossing the Atlantic four times, and paying tributes on both cargoes to England, instead of the direct passage of a few hours. And the taking ships for not doing this, the Marquis says, is no aggression.—To Mr. Maury. vi, 470. (M., June 1815.)

War of 1812, Conquest and 

The war, undertaken, on both sides, to settle the questions of impressment, and the Orders of Council, now that these are done away by events, is declared by Great Britain to have changed its object, and to have become a war of conquest, to be waged until she conquers from us our fisheries, the province of Maine, the Lakes, States and territories north of the Ohio, and the navigation of the Mississippi; in other words, till she reduces us to unconditional submission. On our part, then, we ought to propose, as a counterchange of object, the establishment of the meridian of the mouth of the Sorel northwardly, as the western boundary of all her possessions.—To President Madison. vi, 391. Ford ed., ix, 489. (M., Oct. 1814.)

War of 1812, Grounds of

The essential grounds of the war were, first, the Orders of Council; and, secondly, the impressment of our citizens (for I put out of sight from the love of peace the multiplied insults on our government and aggressions on our commerce, with which our pouch, like the Indian's, had long been filled to the mouth). What immediately produced the declaration was, 1st, the proclamation of the Prince Regent that he would never repeal the Orders of Council as to us, until Bonaparte should have revoked his decrees as to all other nations as well as ours; and 2d, the declaration of his minister to ours that no arrangement whatever could be devised, admissible in lieu of impressment. It was certainly a misfortune that they did not know themselves at the date of this silly and insolent proclamation, that within one month they would repeal the Orders, and that we, at the date of our declaration, could not know of the repeal which was then going on one thousand leagues distant. Their determinations, as declared by themselves, could alone guide us, and they shut the door on all further negotiation, throwing down to us the gauntlet of war or submission as the only alternatives. We cannot blame the government for choosing that of war, because certainly the great majority of the nation thought it ought to be chosen.—To William Short. vi, 398. (M.,  Nov. 1814.)

War of 1812, Justifiable

[Great Britain threw] down to us the gauntlet of war or submission as the only alternatives. We cannot blame the government for choosing that of war, because certainly the great majority of the nation thought it ought to be chosen, not that they were to gain by it in dollars and cents; all men know that war is a losing game to both parties. But they know, also, that if they did not resist encroachment at some point, all will be taken from them, and that more would then be lost even in dollars and cents by submission than resistance. It is the case of giving a part to save the whole, a limb to save life. It is the melancholy law of human societies to be compelled sometimes to choose a great evil in order to ward off a greater; to deter their neighbors from rapine by making it cost them more than honest gains. * * * * Had we adopted the other alternative of submission, no mortal can tell what the cost would have been. I consider the war then as entirely justifiable on our part, although I am still sensible it is a deplorable misfortune to us.—To William Short. vi, 399. (M., Nov. 1814.)



Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2003

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