Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Thomas Jefferson to John Armstrong, 21 February 1813

To John Armstrong

Monticello Feb. 21. 13.

Dear General

Another General, it seems, has lost us another thousand men by suffering them to be surprised; and this too by an enemy who by so many similar lessons had taught us that surprise is his habitual resource. our only hope is that these misfortunes will at length elicit by trial the characters qualified by nature, from those unqualified, to be entrusted with the destinies of their fellow citizens. the unfortunate obstinacy of the Senate in preferring the greatest blockhead, to the greatest military genius, if one day longer in commission, renders it doubly important to sift well the candidates for command in new corps, & to marshal them at first, towards the head, in proportion to their qualifications. these reflections have induced me to bring to your notice a young gentleman of my neighborhood, now a captain in one of the regiments lately established. in his own regiment, I know, you will not be permitted to advance him, altho there is not, I believe, a service on earth where seniority is permitted to give a right to advance beyond the grade of captain. we are doomed however to sacrifice the lives of our citizens by thousands to this blind principle, for fear the peculiar interest & responsibility of our Executive should not be sufficient to guard his selection of officers against favoritism. be it so: we must submit. but when you have new corps to raise you are free to prefer merit; and our mechanical1 law of promotion, when once men have been set in their places, makes it most interesting indeed to place them originally according to their capacities. it is not for me even to ask whether in the new regiments now to be raised, it would not be advisable to draw from the former the few officers who may already have discovered military talent, and to bring them forward in the new corps to those higher grades, to which, in the old, the blocks in their way do not permit you to advance them? whether the short trial you have had of them does not furnish better ground of selection than the Common-place recommendations of new men? I confine myself therefore to the individual before alluded to. you intimately knew his father, Wilson C. Nicholas, your colleague in Senate, and our faithful fellow-laborer in the days of2 trial. you knew his good sense, his sound judgment, his rectitude, and his zeal for republican government. the son, Robert Carter Nicholas, the Captain whom I before mentioned, is not behind the father in these good qualifications, with the advantage of a higher degree of education—when improved by experience he will be one of those who will faithfully and understandingly render account of the talent which shall be delivered to him. would it not therefore be advisable to advance such a subject, while it is in your power, a grade in one of the new regiments? I suggest this from no motive of personal favor to him. he does not even know the judgment I have formed of him; & still less that I have thought of placing him under your view. I am urged to it by the desire of contributing what I can to your information, & to guide your selection of military agents. if I knew others personally, of like merit, I should draw your notice to them also, because, without information, talent & fatuity must stand alike before you under the mask of the same uniform. I write on this subject to the President also; and resign myself with contentedness to the perfect conviction that whatever you do will be right, and in the same spirit I assure you of my constant friendship & respect.

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “The Secretary at War”; endorsed by TJ.

The general was James Winchester. The United States senate terms of Armstrong and Wilson Cary Nicholas coincided, 1800–02 and 1803–04 (Biog. Dir. Cong. description begins Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989, 1989 description ends ). The Biblical parable of the talent is in Matthew 25.14–30.

Robert Carter Nicholas (ca. 1788–1856), the brother-in-law of TJ’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was educated at Matthew Maury’s Albemarle County school, and he probably briefly attended the College of William and Mary. His uncle Samuel Smith, a United States congressman from Baltimore, then gave him a position in his mercantile business. From 1809 until 1811 Nicholas was S. Smith & Buchanan’s agent in Leghorn, Italy. Returning to Albemarle County, he helped oversee his father’s plantation until he received a captain’s commission in the 20th Infantry Regiment, United States Army, on 12 Mar. 1812. Nicholas was transferred to the 12th Infantry Regiment and promoted to major on 3 Mar. 1813, promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 44th Infantry on 20 Aug. 1814, transferred to the 30th Infantry on 18 Nov., and honorably discharged on 15 June 1815. He subsequently resumed his mercantile post in Italy until the firm collapsed in 1819. Returning to the United States, Nicholas entered a joint venture with his brother-in-law John Spear Smith to operate a Louisiana sugar plantation and settled in that state permanently. A Jacksonian Democrat, he filled an unexpired term in the United States Senate, 1836–41, and served as Louisiana’s secretary of state from 1843 until he resigned in 1846. Nicholas died in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana (Victor D. Golladay, “The Nicholas Family of Virginia, 1722–1820” [Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 1973], 352–3, 428–9; Heitman, U.S. Army description begins Francis B. Heitman, comp., Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1903, 2 vols. description ends , 1:746; JEP description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States description ends , 2:332 [3 Mar. 1813]; Biog. Dir. Cong. description begins Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989, 1989 description ends ; DNA: RG 29, CS, La., Saint James Parish, 1850; Augusta, Ga., Daily Chronicle & Sentinel, 3 Jan. 1857; Terrebonne Parish, La., Civil Suits and Probate Records, 34:369).

1TJ here canceled “rule.”

2TJ here canceled “our.”

Index Entries

  • Armstrong, John; and R. C. Nicholas’s appointment search
  • Armstrong, John; letters to search
  • Bible; Matthew referenced by TJ search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of application and recommendation from search
  • Maury, Matthew search
  • Nicholas, Robert Carter (ca.1788–1856); identified search
  • Nicholas, Robert Carter (ca.1788–1856); seeks military appointment search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); J. Armstrong on search
  • patronage; letters of application and recommendation from TJ search
  • Smith, S., & Buchanan (mercantile firm) search
  • War of1812; TJ on search
  • Winchester, James; and Battle of River Raisin search