Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Wilson Cary Nicholas to Thomas Jefferson, 4 February 1810

From Wilson Cary Nicholas

Warren Feby 4. 1810

My Dear Sir

I was excessively mortified two days ago, to find in my possession a letter written on the 20th of Decr in answer to your favour of the 16th of that month. I am the more distressed lest you shou’d suppose from my silence1 I had not received as I ought the reproof2 it contained. Admonitions from you, I shall ever consider3 as proofs of your friendship and I beg you to be assured, there does not exist, a man whose approbation I so anxiously wish, as I do for yours.

It is to me most painful to know you disapprove of my resignation. & nothing can be more grateful than an opportunity to justify myself.4 In taking that step I acted according to my sense of duty. I was in a situation where I was obliged to rely solely upon my own judgement. I believed it was doubtful whether I cou’d get to Washington in the course of the winter. (what I have suffered5 and the obstinacy of my disorder leave me little doubt upon that subject) I am sure if I was there, I shou’d not be able to attend the house. Under these circumstances I6 believed it to be my duty to withdraw, that conviction strong upon my mind, I cou’d not without forfeiting all self respect, have done otherwise than I did. The consideration that your7 friendship to me suggests that I coud be serviceable at this crisis, wou’d if I had concurred in that opinion, have induced me to have risqued and to have borne8 every thing that cou’d have happened without a murmur. I know myself and the people with whom I shou’d have acted too well to think so. I am9So far from believing that to be the case, I fear if I was in Congress and in health I shou’d be useless to say the least. In the course of my public service I have been as much disposed as a man ought to be to accommodate myself to the opinions of others,10 upon questions of policy & expediency. In some cases I11 have doubted whether I did not deserve reproach for having yielded too much. My feelings upon this subject are such, that I believe my course in the present congress, if I had continued a member, wou’d probably not have pleased any party. My conscience wou’d not have permitted me to support any kind of commercial warfare that I have heard suggested. I believe it is impracticable to execute such laws, that we have annexed too much importance to them, that at best they are not suited to the present State of things,12 and that such expedients will ultimately demoralize & debase the American people. There was a time when an embargo & non intercourse wou’d have saved us but that is gone by. You warned your country of the danger & proposed the remedy but without effect. As you say there now remain only war or submission. I suspect the administration is not for war. With all its weight I do not know that congress cou’d be induced to make war. In opposition to the wishes of the administration the vote wou’d be small. I am decidedly of opinion that every expedient short of war is submission disguise it as they may, and that they will only tend to increase our embarrassments & disgrace. I am so deeply impressed with this belief that if I was in Congress my vote wou’d be for a declaration of war, or at least for letters of marque and reprisal against both England & France.13 If that proposition failed, I wou’d have resigned my seat, and published my reasons for doing so. With these sentiments you can judge how little probability there is that I cou’d have been of any service.14

The solemn determination of both England & France (announced to us by their ministers) to adhere to their measures, precludes all hope from negotiation. Our unanimous vote last year15 that we wou’d not submit to them, Our interest & regard to national character leaves us no choice whether we will resist or not. The entire failure (no matter whether from incompetence of the means, or our inexecution of our laws) of every mode of coercion short of war, leaves us nothing to choose from but war & submission. When I took the first step in the contest with these nations, I foresaw the possible nay the probable ultimate resort to arms. It was our duty to avoid it by every honorable means.16 But it was equally incumbent upon us, not only to be aware that this was a probable result, but to be prepared to meet it. We ought never to have taken the first step unless we were determined to go all lengths. That was then my determination and has remained so ever since. We have exhausted every means in our power to preserve peace.17 We have tried negotiation until it is disgraceful to think of renewing it, and commercial restrictions have operated to our own injury.18 War or submission alone remain. In deciding between them I cannot hesitate a moment.

It is not possible for any man to feel more anxiety for his country than I do. Nor will I conceal from you19 my fears that we are destined, sooner than we had flattered ourselves it wou’d happen; to experience the woes that have afflicted other20 nations. I fear too it may be ascribed with too much justice21 to our want of wisdom & patriotism. I have forwarded to Washington the catalogue you were so good as to send me.22 I hoped23 some days ago that I shou’d soon be well, but I find it is in vain to expect it until there is a return of warm weather. I was on horse back, for two hours five or six days past, in consequence of which I have suffered so much that I shall24 not venture again shortly

I am my Dear Sir with the utmost respect your friend & hum. Servt

W. C. Nicholas

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 11 Feb. 1810 and so recorded in SJL. Dft (ViU: TJP); misdated 22 Dec. 1809; with unrelated calculations by Nicholas at foot of text.

The United States House of Representatives resolved late in 1808 “That the United States cannot, without a sacrifice of their rights, honor and independence, submit to the late edicts of Great Britain and France” by the nearly unanimous vote of 118 to 2 (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States description ends , 6:388–9 [13 Dec. 1808]).

1Preceding three words omitted in Dft.

2Dft: “friend[l]y reproof.”

3Dft: “Admonitions of that kind from you will ever be received.”

4Sentence interlined in both RC and Dft.

5Dft: “have since suffered.”

6Dft: “Under these impressions I conscientiously.”

7In Dft Nicholas here canceled “partiality.”

8Preceding four words interlined in Dft.

9From “I know myself” to this point omitted in Dft and interlined in RC.

10Preceding five words interlined in Dft.

11Dft here adds “have felt great mortification, and.”

12Preceding thirteen words omitted in Dft.

13Preceding five words interlined in Dft.

14Dft: “the least service,” with this sentence appearing three sentences earlier, after “wou’d be small.”

15Preceding two words interlined in Dft.

16Dft: “avoid it if possible.”

17Preceding three words omitted in Dft.

18Dft: “have been so managed as to operate only to our own injury.”

19Reworked in Dft from “I cannot conceal from you however.”

20Dft: “all other.”

21Reworked in Dft from “I fear too that posterity with too much justice will ascribe it.”

22Sentence omitted in Dft.

23Dft: “I flattered myself.”

24Word interlined in Dft in place of “can.”

Index Entries

  • agriculture; TJ lists works on search
  • Berlin and Milan decrees; unchanged search
  • Congress, U.S.; and foreign affairs search
  • Embargo Act (1807); W. C. Nicholas on search
  • France; and U.S. search
  • France; Berlin and Milan decrees search
  • Great Britain; and U.S. search
  • Great Britain; Orders in Council (1807) search
  • House of Representatives, U.S.; and commercial edicts by foreign powers search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; Catalogue of Books on Agriculture search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); foreign policy views search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); illness of search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); letters from search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); resigns congressional seat search
  • Nicholas, Wilson Cary (1761–1820); TJ recommends agricultural publications to search
  • Non-Intercourse Act; W. C. Nicholas’s opinion of search
  • United States; and France search
  • United States; and Great Britain search
  • weather; cold search