Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Duane, 23 January 1809

Jan. 23. 1809


The present state of public affairs and the events which in one Shape or another must arise out it, calls for the exercise of all your sagacity and resolution. You have stood the storm of the revolution and passed through it with solid glory. You have sustained the shocks of a contemplated revolution more insidious, but not less menacing, and carried the national vessel safe through unexampled vicissitudes. There is a time when it would be better to perish than perceive the ruins of ones country; and I very seriously apprehend, that unless some measures be speedily adopted which may fix the national sentiment, that there will be a struggle of a most serious nature

Impressions such as these alone could tempt me to intrude thus upon you, but I conceive it to be a duty of affection, to lay my suggestions before you, and trust confidently to your wisdom to decide whether I am mistaken in my apprehensions or in the mode which I venture to Suggest as an immediate remedy. My means of information no doubt are partial, but such as they are, they are formed with as dispassionate a mind and with as earnest a purpose to ascertain true results as can be found in the community. If I am mistaken—then it is my judgment—and my intentions will be my excuse.

I think the time is now come to ask and act upon this question—What is the best means of preserving the fruits of the revolution from wreck?

I believe that the British government have brought it to this issue & are determined to put our means to the test. I believe they have systematised conspiracy in the bosom of the land, and have lavished and laid up fuel for a conflagration. I believe that were there not a powerful back, that the treasenable and outrageous proceedings which have already taken place, would never have been begun; and I am persuaded that forbearance has only taught them to calculate upon perfect impunity. The resources which they have provided, the materials with which they act, the manner of the action, indicate a determination to go to the most desperate lengths, and unless some thing be done, they will shake this continent to its foundation.

No doubt the case is surrounded with difficulties—but it is for that very reason that it should be met with resolution; the very impunity with which outrage progresses is a sure aliment, and aid to its progress.

Permit me to place the case before you with a view to its operation in society. Every man of observation knows the fact, that public discussion, argument, and reasoning upon measures of policy, are not addressed to the intelligent and the virtuous part of the community; neither are they ever addressed to the hearts or heads of the depraved. There are in every society large masses of men, who never think or reason; some who have no capacity for thought; many whose judgments are too weak to be constant to any fixt ideas; and very many who assume a mask of moderation and liberality only to cover their diabolical selfishness and depravity; very unfortunately this mixture of ignorance, imbecility, instability and hypocrisy is very numerous, it forms perhaps a full third of every society; and it is to the major part of this mass that all public discussions are addressed They in fact make the majority in all critical times, and are as ready to be thrown into the balance on one side as the other, according to the mode in which they are addressed. With those who may be called the innocent Classes of this portion of the people, whenever there appears to be vigor on one side and moderation on the other, they take the part of moderation, until the vigorous party become daring; they then withdraw to watch the conflict, and to join with whatever party that appears likely to be triumphant. It is a selfish feeling which governs them; and as they are not sufficently well informed to fix one opinion for themselves, will go as readily wrong as right according to the impression which is made upon them. Indeed in such critical times, as there is more zeal and industry bestowed to produce wrong, than to preserve right; the danger is greater; men in the right calm confident and unsuspicious rely upon the virtue which they feel and appropriate similar feelings to others who have no [. . . .] of their influence; and it is on this innocent part of the community that the hypocritical portion acts, and it is from these hypocrites that the agents of corruption and affliction are plukd.

In such a case what are the best means to be [pursud] for public safety? How is the evil to be remedied. How is this innocent class, who according to my ideas have little force of mind, little judgment, who are so easily led wrong as well as right—and to whom wisdom and virtue are under the necessity of paying the homage of argument? It is a painful picture—but it is true—it unhappily is no fanciful creation it is an Existing being—and may be transformed into a tyger a lion, or acording to the regimen a lamb.

Who can forget that has had Experience of the reign of terror, when a minority in fact of the whole nation terrified the nation and silenced even men of virtue. In prosperity they say we forget past sorrows. The time is now come to awaken the painful recollections of those days when you could not walk the public streets in [parr]ity—when no man’s house was safe who was not a minion or a Sycophant of power; What they accomplishd in power the same party will again accomplish out of power, if some measures are not taken to rescue the unthinking part of the nation out of the hands of the abandoned and corrupt. They already have proceeded so far as to set the government at defiance, openly violate the laws, and call for a dissolution of the Union. It is sickening to witness the airs of insolence and haughty contumely with which the American citizen is daily treated by these accredited agents of England. Bond had the impudence to tell me to my teeth that it was a party question that now agitated the Union!

But what is the remedy? I say first try what the Effect will be of removing the alimentary poison, which is supposed to infect society. The poison being removed the body politic has vigor and health In any other nation on Earth the leaders of the Sedition now spread through the Union would long since have been conductd to the Dungeon or the Gibbet; I do not admire such remedies; thank God they do not belong to our code of health; and it is because I wish that they never should and that those who are laboring for the gallows, should be themselves protected from their own worst enemies themselves.

But while the benevolence of our institutions interposes no check, the evil is progressing; the abandoned and corrupt are left to make proselytes among the weak and the wicked; the necessities of the times, throw a considerable body of persons, who have no springs of action but their necessities, into the ranks of discontent; and if it is suffered to proceed must inevitably accumulate, with what effects it is difficult to anticipate.

The remedy which appears to me at this moment preferable to all others is the suspension of the functions of all the accredited agents of England, in the most formal manner; their conduct notoriously calls for it and justifies it; the suspension of commerce itself would be sufficent motive; but their interference and insolence in our affairs is so notorious that public sentiment will not only applaud, but it will itself hold back thousands from falling into the snares of corruption; it will have an immediate Effect on the nation; the friends of the Republic are in truth in a state of despondency; they see the audacity of the British agents every day passed over with impunity; respect for the government and laws alone has restrained the people here from doing great mischief. I have bestowed days and nights to avert such evils; and have incurred reproach for my “pussilanimous moderation.” This disposition of the people and the forbearance of men of influence, is well known to them. The suspension of the functions of the British accredited agents would at once Exhibit the determination of the Government and while it gratified the good, would fix the wavering and appal the profligate. Should they persevere in audacity after suspension, such a notification as Yrujo got would sustain and give new confidence to the people in their government; and the measure has so many circumstances to justify the procedure, that it could not be considered as a war measure. You have already dismissed foreign ministers and consuls without it being considered as a war measure. You have recalled ministers and consuls under similar circumstances. And England has done the same. I have not the vanity to suppose I can give you any information in this head, but I wish to shew that it is not a light or hasty conception; but such a measure as carries on it all that could be wished of Efficacy without violence. It cannot be supposed that five newspaper in this city four in New York Four in Boston, three in Baltimore, two in Norfolk; and two in Charleston could be supported as Efficiently as they are without secret supplies. I find it impossible to get out of debt with the paper of greatest circulation in the country; and my personal expences, beside clothing and food would be discharged with fifty dollars a year!

As to the effect on England, I candidly declare I do not belive it would have any; I believe that nothing which we can do, will ever induce her to alter her course of policy. I believe she would have struck a blow long ago on some point of the continent, had not the idea of a civil war been confidently calculated upon. If the British agents remain they will realise the calculation—if they are dismissed we shall be saved.

The necessity of some decisive step to assure confidence in the friends of the government is imperative. The virtuous part of the nation look for it with impatience; and it is Equally necessary to preserve the wavering part of the community from flying into the arms of the public Enemies; for then civil war would inevitably Ensue; and it is among that class that in all convulsions the most cruel of mankind are found,—those who are now the pimps & panders of foreign agency, and clothe their persons and their lips with words of sanctity and softness, would become the cutthroats of men of virtue.

There is therefore in my humble opinion little time to be lost—a few weeks, or accidents which are not to be preseen; or causes purposely prepared perhaps by an inveterate Enemy, may convulse the nation; and the Enemy may be beforehand with the Government I trust my fear, however founded, will find me an Excuse for trespassing with them upon your better judgment & precious time

I am with affectionate respect

Wm Duane

DLC: Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

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