Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Madame de Stael, 28 May 1813

To Madame de Staël Holstein

United States of America. May 28. 1813.

I recieved, with great pleasure, my dear Madam and friend, your letter of Nov. 10. from Stockholm1 and am sincerely gratified by the occasion it gives me of expressing to you the sentiments of high respect and esteem which I entertain for you. it recalls to my remembrance a happy portion of my life passed in your native city, then the seat of the most amiable and polished society of the world, and of which yourself, and your venerable father were such distinguished members. but, of what scenes has it since been the theatre, & with what havoc has it overspread the earth! Robespiere met the fate, and his memory the execration he so justly merited. the rich were his victims and perished by thousands. it is by millions that Bonaparte destroys the poor, and he is eulogised and deified, by the sycophants even of science. these merit more than the meer oblivion to which they will be consigned; and the day will come when a just posterity will give to their hero the only preeminence he has earned, that of having been the greatest of the destroyers of the human race. what year of his military life has not consigned a million of human beings to death, to poverty, and wretchedness. what field in Europe may not raise a monument of the murders, the burnings, the desolations, the famines and miseries it has witnessed from him! and all this to acquire a reputation which Cartouche attained, with less injury to mankind, of being fearless of god or man.

To compleat and universalize the desolation of the globe, it has been the will of Providence to raise up at the same time a tyrant as unprincipled, and as overwhelming for the ocean. not in the poor Maniac George, but in his Government and Nation. Bonaparte will die, and his tyrannies with him. but a Nation never dies. the English Government and it’s pyratical principles & practices have no fixed term of duration. Europe feels, and is writhing under the scorpion whips of Bonaparte. we are assailed by those of England. the one continent thus placed under the gripe of England, and the other of Bonaparte, each has to grapple with the enemy immediately pressing on itself. we must extinguish the fire kindled in our own house, and leave to our friends beyond the water that which is consuming theirs. it was not till England had taken 1000. of our ships, and impressed into her service more than 6000. of our citizens; till she had declared, by the proclamation of her Prince Regent that she would not repeal her aggressive orders, as to us, until Bonaparte should have repealed his as to all nations; until her minister, in formal conference with ours, declared that no proposition for protecting our seamen from being impressed, under colour of taking their own, was practicable or admissible; that the door to justice and to all amicable arrangement being closed, and negociation become both desperate and dishonorable, that we concluded that the war she had been for years waging against us might as well become a war on both sides. she takes fewer vessels from us since the declaration of war, than before, because they venture more cautiously; and we now make full reprisals where before we made none. England is, in principle, the enemy of all maritime nations, as Bonaparte is of the continental: and I place in the same line of insult to the human understanding the pretension of conquering the ocean, to establish Continental rights, as that of conquering the continent to restore Maritime rights. No, my dear Madam; the object of England is the permanent dominion of the ocean, and the monopoly of the trade of the world. to secure this, she must keep a larger fleet than her own resources will maintain. the resources of other nations then must be impressed to supply the deficiency of her own. this is sufficiently developed and evidenced by her successive strides towards the usurpation of the sea. mark them from her first war after William Pitt, the little, came into her administration. she first forbade to Neutrals all trade with her enemies in time of war, which they had not in time of peace. this deprived them of their trade from port to port of the same nation. then she forbade them to trade from the port of one nation to that of any other at war with her, altho’ a right fully exercised in time of peace. next, instead of taking vessels only entering a blockaded port, she took them over the whole ocean if destined to that port, altho’ ignorant of the blockade, & without intention to violate it. then she took them returning from that port, as if infected by previous infraction of blockade. then came her paper blockades, by which she might shut up the whole world without sending a ship to sea, except to take all those sailing on it, as they must of course be bound to some port. and these were followed by her orders of council forbidding every nation to go to the port of any other, without coming first to some port of Great Britain, there paying a tribute to her, regulated by the cargo, and taking from her a license to proceed to the port of destination; which operation the vessel was to repeat with the return cargo on it’s way home. according to these orders we could not send a vessel from St Mary’s to St Augustine, distant 6 hours sail, on our own coast, without crossing the Atlantic four times, twice with the outward cargo, and twice with the inward. she found this too daring and outrageous, for a single step, retracted as to certain articles of commerce, but left it in force as to others which constitute important branches of our exports. and finally, that her views may no longer rest on inference, in a recent debate, her minister has declared in open parliament, that the object of the present war is a monopoly of commerce. in some of these atrocities, France kept pace with her fully in speculative wrong, which her impotence only shortened in practical execution. this was called retaliation by both; each charging the other with the initiation of the outrage. as if two combatants might retaliate, on an innocent by-stander, the blows they recieved from each other. to make war on both would have been ridiculous. in order therefore to single out an enemy, we offered to both that if either would revoke it’s hostile decrees, & the other should refuse, we would interdict all intercourse whatever with that other; which would be war of course, as being an avowed departure from neutrality. France accepted the offer, & revoked her decrees as to us. England not only refused, but declared by a solemn proclamation of her Prince Regent that she would not revoke her orders even as to us, until those of France should be annulled as to the whole world. we thereon declared war, and with abundant additional cause. in the mean time an examination before parliament of the ruinous effects of these orders on her own manufacturers, exposing them to the nation, and to the world, their Prince issued a Palinodial proclamation, suspending the orders on certain conditions, but claiming to renew them at pleasure, as a matter of right. even this might have prevented the war, if done, and known here before it’s declaration. but the sword being once drawn, the expence of arming incurred, and hostilities in full course, it would have been unwise to discontinue them, until effectual provision should be agreed to by England for protecting our citizens on the high seas from impressment by their naval commanders, through error voluntary or involuntary; the fact being notorious that these officers, entering our ships at sea under pretext of searching for their seamen (which they have no right to do, by the law or usage of nations, which they neither do, nor ever did, as to any other nation, but ours, and which no nation ever before pretended to do in any case) entering our ships, I say, under pretext of searching for, & taking out their seamen, they took ours, native as well as naturalised, knowing them to be ours, merely because they wanted them. it is not long since they impressed at sea two nephews of General Washington, returning from Europe, and put them, as common seamen, under the ordinary discipline of their ships of war. insomuch that no American could safely cross the ocean, or venture to pass by sea from one to another of our own ports. there are certainly other wrongs to be settled between England and us; but of a minor character, and such as a proper spirit of conciliation on both sides would not permit to continue them at war. the sword however can never again be sheathed, until the personal safety of an American on the ocean, the most important, the most vital of all the injuries we can recieve, is compleatly provided for. as soon as we heard of her partial repeal of her orders of council, we offered instantly to suspend hostilities by an armistice, if she would suspend her impressments, and meet us in arrangements for securing our citizens against them. she refused to do it, because impracticable by any arrangement, as she pretends; but, in truth, because a body of 60. or 80,000. of the finest seamen in the world, which we possess, is too great a resource for manning her exaggerated navy, to be relinquished, as long as she can keep it open. peace is in her hand whenever she will renounce the practice of aggression on the persons of our citizens. if she thinks it worth eternal war, eternal war we must have. she alledges that the sameness of language, of manners, of appearance, render it impossible to distinguish us from her subjects. but because we speak English, and look like them, are we to be punished, are free and independent men to be submitted to their bondage? England has misrepresented to all Europe this ground of the war. she has called it a new pretension, set up since the repeal of her orders of council. she knows there has never been a moment of suspension of our reclamations against it, from General Washington’s time inclusive to the present day. and that it is distinctly stated in our declaration of war, as one of it’s principal causes.—she has pretended we have entered into the war to establish the principle of ‘free bottoms, free goods,’ or to protect her seamen against her own right over them. we contend for neither of these.—she pretends we are partial to France; that we have observed a fraudulent and unfaithful neutrality, between her & her enemy. she knows this to be false, and that if there has been any inequality in our proceedings towards the belligerents it has been in her favor. her ministers are in possession of full proofs of this. our accepting at once, & sincerely, the mediation of the virtuous Alexander, their greatest friend, and the most aggravated enemy of Bonaparte sufficiently proves whether we have partialities on the side of her enemy. I sincerely pray that this mediation may produce a just peace. it will prove that the immortal character, which has first stopped by war the career of the destroyer of mankind, is the friend of peace, of justice & of human happiness, and the patron of unoffending and injured nations. he is too honest and impartial to countenance propositions of peace derogatory to the freedom of the seas.

Shall I apologise to you, my dear Madam, for this long political letter? but yours justifies the subject, and my feelings must plead for the unreserved expression of them; and they have been the less reserved, as being from a private citizen, retired from all connection with the government of his country, and whose ideas, expressed without communication with any one, are neither known, nor imputable to them.

The dangers of the sea are now so great, and the possibilities of interception by sea and land such that I shall subscribe no name to this letter. you will know from whom it comes by it’s reference to the date of time and place of yours, as well as by it’s subject in answer to that. this omission must not lessen in your view the assurance of my great esteem, of my sincere sympathies for the share which you bear in the afflictions of your country, and the deprivations to which a lawless will has subjected you. in return, you enjoy the dignified satisfaction of having met them, rather than be yoked with the abject to his car: and that, in withdrawing from oppression, you have followed the virtuous example of a father whose name will ever be dear to your country, & to mankind. with my prayers that you may be restored to it, that you may see it reestablished in that temperate portion of liberty which does not infer either anarchy or licentiousness, in that high degree of prosperity which would be the consequence of such a government, in that, in short, which the constitution of 1789 would have ensured it, if wisdom could have staid at that point the fervid but imprudent zeal of men who did not know the character of their own country men, and that you may long live in health and happiness under it, & leave to the world a well educated, and virtuous representative & descendant of your honored father, is the ardent prayer of the sincere and respectful friend who writes this letter.

RC (Maurice, duc de Broglie, Chateau de Broglie, France, 1948); torn at seal, with missing text supplied from PoC; endorsed in an unidentified hand as a letter from “Mr Jefferson New york 28 May 1813.” PoC (DLC); at foot of first page: “Madame la Baronne de Staël-Holstein.” Enclosed in TJ to John Graham, 29 May 1813.

Staël Holstein’s native city was Paris, and her venerable father was Jacques Necker. For the 21 Apr. 1812 British proclamation of her prince regent George, see ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:429–31. Late in August 1812 the American chargé d’affaires at London, Jonathan Russell, suggested to her minister, Lord Castlereagh, that as “an inducement to Great Britain to discontinue the practice of impressment from American vessels … a law shall be passed (to be reciprocal) to prohibit the employment of British seamen in the public or commercial service of the United States.” Castlereagh expressed surprise and refused to countenance the idea, but he proposed no alternative (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:589–90). The United States declared war on Great Britain on 18 June 1812, a few days prior to the palinodial proclamation of 23 June that conditionally revoked the Orders in Council (Annals description begins Annals of the Congress of the United States: The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States … Compiled from Authentic Materials, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1834–56, 42 vols. (all editions are undependable and pagination varies from one printing to another. Citations given below are to the edition mounted on the American Memory website of the Library of Congress and give the date of the debate as well as page numbers) description ends , 12th Cong., 2d sess., 1679–83; ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Foreign Relations, 3:433–4). The British navy impressed into its service John Lewis and Charles Lewis, great-nephews of general washington (James Monroe to Augustus J. Foster, 8 Feb. 1812 [DNA: RG 59, NFMC]).

1Preceding two words interlined.

Index Entries

  • Alexander I, emperor of Russia; as peace mediator search
  • Berlin and Milan decrees; revocation of search
  • Cartouche (Louis Bourguignon) search
  • Castlereagh, Robert Stewart, Viscount; as foreign secretary search
  • France; Berlin and Milan decrees search
  • George, Prince Regent (later George IV, king of Great Britain); as Prince of Wales search
  • George III, king of Great Britain; TJ on search
  • Great Britain; Orders in Council (1807) search
  • Great Britain; TJ on war with search
  • impressment; TJ on search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; British impressment of seamen search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; British Orders in Council search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; George III search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Napoleon search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; war with France search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; war with Great Britain search
  • Lewis, Charles (George Washington’s grandnephew); impressed into British navy search
  • Lewis, John (George Washington’s grandnephew); impressed into British navy search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; TJ on search
  • Necker, Jacques; family of search
  • Pitt, William (the Younger); mentioned search
  • Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de; leader of French Revolution search
  • Russell, Jonathan; U.S. chargé at London search
  • Staël Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de; and European affairs search
  • Staël Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de; letters to search
  • War of1812; and peace negotiations search
  • War of1812; TJ on search
  • War of1812; U.S. declaration of search
  • Washington, George; grandnephews of impressed into British navy search