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The Embargo - Lance Banning, Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle 
Liberty and Order: The First American Party Struggle, ed. and with a Preface by Lance Banning (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004).
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Thomas Jefferson entered office shortly after the Peace of Amiens (1801–1803) inaugurated the only interval of peace in a quarter century of war between the great European powers. During his initial term, the Republican administration could concentrate on its domestic agenda. In 1805, however, Admiral Lord Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the battle of Trafalgar, and Napoleon’s great victory at Austerlitz demolished the continental coalition of Great Britain’s allies. France and Britain—the tiger and the shark—then turned to economic warfare, and the commercial problems of the 1790s returned with redoubled force. Both powers resumed seizures of neutral vessels trading with the West Indian possessions of the other; Britain attempted to enforce a general blockade of Napoleonic Europe; Napoleon responded with his Continental system, which sought to exclude British merchants from much of Europe; and in 1807, Britain replied to that with Orders in Council providing for the seizure of any neutral vessel trading with ports from which her own ships were excluded unless that vessel had paid a fee in a British port. Napoleon’s Milan Decree, in turn, promised to seize any vessel that did submit to a British search or pay a duty in a British port. Finally, on 22 June, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the British frigate Leopard fired upon the American warship Chesapeake, forced her to submit to search, and pressed four sailors, alleged to be deserters, into British service. Against a background of considerable sentiment for war, Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering British warships to leave American waters and, when Congress met, recommended a complete embargo on the country’s foreign trade. The Republicans had long maintained that the United States possessed a more effective weapon in her trade than in the ordinary instruments of force. The great embargo was to test this theory.
An Act Laying an Embargo on All Ships and Vessels in the Ports and Harbors of the United States 22 December 1807
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That an embargo be and hereby is laid on all ships and vessels in the ports and places within the limits or jurisdiction of the United States, cleared or not cleared, bound to any foreign port or place; and that no clearance be furnished to any ship or vessel bound to such foreign port or place except vessels under the immediate direction of the President of the United States; and that the President be authorized to give such instructions to the officers of the revenue and of the navy and revenue cutters of the United States as shall appear best adapted for carrying the same into full effect… .
Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That during the continuance of this act, no registered or sea-letter vessel having on board goods, wares, and merchandise shall be allowed to depart from one port of the United States to another within the same unless the master, owner, consignee, or factor of such vessel shall first give bond with one or more sureties to the Collector of the district from which she is bound to depart in a sum of double the value of the vessel and cargo, that the said goods, wares and merchandise shall be relanded in some port of the United States, dangers of the seas excepted… .
Editorials on the Embargo
Washington’s National Intelligencer, which often spoke for the administration, offered a fuller explanation and defense of the embargo than the administration itself would ever do. Among the many condemnations, Timothy Pickering’s stands out.
“Embargo” National Intelligencer 23 December 1807
This is a strong measure proceeding from the energy of the public councils, appealing to the patriotism of their constituents, and is of all measures the one peculiarly adapted to the crisis. The honest judgment of all parties has anticipated and called for it.
The measure could no longer, in fact, be delayed without sacrificing the vital interests of the nation.
Great Britain [violating neutral rights] furnished an occasion which was seized by the French government for the decree of November 1806, interdicting commerce with G. Britain, which was adopted by the allies of France, particularly by Spain, in her decree of February 1807.
The decree of November was followed by the retaliating British order of January 1807, making war on all neutral trade usually carried on from the ports of one enemy to those of another.
France, again seconded by Spain and other allies, is retaliating on this order by new constructions extending their decrees to all trade from British territories or in British articles.
And it is clear that, if not already done, G. Britain meditates further retaliations, most probably an interdict of all trade by this country (now the only neutral one) with the enemies of G. Britain, that is to say with the whole commercial world.
To these destructive operations against our commerce is to be added the late proclamation of G. Britain on the subject of seamen. … With respect to seamen on board merchant vessels, the proclamation has made it the duty of all her sea officers to search for and seize all such as they may call British natives, whether wanted or not for the service of their respective ships. From the proportion of American citizens heretofore taken under the name of British seamen may be calculated the number of victims to be added by this formal sanction to the claim of British officers and the conversion of that claim into a duty.
Thus the ocean presents a field … where no harvest is to be reaped but that of danger, of spoliation, and of disgrace.
Under such circumstances the best to be done is what has been done: a dignified retirement within ourselves; a watchful preservation of our resources; and a demonstration to the world that we possess a virtue and a patriotism which can take any shape that will best suit the occasion.
It is singularly fortunate that an embargo, whilst it guards our essential resources, will have the collateral effect of making it the interest of all nations to change the system which has driven our commerce from the ocean.
Great Britain will feel it in her manufactures, in the loss of naval stores, and above all in the supplies essential to her colonies, to the number of which she is adding by new conquests.
France will feel it in the loss of all those colonial luxuries which she has hitherto received through our neutral commerce; and her colonies will at once be cut off from the sale of their productions and the source of their supplies.
Spain will feel it more, perhaps, than any, in the failure of imported food, not making enough within herself, and in her populous and important colonies which depend wholly on us for the supply of their daily wants.
It is a happy consideration also attending this measure that, although it will have these effects, salutary it may be hoped, on the policy of the great contending nations, it affords neither of them the slightest ground for complaint. The embargo violates the rights of none. Its object is to secure ourselves. It is a measure of precaution, not of aggression. It is resorted to by all nations when their great interests require it… .
But may not the embargo bring on war from some of the nations affected by it? Certainly not, if war be not predetermined on against us. Being a measure of peace and precaution; being universal and therefore impartial; extending in reality as well as ostensibly to all nations, there is not a shadow of pretext to make it a cause of war… .
All that remains, then, for a people confiding in their government is to rally round the measure which that government has adopted for their good, and to secure its just effect by patiently and proudly submitting to every inconvenience which such a measure necessarily carries with it.
Friday, 25 December
A rapid view was taken in our last paper of the nature and effects of the Embargo. … For a time it will materially reduce the price of our produce and enhance that of many foreign commodities. … There will [be] occasion for much fortitude, perhaps for great patience.
Is the state of our affairs such as requires this sacrifice? Might not a resort to milder measures do as well? We confidently answer no… .
A crisis has arrived that calls for some decided step. The national spirit is up. That spirit is invaluable. In case of a war it is to lead us to conquest. … In our solemn appeal to the world, it is to silence forever the idle hope that flatters itself with the phantom, either that we are a divided people or that our republican institutions have not energy enough to defend us, much less to inflict serious injury on our enemies… .
The people having shown their spirit, the season has arrived for the government to sustain, second, and direct it. To delay any longer to do this would be to jeopardize its existence. The crisis not requiring war, still hoping if not expecting peace, an embargo is the next best measure for maintaining the national tone. It will arm the nation. It will do more. It will arm the executive government. It is an unequivocal and efficient expression of confidence in the executive and gives the President a new weapon of negotiation—we say weapon of negotiation, for, in the present state of the world, even negotiation has ceased to be pacific. Without being backed by force it is an empty sound.
The embargo furnishes this weapon. The sword is not drawn from the scabbard, but it may be drawn at a moment’s warning. By it, every member of the community will be sensibly impressed with the solemnity of the crisis and will be prepared for events. The public will be impatient for a decision of the great interests depending. All will be anxious for a restoration of their ordinary pursuits. Our negotiator will be armed with the public sensibility… .
We believe it will be a popular measure with all classes. We are certain that the farmer, the planter, and the mechanic will approve it from the security it offers to the public interests; and if the merchants be as honest and enlightened as we trust they are, they will perceive the indissoluble connection between their solid and permanent prosperity and the general welfare.
Alarming Information: A Letter from the Hon. Timothy Pickering, a Senator of the United States from the State of Massachusetts, exhibiting to his constituents, a view of the imminent danger of an unnecessary and ruinous war, addressed to His Excellency James Sullivan, Governor of said State Connecticut Courant 23 March 1808
The embargo demands the first notice. For perhaps no act of the national government has ever produced so much solicitude or spread such universal alarm. Because all naturally conclude that a measure pregnant with incalculable mischief to all classes of our fellow citizens would not have been proposed by the President and adopted by Congress but for causes deeply affecting the interests and safety of the nation. It must have been under the influence of this opinion that the legislative bodies of some states have expressed their approbation of the Embargo, whether explicitly or by implication… .
In the Senate, … papers were referred to a committee. The committee quickly reported a bill for laying an Embargo, agreeably to the President’s proposal. This was read a first, a second, and a third time, and passed; and all in the short compass of about four hours! A little time was repeatedly asked to obtain further information, and to consider a measure of such moment, of such universal concern; but these requests were denied. We were hurried into the passage of the bill, as if there was danger of its being rejected if we were allowed time to obtain further information and deliberately consider the subject. … In truth, the measure appeared to me then, as it still does, and as it appears to the public, without a sufficient motive, without a legitimate object. Hence the general inquiry—“For what is the Embargo laid?” And I challenge any man not in the secrets of the Executive to tell. I know, Sir, that the President said that the papers aforementioned “showed that great and increasing dangers threatened our vessels, our seamen, and our merchandise:” but I also know that they exhibited no new dangers; none of which our merchants and seamen had not been well apprised. … The great numbers of vessels loading or loaded and prepared for sea; the exertions everywhere made, on the first rumor of the Embargo, to dispatch them, demonstrate the President’s dangers to be imaginary—to have been assumed… .
It is true that considerable numbers of vessels were collected in our ports, and many held in suspense, not, however, from any new dangers which appeared; but from the mysterious conduct of our affairs after the attack on the Chesapeake; and from the painful apprehensions that the course the President was pursuing would terminate in war. The National Intelligencer (usually considered as the Executive newspaper) gave the alarm; and it was echoed through the United States. War, probable or inevitable war, was the constant theme of the newspapers and of the conversations, as was reported, of persons supposed to be best informed of Executive designs. Yet amid this din of war, no adequate preparations were seen making to meet it. … No well informed man doubted that the British Government would make suitable reparation for the attack on the Chesapeake. … And it is now well known that such reparation might have been promptly obtained in London had the President’s instructions to Mr. Monroe been compatible with such an adjustment. He was required not to negotiate on this single, transient act (which when once adjusted was forever settled) but in connection with another claim of long standing and, to say the least, of doubtful right, to wit, the exemption from impressment of British seamen found on board American merchant vessels. To remedy the evil arising from its exercise, by which our own citizens were sometimes impressed, the attention of our government, under every administration, had been earnestly engaged; but no predictable plan has yet been contrived, while no man who regards the truth will question the disposition of the British Government to adopt any arrangement that will secure to Great Britain the services of her own subjects. And now, when the unexampled situation of that country (left alone to maintain the conflict with France and her numerous dependent states—left alone to withstand the power which menaces the liberties of the world) rendered the aid of all her subjects more than ever needful, there was no reasonable ground to expect that she would yield the right to take them when found on board the merchant vessels of any nation. Thus to insist on her yielding this point and inseparably to connect it with the affair of the Chesapeake was tantamount to a determination not to negotiate at all.
I write, Sir, with freedom; for the times are too perilous to allow those who are placed in high and responsible situations to be silent or reserved. The peace and safety of our country are suspended on a thread. The course we have seen pursued leads on to a war—to a war with Great Britain—a war absolutely without necessity—a war which whether disastrous or successful, must bring misery and ruin to the United States: misery by the destruction of our navigation and commerce (perhaps also of our fairest seaport towns and cities), the loss of markets for our produce, the want of foreign goods and manufactures, and the other evils incident to a state of war; and ruin, by the loss of our liberty and independence. For if with the aid of our arms Great Britain were subdued—from that moment (though flattered perhaps with the name of allies) we should become the Provinces of France. This is a result so obvious, that I must crave your pardon for noticing it. Some advocates of Executive measures admit it. They acknowledge that the navy of Britain is our shield against the overwhelming power of France—Why then do they persist in a course of conduct tending to a rupture with Great Britain?—Will it be believed that it is principally, or solely, to procure inviolability to the merchant flag of the United States? In other words, to protect all seamen, British subjects, as well as our own citizens, on board our merchant vessels? It is a fact that this has been made the greatest obstacle to an amicable settlement with Great Britain. Yet (I repeat it) it is perfectly well known that she desires to obtain only her own subjects; and that American citizens, impressed by mistake, are delivered up on duly authenticated proof. The evil we complain of arises from the impossibility of always distinguishing the persons of two nations who a few years since were one people, who exhibit the same manners, speak the same language, and possess similar features. But seeing that we seldom hear complaints in the great navigating states, how happens there to be such extreme sympathy for American seamen at Washington? …
Can gentlemen of known hostility to foreign commerce in our own vessels—who are even willing to annihilate it (and such there are)—can these gentlemen plead the cause of our seamen because they really wish to protect them? Can those desire to protect our seamen who, by laying an unnecessary embargo, expose them by thousands to starve or beg? … But for the Embargo, thousands depending on the ordinary operations of commerce would now be employed. Even under the restraints of the orders of the British Government, retaliating the French imperial decree, very large portions of the world remain open to the commerce of the United States. We may yet pursue our trade with the British dominions in every part of the globe; with Africa, with China, and with the colonies of France, Spain, and Holland. And let me ask, whether in the midst of a profound peace, when the powers of Europe possessing colonies would, as formerly, confine the trade with them to their own bottoms, or admit us, as foreigners, only under great limitations, we could enjoy a commerce much more extensive than is practicable at the moment, if the Embargo were not in the way? Why then should it be continued? Why rather was it ever laid? … Has the French Emperor declared that he will have no neutrals? Has he declared that our ports, like those of his vassal states in Europe, be shut against British commerce? Is the Embargo a substitute, a milder form of compliance, with that harsh demand, which if exhibited in its naked and insulting aspect, the American spirit might yet resent! …
I am alarmed, Sir, at this perilous state of things; I cannot repress my suspicions, or forbear thus to exhibit to you the grounds on which they rest. … I declare to you that I have no confidence in the wisdom or correctness of our public measures; that our country is in imminent danger; that it is essential to the public safety that the blind confidence in our rulers should cease; that the state legislatures should know the facts and reasons on which impor-tant general laws are founded; and especially that those states whose farms are on the ocean, and whose harvests are gathered in every sea, should immediately and seriously consider how to preserve them.
Are our thousands of ships and vessels to rot in our harbors? Are our sixty thousand seamen and fishermen to be deprived of employment and, with their families, reduced to want and beggary? Are our hundreds of thousands of farmers to be compelled to suffer their millions in surplus produce to perish on their hands; that the President may make an experiment on our patience and fortitude and on the towering pride, the boundless ambition, and unyielding perseverance of the Conqueror of Europe? Sir, I have reason to believe that the President contemplates the continuance of the Embargo until the French Emperor repeals his decrees violating as well his treaty with the United States as every neutral right; and until Britain thereupon recalls her retaliating orders! By that time we may have neither ships nor seamen; and that is precisely the point to which some men wish to reduce us… .
Notwithstanding the well-founded complaints of some individuals and the murmurs of others; notwithstanding the frequent executive declarations of maritime aggressions committed by Great Britain; notwithstanding the outrageous decrees of France and Spain and the wanton spoliations practiced and executed by their cruisers and tribunals, of which we sometimes hear a faint whisper, the commerce of the United States has hitherto prospered beyond all example. Our citizens have accumulated wealth; and the public revenue, annually increasing, has been the President’s annual boast.
These facts demonstrate that although Great Britain, with her thousand ships of war, could have destroyed our commerce, she has really done it no essential injury; and that the other belligerents, heretofore restrained by some regard to national law and limited by the small number of their cruisers, have not inflicted upon it any deep wound. Yet in this full tide of success, our commerce is suddenly arrested; an alarm of war is raised; fearful apprehensions are excited; the merchants, in particular, thrown into a state of consternation, are advised, by a voluntary embargo, to keep their vessels at home. … For myself, Sir, I must declare the opinion that no free country was ever before so causelessly, and so blindly, thrown from the height of prosperity and plunged into a state of dreadful anxiety and suffering… .
Resistance, Enforcement, and Repeal
Embargoes were a tested and conventional method of protecting merchant shipping when it was under threat, especially as preliminaries to war. One of thirty days had been imposed in 1794 during the crisis preceding Jay’s Treaty, another after the Leopard-Chesapeake confrontation. The act of 1807 passed the Senate (meeting in secret session) within four or five hours of the president’s message recommending it by a vote of 22 to 6. The House also met in secret session, and we are told only that there was a warm debate before an amendment limiting the measure to a period of sixty days was defeated 82 to 46. Thus, the act contained no limitation of time; and it seems clear that Jefferson and Madison, although they never thoroughly explained it to the country, were planning to employ an indefinite embargo as a weapon of economic coercion and an alternative to war, proceeding from their long-standing assumption that all the advantages in a commercial confrontation would lie on the American side.
Albert Gallatin to Jefferson 18 December 1807
… I also think that an embargo for a limited time will be preferable in itself and less objectionable in Congress. In every point of view—privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, politics at home, etc.—I prefer war to a permanent embargo. Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals, as if he could do it better than themselves. The measure being of a doubtful policy and hastily adopted on the first view of our foreign intelligence, I think that we had better recommend it with modifications and, at first, for such a limited time as will afford us all time for reconsideration and, if we think proper, for an alteration in our course without appearing to retract. As to the hope that it may have an effect on the negotiation with Mr. Rose or induce England to treat us better, I think it entirely groundless.
Jefferson to Jacob Crowninshield, Secretary of the Navy 16 July 1808
Complaints multiply upon us of evasions of the embargo laws, by fraud and force. These come from Newport, Portland, Machias, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, etc., etc. As I do consider the severe enforcement of the embargo to be of an importance not to be measured by money for our future government as well as present objects, I think it will be advisable that during this summer all the gunboats actually manned and in commission should be distributed through as many ports and bays as may be necessary to assist the embargo. On this subject I will pray you to confer with Mr. Gallatin, who will call on you on his passage through Baltimore, and to communicate with him hereafter, directly, without the delay of consulting me, and generally to aid this object with such means of your department as are consistent with its situation… .
Gallatin to Jefferson 29 July 1808
I sent yesterday to the Secretary of the Navy, and he will transmit to you, a letter from General Dearborn and another from General Lincoln showing the violations of the embargo… .
With those difficulties we must struggle as well as we can this summer; but I am perfectly satisfied that if the embargo must be persisted in any longer, two principles must necessarily be adopted in order to make it sufficient: 1st, that not a single vessel shall be permitted to move without the special permission of the executive; 2nd, that the collectors be invested with the general power of seizing property anywhere and taking the rudders or otherwise effectually preventing the departure of any vessel in harbor, though ostensibly intended to remain there, and that without being liable to personal suits. I am sensible that such arbitrary powers are equally dangerous and odious. But a restrictive measure of the nature of the embargo applied to a nation under such circumstances as the United States cannot be enforced without the assis-tance of means as strong as the measure itself. To that legal authority to prevent, seize, and detain must be added a sufficient physical force to carry it into effect; and although I believe that in our seaports little difficulty would be encountered, we must have a little army along the Lakes and British lines generally. … For the Federalists having at least prevented the embargo from becoming a measure generally popular, and the people being distracted by the complexity of the subject, orders of council, decrees, embargoes, and wanting a single object which might rouse their patriotism and unite their passions and affections, selfishness has assumed the reins in several quarters, and the people are now there altogether against the law… .
That in the present situation of the world every effort should be attempted to preserve the peace of this nation cannot be doubted. But if the criminal party-rage of Federalists and Tories shall have so far succeeded as to defeat our endeavors to obtain that object by the only measure that could possibly have effected it, we must submit and prepare for war. … I have not time to write correctly or even with sufficient perspicuity; but you will guess at my meaning where it is not sufficiently clear. I mean generally to express an opinion founded on the experience of this summer that Congress must either invest the executive with the most arbitrary powers and sufficient force to carry the embargo into effect, or give it up altogether. And in this last case I must confess that unless a change takes place in the measures of the European powers, I see no alternative but war. But with whom? This is a tremendous question if tested only by policy; and so extraordinary is our situation that it is equally difficult to decide it on the ground of justice, the only one by which I wish the United States to be governed. At all events, I think it the duty of the Executive to contemplate that result as probable, and to be prepared accordingly… .
Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, Secretary of War 9 August 1808
Yours of July 27th is received. It confirms the accounts we receive from others that the infractions of the embargo in Maine and Massachusetts are open. I have removed Pope, of New Bedford, for worse than negligence. The collector of Sullivan is on the totter. The Tories of Boston openly threaten insurrection if their importation of flour is stopped. The next post will stop it. I fear your governor is not up to the tone of these parricides, and I hope, on the first symptom of an open opposition of the law by force, you will fly to the scene and aid in suppressing any commotion… .
Elisha Tracy (of Norwich, Conn.) to Jefferson 15 September 1808
… A few weeks since a Reverend D. D. from the state of Massachusetts, and then standing in the desk of the house where I usually attend divine worship, after describing the administration of the general government in colors suited to his imagination, declared that we ought no longer to confederate in such a confederation. This was the first time I had heard the sentiment avowed before a public assembly, tho I had for about four years perceived the leading Federalists cautiously beating the pulse of the people to the tune of separation. The great body of the people, even Federalist, are still opposed to such a step, and did they but fully see its object, they would execrate its advocates; but they are impelled forward by the great phalanx of the pulpit, the bar, and the monied interest of New England. The headquarters of this spirit is to be found in the town of Boston, and there is not a doubt to my mind that the object of getting town meetings to express sentiments respecting the Embargo is not to effect its removal, but with a view of increasing discontents and wanton calumnies and … to work up such a state of irritation as will furnish them with a favorable opportunity to boldly avow their objects… .
Jefferson to Mr. Letue 8 November 1808
While the opposition to the late laws of embargo has in one quarter amounted almost to rebellion and treason, it is pleasing to know that all the rest of the nation has approved of the proceedings of the constituted authorities. The steady union which you mention of our fellow citizens of South Carolina is entirely in their character. They have never failed in fidelity to their country and the republican spirit of its constitution. Never before was that union more needed or more salutary than under our present crisis. I enclose you my message to both houses of Congress, this moment delivered. You will see that we have to choose between the alternatives of embargo and war; there is indeed one and only one other, that is submission and tribute. For all the Federal propositions for trading to the places permitted by the edicts of the belligerents, result in fact in submission. … I do not believe, however, that our fellow citizens … will concur with those to the east in this parricide purpose, any more than in the disorganizing conduct which has disgraced the latter… .
Resolutions of the Connecticut General Assembly 23 February 1809
Resolved, that to preserve the Union and support the Constitution of the United States, it becomes the duty of the legislatures of the states, in such a crisis of affairs, vigilantly to watch over and vigorously to maintain the powers not delegated to the United States but reserved to the states respectively, or to the people, and that a due regard to this duty will not permit this Assembly to assist or concur in giving effect to the … unconstitutional act passed to enforce the embargo.
Resolved, that this Assembly highly approve of the conduct of his Excellency, the Governor, in declining to designate persons to carry into effect, by the aid of military power, the act of the United States enforcing the embargo… .
Resolved, that persons holding executive office under this state are restrained by the duties which they owe this state from affording any official aid or cooperation in the execution of the act aforesaid; and that his Excellency the Governor be requested, as commander in chief of the military force of this state, to cause those resolutions to be published in general orders; and that the secretary of this state be, and he is hereby, directed to transmit copies of the same to the several sheriffs and town clerks.
Resolved, that his Excellency the Governor be requested to communicate the foregoing resolution to the President of the United States with an assurance that this Assembly regret that they are thus obliged under a paramount sense of public duty to assert the unquestionable right of this state to abstain from any agency in the execution of measures which are unconstitutional and despotic.
Resolved, that this Assembly accord in sentiment with the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that it is expedient to effect certain alterations in the Constitution of the United States and will zealously cooperate with that Commonwealth and any other of the states in all legal and constitutional measures for procuring such amendments … as shall be judged necessary to obtain more effectual protection and defense for commerce, and to give to the commercial states their fair and just consideration in the union and for affording permanent security as well as present relief from the oppressive measures under which they now suffer.
Resolved, that his Excellency the Governor be requested to transmit copies of the foregoing resolution to the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and to the legislatures of such of our sister states as manifest a disposition to concur in restoring to commerce its former activity and preventing the repetition of measures which have a tendency, not only to destroy it, but to dissolve the union, which ought to be inviolate.
John Adams to Benjamin Rush 27 September 1808
… I believe, with you, “a republican government,” while the people have the virtues, talents, and love of country necessary to support it, “the best possible government to promote the interest, dignity, and happiness of man.” But you know that commerce, luxury, and avarice have destroyed every republican government. England and France have tried the experiment, and neither of them could preserve it for twelve years. It might be said with truth that they could not preserve it for a moment, for the commonwealth of England, from 1640 to 1660, was in reality a succession of monarchies under Pym, Hampden, Fairfax, and Cromwell, and the republic of France was a similar monarchy under Mirabeau, Brissot, Danton, Robespierre, and a succession of others like them, down to Napoleon, the Emperor. The mercenary spirit of commerce has recently destroyed the republics of Holland, Switzerland, and Venice. Not one of these republics, however, dared at any time to trust the people with any elections whatever, much less with the election of first magistrates. In all those countries, the monster venality would instantly have appeared and swallowed at once all security of liberty, property, fame, and life… .
Americans, I fondly hope and candidly believe, are not yet arrived at the age of Demosthenes or Cicero. If we can preserve our union entire, we may preserve our republic; but if the union is broken, we become petty principalities, little better than the feudatories, one of France and the other of England.
If I could lay an embargo or pass a new importation law against corruption and foreign influence, I would not make it a temporary, but a perpetual law, and I would not repeal it, though it should raise a clamor as loud as my gag-law, or your grog-law, or Mr. Jefferson’s embargo. The majorities in the five states of New England, though small, are all on one side. New York has fortified the same party with half a dozen members, and anxious are the expec-tations from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. There is a body of the same party in every other state. The Union, I fear, is in some danger. Nor is the danger of foreign war much diminished. An alliance between England and Spain is a new aspect of planets towards us. Surrounded by land on the east, north, west, and south by the territories of two such powers, and blockaded by sea by two such navies as the English and Spanish, without a friend or ally by sea or land, we may have all our republican virtues put to a trial.
I am weary of conjectures, but not in despair.
John Adams to J. B. Varnum 26 December 1808
… Ever since my return from Europe, where I had resided ten years and could not be fully informed of the state of affairs in my own country, I have been constantly anxious and alarmed at the intemperance of party spirit and the unbounded license of our presses. In the same view I could not but lament some things which have lately passed in public bodies. To instance, at Dedham and Topsfield, and last of all in the resolutions of our Massachusetts legislature. Upon principle, I see no right in our Senate and House to dictate, nor to advise, nor to request our representatives in Congress. The right of the people to instruct their representatives is very dear to them and will never be disputed by me. But this is a very different thing from an interference of a state legislature. Congress must be “the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night” to conduct this nation, and if their eyes are to be diverted by wandering light, accidentally springing up in every direction, we shall never get through the wilderness.
I have not been inattentive to the course of our public affairs and agree with Congress in their resolutions to resist the decrees, edicts, and orders of France and England; but I think the king’s proclamation for the impressment of seamen on board our merchant ships has not been distinctly enough reprobated. It is the most groundless pretension of all. Retired as I am, conversing with very few of any party, out of the secret of affairs, collecting information only from public papers and pamphlets, many links in the great chain of deliberations, actions, and events may have escaped me. You will easily believe that an excessive diffidence in my own opinions has not been the sin that has most easily beset me. I must nevertheless confess to you that in all the intricate combinations of our affairs to which I have ever been a witness, I never found myself so much at a loss to form a judgment of what the nation ought to do or what part I ought to act. No man, then, I hope, will have more confidence in the solidity of any thing I may suggest than I have myself.
I revere the upright and enlightened general sense of our American nation. It is nevertheless capable, like all other nations, of general prejudices and national errors. Among these, I know not whether there is any more remarkable than that opinion so universal that it is in our power to bring foreign nations to our terms by withholding our commerce. When the executive and legislative authority of any nation, especially in the old governments and great powers of Europe, have adopted measures upon deliberation and published them to the world, they cannot recede without a deep humiliation and disgrace, in the eyes of their own subjects as well as all Europe. They will therefore obstinately adhere to them at the expense even of great sacrifices and in defiance of great dangers. In 1774, Congress appeared almost unanimously sanguine that a non-importation and a non-consumption association would procure an immediate repeal of acts of parliament and royal orders. I went heartily along with the rest in all these measures, because I knew that the sense of the nation, the public opinion in all the colonies, required them, and I did not see that they could do harm. But I had no confidence in their success in anything but uniting the American people. I expressed this opinion freely to some of my friends, particularly to Mr. Henry of Virginia and to Major Hawley of Massachusetts. These two, and these only, agreed with me in opinion that we must fight, after all. We found by experience that a war of eight years, in addition to all our resolutions, was necessary, and the aid of France, Spain, and Holland, too, before our purposes could be accomplished. Do we presume that we can excite insurrection, rebellion, and a revolution in England? Even a revolution would be of no benefit to us. A republican government in England would be more hostile to us than the monarchy is. The resources of that country are so great, their merchants, capitalists, and principal manufacturers are so rich, that they can employ their manufacturers and store their productions for a long time, perhaps longer than we can or will bear to hoard ours. In 1794, upon these principles and for these reasons, I thought it my duty to decide, in Senate, against Mr. Madison’s resolutions, as they were called, and I have seen no reason to alter my opinion since. I own I was sorry when the late non-importation law passed. When a war with England was seriously apprehended in 1794, I approved of an embargo as a temporary measure to preserve our seamen and property, but not with any expectation that it would influence England. I thought the embargo which was laid a year ago a wise and prudent measure for the same reason, namely to preserve our seamen and as much of our property as we could get in, but not with the faintest hope that it would influence the British Councils. At the same time I confidently expected that it would be raised in a few months. I have not censured any of these measures, because I knew the fond attachment of the nation to them; but I think the nation must soon be convinced that they will not answer their expectations. The embargo and the non-intercourse laws, I think, ought not to last long. They will lay such a foundation of disaffection to the national government as will give great uneasiness to Mr. Jefferson’s successor and produce such distractions and confusions as I shudder to think of. The naval and military force to carry them into execution would maintain a war.
Are you then for war, you will ask. I will answer you candidly. I think a war would be a less evil than a rigorous enforcement of the embargo and non-intercourse. But we have no necessity to declare war against England or France, or both. We may raise the embargo, repeal the non-intercourse, authorize our merchants to arm their vessels, give them special letters of marque to defend themselves against all unlawful aggressors and take and burn or destroy all vessels, or make prize of them as enemies, that shall attack them. In the meantime apply all our resources to build frigates, some in every principal seaport. … I never was fond of the plan of building line of battle ships. Our policy is not to fight squadrons at sea, but to have fast-sailing frigates to scour the seas and make impression on the enemy’s commerce; and in this way we can do great things. Our great seaports and most exposed frontier places ought not to be neglected in their fortifications; but I cannot see for what purpose a hundred thousand militia are called out, nor why we should have so large an army at present. The revenues applied to these uses would be better appropriated to building frigates. We may depend upon it, we shall never be respected by foreign powers until they see that we are sensible of the great resources which the Almighty in his benevolent providence has put into our hands. No nation under the sun has better materials, architects, or mariners for a respectable maritime power. I have no doubt but our people, when they see a necessity, will cheerfully pay the taxes necessary for their defense and to support their union, independence, and national honor. When our merchants are armed, if they are taken, they cannot blame the government; if they fight well and captivate their enemies, they will acquire glory and encouragement at home, and England or France may determine for themselves whether they will declare war. I believe neither will do it, because each will be afraid of our joining the other. If either should, in my opinion, the other will rescind; but if we should have both to fight, it would not be long before one or the other would be willing to make peace, and I see not much difference between fighting both and fighting England alone. My heart is with the Spanish patriots, and I should be glad to assist them as far as our commerce can supply them.
I conclude with acknowledging that we have received greater injuries from England than from France, abominable as both have been. I conclude that whatever the government determines, I shall support as far as my small voice extends.