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Jefferson-Hamilton Debate - Session 5

Session 5

In this session the following texts will be discussed:


1. Jefferson, “Report on the Privileges and Restrictions on the Commerce of the United States in Foreign Countries" (12/16/1793)

Source. This extract comes from the following title in the Library: Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 8

Accessed from http://app.libraryofliberty.org/title/805/87011 on 2007-09-13

REPORT ON THE PRIVILEGES AND RESTRICTIONS ON THE COMMERCE OF THE UNITED STATES IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES1

The Secretary of State, to whom was referred by the House of Representatives, the report of a committee on the written message of the President of the United States, of the 14th of February, 1791, with instructions to report to Congress the nature and extent of the privileges and restrictions of the commercial intercourse of the United States with foreign nations, and the measures which he should think proper to be adopted for the improvement of the commerce and navigation of the same, has had the same under consideration, and thereupon makes the following Report:

The countries with which the United States have their chief commercial intercourse are Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain, the United Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, and their American possessions; and the articles of export, which constitute the basis of that commerce, with their respective amounts, are,

Breadstuff, that is to say, bread grains, meals, and bread, to the annual amount of $7,649,887
Tobacco 4,349,567
Rice 1,753,796
Wood 1,263,534
Salted fish 941,696
Pot and pearl ash 839,093
Salted meats 599,130
Indigo 537,379
Horses and mules 339,753
Whale oil 252,591
Flax seed 236,072
Tar, pitch and turpentine 217,177
Live provisions 137,743
Ships
Foreign goods 620,274

To descend to articles of smaller value than these, would lead into a minuteness of detail neither necessary nor useful to the present object.

The proportions of our exports, which go to the nations before mentioned, and to their dominions, respectively, are as follows:

To Spain and its dominions $2,005,907
Portugal and its dominions 1,283,462
France and its dominions 4,698,735
Great Britain and its dominions 9,363,416
The United Netherlands and their dominions $1,963,880
Denmark and its dominions 224,415
Sweden and its dominions 47,240
Our imports from the same countries, are,
Spain and its dominions 335,110
Portugal and its dominions 595,763
France and its dominions 2,068,348
Great Britain and its dominions 15,285,428
United Netherlands and their dominions 1,172,692
Denmark and its dominions 351,364
Sweden and its dominions 14,325

These imports consist mostly of articles on which industry has been exhausted.

Our navigation, depending on the same commerce, will appear by the following statement of the tonnage of our own vessels, entering in our ports, from those several nations and their possessions, in one year; that is to say, from October, 1789, to September, 1790, inclusive, as follows:

Tons.
Spain 19,695
Portugal 23,576
France 116,410
Great Britain 43,580
United Netherlands 58,858
Denmark 14,655
Sweden 750

Of our commercial objects, Spain receives favorably our breadstuff, salted fish, wood, ships, tar, pitch, and turpentine. On our meals, however, as well as on those of other foreign countries, when reexported to their colonies, they have lately imposed duties of from half-a-dollar to two dollars the barrel, the duties being so proportioned to the current price of their own flour, as that both together are to make the constant sum of nine dollars per barrel.

They do not discourage our rice, pot and pearl ash, salted provisions, or whale oil; but these articles, being in small demand at their markets, are carried thither but in a small degree. Their demand for rice, however, is increasing. Neither tobacco nor indigo are received there. Our commerce is permitted with their Canary islands under the same conditions.

Themselves, and their colonies, are the actual consumers of what they receive from us.

Our navigation is free with the kingdom of Spain; foreign goods being received there in our ships on the same conditions as if carried in their own, or in the vessels of the country of which such goods are the manufacture or produce.

Portugal receives favorably our grain and bread, salted fish, and other salted provisions, wood, tar, pitch and turpentine.

For flax-seed, pot and pearl ash, though not discouraged, there is little demand.

Our ships pay 20 per cent. on being sold to their subjects, and are then free-bottoms.

Foreign goods (except those of the East Indies) are received on the same footing in our vessels as in their own, or any others; that is to say, on general duties of from 20 to 28 per cent., and, consequently, our navigation is unobstructed by them. Tobacco, rice, and meals, are prohibited.

Themselves and their colonies consume what they receive from us.

These regulations extend to the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape de Verd islands, except that in these, meals and rice are received freely.

France receives favorably our bread-stuffs, rice, wood, pot and pearl ashes.

A duty of 5 sous the quintal, or nearly 4½ cents, is paid on our tar, pitch, and turpentine. Our whale oils pay 6 livres the quintal, and are the only foreign whale oils admitted. Our indigo pays 5 livres the quintal, their own 2½; but a difference of quality, still more than a difference of duty, prevents its seeking that market.

Salted beef is received freely for re-exportation; but if for home consumption, it pays five livres the quintal. Other salted provisions pay that duty in all cases, and salted fish is made lately to pay the prohibitory one of twenty livres the quintal.

Our ships are free to carry thither all foreign goods which may be carried in their own or any other vessels, except tobaccoes not of our own growth; and they participate with theirs, the exclusive carriage of our whale oils and tobaccoes.

During their former government, our tobacco was under a monopoly, but paid no duties; and our ships were freely sold in their ports and converted into national bottoms. The first national assembly took from our ships this privilege. They emancipated tobacco from its monopoly, but subjected it to duties of eighteen livres, fifteen sous the quintal, carried in their own vessels, and five livres carried in ours—a difference more than equal to the freight of the article.

They and their colonies consume what they receive from us.

Great Britain receives our pot and pearl ashes free, whilst those of other nations pay a duty of two shillings and three pence the quintal. There is an equal distinction in favor of our bar iron; of which article, however, we do not produce enough for our own use. Woods are free from us, whilst they pay some small duty from other countries. Indigo and flax-seed are free from all countries. Our tar and pitch pay eleven pence, sterling, the barrel. From other alien countries they pay about a penny and a third more.

Our tobacco, for their own consumption, pays one shilling and three pence, sterling, the pound, custom and excise, besides heavy expenses of collection; and rice, in the same case, pays seven shillings and four pence, sterling, the hundred weight; which rendering it too dear, as an article of common food, it is consequently used in very small quantity.

Our salted fish and other salted provisions, except bacon, are prohibited. Bacon and whale oils are under prohibitory duties, so are our grains, meals, and bread, as to internal consumption, unless in times of such scarcity as may raise the price of wheat to fifty shillings, sterling, the quarter, and other grains and meals in proportion.

Our ships, though purchased and navigated by their own subjects, are not permitted to be used, even in their trade with us.

While the vessels of other nations are secured by standing laws, which cannot be altered but by the concurrent will of the three branches of the British legislature, in carrying thither any produce or manufacture of the country to which they belong, which may be lawfully carried in any vessels, ours, with the same prohibition of what is foreign, are further prohibited by a standing law (12 Car. 2, 18, sect. 3), from carrying thither all and any of our own domestic productions and manufactures. A subsequent act, indeed, has authorized their executive to permit the carriage of our own productions in our own bottoms, at its sole discretion; and the permission has been given from year to year by proclamation, but subject every moment to be withdrawn on that single will; in which event, our vessels having anything on board, stand interdicted from the entry of all British ports. The disadvantage of a tenure which may be so suddenly discontinued, was experienced by our merchants on a late occasion,1 when an official notification that this law would be strictly enforced, gave them just apprehensions for the fate of their vessels and cargoes despatched or destined for the ports of Great Britain. The minister of that court, indeed, frankly expressed his personal convictions that the words of the order went farther than was intended, and so he afterwards officially informed us; but the embarrassments of the moment were real and great, and the possibility of their renewal lays our commerce to that country under the same species of discouragement as to other countries, where it is regulated by a single legislator; and the distinction is too remarkable not to be noticed, that our navigation is excluded from the security of fixed laws, while that security is given to the navigation of others.

Our vessels pay in their ports one shilling and nine pence, sterling, per ton, light and trinity dues, more than is paid by British ships, except in the port of London, where they pay the same as British.

The greater part of what they receive from us, is re-exported to other countries, under the useless charges of an intermediate deposit, and double voyage. From tables published in England, and composed, as is said, from the books of their customhouses, it appears, that of the indigo imported there in the years 1773, ’4, ’5, one-third was re-exported; and from a document of authority, we learn, that of the rice and tobacco imported there before the war, four-fifths were re-exported. We are assured, indeed, that the quantities sent thither for re-exportation since the war, are considerably diminished, yet less so than reason and national interest would dictate. The whole of our grain is re-exported when wheat is below fifty shillings the quarter, and other grains in proportion.

The United Netherlands prohibit our pickled beef and pork, meals and bread of all sorts, and lay a prohibitory duty on spirits distilled from grain.

All other of our productions are received on varied duties, which may be reckoned, on a medium, at about three per cent.

They consume but a small proportion of what they receive. The residue is partly forwarded for consumption in the inland parts of Europe, and partly re-shipped to other maritime countries. On the latter portion they intercept between us and the consumer, so much of the value as is absorbed in the charges attending an intermediate deposit.

Foreign goods, except some East India articles, are received in vessels of any nation.

Our ships may be sold and neutralized there, with exceptions of one or two privileges, which somewhat lessen their value.

Denmark lays considerable duties on our tobacco and rice, carried in their own vessels, and half as much more, if carried in ours; but the exact amount of these duties is not perfectly known here. They lay such duties as amount to prohibitions on our indigo and corn.

Sweden receives favorably our grains and meals, salted provisions, indigo, and whale oil.

They subject our rice to duties of sixteen mills the pound weight, carried in their own vessels, and of forty per cent. additional on that, or twenty-two and four-tenths mills, carried in ours or any others. Being thus rendered too dear as an article of common food, little of it is consumed with them. They consume some of our tobaccoes, which they take circuitously through Great Britain, levying heavy duties on them also; their duties of entry, town duties, and excise, being 4.34 dollars the hundred weight, if carried in their own vessels, and of forty per cent. on that additional, if carried in our own or any other vessels.

They prohibit altogether our bread, fish, pot and pearl ashes, flax-seed, tar, pitch, and turpentine, wood (except oak timber and masts), and all foreign manufactures.

Under so many restrictions and prohibitions, our navigation with them is reduced to almost nothing.

With our neighbors, an order of things much harder presents itself.

Spain and Portugal refuse, to all those parts of America which they govern, all direct intercourse with any people but themselves. The commodities in mutual demand between them and their neighbors, must be carried to be exchanged in some port of the dominant country, and the transportation between that and the subject state, must be in a domestic bottom.

France, by a standing law, permits her West India possessions to receive directly our vegetables, live provisions, horses, wood, tar, pitch, turpentine, rice, and maize, and prohibits our other bread stuff; but a suspension of this prohibition having been left to the colonial legislatures, in times of scarcity, it was formerly suspended occasionally, but latterly without interruption.

Our fish and salted provisions (except pork) are received in their islands under a duty of three colonial livres the quintal, and our vessels are as free as their own to carry our commodities thither, and to bring away rum and molasses.

Great Britain admits in her islands our vegetables, live provisions, horses, wood, tar, pitch, and turpentine, rice and bread stuff, by a proclamation of her executive, limited always to the term of a year, but hitherto renewed from year to year. She prohibits our salted fish and other salted provisions. She does not permit our vessels to carry thither our own produce. Her vessels alone may take it from us, and bring in exchange rum, molasses, sugar, coffee, cocoa-nuts, ginger, and pimento. There are, indeed, some freedoms in the island of Dominica, but, under such circumstances, as to be little used by us. In the British continental colonies, and in Newfoundland, all our productions are prohibited, and our vessels forbidden to enter their ports. Their governors, however, in times of distress, have power to permit a temporary importation of certain articles in their own bottoms, but not in ours.

Our citizens cannot reside as merchants or factors within any of the British plantations, this being expressly prohibited by the same statute of 12 Car. 2, c. 18, commonly called the navigation act.

In the Danish American possessions a duty of 5 per cent. is levied on our corn, corn meal, rice, tobacco, wood, salted fish, indigo, horses, mules and live stock, and of 10 per cent. on our flour, salted pork and beef, tar, pitch and turpentine.

In the American islands of the United Netherlands and Sweden, our vessels and produce are received, subject to duties, not so heavy as to have been complained of; but they are heavier in the Dutch possessions on the continent.

To sum up these restrictions, so far as they are important:

First. In Europe—

Our bread stuff is at most times under prohibitory duties in England, and considerably dutied on reexportation from Spain to her colonies.

Our tobaccoes are heavily dutied in England, Sweden and France, and prohibited in Spain and Portugal.

Our rice is heavily dutied in England and Sweden, and prohibited in Portugal.

Our fish and salted provisions are prohibited in England, and under prohibitory duties in France.

Our whale oils are prohibited in England and Portugal.

And our vessels are denied naturalization in England, and of late in France.

Second. In the West Indies—

All intercourse is prohibited with the possessions of Spain and Portugal.

Our salted provisions and fish are prohibited by England.

Our salted pork and bread stuff (except maize) are received under temporary laws only, in the dominions of France, and our salted fish pays there a weighty duty.

Third. In the article of navigation—

Our own carriage of our own tobacco is heavily dutied in Sweden, and lately in France.

We can carry no article, not of our own production, to the British ports in Europe. Nor even our own produce to her American possessions.

Such being the restrictions on the commerce and navigation of the United States; the question is, in what way they may best be removed, modified or counteracted?

As to commerce, two methods occur. 1. By friendly arrangements with the several nations with whom these restrictions exist; Or, 2. By the separate act of our own legislatures for countervailing their effects.

There can be no doubt but that of these two, friendly arrangements is the most eligible. Instead of embarrassing commerce under piles of regulating laws, duties, and prohibitions, could it be relieved from all its shackles in all parts of the world, could every country be employed in producing that which nature has best fitted it to produce, and each be free to exchange with others mutual surplusses for mutual wants, the greatest mass possible would then be produced of those things which contribute to human life and human happiness; the numbers of mankind would be increased, and their condition bettered.

Would even a single nation begin with the United States this system of free commerce, it would be advisable to begin it with that nation; since it is one by one only that it can be extended to all. Where the circumstances of either party render it expedient to levy a revenue, by way of impost, on commerce, its freedom might be modified, in that particular, by mutual and equivalent measures, preserving it entire in all others.

Some nations, not yet ripe for free commerce in all its extent, might still be willing to mollify its restrictions and regulations for us, in proportion to the advantages which an intercourse with us might offer. Particularly they may concur with us in reciprocating the duties to be levied on each side, or in compensating any excess of duty by equivalent advantages of another nature. Our commerce is certainly of a character to entitle it to favor in most countries. The commodities we offer are either necessaries of life, or materials for manufacture, or convenient subjects of revenue; and we take in exchange, either manufactures, when they have received the last finish of art and industry, or mere luxuries. Such customers may reasonably expect welcome and friendly treatment at every market. Customers, too, whose demands, increasing with their wealth and population, must very shortly give full employment to the whole industry of any nation whatever, in any line of supply they may get into the habit of calling for from it.

But should any nation, contrary to our wishes, suppose it may better find its advantage by continuing its system of prohibitions, duties and regulations, it behooves us to protect our citizens, their commerce and navigation, by counter prohibitions, duties and regulations, also. Free commerce and navigation are not to be given in exchange for restrictions and vexations; nor are they likely to produce a relaxation of them.

Our navigation involves still higher considerations. As a branch of industry, it is valuable, but as a resource of defence, essential.

Its value, as a branch of industry, is enhanced by the dependence of so many other branches on it. In times of general peace it multiplies competitors for employment in transportation, and so keeps that at its proper level; and in times of war, that is to say, when those nations who may be our principal carriers, shall be at war with each other, if we have not within ourselves the means of transportation, our produce must be exported in belligerent vessels, at the increased expence of war-freight and insurance, and the articles which will not bear that, must perish on our hands.

But it is as a resource of defence that our navigation will admit neither negligence nor forbearance. The position and circumstances of the United States leave them nothing to fear on their land-board, and nothing to desire beyond their present rights. But on their seaboard, they are open to injury, and they have there, too, a commerce which must be protected. This can only be done by possessing a respectable body of citizen-seamen, and of artists and establishments in readiness for shipbuilding.

Were the ocean, which is the common property of all, open to the industry of all, so that every person and vessel should be free to take employment wherever it could be found, the United States would certainly not set the example of appropriating to themselves, exclusively, any portion of the common stock of occupation. They would rely on the enterprise and activity of their citizens for a due participation of the benefits of the seafaring business, and for keeping the marine class of citizens equal to their object. But if particular nations grasp at undue shares, and, more especially, if they seize on the means of the United States, to convert them into aliment for their own strength, and withdraw them entirely from the support of those to whom they belong, defensive and protecting measures become necessary on the part of the nation whose marine resources are thus invaded; or it will be disarmed of its defence; its productions will lie at the mercy of the nation which has possessed itself exclusively of the means of carrying them, and its politics may be influenced by those who command its commerce. The carriage of our own commodities, if once established in another channel, cannot be resumed in the moment we may desire. If we lose the seamen and artists whom it now occupies, we lose the present means of marine defence, and time will be requisite to raise up others, when disgrace or losses shall bring home to our feelings the error of having abandoned them. The materials for maintaining our due share of navigation, are ours in abundance. And, as to the mode of using them, we have only to adopt the principles of those who put us on the defensive, or others equivalent and better fitted to our circumstances.

The following principles, being founded in reciprocity, appear perfectly just, and to offer no cause of complaint to any nation.

1. Where a nation imposes high duties on our productions, or prohibits them altogether, it may be proper for us to do the same by theirs; first burdening or excluding those productions which they bring here, in competition with our own of the same kind; selecting next, such manufactures as we take from them in greatest quantity, and which, at the same time, we could the soonest furnish to ourselves, or obtain from other countries; imposing on them duties lighter at first, but heavier and heavier afterwards, as other channels of supply open. Such duties having the effect of indirect encouragement to domestic manufactures of the same kind, may induce the manufacturer to come himself into these States, where cheaper subsistence, equal laws, and a vent of his wares, free of duty, may insure him the highest profits from his skill and industry. And here, it would be in the power of the State governments to co-operate essentially, by opening the resources of encouragement which are under their control, extending them liberally to artists in those particular branches of manufacture for which their soil, climate, population and other circumstances have matured them, and fostering the precious efforts and progress of household manufacture, by some patronage suited to the nature of its objects, guided by the local informations they possess, and guarded against abuse by their presence and attentions. The oppressions on our agriculture, in foreign ports, would thus be made the occasion of relieving it from a dependence on the councils and conduct of others, and of promoting arts, manufactures and population at home.

2. Where a nation refuses permission to our merchants and factors to reside within certain parts of their dominions, we may, if it should be thought expedient, refuse residence to theirs in any and every part of ours, or modify their transactions.

3. Where a nation refuses to receive in our vessels any productions but our own, we may refuse to receive, in theirs, any but their own productions. The first and second clauses of the bill reported by the committee, are well formed to effect this object.

4. Where a nation refuses to consider any vessel as ours which has not been built within our territories, we should refuse to consider as theirs, any vessel not built within their territories.

5. Where a nation refuses to our vessels the carriage even of our own productions, to certain countries under their domination, we might refuse to theirs of every description, the carriage of the same productions to the same countries. But as justice and good neighborhood would dictate that those who have no part in imposing the restriction on us, should not be the victims of measures adopted to defeat its effect, it may be proper to confine the restrictions to vessels owned or navigated by any subjects of the same dominant power, other than the inhabitants of the country to which the said productions are to be carried. And to prevent all inconvenience to the said inhabitants, and to our own, by too sudden a check on the means of transportation, we may continue to admit the vessels marked for future exclusion, on an advanced tonnage, and for such length of time only, as may be supposed necessary to provide against that inconvenience.

The establishment of some of these principles by Great Britain, alone, has already lost to us in our commerce with that country and its possessions, between eight and nine hundred vessels of near 40,000 tons burden, according to statements from official materials, in which they have confidence. This involves a proportional loss of seamen, shipwrights, and ship-building, and is too serious a loss to admit forbearance of some effectual remedy.

It is true we must expect some inconvenience in practice from the establishment of discriminating duties. But in this, as in so many other cases, we are left to choose between two evils. These inconveniences are nothing when weighed against the loss of wealth and loss of force, which will follow our perseverance in the plan of indiscrimination. When once it shall be perceived that we are either in the system or in the habit of giving equal advantages to those who extinguish our commerce and navigation by duties and prohibitions, as to those who treat both with liberality and justice, liberality and justice will be converted by all into duties and prohibitions. It is not to the moderation and justice of others we are to trust for fair and equal access to market with our productions, or for our due share in the transportation of them; but to our own means of independence, and the firm will to use them. Nor do the inconveniences of discrimination merit consideration. Not one of the nations before mentioned, perhaps not a commercial nation on earth, is without them. In our case one distinction alone will suffice: that is to say, between nations who favor our productions and navigation, and those who do not favor them. One set of moderate duties, say the present duties, for the first, and a fixed advance on these as to some articles, and prohibitions as to others, for the last.

Still, it must be repeated that friendly arrangements are preferable with all who will come into them; and that we should carry into such arrangements all the liberality and spirit of accommodation which the nature of the case will admit.

France has, of her own accord, proposed negotiations for improving, by a new treaty on fair and equal principles, the commercial relations of the two countries. But her internal disturbances have hitherto prevented the prosecution of them to effect, though we have had repeated assurances of a continuance of the disposition.

Proposals of friendly arrangement have been made on our part, by the present government, to that of Great Britain, as the message states; but, being already on as good a footing in law, and a better in fact, than the most favored nation, they have not, as yet, discovered any disposition to have it meddled with.

We have no reason to conclude that friendly arrangements would be declined by the other nations, with whom we have such commercial intercourse as may render them important. In the meanwhile it would rest with the wisdom of Congress to determine whether, as to those nations, they will not surcease ex parte regulations, on the reasonable presumption that they will concur in doing whatever justice and moderation dictate should be done.

[1 ]Transmitted to Congress in the following letter:

[December 16, 1793.]

Sir,



According to the pleasure of the House of Representatives, expressed in their resolution of February 23, 1791, I now lay before them a report on the privileges and restrictions on the commerce of the United States in foreign countries. In order to keep the subject within those bounds which I supposed to be under the contemplation of the House, I have restrained my statements to those countries only with which we carry on a commerce of some importance, and to those articles also of our produce which are of sensible weight in the scale of our exports; and even these articles are sometimes grouped together, according to the degree of favor or restriction with which they are received in each country, and that degree expressed in general terms without detailing the exact duty levied on each article. To have gone fully into these minutiæ, would have been to copy the tariffs and books of rates of the different countries, and to have hidden, under a mass of details, those general and important truths, the extraction of which, in a simple form, I conceived would best answer the inquiries of the House, by condensing material information within those limits of time and attention, which this portion of their duties may justly claim. The plan, indeed, of minute details which have been impracticable with some countries, for want of information.

 



“Since preparing this report, which was put into its present form in time to have been given in to the last session of Congress alterations of the conditions of our commerce with some foreign nations have taken place—some of them independent of war; some arising out of it.

 



“France has proposed to enter into a new treaty of commerce with us, on liberal principles; and has, in the meantime, relaxed some of the restraints mentioned in the report. Spain has, by an ordinance of June last, established New Orleans, Pensacola, and St. Augustine into free ports, for the vessels of friendly nations having treaties of commerce with her, provided they touch for a permit at Corcubion in Gallicia, or at Alicant; and our rice is, by the same ordinance, excluded from that country. The circumstances of war have necessarily given us freer access to the West Indian islands, whilst they have also drawn on our navigation vexations and depredations of a most serious nature.

 



“To have endeavored to describe all these, would have been as impracticable as useless, since the scenes would have been shifting while under description. I therefore think it best to leave the report as it was formed, being adapted to a particular point of time, when things were in their settled order, that is to say, to the summer of 1792. I have the honor to be, &c.

 



To the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America,

 



See VII., pp. 234, 240, 243, and 246.

 

[1 ]April 12, 1792.—T. J.

 


 

2. Hamilton, “Crisis with Great Britain” (4/14/1794)

Source. This extract comes from the following title in the Library: Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 5.

Accessed from http://app.libraryofliberty.org/title/1382/65697 on 2007-09-13

hamilton to washington
(Cabinet Paper.)

  • Philadelphia,

Sir:—The present is beyond question a great, a difficult, and a perilous crisis in the affairs of this country. * * * In such a crisis it is the duty of every man, according to situation, to contribute all in his power towards preventing evil and producing good. This consideration will, I trust, be a sufficient apology for the liberty I am about to take of submitting, without an official call, the ideas which occupy my mind concerning the actual posture of our public affairs. It cannot but be of great importance that the Chief Magistrate should be informed of the real state of things, and it is not easy for him to have this information but through those principal officers who have most frequent access to him. Hence an obligation on their part to communicate information on occasions like the present.

A course of accurate observation has impressed on my mind a full conviction, that there exists in our councils three considerable parties,—one, decided for preserving peace by every effort which shall any way consist with the ultimate maintenance of the national honor and rights, and disposed to cultivate with all nations a friendly understanding; another, decided for war, and resolved to bring it about by every expedient which shall not too directly violate the public opinion; a third, not absolutely desirous of war, but solicitous at all events to excite and keep alive irritation and ill-humor between the United States and Great Britain, and not unwilling in the pursuit of this object to expose the peace of the country to imminent hazards.

The views of the first party, in respect to the questions between Great Britain and us, favor the following course of conduct: to take effectual measures of military preparation, creating, in earnest, force and revenue; to vest the President with important powers respecting navigation and commerce for ulterior contingencies—to endeavor by another effort of negotiation, confided to hands able to manage it, and friendly to the object, to obtain reparation for the wrongs we suffer, and a demarkation of a line of conduct to govern in future; to avoid till the issue of that experiment all measures of a nature to occasion a conflict between the motives which might dispose the British Government to do us the justice to which we are entitled and the sense of its own dignity. If that experiment fails, then and not till then to resort to reprisals and war.1

The views of the second party, in respect to the same questions, favor the following course of conduct: to say and to do every thing which can have a tendency to stir up the passions of the people and beget a disposition favorable to war; to make use of the inflammation which is excited in the community for the purpose of carrying through measures calculated to disgust Great Britain, and to render an accommodation impracticable without humiliation to her, which they do not believe will be submitted to; in fine, to provoke and bring on war by indirect means, without declaring it or even avowing the intention, because they know the public mind is not yet prepared for such an extremity, and they fear to encounter the direct responsibility of being the authors of a war.

The views of the third party lead them to favor the measures of the second—but without a perfect coincidence in the result. They weakly hope that they may hector and vapor with success—that the pride of Great Britain will yield to her interest, and that they may accomplish the object of perpetuating animosity between the two countries without involving war. There are some characters, not numerous, who do not belong to either of these classes, but who fluctuate between them as, in the conflict between Reason and Passion, the one or the other prevails.

It may seem difficult to admit, in the situation of this country, that there are parties of the description of the two last; men who can either systematically meditate war or can be willing to risk it otherwise than by the use of means which they deem necessary to insure reparation for the injuries we experience.

But a due attention to the course of the human passions, as recorded in history, and exemplified by daily occurrences, is sufficient to obviate all difficulty on this head.

Wars oftener proceed from angry and perverse passions, than from cool calculations of interest. This position is admitted without difficulty when we are judging of the hostile appearances in the measures of Great Britain toward this country. What reason can there be why it should not be as good a test of similar appearances on our part? As men it is equally applicable to us,—and the symptoms are strong of our being readily enough worked up into a degree of rage and frenzy, which goes very far toward silencing the voice of reason and interest.

Those who compose the parties whose measures have a war aspect, are under the influence of some of the strongest passions that can actuate human conduct. They unite from habitual feeling in an implacable hatred to Great Britain and a warm attachment to France. Their animosity against the former is inflamed by the most violent resentment for recent and unprovoked injuries—in many instances by personal loss and suffering of intimate friends and connections. Their sympathy with the latter is increased by the idea of her being engaged in defending the cause of liberty against a combination of despots, who meditate nothing less than the destruction of it throughout the world. In hostility with Britain, they seek the gratification of revenge upon a detested enemy with that of serving a favorite friend, and in this the cause of liberty. They anticipate, also, what is, in their estimation, a great political good, a more complete and permanent alienation from Great Britain, and a more close approximation to France. Those even of them who do not wish the extremity of war consider it as a less evil than a thorough and sincere accommodation with Great Britain, and are willing to risk the former rather than lose an opportunity so favorable as the present to extend and rivet the springs of ill-will against that nation.

However necessary it is to veil this policy in public, in private there are not much pains taken to disguise it. Some gentlemen do not scruple to say that pacification is and ought to be out of the question.

What has been heretofore said relates only to persons in public character. If we extend our view from these to the community at large, we shall there also find a considerable diversity of opinion—partisans of patience, negotiation, and peace, if possible, and partisans of war. There is no doubt much of irritation now afloat; many advocates for measures tending to produce war. But it would be a great mistake to infer from these appearances that the prevailing sentiment of the country is for war—or that there would be either a willing acquiescence or a zealous co-operation in it if the proceedings of the government should not be such as to render it manifest, beyond question, that war was inevitable, but by an absolute sacrifice of the rights and interests of the nation—that the race of prudence was completely run, and that nothing was done to invite hostility, or left undone to avoid it.

It is to my mind unequivocal that the great mass of opinion in the Eastern States and in the State of New York is against war, if it can be avoided without absolute dishonor or the ultimate sacrifice of essential rights and interests; and I verily believe that the same sentiment is the radical one throughout the United States, some of the towns, perhaps, excepted; where even it is much to be doubted whether there would not be a minority for the affirmative, if the naked question was presented of war, or of measures which should be acknowledged to have a tendency to promote or produce it.

The natural inference from such a state of the public mind is, that if measures are adopted with the disapprobation and dissent of a large and enlightened minority of Congress, which in the event should appear to have been obstacles to a peaceable adjustment of our differences with Great Britain, there would be, under the pressure of the evils produced by them, a deep and extensive dissatisfaction with the conduct of the government—a loss of confidence in it, and an impatience under the measures which war would render unavoidable.

Prosperous as is truly the situation of the country; great as would be the evils of war to it, it would hardly seem to admit of a doubt, that no chance for preserving peace ought to be lost or diminished, in compliance either with resentment, or the speculative ideas which are the arguments for a hostile course of conduct.

At no moment were the indications of a plan on the part of Great Britain to go to war with us sufficiently decisive to preclude the hope of averting it by a negotiation conducted with prudent energy, and seconded by such military preparations as should be demonstrative of a resolution eventually to vindicate our rights. The revocation of the instructions1 of the 6th of November, even with the relaxation of some pretensions which Great Britain has in former wars maintained against neutral powers, is full evidence that if the system was before for war, it was then changed. The events which have taken place in Europe are of a nature to render it probable that such a system will not be revived, and that by prudent management we may still escape a calamity which we have the strongest motives, internal, as well as external, to shun.

I express myself thus, because it is certainly not an idle apprehension, that the example of France (whose excesses are with too many an object of apology, if not of justification) may be found to have unhinged the orderly principles of the people of this country; and that war, by putting in motion all the turbulent passions, and promoting a further assimilation of our principles with those of France, may prove to be the threshold of disorganization and anarchy.

The late successes of France have produced in this country conclusions much too sanguine with regard to the event of the contest. They no doubt afford a high probability of her being able, eventually, to defend herself, especially under a form of administration of such unexampled vigor as that by which she has of late managed her affairs.

But there will be nothing wonderful in a total reverse of fortune during the ensuing campaign. Human nature must be an absolutely different thing in France from what it has hitherto shown itself to be throughout the globe, and in all ages, if there do not exist, in a large proportion of the French nation, germs of the profoundest discontent, ready to burst into vegetation the moment there should appear an efficacious prospect of protection and shade from the progress of the invading armies. And if having possessed themselves of some of the keys of France, the principle of the commencing campaign should be different from that of the past, active field operations succeeding to the wasteful and dilatory process of sieges, who can say that victory may not so far crown the enterprises of the coalesced powers, as to open the way to an internal explosion which may prove fatal to the republic? ’t is now evident that another vigorous campaign will be essayed by the allies. The result is, and must be, incalculable.

To you, sir, it is unnecessary to urge the extreme precariousness of the events of war. The inference to be drawn is too manifest to escape your penetration. This country ought not to set itself afloat upon an ocean so fluctuating, so dangerous, and so uncertain, but in a case of absolute necessity.

That necessity is certainly not yet apparent. The circumstances which have been noticed with regard to the recent change of conduct on the part of Great Britain, authorize a strong hope that a negotiation, conducted with ability and moderation, and supported at home by demonstrations of vigor and seriousness, would obviate those causes of collision which are the most urgent—might even terminate others, which have so long fostered dissatisfaction and enmity. There is room to suppose that the moment is peculiarly favorable to such an attempt. On this point there are symptoms of a common sentiment between the advocates and the opposers of an unembarrassed attempt to negotiate: the former desiring it from the confidence they have in its probable success; the latter, from the same cause, endeavoring either to prevent its going on under right auspices, or to clog it with impediments which will frustrate its effect.

All ostensibly agree, that one more experiment of negotiation ought to precede actual war; but there is this serious difference in the practice. The sincere friends of peace and accommodation are for leaving things in a state which will enable Great Britain, without abandoning self-respect, to do us the justice we seek. The others are for placing things upon a footing which would involve the disgrace or disrepute of having receded through intimidation.

This last scheme indubitably ends in war. The folly is too great to be seriously entertained by the discerning part of those who affect to believe the position—that Great Britain, fortified by the alliances of the greatest part of Europe, will submit to our demands, urged with the face of coercion, and preceded by acts of reprisal. She cannot do it without renouncing her pride and her dignity, without losing her consequence and weight in the scale of nations; and, consequently, it is morally certain that she will not do it. A proper estimate of the operation of the human passions, must satisfy us that she would be less disposed to receive the law from us than from any other nation—a people recently become a nation, not long since one of her dependencies, and as yet, if a Hercules, a Hercules in the cradle.

When one nation inflicts injuries upon another, which are causes of war, if this other means to negotiate before it goes to war, the usual and received course is to prepare for war, and proceed to negotiation, avoiding reprisals till the issue of the negotiation. This course is recommended by all enlightened writers on the laws of nations, as the course of moderation, propriety, and wisdom; and it is that commonly pursued, except where there is a disposition to go to war, or a commanding superiority of power.

Preparation for war, in such cases, contains in it nothing offensive. It is a mere precaution for self-defence, under circumstances which endanger the breaking out of war. It gives rise to no point of honor which can be a bar to equitable and amicable negotiation. But acts of reprisal speak a contrary effect—they change negotiation into peremptory demand, and they brandish a rod over the party on whom the demand is made. He must be humble indeed, if he comply with the demand to avoid the stripe.

Such are the propositions which have lately appeared in the House of Representatives, for the sequestration or arrestation of British debts—for the cutting off all intercourse with Great Britain, till she shall do certain specific things. If such propositions pass, they can only be regarded as provocatives to a declaration of war by Great Britain.

The sequestration of debts is treated by all writers as one of the highest species of reprisal. It is, moreover, contrary to the most approved practice of the present century; to what may be safely pronounced to be the modern rule of the law of nations; to what is so plainly dictated by original principles of justice and good faith, that nothing but the barbarism of times in which war was the principal business of man could ever have tolerated an opposite practice; to the manifest interest of a people situated like that of the United States, which, having a vast fund of materials for improvement in various ways, ought to invite into the channels of their industry the capital of Europe, by giving to it inviolable security,—which, giving little facility to extensive revenue from taxation, ought, for its own safety in war, to cherish its credit by a religious observance of the rules of credit in all their branches.

The proposition for cutting off all intercourse with Great Britain has not yet sufficiently developed itself to enable us to pronounce what it truly is. It may be so extensive in its provisions as even to include in fact, though not in form, sequestration, by rendering remittances penal or impracticable. Indeed, it can scarcely avoid so far interfering with the payment of debts already contracted, as in a great degree to amount to a virtual sequestration. But, however this may be, being adopted for the express purpose of retaliating or punishing injuries, to continue until those injuries are redressed, it is in the spirit of a reprisal. Its principle is avowedly coercion—a principle directly opposite to that of negotiation, which supposes an appeal to the reason and justice of the party. Caustic and stimulant in the highest degree, it cannot fail to have a correspondent effect upon the minds of those against whom it is directed. It cannot fail to be viewed as originating in motives of the most hostile and overbearing kind; to stir up all the feelings of pride and resentment in the nation as well as in the Cabinet; and, consequently, to render negotiations abortive.

It will be wonderful if the immediate effect of either of these measures be not either war or the seizure of our vessels wherever they are found, on the ground of keeping them as hostages for the debts due to the British merchants, and on the additional ground of the measures themselves being either acts of hostility or evidence of a disposition to hostility.

The interpretation will naturally be that our views, originally pacific, have changed with the change in the affairs of France, and are now bent towards war.

The measures in question, besides the objection to them resulting from their tendency to produce war, are condemned by a comprehensive and enlightened view of their operation in other respects. They cannot but have a malignant influence upon our public and mercantile credit. They will be regarded abroad as violent and precipitate. It will be said, there is no reliance to be placed on the steadiness or solidity of concerns with this people. Every gust that arises on the political sky is the signal for measures tending to destroy their ability to pay or to obstruct the course of payment. Instead of a people pacific, forbearing, moderate, and of rigid probity, we see in them a people turbulent, hasty, intemperate, and loose, sporting with their individual obligations, and disturbing the general course of their affairs with levity and inconsiderateness.

Such will indubitably be the comment upon our conduct. The favorable impressions now entertained of the character of our government and nation will infallibly be reversed.

The cutting off of intercourse with Great Britain, to distress her seriously, must extend to the prohibition of all her commodities, indirectly as well as directly; else it will have no other operation than to transfer the trade between the two countries to the hands of foreigners, to our disadvantage more than to that of Great Britain.

If it extends to the total prohibition of her commodities, however brought, it deprives us of a supply, for which no substitute can be found elsewhere—a supply necessary to us in peace, and more necessary to us if we are to go to war. It gives a sudden and violent blow to our revenue, which cannot easily, if at all, be repaired from other resources. It will give so great an interruption to commerce as may very possibly interfere with the payment of the duties which have heretofore accrued, and bring the Treasury to an absolute stoppage of payment—an event which would cut up credit by the roots.

The consequences of so great and so sudden a disturbance of our trade, which must affect our exports as well as our imports, cannot be calculated. An excessive rise in the price of foreign commodities—a proportionable decrease of price and demand of our own commodities—the derangement of our revenue and credit,—these circumstances united may occasion the most dangerous dissatisfactions and disorders in the community, and may drive the government to a disgraceful retreat, independent of foreign causes.

To adopt the measure in terrorem, and postpone its operation, will be scarcely a mitigation of the evil. The expectation of it will, as to our imports, have the effect of the reality, since we must obtain what we want chiefly upon credit. Our supply and our revenue, therefore, will suffer nearly as much as if there was an immediate interruption.

The effect with regard to our peace will be the same. The principle being menace and coercion, will equally recommend resistance to the policy as well as the pride of the other party. ’t is only to consult our own hearts to be convinced that nations, like individuals, revolt at the idea of being guided by external compulsion. They will, at least, only yield to that idea after resistance has been fruitlessly tried in all its forms.

’t is as great an error for a nation to overrate us as to underrate itself. Presumption is as great a fault as timidity. ’t is our error to overrate ourselves and underrate Great Britain; we forget how little we can annoy, how much we may be annoyed.

’t is enough for us, situated as we are, to be resolved to vindicate our honor and rights in the last extremity. To precipitate a great conflict of any sort is utterly unsuited to our condition, to our strength, or to our resources. This is truth to be well weighed by every wise and dispassionate man, as the rule of public action.

There are two ideas of immense consequence to us in the event of war: the disunion of our enemies; the perfect union of our own citizens. Justice and moderation, united with firmness, are the means to secure both these advantages; injustice or intemperance will lose both.

Unanimity among ourselves, which is the most important of the two ideas, can only be secured by its being manifest, if war ensues, that it was inevitable by another course of conduct. This cannot and will not be the case, if measures so intemperate as those which are meditated take place. The inference will be, that the war was brought on by the design of some and the rashness of others. This inference will be universal in the Northern States; and to you, sir, I need not urge the importance of those States in war.

Want of unanimity will naturally tend to render the operations of war feeble and heavy, to destroy both effort and perseverance. War, undertaken under such auspices, can scarcely end in any thing better than an inglorious and disadvantageous peace. What worse it may produce is beyond the reach of human foresight.

The foregoing observations are designed to convey to the mind of the President information of the true state of things at the present juncture, and to present to his consideration the general reasons which have occurred to me against the course of proceeding which appears to be favored by a majority of the House of Representatives.

My solicitude for the public interest, according to the view I have of it, and my real respect and regard for him to whom I address myself, lead me to subjoin some reflections of a more delicate nature.

The crisis is such a one as involves the highest responsibility on the part of every one who may have to act a part in it. It is one in which every man will be understood to be bound to act according to his judgment without concession to the ideas of others. The President, who has by the Constitution a right to object to laws which he deems contrary to the public interest, will be considered as under an indispensable obligation to exercise that right against any measure, relating to so vast a point as that of the peace of the country, which shall not accord with his opinion. The consideration of its having been adopted by both Houses of Congress, and of respect for their opinions, will have no weight in such a case as a reason for forbearing to exercise the right of objection. The consequence is, that the not objecting will be deemed conclusive evidence of approbation, and will implicate the President in all the consequences of the measure.

In such a position of things, it is therefore of the utmost importance to him, as well as to the community, that he should trace out in his own mind such a plan as he thinks it would be eligible to pursue, and should endeavor, by proper and constitutional means, to give the deliberations of Congress a direction towards that plan.

Else he runs the risk of being reduced to the dilemma either of assenting to measures which he may not approve, with a full responsibility for consequences, or of objecting to measures which have already received the sanction of the two Houses of Congress, with the responsibility of having resisted and probably prevented what they meditated. Neither of these alternatives is a desirable one.

It seems advisable, then, that the President should come to a conclusion whether the plan ought to be preparation for war, and negotiation unincumbered by measures which forbid the expectation of success, or immediate measures of a coercive tendency, to be accompanied with the ceremony of a demand of redress. For I believe there is no middle plan between those two courses.

If the former appears to him to be the true policy of the country, I submit it as my conviction, that it is urgent for him to demonstrate that opinion as a preventive of wrong measures and future embarrassment.

The mode of doing it which occurs is this: to nominate a person who will have the confidence of those who think peace still within our reach, and who may be thought qualified for the mission as Envoy Extraordinary to Great Britain; to announce this to the one as well as the other House of Congress, with an observation that it is done with an intention to make a solemn appeal to the justice and good sense of the British Government, to avoid if possible an ulterior rupture, and adjust the causes of misunderstanding between the two countries, and with an earnest recommendation that vigorous and effectual measures may be adopted to be prepared for war, should it become inevitable, abstaining for the present from measures which may be contrary to the spirit of an attempt to adjust existing differences by negotiation.

Knowing as I do, sir, that I am among the persons who have been in your contemplation to be employed in the capacity I have mentioned, I should not have taken the present step, had I not been resolved at the same time to advise you with decision to drop me from the consideration, and to fix upon another character. I am not unapprised of what has been the bias of your opinion on the subject. I am well aware of all the collateral obstacles which exist; and I assure you in the utmost sincerity that I shall be completely and entirely satisfied with the election of another.

I beg leave to add, that of the persons whom you would deem free from any constitutional objections, Mr. Jay is the only man in whose qualifications for success there would be thorough confidence, and him whom alone it would be advisable to send. I think the business would have the best chance possible in his hands, and I flatter myself that his mission would issue in a manner that would produce the most important good to the nation.

Let me add, sir, that those whom I call the soberminded men of the country look up to you with solicitude upon the present occasion. If happily you should be the instrument of still rescuing the country from the dangers and calamities of war, there is no part of your life, sir, which will produce to you more real satisfaction or true glory than that which shall be distinguished by this very important service.

In any event, I cannot doubt, sir, that you will do justice to the motives which impel me, and that you will see in this proceeding another proof of my sincere wishes for your honor and happiness, and anxiety for the public weal.

With the truest respect and attachment,

I have the honor to be, etc.1

[1]No better statement of the Federalist policy at this time can be found than is given in this paragraph. No further defence of the wisdom and strength of Washington’s position need be offered than Hamilton’s few and terse sentences.

[1]These were the instructions to seize provisions, grain, etc., conveyed in neutral bottoms to France.

[1]This is one of the most important letters ever penned by Hamilton. Washington followed his advice to the letter, and Hamilton’s withdrawal of his own name as a candidate for a mission he desired was an act of unselfish patriotism which cannot be too highly praised.

Last modified April 13, 2016