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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

45. Unavoidable Wars

A republic will avoid war unless the avoidance might create conditions that are worse than warfare itself. Sometimes, the dispositions of those who choose to make themselves our enemies leaves us no choice. In any case, declarations of war rest with the legislature alone; the President is authorized to take defensive actions only.

"Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it. But the temper and folly of our enemies may not leave this in our choice." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1786. ME 5:310

"I am ever unwilling that [peace] should be disturbed as long as the rights and interests of the nations can be preserved. But whensoever hostile aggressions on these require a resort to war, we must meet our duty and convince the world that we are just friends and brave enemies." --Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson, 1806. ME 19:156

"It should be our endeavor to cultivate the peace and friendship of every nation, even of that which has injured us most, when we shall have carried our point against her." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XXII, 1782. ME 2:240

"'Reparation for the past, and security for the future,' is our motto." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1807. ME 11:279

"It is our duty still to endeavor to avoid war; but if it shall actually take place, no matter by whom brought on, we must defend ourselves. If our house be on fire, without inquiring whether it was fired from within or without, we must try to extinguish it." --Thomas Jefferson to James Lewis, Jr., 1798. ME 10:37

"To draw around the whole nation the strength of the General Government as a barrier against foreign foes... is [one of the] functions of the General Government on which [our citizens] have a right to call." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Vermont Address, 1801.

45.1 Never Peace at Any Price

"My hope of preserving peace for our country is not founded in the greater principles of non-resistance under every wrong, but in the belief that a just and friendly conduct on our part will procure justice and friendship from others." --Thomas Jefferson to Earl of Buchan, 1803. ME 10:401

"Peace [is] indeed the most important of all things for us, except the preserving an erect and independent attitude." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Livingston, 1802. ME 10:336

"We love peace, yet spurn a tame submission to wrong." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New York Tammany Society, 1808.

"The protection of our citizens, the spirit and honor of our country, require that force should be interposed to a certain degree." --Thomas Jefferson: Confidential Message on Spanish Spoilations, 1805. ME 3:402

"To those who expect us to calculate whether a compliance with unjust demands will not cost us less than a war, we must leave as a question of calculation for them, also, whether to retire from unjust demands will not cost them less than a war. [Two nations] can do to each other very sensible injuries by war, but the mutual advantages of peace make that the best interest of both." --Thomas Jefferson: 4th Annual Message, 1804. ME 3:369

"The question [is] asked, 'Is it common for a nation to obtain a redress of wrongs by war?' The answer to this question you will of course draw from history. In the meantime, reason will answer it on grounds of probability, that where the wrong has been done by a weaker nation, the stronger one has generally been able to enforce redress; but where by a stronger nation, redress by war has been neither obtained nor expected by the weaker. On the contrary, the loss has been increased by the expenses of the war in blood and treasure. Yet it may have obtained another object equally securing itself from future wrong. It may have retaliated on the aggressor losses of blood and treasure far beyond the value to him of the wrong he had committed, and thus have made the advantage of that too dear a purchase to leave him in a disposition to renew the wrong in future. In this way the loss by the war may have secured the weaker nation from loss by future wrong." --Thomas Jefferson to Noah Worcester, 1816. ME 14:415

"When peace becomes more losing than war, we may prefer the latter on principles of pecuniary calculation." --Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, 1811. ME 13:56

"[It is] my disposition to maintain peace until its condition shall be made less tolerable than that of war itself." --Thomas Jefferson to Noah Worcester, 1817. ME 18:298

"Europe... have totally mistaken our character. Accustomed to rise at a feather themselves, and to be always fighting, they will see in our conduct, fairly stated, that acquiescence under wrong, to a certain degree, is wisdom, and not pusillanimity; and that peace and happiness are preferable to that false honor which, by eternal wars, keeps their people in eternal labor, want, and wretchedness." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1815. ME 14:290

45.2 Insults Leading to War

"It should ever be held in mind that insult and war are the consequences of a want of respectability in the national character." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1786. ME 5:278

"It is an eternal truth that acquiescence under insult is not the way to escape war." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Tazewell, 1795.

"One insult pocketed soon produces another." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1790. ME 3:80

"I think it to our interest to punish the first insult; because an insult unpunished is the parent of many others." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:95, Papers 8:427

"Any free nation has a right to punish those who have done them an injury... While I advise [another nation] like an affectionate friend to avoid unnecessary war, I do not assume the right of restraining [them] from punishing [their] enemies." --Thomas Jefferson to John Baptist de Coigne, 1781. (*) ME 16:373, Papers 6:61

45.3 Avoiding Tribute

"[It is] our determination to prefer war in all cases to tribute under any form and to any people whatever." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Barclay, 1791. ME 8:200

"From what I learn from the temper of my countrymen and their tenaciousness of money, it will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these [Algerian] pirates into reason than money to bribe them." --Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, 1786.

"[It is] Dr. Turnbull's opinion that force alone can do our business with the Algerines. I am glad to have the concurrence of so good an authority on that point." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Rutledge, 1790. ME 8:59

"If it is decided that we shall buy a peace, I know no reason for delaying the operation, but should rather think it ought to be hastened; but I should prefer the obtaining it by war. 1. Justice is in favor of this opinion. 2. Honor favors it. 3. It will procure us respect in Europe; and respect is a safeguard to interest. 4. It will arm the federal head with the safest of all the instruments of coercion over its delinquent members, and prevent it from using what would be less safe... 5. I think it least expensive. 6. Equally effectual... If it be admitted, however, that war on the fairest prospects is still exposed to uncertainties, I weigh against this the greater uncertainty of the duration of a peace bought with money, from such a people... and by a nation who, on the hypothesis of buying peace, is to have no power on the sea, to enforce an observance of it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1786. ME 5:365

45.4 Ransoming Prisoners

"I must add the injunctions of the General of the Mathurins, that it be not made known that the public interest themselves in the redemption of... prisoners, as that would induce... [a] demand [for] the most extravagant price." --Thomas Jefferson to the Treasury Commissioners, 1787. ME 6:304

"My idea is, that we should not ransom, but on the footing of the nation which pays least, that it may be as little worth their while to go in pursuit of us, as any nation. This is cruelty to the individuals now in captivity, but kindness to the hundreds that would be so, were we to make it worth the while of those pirates to go out... in quest of us." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1787. ME 6:356

"Hard as it may seem, I should think it necessary not to let it be known even to the relations of the captives, that we mean to redeem them." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1787. ME 6:306

"It would be cruelty to the captives to let them know we are proceeding to their redemption. They could not keep their own secret, and the indiscretion of any one of them might forever blast the prospect of their redemption." --Thomas Jefferson to the Board of Treasury, 1788. ME 7:11

"I had taken measures to have it believed at Algiers that our government withdrew its attention from our captives there. This was to prepare their captors for the ransoming them at a reasonable price... Were the views of the government communicated to [our captives], they could not keep their own secret, and such a price would be demanded for them as Congress, probably, would think ought not to be given, lest it should be the cause of involving thousands of others of their citizens in the same condition." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1788. ME 7:2

45.5 Resisting Depredation

"We should be wanting to ourselves, we should be perfidious to posterity, we should be unworthy that free ancestry from which we derive our descent, should we submit with folded arms to military butchery and depredation." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775. Papers 1:202

"War... may become a less losing business than unresisted depredation." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1809.

"When... nations to whom circumstances have given a temporary superiority over others... [throw] off all restraints of morality, all pride of national character, forgetting the mutability of fortune and the inevitable doom which the laws of nature pronounce against departure from justice, individual or national, [and declare] to treat her reclamations with derision and to set up force instead of reason as the umpire of nations, [they degrade] themselves thus from the character of lawful societies into lawless bands of robbers and pirates [and abuse] their brief ascendency by desolating the world with blood and rapine. Against such banditti, war [becomes] less ruinous than peace, for then peace [is] a war on one side only." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. (*) ME 13:355

"All experience has shown that blood once seriously spilled between nation and nation, the contest is continued by subordinate agents, and the door of peace is shut." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. ME 1:365

"The justifiable rights of our country ought not to be given up by those... appointed and trusted to defend them where they may be justly defended." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Hamilton, 1792.

"[When] a belligerent takes to himself a commerce with its own enemy which it denies to a neutral on the ground of its aiding that enemy in the war,... reason revolts at such an inconsistency, and the neutral having equal right with the belligerent to decide the question, the interest of our constituents and the duty of maintaining the authority of reason, the only umpire between just nations, impose on us the obligation of providing an effectual and determined opposition to a doctrine so injurious to the rights of peaceable nations." --Thomas Jefferson: 5th Annual Message, 1805. ME 3:387

"It has a great effect on the opinion of our people and the world to have the moral right on our side." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1809.

"[If another nation throws] down the gauntlet of war or submission as the only alternatives, we cannot blame the government for choosing that of war, because certainly the great majority of the nation [would think] it ought to be chosen, not that they were to gain by it in dollars and cents; all men know that war is a losing game to both parties. But they know also that if they do not resist encroachment at some point, all will be taken from them, and that more would then be lost even in dollars and cents by submission than resistance. It is the case of giving a part to save the whole, a limb to save a life. It is the melancholy law of human societies to be compelled sometimes to choose a great evil in order to ward off a greater, to deter their neighbors from rapine by making it cost them more than honest gains... We must consider... that although the evils of resistance are great, those of submission would be greater. We must meet, therefore, the former as the casualties of tempests and earthquakes, and like them necessarily resulting from the constitution of the world." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, Nov 28, 1814. (*) ME 14:213

"Were we to give up half our territory rather than engage in a just war to preserve it, we should not keep the other half long." --Thomas Jefferson: Instructions to William Carmichael, 1790. ME 17:303

"Fear [is] the only restraining motive which may hold the hand of a tyrant." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:195, Papers 1:126

"We do, then, most solemnly before God and the world declare that regardless of every consequence, at the risk of every distress, the arms we have been compelled to assume we will use with perseverance, exerting to their utmost energies all those powers which our Creator hath given us to preserve that liberty which he committed to us in sacred deposit and to protect from every hostile hand our lives and our properties." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775. Papers 1:202

45.6 Cautions Before Entering War

"The lamentable resource of war is not authorized for evils of imagination, but for those actual injuries only which would be more destructive of our well-being than war itself." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Address, 1801. ME 10:249

"We wish to avoid the necessity of going to war till our revenue shall be entirely liberated from debt. Then it will suffice for war without creating new debt or taxes." --Thomas Jefferson to W. C. C. Claiborne, 1808. ME 12:187

"Our right may be doubted of mortgaging posterity for the expenses of a war in which they will have a right to say their interests were not concerned." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1820.

"Give us peace till our revenues are liberated from debt, and then, if war be necessary, it can be carried on without a new tax or loan, and during peace we may chequer our whole country with canals, roads, etc. This is the object to which all our endeavors should be directed." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Leiper, 1808. ME 12:65

"We have borne patiently a great deal of wrong, on the consideration that if nations go to war for every degree of injury, there would never be peace on earth. But when patience has begotten false estimates of its motives, when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality." --Thomas Jefferson to Mme de Stael, 1807. ME 11:282

"Our duty is... to act upon things as they are, and to make a reasonable provision for whatever they may be. Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible in our horizon, we never should have been without them. Our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which have never happened, instead of being reserved for what is really to take place." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:424

"Both reason and the usage of nations required we should give Great Britain an opportunity of disavowing and repairing the insult of their officers. It gives us at the same time an opportunity of getting home our vessels, our property, and our seamen -- the only means of carrying on the kind of war we should attempt." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1807. ME 11:266

45.7 The Need to be Prepared

"The actual habits of our countrymen attach them to commerce. They will exercise it for themselves. Wars then must sometime be our lot, and all the wise can do will be to avoid that half of them which would be produced by our own follies and our own acts of injustice, and to make for the other half the best preparations we can." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XXII, 1782. ME 2:241

"Our commerce on the ocean and in other countries must be paid for by frequent war. The justest dispositions possible in ourselves will not secure us against it. It would be necessary that all other nations were just also. Justice indeed on our part will save us from those wars which would have been produced by a contrary disposition. But how can we prevent those produced by the wrongs of other nations? By putting ourselves in a condition to punish them. Weakness provokes insult and injury, while a condition to punish it often prevents it." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:95, Papers 8:427

"Completing the defence of the exposed points of our country, on such a scale as shall be adapted to our principles and circumstances,... is doubtless among the first entitled to attention... and it is one which, whether we have peace or war, will provide security where it is due." --Thomas Jefferson: 7th Annual Message, 1807. ME 3:453

"The little preparations for war, which we see, are the effect of distrust, rather than of a design to commence hostilities. And in such a state of mind... small things may produce a rupture; so that though peace is rather probable, war is very possible." --Thomas Jefferson to Alexander Donald, 1788. ME 6:427

"While prudence will endeavor to avoid this issue [of war], bravery will prepare to meet it." --Thomas Jefferson to New London Republicans, 1809. ME 16:339

"A country vulnerable in every point is open to insult and depredation to even the smallest force, yet important points may, we trust, be guarded." --Thomas Jefferson to Oliver Towles, 1781. ME 4:409, Papers 5:454

"It is mortifying to suppose it possible that a people, able and zealous to contend with their enemy, should be reduced to fold their arms for want of the means of defence." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1780. ME 4:120, Papers 4:60

"I hope our land office will rid us of our debts, and that our first attention then will be to the beginning a naval force of some sort. This alone can countenance our people as carriers on the water, and I suppose them to be determined to continue such." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:96, Papers 8:427

45.8 Declarations of War

"Congress [must] be called [if there] is a justifiable cause of war; and as the Executive cannot decide the question of war on the affirmative side, neither ought it to do so on the negative side by preventing the competent body from deliberating on the question." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1793. (*) ME 9:33

"The question of war being placed by the Constitution with the Legislature alone, respect to that [makes] it [the Executive's] duty to restrain the operations of our militia to those merely defensive." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft for Presidential Message, 1792. (*)

"Considering war as one of the alternatives which Congress may adopt on the failure of proper satisfaction for the outrages committed on us,... I have thought it my duty to put into train every preparation for that which the executive powers, and the interval left for their exercise, will admit of." --Thomas Jefferson to John Nicholas, 1807. ME 11:332

"Considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty [as President] to await their authority for using force [against aggression] in any degree which could be avoided. I have barely instructed the officers stationed in the neighborhood of the aggressions to protect our citizens from violence, to patrol within the borders actually delivered to us, and not to go out of them but when necessary to repel an inroad or to rescue a citizen or his property." --Thomas Jefferson: Confidential Message on Spanish Spoilations, 1805. ME 3:400

"[I] opposed the right of the President to declare anything future on the question, Shall there or shall there not be war?" --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1793. ME 1:404

"The power of declaring war being with the Legislature, the Executive should do nothing necessarily committing them to decide for war in preference of non-intercourse, which will be preferred by a great many." --Thomas Jefferson to George Clinton, 1807. ME 11:258

"The making reprisal on a nation is a very serious thing. Remonstrance and refusal of satisfaction ought to precede; and when reprisal follows, it is considered as an act of war, and never yet failed to produce it in the case of a nation able to make war; besides, if the case were important enough to require reprisal, and ripe for that step, Congress must be called on to take it; the right of reprisal being expressly lodged with them by the Constitution, and not with the Executive." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on the Capture of a British Vessel, 1793. ME 3:250

"[Montesquieu wrote in his Spirit of Laws, X,c.2:] 'The right of natural defense carries along with it sometimes the necessity of attacking; as, for instance, when one nation sees that a continuance of peace will enable another to destroy her, and that to attack that nation instantly is the only way to prevent her own destruction. Thence it follow that petty states have oftener a right to declare war than great ones, because they are oftener in the case of being afraid of destruction.'" --Thomas Jefferson: copied into his Commonplace Book.

45.9 Keeping Congress Informed

"If Congress are to act on the question of war, they have a right to information [from the Executive]." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1798.

"[Naval operations are] unauthorized by the Constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defence... The legislature will doubtless consider whether, by authorizing measures of offence, also, they will place our force on an equal footing with that of its adversaries. I communicate all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of the important function confided by the Constitution to the legislature exclusively, their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:329

"[Our] fellow-citizens think they have a right to full information, in a case of such great concernment to them. It is their sweat which is to earn all the expenses of the war, and their blood which is to flow in expiation of the causes of it. It may be in [our] power to save them from these miseries by full communications and unrestrained details, postponing motives of delicacy to those of duty." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799. ME 10:74

"The course to be pursued will require the command of means which it belongs to Congress exclusively to yield or to deny. To them I communicate every fact material for their information, and the documents necessary to enable them to judge for themselves. To their wisdom then I look for the course I am to take, and will pursue with sincere zeal that which they shall approve." --Thomas Jefferson: Confidential Message on Spanish Spoilations, 1805. ME 3:402

"When we find no conduct on our part, however impartial and friendly, has been sufficient to insure from either belligerent [in a foreign war] a just respect for our rights, I am desirous that nothing shall be omitted on my part which may add to [Congress'] information on this subject, or contribute to the correctness of the view which should be formed." --Thomas Jefferson: Special Message, 1808. ME 3:473

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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