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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

46. A Republic at War

When, in spite of all efforts to avoid it, a republic must go to war, the focus of the nation is temporarily changed. The President, as Commander-In-Chief, assumes the extraordinary powers necessary to conduct the all-out effort. Citizens and legislators must then put aside differences and unite against the common enemy. Undesirable conduct may be forced on the republic in dealing with an unscrupulous enemy.

"War... is the moment when the energy of a single hand shows itself in the most seducing form." --Thomas Jefferson to Hector St. John de Crevecoeur,1788. ME 7:115

"In times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the Executive solely." --Thomas Jefferson to Caesar Rodney, 1810. ME 12:359

46.1 The Need to Unite

"If we are forced into war, we must give up political differences of opinion and unite as one man to defend our country. But whether at the close of such a war, we should be as free as we are now, God knows. In fine, if war takes place, republicanism has everything to fear." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko. 1799. ME 10:116

"So long urged by the aggressions of the belligerent powers, and every measure of forbearance at length exhausted, our country must see with sincere satisfaction the alacrity with which persons will flock to her standard whenever her constituted authorities shall declare that we take into our own hands the redress of our wrongs." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1809.

"I feel assured that no American will hesitate to rally round the standard of his insulted country in defense of that freedom and independence achieved by the wisdom of sages and consecrated by the blood of heroes." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Georgetown Republicans, 1809. ME 16:350

"[It is impossible to subdue] a people acting with an undivided will." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811.

"A nation cannot be conquered which determines not to be so." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:491

"The laws of nature render a large country unconquerable if they adhere firmly together and to their purpose." --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Innes, 1793.

"A nation united can never be conquered... The oppressors may cut off heads after heads, but like those of the Hydra, they multiply at every stroke. The recruits within a nation's own limits are prompt and without number, while those of their invaders from a distance are slow, limited and must come to an end." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1816. ME 14:396

"A people having no king to sell them for a mess of pottage for himself, no shackles to restrain their powers of self-defense, find resources within themselves equal to every trial. This we did during the Revolutionary war, and this we can do again, let who will attack us, if we act heartily with one another." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1811. ME 13:67

"I am exceedingly sorry to learn that the enemy are committing such cruel depredations... however, it may tend to produce immoveable hatred against so detestable a nation and thereby strengthen our Union." --Thomas Jefferson to Cols. Skinner and Garrard, 1781. ME 4:410, Papers 5:451

46.2 Putting Aside Differences

"That in a free government there should be differences of opinion as to public measures and the conduct of those who direct them, is to be expected. It is much, however, to be lamented that these differences should be indulged at a crisis which calls for the undivided counsels and energies of our country, and in a form calculated to encourage our enemies in the refusal of justice, and to force their country into war as the only resource for obtaining it." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New London Republicans, 1809. ME 16:339

"The times do certainly render it incumbent on all good citizens attached to the rights and honor of their country to bury in oblivion all internal differences and rally around the standard of their country in opposition to the outrages of foreign nations. All attempts to enfeeble and destroy the exertions of the General Government in vindication of our national rights, or to loosen the bands of Union by alienating the affections of the people, or opposing the authority of the laws at so eventful a period, merit the discountenance of all." --Thomas Jefferson to Daniel D. Tompkins, 1809. ME 16:341

"[It is a] sacred principle, that in opposing foreign wrong there must be but one mind." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to New York Tammany Society, 1808. ME 16:303

"A nation, while it holds together, is strong against its enemies, but, breaking into parts, it is easily destroyed." --Thomas Jefferson: Address to Osage Nation, 1806. ME 16:419

"Should foreign nations... deceived by [an] appearance of division and weakness, render it necessary to vindicate by arms the injuries to our country, I believe... that the spirit of the revolution is unextinguished, and that the cultivators of peace will again, as on that occasion, be transformed at once into a nation of warriors who will leave us nothing to fear for the natural and national rights of our country." --Thomas Jefferson to Messrs. Bloodgood and Hammond, 1809. ME 12:317

46.3 Sacrifices Are Necessary

"It is [the people's] 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." --Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

"Free people think they have a right to an explanation of the circumstances which give rise to the necessity under which they suffer." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Green, 1781. Papers 5:356

"War requires every resource of taxation and credit." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1788.

"A truth, too, not to be lost sight of is, that no country can pay war taxes if you suppress all their resources. To keep the war popular, we must keep open the markets. As long as good prices can be had, the people will support the war cheerfully." --Thomas Jefferson to James Ronaldson, 1813. ME 13:206

"I think a people would go through a war with much less impatience if they could dispose of their produce, and that unless a vent can be provided for them, they will soon become querulous and clamor for peace." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1812. ME 13:140

46.4 The Conduct of War

"In defense of our persons and properties under actual violation, we took up arms. When that violence shall be removed, when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, hostilities shall cease on our part also." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775.(*) Papers 1:203

"The bravery exhibited by our citizens on [the ocean] will, I trust, be a testimony to the world that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace, but a conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race and not to its destruction." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Annual Message, 1801. ME 3:329

"Although we [have] great cause of complaint against [another nation], and even of war, yet whenever we should think proper to act as her enemy, it should be openly and above board, and... our hostility should never be exercised by... petty means." --Thomas Jefferson to Valentine de Foronda, 1809. (*) ME 12:319

"We trust it must furnish a contemplation highly pleasing to the generous soldier to see honorable bravery respected, even by those against whom it happens to be enlisted, and discriminated from the cruel and cowardly warfare of the savage, whose object in war is to extinguish human nature." --Thomas Jefferson to Theodorick Bland, Jr., 1779. ME 4:296, Papers 2:286

46.5 Retaliation

"To do wrong is a melancholy resource, even where retaliation renders it indispensably necessary. It is better to suffer much from the scalpings, the conflagrations, the rapes and rapine of savages than to countenance and strengthen such barbarisms by retortion. I have ever deemed it more honorable and more profitable, too, to set a good example than to follow a bad one." --Thomas Jefferson to M. Correa de Serra, 1814. ME 14:222

"What is atrocious as an example becomes a duty to repress by retaliation." --Thomas Jefferson to Thaddeus Kosciusko, 1813. ME 19:203

"If a nation, breaking through all the restraints of civilized character, uses its means of destruction (power, for example) without distinction of objects, may we not use our means (our money and their pauperism) to retaliate their barbarous ravages [with their own incendiaries]?... If we do not carry it into execution, it is because we think it more moral and more honorable to set a good example, than follow a bad one." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:187

"Those who act together in war are answerable for each other. No distinction can be made between principal and ally by those against whom the war is waged. He who employs another to do a deed makes the deed his own. If he calls in the hand of the assassin or murderer, himself becomes the assasin or murderer." --Thomas Jefferson to William Phillips, 1779. ME 4:305, Papers 3:46

46.6 Exigencies of War

"In a country whose means of payment are neither prompt nor of the most desirable kind, impressing property for the public use has been found indispensable. We have no fears of complaint under [an] exercise of those powers, and have only... to instruct those employed in impressing to furnish the party whose property is taken with a proper certificate of the article and value." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1781. ME 4:391, Papers 5:180

"While the public necessities oblige us to use force for the supplies of our army, it is our duty to lay the practice under strict rules, to guard it against oppression and wanton injury, and to reprobate every thing like insult which might make the sufferer feel the act of violence more deeply." --Thomas Jefferson to John Banister, 1781. Papers 4:477

"[The] best way... is not to go against the mutineers when embodied, which would bring on perhaps an open rebellion or bloodshed most certainly, but when they shall have dispersed, to go and take them out of their beds, singly and without noise, or if they be not found the first time, to go again and again so that they may never be able to remain in quiet at home." --Thomas Jefferson to Garret Vanmeter, 1781. ME 4:418, Papers 5:566

"Privateers will find their own men and money. Let nothing be spared to encourage them. They are the dagger which strikes at the heart of the enemy, their commerce... Encourage them to burn all their prizes, and let the public pay for them. They will cheat us enormously. No matter; they will make the merchants of [the enemy] feel, and squeal, and cry out for peace." --Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 1815. ME 14:228

46.7 Prisoners of War

"A citizen shall be considered as a soldier if he were taken in arms, embodied as a soldier, and acting under the command of his officer." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Nelson, 1781. ME 4:341, Papers 4:419

"Is an enemy so execrable that, though in captivity, his wishes and comforts are to be disregarded and even crossed? I think not. It is for the benefit of mankind to mitigate the horrors of war as much as possible. The practice, therefore, of modern nations, of treating captive enemies with politeness and generosity, is not only delightful in contemplation, but really interesting to all the world, friends, foes and neutrals." --Thomas Jefferson to Patrick Henry, 1779. ME 4:54, Papers 2:242

"[We endeavor] as far as possible to alleviate the inevitable miseries of war by treating captives as humanity and natural honor requires." --Thomas Jefferson to Benedict Arnold, 1781. ME 4:400, Papers 5:227

46.8 Retaliation on Prisoners

"If the enemy shall put to death, torture or otherwise ill-treat any of the hostages in their hands,... recourse must be had to retaliation as the sole means of stopping the progress of human butchery, and... for that purpose punishments of the same kind and degree [should] be inflicted on an equal number of their subjects taken by us till they shall be taught due respect to the violated rights of nations." --Thomas Jefferson: Report to Congress, 1776. Papers 1:403

"When, during the last war, I put Governor Hamilton and Major Hay into a dungeon and in irons for having themselves personally done the same to the American prisoners who had fallen into their hands, and was threatened with retaliation by Philips, then returned to New York, I declared to him I would load ten of their Saratoga prisoners (then under my care and within half a dozen miles of my house) with double irons for every American they should misuse under pretence of retaliation, and it put an end to the practice." --Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 1813. ME 13:379

"When a uniform exercise of kindness to prisoners on our part has been returned by as uniform severity on the part of our enemies,... it is high time, by other lessons, to teach respect to the dictates of humanity; in such a case, retaliation becomes an act of benevolence." --Thomas Jefferson to William Phillips, 1779. ME 4:304, Papers 3:45

"Humane conduct on our part was found to produce no effect; the contrary, therefore, was to be tried. If it produces a proper lenity to our citizens in captivity, it will have the effect we meant; if it does not, we shall return a severity as terrible as universal. If the causes of our rigor... were founded in truth, that rigor was just, and would not give right to the enemy to commence any new hostilities on their part; and all such new severities are to be considered, not as retaliation, but as original and unprovoked. If those causes were not founded in truth, they should have denied them. If, declining the tribunal of truth and reason, they choose to pervert this into a contest of cruelty and destruction, we will contend with them in that line, and measure out misery to those in our power." --Thomas Jefferson to George Mathews, 1779. ME 4:76, Papers 3:102

"[The enemy] officers and soldiers in our hands are pledges for [the] safety [of our citizens in captivity]: we are determined to use them as such. Iron will be retaliated by iron... prison ships by prison ships, and like for like in general. I do not mean by this to cover any officer who has acted, or shall act improperly... I would use any powers I have for the punishment of any officer of our own who should be guilty of excesses unjustifiable under the usages of civilized nations." --Thomas Jefferson to George Mathews, 1779. ME 4:77, Papers 3:103

"We deplore the event which shall oblige us to shed blood for blood and shall resort to retaliation but as the means of stopping the progress of butchery. It is a duty we owe to those engaged in the cause of their country to assure them that if any unlucky circumstance baffling the efforts of their bravery shall put them in the power of their enemies, we will use the pledges in our hands to warrant their lives from sacrifice." --Thomas Jefferson: Report to Congress, 1775. Papers 1:276.

"With respect to the paroled men my sentiments are these. Had I unwarily entered into an engagement of which the laws of my country would not permit me to fulfill, I should certainly deliver myself to the enemy to cancel that engagement and free my personal honor from imputation. Nevertheless, if any of them choose to remain and to perform freely all legal duties, I do not know that Government is bound to send these people in to the enemy. It is very different from the case of a military officer breaking his parole, who ought ever to be sent in. We deny the propriety of their taking paroles from unarmed farmers. But as in any event the only justifiable punishment of a breach of parole is confinement, so should the enemy hang a single man for this cause, we will instantly retaliate by hanging their prisoners in equal number." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Nelson, 1781. ME 4:343, Papers 4:450

46.9 The Aftermath of War

"It should take more to make peace than to prevent war. The sword once drawn, full justice must be done. 'Indemnification for the past and security for the future,' should be painted on our banners." --Thomas Jefferson to Robert Wright, 1812. ME 13:184

"I consider the war [of 1812]... as 'made on good advice,' that is, for just causes, and its dispensation as providential, inasmuch as it has exercised our patriotism and submission to order, has planted and invigorated among us arts of urgent necessity, has manifested the strong and the weak parts of our republican institutions, and the excellence of a representative democracy compared with the misrule of kings, has rallied the opinions of mankind to the natural rights of expatriation, and of a common property in the ocean, and raised us to that grade in the scale of nations which the bravery and liberality of our citizen soldiers, by land and by sea, the wisdom of our institutions and their observance of justice, entitled us to in the eyes of the world." --Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:279

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

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