Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 68 The Great Correspondence

WITH the mighty Napoleon smitten to the ground and the long chapter of war in Europe seemingly at an end, the problem for Americans was: would a triumphant England come to an honorable peace with her sole remaining antagonist, or would she now concentrate all the power of her forces to subjugate the republic across the seas?

Jefferson veered in his estimate from day to day. At one time he would be optimistic and, satisfied that peace would come before the winter ended, give instructions to his overseer to get the tobacco and the flour ready and send them down to Richmond with all possible speed. "The great prices will be for that at market the moment peace opens the bay," he wrote.1 But other times pessimism would overwhelm him, and he was certain that there must be eternal war with England until she dropped any claim to impressments. Then his warlike vehemence grew out of all bounds, and he urged on Madison, Monroe and members of the Cabinet the most stringent Spartan measures: large loans, heavy taxes, issuance of paper money, a levy en masse of militia to render us, like Greece and Rome, "a nation of warriors." In the emergencies of the occasion, some of his cherished doctrines went by the board. He was ready now to see the nation go into debt and throw part of the burdens of the present war upon the "times of peace and commerce." He was willing to see the national government issue paper against specific pledges, and have the people force the merchants to accept it as legal tender, it was a case, indeed, of the lesser of two evils. Rather than have the private banks in "the fatal possession of the whole circulating medium," he preferred it to be in the hands of the government.

Monroe had just taken over the War Department, and Jefferson, with memories of his own, was sorry for it. "Were an angel from Heaven to undertake that office," he wrote feelingly, "all our miscarriages would be ascribed to him. . . .I speak from experience, when I was Governor of Virginia."2

To further complicate matters, the extreme Federalists of New England had finally carried out their long-standing threat to seek open secession from a Union that persisted in war against England. At the notorious Hartford Convention, these bitter-enders met in conclave, ranted and denounced, passed virulent resolutions and then returned to their homes without putting words into action.

Jefferson likened the leaders to the Murals, Dantons and Robespierres of France as seeking anarchy and in the pay of England. But, he exulted, "the

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