In one of the great letters he ever wrote, 4 pages long, he defines the nature of his America and its self-government and suggests that states favoring Hamilton’s program secede from the Union: “I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’”.
Echoing Lincoln, he states strikingly that government for the people will lead to peace and prosperity: “A government regulating itself by what is wise and just for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish views of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen, perhaps, on earth. Or if...
Echoing Lincoln, he states strikingly that government for the people will lead to peace and prosperity: “A government regulating itself by what is wise and just for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish views of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen, perhaps, on earth. Or if it existed, for a moment, at the birth of ours, it would not be easy to fix the term of its continuance. Still, I believe it does exist here in a greater degree than anywhere else.”
Hamilton was “a man whose mind was really powerful, but chained by native partialities to every thing English; who had formed exaggerated ideas of the superior perfection of the English constitution, the superior wisdom of their government, and sincerely believed it for the good of this country to make them their model in every thing; without considering that what might be wise and good for a nation essentially commercial, and entangled in complicated intercourse with numerous and powerful neighbors, might not be so for one essentially agricultural, and insulated by nature from the abusive governments of the old world.”
Alexander Hamilton had been George Washington’s aide in the Revolutionary War and was then named his first Secretary of the Treasury. Washington appointed fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson his Secretary of State. Hamilton and Jefferson had not worked with each other during their service in Washington’s cabinet. From the beginning, the two men harbored opposing visions of the nation’s path. Jefferson believed that America’s success lay in its agrarian tradition, while Hamilton’s economic plan hinged on the promotion of manufactures and commerce. Each man maneuvered for his position to gain the heart and mind of the President, and these two talented titans of the early United States sprouted a healthy dislike for each other.
As Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton instituted a new financial system meant to allow the country to grow and pay back its war debts. His economic plan included establishing a national bank (the Bank of the United States) similar to that in England to maintain public credit; consolidating the states’ debts under the federal government, and seeing that they were paid in full; and enacting protective tariffs and government subsidies to encourage American manufactures. Jefferson feared that the Bank of the United States represented too much English influence, and would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the American people generally. He argued that the Constitution did not give Congress the power to establish a bank. He did not believe that promoting manufactures was as important as supporting the already-established agrarian base, and in fact viewed manufactures with some alarm. George Washington had famously warned against foreign entanglements in his farewell address. “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel. Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?…Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?” Jefferson felt that a commercial system too closely tied to the local interests in Europe risked this very entanglement.
He equates free commerce and markets (which he calls “gambling speculations”) with eternal war, and restricted commerce with peace: “We have most abundant resources of happiness within ourselves, which we may enjoy in peace and safety, without permitting a few citizens, infected with the mania of rambling and gambling, to bring danger on the great mass engaged in innocent and safe pursuits at home…The agricultural capacities of our country constitute its distinguishing feature; and the adapting our policy and pursuits to that, is more likely to make us a numerous and happy people, than the mimicry of an Amsterdam, a Hamburgh, or a city of London.”
This was the debate over the future of America. In this area, Jefferson had some insight. He had sent Meriwether Lewis west to explore vast reaches of the new continent after acquiring the Louisiana Purchase from France. And he had been President during the various embargoes and depredations on the sea that had drawn the U.S. into a European war that would later arrive on its doorstep in the form of the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington. This stretched American finances to the brink.
Hamilton’s system, adopted as part of “An Act for laying a Duty on Goods, Wares, and Merchandises imported into the United States,” was adopted on July 4, 1789 and called for a varied system of import tariffs and drawbacks (tariff rebates to encourage exports). This took needed money away from the financial system for the purposes of encouraging commerce, and further entangling America in Europe’s commercial disputes, most particularly with Britain.
The Hartford Convention was called by members of the Federalist Party in New England to discuss their opposition to the ongoing War of 1812, and their grievances concerning the Federal government’s increasing power. Despite radical outcries among Federalists for New England secession and a separate peace with Great Britain, moderates outnumbered them and extreme proposals were not a major focus of the debate.
William H. Crawford was U.S. ambassador to France during the negotiations, and was responsible for superintending the American consuls in Europe and keeping them informed of developments. More than that, he was an advisor to the President on the happenings on the Continent. As Ambassador to the Court of one of the two major adversaries in the conflicts in Europe, he was also actively involved in the Ghent negotiation process, advising the negotiators and responding to their confidential communiqués. In 1815, Crawford returned from Europe to take up the position of Secretary of War. In 1816, he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, and would serve in that capacity for a decade.
On May 31, 1816, Crawford wrote to his close friend, Thomas Jefferson. “Among the letters in the Packet, is a letter to a member of Congress [Mr. Fisk] which develops my views of the existing State of our affairs at that time, & of the policy which ought to be adopted at the Return of peace… At one time during my Services in the Senate of the U. S. I had prevailed upon general Bradly to Consent to bring forward a bill for the Repeal of the Draw-back System; but Such was the distracted State of our Relations from the time I entered, until that of my quitting it, that the measure was postponed from time to time, under the hope that a more auspicious period would Shortly arrive.”
He included in the packet a letter he had sent to a fellow politician: “The exclusive commerce which we Shall always carry on when the principal maritime States of Europe are at war, will So Strongly tempt the Stronger naval Belligerents to Commit aggressions upon it, that we shall always be in danger of being drawn into the war if it continues any considerable time. To diminish this danger one of two courses must be adopted. The inducement to depredate upon our commerce must be diminished, or it must be counteracted, by a constant state of Preparation to Repress that spirit of depredation. The first object will be obtained by the Repeal of the System of drawbacks which will keep our commerce Nearly on the Same footing as to extent that it was in time of Peace. The Second can only be obtained by continuing a war establishment, & of course war taxes, from the Commencement to the close of every war, between the principal maritime States of Europe. Between these Systems, the Nation upon the Return of Peace, ought to make its election….The Repeal of this System would convince the maritime States that our commercial System was not devised for the Purpose of becoming the [carriers of the] weaker Belligerents in Every European war. The increase of revenue Resulting from the duties paid upon foreign merchandize Re-exported, might with great propriety be applied to increase our naval force kept in Service, during the same Period. If this System Should be Rejected; we must then choose between the old policy of extending our commerce as widely as possible in time of war, relying upon the justice of the Belligerents and the efficacy of our diplomatic reasoning for its protection; or we must consent to Submit to war establishments, & war taxes during the periods of all the wars which break out between the principal maritime States of Europe.”
Jefferson responded with this famous letter, among the best and most evocative he ever wrote, sketching out his vision of the nature and future of America, and applying his lessons from the Presidency. He also acknowledges receiving reports from France relating to negotiations that had arrived late.
Autograph Letter Signed, 4 pages, Monticello, June 20, 1816, to Crawford, presenting a grand, sweeping roadmap to his America, insisting it alone will allow for safety, slamming Hamilton and his disciples, and economic elitists, and suggesting they leave the union. “I am about to sin against all discretion, and knowingly, by adding to the drudgery of your letter-reading, this acknowledgment of the receipt of your favor of May the 31st, with the papers it covered. I cannot, however, deny myself the gratification of expressing the satisfaction I have received, not only from the general statement of affairs at Paris, in yours of December the 12th, 1814, (as a matter of history which I had not before received) but most especially and superlatively, from the perusal of your letter of the 8th of the same month to Mr. Fisk, on the subject of drawbacks. This most heterogeneous principle was transplanted into ours from the British system, by a man [Alexander Hamilton] whose mind was really powerful, but chained by native partialities to every thing English; who had formed exaggerated ideas of the superior perfection of the English constitution, the superior wisdom of their government, and sincerely believed it for the good of this country to make them their model in every thing; without considering that what might be wise and good for a nation essentially commercial, and entangled in complicated intercourse with numerous and powerful neighbors, might not be so for one essentially agricultural, and insulated by nature from the abusive governments of the old world.
“The exercise, by our own citizens, of so much commerce as may suffice to exchange our superfluities for our wants, may be advantageous for the whole. But it does not follow, that, with a territory so boundless, it is the interest of the whole to become a mere city of London, to carry on the business of one half the world at the expense of eternal war with the other half. The agricultural capacities of our country constitute its distinguishing feature; and the adapting our policy and pursuits to that, is more likely to make us a numerous and happy people, than the mimicry of an Amsterdam, a Hamburgh, or a city of London.
“Every society has a right to fix the fundamental principles of its association, and to say to all individuals, that, if they contemplate pursuits beyond the limits of these principles, and involving dangers which the society chooses to avoid, they must go somewhere else for their exercise; that we want no citizens, and still less ephemeral and pseudo-citizens, on such terms. We may exclude them from our territory, as we do persons infected with disease. Such is the situation of our country. We have most abundant resources of happiness within ourselves, which we may enjoy in peace and safety, without permitting a few citizens, infected with the mania of rambling and gambling, to bring danger on the great mass engaged in innocent and safe pursuits at home.
“In your letter to Fisk, you have fairly stated the alternatives between which we are to choose: 1. licentious commerce and gambling speculations for a few, with eternal war for the many; or, 2. restricted commerce, peace, and steady occupations for all. If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation with the first alternative, to a continuance in union without it, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Let us separate.’ I would rather the States should withdraw, which are for unlimited commerce and war, and confederate with those alone which are for peace and agriculture. I know that every nation in Europe would join in sincere amity with the latter, and hold the former at arm’s length, by jealousies, prohibitions, restrictions, vexations, and war. No earthly consideration could induce my consent to contract such a debt as England has by her wars for commerce, to reduce our citizens by taxes to such wretchedness, as that laboring sixteen of the twenty-four hours, they are still unable to afford themselves bread, or barely to earn as much oatmeal or potatoes as will keep soul and body together. And all this to feed the avidity of a few millionary merchants, and to keep up one thousand ships of war for the protection of their commercial speculations. I returned from Europe after our government had got under way, and had adopted from the British code the law of drawbacks. I early saw its effects in the jealousies and vexations of Britain; and that, retaining it, we must become, like her, an essentially warring nation, and meet, in the end, the catastrophe impending over her. No one can doubt that this alone produced the orders of council, the depredations which preceded, and the war which followed them. Had we carried but our own produce, and brought back but our own wants, no nation would have troubled us. Our commercial dashers, then, have already cost us so many thousand lives, so many millions of dollars, more than their persons and all their commerce were worth. When war was declared, and especially after Massachusetts, who had produced it, took side with the enemy waging it, I pressed on some confidential friends in Congress to avail us of the happy opportunity of repealing the drawback; and I do rejoice to find that you are in that sentiment. You are young, and may be in the way of bringing it into effect. Perhaps time, even yet, and change of tone (for there are symptoms of that in Massachusetts), may not have obliterated altogether the sense of our late feelings and sufferings; may not have induced oblivion of the friends we have lost, the depredations and conflagrations we have suffered, and the debts we have incurred, and to have to labor for through the lives of the present generation. The earlier the repeal is proposed, the more it will be befriended by all these recollections and considerations.
“This is one of three great measures necessary to insure us permanent prosperity. This preserves our peace. A second should enable us to meet any war, by adopting the report of the war department [put forth by then Secretary of War James Monroe], for placing the force of the nation at effectual command: and a third should insure resources of money by the suppression of all paper circulation during peace, and licensing that of the nation alone during war. The metallic medium of which we should be possessed at the commencement of a war, would be a sufficient fund for all the loans we should need through its continuance; and if the national bills issued, be bottomed (as is indispensable) on pledges of specific taxes for their redemption within certain and moderate epochs, and be of proper denominations for circulation, no interest on them would be necessary or just, because they would answer to every one the purposes of the metallic money withdrawn and replaced by them. But possibly these may be the dreams of an old man, or that the occasions of realizing them may have passed away without return. A government regulating itself by what is wise and just for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish views of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen, perhaps, on earth. Or if it existed, for a moment, at the birth of ours, it would not be easy to fix the term of its continuance. Still, I believe it does exist here in a greater degree than any where else; and for its growth and continuance, as well as for your personal health and happiness, I offer sincere prayers, with the homage of my respect and esteem.”
This is a letter of monumental importance. We obtained it directly from the Crawford descendants, and it has never before been offered for sale.
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