“It seems now certain there will be an extensive war on the continent of Europe”.
When the Louisiana Territory was sold to the U.S. in 1803 shortly after being transferred to France by Spain, its eastern boundary was in dispute. The Americans felt that West Florida was included, while Spain, still in possession, adamantly disagreed. Pres. Jefferson believed that the U.S. claim to West Florida was just...
When the Louisiana Territory was sold to the U.S. in 1803 shortly after being transferred to France by Spain, its eastern boundary was in dispute. The Americans felt that West Florida was included, while Spain, still in possession, adamantly disagreed. Pres. Jefferson believed that the U.S. claim to West Florida was just and valid and became determined to obtain it, hopefully through negotiations. He sent James Monroe to Madrid for that purpose, and in late January 1805, talks began.
However, the French, whom the Americans had expected would support their position, would not, as they were consumed with the heating up of the Napoleonic Wars and were unwilling to antagonize Spain, their sole ally in Europe. The Spanish government would not yield but rather saw advantage in stalling; so the negotiations were drawn out and not productive.
Finally, in May, Monroe got Spain to take a position, which was that it would not give up territory without “receiving anything in returnÉ,” an indefinite statement that left the door open as the talks came to an end. Jefferson learned of all this in the summer, and in September 1805, thought the time right to turn to France again for its intervention. On October 11, he wrote to Secretary of State James Madison, with word from France indicating that it would arrange with Spain for the cession of Florida for $7 million. Though more than the U.S. had expected to pay, this was still the right direction for matters to move.
On October 23, Jefferson agreed to use France as a mediator. Meanwhile, knowing that the situation remained uncertain and changeable and that the apparent French willingness to intervene might simply be a delaying tactic to help its ally, he continued to pressure the Spanish.
The Royal Navy, at war and desperate for sailors, had long claimed the right to stop American ships on the high seas, remove seamen alleged to be British subjects, and impress them into service. Even so, in early 1805, this issue seemed less pressing than problems with France and Spain, and Jefferson was even led to consider a potential British alliance. However, that summer, the British determined to prevent sea-born trade with France, its allies, and its colonies, even if it meant disregarding neutral rights. Jefferson learned of this British decision in early October 1805, and at the same time letters began pouring in from merchants and insurance underwriters all along the U.S. coast, stating that British ships were seizing American vessels and cargos. The President abandoned the idea of a British alliance during October.
Against this background, Jefferson wrote to Wilson Cary Nicholas, U.S. senator from Virginia and later that state’s governor. The Albert Gallatin he mentions was his Secretary of the Treasury.
Thomas Jefferson Autograph Letter Signed as president, Washington, October 25, 1805. “Immediately on my arrival here I examined my papers & found that I had delivered up to the Treasury the copy of the judgment against Robinson’s administrators. I took the first opportunity therefore of speaking to Mr. Gallatin & desiring him to transmit it to you. He did not recollect the receipt of it, but promised to have it searched for. From him, therefore, you will receive it. It seems now certain there will be an extensive war on the continent of Europe. We shall avail ourselves of the time which this event gives us to bring Spain peaceably to reason, and I believe there is a way of doing it with dignity & effect. Should it even fail, we shall still be in time to do ourselves justice, if the case shall call for it. This new state of things is the more fortunate in proportion as it would have been disagreeable to have proposed closer connections with England at a moment when so much just clamor exists against her for her new encroachments on neutral rights."
A particularly compelling letter shows Jefferson’s thoughts about his major foreign policy challenges at that crucial time and makes it possible to see his diplomatic methodology. In saying there is a way to bring Spain to reason, Jefferson alludes to his hope that France will convince Spain to cede Florida. He continues by implying that even if this fails to occur, the U.S. still has ways to procure the territory and will pursue them. He also states his conviction that recent British actions against neutrals are illegal, thus defining a U.S. policy that would remain in effect until the War of 1812. It clearly signals that he has lost interest in pursuing an alliance with Britain and preshadows the embargo of 1808.
As for the issues Jefferson dealt with here, British contempt for neutral rights hung like a blanket over the balance of his presidency and diverted attention from most everything else. It led him to issue an embargo in 1808, and the War of 1812 followed from the same cause. Jefferson’s efforts to secure Florida were not successful at the time, but he saw that territory acquired when James Monroe was president.
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