On the Question Will There be War?

Foner's note: This article is reprinted from Miscellaneous Letters and Essays on Various Subjects by Thomas Paine, London, 1819, pp. 241-246. It contains Paine's observations on the question of British violations of American rights on the high seas.


EVERY one asks, Will there be war? The answer to this is easy, which is, That so long as the English Government be permitted, at her own discretion, to search, capture, and condemn our vessels, control our commerce, impress our seamen, and fire upon and plunder our national ships, as she has done, she will Not Declare War, because she will not give us the acknowledged right of making reprisals. Her plan is a monopoly of war, and she thinks to succeed by the maneuver of not declaring war.

The case then is altogether a question among ourselves. Shall we make war on the English Government, as the English Government has made upon us; or shall we submit, as we have done, and that with long forbearance, to the evil of having war made upon us without reprisals? This is a right statement of the case between the United States and England.

For several years past it has been the scheme of that Government to terrify us, by acts of violence, into submission to her measures, and in the insane stupidity of attempting this, she has incensed us into war. We neither fear nor care about England, otherwise than pitying the people who live under such a wretched system of government. As to navies, they have lost their terrifying powers. They can do nothing against us at land, and if they come within our waters, they will be taken the first calm that comes. They can rob us on the ocean, as robbers can do, and we can find a way to indemnify ourselves by reprisals, in more ways than one.

The British Government is not entitled, even as an enemy, to be treated as civilized enemies are treated. She is a pirate, and should be treated as a pirate. Nations do not declare war against pirates, but attack them as a natural right. All civilities shown to the British Government, is like pearl[s] thrown before a swine. She is insensible of principle and destitute of honor. Her monarch is mad, and her ministers have caught the contagion.

The British Government, and also the nation, deceive themselves with respect to the power of navies. They suppose that ships of war can make conquests at land; that they can take or destroy towns or cities near the shore and obtain by terror what terms they please. They sent Admiral Duckworth to Constantinople upon this stupid idea, and the event has shown to the world the imbecility of navies against cannon on shore. Constantinople was not fortified any more than our American towns are now; but the Turks, on the appearance of the British fleet, got five hundred cannon and a hundred mortars down from the arsenals to the shore, and the blustering heroes of the navy seeing this, fled like a hound with a rattle at his tail. The gallant people of Norfolk and its neighborhood have sent Douglas off in a similar manner. An Indian who studies nature is a better judge of naval power than an English minister.

In March, 1777, soon after taking the Hessians at Trenton, I was at a treaty held with the five northern nations of Indians at East Town, in Pennsylvania, and was often pleased with the sagacious remarks of those original people. The chief of one of the tribes, who went by the name of King Lastnight, because his tribe had sold their lands, had seen some English men of war in some of the waters of Canada and was impressed with an idea of the power of those great canoes; but he saw that the English made no progress against us by land. This was enough for an Indian to form an opinion by. He could speak some English, and in conversation with me, alluding to the great canoes, he gave me his idea of the power of a king of England by the following metaphor.

"The king of England," said he, "is like a fish. When he is in the water he can wag his tail.-When he comes on land he lays down on his side." Now, if the English Government had but half the sense this Indian had, they would not have sent Duckworth to Constantinople, and Douglas to Norfolk, to lay down on their side.

Accounts from Halifax state, that Admiral Berkeley has alleged in writing, that "his orders (to Douglas) were not issued until every application to restore the mutineers and deserters (as he calls them) had been made by his Britannic Majesty's ministers, consul, and officer, and had been refused by the Government of the United States."

If this account be true, it shows that Berkeley is an idiot in governmental affairs; for if the matter was in the hands of the British minister, who is the immediate representative of his Government, Berkeley could have no interference in it. That minister would report to his Government the demand he made, if he made any, and the answer he received, if he received any, and Berkeley could act only in consequence of orders received afterwards. It does not belong to subordinate officers of any Government to commence hostilities at their own discretion.

I now come to speak of the politics of the day as they rise out of the circumstances that have taken place.

The injustice of the British Government, and the insolence of its naval officers, is no longer to be borne. That injustice, and that insolence grows out of a presumption the British Government has set up, which it calls "the right of search." There is not, nor ever was, such a right appertaining to a nation in consequence of its being in war with another nation. Wherever such a right existed it has been by treaty, and where no such treaty exist, no such right can exist, and to assume the exercise of it is an act of hostility which if not abandoned must be repelled until it be abandoned. The United States cannot even cede such a right to England, without ceding the same right to France, Spain, Holland, Naples, Italy, and Turkey, or they will take it, and the United States must take the consequence. It is [a] very difficult matter, and requires great political wisdom for a neutral nation to make a treaty during a time of war with one belligerent nation, that shall not commit her with the other. The best way then, since matters are come to the extremity they are, is to resist this pretended right of search in the first instance. The United States are able to do it, and she is the only neutral nation that is able.

We are not the diminutive people now that we were when the revolution began. Our population then was two millions and an half, it is now between six and seven millions, and in less than ten years will exceed the population of England. The United States have increased more in power, ability, and wealth within the last twenty or twenty-two years than she did for almost two hundred years before, while the states were British Colonies.

She owes this to two things, independence and the representative system of Government. It was always the ill-judged and impracticable system of the British Government to keep the Colonies in a state of continual nonage. They never were to be of full age that she might always control them.

While the United States have been going forward in this unparalleled manner, England has been going backward. Her Government is a bankrupt, and her people miserable. More than a million of them are paupers. Her king is mad, and her parliament is corrupt. We have yet to see what the present new elected parliament will be. There is one man in it, whom I proudly call a friend, from whom there will be great expectations; but what can one honest independent member do, surrounded by such a mass of ignorance and corruption as have for many years past governed that unfortunate nation.

The great dependence of England has been on her navy, and it is her navy that has been her ruin. The falsely imagined power of that navy (for it was necessary it should be amphibious to perform what was expected from it) has prompted the ignorance of her Government into insolence towards all foreign powers till England has not a friend left among nations. Russia and Sweden will quarter themselves upon her purse till it becomes empty, and then very probably will turn against her.

Depending on her navy she blockaded whole countries by proclamation, and now, Bonaparte, by way of justifiable retaliation, has blockaded her by land from the commerce of the western part of the Continent of Europe. Her insolent and imbecile expedition to Constantinople, has excluded her from the commerce of Turkish Europe and Turkey in Asia, and thrown it into the hands of France-and her outrageous conduct to us will exclude her from the commerce of the United States. By the insolence of the crew of her navy she is in danger of losing her trade to China; and it is easy to see that Bonaparte is paving his way to India by Turkey and Persia. The madness of the British Government has thrown Turkey into the arms of France. Persia lies between Turkey and India, and Bonaparte is forming friendly connections with the Persian Government. There is already an exchange of ambassadors. Bonaparte is sending military officers into Persia, and will, with the consent of its Government, raise an army there and attack the English monopoly in India. If France holds her connections with Turkey and Persia, England cannot hold India.

It is in this wretched chaos of affairs that the mad Government of England has brought on herself a new enemy by commencing hostilities against the United States. She must be ignorant of the geography of America, or she would know that we can dispossess her of all her possessions on the Continent whenever we please, and she cannot, with safety, keep a fleet in the West Indies during the hurricane months. Bonaparte will find employment for every soldier she can raise, and those she may send to the Continent of Europe will become prisoners. There never was an instance of a Government conducting itself with the madness and ignorance the British Government has done! This is John Adams's stupendous fabric of human wisdom!

That the British Government will disown giving hostile instructions to Berkeley I have no doubt. It is the trick of old governments to do so when they find themselves wrong, and pay some scapegoat to bear the blame. But this will not be sufficient. The pretended right of search and the impressment of our seamen must be abandoned. Three thousand of them have been impressed by British ships to fight against France. The French Government has shown a great deal of patience in not complaining of it, for it is a great injury to her, and must be redressed, or worse consequences will follow.

I have said in the former part of this essay that it is a difficult matter and requires great political wisdom for a neutral nation during a war to form a treaty with one belligerent nation that shall not commit her with the other. I will now give an instance of it.

In 1794, Washington sent Mr. Monroe as minister to France, and John Jay to England, and gave them contradictory instructions. By the treaty that then existed between the United States and France, "Free ships made free goods." So that English property on board American ships was protected from seizure by France. John Jay made a treaty with England which Washington and the stupid Senate of that day ratified, by which free ships DID NOT make free property, and that French property on board American ships could be seized by England. This of consequence vacated the free article in the treaty with France, and she availed herself of it, and the United States lost the carrying trade of both nations. There is a Jesuitism in Jay's treaty, which says, that the question whether free ships make free goods shall be taken into consideration two years after the war. It is now more than two years since that war, and therefore it forms an item with the matters to be now settled with the English Government.

The British Government have been so long in the habit of insolence that she has not the sense of seeing when the power of being insolent ceases. She ought to see that the power of France by land is far superior to her power at sea. France, by land, can blockade the commerce of Eng- land out of Europe and India, and the English navy can do nothing to prevent it. Of what use is it to "rule the waves'' if you cannot put your foot on shore? If it was a contest for fisheries, the most powerful navy would decide; but as it is a contest for commerce it is land force that decides, and navies are out of the question.

If the British Government were wise, she would cease the pretended right of search of her own accord, for it brings her into endless trouble. It makes all nations her enemy. Every nation detests the piratical insolence of England and none more so than the United States. The spirit that is now raised, cannot be appeased until reparation is made for the past, and security be given for the future.


NEW YORK, Aug. 14, 1807.